Ten Questions: An Interview With Victoria Kelly

For my poet interview, I decided to interview Victoria Kelly. Kelly is both a poet and novelist (author of Mrs. Houdini) and is known for her poetry book When Men Go Off To War in which she uses her personal experience as a military wife.  When Men Go Off To War was published in 2015  by the Naval Institute Press, making it the first poetry book published in the press’ history. In addition, Kelly’s poems have appeared in various literary journals, including Best American Poetry 2013, and her debut poetry chapbook, Prayers of an American Wife, won the Coal Hill Prize.  Kelly has taught creative writing at both University of Iowa and Old Dominion University. An accomplished contemporary poet and novelist, Kelly currently resides in Virginia with her family.

Ms. Kelly and I communicated by email and she graciously agreed to answer my poetry questions.  

Hannah Vogel: How did you first start writing poetry?

Victoria Kelly: I wrote poetry all the time for fun growing up. I never thought about what it would be like to be published–I just wrote it for myself. That is the true sign that you really love something. When I was in college I took a poetry class and started to think about whether my poetry was “good” or “bad.” I didn’t think it was any good at the time. I stopped writing poetry and focused on fiction. Ten years later, I was married and my husband was deployed and I was feeling frustrated with the novel I was writing. So I took a poetry class, with the intention of never showing what I wrote to anyone. I wrote about my husband’s deployment and for the first time I felt like I had something really powerful to write about. The funny thing is, I thought, Hey, these are pretty good poems. I started getting them published. I feel like I had to get back to the real, innocent joy of writing to be able to write something worthwhile.

HV: What was your first poem about?

VK: When I was in first grade, a fifth-grade mentor and I wrote a poem about a mouse named Morlock. We illustrated and bound it into book form. I still have that book. I never forgot that experience. It was the first time I’d ever held a “book” of mine in my hands.

HV:  What is the hardest thing about writing?

VK: Overcoming self-doubt. No matter how much success I’ve had, every time I sit down to write a page I think, Will this be any good? Do I still “have it”? What if I have nothing to write about? I think every writer struggles with that. I think it stems from having to face so many rejections before finding success. I’ve faced many, many rejections, and I still do. From what I can tell, that’s almost always the case for writers.

HV:  Who is your favorite poet?

VK: It’s hard to choose a favorite! Some of my favorite modern poets are Dick Allen, Faith Shearin, Sharon Olds, and Billy Collins. My favorite poet from the past who I learned about in school is John Keats–it is amazing to think that he was only 25 when he died, and to think about what he could have produced if he had lived longer.

HV: What do you see as being the biggest problem in modern poetry?

VK: I think some poets now are too vague because they are trying to be too high-brow, too “poetic.” Poetry doesn’t have to be “weird” to be good; it doesn’t have to be enigmatic. I think good poetry makes you feel something, and I think a good poem tells a story. In a good poem, the reader understands what that story is–something has happened; there is underlying emotion, an underlying theme; sometimes there are characters.

HV: What does your editing process look like?

VK: I tend to take several days to write a single poem. I usually come up with the topic a few days or weeks beforehand, then I sit down and write it. It could take me hours to write a few lines. So I tend to edit as I go. The following day I will read it anew and make sure the emotion comes through. When I’m done, I’m done. I can’t move on to a new one until I feel like that poem is finished, and I find it hard to go back.

HV: Do you have a routine you follow while writing?

VK: I wish I could say I write every day, but I tend to write in spurts, because life gets in the way. I have two little kids, and there are doctors appointments, and dentist appointments, and family visiting, and soccer practice, and just pure exhaustion. When I do write, I like to read a little bit first to get inspired. If I’m writing a poem, I’ll read some of my favorite poets to remember what great poetry looks like.

HV: What is your favorite poem you’ve written?

VK: My favorite is “When the Men Go Off to War” because it encapsulated the whole theme of my first book, the whole experience of the loneliness of being a wife going through a husband’s deployment. It was one of those poems that started to get a lot of attention–it was chosen for Best American Poetry, and was made into a video with MotionPoems–and the whole time I just kept thinking, I can’t believe it.  

HV: What is your favorite poem written by another author?

VK: The poem that means the most to me personally, and I think is so haunting, is When the War Is Over by W.S. Merwin. This is because when I read it I was grappling with exactly what he was talking about in this poem–my husband had come back from a deployment to Iraq and desperately wanted to go back, for a series of complicated reasons.  

When the war is over

We will be proud of course the air will be

Good for breathing at last

The water will have been improved the salmon

And the silence of heaven will migrate more perfectly

The dead will think the living are worth it we will know

Who we are

And we will all enlist again

HV: What is your favorite poetic device to use?

VK: I love using enjambment–keeping a sentence going over two or more lines (moving from one line to the next without a punctuation mark). I also love half-rhyme, where something only slightly rhymes or uses similar vowels or consonants, either within the same line or between two lines (like “rose” and “choose”)

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I extend my deepest thanks to Ms. Kelly for taking the time to thoroughly answer my questions.  It was a very cool experience getting to email with an esteemed contemporary poet and hear her insights and pieces of advice on the world of poetry and writing in general.

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