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What Permission Do Poets Have to Tell Someone Else’s Story?

Devin Kelly’s recent poetry collection, In this Quiet Church of Night, I Say Amen, is perhaps not religious in a strictly historical or theological sense. However, Kelly’s poems find a sense of spiritual wonder, both ecstasy and austerity, in nature and mortality. There’s a constant awareness of life’s simple gifts, and a fear that we may lose them at any time. I had the privilege of asking Devin a few questions via email about bringing honesty to his work, daily routines, and the thriving poetry community that we’re currently enjoying.

Aram Mrjoian

Many of the poems In this Quiet Church of Night, I Say Amen address the death of family members or the fear of family or friends dying, particularly your father, who the collection is also dedicated to. How do you approach such somber subject matter? What challenges are there in writing about something so personal?

Devin Kelly

You know, I think acceptance is almost a final stage of anything. Obviously, there are various things we can accept that are easier than most. But some—death, loss, grief, and other mysteries—are almost always approaching acceptance, for me at least. The death of my grandmother, and my father’s old age, and all the things that sort of spiral slow away from me are the heavy subjects of this book. But I think in each poem I am writing toward an acceptance of these things, rather than arriving at it. And that is a challenge! Because I leave the poem not with an understanding of mystery, but rather with an encounter with it. And so I’m changed, and life is changed, and then I write another poem. The challenge, I think too, is that we still live outside of the interior-ness of what we write. Writing is a kind of spirituality in that sense.

The challenge of writing about the personal is less to me the challenge of sharing what’s personal and more the challenge of being honest about all that is included in the personal — other people, other stories. You know, I didn’t tell my father I dedicated this book to him, and I truly don’t know what permission we have as writers to tell anyone’s story, or to include those stories in our own. I struggle with that. But I’ve found in writing a voice I don’t really have in the common dialogues of life. And I want people to know about my father’s grace through such a voice. I think in many ways, I grew up internalizing that overt masculine challenge — to say as little as you can, to be more of a body than a heart or a voice. I write, in a lot of ways, against that notion.

Aram Mrjoian

You’re an avid runner (ultra-marathons, right?). There’s something about the energy, endurance, and distance covered in these poems that seem inherently connected to that runner’s spirit. Whether through enjambment, punctuation, or subject matter, a lot of the poems in this collection feel like they travel. Do you feel that in your own work? Does your love for running bleed into how you approach your work?

Devin Kelly

Hah, yes I am! I come from a family of runners and grew up running and ran competitively in college and have been trying my hand at that dreaded ultra-marathon distance this year. So thank you for making that connection. I perhaps identify more as a runner than a writer (if I had to choose, but also don’t quote me).

But to your questions, I think the body and the ways in which we can learn to listen to it and adapt to it and whatever gifts it gives us or shortcomings it offers — I think all of this is something I consider (also, I acknowledge, too, how grateful I am to have a body that allows me to run and enjoy the act of running).

My girlfriend grew up as a serious dancer, and we talk about this a lot, about a sort of physical intelligence. How to be aware of when your body is unbalanced, or teetering, or suffering, and how such awareness can bleed into your emotional state. I need to run before I write. I need to enact the kind of movement or emotion I want on the page. And that’s a personal thing—it’s definitely not prescriptive.

But I think that any kind of writing can be an act of endurance in that sense. I dwell on the page, and dwell within a poem, the same way I dwell within a long run or a race. It’s not so much a metaphor of trying, that if you do the “necessary work” you wind up with a “proud result,” because that is not always true. Failure is real. Very real. Rather, it’s a metaphor of dwelling. If you live within the unfamiliar, the mystery, for long enough, you might learn a new way of accessing that mystery, of seeing it differently for the first time. I don’t know if I’ve written any good poems, but the good poems I’ve read do this very well. They open up new doors for themselves to walk through, and they carry us readers through that threshold as if we too are feeling and seeing for the first time. But I think that’s all because they walked through that first door – whatever that is – in the first place.

Aram Mrjoian

In your poem “Shenandoah,” while considering the music of Keith Jarrett, you note, “you can hear / the human hesitation about / what comes next.” Many of these poems capture those introspective moments of self-doubt. Are your poems hinting at that constant divide between the sensory and the cerebral?

Devin Kelly

So much of me is doubt! And I hope to some degree it stays that way, and that I can continue to live with it. I used to play keys in a band, and I was never the best live-show-performer because every time I lifted my fingers from whatever notes I was playing, there’d be this split second where I’d be like, “Oh, shit, what’s the next note?” I like that space in writing, though, because that hesitation is a kind of vulnerability. Like, what really is the next thing we can say? And how does it relate, if at all? How does it matter? Should it care about any of those things?

