Karla Kelsey’s first book, Knowledge, Forms, the Aviary was selected by Carolyn Forché for the 2005 Ahsahta Press Sawtooth Poetry Prize. Iteration Nets, her second book, was published by Ahsahta in 2010. A Conjoined Book is just out from Omnidawn. She edits & writes for The Constant Critic, &, with Aaron McCollough, co-directs SplitLevel Texts.
1 - How did your first book change your life?
Having a book in the world ends up the equivalent of having part of myself in the world in a way that, while being very otherwise than my me, my I, is nevertheless a singular, visceral intensity. I didn’t expect this or, more precisely, I didn’t expect to feel in the world a sort of flesh-made-book, particularly because while my books are of me they are not about me. My first book, Knowledge, Forms, the Aviary, led me to experience that this would be how it is for me.
How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Preoccupations of perception and form—questions of subjectivity and source: all of these span from Knowledge, Forms, the Aviary to Iteration Nets to A Conjoined Book. So much so that I consider this a trilogy refracting through different formal/project lenses. A Conjoined Book differs in that it overtly works with narrative…the narrative of the Grimm Brothers’ tale The Juniper Tree and narrative as a question.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
This has to do with sound, wind, and dance; being outside and the trees in the same furious fit as the soul, the body used to move essence and emotion into form becomes the poem transmitting these elements as wordy flesh. I have always been acutely aware of a disjunction between narrative and visceral experience and find writing mainly in the space that begins in embodied experience and extends towards—but does not crystallize into—narrative.
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?
Creative language has little traction for me outside of the context of a project and so whenever I am writing I am writing either from the center of a project or towards such a center. But at the same time I do not begin with a project idea. This confluence has less to do with time than it has to do with shape, form, idea, research, texture. Language comes quickly but finding traction/context for language and training it, as one might espalier a tree, takes focus. Seeing where to cut loose the branch from its form and having the courage to do so requires inspiration and courage.
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?
In the beginning of a project I am working both angles at once. I can’t imagine thinking of a full project without having language units in the making to guide it. At the same time, short pieces don’t have maximum traction for me until they are placed in the context of a larger whole.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I feel readings to be essential not only to creative energy, but also to the book. Without public performance the books have a more shadowy experience of being alive in the world. In terms of creative process, I have gotten wonderful ideas from people I encounter at readings…perhaps the ideas are not necessarily for poems, but for teaching, or for thinking about writing and being in a fresh way. While exhausting, going out to give readings always energizes me much, much more than it take a toll.
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?
My questions include: How can one speak from and out of and within rather than about? How does language register the affective and cognitive experience of being? What modes of being might be cultivated through poetic processes? –But I don’t know that I am trying to answer these questions. Rather, feel I am trying to exist them more fully.
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 try to stay away from “shoulds” as I think they are fairly poisonous to freedom. It is important for there to be many different types of writers who inhabit different kinds of roles. To my mind one of the most important type/role is that of the writer who is passionately engaged with art-making regardless of whether or not culture thinks his/her form of art-making is useful. Such art allows me to question the entrenchment of practicality and to create new forms of thinking and feeling. To do so one has to be willing to be outside of the commerce of usefulness—both as reader/viewer and as writer/artist.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I’ve had two extremely positive experiences with two different editors. Janet Holmes published my first 2 books without many changes and found a way to typeset them in a way that didn’t require compromising the work—which was quite a task. I imagine most editors would have asked me to change the poems to fit the standard size of the book, or to make the typesetting less difficult, and I have always been so enormously grateful that Janet’s approach for these books was to fulfill their visions by giving them the printed form that they required.
For A Conjoined Book Rusty Morrison gave me wonderful editorial feedback on the manuscript and read and responded to the multiple drafts I created in revision. Rusty truly helped me to work the book into the form that it needed to be. Without her input the book would not have ever reached its potential. In working with her I have grown so much as a writer.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
A view of what it might be to work towards inhabiting the possible and the impossible both. At the same time.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
Critical prose is a struggle and I often think up reasons why I don’t need to write it anymore. Whereas poetry, even when difficult, is a deep, pulsing pleasure and when I am not working on something I am very sad. I suppose critical prose is supposed to be difficult, at least it is supposed to be difficult for me, which is one of its goods in the end: to override the impulse to only do what pleases me. Critical prose is meaningful to me as a way to participate in the larger conversation that ranges around poetry. It is also a way for me to know the books that I write about on a deep-tissue level. Generally, I believe in difficulty as an essential component to a life fully inhabited.
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?
Writing in the early morning is best—both to keep the writing going and for me to feel more sane as I go about my day. I have often wanted to find ways of carrying writing through the day: little processes or procedures, but these unfortunately usually only last 1 or 2 days at the most when I invent them. Also essential is physical exercise and reading: these activities can’t be separated from my writing life.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I imagine myself to be a sculptor making a series of new forms. What do I need: clay, process, shape. Translated into writing: form, process, and language as a material are the places I turn in a stall.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Jacaranda trees and a library permeated with salt air. Ginkgo trees—their sex and death—and the must of 19th century houses. Metallic wind off the Danube, wet limestone.
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?
Place/space greatly influences my work. Whether that space is familiar territory or travel, both natural and architected aspects of the environment are artistically and intellectually formative, stimulating, necessary. Also: music, visual art, performance art, and film are deeply important along with feeling myself to be physically of the world.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Philosophers, theorists, writers who work on reading the architected and natural environment: all of these are essential. Right now I read Wittgenstein on certainty, WJT Mitchell on icons, Costica Bradatan on the intellectual/political history of Russia and Eastern Europe.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Take the train from Moscow to Vladivostok. Absolutely.
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?
I would like to have been a modern dancer and choreographer á la Pina Bausch
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Something else failed and writing delivered me to my particular form of life-making.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The Spoils of Poynton by Henry James; Au hazard Balthazar by Robert Bresson.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;