KELLY GRACE THOMAS is the winner of the 2017 Neil PostmanAward for Metaphor from Rattle, 2018 finalist for the Rita Dove Poetry Award and multiple pushcart prize nominee. Her first full-length collection, Boat Burned, was released by YesYes Books in January 2020. Kelly’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in: Best New Poets 2019, Los Angeles Review, Redivider, Nashville Review, Muzzle, DIAGRAM, and more. Kelly currently works to bring poetry to underserved youth as the Director of Education and Pedagogy for Get Lit-Words Ignite. Kelly is a three-time poetry slam championship coach and the co-author of Words Ignite: Explore, Write and Perform, Classic and Spoken Word Poetry (Literary Riot), currently taught in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Kelly has received fellowships from Tin House Winter Workshop, Martha's Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing and the Kenyon Review Young Writers. Kelly and her sister, Kat Thomas, won Best Feature Length Screenplay at the Portland Comedy Film Festival for their romantic comedy, Magic Little Pills. Kelly lives in the Bay Area with her husband, Omid, and is currently working on her debut novel, a YA thriller, titled Only 10.001. www.kellygracethomas.com
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
When you “burn your boats,” there is no going back. Moving forward is the only choice. Boat Burned, my debut collection from YesYes Books, examines the metaphor of femininity as boat, and addresses the intergenerational lies women are fed and feed themselves. But even more than that, this collection is about blazing the beliefs that limit you. It’s about burning down what doesn’t serve you and becoming something better, brighter.
At the poetry nonprofit I work for, Get Lit-Words Ignite, we have a large mural, that reads, “every poem is a love poem.” Each page of Boat Burned contains oceans of sadness, and in swimming these seas, acknowledging that sadness, it became a book of unconventional love poems, a healing, for me as a woman and the women around me: my mother, my grandmothers, my friends.
I grew up in a household that on the outside was extremely happy, my divorced parents that were best friends, we traveled lots and there was always an adventure, but there was also a lot of sadness and events (bankruptcy, indfieldity, addictions) that were not talked about or easily expressed. I could feel the sadness of the women around me, even though we never spoke about the pain. I could feel it all.
I believe in simply speaking something, naming it, looking it in the eye, so the healing can begin. This book, these poems changed my life in the way that it taught me how to love, myself and others. I don’t know if I was capable of true and unconditional love before I wrote these poems.
In terms of writing, my new work feels a little more direct in terms of language. I love writing that is innovative, that turns language inside out. However there are certain situations that I’m writing about now that need to be simply stated, just writing them down is hard enough.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or nonfiction?
The funny thing is I went to college to study fiction. I used to be a short story writer, I’ve written one novel and am currently halfway through another one. I work in many genres, I’ve written children's books, essays, and recently won Best Feature Film for the Portland Comedy Film festival for mine and my sisters’ (Kat Thomas) screenplay, Magic Little Pills.
I didn’t come to poetry first, however it has always been the genre that has held me closest and captivated me most. I began writing poetry as a high school teacher. I received a grant to teach Get Lit’s spoken word curriculum in my classroom. The curriculum, the poetry, the reading, response and performance, completely transformed my students. I saw kids who didn’t care about much before, arrive at school early, engaged, constantly editing, transformed by poetry. They bloomed into a better version of themselves.
During this time I was battling darkness in my own life. Dealing with some personal trauma, I was on the verge of imploding. Instead of self destructing, I told myself if I just sat down and wrote, I could have what they had. I used poetry as a lighthouse and moved towards creation. I spent a year writing a poem a day, just to process, just to practice.
After that I met the wonderful poet Tresha Faye Haefner and she offered a scholarship for her classes at the Poetry Salon. The classes were small, supportive close, and offered actionable feedback and steps to further my work. I learn how to submit, how to edit. Tresha’s class changed my life, introduced me to a whole new world. I am forever grateful for her guidance and feedback. Now Tresha and I co-teach the Poetry Salon together, along with some other amazing poets.
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?
Honestly, it depends on the project. In terms of Boat Burned, I was working on the manuscript for about three years, however it wasn’t until the poem, “The Boat of my Body” was written that I found the spine of my manuscript. After that I started to understand what it needed to do, it started to stand on its own. The metaphor of woman as boat became a container I couldn’t stop filling.
When my manuscript was accepted to YesYes Books, one of those Facebook photo reminders popped up on my screen showing me it had been almost three years to that day, that I submitted the collection for the first time. Since then only 30 percent of the same poems remain and it’s had seven different titles.
