How did two self-taught poets without an MFA land their dream publisher? In this exclusive interview, Kate Gaskin, Pamet River Prize winner and author of Forever War (YesYes Books, 2020), and Kelly Grace Thomas, winner of the Neil Postman Award for Metaphor and author of Boat Burned (YesYes Books, 2020), discuss how to reach your poetry goals without a degree or built-in network. Kate and Kelly talk about their self-paved paths to launching a career in poetry, including creative habits, strategy, and 10 surefire tips to bring you closer to your writing goals.
About the poets
KATE GASKIN is the author of Forever War, winner of the Pamet River Prize (YesYes Books). Her poems have appeared in journals such as Guernica, Pleiades, Poetry Northwest, 32 Poems, Alaska Quarterly Review, The Southern Review, Blackbird, and The Rumpus, and her work has been anthologized in the 2019 Best American Nonrequired Reading. She is a recipient of a Tennessee Williams Scholarship in poetry from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, as well as a fellowship from the Vermont Studio Center. She edits poetry for The Adroit Journal. Currently, she is a PhD student in English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln
KELLY GRACE THOMAS is an ocean-obsessed Aries from Jersey. She is a self-taught poet, editor, educator, and author. Kelly is the winner of the 2020 Jane Underwood Poetry Prize and the 2017 Neil Postman Award for Metaphor from Rattle, a 2018 finalist for the Rita Dove Poetry Award, and a multiple-time Pushcart Prize nominee. Her first full-length collection, Boat Burned, released with YesYes Books in January 2020. Kelly’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Best New Poets 2019, Los Angeles Review, Redivider, Muzzle, Sixth Finch, and more. Kelly is the Director of Education for Get Lit and the co-author of Words Ignite. She teaches workshops to help poets grow their craft and career. She lives in the Bay Area with her husband Omid and daughter. www.kellygracethomas.com
Poet to poet: the interview!
Kelly: I’m so excited to talk to you about unconventional paths to poetry and publication. I am sure there is so much to learn from the unconventional route. Can you tell me a little bit about how you got involved in poetry and why you chose not to pursue an MFA?
Kate: Hi, Kelly! Thanks for having this conversation with me. Though I had always enjoyed writing, I didn’t start writing with purpose or regularity until about my mid-30s. For me, honestly, it was motherhood that pinned me down. I found it really difficult to focus and do the work required to become a better writer until I became a mom, and then suddenly I was both overcome by my own mortality and stuck at home most of the time. I wrote during nap times, at night, and, later, when my kid went to daycare part-time. As great as it was that motherhood helped me become a writer, it also restricted my ability to go to school for writing. Also, because my spouse is in the military, we were moving constantly during those years. I thought about doing a low-residency MFA, but scholarship and funding opportunities are fewer for those sorts of writing programs, so that always felt like a nonstarter. What about you, Kelly? How did your writing journey start? Why did you decide an MFA wasn’t for you?
Kelly: I had always been a writer but went to college for fiction and ended up working in journalism. After having a career where I wrote for someone else every day, I found I didn’t have a lot of energy left for myself or the art I wanted to make. I decided to go into education. I didn’t really discover the magic of poetry until I was teaching high school English and got a grant from Get Lit Words Ignite to teach their model of pairing classic poetry (basically any amazing poem, not necessarily something old) with spoken word response and preparing a team for a poetry slam. The curriculum lasted 12 weeks and by the end my students had evolved into better versions of themselves. They were more self-aware, better listeners, it felt like some kind switch that allowed them to see more deeply was turned on: they were more evolved versions of themselves. I had always been a big feeler and wanted to come to a sort of truce with the issues I was going through. I wanted that, so I began to write with them. During that time something really traumatic happened and I could feel myself imploding. So I turned to poetry. I had watched it pull some of my students into a much better place and I wanted that. In May of 2012, I began writing a poem a day for a year as a daily ritual towards healing. I feel I have learned so many things about poetry from taking the self-taught, nontraditional route. What are some of the first things you learned as a self-taught poet?
