Karla Kelsey knows a good poem when she sees one. She also knows a thing or two about writing them. Last year she published her second book, Iteration Nets, (her first book, Knowledge, Forms, the Aviary, won her the Sawtooth Poetry Prize with Ahsahta Press) and she is also the editor of  The Constant Critic. In addition, she finds time to edit Reconfigurations, an online journal of poetry and poetics, and is also on the editorial board of Tarpaulin Sky. She created Imprint Press, a project devoted to book arts, which publishes limited edition artists’ books, and is on the creative writing faculty at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania. During spring of 2011, she will be teaching at ELTE in Budapest as a Fulbright lecturer.

Recently, Karla and I found some time to talk via email about her latest book, writing and reviewing, and her experience at Denver University.

AS: Let’s talk about the premise of Iteration Nets. This work is a collection of varied forms (traditional and otherwise) of connected sonnets and prose poems. Tell me how this idea for this structure came about.

KK: The book’s improvisation with the sonnet form traces to several sources. The most immediate source was a course on the sonnet that I took while working on my PhD at Denver. Here we looked at the tradition of the English-language sonnet spanning from the first sonnets in English—which were translations of Petrarch—through the cannon, and out to radical innovations with the form such as Jen Bervin’s Nets, a text that erases Shakespeare’s sonnets. The course opened up the form for me (and, in fact, the whole idea of form), in an incredible way. I realized that, all along, the sonnet, which seemed to embody Tradition (with a capital “T”), had always been a conversation between innovation and tradition—and I wanted to participate. During this course I started working on the first section of Iteration Nets, which is composed of 19 sonnets that weave lines of other writers’ texts with loose sound translations of those lines. While working on these poems I began the second section of the book—19 prose poems which are expansions of the first poems. And then, when these two sections were absolutely complete and revised I wrote the third and last section of the book, which is an erasure of the second section. All in all the process took two or three years and spanned my time finishing graduate school in Denver and then moving to Pennsylvania, which became, itself, part of the book.

A less immediate source, and so perhaps more interesting, is my background in ballet, which I studied ardently from the age of 4 until about 18. I have always been fascinated with the creation and transmission of choreography. The result is something that we feel is fixed—and in the context of ballet we feel the result to be the epitome of tradition. But the process is continual innovation. Ballets often take their source from story, but the way the work develops is in collaboration with a composer (if temporally possible) and with the dancers themselves as the choreographer tries out different patterns, bringing the work into being through the dancers. The way choreography is disseminated is that it is brought to other companies (or brought back within the same company after years—decades—of silence) by dancers, choreographers, and directors who have performed the work before. Ballets are rarely written down, and if they are, the written text is necessarily sketch-like, only a framework. The real essence of the work resides within the bodies of the dancers and directors who have worked with the ballet and the work is passed on by showing, by doing. I feel great kinship with this compositional tradition and like to think of Iteration Nets, in its intertexutal elements, in its tensions between tradition and innovation, in its conversation with form, as a written embodiment of such a process.


Tell me about your research process for this book. What was it that inspired you in terms of voice/style, etc., in terms of influence?

Celia and Louis Zukofsky’s translation of Catullus acts as continuous inspiration for me. Their translation works to render the sound, rhythm and syntax of Catullus’s Latin into English, but also manages to pick up the sense. Engagement with their text not only delivers an unparallel sonic experience, but it also throws into question my assumptions about where meaning resides, for perhaps the anchor of meaning is this constellation of sound, rhythm, and syntax. And if one can anchor English in the same sounds, rhythms, and syntax as the Latin, the meaning then would follow, coming out of the very fibers of the language. This kind of translation is of course an impossible task, which makes it all the more exciting to me. The first section of Iteration Nets takes its engine absolutely from this process.

The other writer who continually influences me is Ronald Johnson. In Iteration Nets it is RADIOS, his erasure of Milton’s Paradise Lost that informs my work. I met Ronald Johnson’s work in one of my very first poetry-writing classes at UCLA. I was studying Paradise Lost when Stephen Yenser, my poetry teacher, brought in Johnson’s erasure. I was astounded at the way in which Johnson had created something completely different in texture and voice than the original text. While Milton’s syntactical and rhetorical work was a revelation to me in many ways, Johnson’s lyric arc was equally as revelatory. And I have always loved the fact that the Milton is there underneath—just as Zukofsky’s Catullus absolutely has Catullus’s Catullus underneath. This feels so resonant to how writing happens, to how being happens—always a palimpsest.

