An Interview With Devin Gael Kelly

The poems of Devin Gael Kelly embody a spiritual transcendence. When I first read his poems, there were myriad nuances that lead me to a journey of exploration and joy. I have had the opportunity to engage in a delightful correspondence with the poet to discuss an assortment of ideas.

 

 

SNEHA

I’ll begin by saying your collection “In This Quiet Church of Night, I Say Amen” is a book I gladly turn to and reengage. Could you tell us the process of putting together the book?
[by process I mean your influences, the chronology, whether you actively knew these poems are leading you toward a collection, co-ordinating with the press, and so forth]

 

DEVIN

I think a lot of the work of shaping this book was done subconsciously. By that, I mean that I didn’t realize I was writing into something until I looked at the poems I had written and realized I had been writing toward the ideas of family, acceptance, spirituality, love, and masculinity all along. It was like learning to recognize myself for the first time. When I realized that, I became more intentional about the literal structure of the book, about the arrangement of poems, the sections. I became more excited, because I had moved past that more nebulous stage of writing into one that had shape, like I was collecting mugs to put my poems in, rather than spilling coffee on the floor. From there, I began to identify themes in poems — these ideas of family, friendship, love — and the sections emerged from there. I did a lot of reading aloud and re-reading to see how poems flowed into one another. I didn’t think I would love that part of the process, as I have a hard time thinking organizationally in my day to day life, but I enjoyed it, because it felt like I was building something. It’s such a specific feeling, writing a book, because the word writing doesn’t do it justice. It’s more like making, like listening, like crafting.

 

SNEHA

“& most things // my father / will never know about me / & I have not told // him / how much he taught me / about love / & how scared / I am / of failure / & how failure / I’ve heard / can take // a real time…”
These lines, from your poem “Fractions” elicit a sense of matching the outwardly with what is within, almost as if toward an understanding of oneself, of loss. In a few instances, the poem reminds me of the beginning of the poem “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop: “The art of losing isn’t hard to master”. I admire that your poem ends with a gladness, and joy. Would you call this poem an exploration? I’m also quite interested to understand your choice of form.

 

DEVIN

Thank you for your kind words and insight! I wrote this poem on a bus, actually, and the poem mentions that. It began as one long stream of words, these wide lines running all over the page, which I think in large part enacted the way I was feeling and also the setting of where I was writing the poem. I was emotional and passionate, thinking of how my dad was going to die at some point, and the bus was rolling along this highway. My first attempt at the poem couldn’t control itself. When I returned to the poem, I wanted to puncture it, make it feel more staggered. But I didn’t cut any words, and I think that when you say the word “exploration,” I really resonate with that. Most of my editing has to do with structure, rather than content. I like excess. I like all the tangential details and feelings that circle or spiral into or out of wherever the poem ends up going. I think art can often be too concerned with perfection. These minds of ours — they are distractible, finicky, and full of quirks, but they are also capable of going in one direction at the same time as they go in another. They can, in other words, contain so much. And this poem was an attempt to honor that kind of containment, the spilling over-ness of our minds and thoughts and feelings.

 

SNEHA

I return to your poem “Last Night Father & I Went For a Drive”, and remember sharing this particular poem several times over with people. I share the poem especially when an intuitive sense gnaws at me and I trace the crumbs of our fragility and disconnections in relationships that may manifest.
“Something there is of gentleness he never tried to teach me, but // still did, how he snuck quiet as nightfall into my room to trim my toenails // while I slept.” I’m intrigued with the myriad ways in which you seem to juxtapose these silent translations in your poem. How do these poems take shape in being an encounter with the subconscious?

 

DEVIN

This is such a lovely, generous question. It makes me think of how the great poet Aria Aber tweeted something the other day to the effect of how wild it is that her poems are “exponentially smarter” than her. I think of that so often in the aftermath of writing. I’ll look at a poem I’ve written and say how did I write that, or in the act of writing a poem, I’ll surprise myself with new knowledge about the way I view the world. For me, so much of poetry is about creating the permission to allow your mind to access wonder, criticism, and subconscious thought, because there’s nothing like finishing a poem and reading it and saying who wrote that, was it me? My front-of-mind intents are always muddied. Those are the same thoughts that wonder about a poem’s reception, or the day-to-day minutia that means so little of what I make it to mean. But underneath all of that is a subconscious that is making connections, drawing out dreams, deepening emotions. I think of writing as opening as many doors to that as possible, of building a house with room after room of the ordinary, filled with doors flinging wide open to the extraordinary.

 

SNEHA

In “Outside The Window The Whole World Is Humming”, from DIAGRAM, there is a restlessness and an immediacy all at once. There is a spirituality in the silences and breaks in the poem. Would you describe how you arrive at deciding lineation for your poems?

 

DEVIN

Thank you for saying that. I grew up with strong faith, and a strong practice of that faith, and though that has lapsed now, I think of prayer a great deal while writing, and that particular poem feels in large part like a prayer to me. I created those very spatial line breaks with the intent to mimic the brief pauses one feels while trying to organize a rush of emotion, the kind of breathlessness that wants to be spoken but still needs room and space to breathe in order to be spoken at all. Prayer can be so many things. It can be want and wish at the same time as it can be apology and forgiveness. It can be an act of courage or a plea for courage. In this poem, prayer is questioning, an enactment of I don’t know, an acknowledgment of how much the world is, how big and wide it seems, and a sense of wonder about what do with that.

