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Lena Vanelslander, co-author of Quills of Fire

by Shana Thornton

In the summer of 2009, a poetic correspondence occurred between two women over the course of three weeks. The result of their speedy discourse was the poetry collection, Quills of Fire. A continent separated Marilyn Campiz and Lena Vanelslander. They had never met in person and still have not shared a face-to-face meeting. Marilyn Campiz, an American living in South Korea at the time, proposed a thematic poetry correspondence to Lena Vanelslander who lived in Ghent, Belgium. Recently, Vanelslander shared the challenges and accomplishments of writing with speed and purpose as well as the poetic vision behind Quills of Fire.

Campiz and Vanelslander met over the Internet, after Campiz responded to Vanelslander’s blog. They shared similar interests and began writing. Campiz asked Vanelslander to read Tao Te Ching, an ancient Chinese text written by unknown author(s) and attributed to the enigmatic Lao Tzu. Tao Te Ching is a set of poetic perspectives about the themes of life.

“Going from that principle,” Vanelslander said, “of giving your life vision the different themes, she (Marilyn Campiz) came up with the idea of ‘why don’t we put something together for the 21st century, for people who have completely different backgrounds culturally, linguistically…’. One day she offered the theme and the [next] day I did, and so on and so on until we had an opus of poems. From our correspondence, we knew what was important to the other and what wasn’t. I knew that Marilyn had a very different opinion of love than I did, so I would propose the theme of love to see the places where our opinions converged and diverged.”

In some of the pairs of poems, Campiz and Vanelslander obviously express differing opinions about a theme. Often, they create a complimentary pair. Since their vision was clearly established at the beginning of their poetic correspondence, the two women remained intensely focused on the goal that was originally created by Campiz. They chose not to become bogged down by theories concerning creativity and originality.

“Marilyn’s strong vision about poetry is that poetry can bring the belief in something new,” Vanelslander said. “The quote that everything has been said is among writers and poets who clearly voice that opinion as well. There’s also that kind of difference in Post-modernism where everyone has their own truth. [Campiz is concerned with] that sort of philosophical streaming, but she is most concerned with, first, that there are still new things to be described, discovered and talked about. Also, breaking taboos is for her very important. (…) We hope that some of our themes point in that direction.”

Every day, after the theme was named, Campiz and Vanelslander wrote a new poem in the following twenty-four hours. Then, they traded the poems, at the same time, without seeing the other woman’s creation prior to finishing her own.

“Everyday our creativity was stimulated and needed to reach a climax,” Vanelslander said. “We were writing at the same time and did that very consciously. Marilyn and I have different backgrounds. For me, it was my first book. I had always thought that some day I might publish something, but I wasn’t concentrated on it at that moment. Marilyn has published books and poems already. She didn’t only want to do it as an exercise in writing, but said let’s do it as a voice for women. She wanted to offer the perspective of two women in a changing society who have new ideas and visions. (…) I thought in advance that reaching a large amount of poems would take a long time, but it was different. Marilyn has a very clear vision that books can be written fast, so you get the inspiration and you write it down.”

The speed at which they wrote the poems inspired the title, Quills of Fire. While Vanelslander wrote longhand, she said that she didn’t rely on a quill pen to capture her poetic lines. She relied on the symbol of the quill pen to influence her ideas about writing.

“The expressive force symbolizes the force at which we write,” Vanelslander said. “There are a lot of people who still prefer a book to the internet. There’s the ancient method and there’s also the new method that may be more efficient but sometimes there’s a stronger feeling that goes out from the ancient medium.”

Vanelslander did not consider herself a poet until a few years ago. She was a scholar, but others recognized her artistic talents.

“The way I came to poetry was very specific,” Vanelslander said. “I started writing when I was very young, but I thought, ‘Oh, what I have down here is just no good.’ Apart from a few poems that I had written in Dutch, most of what I had written in those years is gone. (…) I studied history at the University and I was earning my doctorate, but still no poetry. My doctorate was interrupted after two years and I was at home for a while, meditating on what to do with the future. That kind of spirit was roaming about in my mind. One day, I opened MySpace.”

From there, she was asked to guide people through a blog group about poetry. The person who had created the blog group asked Vanelslander to take over. She was surprised by the request and thought it would be a challenge to guide people in a blog group about poetry without being a poet herself.

“That’s the way that I started writing poetry again and that’s the way I rediscovered the parts of myself and my creativity that were normally dormant,” Vanelslander said. “I actually am grateful… because not only is poetry functional and has its merits, but the feedback between writer and reader is interactive. Also, for the writer it’s a healing act to write frequently and about the things that go through your mind and pinpoint them and give them a certain direction and then move on.”

The theme of “Sedation” is one of Vanelslander’s favorites from the book. She thought that both Campiz’s poem “Forced Sedation” and her poem “The urge to live” demonstrate the complexities of required drug use for terminal illnesses and the problem of over-medicating unnecessarily.

“A lot of people in society get sent to psychiatrists,” Vanelslander said. “The problem of over-prescribing is prevalent.”

Since Campiz and Vanelslander wanted their poetic collaboration to represent the issues of the 21st century, they began the writing process with the intention of seeking publication for their correspondence. Both writers wanted their work to reach the largest amount of people. PublishAmerica offered to reach a sizeable global audience. The publisher also allowed the authors’ work to remain as they intended without the influence of editors, though Vanelslander said that Campiz did most of the editing. She assures the reader that they did not make drastic changes to the original correspondence.

Since last summer, both authors have relocated to different countries. Campiz is now in China; Vanelslander has moved to Italy. Vanelslander says that she still has a vast collection of poems that she eventually intends to publish. Quills of Fire was a one-time collaborative project between Campiz and Vanelslander. They felt that overworking the idea would lessen the creative experience and message.

Quills of Fire, 2009
by Marilyn Campiz and Lena Vanelslander


Shana Thornton
Shana Thornton serves as Editor-in-Chief of Her Circle Ezine and Assistant Director of the Institute of Arts and Social Engagement. Her first novel, Multiple Exposure, reveals an intimate, ghostly portrait of the impact of war, and generations of military service, on a family. Multiple Exposure will be available for purchase on Sept. 2. Read more at http://shanathornton.wordpress.com/
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