I revise constantly as I write. So a rough draft never really feels like a true rough draft. In the time span of 20 minutes I might redraft the poem two to three different times, tightening and tweaking each line, image or word. I don’t take notes rather just write and try to get deeper with each draft.
What’s looking like my second collection is forever changing shape, I spent about six months writing a poem here or there. Then I took one week at my family’s house in Tahoe and created my own writing residency. During that time I wrote 15-20 poems towards the collection. But who knows which will make the cut. Or what the collection will look like, my vision is in constant revision.
4 - Where does a poem 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?
They begin so many places, and some are pretty odd. The poem I mentioned earlier, “The Boat of My Body,” came to me as I was undressing at a Women’s Korean Day Spa in Los Angeles. While taking off my clothes I thought, what if all us women took off our clothes and we were something besides human underneath?
I said to myself, “I would be a boat.” The idea came so fast, so certain. That there in the day spa, I sat down in my pink robe and wrote “The Boat of my Body.” After that the manuscript knew who she was going to be. I just needed to figure out what she needed to say.
Many times poems just begin with an overwhelm of language or emotion. Sometimes I soak up so much like a sponge when reading, I see it’s a technique I learned that I want to try and I have to wring myself out. Other times it could be that I am just feeling too much and need to let it out. Need to understand myself better, the world better.
In terms of themes and collections, I used to be an author of shorter pieces (related or not) that took form into a larger shape once they sat next to each other. But now I feel like I am directly writing poems towards my next collection, not all of them but most. Collections seem so tightly knit in theme these days. So many poetry collections are project-books. However, I usually write pretty closely to one theme, but my approach to how the poems talk to one another and develop an arc has shifted. I think I look for the change or evolution in collections more than I used to. When I sit down to read I want the speaker to finish the book in a different place than where they started.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I absolutely adore public ratings. Attending them and being a featured poet. Writing is such a lonely process, there’s definitely a sense of community in terms of workshop and revision, but the actual crafting of something, sitting with it, looking in its eyes, is lonely. At least for me. Just you and the poem, and sometimes the poem doesn't want to really talk yet.
It’s so nice to build the connection and share that process at public readings. I love going to readings because poems always stick more when I hear them aloud, straight from the author's mouth. Also backstory, craft and conception is key for me. I adore the behind the scene tales of creativity and contemplation, and try to include them when I read. What a privilege to get a peek into any poet’s process. I love conversation about craft and artistic process, as much as poems themselves.Usually when I read a poem I love over and over, there is a limit to what I can learn from the page. But once I hear an author talk about that piece, its process, it adopts a whole new dimension.
I don’t know if I consider public readings when I’m writing, but I certainly do after the poems are finished (if there’s such a thing as being finished). After I curate them together in a dialogue to think of the communities I might share them with, the conversations they might spark.
I take preparing for readings pretty seriously. I sit down with my book and create a set list, write notes about the things I want to say about the poem(s) and why it’s important to say them. They don’t always get shared, but I try to include whoever is listening as much as possible. Let them in. I also want the reading to be an act of evolution of a thought, dilemma, or dialogue. The person listening should be taken on a journey, that asks questions, that changes them in some (small or big) way.
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?
This is a great question, I used to have a lot more concerns about my work than I do now. I don’t know how much of it was theoretical, I think it was just confidence, imposter syndrome, not feeling like I belonged. Which I still suffer from constantly.
A lot of that is related to how I came to poetry. I came without knowing anyone, without an MFA, as a high school teacher who just read and wrote cause they loved it. Some of the insecurities were simply because I was new to the poetry space, and some of that has changed with the work I’ve done within myself.
I write what I need to say, I write because it is important. The hardest thing about poetry is not letting too many voices into my head. There were so many for so long: what people think you should write, how you should write, where you should send it. I don’t have those concerns anymore. The only concern would be if I think a poem or something I might write might hurt another person or group, I try to be extremely mindful of that, which is a whole other conversation.
In the past I was concerned that I was writing too much about the same thing. At a writing conference, another poet told me that Claudia Rankine once said she only thinks about one thing for two to three years. I might be misquoting her, and my apologies if I am, but that gave me permission for my obsessions. It reminded me that obsession is another word for hunger, that there’s a need for growth or evolution there. This is why I come to the page: because I’m hungry to understand.
I know that not everyone will like my writing or be engaged in the subject matter, and that’s perfectly fine with me.