 

SNEHA

A lot of the titles of your poems, to me, read like lyrical prayers— like nuggets one could use to chant joy (I know it’s true for me), especially the one above. I’m interested to explore the relevance of your choice of titles for the poems— how would you say does the process of titling work for you?

 

DEVIN

If you want to learn something about titling poems, read Ariel Francisco’s poems. In all seriousness, his work, along with a bit of permission and goofiness on my part, has opened up my conception of poetic titles. And I mean that sincerely! I think it’s okay to be a bit of a goof sometimes, and it’s certainly okay to play as an artist. And my titles are often where I have the most fun (which is why I’m particularly grateful that you used the phrase “chant joy”). As far as process goes, I usually wait to title a poem until I finish it, and then the title serves as almost a mood board, like throwing a phrase Jackson-Pollock-like onto the poem, splattering paint all over its words. If a title is like a diving board into the pool of a poem, how high do I want the fall to be? How low? Is it more of a slide into the poem or a full-on jump? These are the kinds of questions poetic titles bring about in me.

 

SNEHA

I’m drawn towards the fact that you seem to be interested in exploring masculinity from a point that does not essentially subscribe to a heteronormative way of looking. This idea is amply reflective in your poems as well, and I admire the tenderness in which you write about the father-son relationship. What attributes would you say lead you to this place of self-exploration and light from which you create?

 

DEVIN

I’m so grateful for this question, because I’ve come to realize that my poetry is about masculinity, which is a statement I might’ve shirked off years ago if I didn’t know how important it was for me to examine and explore masculinity in ways that have to do with tenderness, and the platonic romance of fathers and sons, or brothers and brothers. Masculinity is toxic, but the more we can talk about gentleness, about vulnerability, then the more willing, perhaps, men will be to explore these things in their own lives. Poetry has allowed me that self-exploration. Reading poetry was what first allowed it. Reading male poets like Robert Hayden, Larry Levis, Philip Levine, Terrance Hayes — poets who were exploring their own straightness, their own maleness, but who were unafraid to hold their fathers, who sometimes were scared of violence, who said words what did I know, what did I know? Too many men have said I know in this world, and then have proceeded to act upon that knowledge with a kind of visceral violence, a thirst for power. I like men who ask questions, who make room for light rather than act as sources of light. That’s one way in which I view my own work, one direction I practice it towards. One of the problems with heteronormative masculinity is that it often comes from a place of entitled knowledge rather than a place of diminished wonder. It’s the difference between the man throwing someone down a well and the man drawing water up from the well. I believe in the beauty of failure, gentleness, and receptivity when it comes to masculinity. These things exist in the world. I see them in my father and my brother. I see them in my friends. I see them in smallness, ordinary kindnesses. I write, in some way, to make room for those little lights.

 

SNEHA

I adore the descriptions of bustling life and paraphernalia that you write about in tweets, about the view from your window in New York. Could you tell us a bit about your preoccupations with the city, and how important do you consider place / location / landscape to be in your poems?

 

DEVIN

I consider place to be one of the most important aspects of my poetry. Space, in general, and our awareness of it. I begin nearly every class I teach by reminding students of the space they’re in. I’ll ask: “How would some of you feel if this classroom were twice as big? Twice as small?” And inevitably there are the students who would want to sit further in the back, or would feel claustrophobic. And I think the same thinking can be applied to the spaces we inhabit, and the ways in which we are changed because of them. The city is this terrifying, beautiful, monstrous construction, and yet in its vastness, I somehow feel compelled to look closer at things, because I want to feel connected to something rather than alone, adrift in this endless and crowded sea. And yet when I think of where my father is from, in western New York, and the time I spent there as a child, I consider how the smallness of such a place, and the wide open greyness of Lake Ontario made me consider bigger ideas of despair, and loss, for the first time. I owe so much of myself to the places I have been. I make them a part of my poems and my life because I want people to understand that part of me, because in some way, it is necessary to do that in order to understand anything else.

 

SNEHA

What advice would you give to poets just beginning to write? I’m especially asking for poets with non-institutional support, without MFAs, and from countries outside of the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and Europe.

 

DEVIN

Reach out to other writers who you admire. Write, keep writing. Read widely. Buy used books and read them all. Find poets you love, living or dead, and read their work from start to finish. Reach out more. Tell people you love their work. Build honest connections, not scratch-my-back ones. Friendships, true ones, are so important. Twitter can be great for this, but it also can be terrible for it. But nothing replaces friendship. The kind of friendship that involves sharing work, sharing books, sharing poems and stories. Find your people and stay with them. Writing can feel so solitary, and I imagine without institutional support, it feels hopeless sometimes in its isolation. Love what you love, and find people who love what they love, and talk about it. Share together in this big and hopeless thing.

Devin Gael Kelly

Devin Gael Kelly earned his MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and is the author of two collaborative chapbooks as well as two collections of poetry, Blood on Blood (Unknown Press), and In This Quiet Church of Night, I Say Amen (Civil Coping Mechanisms). He is the winner of a Best of the Net Prize, and his work has been published or is forthcoming in Adirondack Review, Appalachian Heritage, BOAAT, Columbia Journal, Drunken Boat, Entropy, Fanzine, Forklift Ohio, Front Porch, Full Stop, Gigantic Sequins, The Millions, Post Road, Vol 1 Brooklyn, The Guardian, LitHub, Catapult, DIAGRAM, Redivider, and elsewhere. He lives and teaches high school in New York City.

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