Kelly R. Samuels
Author of “Plummet” and “Glacial Surging” in ISSUE 02 and her thoughts on news as inspiration, writing spaces, and the importance of word choice.
What are you reading these days? Do you love/hate/feel neutral about it, and why?
I am currently rereading Lorrie Moore’s novel Anagrams, for, maybe, the fourth or fifth time. I love it—for its verve and sadness. Also because I taught literature, composition, and creative writing classes at the college level for fourteen years and can definitely recognize aspects of the narrative. I am also reading, as I always do, a poetry collection—right now: Sarah Gridley’s Insofar. This is my favorite of hers, largely for imagery and sound.
Could you provide for us a passage of writing that deeply shifts something inside you?
In the last few months I read a collection of essays by Kathleen Jamie, Sightlines: A Conversation with the Natural World. There were many passages that spoke to me; her short essay “La Cueva” is beautiful, but it was the last paragraph of the book that not necessarily shifted something inside me, but deeply resonated with me for its observation on change and impermanence:
“There are myths and fragments which suggest that the sea that we are flying over was once land. Once upon a time, and not so long ago, it was a forest with trees, but the sea rose and covered it over. The wind and sea. Everything else is provisional. A wing’s beat and it’s gone.” (p. 238)
Jamie, Kathleen. Sightlines. The Experiment, 2012.
When you are working on a piece, what inspirations do you draw from?
For me, inspiration comes before I begin the poem; I often springboard from either a bit of news I’ve read, an interesting phrase or word, a memory, or a work of art I’ve seen. The two poems published in Issue 02 did the first, as did my collection All the Time in the World, which focused entirely on climate change news. My first chapbook, Words Some of Us Rarely Use, used words rarely heard in everyday conversation as the titles of the poems. I sort of leapt into the definitions, linking memories from my childhood and adolescence, mostly. I’ve done some ekphrastic pieces in response to works by Eva Hesse, Cy Twombly, Francesca Woodman. Paintings and photographs are almost always capable of producing a poem from me. As Gillian Sze writes in her book quiet night think, “Paintings…wanted me to be involved.”
What craft elements are you most interested in/attached to within your writing?
When I taught creative writing, I emphasized four traits of poetry: voice, sound, construction, and word choice/imagery. The last might interest me the most. Why that word? Is there a better, more apt word to help the reader see? Sound matters, I think, because, along with construction, it’s where poetry can differ most from prose. It’s why reading aloud drafts is so important. Any time I revise, I do what I call ‘sweeps,’ where I focus on one trait until I’m satisfied. Then, I move onto the next, etc. Recently, I’ve been playing more with construction, with the negative space on the page. I think it’s fascinating to hear a poem and then later see that it’s done something interesting with construction; it’s like an added bonus.
Tell us more about what "playing more with construction" looks like for you and how those page-related decisions come about within your work.
Sometimes I know as soon as I begin writing what the poem will look like: left justified, streaming or with stanzas, or moving about the page, allowing for negative space. My “Associative Thoughts” poems, one of which can be found online at Peatsmoke, felt they had to be streamed.
Sometimes I don’t know; rather, the construction comes to me as I am composing the piece, or after, when I decide to construct the poem in a completely different way. One of my favorite teaching exercises is to take a poem and remove all capitalization, punctuation and line breaks, creating a paragraph, that another person unfamiliar with the poem reconstructs. It allows students to see what can be done and to ask themselves why they chose the construction they did.
In the case of a new series of poems I am working on and that are tied to “Glacial Surging,” I knew I wanted to use more of the page and have more negative space to reflect the changes/shifts in a relationship, but also the exact action taking place in the poem. For example, in the first two lines of “Glacial Surging,” I wanted the second line to tie with the idea of something not being noticed or seen, as well as create a space that resembled an empty center. In the poem, “Ammil,” published by Opt West this year, I indented the third line in a stanza to mirror the “sudden shrouding” the speaker was talking of, and in another poem, “Haugr,” published by RHINO this year, I indented quite far to align with “The wide mouth narrowing” that the speaker was referencing.