One of the biggest questions that I ask in my work is why what happens happens and how reactions shape the future and hatch new happenings.
I’m also extremely interested in the question of why we don’t love ourselves more. How do we begin to love ourselves? Can we be OK with not exactly loving ourselves but trying? I also want to know why certain people hold power. And why do we give our power away? What does it mean to possess power in a group or in the self? And lastly a lot of my work questions how we address the body. How can we reach towards tenderness and understanding, ask how can we stop seeing the body as another, something separate then the self? How does this change begin?
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?
Wow that is quite the question. There are books written about this, that still don’t cover it all, but I’ll try to be succinct.
I think the role of the writer is to be a mirror. They hold up a reflection to whatever we need to look at: the self, politics, the state of love in the world, the budding of a daffodil, their own body.
As writers we help others see things that deserve to be seen. As writers we help people talk about the things that need to be said.. Whether it’s one person talking or a whole country.
The job of an artist is to create a call to action, to use art to change a person, in a small or big way. Maybe one of my poems makes someone call their mom, maybe it helps them not cringe when they look in the mirror. Or maybe they thank their thighs for all the places they have taken them.
My role as a writer is to help others consider, and reconsider.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I find working with an outside editor imperative. It is something that I absolutely 100% need. However it’s important they don’t come in too early. I used to really second-guess myself and having too many voices in my head confused the poem.
Now I wait until the fourth or fifth draft before I show it to anyone. I’ve worked with some really incredible friends mentors and the editors: Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach, Tresha Faye Haefner, Kim Addonizio, Shira Erlichman and many more. I’ve taken workshops with some of my poetry heroes, (Patricia Smith, Jericho Brown, Ruth Awad) but what I’ve learned through all of this is that I need to stay true to myself. So while an editor is so wonderful l in helping see the global approach to the poem and where the poem might need to be tightened or expanded.
However, I have finally come to the point where I trust myself more, when getting feedback I can say (silently to myself) yes absolutely I’ll work on that, or no, I don’t agree with you but I appreciate your insight.
Being open to feedback in any area of life is how you grow. Being able to recognize what feedback that is valuable and actionable for you to grow into the person and poet you want to be is so necessary.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I approach everything (my work especially) with the idea that there’s always more to learn. I saw Nikky Finney speak at AWP last year. She shared a mindset of “never arriving, always becoming.” Meaning never get to the place where you say I know it all, I’ve made it, it’s time to stop learning. Instead watch how you, the world, our language,evolve, into new cells, to new questions, to new aches. One you have yet to engage with. I hope that my work is always attempting to become something new.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to screenwriting)? What do you see as the appeal?
I would say that I write different genres and different seasons. I wouldn’t say that I bounce from poetry to screenwriting to fiction on a weekly basis. I usually go to other genres when I need a break from poetry and how self involved my work can be. I use poetry as a tool to figure out my thoughts in the world. And sometimes it’s nice to be in someone else’s head, to build a new world, far away from the one you’re living in.
Since poetry is my bread and butter it is my day job and my night job I spend the most amount of time, energy and effort on that. It is my goal this year to spend more time with the other genres. I am halfway through writing a YA thriller that I absolutely adore, but the time demands around fiction are a lot different than writing poetry. My sister and I are also starting on a new screenplay, it’s an idea we’ve been kicking around for 10 years and I cannot wait to get started on that.
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 have been trying for the past 20 years to have a concrete writing routine. I always say I’m gonna get up at 6 AM and write for three hours before work. Sometimes it works but most often it doesn’t. I’m usually exhausted.
I find that for me being in writing workshops and doing things like Ross White’s Grind (where you write a poem a day with a group of people) have been extremely helpful in terms of establishing a writing routine.
I’m currently taking a poetry class with Kim Addonizio. I also have opportunities to write when I teach workshops for Get Lit - Words Ignite or the Poetry Salon, which is amazing.
This is something I struggle with writing time. Sometimes I will make a self-made writing retreat or go to a summer program if I receive a fellowship. Many times I write 25% of what I will write that year during this time. The other 75% is written in between work meetings, in the bubble bath with a glass of wine, at stoplights, at the gym. Tiny ideas that knock at my brain until I am able to sit down and spend 2 to 3 hours to get the poem where it needs to be.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I read and read and read some more. I have found lately if poems are not coming to me it’s usually because I’m not feeding myself with other people’s work. I don’t try to force writing when it doesn’t work, I just start reading d more.
