Interview with Kelly Michels

by Adrianna Robertson

Kelly Michels
Kelly Michels is the winner of the 2015 Jacar Chapbook Prize judged by Jamaal May. Her work has been featured in Best New Poets 2012, Green Mountains Review, Nimrod, Redivider, among others. A previous chapbook, Mother and Child with Flowers, was published in 2013. She lives in Raleigh, NC.

I first heard about Kelly Michel’s poetry the same way so many of us hear about just about everything these days–through social media. I read a post by Jamaal May where he mentioned judging a chapbook contest for Jacar Press—his chosen winner: Kelly Michel’s Disquiet. I immediately thought I need to read these poems. And, as soon as I began reading, I knew that I was right. As the speaker of the poems attempts to make sense of a world where violence, dream and myth intersect, the reader is propelled forward by succinct rhythm and line. I wanted them to keep moving forward to a longer collection, but I settled on being haunted by words that lingered in my head for days. I was so excited about the poems that I couldn’t wait to start some dialogue with Kelly about how they came to be. What follows is our email conversation where we talked about everything from why chapbooks are edgy to the importance of silence and the way that owls can be an obsession.

Meta Form 13 Detail, by Ryan Carr Johnson

Adrianna Robertson: Can you talk a little bit about the process of sending your work in for the chapbook contest at Jacar Press? And, in conjunction with that, what suggestions would you give to poets sending work in for chapbook contests?

Kelly Michels: In all honesty, the process of sending out to Jacar was not a usual one. I saw there was a chapbook contest, and I’m a huge fan of the poets Jacar publishes. It was the beginning of May, which is a busy time when it comes to grading and tying up the semester (I teach at a couple different colleges). Initially, I did not intend to send out a chapbook, but a poet-friend of mine emailed me one night to tell me to go outside and “look at the moon.” I replied back that it was a “lantern” moon, and I had “a poem for that type of moon.” I jokingly sent him the poem, and he liked it. I realized that I had quite a few poems in my little arsenal……many of which were my “myth” poems (as I like to refer to them.) I put some of them together and sent it out as a chapbook.

I guess my only suggestion for other poets sending out work to chapbook contests is to throw nothing away. The poems you wrote ten years ago still have a place out there. It is also important to look at the themes and style that might hold a chapbook together. There has to be something you want to say through the chapbook form. I enjoy the idea of the chapbook as a form of communication, the idea that it began as a cheap alternative to books for the working class who couldn’t afford full-length ones. At its roots, it’s folk literature on the page, and it’s a subversive form since clergy frowned upon the material and deemed it unholy.  So, as a form in itself, I think it is an incredible way of being able to take poetic risks while presenting a brief world for readers to get lost inside.

AR: I didn’t know that about the history of the chapbook! I really like the idea that it is a subversive form. Suddenly, the chapbook is not just a way to expose the reader to a small intimate world, it is edgy as well. The poems in Disquiet have the feel of a “project” or poems that you envisioned as being part of a larger body of work. Is that true? Or did these poems come together in a more natural way over time?

KM: I guess the answer is a little bit of both. Many of the poems in the chapbook were written when I was in the MFA program at NC State from 2006 to 2008. They were part of my thesis, which was also entitled “Disquiet.” After the MFA program, I continued writing and adding poems to the overall project. I accumulated more poems as the years passed, adding them to the list that began with my thesis. It was kind of like building a nest of poems in my computer, adding branch after branch, while trying to take the time to strengthen my own voice and contemplate my own aesthetic logic.  Throughout the process, I noticed there were two different threads/themes that I was writing. One was about violence, and the other was about my mother’s drug addiction. Both were themes that I needed to write about and address because I had personal experience with both, and neither had been written about in the way I wanted it to be written. As a result, there was a reason to write about these two things, not simply because I had personal experience with both, but because I felt I could contribute to the literature on both subjects in a way that had not yet been represented.

Both subjects existed side by side in my MFA thesis but needed to breathe on their own in order to have an impact. Therefore, I took two poems from my thesis and began work on a project about addiction. A chapbook was published in 2012, and I continued working on a full-length manuscript. Fast forward to 2015. Jacar had a chapbook contest. I decided it might be a good opportunity to return to my other theme. Again, I took a few poems from my thesis and added other poems I had written over the years. It seemed like it could be a feasible project, so I sent it out to see what would happen.

This is a very long explanation…..but it was basically a project that I did envision as a longer work and something that developed over time.

