Devin Kelly earned his MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and 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 such journals and magazines as Adirondack Review, Appalachian Heritage, BOAAT, Columbia Journal, Drunken Boat, Entropy, Fanzine, Forklift Ohio, Front Porch, Full Stop, Gigantic Sequins, The Millions, Post Road, Vol 1 Brooklyn, and more. He is the Director of Enrichment Programming for the Sunnyside Community Services Youth Futures Program at Queens Vocational High School, as well as a teacher at the City College of New York. He is the founder and co-host of the Dead Rabbits Reading Series and currently lives in Harlem.
Tell Tell’s Tim Lynch and poet Devin Kelly delve the concerns that orbit Kelly’s second poetry collection, In This Quiet Church of Night, I Say Amen (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2017), and what it means to make a poem.
TL: For me, a lot of this book revolves around presence. Largely presence in the body, but within that is trust, desire, mystery, and just having perspective within that presence. So my big question—this is a huge question: What does presence mean to you in terms of a poem?
DK: Wow. That is a question. I think for me presence means—oh man—I think coming at a poem with a sense of honesty and self-interrogation. And so what I mean by that is there’s a lot of things that constitute a presence in the world. There’s us, and there’s other bodies, and there’s mysteries, and there’s absences, and all of these things constitute, like, the whole fucking presence of the world. Everything that we encounter or don’t encounter is a kind of presence. But within a poem, none of that matters to me unless I am searching, unless the poem is an honest search of myself, if that makes sense. It’s a loaded question though. You could talk about presence a lot, and so much of it I don’t have an answer to. But I think also that’s what a poem is, something we don’t have an answer to. But I think coming to that place out of an honest search of self, to me, is really meaningful. I don’t know if that answers your question.
TL: I don’t think that question has an answer. Thinking about that too, not having an answer, it seems like mystery guides so much in this book. I guess, a vulnerability inside that too, just to say that the mystery is there. But then the question is, what do you do with the mystery? How do you go—do you go beyond that, or do you just accept the mystery and, kind of, be in your life?
DK: I think I accept it. I don’t know. My first response to that question is that so much of life is not knowing, and that the sooner all of us accept—and I truly mean all of us accept that, because I think there’s people who don’t accept that—then the sooner we can move to each other and understand the little things we can know, from a place of grace. But I think if there’s one truth in the world, it’s that we will never know the world. What’s hard is that that’s almost impossible to accept, ya know. Cause it’s like, what the fuck do you do with that? If you accept as an ultimate truth that you will never know anything, how do you find any comfort in that? Or why do you keep searching? So to me, though there’s so little that I know and so much that I don’t, I find a lot of love in the search, and that’s a big deal for me—that, yes I accept that there’s mystery, and yes I accept that I will never understand everything, but at the same time, I accept that it’s one of the joys of being alive, to move through mystery and to understand what little we can of it. It’s also heartbreaking, ‘cause life is just ruthless, man.
TL: Not a drop of ruth in its mouth. Yeah. And there’s something in this book too, I think it was “Last Night My Lover & I,” that intro, just the simple imposition of desire. Just having to say “Forgive me,” and then, “Forgive me for asking for forgiveness.” To say what you want and then feel a need to apologize for it, because you can’t know how you’re affecting someone else.
And one of the things I think the book does really well is to, in terms of that presence, is to inhabit one’s body, but also to see a person in another body. To see oneself in your own body, but also to see the other person in their body. Like, Here are somebody’s lips, but this is actually the person I love behind them. And I wonder, did you have to—‘cause that seems rare to me, so I’m wondering who your models are, as a writer, for that, or if that’s just something you’ve come to yourself.
DK: Sure. I mean, I think it seems rare—I appreciate you saying that, but I’ll be honest: I think I still struggle with and definitely used to struggle with writing about desire and another person’s body in a way that wasn’t gratuitous, or wasn’t just completely annihilated by the male gaze, and that’s a real problem. I think it’s okay, though, to write those really shitty—I mean, it’s not, but sometimes you have to learn how to write the body better by writing a lot of really bad body poems. And so, I’ve written a lot of love poems that I read now and I’m deeply ashamed about.
