An Interview with Collin Kelley

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For this month’s Poetry Feature, we’re joined by poet and novelist, Collin Kelley, who was kind enough to answer some questions about his publications, his writing process, and of course, superheroes.

Thanks for joining us! I really like the dark humor in your work, especially in I Should Be So Lucky. What do you see as the value and/or risk of humor in literature, especially poetry?

Collin: If a poem can make you laugh, I think it’s a successful poem. If you want a laugh or chuckle read Denise Duhamel (and her collaborations with Maureen Seaton), Wanda Coleman, Heather McHugh, Barbara Hamby, Frank O’Hara, James Tate, Billy Collins and David Kirby. Poetry doesn’t always have to be angsty and full of gravitas. In my case, I like a little sex and profanity mixed with my humor, so my work often leans in that direction. I like to make people laugh and also make them a little uncomfortable. I wish poets would take more risks like that.

I like your statement about the need for poets to take risks. Can you differentiate between “good” and “bad” forms of risk in writing? Put another way, do you have any personal rules about breaking rules?

C: When I first started writing poetry and having poems published, I was careful not to mention names or use specific pronouns. I steered away from sex and kept the language fairly clean. As my voice and confidence grew, I knew I had to break free of the rules I was imposing upon myself. The rules were stifling the work. Many poets don’t want to admit that the “I” in a poem is actually them, but rather make it some nebulous speaker. I take full ownership of the “I” in my work. I use real names, I write about real scenarios and moments from my life and if the poem needs sex or profanity, I’m not afraid to go there. Of course, this isn’t diary evacuation we’re talking about, so it’s not like I’m revealing all my inner or secrets or those of my friends, family or former lovers. You can break rules and taboos and still keep a little mystery, too. When I sit down to write a poem, I don’t think about rules but whether or not I’m reaching a truth and whether this personal experience translates well enough for a stranger to understand and empathize.

I saw that your debut poetry collection, Better to Travel, is being reissued. Congrats! Tell us a little about that.

C: Better to Travel was originally self-published in 2003 against the advice of many fellow poets. I was told it would never sell, never get reviewed, never be taken seriously and I would never get a traditional press to give me a second look. I’m happy to say that the opposite of all those things happened. In the intervening dozen years, as my voice matured, I’ve wanted to polish up a few of the poems – mainly cleaning up linebreaks and tightening some of the language. Poetry Atlanta Press gave me the opportunity to do that, and I’m happy this “director’s cut” will be available in September.

You’re also a novelist and short story writer. Can you talk about how your process for writing and/or editing prose differs from your process with poetry?

C: I’ve come to embrace and trust the outline when writing prose. When I was working on the novel that’s coming out next year, I veered off that outline and it put me on a torturous three-month detour. Once I got back on the outline, the novel was finished in a matter of weeks. I always consider the first draft of a poem as a kind of outline, too. I stay true to the intent or inspiration behind the poem, but I add or subtract language as necessary. There’s a poem in Render called “Knoxville: Summer, 1982” that began as a dense, page-long prose poem. In the final draft, it became a sparse series of quatrains. It’s still the same poem, just boiled down to its essence.

What first got you interested in writing? Was there a different catalyst that sparked your interest in different genres?

C: My parents taught me to read at a very early age. By the time I was in first grade, I had read all of the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mystery books. I’ve been an insatiable reader ever since and I knew from a very early age that writing was the only thing I wanted to do with my life. I began my writing career as a journalist (I’m still a magazine editor by day) and that evolved into poetry, short stories, plays and eventually novels. I basically wanted to be Margaret Atwood or Alice Walker, because they so move between genres so deftly with skill and beauty. My literary idols are a disparate bunch: Anne Sexton, Walt Whitman, Ray Bradbury, Don DeLillo, John Irving, Isabel Allende, Henry James to name a few. I’m a wanton reader.

Any new projects you’re working on?

C: Leaving Paris, the final novel in The Venus Trilogy, will be out in early 2016, so I’m in editing stage with Sibling Rivalry Press. It’s been a long road to get these three novels (the other two are called Conquering Venus and Remain In Light) in front of readers, so I’m going to take a little break after that. A tiny one. Then it’s on to corralling the next poetry collection.

Random, totally non-academic question: who’s your favorite superhero, and why?

C: Wonder Woman. I’m of a certain age where I remember her first from the comics and cartoons, then the one-off movie with Cathy Lee Crosby and, of course, Lynda Carter. I think her story arc and development in the comics has made her the most interesting superhero we have. Whether she’s fighting the Nazis in her original iterations or now in her divine, God of War state, she’s remained true to her principals while kicking serious ass. She’s the only thing that will get me into the cinema to see that Superman vs. Batman schlock coming out next year. That will probably piss a few people off. Oh, well. Come for me, nerds.

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About Author

Michael Meyerhofer’s third book, Damnatio Memoriae, won the Brick Road Poetry Book Contest. His previous books are Blue Collar Eulogies (Steel Toe Books) and Leaving Iowa (winner of the Liam Rector First Book Award). He has also won the James Wright Poetry Award, the Laureate Prize, the Annie Finch Prize for Poetry, the Marjorie J. Wilson Best Poem Contest, and five chapbook prizes. His work has appeared in Ploughshares, North American Review, Arts & Letters, River Styx, Quick Fiction and other journals, and can be read online at his website.

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