As you can tell from my responses, much of the book comes from reading, from being inside other texts. The path to these texts has most often been dependent on the teachers and peers I have met through writing programs, and now in a broader community of poets, many of whom I would not know about if I had not studied poetry in school. Of course there is always the complaint that writing programs might be ruining poets and poetry, and while there may be ways that this is so, I know that I would never have been able to learn about poetry without my path through higher education (and yes, I am sort of a “pure product” having done a BA with a philosophy and English double major and creative writing emphasis at UCLA, an MFA at Iowa, a PhD at Denver, and now I teach in a program at Susquehanna University that has an undergraduate creative writing major). I think I read one poem in high school (something by ee cummings, surely) and so how would I ever have been exposed to poetry without what people disdainfully call “the institutionalization of creative writing?” In the US we cart our kids to ballet and band but offer no place for poetry. I am currently in Budapest for the semester, teaching creative writing, and you probably know that not many European countries have creative writing classes or programs. But they have poets. How can this be? Well, for one, Hungarian culture includes poetry. In addition, there is a strong tradition of mentorship, wherein older poets form one-on-one relationships with younger poets, teaching them tradition and craft outside of any sort of institution. I like this idea, but it also bothers me that many of these relationships seem based on family connections—on whether or not your relatives are in the position and inclination to know people in the arts. This may be OK if your culture supports the arts and so each creative child is likely to have at least one adult to help her cultivate his or her inclinations. But, I know that in the US, many of my finest students absolutely do not have relatives interested in any of the arts whatsoever. The arts, according to such relatives, are a waste of time and money. What a shame if poetry was closed to these students, because we decided that academia was “ruining” it, and so they never read such a thing as a contemporary poem, let alone wrote one.

Your publisher, Ahsahta, published your last book, Knowledge, Forms, the Aviary. What has that experience been like?

Working with Ahsahta has been remarkable and I could not ask for a better experience. Not only is Janet Holmes a wonderful editor and promoter, but she also has endless patience and genius when it comes to typesetting. The first book has some really long lines and it is important that they not wrap, but rather span margin to margin, creating tensile space. Before she set the book I suggested to her that I would revise the lines so that they would fit into the width of the page. But instead, she was able, with that book, to make the pages wider. The willingness to do this in spite of the extra expense of both design time and money just blew my mind. Iteration Nets was even more of pain to deal with. I thought I was being smart when I wrote the second and third sections of the book using In Design because I wanted the text of the second section to literally underlie the third, which is an erasure of the second. I knew that unless I wrote the book in In Design that margins, etc, would shift, upsetting the spatial movement of the erasure. Despite my good intentions, though, Janet had to reset the whole thing because I really didn’t know what I was doing with In Design. She was enormously patient both with this task and with my endless tweaking after the text was set.

Do you find the process of finding and working with a publisher via a contest different than that of  submitting work to various places for consideration?

Both of my books have been published by Ahsahta and I felt that Janet gave just as much attention to Iteration Nets as she did to the prize-winner. And other than these books, I don’t really have the experience of submitting to various places and working with other editors except with the chapbooks, which came about in a different way. One thing I can say, though, is that winning a prize and having a book published feels like double-affirmation. Not only had Carolyn Forché liked my work enough to select it, but Ahsahta thought it worth publishing. It is really rare to feel such enormous affirmation from complete strangers, and so it was an extraordinary way to have my first book come out.

The structure of this book is of particular interest to me. I am in the process of deciphering order and structure to my first book, so I’m curious to know how you chose the compositional method used in Iteration Nets.

The structure of Iteration Nets was less of a choice, and more a consequence of process set into motion. I began with the first section of sound and translation-driven sonnets. As I worked on these poems, possible trajectories of what might come between the lines and phrases kept announcing themselves. For example, the first sonnet begins: And suddenly we were in it and it was snow. What is this “it”? Life? Love? And what about snow? So suddenly we were in the middle of love, but it is already winter, already over? I began writing the prose poems of the second section out of these trajectories, and worked on the first and second sections together. I don’t know when I had the idea of the third section. I feel as if the idea of erasure just came to me, although when I was working on the first two sections I was always aware that the book had so much density. That it needed a bit of light. This is probably why, when I came to the erasure idea it felt inevitable, that of course one proceeds by addition and then proceeds by subtraction. With both of my books the sense of texture was of primary importance in figuring out the structure of the book, although with Knowledge, Forms, the Aviary the poems were finished before I ordered the book (or, rather, they were originally in a different order). With Iteration Nets, the structure was part and parcel with composing the poems themselves. Attention to density, weight, tensility, space (etc) fundamentally creates a path through the text for readers.