I would say that the more that I write and read the easier it comes. It’s just like yoga in the first class, it’s hard to touch your toes, but as you practice more and more you’re extremely flexible and can twist into a pretzel on demand. You can get into the poses fairly easily. Poetry is a lot like that when I’m reading and writing every day I can get to where I need to be quickly.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
For me it’s the smell of salt water and sand. The smell of wind whipping over the Pacific, or the oil from my dad’s sailboat engine. I also love the smell of dirt and wet leaves as a hike through the mountains of the bay area. I connect so much with the outdoors. Most of the smells that remind me of home are smells of nature where I’m spending time with people I love.
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?
Nature is a huge influence. Nature is one of the best listeners I’ve ever met. It rivals the page. When I’m quiet in nature, poems come to me. I think they’re always there. They follow me around like tiny, patient children. But I’m usually too overscheduled or there are too many other things that demand my attention to notice them. In nature I am able to see them, hear them. It's when I step into nature, spend time in quiet, that the poems appear and we can sit down and talk.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Oh wow there are so many that have been a really huge influence in my life. I’m very attracted to writers whose language surprises me. Poets who use words or syntax or parts of parts of speech in a new way that gives urgency and energy to language.
One of my favorite books of all time is Blood Dazzler by Patricia Smith. She has forever inspired me to push toward invention and innovation. Also on this list is sam sax, Kaveh Akbar, Danez Smith, Shira Erlichman and so many others.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
In terms of life, I’d like to travel the world, become a parent, write a novel that has some commercial success.
In terms of writing ,I would like to write a manuscript about a subject outside of myself. Of course, autobiography will always be an influence, but I want to look outward, at an animal or a place and give it it’s own voice. Lean into its story. Sometimes I just get so sick of myself. I would love to take some time to focus on writing where I am not the center, where the “I” might not even be acknowledged.
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?
Wow! This is such a great question. There’s so many things that I’d like to do besides write, but writing seems like the only thing I could ever do.
However if it was an alternative life I would’ve like to be a lobsterman, a florist, a lawyer, or a doctor.
I’m so fascinated with different life forms, the ocean, the body and how we can use language to change history.
I also think it would be pretty cool to work in a national park or an aquarium to preserve and educate about sea life. I would love to spend my day feeding and talking with otters and sea lions. Anything that has to do with the ocean ultimately makes me very happy.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I think I started writing because I needed to communicate in a way that everyday conversation wasn't in allowing.
When I was about seven years old, I took to writing letters when I was upset. I would shove them under my mom’s door. They expressed how I was feeling when I wasn’t able to sit down and talk to her about it, yet.
There is a depth that I can get with the page that I can’t always get in real life.
My dad helped me appreciate writing through his love of music. My whole family is very big on music. We spent a lot of time on boats. In the middle of the ocean there is not much else to talk to one another, look at the ocean or listen to music.
My dad would put on an album and point out a great line. He and I would discuss what made a line so great and why. I think my parents were a huge influence in how I came to writing through expression or appreciation. Then the more I was around poetry, and I saw the effects it had on those around me, helping them heal and discovery, the more I wanted it in my life. I started writing and was hooked
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I recently read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexi and I was floored at the honesty and depth of the language. The voice of this young Native American teenager, one with so much commentary about the world, otherness, the need for love, was one of the most honest voices I have heard in awhile. So many human truths, Alexi writes “ used to think that the world was broken down by tribes,” I said. ... The world is only broken into two tribes: The people who are assholes and the people who are not.” I think about that often.
Last great film I saw, which might sound cheesy, was Amy Runs a Marathon. There is so much wonderful commentary about body image, self-discipline, how our surroundings shape our habits and what we owe to ourselves. It is cutesy film on Amazon about a girl who is decides to run a marathon, but for me it was so much more. There are so few films that talk about our relationship to weight, our relationship to food and how we use it to fill voids .I found it refreshing and honest without being preachy or agenda driven. It was great because of motivation and insight it offered.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m currently working on a book about my heartbreaking struggle with infertility. Me and my husband have been trying to get pregnant for a year and a half. We have seen the doctors. We know what the issue is. Still it is an ocean of grief I continue to cross daily.
There is so much silence around fertility. Even though it is something that affects every single person in this country. Everyone came from someone, yet we hardly talk about it. Especially when our bodies don’t perform the way they’re designed to. It is the ugliest pain I’ve ever encountered. It is the hardest healing I have been faced with.
I know I’m not on the other side yet, but this slow acceptance is producing a lot of poems (for now) of what’s looking like my next book.