Corso: Your latest poetry collection with CavanKerry Press, Rise Wildly, is published in a time of sacrifice and loss in our country from Covid-19 and the need for soul-searching, for coping with challenges in our physical world and everyday lives. For preserving community. For healing. Tina, your title is a bold imperative—not just a call to your readers to lift ourselves up, but to lift ourselves up fervidly. Tell us about the origin of Rise Wildly and the impassioned way it speaks to your readers.
Kelley: Thanks so much for your questions! The poem with the title came from a playful misreading of a New York Times headline, “Trains Running after Storms.” I thought, wouldn’t it be funny if trains started chasing storms from west to east? I went a little crazy with it and had fun – I like reading the poem to people because it feels a bit like a carnival.
Corso: There are so many poems in this collection where the speaker elevates daily life through consciousness and reflection. And with such conviction! “Planting, Nearest the Prayer” does just that as it ponders the wonders of nature. Let’s post it here and then have your comments.
Planting, Nearest the Prayer
You, new garden, have all the charms of a seven-month-old-baby.
You sit up and smile, stay where I put you for a few short weeks.
You haven’t confounded me yet. I haven’t fallen behind, failed,
or felt regret. See “verve,” “new ambition.” See “various hopes.”
What tricks will you do? Attract bees, give me edible blue flowers
to freeze in ice cubes, produce blooms for each room and for hanging
from attic rafters, herbs for a summer of dishes, seed heads for finches
in the fall. I’m curious, what will thrive and reseed and naturalize,
which will the squirrels eat, the drought singe, the trees overshade?
With compost from three years of dinners, night crawlers from the bin,
not-yet-severed soaker hose dug in to bathe roots, you may turn marvelous.
I want to sit with you, parse the evening birdsong, feel the spring rinsing,
the possibility of jewels, ever unmined, miles deep under the ocean floor.
My wine, you erase the thump in the gut, turn me capable, full, and desired.
Kelley: I love gardening, especially in that first day or two when everything still looks good. I like making fun of my mediocre gardening talents— – my ability to hoe through a soaker hose the first week, etc. Early spring is such a fertile, beautiful time here in New Jersey, and it’s not hard to be optimistic after the first seedlings go in. I like that feeling of incipience; it brings out my inner Whitman.
Corso: The poem, “Vitamin Awe,” suggests how we might lower our stress levels by spotting “the bad eagle over Route 10,” or being shown “the songwriter playing her guitar’s dreams.” Once-ever moments as you call them. How do you sustain the sense of astonishment and gratitude in your writing that allows the speaker in these poems to rise above her struggles? Is it your Episcopal faith?
Kelley: I saw on the internet— – so it must be true ha ha— – that if you write down five things you’re grateful for every day, you become happier. I keep a journal, so I figured: why not try? I don’t know if it works, but it just seems like good manners to thank the host of this whole party (I mean God) for all the intriguing bits about life on earth, both the good and bad. I used to sustain awe by traveling to new places. Lately I’ve been trying to spend as much time in nature as possible, even if that means listening to leaf blowers and watching the eight-point bucks in my backyard 11 miles from New York City. I also get infusions of awe from music and reading. And gardening. And hearing from, and mishearing, friends and family members. Any source of inspiration in a storm!
Corso: While Rise Wildly is buoyed with rising stars and shiny objects and traveling light, there’s a dark side to the collection. Morbidity is the word I’ve heard you say. For example, “The Fetal Fawn inside the Roadkilled Deer.” Let’s post the poem and then have your comments.
The Fetal Fawn inside the Roadkilled Deer
In the dark alive,
I hear water against land.
I hear undersides of rain.
The giant jolt, the twisted spine.
How long will cold keep sharpening?
I am, but the darkness knows me not.
Grope without hands. Push without goal.
Leaden walls stiffen. Dust settles on sea,
past the barbed-wire finish line.
Her absence is blank presence,
plain, tall mausoleum, benthic.
Our spirits haunt each other—boat
with brown sail, sailor’s stale eye.
Wind sounds like turning in sleep.
I am blown blind, a firework dud.
The tough, fried cornmeal husk on my heart
would melt if I could just stumble and run,
these hours between death and a burial.
The blood color of eyelids facing sun, fading.
Fluid congeals. I declare
myself gone, cold.
Kelley: Well that’s a cheery little number, isn’t it? I wrote it during a spell of writing dark, sad poems, around the time my mother’s health started to decline. The images came from daily life— – I remember going running, and feeling better by the time I got up the hill, and the idea of the melting of the deep-fried outer coating of my heart just popped up. Probably too weird to use, I thought at the time. But I filed it away, and it definitely fit in with the dead baby deer! I don’t know where he or she came from. The line about “her absence” was basically one that got cut from my non-fiction book about homeless young people.
Corso: I’m also thinking of poems that moved me to tears such as “The Brother My Parents Almost Adopted” or “All the Birds Now Silent in the Yard” and the last time your mother sat outside before she died. Tina, how has experiencing loss in your own life informed these poems?
Kelley: I never know what to say when someone says something I wrote made them cry. It makes me happy, on one level, that my writing connected strongly, but it’s also frowned upon to make people cry, on purpose, in polite society! So thanks-and-sorry! Many of these poems were inspired by my mother, who passed away in 2016, and I am also deeply moved by the failing health of our planet, which weighs heavily on me. I find so much solace and inspiration being outdoors. It’s hard for me to stay inside if I have any other option. That obsession, to honor something or someone in decline, drives me and my writing.
Corso: As I read Rise Wildly, I’m reminded where there’s darkness, there’s light. It’s impossible to experience one without the other. I think of a line from the English Romantic poet John Keats: “Glut thy sorrow on a morning rose.”