Kate: Your journey through journalism and teaching is so interesting. I’ve always felt guilty for not using my writing skills to make money, but I also know that I have a finite ability to write every day, and if I write for others, like you noted, I won’t have energy left over to write for myself. I also love the idea of using poetry as a ritual toward healing, or just using poetry as a ritual, period. It points to the mystery and awe that writing and reading poetry can create and sustain. The first thing I had to learn as a self-taught poet wasn’t anything craft-based—although I’ve obviously had to teach myself craft—it was how to be resilient enough to keep writing through bad poems. I used to not be able to tolerate the idea of spending so much time on writing that was bad, but I eventually realized that’s what every writer has to do. We have a learning curve. It’s steep at first, but even after you surmount writing through those first poems, you still have a lifetime of learning in front of you, and a lot of that learning will happen by writing work that’s not as good as you want it to be. I couldn’t accept that at first. Maybe because of perfectionism? I had to learn how to be okay with writing subpar, mediocre, or even downright awful poems. I’m still learning how to be okay with that, to be honest. Your question about the first things you learned as you were teaching yourself to write poetry is so good, I’ll turn it back around to you. What did you learn first as you became a poet?
Kelly: I love the idea of learning to write through judgement, or not feeling quite there. To be uncomfortable in your act of creating. However, I think it is important to not judge your work too much, especially in the beginning. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about the Shakespeare quote, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” I think my number one piece of advice for writers is to have fun. So many times poets get so hung up on thoughts like, is it good, is it bad, will anyone publish it, that they forget the first reason they came to the page—because they love it. I had a friend who used to complain about rejection every time I saw her, and I’m not saying rejection sucks, because it definitely does. But to only think about that feels counterproductive. But I am saying remember why you love writing or why you write before you assess quality. Instead, ask yourself: do I feel better? Did I have fun? Did I create? For me it is always about the process, not the product. No matter what, you will always have a lifetime of learning in front of you, I know I do. The first thing I really learned was the importance of reading. Pam Allen said, “Reading is like breathing in and writing is like breathing out.” I remember when I first found poets who really challenged and inspired me, I was taking a workshop with Tresha Faye Haefner and she said to me, I love this poem and your last few—who are you reading? It was then that I realized that reading as much as writing was improving my work. I have learned so much by sitting and reading with intentionality, assuming I can learn something from every single poem I read. So I think I found out the importance of reading, reading, and then reading some more. Even now, if my work feels uninspired it’s because I am not reading enough. However, I know the road from rough drafts to book deals can feel like forever. I’m curious how you knew you were ready to publish and how you got started?
Kate: I was interested in publishing as far back as high school. I had a copy o and a little index card file box to keep track of my submissions. There was no such thing as online journals back then, so I had the experience of mailing off hard copy submissions with SASEs. Several kind editors returned my rejected submissions with personalized notes when they realized they had a 15-year-old sending them metered Shakespearean sonnets. I had a plan to earn enough money through publishing to buy myself a car! I can laugh at my naivety now, but I think what I mean to show is that publishing and writing have been intertwined for me from the start, and I don’t know whether that’s good or bad. I try not to assign a moral value to it. When I started writing poetry again in my 30s after a very long break, I spent several months writing as many poems as I could, and then I started sending the best of them out shortly after that. It wasn’t until after I got an acceptance from Cherry Tree for their inaugural issue that I understood that this writing stuff was going to work out for me after all. I was so grateful for that acceptance. It made me feel seen and valued as a poet. But I’ve also learned that rejection is as—or, honestly, more—important than acceptance. I learn much more from my rejections, and, in some ways, they also create opportunities for me as well. I’ve established relationships with journals and certain editors because of how often they’ve rejected my work! Even the poems that never make it into journals are lucky to be read. You’ve mentioned reading being an important component of improving your own poems (I agree with you on this), and you’ve mentioned attending workshops. What are other methods you have used to improve your poetry? In the absence of an MFA, with its access to the insider knowledge of teachers and mentors, how have you strengthened your craft? How have you gone about strategizing building a meaningful writing career for yourself?
