Saturday, November 21, 2015

Chapbook Chat: Kelly Nelson Discusses Who Was I to Say I Was Alive

Who Was I to Say I Was Alive

Author: Kelly Nelson

PublisherMinerva Rising

Publication date: 2015

Going Unsaid by Kelly Nelson

A man walks by carrying a table.
I say, you are carrying a table. He ignores me

on about his business, the reckless
secrets he must be keeping, his legs

sudden twitching in the moments
before sleep. When a man passes

with a rug I say, you are carrying a rug
or, you are wearing wing tips

to a man in a suit
or, to my brother’s found body, your skull

is in pieces on the floor.
And here, in the churchyard, saying the floor, his skull

to nobody who asks.
I jolt awake

early dark—things could be happening and going unsaid.
Hours spent listening

a window fan drawing in air
the inaudible air going out.

Originally published in Another Chicago Magazine (summer 2015)

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Kelly Nelson is the author of the chapbooks Rivers I Don’t Live By (Concrete Wolf, 2014) and Who Was I to Say I Was Alive (Minerva Rising, 2015). Her poetry has appeared in RHINO, Verse Daily, Prime Number, Tar River Poetry, Another Chicago Magazine and elsewhere. She has performed her poems at the Houston Poetry Festival, Phoenix Art Museum and on the Phoenix Light Rail as well as in book stores, coffee shops, galleries and diners. She serves on her city’s public art commission, volunteers as a gallery docent and teaches ekphrastic poetry classes at her local library. She holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology and teaches Interdisciplinary Studies at Arizona State University.

Author website:

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[This interview was conducted via email in November 2015.]

Please tell us a little bit about your chapbook Who Was I to Say I Was Alive.

KN: It’s a short collection of 20 poems that explores the themes of loss, love and the things that go unsaid. While losses and silences pervade this book, there is also a strong undercurrent of persisting, of continuing on, of being present and alive.

Why did you choose the chapbook as the vehicle for these poems? When you started, did you intend to create a chapbook?

KN: With my first chapbook, Rivers I Don’t Live By, I very intentionally set out to write a chapbook around the themes of location and dislocation. I’ve lived in nine different states and wanted to explore both the lack of and the longing for a connection to place. This second chapbook snuck up on me. One day I printed out a dozen or so poems that had been recently published and starting reading them as a set and was surprised to find they held together. The poems were written over a concentrated period of time so my preoccupations and concerns at that time—the suicide of a friend, my own turning fifty, the ongoing gun violence in this country—created unifying threads in the tone and content of these poems.

The chapbook is titled after a line in one of its poems. Why did you select a line as the title?

KN: Once I realized I had a chapbook, I started holding auditions for the title. None of the individual poem titles seemed encompassing enough to stand alone on the cover (although Going Unsaid was a strong contender). Next I pulled out eight or ten individual lines from different poems and considered the sound and feel of each one. It came down to The Inaudible Air Going Out and Who Was I to Say I Was Alive. I love that the title I chose has so many shorter titles within it: Who Was I; Was I to Say; To Say I Was; To Say I Was Alive; I Was Alive.

Three of the poems in this chapbook are found poems. Please tell us a bit about your use of found poetry in the chapbook.

KN: I’m a big believer in cross-genre borrowing. One of the main moves in journalism is to insert the voices of others by using short quotations. This creates a sense of being closer to the event: an eye-witness is lending us her eyes. I make this same move in the poem “Stampede” where I embed quotes by people who have survived deadly human stampedes and in the poem “Look,” where I borrow lines from pundits talking about gun control on a radio show.

The poem “Brotherless” is a cento, the oldest form of found poetry, in which I’ve created a new poem by stitching together individual lines from seven “Brother-less” poems written by Marge Piercy. I like using found poetry techniques because they widen the sound field of my poems by adding different voices and tonalities. Working with found poetry techniques also injects a delicious element of surprise and discovery into the composing process.

What is one of your favorite poems in the book, or one that is important to you? Why is it a favorite (or important)? How did it come to be?

KN: The title of the chapbook comes from the poem “The man I nearly married.” I wrote this poem in bed with laryngitis in a hotel room in Seattle where I was for AWP in 2014. And yes, my ex called me while I was there. This poem has become one of my signature poems when I do readings. People comment on it; people remember it. In part I think it’s because it provides an opportunity to smile and laugh after hearing darker, heavier poems. And I see it as an affirming statement on coping and moving forward amid losses and deaths.

The man I nearly married

calls years later
He said it sounded
like I had died, like it was

my ghost
speaking to him.

Who was I
to say it wasn’t.

Who was I to say
I was alive.

So I tell him the afterlife is good
free trains always running

on time, plenty of noodle shops
and ripening mangoes.

And he says, all right, okay
I’m so glad I called.

Originally appeared in Red Booth Review, May 2014

What else would you like readers to know about your chapbook?

KN: I feel super fortunate that I’ve been able to pick the cover art for both of my chapbooks. I volunteer as a gallery docent at the Tempe Center for the Arts so I get to meet a lot of Arizona artists. I’m thrilled to have the artwork of Monica Martinez and Clare Verstegen on the covers of my chapbooks.

What are you working on now?

KN: I’m currently writing a lyric biography of an uncle of mine who was a minor outlaw in Minnesota in the 1950s. I never met the guy and I’m recreating his life using his 500-page prison record. You can read more about this project in Rappahannock Review and Prime Number.

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