AccessAbility Arts interview (Erica Vanstone)
Updated: Mar 27
Welcome to another AccessAbility Arts interview! I'm delighted to be able to shine a light on the fantastic work being done by inspiring women, multicultural groups, LGBTQIA+ community members and disabilities in the sphere of art and accessibility. I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Erica Vanstone. Erica is on a journey to reconnect with herself as a writer, expanding into poetry after working as a journalist and marketing writer for years. She has written and edited for Philadelphia Magazine, Outsports, and Indiewire.com. Her most recent poems were featured in Fawn Press’ inaugural poetry magazine, The Thicket. She's an avid sci-fi and action fan, who just finished her first fiction novel. She has a degree from NYU Film and has won a Massachusetts Cultural Commission grant for her first screenplay. She lives in Philadelphia, PA in the US with her son, two dogs, cat, and a coffee maker. In her spare time, Erica drinks coffee and fences foil recreationally. If you're on Instagram, give her a follow https://www.instagram.com/ericajvanstone/ and https://www.instagram.com/poetessthemess/
Here is the interview
Daniel: You said that you were a journalist and a market writer. Just tell us, how did you get into those jobs? And what challenges did you face?
Erica: I kind of stumbled into journalism and marketing writing. In the late 90s, I graduated from New York University's Film program and had a really tough time in the industry after graduating. New York was expensive, and I was a broke college graduate, so I moved to Philadelphia and accidentally got a job as an editor of a small neighborhood newspaper--the old editor and I were friends and she said to me one day, "I'm leaving, do you want my job?" I said yes, then moved to a bigger paper in the city, where I edited the film section of a local arts newspaper, so I still felt connected to my film degree. Career-wise, I think the biggest challenge has been being a mom and trying to forge a career--any kind of career. The US doesn't make it easy for working parents, and I had to take a job in traditional industries just to get my son healthcare. So, I took my editing skills and worked in nonprofit, where I eventually began working my way up the ladder. I never lost my love of writing, but it took a back seat for a while, because I had a family to care for.
Daniel: How did you find transitioning from them into poetry?
Erica: Looking back, I have always been a poet--I just didn't understand what that meant. I have a stack of old journals that have bits and pieces of phrases. I have bins under my bed with piles of torn scrap paper that each have a few words on them. I've lived life this way, sort of collecting words, for decades. I just didn't know what to do with all of it! I was explaining this to someone recently: When I graduated from film school, the internet barely existed, so I had no idea how one would even publish poetry--or a book of poetry. There was just no access to finding or sharing information about publishing. Interestingly, I did have an internship at Scholastic Books in NY when I was in school--they offered me a job but everyone looked miserable so I turned them down! So, I thought writing books--including poetry--wasn't something I could aspire to or reach. Still, I kept writing and collecting as I went.
Daniel: What inspired you to begin your poetry journey?
Erica: Oh, probably the same thing that inspires a lot of poets--unrequited love! I feel very Shakespearean in that way. My childhood journals are full of angst around these types of feelings. But I always thought that I was too intense, or too much, or too sensitive. This past year, I went through the breakup of a long term relationship, and through that time, I had been working on a novel. I think writing that novel kept me together, emotionally. But when it ended, and the drafts of the book were done, I still had all of these feelings and words, like little fireflies buzzing around my head. I had to catch them and write them down. So, I began putting words together a few months ago. Of course, unrequited love still fuels what I write, because that's just how life goes: You meet someone, you fall in love, they don't love you back, and you write poetry. Right? Now I have about two and a half pamphlets done! I am mostly joking, but relationships are really where a lot of my inspiration comes from. Like the pieces I have in the first issue of The Thicket--one of these poems is about moving on from an old love, and the other is about falling in love with someone new. One of my friends said to me about it, "Erica, can't you just travel and get inspiration that way? Instead of breaking your own heart, again and again?" But staring at a cliff or a river doesn't really give you those wellsprings of feeling the way love does, does it? Or, maybe that's just me...
Daniel: Poetry can be a great tool for society and looking back at history. What do you think is the power of poetry - or any art - and what role do you believe artists have in modern society?
