Danielle Holian

Jan 19, 20214 min

Book Feature: Erica Abbott ‘Self-Portrait as a Sinking Ship’

Book Review

“When we emerge from this, we will be better.”

Erica Abbott’s debut poetry chapbook, Self-Portrait as a Sinking Ship, is a deep and meaningful collection of poems. Just under 50-pages, it might be a quick read, but it’s an engaging and thought-provoking book.

Written over two chapters ‘Dark’ and ‘Hope’, it has vulnerable storytelling that will walk the reader on a journey from darkness to light. The truth telling in poetry form makes this an incredible read as it tells the tale that one does not always need to be strong.

The first chapter sees Abbott questioning her worth, and appears to easily crumble. It’s a powerful read as it will resonate with many showcasing it’s okay not to be okay. Her pieces are long which expands on her storytelling meaning, rather than including vague stories and left up to the reader’s interpretation.

The second chapter finds Abbott realising it’s okay and it has to be enough for now. The change in mindset and appearing to be more resilient is a fascinating change in direction for the book. There’s a lot of strength in her writing, almost hearing her tell the stories to the reader as a friend. It’s clear to see she battled through inner wars creatively, in-turn making, Self-Portrait as a Sinking Shop, a memorable read.

Although it might be a quick read, there’s a journey set out for the reader that will in-turn stay with them whilst surrendering for things to fall into place. Abbott didn’t shine away or sugarcoat when penning this book, and her weaknesses certainly turned into strengths during this storytelling through poetry form book.

Erica Abbott (she/her) is a Philadelphia-based poet and writer. She has been writing for over 15 years and her work has previously appeared or forthcoming in Toho, perhappened, Bandit Fiction, and other journals. She is the author of Self-Portrait as a Sinking Ship (Toho 2020), her debut poetry chapbook. She volunteers for Button Poetry and Mad Poets Society.

Words by Danielle Holian


Tell us a bit about your writing background.

I’ve been writing for over 15 years. I have a BA in Communication and my main area of focus in college was journalism. My poetry took a bit of a back seat in college but I was thankfully able to start writing pretty consistently again after I graduated and over the past few years.

What, or who, inspired you to start writing?

The person who really first sparked my love of poetry was the English teacher who led the poetry club when I was in high school. They first introduced me to Mary Oliver and then I spent my sophomore year writing my own poems and collaborating with other students. More recently, poetry workshops and courses have inspired me to keep writing through it all—at the start of the pandemic, I took a workshop led by Sierra DeMulder and I’ve been extremely lucky to have since taken poetry workshops/courses with Megan Falley, Neil Hilborn, Andrea Gibson, and Kelly Grace Thomas. I’m already looking forward to getting the chance to participate in more in the new year.

And what influenced your debut poetry collection Self-Portrait as a Sinking Ship?

A lot of the poems in the collection were written from prompts and several others came from poetry workshops and courses. Many of the poems are inspired by my own life, particularly over the past few years where my family and I were facing one difficult thing after another. The collection itself is divided into two sections (Darkness and Hope) so it was really influenced by my own personal experiences with things like anxiety and mental illness and the parts of my life that carried me through and inspired hope in me.

How do you find the balance between writing about your own personal experiences and exploring topics that may not necessarily be autobiographical, but still speak to many people?

I don’t necessarily set out to write one or the other—it usually just comes down to how inspiration strikes. If a line pops into my head, I’ll try to let it take me to where it needs to go. If along the way, some more personal experiences come up, I’ll write them and then decide what I’d like to keep or change. I think my poems have gotten much more personal as of late, but I do still hope that in any poem, personal experiences included or otherwise, people will find something that speaks to them.

What makes a piece of your writing right to post on your Instagram, versus the ones that stay in the book?

I tend to only post my work on Instagram in snippets, whether they come from my chapbook or pieces that have been published by a lit mag. In the weeks leading up to the release of my chapbook, I shared sections from a couple of poems in my chapbook so generally, the work that I share on Instagram will be from pieces that have already been published elsewhere for promotional purposes.

And finally, what advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Read and write often. This certainly isn’t new advice to anyone but it’s been one of the best pieces of advice I’ve received. Just absorb as much as you can and your own work will be better for it.