Karen Kelsay’s Light Touch: An Interview

Poet Karen Kelsay has been on my radar since Th. pointed me her direction eighteen months or so ago in conjunction with my work on Fire in the Pasture: 21st Century Mormon Poets. She’s got an exquisite voice and her lyric is grounded in both its formal features and content that centers on making connections among individuals, generations, nature, memories.

But I’m getting ahead of myself—I’ll save my review of Karen’s work for a day in the not-so-distant future. Today it’s time for a little Q & A with Karen, Pushcart-nominated poet, journal editor extraordinaire, and virtual friend. She has been the featured poet in The New Formalist and Unfettered Verse: A Journal of Poetry, has made frequent appearances at Wilderness Interface Zone, and has two collections of poetry that occasion this interview: Dove on a Church Bench, which was released in April by Punkin Books, and Lavender Song, which will be released later this month by Fortunate Childe Press.

What follows is the result of a back-and-forth Karen and I shared via email over the past month or so. I want to thank her especially for humoring my string of follow-up questions!


First of all, why did you choose to write poetry?

Fifteen years ago I was trying to think of a unique gift for my brother’s birthday. I decided to write a poem about our childhood experiences on the family boat, and described a trip to Catalina. He seemed quite amused with the sentiment, and kept it in his son’s room for several years. After that I began writing a few poems here and there—frankly, I had no idea what I was doing. It wasn’t until I became seriously interested in poetry, five years ago, that I discovered how inconsistent my meter was and the overwhelming fact that all my poems up to that point were, well, awful.

Had you written poetry before this?

No. I didn’t read it either.

What prompted you to deepen your interest in poetry and how did you pursue this interest? In other words, how did you begin to develop your craft?

My husband read a poem of mine for a church event and it was well-received. Up until that point I had about ten poems under my belt. So I placed a long love poem, complete with archaic language, disastrous meter and poor rhymes on a poetry board (the nastiest one around, I’m told), and anxiously waited for my critique. They took my 20 verse poem apart line-by-line, using terms that I couldn’t even understand. I almost had a heart attack. After about six months of brooding, I decided to study poetry seriously—for me that meant jumping back to the poetry boards and letting them critique more of my work. It’s a painful process, but I have learned quite a bit in four years. I spend almost forty hours a week involved in poetry-related projects, aside from my full-time job in the “real world.”

When did you begin calling yourself a poet?

After two years of writing, I finally got up the courage to send out some poetry for consideration. I mailed poems out to five journals—it was about a month’s wait and all the notices came back to me in the same week. Three-out-of-five magazines accepted my work. I was so excited—I think at that point I believed I had potential, but didn’t actually call myself a poet until I had my first chapbook published a year later.

What gave you the courage to start submitting poems?

I had a friend who started submitting her poems to magazines, and she encouraged me to do the same. I followed her lead. We have a similar style, so many of the journals that accepted her poetry were open to publishing my work.

Who/what are your major poetic influences?

I still read some traditional poetry—including Poe and Tennyson. But I try to read as much contemporary poetry as I have time for. Some of my favorites are Jane Kenyon, Gjertrud Schnackenberg, Dana Gioia, Denise Levertov, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, Kimberly Johnson, and William Carlos Williams. My house is filled with poetry books; I have a big problem parting with them.

Of these poets, who has had the greatest, most lasting impact on your writing? Also, what draws you to a poet’s work? For instance, I know you recently discovered Kim Johnson (who is one of my lasting poet crushes). What was it that first struck you about Kim’s poetry?

I was completely captivated by Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” when I first read it and I still love to use that rhyme scheme (ABBA) whenever I can, so that made an impact. Jane Kenyon is another that I enjoy reading; her work is heartfelt and honest. Kim Johnson: I was impressed by that fact that her poetry is quite sophisticated and yet spiritually inclined. One of my favorites is “Ode on my Belly Button.” I think seeing Kim’s poetry become so universally accepted has been a great inspiration to me. [As for greatest poetic influences,] I don’t think I can point to anyone in particular, but perhaps each one of these poets has influenced me in some way.

It seems to me you’re a fairly prolific writer, with poems published all over and a number of chapbooks and collections to your name. Will you walk me through your writing process—from a poem’s conception to its publication?