And there’s a lot of poets who write the body who I really admire, like Sharon Olds. I love her work, and the way she talks about the bodies of others, the bodies of her children, her own body. Sharon Olds might be the ultimate writer of the body and love. For me, male poets who I really admire writing about desire, Terrance Hayes comes to mind, some of his earlier works, and Larry Levis a lot. I love Larry Levis. And to me what makes that work is there’s always—there should always be a reason you’re saying something. I think everything should be treated with a kind of grace and care. The poets who I mentioned are poets who really prioritize grace when they’re talking about other people: grace of description, grace of interiority, grace of empathy. Even when you’re writing about someone who you feel failed you, or failed in some way, to approach that failure with a kind of grace is a quality of some of the best writers’ work. But it takes a lot of your own failure. Like I said, I’ve written more bad love poems than good ones, and I don’t know how many good ones I’ve written. I also don’t like to use the words bad and good, but I’ll use them about myself. But yeah, it’s a tough question, and it’s a question that I think we should talk about more. How can you approach desire, and love, and sex, in a way that lifts up the body but also approaches the person underneath the body with a kind of interiority, or tenderness?
TL: Yeah, how can you care for an actual person?
DK: Care is the right word there. ‘cause it all comes down to care.
TL: How does the writing of a poem, or poems in general—does it shape your life beyond the poem itself, influence it?
DK: Yes. For sure. I’m trying to think of the best way to describe, and maybe you can relate to this as well: To me writing seriously has allowed me to think about, to interrogate myself, a little more clearly. And I wouldn’t be anything, really. . . I think a lot of poets can say this—I’m sorry if I’m being so roundabout, but it’s a heavy question—I wouldn’t be who I am if I didn’t write poetry. I don’t know if I would be remotely doing anything I’m proud of.
To me writing poetry, first and foremost, it’s about coming to terms with myself, and my life, and the things that orbit me, or that I orbit, in a way that’s honest and vulnerable. And that is something that I will forever be able to work on, to be more honest, and more vulnerable. And that kind of working-on, those two things, one’s own honesty and one’s own vulnerability, that shapes everything I do, in ways that I find hard to even describe. It’s hard to imagine myself as—it’s just hard to imagine myself not writing. But I’ll also say that there are a lot of things I consider myself more of than a poet, that have nothing to do with writing, or less to do.
I still, when people ask me what I am or what I do, I often say that I’m a teacher, and I don’t think I’ll ever stop saying that first, or I say that I’m a runner, and these are ways that I’ve come to view the world and my place within it, more so than poetry. There’s something too, weirdly and inherently, selfish about poetry that’s just funny to me. The fact that we have this strange—you included, all of us—have this strange ability to talk about ourselves and our lives in this way that’s at times beautiful, you know. It’s such a fucking awesome thing to be able to do, which is why I love teaching. I love trying to work with kids toward giving them that access, and that permission for themselves. But in the end, it’s wild that we can even do this. The fact that we can sit down and be honest with ourselves in this creative way is an unbelievable gift.
TL: Yeah, I was first thinking, How can you turn that selfishness into a gift? But I guess you got it. It is kind of a gift in itself that way.
DK: And I think about that a lot. I have a poem in the book about my friend’s dad dying, and in that poem I have a line where I say, “Most my friends are not poets, so I don’t say / how what we’re doing amounts to a kind / of elegy,” and it’s weird because I think about that poem a lot, and more specifically I think about that moment. That was what happened in that moment. I was in this funeral procession, driving back from this funeral, and I’m with these people I’ve known almost all my life, and our way of coping in that communal moment was by, like, listening to weird 90s songs and not really talking about what the fuck’s happened. But in the back of my head, I’m thinking, “This is weird; I sort of want to be—I want to be talking about this.” I want to talk about how what we’re doing is this kind of thing. But I also know that I care and love these people enough to know that they don’t wanna do that right now. I always try to think about the utility of that sort of poetic intelligence, more than just simply being in a poem. But these are the sorts of things I think about all the time.
TL: That’s an incredible thing to think about. The sort of perspective that it can give you, in a way that—in some way that gift is a kind of power, and you choose what to do with power.