Each movement is divided into three sections. First: Sonic Packet Enclosures–the notes on your process in your book say it’s derivative of Wyatt and Surrey’s 16th century rendering of Petrarch’s Italian into English—into process. What about that process inspired you?

The fact that the sonnet, in the English language, comes to us from a tradition of translation affirms for me the idea that everything we create comes from some place else. As Spicer channeled alien muses, the sonnet channels a series of formal movements and revisions. As we know so very well, there is no such thing as a perfect translation, and so in the act of moving Italian over to English Wyatt and Surrey had to improvise with the form. These innovations infuse their own sonnets and the rest of the English-language tradition. In addition, I find resonance in the fact that both poets translated many of the same sonnets, and so something like Tottel’s Miscellany, the first printed anthology of English-language poetry, in which their translations and original work appeared, had two versions of the same poem. This speaks to an openness to plurality of meaning that I think many people today would balk at.

The second movement, Riven Arc Explosions takes with it the complexities of form in the first movement and opens that up into prose poems. Your narrative expands to incorporate elements of the first movement. When you wrote Iteration Nets, was this your idea from the beginning (in terms of structure) or did it evolve as you figured out how to put all the elements of your book together?

The idea to move into prose poems in the second section came to me fairly early on in the process. Because my first book is also tripartite in structure, I think that I began the project suspecting that the Iteration Nets would also have three movements, a kind of “Turn, and Counter-turn, and Stand.” The content of the second section, however, is very much a product of life as I was living it. In this way the section evolved as I did and includes moments from lived-life: a cousin’s wedding, a grandmother’s illness, a dinner party, the exploration of a new town, a new landscape, and many other small, daily details. The process of writing the second section made me very aware of the value of the daily and I feel huge influence of, for example, Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day. Although, of course, her project is temporally circumscribed, and my project works with very different formal parameters. And so one of the challenges of working on a temporally extended project of place-based writing, and the writing of the everyday, is that your life might change in the middle of the book, as mine did, when I moved from Denver to Pennsylvania. And then, as author, you need to figure out ways in which the project can maintain integrity which is the same as asking yourself what it is about you that has remained the same, even when many of the daily aspects of your life have become completely different. We all take some sort of form or structure with us and we might call this identity. The structure of the book absolutely gave the process continuity, and I know a looser form of prose poem would have lost this.

Your third movement: Fragile Ladder Barques really focuses on fragmented structure by way of blank spaces and leaving out connective tissue of narrative. This section reminds me of Cecilia Vicuna’s style of erasure and maybe even Loy. How difficult was this portion of the book for you compared to the first two movements, if at all?

This association with Cecilia Vicuna actually helps me to explain the difference in compositional experience because making the third section of the book was very trance-like and I felt that I was in relation with language in a different way than I ever had been before. The words became very material in their location on the page and in their sound. The path that I made through the text felt more directed by the language than by me. It made the decisions and drove the poem. My job was to be as clear-headed as possible and to obey. While there is always some resonance of this as I write, the process of writing Fragile Ladder Barques absolutely made me an instrument carrying out some other plan. In many ways working on the section felt close to being part of one of Vicuna’s performances. I remember, in particular, the beginning of one of her performances in Denver. She began walking through the audience, weaving us together with red yarn while softly singing/chanting. As she made her way through us I felt inevitably connected to her and to everyone else in the room. I felt my mind channeled into the energy she was creating.


Talk about your experience at Constant Critic and how you choose the work you review there? How important is a review to the success of a book in your eyes?

On one hand, reviewing might seem to be very generous work: spending time and energy on the work of a book that somebody else has written. However, editing and writing for the Constant Critic is compelling to me in very selfish ways. First, it allows me to engage the ideas and writing of the other critics who write for the site. Jordan Davis, Ray McDaniel, Vanessa Place, and Sueyeun Juliette Lee all have wonderful minds and I have learned so much from them about poetry—and about thinking through and with poetry. So, the main reason I value working with the Constant Critic is that I get to have an on-going dialogue with these writers about writing. Nearly all of our reviews are essays that reach beyond a simple descriptive or evaluative articulation, and this is fundamental to the reason the site offers something different, and much more rare, than much of the review-based criticism being written today.

