A CONVERSATION WITH: KELLY FORSYTHE
A Conversation with Kelly Forsythe on Writing, Series Poems, Publishing, and Po Biz
[Poet Kelly Forsythe sat down with iO Contributor Stephen Danos over tea and cashews to talk about her writing process, influences, and her current project, a poetry manuscript called Colorado/Perennial that probes the Columbine massacre using lesser-known narratives, found text, and other accounts, as well her attraction to trauma and emotional candor in poetry.]
How does it feel being named an Emerging Poet by The Academy of American Poets? How has the “emerging poet” status influenced your writing process?
I am extremely honored and excited to be included as part of the “Emerging Poet” series in American Poet. The fact that Noelle Kocot, who is one of the most imaginative, universally honest writers, introduced my work in the journal is still pretty surreal for me. There is so much engaging poetry out in the world right now. We are all kind of “emerging” all the time, if you think about it, right?
As far as whether it has influenced my writing process, I’m just continuing to write and work on my book manuscript, Colorado / Perennial, the same way I have been for the past few years. After the article was published, my former MFA thesis adviser and mentor Jaswinder Bolina wrote me an email explaining how important is for me to stay focused on why the feature was chosen in the first place: I am a poet and I write poems. So I try to keep that in mind.
In the article, Noelle wrote of you:
“Her poetry is not arbitrary, lacking any emotional thrust; it reveals a rare form of emotional honesty and grace.” (20).
How do you find the balance between “emotional honesty and grace,” while finding room for the description of images?
I try to write from a specific, pinpointed emotion outwards. I think that images and descriptive language are means through which an emotion can be shared with a reader; they are attempts at “emotional-communication,” if you will. So, in a way, there is always “room” for both visual description and emotional content because they are so delicately, intimately linked. When I think of poetry with “emotional grace,” like Jean Valentine’s or Carl Phillips’ work, I think of carefulness and a fragile protection of the intended emotion. It only takes one or two lines of forcefully emotional language or heavyhanded images to knock the balance or “grace” of the whole piece off. I’ve always tried to be extremely careful about identifying the point in a poem where it might be tipping over. It is very important to me that my work is absorbed on an emotional level first, and whatever follows that emotional gesture in the mind of the reader is an added bonus.
In “Congress St. in Landscape” and “Cliff Theory,” two poems mentioned in the American Poet article, you subvert the reader’s expectations with a sort of end twist that comes from minor alterations. When writing, how do you know when a poem of yours is finished?
This is a difficult question, and I’m sure a lot of other writers can relate to my difficulty in answering this. I think, once again, it comes back to a matter of carefulness, of “self-consciousness” about how the poem is going to leave a reader feeling or what their last visual is going to be before they exit the poem. I have a habit of avoiding tidy, packaged endings because I try to avoid being predictable. This isn’t to say predictability is always a negative thing—I think predictability in poetry can be both good and bad—on one level, you are setting up the readers expectations and directly fulfilling them (it can be satisfying), on another level, you can risk a reader dismissing your work because they want the poem to enhance or transform something they see, feel or do every day in a surprising way.
So that being said, I think this question has a lot to do with the internal rhythm and progression of the poem as a whole, how it starts, where it goes and where it ends up. For almost 99% of my poetry, I can feel myself building up slowly, spending an extremely short moment at a climax, and then hacking down without much warning. Even though this isn’t intentional, a lot of what I write about is based on trauma, so maybe I’m mimicking what trauma feels like in real life: a quick drop off a ledge or unwanted turn of events.
In “Cliff Theory,” the ending of the poem was intentionally conclusive because it was originally supposed to be the conclusion of my book manuscript and a slightly obscured version of the Columbine shooters joint suicide: end of their lives, end of the manuscript. “Congress St. in Landscape,” is an imitation of Sharon Olds’ “Still Life in Landscape,” and the ending of my poem attempts to make the exact same gesture that her ending makes—moving from intimate observations to a larger, more universal concept.
In your book manuscript Colorado / Perennial, you confront the Columbine school shooting from multiple perspectives. What about this event inspired you to dedicate a series of poems to it? Did you set an initial goal for what you wanted the poems to be?
This is a two-part answer:
I was taking a class during my MFA at Columbia College Chicago with Tony Trigilio called “The Historical Poem.” He asked us to write a series of poems throughout the semester based on any historical event of our choosing. So I was in the “serial poem” mode already.
The semester before taking Tony’s course, I was teaching a freshman composition class where a student, who was intensely angry and shifting into an increasingly agitated state, was consistently turning in essays and assignments with violent language, images and sort of startling authoritative statements. Interestingly enough, or maybe coincidentally, I had assigned this class (and most of my other classes) Marilyn Manson’s brief essay in Rolling Stone, “Columbine: Whose Fault is It?” as an example of rhetorically persuasive writing. It occurred to me that my students really had no idea what happened in Littleton in 1999, and I guess I started the project with a goal of raising awareness and also working through my anxiety about having this student in my class everyday.
As far as “goals,” I knew I wanted the project to avoid any kind of glamorization of the events. I guess poetry innately does glamorize whatever its subject may be, but there was/is already so much excessive, inaccurate media coverage surrounding the shootings, I felt it was my responsibility to take the event as seriously as it should have been taken in 1999; this kind of “seriousness” is something I think only creative writing can do. The opposite of journalistic distance, poetry can bring the reader into the same place, time, feeling, therefore eliminating distance. I initially started the project solely focusing on what I found to be a complicated homosocial relationship between the shooters. That goal still remains, though things are pretty much always evolving.
I’m assuming there was a strong research component in writing about Columbine. What secondary sources aided you in writing these poems?