DK: Yeah, and in some ways, it is a burden, to have that need to constantly be mining every moment, every memory, right?
TL: Yeah. Yeah—having what you could call a gift maybe necessarily means that it also is a burden, that in order to keep it going you need to do all that too.
DK: Yeah, for sure.
TL: But I think that’s one of the best things a poem can do, is to give you that perspective to actively care for other people as people are.
DK: Oh yeah, I agree 100%. I think that’s one of the main reasons why I continue to write is because I love moving through the act of writing a poem that is attempting to treat other people and other moments with a kind of care. . . Some heavy shit.
TL: Yeah but. . . What else is there to talk about? I mean that as a rhetorical question, but also: For your books, you’ve chosen to donate the proceeds. Can you talk a little bit about that, and how you came to that decision?
DK: Yeah. I’m donating everything from the book, from books I sell at readings and other stuff, to an organization called NYSYLC, which is an undocumented youth-led organization that supports undocumented kids, and it’s an organization I’ve come to know by working in New York City, specifically with high school students. I work a lot with undocumented kids and have in the past few years. But I do it for a couple reasons.
The first is because I actively care about this cause, and because I’m in a place—you know, I work a lot, but I can pay rent. And if I’m being completely honest, I don’t know how much money I make. Some people make money off poetry. A lot of us sort of just make what could be useful money. I can do all right for myself in the city, and so I don’t need the money. But I also really—and I don’t really say this that often, and this is a really complicated thing that I would rather probably hash out in longer bits of prose—but I do believe that poetry is anti-capitalist. What I mean by that is I believe that poetry should, at its heart, refuse to be sculpted or molded by institutions. I think poetry is one of the last remaining great arts that has self-creativity at its heart. By that I mean that really anything can be a poem, as long as you tell me why it’s a poem. And this at its heart, to me, is anti-capitalist. It’s not fucked over by any systems. And so I say all that to say, another equally important reason I’m doing this is because I don’t want to make any money off poetry. I don’t want to be in a place where I’m writing a poem to make any money. I don’t want to be in a place where I am accepting, where I’m valuing the money over the poem. And I’m not saying that that’s a thing that happens with people, but I’m saying that that is a thing that can happen. And so I’m doing it more as sort of a challenge to myself, because really, if this is what you believe, you’ve gotta act on it.
And I’m not necessarily the nicest person, but I try to be kind. But this is one of the few things that really upsets me about the poetry world, the way in which people can sort of say poetry is anti-capitalist and then, like, accept a massive reading fee for a reading. I don’t know. And you gotta do you, and you have to make your living, and I understand that, but at the same time, I don’t know. Our poems will change people who read the poems, but outside of the poems, I’m committed to doing other things to effect change. That is a long complicated answer. But I’ll also say that I’ve seen many, many examples of really awesome poets that I admire doing things like this. Natalie Eilbert’s book Indictus just came out, and she, through pre-orders, helped donate a shit-ton of money to RAINN which supports survivors of sexual assault, and that’s just one of many examples. I do think that there’s so many poets who are effecting change and using what little or great power they have to do that, and I’m a big supporter of that.
TL: I wonder if it’s not too much to say that, if you’re making a poem, you’re necessarily being anti-capitalist in some way, in that you are creating—like you said, as long as you can prove, you can say why it’s a poem—you’re creating the value within yourself.
DK: Yeah. And that’s a great way of putting it. I think only you can assess the value of your own poem. And I think when you hear people talk about writing poems, and they use that sort of language, like “I was listening to myself,” or “I was surprising myself,” or “I was being generous with myself”—these are distinctly anti-capitalist things to me because they are coming from a place of self-worth, a place where you are defining, as you say, your own value. Your value is not created or shaped by the world, by other people, by other institutions. Deep down, when you’re in the heart of a good poem, or when you just finish a good poem, a good poem to yourself—what you’ve done, almost most importantly, is exactly what you said. You have created some value out of yourself. And you have this little tiny thing, or this big thing, however long or short your poem is, to prove it, and you have that moment that you created for yourself.
TL: Hm. What a beautiful way to look at poems, as just, a way to make yourself matter to yourself.
DK: Yeah, I think that’s an awesome way to look at poems. I’m all about that.