In terms of selecting books to review, I am also completely selfish in this regard. I review what I am interested in. I review what I am instantly drawn to read but can’t immediately figure out. I review work that I would love to have written, in some capacity, or that troubles me in its mode of articulation. Many people would think this to be the wrong way of going about reviewing: that one ought to select texts one has some sort of immediate authority over, or that the reviewer thinks will be important to the future. And that readers will then value the criticism because such-and-such reviewer, with such-and-such authority, has pronounced X, Y, and Z about them. I reject this notion for myself as critic. I am too skeptical about the role of the “Culture Maker” that this model implies. Also, this mode does not interface very well with the texts that I value—they eschew such authority. I am much more interested in writing and reading criticism that shows the mind at work with difficult and mysterious art—that offers an example of the kind of attention one might bring to a text—than I am interested in reading or writing criticism that pronounces or becomes didactic. I am interested in analyzing the cultural forces that institute gate-keeping, but I am not interested in a position on the patrol.

What was your experience like working for DQ with Bin Ramke? And in general? Do you feel that time as an editor for the magazine helped you have a keen eye as a reviewer? Do you feel like your own work changed as a result of that position?

While my writing and thinking absolutely changed as a result of working with Bin, the transformations and revelations were mostly due to long talks over coffee and to engaging with the community of writers who are drawn to DU for the express purpose of working with someone like Bin. However, working with him on the Denver Quarterly did teach me many things. Mostly the instruction was towards aspects of the “poetry world” such as AWP and publishing—things I knew almost nothing about. Here is an example: when I began at the Denver Quarterly I had the usual tasks of sorting and opening mail, of reading through the slush pile. Bin taught me to always paperclip submissions such that the poems were first and the letter and envelope were last—this way I could read the work for what it was, rather than through the author’s name and accomplishments. He taught me that care should be taken with all manuscripts, even the ones that were clearly (very clearly) not going to be published. As a result of this instruction, I remember distinctly feeling that the poems had value because their writers had written them and sent them off into the world and that this value was something to be honored irrespective of the quality of the work. For a young graduate student, overly-willing to dismiss work that did not align with her aesthetic or uncompromising sense of “quality” (and so young and with much to be learned), this ethic of manuscript care was something that (luckily) impressed itself upon me. I needed to learn that dismissal is easy, but the how and the why is often complex. And, imagine my joy when I read a beautiful submission that was clearly typed on a typewriter and then discovered after reading the poems several times that my suspicions were correct: I was holding Gustaf Sobin’s work in my hands. Through the slush pile. “Just” “like” “everyone” “else.” Though not really, because the poems were luminous. Brilliant. They made themselves distinct from the other work. And so, yes, each of us who makes a poem is engaged in a related act. But, also, there are poems–and there are Poems. And so which kind do you want to strive to write? Which kind do you think are worth sending out into the world, to make their own way?

Bernadette Mayer.

I know virtually nothing about her and neither does Wikipedia.  I’ve read only a small bit of her work.  I know she’s a poet and that people tend to locate her within the New York School and, more recently, among the Language Poets.  I get the sense that she’s a fringe figure.  She is not H.D. or Elizabeth Bishop or Gertrude Stein.

Details of her life are difficult to come by, most likely because it isn’t over yet.  She lives somewhere in New York, I think.

I love this picture of her as a young woman; I don’t know why.  She looks slightly unhinged.

More importantly (at least for my purposes), Mayer also composed a widely available and seriously creative list of journal ideas and writing experiments, which you can see here.  The list is an open secret, and despite an embarrassment of books, websites, and writers in general itching to advise others on the best way to get a cursor moving, this list is the best collection of writing prompts I have ever seen.

“Everyday Machinery” comes from one of Mayer’s prompts.  I keep saying it to myself in my head.  And looking around.  And saying it in my head again.  I can’t get over it.  It’s a mantra.

In my return to writing after a long hiatus, I discovered that, of all the things that had atrophied, my willingness to let myself experiment was the only thing that didn’t come bounding back.  If my ear, my voice, my vocabulary, and my technical skills startled awake and lept to their feet ready for a fight (drunken master, maybe, but ready to fight nonetheless), my sense of creative possibility was hung over–pulling the shades against the birds, hurling invectives and nightstand junk at me as I shouted from the doorway to GET. THE. FUCK. UP.

So I did the only thing I could think to do.  I dug out Bernadette’s list.

I have trouble sorting out what’s so appealing about it.  I have had more than a few writing how-to books–though many had the obnoxious habit of considering themselves writing companions.  (I‘m not your buddy, Guy!)

All of these books had sections devoted to writing prompts.

When it came to those books, I was the writerly equivalent of a kid in summer, turning to my mother for ideas about what to do.

We all know, or should know, to never, EVER ask Mom what to do.  Because Mom will not say, “Why don’t you go bounce a baseball off the aluminum siding?  Why don’t you go jump out of the tree so you can break your leg, go to the hospital, and get presents?  Why don’t you steal some matches when I’m not looking and go light things on fire in the woods?”

