Kelli Allen’s work has appeared in numerous journals/anthologies in the US and internationally. She is currently a visiting professor of English Literature at Rutgers University/RUNIN, Northeast Normal University in Changchun, China.
She is the recipient of the 2018 Magpie Award for Poetry. Her chapbook, Some Animals, won the 2016 Etchings Press Prize. Her chapbook, How We Disappear, won the 2016 Damfino Press award. Her full-length poetry collection, Otherwise, Soft White Ash, arrived from John Gosslee Books (2012) and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Her collection, Imagine Not Drowning, was released by C&R Press in January 2017. Allen’s new collection, Banjo’s Inside Coyote, arrived from C&R Press March, 2019. You can read a review of it here.
Interviewed by Jonathan Taylor
JT: As well as a poet, you’re also a dancer. Do you find overlaps (or differences, for that matter) between the two art-forms?
KA: There are many ways in which dance and poetry use the same intentions—both employ the notion of the Line to communicate forward momentum or a pause. Both require a variety of music or sound to enhance communication. Both ask the “reader” to invest time and focus in something wholly created to induce response.
The Mayan poet, Humberto Ak'abal, once told me that I am “a mermaid on land.” He said this to me after following behind for some time while I walked around a lake, reciting bits of poems, circling my arms to the sound of the stanzas in the air, and occasionally, unconsciously, doing a soft pirouette on the path.
I am fairly convinced that I can no longer completely separate dance from verse.
JT: How autobiographical is your poetry?
KA: The poetry is as much about my own life as the bird’s thirst is her own when she lands close to water. I write to give shape to what I feel swirling-up from my present and past, yes, but the language gives new meaning to anything I may have intended to be “true.” When we are children and begin to understand that “I” means This Self, and that self is one that others see and acknowledge, the world becomes both more exhilarating to inhabit and also more terrifying. For me, making poems is a way to enter those two spaces of wonder and terror with the Self watching from the passenger seat, or just letting her riding high the mast over one monster-populated sea or another. In this way, the poems are "true" because they are meant.
JT: Your poetry often confronts the most serious themes: love, sex, illness, death. Are there subjects particularly suited to poetry? Are there things poetry struggles to address?
KA: Love is the subject most elusive and most necessary in my writing. I have no firmer grasp now on what the word means than I did when I first began writing twenty years ago. I do not expect to learn enough in this lifetime to offer answers or elucidations that could pretend to be unchangeable, but the pursuit fuels the work.
It has taken me many years to publicly embrace how much sexuality informs my writing. I am an extremely physical creature and take tremendous pleasure in what the body is capable of experiencing. I have made a decision in regards to my literary work that I will allow for no shame, guilt, or coyness when addressing my sexual desires, history, or expectations. Being open to exploration when uniting the body to language is perhaps my primary intention in my new poems and stories. This one brief life with the fleshy machine of a body is the most bizarre, fantastical gift we are granted. I hope to write more boldly, and certainly more graphically, about what sex has given me and why.
I have known death early and often. My brother’s death when I was a child, and my mother’s subsequent battles with and through mental illness until her suicide in 2012, meant that I was aware of the tenuousness of being alive from my youngest memories. I have no living siblings, grandparents, or parents and this orphaning has made me wide-eyed in a way that I am grateful for. My few close friends tease me frequently for my inability to be still, to just “chill and relax.” The reason for my near constant internal (and often external) motion is my heavy sense of impermanence and the not articulable sensation that everything, anything, could pop at any moment. To be clear, this is not any shade of anxiety. Rather, this on-my-ownness has fed and habituated a marrow-deep sense of excitement to be alive as enormously as possible. This need to be Awake and Present is also why I am nearly always completely sober and have felt so little need in my life for anything that dulls my senses.
I have yet to meet a subject (other than accounting) for which I am not immediately drawn to bend, seduce, and spell-cast into a poem. All is ripe, and all is able. “It’s still magic even if you know how it’s done.”
JT: Does teaching get in the way of your writing, or help it, or both?
KA: I write this with no sense of sentimentality or grandiosity: Teaching is the greatest work of my adult life. Every interaction with a student is an exchange. I attempt to enter each lesson with passion and curiosity and in this desire I am able to remain open to what I may learn in the process of explanation and discussion. I believe strongly in the Socratic approach to the classroom: Pose questions and be prepared to change the mind of master and student at any moment. The reciprocity in debate feeds my writing when I find moments wherein I am able to put together images and scenes. There is no better way to examine and explore the human condition in all its compassion, frustration, frivolity, and depth than in the classroom day-after-day. My writing continues to benefit from teaching and, in turn, my writing benefits my teaching.
JT: Who is your intended reader? What effect do you want to have on him or her?
KA: Anyone interested in what it means to occupy this world in tandem with elephants, ants, Venus fly traps, Tardigrades, willow trees, trapdoor spiders, birds of paradise, and fennec foxes—these are my intended readers.
I want anyone who comes across my stories and poems to feel as though they have entered a conversation at just the right moment. I hope whomever finds my odd work is reminded of ravens and hares peeping through a thorny underbrush. I wish for my readers to put a hand on their own stomachs when they finish my poems and feel equal parts satiated and painfully hungry. I want my words to cause a blush that stays.
JT: In your collection Banjo’s Inside Coyote, you write that ‘those birds we wept over / the first afternoon will swoop into the country / as though nothing here matters.’ Your poetry is full of natural imagery, and birds. What role do you feel nature plays in your poetry?
KA: When the sea lion lifts his fat tail to let a crab pass, shouldn’t we all pay attention?
The natural world is us. Thinking (or worse, behaving as though) we are somehow apart from the strands and puffs and goo that build and weave the world we inhabit is ludicrous. Even this sexual body is dependent upon the air it breathes, the water it needs after climax, the materials it desires to recline against … Our relationship to, and recognition of, every particle around the body is as vital as the terrible master in our brain cradle that dictates just how much praise and grief we allot to what surrounds us. My poetry will continue to give room to what thrives and dies and grows beyond and outside the solitude of this one human life.
JT: What are you working on at the moment? What are your longer term aims for your poetry?
KA: Fiction! My new collection is a series of loosely-linked flash fictions. I should be honest, though, in that my fiction is still poetry of a sort. The language of each story leaps into lyric as it wishes, and sometimes gets distracted by sugar left too long in the woods or by a sweaty bicep glimpsed during morning walks. The new work is strange, of course, and more focused on the female body’s experience of being seen rather than seeing. The collection plays with Southeast Asian mythology, too, and there are several new tricksters afoot.
My long-term desires for my poetry are simple: In the next year, I hope to finish my fourth full-length and let it into the world to offer succor and salve. The new poems are more physical than my previous pieces and I am learning how to navigate pathways that push the vertical even further. My end-goal remains unchanged: to continue to make work that allows tender spaces to be more and less so: poems and stories that remind us that the point of being here is communion, not comfort.
About the interviewer
Jonathan Taylor is director of Everybody's Reviewing. His books include the poetry collection Cassandra Complex (Shoestring, 2018), the novel Melissa (Salt, 2015), and the memoir Take Me Home (Granta, 2007). He directs the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester.