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  • Anika Singh

"You Don't Always Need to be Strong": Interview with Erica Abbott

Erica Abbott is the author of  Self-Portrait as a Sinking Ship, which was released the weekend of December 12. In the author's own words, it "explores themes of depression, anxiety, and how mental illness can affect a person's life. It also dives into how holding on to hope can pull a person through even the darkest moments of life."

We asked Erica some questions about her overall journey, experience, and more to get a look on her process as a writer. Below are our questions and Abbott's insightful answers regarding the creation of  Self-Portrait as a Sinking Ship.

When did you first get into poetry?

I first started writing poetry right as I was starting high school. But I started getting really into it when I joined the poetry club my sophomore year. The first poem I ever read for that club was Mary Oliver’s “The Poet with His Face in His Hands” and it’s remained one of my favorite poems to this day. If it hadn’t been for the teacher who led that club, I’m not sure poetry would’ve stuck with me in quite the same way as it has these past 10+ years.

Why is poetry an important art? What makes it profoundly different from, say, prose or expository writing?

Poetry allows for such beautiful vulnerability. While this can certainly show up in other writing forms, I think poetry does it in such a special way. The possibilities are limitless in writing poetry—it’s such an extraordinary way to express emotions and make sense of the world around you. I think it’s especially important to teach living poets and show young people that poetry can be such a beautiful and empowering art form and it exists in so many more spaces than what they may have learned in the classroom.

What’s your best advice on creating a title as fantastic as Self-Portrait as a Sinking Ship

Titles are actually really hard for me. Even just titling a poem is oftentimes challenging, let alone naming a whole collection. But this one was inspired by a prompt! I wrote a poem inspired by the prompt earlier this year and realized, as I was putting the chapbook together, that it fit the overall tone and theme really well. So Self-Portrait as a Sinking Ship comes from a poem by the same name in the collection, which comes right at the end of the Darkness section (the other section is Hope). It’s been amazing seeing people comment, saying what a great title it is and I hope they find the collection itself to be just as moving.

How have your experiences with mental illness impacted the way you perceive life?

Generalized anxiety disorder has, at times, made life really lonely. I have trouble making/keeping friends and I can sometimes become really easily overwhelmed. But in the same breath, there will be times where I’m participating in activity after activity just to keep myself busy and distracted, which obviously can make the anxiety even worse. And yet, each day, I persist. In general, I think it’s made me perceive life in a way that many times can only be explained through poetry. It helps me make sense of myself and the world and my writing, especially in this collection, is almost always a lens into how I view life.

Who were some special figures who helped you along your journey with writing and day-to-day life? Who are some role models, if you will?

Personally, my parents and my partner Dan. They are so supportive of my writing and are always there to help me whenever I need. As far as role models, I have a lot of modern-day poets that have really been a huge inspiration to me. I’ve taken workshops and courses with Sierra DeMulder, Megan Falley, Neil Hilborn, Andrea Gibson, and Kelly Grace Thomas and have learned something new from them every time. Other poets I admire are Kaveh Akbar, Tracy K. Smith, Michael Lee, Phil Kaye, Jericho Brown, Sabrina Benaim, Elizabeth Acevedo... and the list goes on.

What would you say to those who stigmatize writing--particularly poetry writing? What would you say to those who have been adversely affected by this stigma?

I’m lucky in that I don’t think I have ever personally experienced the stigma of writing poetry so I may not be the best person to answer this. However, if people stigmatize poetry writing, then I have to imagine they don’t truly understand or appreciate the art form that it is. Poetry writing and reading is more than just the classics and strict forms like most of us probably learned in school. It’s constantly evolving and more people should at least genuinely attempt to experience its magic before passing judgement. I hope anyone who has been affected by this stigma continues to write their heart out and know just how powerful their words can be. Your words and voice matter.

What’s something you think young people struggling with mental illness need to hear?

You don’t always need to be strong, you just have to survive and try to see even the tiniest glimpses of hope. I think phrases like “happiness is a choice” can be more harmful than helpful—you know, it’s okay if you feel stuck in the dark sometimes, just try your best to continue finding those sources of light. Sometimes they’ll be incredibly small, they may not even be right in front of you in the moment, but believe that they are or can be there.

What were some resources you turned to in your writing process?

Reading, workshopping, and using some prompts. Prompts have always been really helpful for me and can generally get me writing when I’m finding it difficult. Otherwise, I read tons of poetry books (I have two book carts and an entire bookshelf overflowing with fantastic poetry books) and have been trying to join more poetry workshops, especially since the pandemic began. Sierra DeMulder’s WORDY workshop was the first one I had ever taken in the spring and have done four more since. Several poems in Self-Portrait as a Sinking Ship come directly from those workshops/courses. Oh, and of course the thesaurus is always a great resource!

In one word, how would you describe the publishing process?

Challenging! Especially when you’re working a full-time job while getting ready to publish a book, but as challenging as it is, it’s just as much worth it. I started working on my chapbook in June and through all the hurdles that my pressmates and I faced, it’s been incredible getting to see it finally be released into the world.

The cover is beautiful. How was that conceptualized (even if you weren’t necessarily a direct part of this)?

I commissioned a local Philly artist, Kait O’Donnell, for the cover and she did such an incredible job. I let her know what mediums I liked based on what I saw on her Instagram, sent her my manuscript, and she ultimately ended up sending me four different ideas/sketches and I chose which one I liked best. She took my fairly limited vision for a cover into something absolutely stunning and it’s such a beautiful introduction to the world of my chapbook.


Self-Portrait as a Sinking Ship  explores themes of depression and anxiety, and the hope that can carry us through those dark moments in life. Through a theme of water, Erica Abbott illustrates life's many tumultuous moments, including a cancer diagnosis, friendship breakups, heartbreak, and, on the flip side, survival, the people who help carry us through, and the things that really keep hope alive.

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