Mom will never say anything cool.  Mom will always say you could go clean your room or brush the dog.

Which, theoretically, you could or even should do, and it would be something, but Mom never seems to understand that those things are boring, too.

It’s not just about doing something, it’s about doing something fun.

So it is with a solid majority of writers’ handbooks and companions.  They’re boring, matronly cohorts who just want to sit around and do repulsively dull things all day:

“I know you need to get out of the house, how about we go out to eat?!?! Bakers Square!!”

“I could use some help sorting my pantry!”

“Write a description of the room you’re in!”

I can’t tell you, specifically, what some of the most revolting prompts in the books were because, in a fit, I got rid of most the books.  I found them practically useless, uninspiring, not very challenging, and generally depressing.  I donated one to my English department’s undergraduate literary journal for use in helping them conduct poetry workshops…which, in hindsight, was probably an act of hostility, if not sabotage.

Sometimes the problem was the overbearing detail with which prompts were presented:

“In this chapter, we will work on _______.  Here are some prompts focusing on _______.  Write with ______ in mind.”

In other cases, the prompt was simply nothing a person wouldn’t think to do on his/her own and obvious enough to be of no help to anyone.  The ubiquitous “dream journal” prompt is a good example.

Perhaps it’s best not to focus on the faults of the writing companion industry.  Maybe it’s better to try to suss out what is compelling about Mayer’s list.

Though Mayer’s list does include the suggestion of a dream journal in more than one place, what it does not have is an entire chapter–complete with instructions on where in your bedroom to set your notebook–on dream-journaling.  Additionally, it contains a prompt that involves day-dreaming and dreaming in every sense of the word, including aspriations, short and long-term goals, pipe dreams, etc.

Under the suggestion to “Write the unwriteable,” she offers the example, “Write an index.”  I have no idea what this means.  I’ve seen all kinds of written indices.  What is going on?  What kind of index would be unwriteable?  Like a cross-reference?  Write a cross-reference?  Of what?

On and on in this manner, Mayer’s prompts range from simple to elaborate and from straightforward to high-theory. They are numerous; they are open to interpretation; they come in both long and short-term.  There are suggestions for both prose and poetry (fiction and non) and for both the very odd and the very formal.  They can be combined or reduced.  One size fits most.

The list in and of itself gives the sense of having been composed with relative spontaneity and potentially even in one sitting, in a free-associative way, with little self-editing and no attempt to explain itself or what each prompt is intended to do or generate.  Compared to the formally structured and professionally edited and packaged tendencies of most writing manuals and companions, Mayer’s list seems far more conducive to the state of mind most writers would prefer to be in when they are suffering a dearth of their own ideas.  As one might expect from a Language poet’s product,  the list is elicitive rather than instructive or declarative, making it potentially the single (most) productive application of LangPo theory I have seen.

(I kid!  I kid!)

In that way, what is best about Mayer’s list is that it is organic and cooperative.  It encourages organic writing and it seems to stem from organic writing–from Mayer’s own genuine tendencies rather than a spirit of punditry.  It is a study in meta-functionality; I think there is a good chance that this list was originally a writing exercise in and of itself.  It generated a written product, and here I am reviewing it, generating a written product about generating written products.

But a review was not my intent.  I have shared this list with a couple of other writer friends and was surprised to find that very few people have heard of it.  I can’t say that it’s one-of-a-kind; there may be other lists out there like it.  Some may be just as good or even better.  But this is the one I know about, and it raises interesting questions about how we, as writers, exercise (as in practice or “do”) our talents.  At some point, it seems to me, if you’re doing all the same exercises all the time, you should expect to become a caricature of natural human form.

Stiff, like the greased-up body-builder guys.  All the strength of Hercules but comically incapable of wiping your own ass.

I want to be able to wipe my own ass.

Everyone is different.  There is nothing worth denying in that statement.  But if, like me, you ever get sick of your own voice or your own ideas or, worse, you don’t have any ideas at all, I offer Mayer’s list as a resource.

For my part, I’m making an investment.  I don’t consider myself a particularly experimental writer, so this could be painful.  But I do bore easily, and boredom quickly gives way to creative lethargy.  So, for a few months (or until I get sick of it), I will let Mayer’s list serve as a tortuous Safety Dance-at-high-volume–an intentional rattling of pans, whirring of the coffee grinder, flushing of the toilet, running of the microwave and leaving it to beep, bounding up (and thundering down) stairs.  When it comes to rousting my reticent sense of creative adventure, I will make getting up easier than staying in bed.