BY JOANNA C. VALENTE
This is going to be a big year for Devin Kelly, because he has two books coming out in relative proximity. His book "Blood on Blood" is forthcoming from Unknown Press this year, while his other collection, "In This Quiet Church of Night, I Say Amen," is coming out from ELJ Publications in 2017.
"Blood on Blood" is a gorgeous tale of growing up in a house of silence--and how that affects personhood, adulthood, and brotherhood. Having heard Devin read his poems, I can say he has a uniquely perceptive voice.
I was thrilled to be able to speak with Devin about this forthcoming collection below:
JV: This collection is clearly very personal, as it details your relationship with your brother. Was it difficult to write about? Do you write personally in general?
DK: Most everything I write is personal in nature, often deeply. I’m grateful to be able to separate the act of writing work from the risks writing such work entails--you know, like how it will be perceived by loved ones. My brother and I were raised for the latter part of our childhood by just our father, and none of us really talked at all about anything. It didn’t seem out of the ordinary because that’s just the way it was, and I don’t think I realized until later the extent to which our silence could be made into something transcendent through language.
Our life was mundane, but language has the potential to heighten all of that, make the smallest piece-of-shit moments into something sorrowful, joyful, whatever. So no, it wasn’t difficult to access those memories--I think I’ve gone back into them so many times that the past has become a pliant thing, and it’s fun in a way to throw different kinds of light on it and see what happens – what shines in a new way, what dies out, what comes back.
In the end, there’s few things we know for certain. One is that time runs out. The other is that there are people with whom we share blood. No matter how much or little we talk, there’s no one I’ll ever feel closer to than my father and my brother. I can make myself well up when I think of them. I take our collective story very seriously because so much of what runs through me runs through them. I believe very firmly that our story is a debt and a reward we are each accountable for, and my hope is that such a feeling comes through.
How do you know when a poem is done?
Oy, I don’t know. Is it bad if I just say something like when it feels done? It’s hard to say. I very much do get a feeling. A heaviness. A deepening. This is such a subjective and interesting question, because I think we all perceive the act of writing differently. I know we do. For me, writing a poem is an act of accrual. I’m trying to write out a feeling, a story, through lines, and the hope is that it will allow a reader to move through my headspace, reach that same feeling. I think (and this is my personal take) that such a moment happens, like I mentioned, with accrual, a piling-on, however tangential. It’s why I love the word and. This and this and this and this. It’s fun.
Some poets prefer minimalism. Some poets prefer cutting excess. All of these approaches can exist. That’s the beauty of poetry, it’s a super generous art. I don’t like when people approach it with complete certainty, that this must be the way. When I finish a poem and look back at it, I know there’s stuff I could cut, but there’s also the thought that everything seems necessary, and I feel a need to honor that. That the roughage is part of the art. That if a poem is approximating some sort of feeling, then there needs to be a little bit of detritus, the stuff of headspace and doubt.
And I know people who’d disagree with that, and that’s cool. And it doesn’t mean I approach a poem lazily--for every ten lines that made this new book, there’s 10, 20, 30 lines that didn’t--poems I started that I knew weren’t honest, or poems I finished that didn’t work the way I wanted. For me, editing is starting anew with failure in mind.
What I love about poetry is that this process can exist alongside so many others. But in the end, the poem you’re trying to write can only be that--the poem you’re trying to write. It can’t be someone else’s. It has to be yours. But within that is the fodder of so much you’ve read, you’ve loved, you’ve hated.
What were you listening to and reading and watching while writing this?
Well, as far as listening, obviously Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska. Also Sharon Van Etten, Sufjan Stevens, Tallest Man on Earth, This Will Destroy You, Pinegrove, Modern Baseball, Advance Base. And a lot of the jazz my roommate puts on--Chet Baker and Thelonius Monk and Sonny Rollins especially.
Here are some books I read throughout the process: Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts, Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds, Janice Lee’s The Sky Isn’t Blue, Jamaal May’s The Big Book of Exit Strategies, a bunch of James Wright, a bunch of Larry Levis, a bunch of Yusef Komunyakaa, Jim Harrison’s Just Before Dark, essays by Eula Biss and Lia Purpura.
I don’t know the ways in which all of these books influenced me, but, you know, they did or didn’t but probably did.
Also, Terrence Malick’s Badlands. Great movie. My girlfriend and I watched "Zootopia." I sometimes need to watch "Seinfeld" to help me fall asleep. None of this is really relevant. So, yeah. Go figure.
How do you know when to break a line?
Some combination of intuition, purposeful mistake making, wordplay, more mistakes, and not knowing and never-being-able-to-know what the fuck I’m doing.
What part of you writes your poems? What are your obsessions?
I obsess about so much, really. I'm terribly self conscious, and I'm terrified about the ways in which we each view the world - how much such views differ, and if my worldview has any place here. Not too long ago, I thought I was right about everything, and that gave me permission to feel victimized by the world when things didn't go my way, or when other people didn't, either. But, I mean, most of life is not knowing. We are surrounded far more by what we do not know than what we do, and this is very much what draws me to a poem.
There's so much anxiety involved with being alive, and I believe in poetry as a kind of stilling. It's the only way I can really still myself. A poem is a place where binaries don't need to exist. Right versus wrong, love versus hate. A poem can get at the infinitely small gray space where those kinds of binaries meet. I think that's really cool. And, I mean, poetry or not, in the end my hope is that we all sort of dwell in the gray space, the nuance of things. Just a huddled mass of fear and anxiety and embarrassment trying to figure shit out.
That's what a poem is. It's rough. I've made a lot of mistakes in life. That's what a poem is. Never perfect. You live in it, you suffer for it, you keep trying. And that takes empathy. And empathy understands that you’re never going to be right all the time. And knowing that you’re never going to be right all the time but still wanting to live in this mess means you’re okay with listening. And listening involves sound and breath and stillness and language. And bam, there you go, poetry.
Joanna C. Valente is a human who lives in Brooklyn, New York. She is the author of Sirs & Madams (Aldrich Press, 2014), The Gods Are Dead (Deadly Chaps Press, 2015), Marys of the Sea (forthcoming 2016, ELJ Publications) & Xenos (forthcoming 2017, Agape Editions). She received her MFA in writing at Sarah Lawrence College. She is also the founder of Yes, Poetry, as well as the managing editor for Luna Luna Magazine. Some of her writing has appeared in Prelude, The Atlas Review, The Huffington Post, Columbia Journal, and elsewhere. She has lead workshops at Brooklyn Poets.
Devin Kelly earned his MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and is a co-host of the Dead Rabbits Reading Series in Manhattan. His collaborative chapbook with Melissa Smyth, This Cup of Absence, is forthcoming from Anchor & Plume Press. His work has appeared in Drunken Boat, Gigantic Sequins, Lines & Stars, Post Road, The Millions, and more, and he's been nominated for both the Pushcart and Best of the Net prizes. He works a college advisor for high schoolers in Queens, teaches English at Bronx Community College, and lives in Harlem. You can find him on twitter @themoneyiowe.