Author Tina Kelley discusses her joy of writing poetry, motherhood, her latest book “Abloom & Awry“, and takes aim at President Trump.
Read Tina Kelley’s full interview with Nin Andrews below.
Nin Andrews (NA): I love what I sensed as your joie de vivre, or your joy of writing, expressed to beautifully in this collection, and in your opening poem, “The Possible Utility of Poets.”
I especially loved the lines in which you quote your son: “The earth blooms a full inch when my son/explains, ‘A noun is basically everything. We can’t go anywhere without nouns.// They’re always next to us,’”
I wondered if you could say a few words about that poem, about your love of language and of poetry in particular.
Tina Kelley (TK): Thank you! I’m glad you sensed that! I am basically a cheerful, optimistic person, though I have a morbid streak, and I hope this book captures both angles. I love obscure words, and read through lists of them as a way to get inspired to write. I also steal shamelessly from real life, particularly from my experiences writing news and nonfiction, and especially from my kids. My son actually said that line, and I wrote it down. He’s gotten to the point where he will say something poetic and immediately urge me to write it down. He’s 12 now, and he still comes up with beautiful turns of phrases. The other day he told me I had “heathered eyes,” which I immediately stole and put in the file of “phrases that want to be in poems someday.”
RELATED: Abloom & Awry by Tina Kelley available now!
NA: I also admire your ironic poem about being a reporter, “On Leaving the Newsroom.” Could you talk a little bit about the relationship between poetry and journalism? Are you still a reporter?
TK: I’m still a reporter, though not at a daily newspaper. I left The New York Times in 2009 to write Almost Home: Helping Kids Move from Homelessness to Hope, about kids helped by Covenant House, the nation’s largest charity serving homeless youth. I still do nonfiction writing, and interviewing, and reporting. Journalism feeds my poems on a daily basis. It is a perfect career for a poet, in that you have to go out and learn for a living, experience new things, obey deadlines, even self-imposed ones, and talk to people you wouldn’t usually talk to – so much material! I also found the skills required for writing poems were very handy in journalism – being concise, knowing what is new and interesting, being able to pick out a telling detail. It has been a symbiotic combination of careers.
NA: Some of my favorite poems in the book are mother-poems, such as “The Last Christmas My Daughter Won’t Know about Sex” and “Tuesday Afternoon Metaphysics Lesson” and “Drew’s Abject Love of Dinosaurs.” I was wondering if we could post one of those here.
NA: How has being a mother influenced your poetry?
TK: An editor told me having a child is like letting your heart run around in another person’s body, susceptible to all kinds of breakage. That vulnerability, that disaster could strike these creatures I love so much, must have had an effect on my poetry. When my kids were born I went through a very fertile period, finding inspiration everywhere, with many post-it notes around our house full of phrases or lines they had inspired. The fresh way children talk and look at the world is so rich, and I steal from them shamelessly. But I’ve stolen lines from my dad and husband as well.
NA: I am always interested in book titles. When did you know that this was the title for your book?
TK: The title poem won the New Jersey Poets Prize in 2014, so it was dear to me, and it draws together the theme of the book, that there is wonder to be found in the ways the world blooms and flourishes, and in the way it gets totally screwed up and decays, and both facets inspire awe and deserve praise. At an earlier incarnation the book was actually called “At the Opening of the Circle,” but the poem that line appeared in got kicked out of the manuscript.
NA: In your poem, “National Oblivion Awareness Day,” you beautifully encapsulate the feelings of loss and grief. Could you say a few words about the writing of that poem? And about the title of the poem?
TK: Thanks! As for the title, I had to look that up. In December 2010 I was writing for Covenant House, a charity fighting youth homelessness, and was reading through a comprehensive list of national fill-in-the-blank days, weeks and months, to see if I should be writing about National Homeless Awareness Month, or National Human Trafficking Victims’ Week. By the time I reached November on the list, I got sick of it all and wished for National Oblivion Awareness Day. This was relatively soon after my father passed away, and most of the lines are tidbits of truth — I didn’t make the plaster cast holding hands with my second child, the way I did with my first, there were unopened candy molds at the end of my first marriage, a symbol of a kind of fun that we’d never had and never would have together, and I still haven’t found the letters my dad wrote for me to read after he died.
NA: Who are your literary role models? Were you encouraged and/or guided by other poets when writing this collection?
