Kathleen M. Kelley is a poet, essayist, and writing coach. In 2010, her chapbook The Waiting Room received the Philbrick Poetry Award, judged by Marge Piercy. In 2008 she received the Anderbo Poetry prize.
Her work has been published in Green Hills Literary Lantern, Persimmon Tree, The Sun, Earth’s Daughters, Peregrine, Perigee, The Green Fuse, Evergreen Chronicles, and Mediphores. It also appears in View from the Bed and The Patient who Changed my Life. Cancer Pages, a writing/support group she facilitated as an oncology social worker, was featured on public radio. You can read our conversation with Kathleen below.
How did writing poetry come to be your genre of choice? What appeals to you about the form?
It has probably been fifty years since I attended the Breadloaf Writers Conference. Only a single, striking memory remains: Throughout the conference, every person who attended, including me, was referred to as “the poet.” I cannot tell you how much that meant to me, the lasting impression it created, the way it gave me permission to take writing poetry seriously. Before long I would start a family, and during the years I was raising children all I could manage was a journal. After the children fledged, I would have very little confidence in my ability to return to serious writing. But I did have that memory, and it was enough to sustain me.
As an experiment, I decided that for a month I would write a few pages at the end of each day to see if I could capture the moments in the day when I felt entirely engaged with my life and the world around me. This being alive, this gift of vitality that we possess, strikes me as an extraordinary thing. I don’t remember a thing about what I wrote: maybe a moment when my heart was racing out of either excitement or fear; maybe a stranger smiled at me in the check-out line at the supermarket; maybe I couldn’t stop crying about someone’s careless remark; maybe I witnessed something that disturbed me; maybe my head was spinning with a startling new insight; maybe I just felt content enjoying the simple pleasure of a cup of tea. Whatever those moments were, I wrote them down. At the end of the month I reviewed the log. To be honest, I saved nothing of what I wrote. But a few phrases and lines felt like “keepers,” and these suggested that poetry was calling me again.
The brevity of the poetic form appeals to me: its compression, the intensity of emotion it allows for, the intimate feeling I have when I read a good poem. Here’s how I think of it: a human being just like me, someone I’ve most likely never met, really cares about something. They want to say how it is for them, and they take great care to say it well, hoping that a reader just like me will hear them and understand. Ahhh. What a good feeling…
What is one challenge you face in writing poetry and how do you overcome it?
It takes a lot of chutzpah to call yourself a poet, perhaps because poetry in our culture is so “other;” perhaps because writing is essentially a lonely occupation. In some ways, one just has to bear that, but at the same time, feeling lonely and disconnected can make it difficult to develop the kind of stamina and discipline it takes to master any craft. Fortunately, there are also a lot of antidotes—classes, workshops, conferences, editors, mentors, buddies, etc… Believe me, I’ve used them all.
Having a stable, dedicated peer group of writers to share my work with has been absolutely essential, people whose writing I enjoy and whose feedback I trust. For a long time I was fortunate in having a writing teacher who mentored me, Maureen Buchanan Jones. Trained in the Amherst Writers and Artists methodology, Maureen provided consistent, skilled, positive feedback about what was strong in my writing, pretty much ignoring the rest, at least until I was ready to do more than write rough drafts. The gift she bestowed with incredible generosity was simply her belief in me. Under her guidance, I came to trust my own voice.
What advice has helped you most in honing your craft?
Galway Kinnell taught that if you give the subject of your poem a voice, it will give you a poem, and I’ve found this to be true. He also believed that if you found yourself thinking, oh, I could never write about that…you should just go for it. For me, this is a teaching about courage: the courage to take risks, to write about difficult matters and speak difficult truths. Writers are passionate about communicating what is most true about what we experience, think, feel, believe, and long for, what is most true about the why of our lives. We want to make sense of the unique, amazing, and complicated lives with which we have been blessed. This is the important work of meaning-making that only human beings can do. Good poetry helps us do it.