Who (or what) are some of your writing obsessions, and why?
I love to know where people write—in what space. Must it be quiet? What view? A desk or a table? What color the walls? I find it interesting to know where a writer was able to focus and produce their best work.
What does the environment that you need to create your work look like? Tell us more about your creative space.
Most often I write in my home office, at my desk. The walls are a blue I love and there’s natural light in the mornings and midday. I have several paintings from several different artists—Laine Justice, Nina Lance, Rebecca Crowell—that keep me company, and I am always joined by my constant companion and joy, my dog, Margaret. I do need quiet to compose; the trains rattling the house and my small clock ticking haven’t bothered me yet.
What are some ways in which you remain productive/find time to be a writer?
A schedule helps, though if an idea strikes—often a first line—I’ll take advantage of that moment. I think the people I surround myself with understand, for the most part, how important my writing is to me—that I see it in similar ways to how others view their jobs. Time matters. Or, in other words, being given the time to write.
What are some ways in which you get through a block in your creative work?
I recognize that what I like to call the fallow periods are good for me. I sort of give over to not being able to find the words and spend even more time observing the world, reading others’ work, tapping into other interests, like painting. Basically, I cut myself some slack, knowing the ability to express myself will return. When I am struggling with a particular piece, I set it down. I walk away. I might return that same day or wait awhile to see if it’ll come together. When it doesn’t, I save the lines I like to a folder and toss the rest.
How do you navigate the experience of submissions/rejections/acceptances?
I try to keep to a schedule with submitting work, usually two days a week, apart from the summer, when everything slows down. Rejections and acceptances, as we know, arrive when they do. When I first began submitting work, it was difficult to receive a rejection, but over the years, I’ve learned that to have a piece(s) rejected is all part of the process. Because there is rarely a reason given, I’ll often return to the work and ask myself if it needs revision. Acceptances are delightful!; they are pure moments of joy. I respond quickly and then withdraw the poem(s) from any other journals I submitted them. When the piece comes out, I set up a link on my website and promote both my work and the journal on Instagram.
Regarding your pieces in Issue 02, what do they mean for/to you?
“Plummet” was sparked by news of the collapse of the Arecibo Observatory’s telescope in Puerto Rico. It was once one of the largest telescopes and was said to have provided some of the first evidence of the neutron star. Video captured the collapse, which I found sort of mesmerizing. I didn’t know quite where I was going to go with the poem when I began, which is often the case, but I ended up linking it to my experience of being a mother of young children, as well as to my son, who is an avid stargazer.
“Glacial Surging” was prompted by reading of how a glacier in Alaska was surging, or undergoing rapid movement. I knew right away I wanted to tie that to a relationship, and how one person may be moving away from, or at a faster pace, than the other. I like blending the public and the private in a lot of my work.
Do you have any recent publications and/or projects?
I have a new chapbook being published this year by dancing girl press out of Chicago: To Marie Antoinette, from. It was informed by Antonia Fraser’s biography, and has me—as a girl, as an adolescent and as an adult—speaking to Marie Antoinette. The poems highlight both our differences and our similarities. Once it’s available, it’ll be featured on dgp’s site as part of the chapbook series: http://www.dancinggirlpress.com/
Is there anything else you would like to share with other writers?
I’ve always found it helpful to imagine a listener. Who is it you are speaking to? What is it you want to share with them, and in what way? Also: Read others’ work. See what is being done. And if you like it, share it!
Kelly R. Samuels is the author of the full-length collection All the Time in the World (Kelsay Books) and two chapbooks: Words Some of Us Rarely Use and Zeena/Zenobia Speaks. She is a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee with work appearing in The Massachusetts Review, Court Green, RHINO, The Vassar Review, and Radar. She lives in the Upper Midwest.