AR: I think it’s an explanation of patience and perspective. You can be adding and rewriting for years and even still, it could be present as one manuscript at one time and then morph into something else down the road. I’m also really intrigued by what recurs throughout a work. I think it often goes beyond what we typically think of as motifs and has more to do with the writer’s preoccupations–or obsessions. In your case, I’m thinking of owls, silence, pianos, Persephone (etc.) Can you discuss these–or a couple–and your intentions in having them repeat throughout the book?

KM: Each one has significance to my life and the theme of the chapbook, and their repetition reflects my own obsessions while developing an atmosphere that the book as a whole is trying to convey–an atmosphere informed by silence. Owls, for example, are fascinating creatures. They are silent animals and have mastered silence as a means of survival. You can’t hear them flying. You can only hear them if they choose to be heard (if they call out). This implicitly ties into pianos since music relies on silence to survive as well. It isn’t about the notes as much as the space between the notes. Silence is essential to song. Without it, the notes of a piano would just be noise. We learn to use the intricacies of silence precisely when playing a song. It is an instrument within an instrument, and music must master its silence in order to exist.

Then there is Persephone. She is, of course, a representation of emerging from the underworld… fact, she has to repeatedly emerge from the underworld. And she does so changed. She’s never the same.

I begin the chapbook with poems that refer to violence in the outside world–with hints of a world traumatized by war. Then I move into a more personal realm with poems like “The Recluse” and “The Insomniac” which were written about an incident in my life from 2001 when I was twenty-two years old. I was attacked while jogging, and the case was on the local news for about a week. I remember reading about myself in the third person in a newspaper and shouting at it, knowing I could not be heard…..and not sure if I even wanted to be.

It was a time when the outside world and my personal, interior world was quite literally falling apart. I knew I was lucky to be alive, but I wasn’t sure how to be alive.  And I lived in the DC area at that time, which was particularly ominous and surreal. Between 9/11, the war in Iraq, the DC sniper shootings, etc., everything seemed to be framed in silence and noise.

Silence is both a destructive force and a force of creation. How do I reconcile that? How do I live with that? How can I survive it? How do we, as a culture, survive it?

Those were the questions I was grappling with when writing these poems. Therefore, the owl, silence, the piano, and Persephone exist in the chapbook in order to ask these questions. And the repetition of those images allows me to return to the questions throughout the course of the chapbook.

AR: Yes, and the questions are what prompt the poems in the first place. I mean there are the questions that are attempted to be answered in the individual poems and then there is the overarching question of: how do I write about these topics in poems that I would want to read?

It’s no wonder we obsess about these things! They become the way that we, as writers, can communicate the essential ideas. One can’t really exist without the other. And, since I have already mentioned “intention” (and it is something I have been giving a lot of thought to lately with my own manuscript) let’s discuss some of your other decisions in Disquiet…Perhaps, let’s start with your titles. Most of the titles, though common nouns become specific because of the article “The”. You create a world of people, animals, things that are any/all but also very specific. Can you talk about this?

KM: Yes, my intention was to create a world that was specific and a pervasive “any/all.” I noticed that many of the poems began with “the” in the title, and when ordering the poems for the chapbook, I changed some of the titles to include “the” for cohesiveness. For example, one poem was originally titled “A Portrait of an Angel at Dawn.” I retitled it “The Angel at Dawn.” I envisioned the collection to be a series of portraits, but beginning everything with “A Portrait” didn’t work. Most of the poems began with “the” in the title, as most portraits do, whether in photography or poetry (for example, “The Farmer’s Wife”). Renaming a few with the specific article “the” made the idea of portraiture more realized as a collection (at least for me) and tied them together as existing simultaneously in the same world.

Additionally, “the” is often given when the exact identity or name is unknown or when that identity cannot be exposed. For example, you might read about “the sixteen year old girl” in a newspaper. The sixteen year old girl has a name and identity, but she exists as a generalization to the outside world. It was important for me to include this concept within the portraiture, to explore the tension between the specific and the general.

AR: This is such a wonderful description of intention. These very precise and careful choices made in the work in order to have the fullest realization of meaning realized. The poems about your grandfather and your sister were two of my favorites in the book. Upon rereading them I discovered that though they appear very different in subject matter, they both point to the way that the making of meaning through words and language can be difficult or impossible at times (something that perhaps for writers might be a very legitimate cause for “disquiet”). Was this something you were also grappling with when writing the book?