When I worked with Sharon Olds, she spoke quite openly about all the bad poems she had written, the poems that nobody would ever, ever see. I just found that so encouraging. She just kept going, which is all that matters. How easy it is to forget the obvious: the path to becoming more skilled writers is the path of continuing to write, picking up the pen day after day, week after week after week, year after year.
Sharon liked to compare getting poems down on paper to “sliding eggs out of the frying pan without breaking the yokes.” What stayed with me about this comment was the realization that much of her interior life revolved around poetry. Only a few of my poems slide out so effortlessly—I’m way too obsessive—but it got me thinking about a certain kind of “poet’s mind” that I’ve come to believe is essential to the creative process. It’s a kind of wandering mind that feels young and present, fresh and creative. When I am in that place, there is an enhanced sense of possibility, my senses are tuned very acutely, and connections between things are more readily apparent.
Olds also recommends putting a poem away for a while, and then coming back to it (or moving on to other things), which I think is good advice. I don’t always know when to stop, particularly if I’ve become obsessed with a piece of writing. My editor’s eye will be sharper once I’ve given the poem a rest.
Can you recommend two or three must-read poems? Why do you love them?
Galway Kinnell’s collection When One Has Lived For a Long Time Alone includes a series of sonnets by that title. The poems chart a course through grief that encompasses wave after wave of intense emotional states: helplessness, compassion, regret, alienation, erotic longing, a powerful solitude, and a deep longing for love. The voice and tone are incredibly personal, tender, and intimate, with little bits of humor scattered throughout. The poem is tops on my must read list. In fact, it’s the poem that most helped me return to writing after all those years of silence.
“What Left,” the concluding poem in Sharon Olds’ award-winning collection Stag Leaps, is another of my favorites. It’s a poem about the inevitability of change, and what can sometimes be found on the other side of sorrow that seems unbearable. It is an ambitious and a deeply spiritual poem about the real possibility of freedom. Here, a beginning turns into an ending, which turns out to be another new beginning. The narrator’s voice is both intimate and powerful. The poem balances ordinary speech and diction that is more challenging, concrete imagery and complex thought.
“The Change,” in Tony Hoagland’s collection What Narcissism Means to Me, is another must read. I applaud its ambition! Hoagland takes huge risks as a white man in writing honestly, deeply, and skillfully about the complex and painful issue of race in America. I love being seduced into watching the tennis match on television, the foil used by the poet to explore some of the underpinnings of racism. The description of the players is unforgettable; some of the lines are shocking. I’m sure Hoagland got shit for writing the poem, but my guess is he was willing to take the fall.
How do you know when a poem is ready to be published?
Sometimes it’s just a gut feeling. Because so much of good poetry is about its music, it helps to read the poem out loud. Sometimes the poem just closes the door to further revision. Like other writers, I am not particularly objective about my work and am not the best judge about whether a poem is fully “cooked,” so I rely heavily on my peer group for feedback.
What is your writing process like? Where do you work best?
It varies. I write at home alone, but I can also get easily distracted there; I write in the library with a writing buddy because it’s quiet; I write regularly with other writers in a group setting where we give and receive feedback from one another. For years, I wrote in a notebook after taking long walks in nature, then used the material I generated as fodder for poems. For years, I wrote from prompts, which I still do. I like taking a poem that interests me and using it as a prompt, either the subject matter or the form or tone or some of the diction or what I think of as the poem’s skeleton, how it’s structured underneath, behind the words themselves. Often, I find myself “in the zone” when I’m editing, which pleases me enormously. I enjoy editing a great deal: how absorbed I can feel, and the way I lose all track of time.
Do you remember the first poem you wrote? If so, what was it about and how do you feel about it now?
I do not recall the first poem I wrote. But I do recall a very early poem about a friendship that ended because…well, because it was time to end. I compared the demise of the friendship to the biblical parting of the Red Sea, something that strikes me now as a really bad simile. The poem was autobiographical, and I was probably too close to the material. It was pretty sentimental.
Drink of Choice: Coffee or wine?
Neither. I’m a tea drinker, and I take it sweet with lots of milk.