Kerry-Lee Powell was born in Montreal and has lived in Antigua, Australia and the United Kingdom, where she received a BA in Medieval and Renaissance Literature and an MA in Writing and Literature from Cardiff University. Her poetry has appeared in The Spectator, Ambit and MAGMA. Her fiction has been published in The Boston Review, The Malahat Review and the Virago Press Writing Women series. She has been nominated for a National Magazine Award and a Pushcart Prize. In 2013 she won The Boston Review fiction contest, The Malahat Review’s Far Horizons award for short fiction and the Alfred G. Bailey manuscript prize. A chapbook entitled The Wreckage was published in the United Kingdom by Grey Suit Editions in 2013, and a novel and book of short fiction are forthcoming from HarperCollins. Inheritance is her first book.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My book has only recently launched, so it’s hard to say. Over the last few weeks, I’ve felt alternately elated, vulnerable, empowered, anxious, relieved, and really tired. Some of the poems in this collection were written a few years ago, and some more recently. Later poems experiment with longer lines, expand thematically on the austerity and terseness of earlier work.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I write both fiction and poetry, and came to poetry after starting off as a fiction writer. Sometimes I’ll have an idea for a poem that turns out to be better suited for a short story or vice versa. I have a book of short fiction coming out next year, and many of the stories were written during approximately the same time period as the poems in this collection.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I recently had this discussion with a couple of writers. I will pretty much always have an ending in mind when I embark on a poem or short story, whereas the writers I spoke with were both compelled to write precisely because they didn’t know where the work would end. Perhaps it’s because I tend to mull and brood a great deal beforehand, and don’t have a sense of an idea or concept as ‘art’ unless I can perceive its shape.
4 - Where does a poem or work of fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
My collection of poetry, Inheritance, is centred around my father’s experiences with post-traumatic stress disorder and his eventual suicide. But this is mainly because it was a powerful subject that I kept returning to without necessarily intending to. I have a great deal of admiration for people who can govern their imaginations well enough to write on any particular subject from the outset. I can’t or at least haven’t yet. I wasn’t aware of any particular theme when writing the stories in my short fiction collection. However, as the stories amassed, I began to see pervasive themes and images. This recognition inspired me to expand upon those themes and write several of the later stories, and it also allowed me to do some substantive editing on earlier pieces.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Some work really lends itself to being read aloud, and I’ve met so many wonderful writers, readers and organizers in the last few weeks. It’s heartening for those of us who live fairly solitary lives to be out amongst actual human beings instead of at a desk with the voices in our heads.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I have been specifically concerned with issues related to post-traumatic stress disorder, trauma and violence. The poems in Inheritance explore the links between PTSD and the ways in which poetry resurrects human experience, particularly through the use of formal devices. Many of the formal poems in this collection are concerned with themes of obedience, rebellion and power. They weren’t written with an agenda in mind, but I feel they explore some uncomfortable issues. Whose voice speaks through me? What does it mean to occupy an archaic form? The questions make me uneasy, but are nonetheless central to my experience as my father’s daughter and as a female artist in a patriarchal culture. And it was very important for me to not shy away from the emotional intensity of the subject matter, to allow the sense of mourning and love and trauma. It strikes me that this is what a lyric poem is in the end, a love song to the culture. And I think that all our stories and myths bear the scars of trauma. In a broader sense, I’m interested in humanism. I’m skeptical about art and its purposes and aims. It strikes me that we too often celebrate self-expression and creativity over what might help to ease suffering on a larger scale. I don’t mean that art should moralize. It’s one of the most rewarding forms of enchantment. But if I was compelled to define its relevance, I would say it’s the best means by which we can both create the world and understand the world as created –by our own perceptions, values and ambivalences.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I have a lot of witty, imaginative friends who contribute enormously to their communities and who never read books, let alone read poetry or literary fiction. At the same time I’m persuaded of literature’s absolute value to humanity. We are social beings, communicators. A writer’s influence will always depend on the culture in which their work is read, which is why some writers are popular during their lifetimes while others fall in and out of favor as the centuries pass. Relevance is an issue. As a writer, you have to have something to say.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
It’s sometimes frustrating and painful to work with editors, but you learn what’s worth fighting for. I’ve been lucky enough to work with several of the very best.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
That writing is a physical activity and not a mental one. Anthony Howell, a poet and fiction writer who was once in the Royal Ballet, told me this a few years ago after I’d watched him scribble off and on all day in a notebook he is almost never without. For him, writing in his notebook is akin to a dancer practicing at the barre. It’s a useful way of thinking because it reminds you that with writing, you must exert yourself in order to determine what you’re capable of. And to see if those inner musings can be transmuted. Lead into gold. More often than not for me, it’s the other way around.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to short story to novel)? What do you see as the appeal?