KM: “The Answer” is probably the oldest poem I have kept over the years. My half sister was five years old when I wrote it, and now she is a freshman in college! At the time, I would get calls at work from her mother, looking for answers to a five year old’s questions about the world. Some questions I could answer…like “How high do birds fly?” But the question, “How did God make all this stuff?” inevitably made me fall short, so I wrote a poem instead. In the poem a couple things fall short–our understanding of this infinite and indeterminate universe and our language used to describe it. Both are inextricably bound to one another, confined by our limited knowledge yet strangely liberated because of that limitation. The universe is scary, unjust, and yet dazzlingly beautiful. It is a disquieting aspect of the human condition, but it’s a necessary disquiet in order for the world to retain its phenomenal complexity. And, of course, I’m trying to explain it to a five year old who also has a congenital heart condition, who (because of her age and despite of her age) unconsciously knows more about mortality, human limitations, and how the enormity of the world can leave one awestruck than I could know. That sense of awe is the reason why she asked the question in the first place, believing that adults with higher vocabularies and graduate degrees could answer the question. But in the poem, the speaker is in the same position as her…..the poet and the five year old….both trying to find the words, to develop a language from which to feel their way through.

On the other hand, “The Dentist” is a completely different poem when it comes to the limitations of language and the idea of disquiet. Rather than focus on the natural world, the poem focuses on our interactions between human beings. It has more to do with the disquiet that arises when faced with the traumatic realities of what we have done to each other. It’s a very different type of disquiet, one that informs a large part of the chapbook, a disquiet that is the consequence of certainty. Whether out of personal, political, or religious certainty, humans are capable of unconscionable things. In the poem, the dentist is faced with the knowledge of the atrocities committed by Nazi war criminals. He is faced with the certainty of their beliefs, the certainty of their executions, and the certainty of the orders placed upon him as a soldier, all of which create an internal disquiet that becomes physically manifest through his struggle to form words.

RyanCarr_Meta-Form Phase13
Meta Form Phase 13, by Ryan Carr Johnson

AR: How did you decide on the ordering of the poems?

KM: I knew instantly which poem was first and which poem was last. But the poems in the middle needed to be arranged, and I wasn’t quite sure how. I arranged the poems that had more to do with war and the trouble of certainty at the beginning. So, in other words, I began with cultural trauma as a means of setting a stage and atmosphere, then included poems that dealt with personal trauma and ended with questions about our roles within it and the question of how to survive it.

I’m not always the best person when it comes to looking at my own work objectively, so my friend came over to my apartment to help. We rearranged a few poems, had coffee, talked about poetry in general, and then I felt confident enough with the arrangement to send in the final draft.

Having another set of eyes allows me to see it as a reader rather than a writer, so that is always an invaluable part of the ordering process for me.

AR: I love the image on the cover–it seems to encapsulate “disquiet”. How did you end up choosing the image?

I have Richard Krawiec and Danny Krawiec from Jacar Press to thank for that! They do absolutely beautiful work with chapbooks and were open to any ideas I might have for cover art. Initially, I didn’t have any ideas and left it up to them. But a week later, Richard was in Bristol, England and uploaded stunning pics to his Facebook page. The angel image was one of these, and it struck me immediately. It is actually a Banksy piece that he had photographed. I emailed Richard, and he thought it went with the themes of the chapbook perfectly. Then Danny designed the cover, and it looked amazing. I don’t believe there could be a better cover or image out there that could embody these poems!

AR: I think it’s an image that haunts, much like these poems do. Finally, what advice would you give to poets/writers just starting out?

KM: That is a very difficult question, especially since I feel like I’m just starting out. Although, I suspect I would still feel that way with numerous books under my belt. That feeling is perhaps another necessary form of disquiet.

I guess the first piece of advice I would probably give is to take your time and give yourself time.

The second piece of advice would be the same thing I would tell my little sister–which is, be kind to yourself and don’t be afraid of failure. It’s not that some people succeed while others don’t or that some people fail while others succeed. Failure isn’t inherent; it is inevitable.

It is an extremely necessary part of the process and allows us to take risks. So embrace it, and embrace the crumpled pieces of paper littering your wastebasket. Make yourself a cup of coffee and be kind to yourself.

AR: Thanks so much, Kelly. Congratulations again on receiving the prize and best of luck to you.

Adrianna Robertson is a poet completing her MFA at Sarah Lawrence College. She loves teaching and is a contributing interviewer for Lumina. She lives in Connecticut with her husband and daughter.