Often the first line comes into my head from nowhere and I build on it. Those poems are effortless and need very little editing when they are finished. I consider them a gift. But that is not the norm for me, unfortunately. Most of the time I have to shut myself into a room and start reading or writing, hoping I can come up with a few ideas. I have always had problems with concentration and I need complete solitude and silence when I write. That limits me to evenings and weekends. Sometimes little interactions with people during the day that make an impact on me turn into wonderful poems. My family’s quirks make great subjects for light verse—the cats included.

After I write a poem I post it on an online workshop or a poetry site and let them critique it. I’m famous for missing little things, so I appreciate comments and observations from other poets. When I feel the poem is right, then it’s submitted to a journal. After I have 25 or more published poems I will send them to be considered for a small chapbook. If I have 60 or more, I will make a larger manuscript and mail it off and hope someone will accept it for a book.

You mention your need for solitude—which is something to which I think many writers can relate—yet, so many of your poems seem to be about connecting with others. How does your need for solitude relate to and even inform your drive to connect, to build relationships?

I think I am a rather complex person. I come from a family that is uncomfortable with “feelings” and I tend to be emotionally reserved (maybe that’s why I married a Brit), yet many of my poems are about relationships and the complexities that evolve from them. I’m the same with nature: I write about lovely scenes, yet I cringe at the thought of walking down a dusty path for the sake of being outdoors. I have developed a healthy balance with solitude. Now that my children are gone and the house is quiet, my husband and I have our little hobbies to keep us content. I have plenty of writing time these days.

You also mention that you’re a member of an online writing group. How have your interactions with this group shaped your approach to writing and revision? And because I’m curious: how do you judge a poem’s level of completion?

Yes, I believe poetry boards can be very helpful, but one needs the right temperament and personality to hang in there and not be discouraged by aggressive critiques. The friends I know that have grown the most over the years have stayed actively involved with some type of workshop. Some of the best critiques are given by poets that don’t write in styles that I appreciate. It’s hit-and-miss as far as applying what has been said. At some point I have to draw the line, stop revising, and learn when the poem is going the wrong direction. Putting it aside for a few weeks helps.

What do you consider your major responsibility as a poet?

I have personal guidelines that I follow regarding content. For the most part, I tend to write mainstream poetry. I was converted into the LDS church 17 years ago. Prior to that, I had been raised a Seventh Day Adventist, then joined the Baptist church, and later the Unitarian Church. My favorite types of poems to write are formal verse in a lyrical style. However, I try to keep up with my free verse, and although I like considering myself a formalist poet, the truth is, I’m quite versatile.

If you don’t mind sharing: what are some of the guidelines you’ve set for yourself regarding content?

I don’t use swear words and try to stay away from creating images that are not in compliance with our church standards.

As you write, do you feel some degree of obligation to poetic forms? To language? To an audience?

I’m torn between formal and free verse. I learned form first, which may have been the harder path, but now my free verse has a lyrical element that I appreciate. I started the magazine [Victorian Violet Press] to give formal work a place to land; I want to further good formal poetry. I hope my audience likes what I like, so I don’t incorporate work that is too far outside my own personal taste. I try not to lose my own “voice” when I write, regardless of it being a tender poem or a satirical poem.

Speaking of your desire to “further formal poetry,” you have a collection of formal verse coming out this month titled Lavender Song. Tell me a little about this collection–for instance, how you feel about it, how it came into being, where you feel it fits within your body of work and within the field of contemporary American poetry.

I’m still finding my way with formal verse, trying to establish my voice. I swing between “everyday talk” and a lyrical voice, depending on my mood and where I want to submit the work. Lavender Song is a set of 45 poems, and half of them have come out of Dove on a Church Bench, which is a mixture of free verse and formal poems. Fortunate Childe Publications, a small publisher known for creating beautiful books, will be publishing it later this month. I think this is my best formalist work to date. So I am very happy having it all put together in one collection.

What do you consider your major responsibility as the editor of a poetry journal?

