Monday, November 04, 2019

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Candice Kelsey

Candice Kelsey has been researching and writing, both creatively and academically, for decades. She holds her B.A. (Miami University) and M.A. (LMU) in literature and is inspired by Nelly Sachs, Linda Pastan, Zora Neale Hurston, Herman Melville, and David Sedaris. Candice teaches English at a private Yeshiva girls’ high school in Los Angeles, where she has been inspired to write her blog Don’t Nachas ‘til You Try Us. Her first book explored adolescent identity in the age of social media and was recognized as an Top Ten Parenting Book in 2007.

Her poetry has appeared in Poet Lore, The Cortland Review, North Dakota Quarterly and many other journals. She feels honored that her poem “The Birth of President Trump” was included in Sibling Rivalry Press’ special issue If You Can Hear This: Poems in Protest of an American Inauguration. A finalist for Poetry Quarterly's Rebecca Lard Award and recipient of honorable mention in Common Ground Review’s 2019 poetry contest, Candice’s creative nonfiction was nominated for a 2019 Pushcart Prize.

Candice is the co-founder of a private high school, has served as an essay evaluator for the College Board and the U.S. Department of Education, volunteered as a fiction reader for The New England Review, and continues to foster a love of writing in today’s youth. She is an unabashed fan of Murder, She Wrote, Columbo, and The Nancy Drew Hardy Boys Mysteries as well as all things opera and musical theater. She and her family are passionate advocates for both animal rights and foster youth. You can find her @CandiceKelsey1 @BooksBoxers and @HardyTonight as well as

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

Since Still I am Pushing is my first collection of poetry, I cannot answer this question yet.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

I’m drawn to fiction more for the author’s use of language than for the plot or even character development. I’m drawn to non-fiction for the genuine, the real. Poetry for me is the best of both worlds – it requires heightened attention to word choice and a reconfiguring of reality. So by virtue of my own reading preferences, I settled into writing poetry rather than fiction or non-fiction.

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?

Typically my process begins with urgency – sudden and effusive. Pulling the car to the side of the road or sitting on the curb of the sidewalk and typing feverishly into my Notes app on my iPhone. Which is wonderful because who doesn’t enjoy feeling fecund? It can be exciting, but really it’s just the proverbial honeymoon period, I think. Because the next step in my process requires identifying what’s missing. I need to ask them, are you where you where you want to be? Are you who you want to be? So I work on solidifying my relationship with each of those poems. I visit them. I sit with them. 

I’ll take maybe four, and I will let them marinate. [I will] sit with them, and read them, and right away I can see little areas, little pressure points, that I can fix and places where I want them to go. Essentially, what I’m noticing is wordiness, which has always been my problem. But then I’m noticing that I lack the element of surprise. I lack the twist. I lack that beautiful element of poetry that I love — for example, in Billy Collins — where you think it’s taking you and then it takes you elsewhere. Michelangelo said that the statues that he would sculpt were already in the marble. He was just revealing them. I feel like my poems, in some way, have a lot in them that I just need to take the time to reveal. So time is a huge part of the process, and not giving into the need to submit them right away. Letting them marinate. Letting them sit. Rethinking them. Gaining more experience. Reading more poets!

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?

I am definitely an author of short pieces, spare strings of images or a single comparison. I sense a poem inside a tiny moment of brief interaction and begin there. The more time I allow it to have without me, the more I know how to spend quality time with it. Sometimes a poem becomes two separate poems; sometimes three separate poems unite as one longer poem. But they each begin small, like every one of us humans.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I’m an introvert in an extroverted profession – teaching. Networking, schmoozing, LinkedIn-ing I cannot do. Set me down at the AWP conference, and I’ll go fetal. But put me in a book group, an escape room, or in front of one hundred people eager to hear a few poems, and I shine.
I spoke to large venues throughout North America for my 2007 book (nonfiction) tour, and I enjoyed the adventure. I have yet to be put before an audience for my poetry, but I can tell you now that I would relish the opportunity! Especially since so much of my work is meant to be heard… I put a good deal of effort into the sound elements of my work. It does frustrate me that my poems are being read and not heard.

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 do find some safety and comfort about when I’m writing about things that are so personal, traumatic, or even puzzling. There’s a safety in that if it never gets published, I have the benefit of having written it for myself and having revisited and tried to make some sense out it. In a sense, I am answering questions from my past by taking something very prosaic and making it poetic. And this process is fulfilling to me. So that, in a way, I’m manipulating — going back in time — and manipulating some very ugly things that have not sat well with me for many years, and reconfiguring it as something that I can now see as beautiful.

I suppose one theoretical concern I currently have is whether or not there’s a greater expectation for female poets to be more raw and open. I mean almost a fetishization of female trauma. And I wonder if I float into that current subconsciously. Or if being a survivor is just is who I am. The trauma is a part of me. And it’s part of how I see the world. And it’s part of a daily struggle. Look, we all want the world to be more empathetic. And I (usually) have the strength to wrestle with things that are raw both for my own art and for others who can connect to it, who find something in it, and feel less lonely. But does it stand in the way of maybe a less exploited female-as-perpetual- sufferer type of poetry? I don’t know. I do know I’m excited to find out as I write more poetry.

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?

This question. Yes. I love it.