Kelly: Yes! I love this perspective on rejection so much. We learn so much from it. This is such a great question. I think the number one thing that I have used to improve my craft is to be what I call a “poetry mechanic.” You need to look at a poem like a car. Cars are built with specific style, speed, and functions in mind. You put the right pieces together and they run. But there are specific parts all poems need. I like to look under the hood of poems, both others and my own. I take them apart; I sit with different parts and think, where is the windshield, the engine, the brakes? I have learned so much about my own work by thinking about how and why it should be built a certain way. And I learned that from studying other poems. I think so much of me shaping my craft has been focused on one main question: Why is this surprising? I am of the belief that there are seldom new stories or experiences, so it is up to language to add the surprise. Almost everything I do is based on that. I also really loved discussing poems in depth—this is one of the reasons I love teaching workshops. I learn so much about the poem I am teaching, and it benefits me to take part of the strategy the poet used and to teach it to my students. I taught AP Language and Composition for 10 years, which really focused on looking at the way something is built shapes and arguments. I apply the same rule to poems while asking, what makes this different from every other poem about x? Besides the craft approach, and of course reading, I also think social media is extremely important. Social media is a tool, so for all those haters who think social media is evil, I would say it is a self-curated world. I use it as a classroom for poetry and as an opportunity to connect with people around the world that I might not be able to see much in person. I have developed some of my closest poetry friendship because we started a convo about a poem online. This was a great question! Are there any guiding principles you use in your career? And what do you think has shaped your career? Anything you think is undervalued or perhaps not highlighted enough?
Kate: A poetry mechanic! What a great metaphor, and what a useful tool to demystify craft. I hear you about social media. I know it can be a toxic and difficult space, but for many of us it’s a way to be exposed to poets and poetry that, left to our own devices, we might never have found. Social media can create so many opportunities for new friendships and professional contacts, especially if you approach it with a generous spirit. Following certain poets, journals, and literary organizations on Twitter put me through a DIY MFA—seriously! I learned so much. As for guiding principles, I try to amplify others as much as, or more than, I promote myself. I value my experience editing for a literary journal. That’s such a great way to be plugged into the literary community and to provide a service to others. Plus, selfishly, I’ve learned a lot about what makes poems great by bringing my critical editor’s eye to reading submissions. I think patience is perhaps undervalued when it comes to poetry. Of course, we all know that as an industry, publishing moves slowly. It took nearly two years from when I found out that YesYes Books had accepted my debut, Forever War, until it was published, and that’s not a bad turnaround! I think I mean patience in the sense that, although it feels great to publish poems and win awards, a literary career is, if we’re lucky, long. So just because I’m not immediately meeting all my writing and publishing goals doesn’t mean I won’t eventually get there. One thing we haven’t addressed yet is that although I never did an MFA in poetry, I’m just wrapping up my first year in the Creative Writing PhD program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. It turns out that teaching myself how to write poetry lit a fire under me to learn in a more structured and traditional way under the guidance of mentors. Have you ever thought about trying a traditional writing program like an MFA or a PhD, even though you, like me, are already on your way as a professional poet?
Kelly: This is a great question, and I like to tell myself that one day I will. I really would love nothing more than a few years to really work on my craft, read, and discuss poems. Unfortunately, these programs come with a huge price tag that is not realistic at the moment. I know there are fully funded programs, but like a lot of people who are not 20, I have family and work responsibilities that do not make it feasible. I cannot move across the country and live off $20K a year. I don’t want to sound negative. I think an MFA or a PhD is the most beautiful thing, and I seriously have fantasies about quitting my job, living off buttered noodles, and just writing. But my husband and I just relocated to be near family, and my mom just moved across the country to be close . . . I think I am pretty put in California. However, what I can and will do is attend more workshops. Now that the world is healing, I cannot wait to travel to a new town, learn from a great mentor, and talk with poets. I have been longing to go to the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley for awhile, but then the pandemic hit. I can also give myself my own syllabus: I try to read one poetry collection a week, talk about it with a fellow poet if I can. I also have a weekly workshop I take with Kim Addonizio as well as study with Shira Erlichman, so I guess I am trying my hand at a DIY MFA, too. How has your experience been? What would you tell people about the process? What is one thing you learned that you couldn’t have learned anywhere else, about poetry, your writing, or yourself.
