Sheleen McElhinney on Treating Grief as a Houseguest (and Writing Poems About It)

Capsule Stories Autumn 2021 Edition laying open to the poem "Witches of Westbrook" by Sheleen McElhinney on top of a marble white table with a wooden bench in the background

​​Sheleen McElhinney is a poet/baker living in Pennsylvania with her family. Her debut book, Every Little Vanishing, was published in October 2021 with Write Bloody Publishing.

Sheleen McElhinney’s poems “Witches of Westbrook” and “Halloween 1991” are published in Capsule Stories Autumn 2021 Edition: Dancing with Ghosts. The poems are portrayals of loneliness, grief, and nostalgia.

Capsule Stories: What came first with these poems—the memories, the themes, the form? Tell us about each poem’s conception.

Sheleen McElhinney: I would say the memories came first. That is often the case with most of my poetry, with form coming in last. “Witches of Westbrook” was difficult to write in the sense where I knew that what I wanted to say was going to have to encapsulate almost an entire lifetime. It felt like a tricky “to make a long story short” kind of moment. But it was something I always wanted to write about, so I committed to it and there were many drafts.

“Halloween 1991” came to me suddenly while I was standing in my parents’ garage one afternoon. Sometimes you get lucky in that way—a poem will come to you, in its entirety, when you least expect it, and it feels like a gift.

Capsule Stories: How do you approach titling your poems? How did you land on the title for “Witches of Westbrook”?

Sheleen McElhinney: I admittedly have difficulty titling my poems most of the time. But “Witches of Westbrook” was a no-brainer for me. My sisters and I grew up in a house on Westbrook Road, and that’s what people called us—the witches of Westbrook. If I had to guess, I suppose we were called this because of my sisters’ long black hair (I was the odd one out with dirty blonde) and we were rumored to have men under our spell. Was it true? We’ll never tell! But, joking aside, I had that title in my head long before I sat down to write the poem. I then, in turn, tried to incorporate a language that felt, well, witchy!

Capsule Stories: “Witches of Westbrook” quietly reflects on grief and loneliness: “I still had a brother to love, then lose, my own / hand to rest upon a frozen chest in the stillness / of a quiet room. I still had children to birth, men / to warm me then leave me / cold, my own heart crushed like a fig.” How do you approach exploring themes of loneliness and grief in your poetry? And why do you explore them?

Sheleen McElhinney: I like to think of grief or loneliness as a guest in my house. When it shows up, rather than turn it away, I treat it with respect and kindness, and listen to everything it has to tell me. I’ve learned through unexpectedly losing my brother and then my father just last October that grief will not be shunned. I make space for it by allowing it to come through, whatever that looks like: anger, nostalgia, uncontrollable sobs . . . Exploring it is a way of accepting it, as it ultimately is a guest that never leaves. The more I listen, the more I learn about myself and how to have it coexist with joy. It comes up a lot in my poetry because I think that it’s another way for me to work through it and another way to connect with my reader. I’d like to think these poems help people feel less alone in their grief.

Capsule Stories: “Witches of Westbrook” has a distinct design, with the left-hand indents undulating back and forth down the page. Tell us about the design choices you made in this poem and what effect you hope they have on readers.

Sheleen McElhinney: I designed this poem to look (as best I could) like a wave on the shore. “I watched my sisters because I wanted to learn / how to slip like a sandcastle into the sea.” Also, we often hear grief described as an ocean, coming in waves. I hoped this form would add to the richness and feel of the poem.

