Artist of the Week Elijah Santos ’26 on Containing Multitudes

I’ll never forget when I first followed Elijah Santos ’26 on Instagram. Instead of the usual stories, Eli posts what he’s listening to — I can attest to the fact that he has killer music taste. We instantly bonded over our mutual love of hyperpop (angels forever) and, strangely enough, writing. Eli would post a piece of poetry he wrote on his notes app, and I’d sit there in awe, shattered by his ability to portray complex emotions in so few words. With this in mind, it makes sense that he’s been writing poems since fourth grade.

“So I remember getting into poetry for the first time in elementary school. I believe it was fourth grade. We had a Haiku contest back in my elementary school in Guam. I just wrote about nature, and then I wrote more freestyle poems, but like Haiku it was very basic. I would show them to my teachers, my classmates, and they would compliment me, and it inspired me to be more creative because I realized I can actually reach people by writing whatever I want. However, in middle school, I felt my intentions with writing poetry changed. I was slowly realizing that I like guys. I wrote unrequited love poems, which I don’t think was real love, and I started to get tired of writing only about love because that’s so boring. There’s so much more to life than crushing and unrequited love”

Reading Eli’s poetry, I sense his conflict in wanting to write about love without directly writing about love. Romantic poetry can be an oversaturated genre, but simultaneously, being a poet by nature requires a level of emotional vulnerability. As Eli writes, the act of writing is not to be perfect; often it’s to be sincere in your deepest, most unrealized thoughts. This poem, in particular, was rooted in St. Vincent’s lyrics from Paris is Burning: leaden trumpets spit the soot of power/sleep while I slip poison in your ear. His inspiration came from intense musical exploration during the pandemic: 

“When quarantine happened, I began listening to a lot more music and it made me realize that you could write about a wider span of things. I think while my music taste was changing, my reasons for writing also changed. And now I view poetry as more of a camera that can capture moments in your life that are meaningful or intimate. Recently I began writing about friendship a lot, and I plan to continue doing that … But I feel like as a poet, I’m never going to be satisfied, which is kind of a blessing and a curse at the same time. I’m not gonna write the best poem ever. But I can write so many excellent poems. Also what defines perfection anyways? Especially with art, I feel the word perfection is so limiting and I used to be such a perfectionist before college … but let’s break the rules.”

Publicly posting any form of writing can be terrifying because of the conventions people place on it. When I first began writing the Artist of the Week, I was only a first-year in my fall semester, and I began by interviewing a senior (Ella Yadav ’23). I was terrified to interview Ella, but I enjoyed the process so much that I picked up the segment after her article. If I hadn’t decided to write a year ago, I would’ve missed out on something I deeply enjoy. Interestingly, Eli had a similar but unique perspective on publishing your works:

“My bio lab instructor said that research is useless if you don’t present it, because essentially you didn’t do anything. At least people don’t know what you did. That, in a strange way, applies to poetry, or just creative output in general. If you have all that skill — that urge to create, manifest it to actually write everything down and put it out, show people because if you keep it hidden, it might as well have not existed.”

At the same time, Eli noted the significance of keeping some poems hidden, “I think I purposefully keep [poems] hidden or didn’t post them because I thought people weren’t going to get it, but I got a lot off my chest from writing them anyway. For me, I feel like there’s two kinds of rewarding: there’s rewarding in the sense that I got something on paper and I can look at it and put it away. Or the other kind of rewarding is when someone reads my poems, and feels something very visceral or finds meaning in it or it resonates with them. I love that. I want those two kinds of rewards to conflate. I haven’t fully gotten there yet.”

Eli communicated a feeling so ubiquitous in art-making. Sometimes we’ll make a vent piece, and it’s not to say that we don’t want others to see our vision, but they’re a fragment of our thoughts — minds — and selves spread out onto paper. I’ve found it to be similar in a concert setting, too. Often, our best performances are when we only concentrate on the melodies for ourselves rather than the audience. While Eli said he hadn’t reached the combination of his two rewards in writing, they’ve converged in music. 

“My parents would put on Brainy Baby DVDs that played Mozart and other classical music, and then I got my first keyboard when I was around four. But I spilled water on it and it stopped working. After that, I didn’t touch a single piano key for years … actually until 5th grade. As much as I love singing, when I saw a real piano instead of my tiny keyboard, I was enraptured. I felt like I was seeing someone I haven’t seen in a long time; an old friend. That’s how it felt. Since then, I began sharpening my skills and I realized that you can play chords and harmonies. I picked up music theory from YouTube videos. I also went to a middle school that had an emphasis on music. In high school, I played music in a live band setting, which I really enjoyed, actually, and I wanted to do more. And in college, having the resources like the practice rooms and my singing coach, Clara. I just had a singing session or like a coach coaching session with her earlier today. I think my relationship with music has definitely flourished here. I’m in ensembles like the Garnet singers and choir, which are rewarding, too.”

Hearing Eli describe his love of piano was particularly resonant to me. It’s no wonder that he publishes music reviews for The Orpheus Review. His passion is palpable. As he talked about the first time he saw a real piano, Eli’s eyes sparkled, and his gestures got larger. His connection to music held a profound curiosity in its expansiveness: Eli is excited about what the future holds for him as a musician here at Swarthmore and beyond. As stripes of sunlight blasted through the windows, it was almost as if Eli’s excitement made the entire Cornell basement glow. Though he feels he’s not ready to write his own songs for an EP yet, he wants to fill Swarthmore with his melodies by graduation. 

But, then, he told me something that honestly shocked me. 

“So many people say they’re stunned that I’m an engineering major. And when I tell them, it’s like their previous perception of me is shattered. But it still helps to know that what I’m passionate about, isn’t defined by my major strictly. I can still be a poet, even if I’m going to be an engineer. I can still be a poet even if I’m going to be a musician. I love containing multitudes. I like spreading my wings.”

“It’s like their previous perception of me is shattered.” Regardless of what Eli chooses to study, his artistic creativity permeates every aspect of his personality. It shows when he’s passionately talking about vinyl records, throwing in a hyper-specific reference to an obscure musician, or reposting an E.E. Cummings poem. Engineering in and of itself is artistic, it’s just a different form of creativity. To me, what makes Swarthmore so special is the mere fact that I could sit down and talk to someone who contains multitudes. I can’t capture Eli in one article, or a set of articles. But, as he noted with his poetry, I can capture him in a moment, and there’s something distinctly remarkable about that.

If you’d like to read Eli’s collection of poetry, Poet versus Plagiarism, you can buy it on Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/Poet-Versus-Plagiarism-Poetry-Collection-ebook/dp/B09JZDGPNP

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