Interview with Dara Yen Elerath, first prize winner in our 18th Award

This Sunday, 15th August is the last day to buy discounted entries for our 19th Award to be submitted by the deadline of 10th October. To get some inspiration for your own writing, read what poet, prose writer and artist, Dara Yen Elerath has to say about her first prize winning story The Button Wife, selected by K M Elkes in our June Award this year. You can read his comments about the story in his judge’s report. Dara Yen Elerath is also a visual artist, and one of her paintings reproduced here, is used as the cover image on her prize-winning debut poetry collection Dark Braid , which you can buy from Amazon and which she writes about in the interview. Dara also explains her different approaches to writing poetry and flash fiction and has a great writing tip at the end of this interview, part of which I have quoted below. And do look at the vimeo video she made which accompanies her amazing poem from her collection, How And When to Use an Eraser’

…always follow your language and allow the sonic qualities of the words to guide your imagination when you feel stuck or at a loss for how to proceed.


  • What inspired your powerful and moving first prize winning story from our June Award, ‘The Button Wife’?


    I wrote this piece based on my personal experience with a toxic/abusive relationship and the serial cheating that my partner engaged in, which I both guessed at yet simultaneously refused to believe was occurring.


  • Dark Braid your debut collection was selected for the 20th John Ciardi Prize for Poetry through BkMk Press and published in 2020 to much acclaim. Can you tell us more about the collection?


    Much of the collection centers on the emotions and ideas that were playing out in my mind during the aforementioned relationship. I didn’t have an objective while writing the poems or a sense of how they might cohere as a collection; rather, the poems are snapshots of my imagination and psychology at various moments during the years I was engaged in the relationship and while receiving my MFA at the Institute of American Indian Arts. I was also in the process of trying to make sense of my own poetics—what I like and don’t like, what my limitations and strengths are, etc.—so Dark Braid is a showcase of my various attempts to understand myself both poetically and personally.


    • This August, you also won first prize in the New Flash Fiction Review’s story competition and we are very much looking forward to reading ‘Olla’s Daughter’ in their magazine shortly. When you write, do you know initially whether you are aiming for poem or a flash piece?


      I do feel that I approach the writing of poetry and flash fiction differently. When writing a poem I commit myself, first and foremost, to the music of the language—I let the sonic qualities of the sentence or line dictate where the piece travels; with flash I still follow the language, but I’m also feeling out the ideas, trying to discern where they’re leading me. In both poetry and flash I work associatively, without knowing where my piece will end up. This is important, as it helps me to access the thoughts and feelings below the surface of my conscious mind, where the strangest and most imaginative ideas often percolate.


    • You are also a visual artist. What sort of media do you work in and do you ever illustrate your writing with your art?

      Prior to studying creative writing I was a painter and graphic designer. Most of my education has been oriented towards these two pursuits. These days I focus more on writing than visual art, but when I do choose to make something visual I often take a digital approach. My favorite medium is motion design—filmmaking that focuses on collaged, animated or constructed elements. I have never illustrated my writing, but I have created a few motion-videos to accompany various poems, including my own, over the years. A piece I made based on my poem “How and When to Use an Eraser,” is viewable here:


    • Are you currently working towards a further collection of poems, flash or hybrid work?


      I am currently working toward what I hope will be a collection of hybrid pieces, works that straddle the line between flash fiction and prose poetry; fable and fairy-tale-like fictions that incorporate the lyric drive of poems.


    • People love to know where and how writers work. Do you have a special place, time of day, music on or off?


      I tend to write when I first wake up, or soon after I’ve gotten ready for the day. I lie on my floor while drafting something in my notebook and then type it into my computer on a very small desk that allows me to remain sitting on the floor. There is something about being in a recumbent position while writing that feels more conducive to an imaginative state of mind. It keeps me connected to the childlike part of myself that is open to odd thoughts, dreams, surreal imaginings, and so on. As to music, I am unable to listen to it while writing. In fact, noise of any kind tends to disrupt me so I often wear sound-cancelling headphones to mute outside noise if I’m in the middle of something that requires a great deal of focus.


    • Your top writing tip?
      For me, as a poet, the beauty of all writing inheres in the language, itself, so my top writing tip is to always follow your language and allow the sonic qualities of the words to guide your imagination when you feel stuck or at a loss for how to proceed. I find that if I write too purposefully, focusing on what I want the story or poem to mean or say, then I wind up neutralizing it, taking all the tension, mystery and depth away. The important thing is to surprise yourself, to walk the line between your conscious and unconscious mind like a tightrope and not to fall. Following the music of words helps me to do this; it allows me to surprise myself, which in turn allows the reader to experience my surprise.

    Dara Yen Elerath is the author of Dark Braid, which won the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry (BkMk Press). Her first published flash fiction appeared in Tahoma Literary Review and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her poetry has appeared in journals such as The American Poetry Review, AGNI, Boulevard, Plume, Poet Lore, Hunger Mountain, and The Los Angeles Review, among others. She received her MFA in poetry from the Institute of American Indian Arts and resides in Albuquerque, New Mexico.


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