TK: I am entranced by Pattiann Rogers’ poetry, and am a huge fan of people who are often ecstatic yet accessible: Rumi, Milton, Whitman, Donald Wagoner, Ed Hirsch, Billy Collins, D. Nurkse, Bob Hicok, Susan Blackwell Ramsey, Martha Silano and Judith Skillman. Some have been kind with blurbs or granting interviews for articles I’ve written about poetry, some have been kind about reading and making suggestions about drafts. My uncle, Tom Benediktsson, a gifted poet, and his wife Lynn are two of my first readers.
NA: When do you write? Do you have any writing rituals? Secrets?
TK: When the kids were young, I’d write whenever I could carve out an hour or two when I wasn’t on kid duty. My husband was great about freeing up my time. I have enough writing groups (three!) that I usually have a deadline for one of them, and lately I figure if I’m having a bad nonfiction day, I can declare it a poetry day and feel like I’m still earning my place on the planet. I have a file on my computer where I throw everything that might want to be in a poem someday – misheard song lyrics, anecdotes, new words, insights from friends, paragraphs from Science Times, you name it. That’s my palette and I need it in order to write. Usually a few of the most recent items will rub together randomly and form a spark or two. If I had to write a poem with just a pen and blank piece of paper, I doubt I could do it. And things always go better if I’ve gone for my morning run, or at least gotten some time on the exercise bike.
NA: I was so moved by the hymn at the end of the book. And the title poem, “Abloom & Awry.” I wondered if you had a spiritual practice or faith that has influenced your poetry? I was raised Episcopalian and still go to church. Ecclesiastical music, the language of the King James Version of the Bible, and the Book of Common Prayer have influenced me greatly. I love my denomination for the way it pushes the envelope, (ordaining women and gay people early on), welcomes all, and works for social justice. I also get great comfort and inspiration from time I spend in nature.
NA: Have you been able to write since Trump was elected? Has his election impacted your work?
TK: I have been more prolific since the election, because I’m trying to write a poem a week. I was very sad when Hillary lost (the electoral college vote), in that I voted with my daughter, and we were so excited about what we thought the result would be. I don’t see my values reflected in the current administration. I loved Clinton’s ideas for helping people like home health aides and other invisible populations that have experienced great injustice. I loved Obama for his calm wisdom, his brains, his idealism, his ethics, and the way he personified a more inclusive, just society.
Since November, I’ve written a poem about the Statue of Liberty moving to Canada in disgust, and others that express my sadness about the severe distrust of newspaper reporters, and truth in general, which Trump has encouraged. I read “On Leaving the Newsroom” at the first book-related event for Abloom & Awry, and I was reminded of the nobility of news gatherers. Our entire careers relied on us getting it right, on NEVER lying. Our product was useless if we cut corners or told fibs, so it virtually never happened. We had to triple-check everything; four sets of eyeballs worked hard on every story. For the president to talk about the press as the enemy of the state is sacrilege to me. The republic relies on a free press.
I feel like we’ve handed over an intricate, hand-made antique treasure to a careless, lying child. I love our country deeply, and hope we can retain our integrity and our care for the less fortunate for the next four years.
NA: I thought maybe we would close the interview with a poem, or an excerpt from a poem, of your choice.
T.K: Sure! How about “Yawp” or “Music is an Underground River That Needs to Be Discovered”?
Read “Music is an Underground River that Needs to be Discovered” by Philip Glass below.
The tune swallows its tail, a rich soundtrack for a movie of me sculling,
though I’ve never tried rowing, never wanted to. The anthem drove me
to work, started that overdue crying fit, formed the bass line to joy, or
proclaimed that no one would keep me down for long. Not the monotonous
brainworm, ricketytick banjo, or ballad conjuring bus tourists. Yes the milk-smooth
chant of the glee club, stately harmonies, progressions soaring: the song of my breath
when it smells cleanest, my fingerprint in good work. I fell down the well and found it,
strong current. The notes swoop from yellow to green, fold in, flowing. I hear the tune
again the next day, mistake it for an oldie, just as I recognized you when we first met.
It jumpstarts my pulse, puts the swing in my hips, gets me through chores. Music syrups
over a scene and reaches spots I couldn’t touch with bland, silent words. Listen to the sounds
produced by the body – I know the word for that, auscultation. Listen as closely to wind,
wood thrushes, first evening star’s less-than-plink, seismic motion, bell towers.
And a new favorite song will say once again: yes, this is my life.
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