Erica: One of the things I adore about older poetry--like Milton or Dante--is that the feelings have never changed. The words may change, or the language itself. But the feelings--human feelings--are the constant. For example, Rumi's piece The Lovers: "I hear a drum in my soul’s ear coming from the depths of the stars. Our camel driver is at work; the caravan is being readied. He asks that we forgive him for the disturbance he has caused us, he asks why we travelers are asleep." My god, yes! Rumi nailed it. Like, nailed it. Love doesn't wait for you to be ready for it, sometimes it comes for you when you least expect it. And can you make yourself ready for it? Rumi understood all kinds of love on so many levels, and his metaphors help explain what it feels like. Really, this is the poet's role in my mind. How do we connect to love--or fear, or anger--and explain it to people around us? How do we take words and form pictures and evoke feelings? How do we take the world and give people another way to look at it? Poetry is another tool to understand the universe. That's its superpower.
Daniel: We all know how important it is to look after our mental health, so tell us, do you have any strategies you use to maintain positive mental health in your daily life?
Erica: I have worked in the sport of roller derby for a decade, and in that time I realized that exercise is critical to my own mental health. As much as I love writing, I need time to get out of my own head. Now, running is really helpful to me, as a meditation tool, as much as for cardiovascular health. Taking space, taking time, away from thinking is what keeps me in a positive place, especially with the emotion of everything I write about!
Daniel: Can you tell us a bit about your novel? What’s the plot?
Erica: I am a huge science fiction fan, so naturally, when I thought about writing a book, I started there! It's called "Iona of Arkan," and truly, it's a chonky space opera about pirates. I am in the process of querying--which is a slog, it's very laborious. But here is my pitch: Iona of Arkan is a twenty-one year-old interstellar pirate who inherited her mishmash of a vessel, The Cleveland Phoenix, from her late human father, Cassander of Arkan. Now grown, Iona longs to help relocate her adoptive people, a warrior clan whose trinary star is dying. Before she can, she picks up a hitchhiker whose gleaming cargo has piqued the interest of the system’s de facto police, the Serpens Communion, and a vengeful captain. Can Iona find a way to save her people and her corner of the galaxy before it’s too late?
Daniel: How did it feel to win a Massachusetts Cultural Commission grant feel? What was the screenplay about?
Erica: I am from Worcester, Massachusetts and there is a little place there that has been there forever, called George's Coney Island. It's a hot dog place with wooden booths, very diner-like. My dad used to take me there every so often and it has always been this kind of magical place for me, so I wrote this screenplay, "Places I've Never Been," around a fictional place like this and a waitress who worked there. The piece is about a relationship she has with someone who is totally different from her, and how it changes both of them in this completely ordinary, unchanging place. I loved the idea that a place could be stationary, yet hold so much transformation and change within it. I think winning the grant validated for me that I maybe was a decent writer after all?
Daniel: What role does home life play in your day-to-day routine?
Erica: I am a single mom who works from home, so my home life is kind of everything to me. My son is fifteen, so I get up around 6am every morning and try to herd him onto the bus for school. Lately I've been trying to write poetry first thing, which has been a good practice--I started an Instagram account (@poetessthemess) to get myself in the habit of writing and sharing. I have two loveable yet needy dogs and a cat who creates chaos wherever she goes. I drink an ungodly amount of black coffee, and I have a tiny circle of writing friends I check in with every day--actually, this has helped me so much. To communicate with other writers is critical to feeling not alone as a writer. To know you're not on this journey by yourself, whatever it looks like. Some of my friends are fantasy writers, some are literary fiction--and some, like you, are poets! I have a day job running a sports insurance company, so a big chunk of my day is managing that. Night is when I usually do my editing work--or, more accurately, obsessively re-reading my writing to see if I can change anything. But my son is supportive of my writing, to the point where we joke about it. I'll share something and say, "What do you think of this?" And he'll hand it back to me and say, "Mom, do you need therapy?" And I'll smile and say, "This is therapy, son!" In all seriousness, he's started writing his own poetry and I'm trying not to hover or be critical. I'm just learning to let things be.
Daniel: And lastly. We all need to relax, chill, and switch off sometimes. So how do you relax?
Erica: I stab things! More accurately, I am an amateur foil fencer. I love foil because it's like chess with a weapon. Epee and saber are a bit inelegant for my taste, but foil engages my brain and my legs. I started fencing eight months ago and just fell in love with how athletic and cerebral it is. My fencing pals say I am the most strategic, but that's me in a nutshell, I guess. I am all about the long game; I don't mind losing so I can figure out how to win. Actually, this is maybe my life's motto--there's data in failure. Go ahead and fail, that's how you learn to improve. I just won our fencing club's first amateur adult tournament, and I actually lost the first two matches in the event. Sometimes it takes me longer than I would like to figure out what my opponent is doing, but I figure it out eventually. I fought my way back from last place and won by one point. Is this relaxing or chill? Maybe not. Is it satisfying? On a cellular level.
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