Today, I have the incredible honor of self interviewing a most interesting guest here at The Nervous Breakdown….Karen Kelsay.
Thank you! I’m so pleased to be here.
Karen, where did you grow up and did your childhood experiences shape your poetry in any way?
When I was six, my family moved to the city of Orange, which is very close to Anaheim, California. As a child I spent a lot of time at Disneyland and often found myself daydreaming about hiding out at Tom Sawyer’s Island, then swimming across the water to spend the night in the Swiss Family Robinson tree house. My head was filled with Disney movies, I knew all the words to every song…I really wanted to be Hayley Mills (maybe that’s why I married an Englishman).
Although I knew those tiny houses on Main Street weren’t real, I loved imagining they were. At age ten, I actually jumped out of a car inside Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, just to be part of the scenery and soak up the experience. I broke my arm in the process! It was my birthday. That’s when I realized those brightly colored props were actually made of wood and metal.
That same type of escapism has colored my writing, and in the past, I have been accused of producing poetry that is not realistic or relevant enough. Over the years it has developed into something that contains a little more realism, with fewer traces of fantasy…maybe like Tinker Bell hosting a National Geographic documentary.
Here is an example of a poem from my new book, which I feel has both elements. I love it because of the simplistic topic and the beauty of the words.
The Courtship Hour
I love the hour that hangs its weightless haze
of yawn across my bed. An ivory wrap
of humming stillness, spectral dance embossed
in thimble-light. I love the wentletrap
of thoughts and gurgled chants that twist before
white shoals of sleep. The bend and blur of night
with loveliness and brokenness inside
soft vagaries that pivot in the light.
I love the hour subservient to dreams,
when day’s satiety leaves remnant sky.
And all beheaded moments shed their wings
into a hushed reluctance as they die.
You have a new book out now, what’s that all about?
Yes, ‘Amytis Leaves Her Garden.’ It’s comprised of free verse and formalist poetry; the poems are primarily narratives. We visit my husband’s family in England each year, and I usually write several poems that have been inspired by the scenery. I enjoy finding new types of flowers and plants on our walks, looking at cathedrals, taking photographs of the villages. Also, as a kid I grew up spending weekends on a boat, therefore, palm trees and beach scenes often find their way into my verses. The book has an eclectic group of fifty poems.
What about that name, Amytis?
The title is from a poem published a few years ago in The Flea, called ‘Amytis Leaves Her Garden,’ about Amytis of Media, and The Hanging Gardens of Babylon. The entire book is a metaphor for leaving my earlier fairytale type of poetry behind and venturing out into more solid subjects. As the book advances, the mood changes slightly and starts to incorporate a darker tone.
The Drive, was written about a weekend I spent at my parents home. My Mom was scheduled for surgery and we left at dawn to get to the hospital. I was in the back looking out the window, remembering all the family trips we used to take. It felt strange having both parents in the front, and there I was, quietly sitting in the back seat as they made their way to the hospital. I imagined I was a kid again, for just a short period of time.
I’m riding in the backseat of the car.
The mountains lift their blue chemise of cloud,
while predawn haze stirs quietly. Bizarre,
how palms along the roadside all look bowed
beneath the desert air. Last night it rained—
mesquites are yellow as a slice of sun.
My parents are in front—I’m self-contained,
my young mind on vacation, watching one
by one, as fresh-washed stars depart. It’s been
near forty years since I’ve been in this seat.
I fold my hands, pretend I’m young again—
not heading to the hospital to meet
white gowns that blend and morph into each other.
My parents chatter on—and I am blind
to fates that whirl and storm above my mother.
This morning I’m the girl time left behind.
Is it difficult to find an audience for this type of poetry?
Well, it definitely has its own place in the world. Not, I suspect based on the quality of the writing, but because it is not a good fit. Some of the journals reject it, but more and more, it’s being placed alongside free verse as well as formalist poetry in some nice venues. It provides a balance to the edgier poetry. I love journals that embrace several styles, it helps attract a wider range of readership.
Can you give us an example of your free verse?
Sure, I wrote free verse for a few years and then switched back to rhyme not too long ago. I find that free verse is harder for me to write. I struggle without rules.
We sit near the stream edge, under the pine’s
brittle fingers. Our collective breath
drapes between low branches
like a foggy sheet across autumn’s arms.
You spot a black bear in the distance;
I marvel how a sky so blue
can be so cold. Daylight has become
brief, the valley blurred into a ribbon
of frayed leaves. At dusk I see
Denali’s shadow from my balcony,
moose eat fuchsias by the backyard deck.
Stalks of rhubarb bend
and twist to earth, breathing
a chilly sigh. No matter how many
winters I greet, this place
will always seem foreign to me.
Everything lies exposed, the beauty
is too vast. God is too near.
When you aren’t writing poetry you’re publishing it for other people, is that correct?
Yes, I have been busy this past year! I’ve created four imprint companies and they are all thriving. Kelsay Books averages three book releases a month. The submissions are building every day, and I am enjoying a new period of my life, concentrating on my publishing business.
Doesn’t that bother you, working on other people’s poetry and not your own?
It can. I have lost a lot of the inspiration that used to just pop into my head. I try to think of this as a period of growth and adjustment for me. I am constantly reading and doing layout work, dealing with other poets and their preferences. It’s a great learning experience.
How long have you been writing?
Compared to most poets, I have not been writing very long at all. I developed a love for poetry about 15 years ago, and I didn’t get serious about it until six years ago. I would have never guessed I would be doing this. I think it proves that we all have creative areas we can explore, no matter what stage in life we are at. I get manuscripts from eighty year-old women, and find it interesting and encouraging to read about their childhoods, and where they came from. It inspires me when I hear about older women doing readings, they are wonderful role models to me.
Do you ever write light verse?
I do, but it doesn’t always work for me, one in five poems may turn out to be printable. I have a great sense of humor, but light verse really is difficult to pull off. I admire some of the poets that do it well. This year I’ve have had the privilege to publish Gail White and Peter Austin. I’m hoping some of their talent will rub off on me.
How many poems have you written this year?
I think I have averaged about one poem every other month! For the first time in my life I have started poems and left them half finished, because they just lost their “essence.” I’m going to England in a while to have a little holiday, winding the book business down and taking a nice break, maybe I will get inspired. Unfortunately, my best poetry comes out when I’m sad or unhappy. Lately I have been busy and fairly happy, except for the fact that I’m having a dry spell with my writing.
Well it’s been great talking to you, Karen. Sorry we have to cut this short. Keep trying to write in your spare time. Go relax a little, and search for inspiration.
Thank you, for the interview. I’m planning to slow down and do some traveling next year. And I look forward to doing more writing in the future. Thanks for the interview. You ask great questions, by the way!