When I first started the magazine, my goal was to blend free verse poetry with formal poetry with the hopes of creating a wider readership. I formed two sections, one for each. As the magazine evolved and I discovered the commonalities in the poetry I chose to publish, as well as the diverse set of people that I accepted it from, I decided it would be nice to seek out some mainstream LDS writers to include. We are told that music reaches everyone through the Spirit, and I believe that all art has the ability to transcend across differences. The magazine’s goal is to publish any artist (vocalist, painter, photographer, musician) who has a spiritual element to their work.

What kind of readership did you envision for Victorian Violet? How has that vision evolved? You point to the diverse group of people from whom you accepted poems–has this diversity informed your vision for the journal and your relationship to poetry in general?

Getting to know some of the poets on a casual basis who contribute to the magazine has helped me become aware of their various backgrounds and religions. It is interesting to me that I choose poems that reflect hope. Some of the writers are atheists, Jewish, Catholic, LDS–whatever they are, they seem to appreciate life and their poetry has a common element that I feel is uplifting in some way. My vision for the journal is to help writers, vocalists, photographers and musicians in their efforts to further their craft, while creating a wider readership for the magazine.

How (if at all) does your connection to Mormonism inform your reasons for writing poetry? And how (if at all) does this connection inform what you write about and the language and imagery with which you write about it?

A large portion of my work includes images of nature, trees, flowers, birds. Ironically, I am not a nature person. I was raised in Orange County, California. We drove everywhere, and my idea of fun was a day at the shopping center. I can’t tell an oak from a walnut tree. My husband’s family lives in England and after years of traveling over there, and being forced to walk through the countryside at a snail’s pace, I have actually started to enjoy walking. Many of my nature poems include scenes from the British countryside. I don’t think my religion influences my reasons for writing, but I do justify all my hours at the computer by telling myself I am developing my talent.

Could you elaborate on how your use of natural imagery is informed by your connection to Mormonism?

There definitely is a spiritual aspect to my poetry, and I think it comes, in part, from an appreciation for the beauty in the world around me. When I joined the LDS church I began to explore the concept of all things being created spiritually before they were formed physically. There is a familiar aspect to nature that I recognize and connect with in some innate way, even though I don’t have much knowledge of it. When I write formal poetry I become more descriptive and detailed about that imagery. Writing about beauty becomes an affirmation to me of the existence of a Heavenly Father, one who has given us this world for our enjoyment, with its neverending variety of colors and textures–a world that has often been a catalyst of inspiration for artists throughout the ages.

In the title poem of your latest collection, Dove on a Church Bench, you focus on what I read as a very “familiar” Mormon ritual—the passing and receiving of the sacrament—and you mention another—the formal blessing of little children. Since you’ve in part re-created the “sacramental hour” in your poem and placed that poem as the centerpiece of your collection, do you think these rituals, which are intended to bind us to God and to our kin, relate to the making and the sharing of poetry? If so, how?

I sometimes let my religion spill into my verse, but when I do, I prefer to use metaphors and symbols as backdrop for a story or to enhance the mood—it’s never intended to be “in-your-face didactic poetry.” I enjoy the architecture of cathedrals and stained glass scenes above the pulpit. In “La Sierra 1946 [1942]” I found myself dwelling on the fact that my mother was praying in the little chapel every day, and there she developed the spiritual strength she needed as a young woman. When I wrote “Dove on a Church Bench” I focused on the differences between outsiders and members—and how an unkempt child was perhaps the real dove in Heavenly Father’s eyes. I like rituals; they are comforting and remind us of the past without turning a poem into something too sentimental.

Do you see a connection between poetry and ritual, especially in formal verse where the language is more ritualized than in, say, free verse?

I have always had difficulty with following directions, and I hate being told what to do, so it is really odd that I would gravitate toward writing in form—with all its many rules and restrictions. As far as rituals go, well, I’m strange. I find I don’t do my chores or anything the same way, or on a regular basis. (Then again, I like all the people and things around me to remain constant.) I also enjoy poems that have repeating lines. I find comfort in detailed work, putting together intricate poems and reading them. I worked for about 18 months to try and write free verse. I had some good success with most of it, but I didn’t feel that my work stood out much in the big scheme of things. I made a conscious decision about 9 months ago to get back into writing formal verse, and I am quite content to be on that path.

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