Yes, tons. I’m still working my way through The Columbine Report, which is the compilation of all the police documents, journals, witness reports, victim reports, autopsies, and so forth. Dave Cullen’s book for the 10th anniversary of the event, Columbine. “School Shootings as Organizational Deviance,” by Cybelle Fox and David J. Harding from Harvard University, which argues that school shootings are a means of upsetting the conformities placed upon students in the educational institution. “Suicide by mass murder: Masculinity, aggrieved entitlement and rampage school shootings” by Michael Kimmel and Rachel Kalish, which explores how the “hegemonic” masculinity in the US has led to a serious case of entitlement in young males. Hmm…also “School Violence and Social Control Theory: An Evaluation of the Columbine Massacre,” by Michael L. Pittaro. The Virginia Tech faculty emails, “Last Day on Earth” by David Vann, which is a profile of the NIU school shooting in 2008. Lots more.
What are some the challenges you encountered when writing series poems? How do you feel when writing a series poem versus a stand-alone poem?
I write in series because, to put it bluntly, I like to be in control. Girl has control issues. I like to know what is coming next, it reduces my anxiety and provides a much-need constraint to a project that is based on a gluttonous media frenzy from the 90’s. When I’m writing poems, I usually know if they are going to fit into the project before I start, but I’ve been “surprised” a couple of times by poems that I don’t think will work within the project confines and end up fitting.
Which poets do you find yourself returning to often? In what ways do they influence your writing?
Jean Valentine, Matthew Henricksen, Jan Beatty, Sylvia Plath, Carl Phillips, Dawn Lundy Martin. They have all influenced my writing dramatically within the last ten years in different ways. In Henricksen’s case, his first collection Ordinary Sun (Black Ocean) really devastated me as a whole, the poems just functioned so elegantly together as a cohesive unit. Valentine, Martin, Beatty, Plath just have the most fierce sexual power and such a strong understanding of the delicate balance between aggression and passivity. Carl Phillips’ work is intelligent and passionate, you can see how deeply engaged he is with his subject matter through the deliberateness of the language.
You’re the editor-in-chief for the new online journal Phantom Limb. Tell me about its aesthetic.
We are still youngins’. But I told our editorial board at our meeting the other day that I hope to follow in the footsteps of DIAGRAM and H_NGM_N, who seem to publish contemporary writing by a mix of emerging and established writers. Poems that take risks without sacrificing emotional impact. We will see how things turn out after our 50th anniversary…
Has a former professor or mentor given you a piece of advice that you still abide by today?
Jaswinder Bolina consistently told me that I needed to reveal my “real self” to the reader and not just remain in persona or obscured behind a veil of security. He also explained to me how lucky and privileged we are that we have the money, time and resources to study poetry in this country, something I’ve really taken with me and passed along to my own students. Jan Beatty also urged me to just do my thing and trust in my own drive and love of poetry, trust in my femininity.
You’re a renaissance woman in the poetry world: you’ve interned for Wave, the Poetry Foundation, Poets & Writers and currently work for Copper Canyon Press. What advice would you give poets that are currently in MFA programs looking to get the most out of their experience?
I wish I lived during The Renaissance.
No, really. I’m a firm believer that attending a MFA program is a craft-move in addition to a professional career-move. I invested in graduate school so that I could work on my poetry and was blessed with a terrifically supportive community of peers and faculty. I also invested in graduate school so I could secure a job in the po-biz after graduation that would allow me to continue writing and working with other people’s poetry for a long time. I say if there is an organization you’re interested in working with, go after internships and volunteer like crazy. Don’t be intimidated by anything. Seems cheesy. I always tell my students to email an inquiry to their “dream job” and see what happens.
Desert island metaphors aside, can you recommend some books of poetry you’ve recently read that we should buy right now?
Charles Reznikoff The Holocaust (Black Sparrow). He is working with found material (Holocaust survivor testimonies and documentation from the Eichmann and Nuremberg trials) in the bravest, rawest way.
Marianne Boruch The Book of Hours (Copper Canyon Press). Her structure and content is entirely natural, it flows and flows. The kind of book that you can let settle over you like a mist. Absorbing in the best way.
Kim Hyesoon, trans. by Don Mee Choi All the Garbage of the World, Unite! (Action Books). The feminist tradition behind this book is addictive, as is the hungry, visceral language.
David Trinidad Dear Prudence (Turtle Point Press). The new and selected collection by a poetry master, really. The pop culture playfulness paired with immediate emotional candidness is deeply gratifying.
Graham Foust Leave the Room to Itself (Ahsahta Press). One of my all-time favorites: intelligent, observational, intimate, necessary.
Now, enjoy a pair of Kelly Forsythe’s poems.
“She remembers, after being shot, her right arm floating up in the air and then coming back down.”
4/20 and warm feelings. Warm, floating,
it takes a slow landing on her
stomach, but what’ve the bone? What’ve
the tendon, the soft connection
between skin and the solid so
give me your hand
I had a moment in a grocery store
I never explained to my parents
When I read you were tired of being scared
no longer cared if you died
I opened my red-blonde chest, led it up
to a hill and followed you
everywhere—your every move trailed
by something of myself beating
in a warm rhythm. I would be
so devoted, yes I would be
so deeply that way. I had this moment
in a makeup aisle with a man,
saw my hair float up in the air
away from my body, take
its slow landing. But what’ve
the shooting? What’ve the feelings
and the distance? One shooter
followed the other’s every move,
barely shot to kill. He was so devoted
he was so deeply that way.
Down the hall, through
doors, exploring rooms
sabotage the way
I think a lot. How
under each other. I have
who lie constantly
straight across and down,
good and bad movies
connects but in a
to get higher and stable.
Today is a cycle: the
of my body are cruel
against the shell of school—
if this is a cliff theory, I
am clinging onto
the smallest rocks.