Kate: It’s admirable how focused and driven you are when it comes to poetry. I understand how impractical it can be to go back to school when you are older and constrained by family obligations. It took me three tries to even get into the PhD program at UNL. That was my only option because it’s closest to where I live. I was also similarly concerned about money, and luckily my program is able to fully fund many of their grad students, including me. I think what you’ve demonstrated, though, is that we are capable of being life-long readers, writers, and learners of poetry outside out of formal graduate programs if we commit to being creative, flexible, and community-minded. My experience in the poetry world has been mostly positive. It’s definitely been a whirlwind—lots of ups and downs—but that has taught me a lot about resilience and persistence. The most important thing I’ve learned through my writing journey is to take myself seriously as an artist. Sometimes, my roles as spouse and mother seem so overwhelming, but when I make room to define myself as a creative professional—and when I honor that commitment to myself—I’m so much happier and more fulfilled.
Kelly’s tips and ideas to reach your writing goals
- Know your odds: Duotrope is one of the best resources out there for submitting your work. They provide extensive information for each journal, including percentage of work accepted, the number of rejections (personal and form), and the average response time. Knowing your chances and how long you’ll likely wait for a response can make a huge difference. You can also find additional journals that those who submitted to this journal also sent work.
- Join an online community: Some of the best writing advice and favorite poems I’ve read come from an online community such as Twitter or Facebook. These groups help with not only inspiration but accountability! A few that have helped me are: Submit, Bitches; Binders Full of Women and Non-Binary Poets; Women Poets; and more. There is also Women Who Submit, which meets in person, so women and nonbinary folks can cheer one another on each time they hit send. Find a chapter near you!
- Use the Acknowledgements: As we’ve mentioned in our conversation above, reading is so important to growing as a writer. However, sometimes you’re not sure where to start. I have found many of my favorite journals by going to the Acknowledgments section of a poet’s book and seeing where their poems have been published. This is how I found my favorite journals like Muzzle, Redivider, BOAAT, and more. Not only will this help your craft, but it will also show you the type of work the journal is looking for.
- Attend (virtual) readings and workshops: Online readings are such a blessing because you get to see poets who might not live anywhere close to you in the world. I’ve seen so many of my favorite poets just by clicking a link. Technology can bring you closer to your heroes than ever before. Just like reading, listening to other poets can really help improve your work. I really love the Wild and Precious Life Series, Words Together, Worlds Apart, and Wednesday Night Poetry. The same goes for virtual workshops now you can learn from some of the most masterful teachers without leaving your living room. The Speakeasy Project and Open Mouth Series have a stellar faculty at a reasonable cost.
- Have an off-limit word list: I learned this technique from Patricia Smith, who teaches an intro to poetry class, and found that all students were using the same words in their love poems (kiss, lips, heart, etc.). Smith created an off-limit word list of 200 of the most common words used in love poems and told students they couldn’t use any of the words on that list. The originality of the poems skyrocketed. If you feel like you’re in a writing slump or using the same language over and over again, try to create your own off-limit word list.
- Go to the submission experts: Have a bunch of poems and not sure where to start? There are companies such as Submat Central and Writers Relief who will find the best fit for your work and submit to target journals.
Kate’s resources to jump start your poetry career
- Know where to submit: Entropy publishes a fantastic, periodically updated call for submissions to journals and presses.
- Read Trish’s blog: Trish Hopkinson’s website has been a priceless resource for writers new to the publishing world for the better part of a decade. Don’t forget to check out the interview Tell Tell had with Trish HERE.
- Seek mentorship: For high school writers looking for mentorship, The Adroit Journal has a rigorous, supportive, and community-minded mentorship program. Also, The Adroit Journal’s blog is a wonderful repository of interviews, conversations, and reviews. For writers of all ages looking for mentorship, AWP’s Writer to Writer mentorship program is very helpful and supportive. I was a mentee in 2017 and still keep in touch with my mentor.
- Attend conferences or retreats: For slightly more advanced writers, a writing retreat or conference offers collaboration, friendship, and mentorship. I recommend The Sewanee Writers’ Conference. They have generous support from the estate of Tennessee Williams, which covers two thirds of participants’ cost. Scholars and fellows receive even more financial support.