Writing is hard! I blame poetry, because it taught me to agonize over every sentence.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I am writing a novel and finding it difficult as a novel involves skills and disciplines that are somewhat alien to me. But it’s good to be challenged, to work at the limit of one’s abilities. On a more mundane level, my day begins with coffee and a notebook. I make lists, try to bust through the anxiety and sense of being overwhelmed by the task ahead.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I’m inspired by paintings and by music, and only rarely these days by movies or other books. However, I am deeply influenced by books I read in the past, canonical figures like Plath and Dostoevski and Nabokov, Lowell and Henry James, as well as lesser-known writers like Yevgeny Zamyatin. In the end, I feel that influences are more like tools or clues in a mystery. What you’re really doing as a writer is learning to find and express your own vision of the world. And this is often a troublesome and troubling journey.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
I’ve lived in a few different homes, but as I live in New Brunswick and it’s fall at the moment I’ll say wood-smoke and wet leaves.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
I spend quite a lot of time in the woods. They are difficult to avoid out here. In my fiction, I like to contrast the life of the mind, of civilization, with the wildness beyond it. I’m attracted to suburban locales or small towns as settings for that reason, as they show humans situated on the ragged borders of what’s knowable and what’s frighteningly not. I never intended this, but visual art and music have become vital to my practice. My poetry is often formal and very sound-oriented. My short fiction collection is called ‘Willem de Kooning’s Paintbrush’ and the titular story was inspired by the violence of his technique in several paintings. I’m idea-driven but I have an artisanal approach and tend to focus on texture and style.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
My partner, who’s taking a couple of years off from university at the moment, studies philosophy of mind and cognitive science. His observations about consciousness, neuroscience and the mind continue to amaze and inspire. It’s an area where there are a lot of misguided pop notions and I appreciate his lucidity. Other writers I’ve recently been inspired by include poet (and now friend) Stevie Howell, whose new book approaches similar themes to mine but in a totally different, and brilliant, manner. I’ve been reading with her off and on for the last few weeks and my appreciation of her work continues to deepen.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Finish my novel! Then travel, maybe to Eastern Europe. Somewhere I’ve never been.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
At one point I thought I’d do a PhD in medieval literature. At another point I thought screw it, I’ll be a landscape gardener or go back to bartending. I enjoy physical work and I made more money as a cocktail waitress then in any job I’ve had before or since. But I do value and require plenty of time alone these days.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
As a kid I always wanted to be a writer and made up little booklets that I gave out to friends. I wrote the usual dark stuff as a teen and had some early success with publishing work in literary magazines and interest from publishers in my twenties. But I ran away from it all. I hated my work back then, felt like I was a phony. Then I tried not writing for a while, but that didn’t work out very well either! It’s an ongoing act of bravado for me to put it out there, to not fall back into silence.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The last great book was Lynn Emanuel’s fabulous book of poetry called The Dig. Tony Hoagland told me to read it as a cure for my tendency towards terseness and I’m thankful he did. Can I pick two movies? One great film was Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, which I hated the first time around and then watched again a few weeks ago and was blown away. A masterpiece. The other was Pan’s Labyrinth which accomplishes everything I’ve ever wanted to do as a writer in about an hour and a half.
20 - What are you currently working on?
The novel! I’m also writing a little non-fiction these days, taking notes, feeling my way around the form.
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