Text from the poem "Witches of Westbrook" that reads:

I watched my sisters,
     each of them trailing familiar scents
          like oil of Olay, eucalyptus,
    like brushfire, like smoke.
          Watched the pale moonstone glow
      of their skin brown in another year
 of sun, and another. Watched their love
     turn into swollen bellies, their arms turn
           into cradles. Watched the corners
    of their eyes grow lines like the pages
of an open book. Watched them hurl
        fruit at husbands leaving, whip their hair
    in defiance. I watched them lift their wet
faces to the next approaching storm, slip
      into new armor as unassuming as gossamer.
          I was so much younger. Their long lean bodies
              had stopped growing by the time
                  I was born. They had already known
               the loss of a brother, gone
            before I arrived. Their small, smooth
        fingers tracing the blue satin lining
   of his new lidded bed. Their hands opening
 and closing his tin box of trinkets,
    matchbox cars rusting in the salt from their
         eyes. They had felt the sprawling distance
               between the door and their father
                 walking out, our mother tied to the bed
              to save her from herself, only waking
         for another heavy dose to take her back
     under, while they toiled, stared into an empty
  pantry, learned to use the stove.

Capsule Stories: What ideas or images did you cut or add from earlier drafts of these poems?

Sheleen McElhinney: There was nothing cut from earlier drafts of “Witches of Westbrook,” but there was a lot added. In earlier drafts, there was still more that needed to be said. Oftentimes, it’s hard to say “the thing.” The brother that I speak of in this poem “they had already known the loss of a brother / gone before I arrived” drowned when he was three years old. I wasn’t born yet and so I felt like it wasn’t my story to tell, but it was an integral part of the poem that needed to be there. I don’t specifically mention those details but I knew I needed to use language that would invoke that sorrow: “Matchbox cars rusting in the salt from their eyes.” It took many drafts to arrive at these images and ideas.

Capsule Stories: What has your writing journey looked like, and how has your writing changed since the pandemic began?

Sheleen McElhinney: I started writing poetry when I was around eight years old, and I remember having a little book I wrote and illustrated about ducks. It was featured in the school library, and I never looked back! But it wasn’t until my twenties that I started submitting my poems to journals. I was published a couple of times and rejected more that I can count.

The pandemic was actually the first time in years that I started writing again. It forced me, like many others, to slow down and return to old passions. I wrote my first full collection of poetry during the first year of the pandemic and found an amazing community of poets through online classes and workshops. It was something for me to be grateful for in such a tragic time.

Capsule Stories: Tell us about your debut book, a poetry collection titled Every Little Vanishing, which came out in October with Write Bloody Publishing. What themes do you explore in this book? What was the writing process like?

Sheleen McElhinney: At the start of lockdown, I decided to take my first-ever poetry class called Poems That Don’t Suck, taught by Megan Falley (author of Drive Here and Devastate Me). At the time, I was writing poems for homework assignments based on class prompts. I had no idea I was writing a book. But I wrote about what I knew, and the poems made sense together like a kind of memoir. Megan asked me if I had ever thought about having a book, and I told her, yes, in my wildest dreams. She said, “Well, welcome to your dream because it’s here.” She submitted a packet of my poems to Write Bloody Publishing, and my manuscript was the winner of the 2021 book award. I’m still reeling from it to be honest.

Every Little Vanishing is, at its core, a collection of poetry that will bring you to your knees with its honesty. These poems drag you to the darkroom of vulnerability where everything is exposed: the wounded child, the reckless adolescent, the life and death of a sibling to addiction, and the loss of self through marriage and motherhood. These poems show beneath their hard exterior the soft underbelly of what it means to love and lose. They are for anyone who wants to learn how to grow a new skin, to excavate the body of its grief, to devour it, and to let it choke you. Both “Witches of Westbrook” and “Halloween 1991” are included in the book.

Capsule Stories: What are you working on next?

Sheleen McElhinney: I am immersing myself in books by other poets, taking more classes on craft, participating in workshops, and starting to build another collection for book two!

You can find Sheleen McElhinney on Instagram at @sheleenmcelhinney, on Twitter at @SheleenMc, and her website at sheleenmcelhinney.com.

Black and white headshot of Sheleen McElhinney
Sheleen McElhinney

Read Sheleen McElhinney’s poems “Witches of Westbrook” and “Halloween 1991” in Capsule Stories Autumn 2021 Edition: Dancing with Ghosts, now available in paperback and ebook.

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