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Behind the Scenes: An Interview with Betty J

Can you introduce yourself?

I am often told that I sound American or Canadian, but don’t let the accent fool you - I was born and raised in Romania.

How do you best describe yourself?

I am an introvert through and through and, some would say, a little feral. I love being in forests and mountain areas - they remind me to stay wild!

Greenhouses make me feel things I can't explain. In a lot of my stories and poems, greenhouses (or generally, just 'the green') are mentioned. In those stories they are places for quiet contemplation, relics of times long gone or the setting for a world-changing revelation.

What are your hobbies?

I write, of course, poetry and stories of all sorts. I collect comic books and graphic novels. Sometimes I draw and sometimes I run around deserted places looking for ghosts and cryptids. Other than that, I love hiking.

Why do you write?

Storytelling is one of the most ancient forms of teaching, of shaping our world, shaping beliefs and so forth. I have a rich inner world and when I write, I am transported to places that don't exist in the real world. Perhaps I write for escapism? All I can tell you is that I just enjoy it a lot and writing feels like home.

My writing process looks chaotic to most people, I believe. But scattered pages, notes and questions scribbled on napkins and post-its are part of the process.

Where did the inspiration for this piece come from?

From myself. I spent most of my life being who other people, family, friends, etc. wanted, or expected me to be, in order to be liked and wanted. That meant I was never truly myself and was defined by attributes given to me by those I wanted to like/want/appreciate me. I shed off that skin, bit by bit through the years, until one day I looked at myself internally and realised I am almost becoming my own person.

I stopped dyeing my hair (it is now its natural black) and accepted my boring, dark eyes and my weird personality. That's what I wanted to tell with the poem, the journey of transformation, the mutation of it.

What writers/poets do you read, or have inspired your writing?

Bo Carpelan's Room Without Walls was huge for me when I read it as a teenager. I did not know poetry could be like that. Richard Siken is, of course, on my favorites list - I think his influence is clear in some of my other poems.

Walt Whitman's been a favorite through the years, alongside Baudelaire, who was my introduction to poetry when I was a kid. I read a lot of Beat poetry as well, in my 20's and I think that rhythm has definitely influenced the way I write, as I tend to place words or verses on the page "in tune" with how I imagine them being spoken out loud.

How do you see the body interacting with the natural world and its elements in ‘Black’? Can you expand on this relationship?

It's about being given things from the elements - while these elements are placeholders for different states of change in my life, it's also a way to express how the natural world around me influenced this shift.

I was obsessed with Greek mythology as a kid. Whenever I see sculptures that emulate the Greek style, I am struck with a feeling of reverence and nostalgia.

I like how there is an animalistic element in ‘Black’ which is brought on by the mention of different animal body parts. To me the miss match and building of the body from these different animal parts give the poem a mythical feel. Can you expand on this?

I never realised that mythical expression until you mentioned it, to be honest. I suppose again, it's all about the chrysalis: the mind transforms and it feels like the body is too, much like the journey of a mythical character.

There's teeth and talons and violence and then there are wings, the feeling of elation. I love monsters, I always have, and have identified with them a lot ever since I was a child, so they always find a way into my poems or stories.

Is the speaker originally human, with a human body in ‘Black’? If so, what connection do you wish to create between the animal body and the human body?

Yes, the speaker is human. The connection reveals itself through the transmutation, throughout the poem - you accept the violence as much as you accept the flight. Transformation means facing the worst and the best in you, hence why it's not pretty: it's brutal and nowhere is this casual brutality more present than in animals, in nature. I think any act of transformation or of coming into the self, has an animalistic, primal force behind it that you have to surrender to.

Oh, to be a cat, basking in the sunlight.

I’m curious about the second to last stanza, “Like this, I was formed into word / and from a word to a word / I was led to a word.” What is the relationship between words and the body you have “formed”? Is this a meta description of your own words and the formation of this described body? Is this a comment on words and formation of reality in general?

It's my words, the words I read and the words I've been told: the learning of the self so to speak. The more words I confronted myself with, as in, true questions, real advice from people, from books, the more I, myself, 'formed'. Because I was formless before I believe - having not really been my own person, having been always the person other people wanted me to be, or at least, who I believed they wanted to see.

Words are very important to me - I believe wholeheartedly that without the books and the stories, I would have been a lesser person.

A visitor.
Another visitor.

In the last stanza you balance scientific words to describe the physicality of the body in proximity with the magical descriptions of the planets and the universe. Why do you chose to end ‘Black’ this way? Can you expand on your choices?

The Cosmos is fascinating to me and I thought it was the best way to represent this blooming into personhood the other stanzas have hinted at. The places beyond our Earth is where we will continue to grow in the future, if we somehow become better with ourselves and each other and to ourselves and each other - so what better image for 'becoming' than the quiet rotation of the planets and the chaotic perfection of the Universe?

Is there anything else you want to say about ‘Black’?

Even if I expanded so much on the meaning of this poem, when I read it to other people, their perceptions of it and the meaning they had for it, varied so much. It made me happy. I hope others will find their own meaning in it as well, it would truly make me feel like I've touched someone's heart and that's a very precious gift.

To touch and see things of times gone past is a privilege I think a lot of people don't appreciate anymore.

If you have enjoyed reading about Betty's thoughts and inspirations, you can follow her on Instagram @resident_spaceship_zombie. She will be a featured poet in Portmanteau Issue 2 - 'Body and Form', which will be available September 2021.

If you still haven't seen Betty's video interview, you can watch it in full on our IGTV page.

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