Is see the role of the writer, specifically the poet and memoirist, as that of the Fates in Greek Mythology – the three sisters who spin the thread of life, dispense it, and then cut it. We should be weavers, taking the stuff of life and forming something new and meaningful with the intent to send it out there to be experienced by others while also knowing when to let go and let it become an autonomous piece of work. Not unlike motherhood, actually. If I may…
Not that I like to compare, but I watch other mothers, i.e. mother friends, people that I work with, having trouble seeing their children as their own individual people and specifically having trouble separating. I ask myself, why am I not struggling with this, or am I struggling with this -- and I just think I’m not. I’ve talked to my eldest daughter about it. It seems like we have a very healthy boundary, in that she is her own person doing her own thing, and I’m okay with that separation.

I think writing poetry has helped me be a better mom, and by ‘better’ I mean — and I hate to add judgment to it — a little bit more willing and able to see my children as authentic beings, who are not an extension of me in any way, shape or form. Which is the exact opposite of how I was raised. And so, if they’re making choices I don’t agree with, I don’t know? I wouldn’t say I’m numb to it, but I’m more accepting to the fact that they are where they are, and I’m where I am, and let’s just see where we all go.

And that, to me, is the job of the poet.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

I absolutely cherish working with an outside editor. I learn so much in the process and count it as invaluable to my growth as a writer.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

One editor said, “I, too, wrote a first chapbook similar to this, and I needed to write it to get it out of my system and move on to the real poetry.” And it hurt, for a second, because Oh, I thought this was my real poetry, but it has stayed with me because maybe what I’m doing — and I have to be okay with that — right now is getting some of my pre-occupation, some of my obsession, and some of my dysfunction out into the poetry, and it is very personal. I can maybe get to another layer where I’m maybe more political. But, right now, I’m a poet whose writing about things that are so intensely personal that I cringe thinking that they’re going to be published.

That being said, I don’t think there’s anything I would avoid writing about. Maybe I write more abstractly about something intensely personal. But, you know, I’ve written about being assaulted and raped. I’ve written about my foster son. I’ve written about issues in my marriage and incredibly hurtful things I’ve experienced with my own mother. Poetry is where we learn truth. My circle of people love me enough to know that my coming to terms with and diving into the truth of things is more important than how they happen to be portrayed.

10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

Because I teach full time, I have to be strategic.

Luckily, at this particular teaching job, I have a lot of free time because the day is longer — there are ten periods every day. They [her students] are doing a dual curriculum: my students are studying Hebrew and Judaica— it’s like they have two school days in one day. But that means I’m here a lot, and I have a lot of free time. That’s when I do much of my writing, so I feel like this job has opened up the option for me to have more time to spend on my writing. And I definitely take advantage of that. 

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

I have two strategies, and both work well: I either sedate my brain by watching re-runs of 70s and 80s police procedural dramas, or I galvanize my brain by reading new poetry.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

I’m such an olfactory geek. Scents are everything. For me, fresh cut grass reminds me of Ohio summers, and chimney smoke reminds me of Ohio winters. I won’t object to pipe smoke, either, as that reminds me of a favorite uncle we’d visit in New England.

13 - 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?

Trees. I am addicted to an app that lets me take a picture of a tree I see and then learn its name and every unique fact about that tree. Currently, I’m inspired by the Japanese Black Pine tree. Birds. I have a book of birds and their literary appearances – I keep it in my car at all times and read it when my husband is driving through L.A. traffic. Finally, Turner’s seascapes. His paintings simply unlock all the doors in my head.

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Spend a year living and working on Nantucket. I’m such a Melville nerd (and Philbrick by default) that I count it criminal to have never stepped foot on that “great sand hill in the air.”

16 - 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?

Mail carrier for the USPS. I often fantasize about it. I love the uniform and all its variations, but specifically the vest and the high socks. I’m drawn to being outside in the fresh air, feeling the elements first hand. Imagine being able to pet the neighborhood cats as they sleep in the shade on front steps or smell the wild roses at the fence. Imagine listening to your ear buds while you walk around? Honestly, what a dream!

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I dabbled all my life in writing, starting with creative grocery lists filled with rhymes and puns for my mother’s trip to the market to better lyrics for sub-par advertising jingles during Saturday morning cartoons. I also confess that I am the walking cliché who came alive intellectually in 11th grade English class… the more I read, the more I wrote. For me reading is the inhale while writing is the exhale. Some of my early early stuff is mortifying, but this is why we have boxes.

I would say that I’ve been serious about poetry for three years. Look, life is hard, and it kicks you in the kidney or sucker punches you in the spleen. I think participating in  life, in any small way, is just traumatic. But it can and should be transformative, and that is where writing poetry enters the scene for me. Poetry has been a lifeline in so many ways.

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

Kiese Laymon’s Heavy. My word. What a powerful memoir! His courage to tell his story is breathtaking. I was especially moved by his struggles with gambling addiction as my mother experienced that same issue.

I cannot think of a film, but I did just see Miss Saigon, the musical theatre show that addresses the complexity of Vietnamese immigrants in the late 70s. Shockingly relevant in the sense of exploring the American Dream and its being warped over the years or from the very beginning, actually. I find it a bold look at the widely accepted concept of America as always being the “good guys” – especially in an age of growing oligarchy.

19 - What are you currently working on?

I have a number of poems that are in process and need my attention. But my focus is mostly on a collection of poems that detail a poignant time in my life – the conflation of my mother-in-law’s death and our home’s demolition.

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