Kelley: Yes, and that was my main theme in Abloom & Awry, how both the horrible and delightful are awe-inspiring in this life, in that you can’t make this stuff up. I’m always awestruck by the beauty and dastardliness we see in the same scene. A thin layer separates sadness and happiness. During any crying fit I’ll almost always be flitting back and forth between the two.
Corso: Let me shift to another duality:, your writing as both a poet and a journalist. During a recent CKP reading you gave, there was a question about the intersection between the two. You had mentioned how many people you interviewed as a Metro reporter for the New York Times, the odd situations and hobbies you heard about, and how some of what was said became lines in your poems. Can you give an example or two and what struck you about them?
Kelley: Oh I steal shamelessly (and respectfully) from the people I interview and even, occasionally, from posts I see on social media. Being a daily general assignment reporter gave me the chance to talk to so many people I wouldn’t usually have met, and to hear their perspectives and words. Metro assignments led directly to “World Premier, Nocturnal Bird Migration Concert” and “Would You Learn Your Lesson If I Made You Take Your Clothes Off?” Then, “Notes from a Survey of Home Health Aides” came from a book project that alas turned into a magazine article. “Looking at Saint Francis in the Desert, Two Days before War” came right out of disaster/terrorism training we had to take at The New York Times. I know I wrote more accessible poems, with better “ledes” and kickers, thanks to journalism.
Corso: You also said just as your journalism informed your poetry so was your poetry instrumental in you getting a couple of journalism assignments. I’m very eager to hear about those!
Kelley: I think one or two hiring people liked that I was a poet, that I had a quirky voice. I was even the Metro poet in there for a bit. I know they appreciated tight writing, a skill that comes with practicing poetry.
Corso: So this is a book of facts and feeling?
Kelley: Yep. I was amazed by the intense fact-checking that went into the production of the book. CavanKerry Press worked so hard, through the editing, copy editing, and production to treat these poems like gems.
Corso: You are a journalist and a poet. Now I want to bring in another pair—love for your family and community activism. Tell us a little about each and how you balance your personal and social lives. And also with your writing.
Kelley: Family comes first, full stop. But I have a family that is very supportive of my poetry (my husband spent many hours on the kids so I could visit the muse) and also of my mask-making venture, which has kept me sane, or saner than usual, during the pandemic.
Corso: I’m eager to hear about the Sewing Volunteers project. Are you writing new poems about this? Or what now?
Kelley: I help wrangle volunteer mask-makers in South Orange and Maplewood. There are 500 members, and they have collected and cut fabric and elastic, sewn, and figured out optimal recipients for…nearly 40,000 masks we’ve donated to hospitals, food banks, homeless shelters, and other social service agencies. I’ve written about it here. No mask poems yet…though like everyone I have a few pandemic poems.
Corso: Let’s end the interview with the last poem in Rise Wildly, “To Live-The Imperative,” which I want you to know, Tina, is my go-to poem that I read and reread for solace. It takes us back to the title of your collection, what you ask of your readers, and of yourself, I’m sure. What can and must we do together?
To Live: The Imperative
For all we know, though, ours may be the only planet in the universe hosting mind and consciousness. If so, then our decisions and our conduct will determine whether the universe has a long future as a conscious entity or will soon lapse back into unconsciousness.
—Steve Stewart-Smith, Darwin, God, and the Meaning of Life
There is a German verb, to separate souls from bodies.
How terrifying, the world without
the two bright lights
in our live, kind eyes.
Instead, a radiant glacier melts to black stone.
Maybe the universe reads all our email,
understands our jokes and work,
and loves our steel drums.
99% of all the species that ever lived are now extinct.
We counter with side curtain airbags,
programs to maintain brain health,
surefire weight loss diets.
A language dies every 14 days.
We bash ourselves upstream,
scraping flesh to find a mate.
Could you live in a world without fish?
What if fireflies stop blinking?
What does the sperm feel when
it wins? I praise the headlong
from love to egg and life.
40% of all humans ever died in their first year.
Each age loses sleep over air raids,
1984, Russia, Cuba, nuclear winter,
climate change, 2012, North Korea.
A quarter of our daughters are depressed or anxious.
The person I loved most in the world
went to solitude. He lives outside
my tenses. By now, you have felt this, too.
This is what hearing a hovering helicopter does to me.
There are stars so far away, their first light
has not yet reached us. We must remain,
the only ones to know and praise them.
Kelley: What we need to do together? Pay attention, praise, take care of each other, but mostly, love.
Tina Kelley's other CavanKerry Press Book
Paola Corso is the author of seven poetry and fiction books set in her native Pittsburgh where her Southern Italian immigrant family worked in the steel mills. Her books include newly released Vertical Bridges: Poems and Photographs of City Steps, The Laundress Catches Her Breath, winner of the Tillie Olsen Award in Creative Writing, Once I Was Told The Air Was Not For Breathing, winner of the Triangle Fire Memorial Association Award, and Catina’s Haircut: A Novel in Stories, a Sons of Italy National Book Club Selection.
Tina Kelley’s earlier books include Abloom & Awry (CavanKerry Press, 2017); Ardor, which won the Jacar Press 2017 chapbook competition; Precise (Word Poetry, 2013); and The Gospel of Galore (Word Poetry, 2002), winner of a 2003 Washington State Book Award. She coauthored Almost Home: Helping Kids Move from Homelessness to Hope, and reported for The New York Times for a decade, sharing in a staff Pulitzer for 9/11 coverage. Her writing has appeared in Poetry East, Southwest Review, Prairie Schooner, and The Best American Poetry 2009. She and her husband have two children and live in Maplewood, New Jersey.