So yes, I really cherish that divide between what we feel and what we think, between what we know and what we don’t. I think that divide is one of the reasons why some of us are forever trying to write. It’s also why I think no poem is ever done. A lot of people talk about that, about when we know something is finished. I don’t know how much I believe in the finished thing, especially since I think a poem is something like space + time + environment + mood + thought + feeling + language + obsession. Something like that. But if you look at all those factors, so many of them are variable, ever-changing. We even leave a poem, finished or unfinished, in a different state than when we started!

So if we come back to it at all, it is with a renewed sense of mystery. Maybe I just believe that we are not changing our poems, but we are changing ourselves. This is why I think we can write about the same things over and over again, casting different light on the same obsessions. I don’t know if any of that answers your question. But I really appreciate the question. My mind is still churning.

Aram Mrjoian

One poem I truly loved in this collection is “Fractions,” which holds the phrase, “most things take a good & / honest time & most people pretend they don’t have time / for them.” This collection is devoid of technology for the most part, there’s more a focus on instances of intimacy with others, with nature, or isolated moments of reflection. What’s your writing process like? How long do your poems take and what can stand in the way?

Devin Kelly

Thanks for saying that, and for being so generous. I used to have a process, before I started working so much. I used to have the luxury to wake up and make coffee and go for a run and come back and write for an hour or so every morning. And I appreciated that because it made me feel like writing was a discipline, which I think can be a really iffy thing to tell people, and which I don’t know if I agree with anymore. Now I teach a few classes every week in the morning and then take the train or run to my other job at a high school, and I find myself trying to set aside minutes here and there throughout the day. I don’t know what this has done for my poems, but it’s made me a much more patient person when it comes to them. It’s also made me question my values. I love teaching and I love the work I do with kids in this city, and I don’t really care anymore if my writing suffers because of that. Or if it takes longer. Or whatever. “Suffer” is probably the wrong word. And I feel mostly just really lucky to be able to say that, and grateful, because I enjoy what I do, and I gain such joy from it. And when I look up, I see that so many people in this community of writers are doing similar things – they’re working with communities, and teaching, and adjuncting. And I get this shared sense of living-ness from that. It can be really uplifting.

To be more blunt about your question and those lines you shared, though: a poem can take a real long time, but it doesn’t have to. There’s often this dialogue of masochism that surrounds creation that I think is really unfair to writers, especially new ones, who might think that if they didn’t struggle, it’s not good enough. I don’t want that to be true. I think people have privileged revision for a long time, and I think (and this is my theory) that this comes from a place of bad teaching, a place of prescriptive teaching, of teachers trying to highlight the gap between themselves and their students rather than trying to bridge it. To that I say, for lack of a better word: fuck that. For every good poem you show me that took 70 drafts, I can show you a good poem that took one. This doesn’t mean we should devalue revision, or work, but I’d like the way we talk about it to change. I think it’s better to practice and instill values grounded in self-awareness, in inward curiosity, to ask did I write something honest, did I surprise myself here, and to learn how to cherish such moments.

Aram Mrjoian

On a similar wavelength, in “My Grandmother is Holy,” you write “You see, I am trying to do better things / than write.” Are you critical of your own art or of being an artist? Obviously, there’s been discussion since the election about how artists spend their time. How do you respond to what’s going on?

Devin Kelly

Those lines sort of came out of me while writing that poem, and I thought about if I really meant them after I finished the poem. But they felt true to the poem and some of that doubt (I think it’s doubt) rings really true for me always. There’s a lot of self-critique and defeatism in that poem. It’s about my grandmother’s death and about this notion of the soul as something concrete, and the whole poem enacts this debate in my mind, a debate that I think is eternal, about the point of it all, that this writing won’t save my grandmother in any real way, that her death is as solid as a written word. And, like, what can we do with that?

In that same poem I do a lot of self-correction, too. I say, “it is not the body that is holy / but how we live inside the body,” and then, later, I correct myself, saying, “The body is holy, / because I miss it.” And I think that I live between those two poles always. Also, I like poems that do this. That move away from the desire to say something true and have the vulnerability to admit wrongness, and change.

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But anyways, I say all of that to say yes, I am critical of my own art. I often think what is the point, who will this resurrect? But then, stepping back, and maybe relating it to this moment, I think it’s really important to understand that my own ability to say that internally – to debate my own art’s worth – is a kind of privilege. It’s a privilege to have both the time and safety to step away from a poem and wonder about its worth. For too many, though, art is inextricably tied to existence. And for too many, the act of making art is an act of survival and defiance against a state that is repressing the voice and breath of those people. You know, I used to think that art was simply to help us cope with the living-ness of life, with the dailyness and the hurt and the love and the loss, with the humanness of it all, and how incomprehensible it is. Incomprehensibly hard and incomprehensibly beautiful. But it took me too long to understand that there are people for whom simple dailyness is an act of survival. When I understood this, it didn’t really change the way I wrote, at least not at first. I will always be obsessed with my obsessions, with loss and grief and love and fatherhood and masculinity. But it changed the way I read. And it changed who I read, and how I approached a work. And it changed what I felt responsible for and what I felt responsible to do. And it made me believe that I could not honestly live with myself as a writer if I did not practice a humanness grounded in accountability, and generous work, and supportive action.

In that same poem again, I write “America has not / asked a question of itself for the longest time.” I think that the people asking the questions of America are so often artists, and so often artists who are marginalized by the state. And those artists need to be uplifted and celebrated and read. And there is a generation of kids, a generation just born, and a generation somewhere in the milieu of the about-to-be-born, who deserve access and opportunity to create art, who deserve spaces that allow them to give themselves permission to be who they are.

Aram Mrjoian

What writers, artists, and others were integral to this collection? Additionally, what poets and writers have you really been inspired by recently?

Devin Kelly

I’d be remiss not to shout out Joanna Valente and all the hard work they did as part of CCM to help this book become a book. Joanna is beyond wonderful. As far as inspiration, well, Steve Scafidi is my poetic hero. I have some of his words tattooed on my back. And I owe a lot of my understanding and love of poetry to his work. And Terrance Hayes taught me a great deal about how to write about the divine and the spiritual. He has an older poem called “The Same City” which I think is one of the best poems ever written. His ability to engage with the idea of holiness and the soul is something I think about almost daily. Both of those poets, too, offer a quiet music in their rhythm and voice. And then there’s The National, who provide one of the epigraphs to the book. If anything, their music has given me the permission to sit within my sorrow and attempt to make of it something beautiful.

As for writers now, the list is long, and in no particular order, I’ll list some artists who excite me. And by excite, I don’t necessarily mean that they change how I write (though many do!), but they do the higher work of changing, in many ways, how I live. They are: Eloisa Amezcua, Keegan Lester, Kamden Hilliard, Ariel Francisco, Chelsea Dingman, Jess Rizkallah, jayy dodd, Carlie Hoffman, George Kovalenko, Cooper Wilhelm, Cortney Lamar Charleston, Caits Meissner, José Olivarez, Rosebud Ben-Oni, Ross Gay, Lynn Melnick, Tarfia Faizullah, Meghan McClure and more, more, more. I’ve never met some of these people and some of them are my friends and some of them are more well-known than others but all of them do something in their work that wounds me or makes me feel safe or enlivens me or broadens me. They are deepening the world with their words. But the list could go on. It surely should.

Aram Mrjoian

What are you working on now? Has your focus changed at all since finishing this collection?

Devin Kelly

I’m just writing poems now and giving some space to see if they offer some collective direction. There’s a bigger project in prose I’m tackling, too. But mostly I’m working a lot. Part of my full-time job at this high school in Queens is to create an after school space for artistic enrichment and community engagement, and so I’ve been working to get local poets into the classroom here. I haven’t really written much at all because of this. But I can’t complain about that. It’s a lot of fun. Other than that, I’m leaning toward being a little more reclusive than I think I am or have been. There are days where being present in all the various communities I inhabit feels like a lot of work. Being present as a teacher, as an after-school director, as a poet online. I really applaud people who inhabit all their various roles with grace and love. But I think it can be hard, and I have been thinking a lot about how to step back and give myself the permission to breathe. Go for a run. Call my dad. Watch a minor league baseball game.

In This Quiet Church of Night, I Say Amen by Devin Kelly
Civil Coping Mechanisms
Published November 13, 2017

Devin Kelly 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). His work has been published in Adirondack ReviewAppalachian Heritage, BOAAT, Columbia Journal, Drunken Boat, Entropy, Fanzine, Forklift Ohio, Front Porch, Full Stop, Gigantic Sequins, The Millions, Post Road, Vol 1 Brooklyn, and elsewhere.

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