Poetry co-editor Aurora Nowak recently had this exchange with Issue #45 featured poet Kelly Weber. Here’s what Kelly had to say about finding inspiration in the natural world, how substructure informs subject, the important of mentors, and more.
Your bio notes that you love exploring the outdoors and this portfolio of poems is perfectly in tune with nature. This is especially demonstrated in “Where It Hunts.” The poem unites the speaker with the creatures such as rattle snakes and hawks and the landscape around them. Do you write your poetry while in the middle of an exploration? Or have you gone on adventures to then come back and write about what you have experienced?
Thank you very much! I feel in some ways like I’m always torn between wanting to go out and explore the outdoors more and wanting to shut myself in my office to keep working on the poems that come out of it. I like taking day trips, solo or with friends, to a lot of the places right in my backyard. For Colorado, that’s meant places like Rocky Mountain National Park and, even closer to home, Horsetooth Mountain and the Poudre Canyon. I don’t go as often as I like, but when I do, I try to be aware of the images that are striking me, even if I’m not directly taking notes. I try to pay attention to place names and species names, if I catch them. I’m a bit of an image hunter, so while I find it hard to sit and write in the outdoors, I like filing and mulching images over time until an essay or poem presents itself. With poems, we talked a lot in poetry workshops at Colorado State about the way a poem “worlds” itself. For me, a developing poem tends to click when the poem’s nucleus finds its grounding and catalyst in a place. Poems may not be a direct meditation about the actual autobiographical experience I had in a place, the way an essay might be, but they’re informed by places I’ve usually been to at least once. I love the haibun form and its cousins in part because they play with those tensions.
“Imagine the Axe Knows the Wood” considers the origins of an axe handle; starting as a tree cut down, chopped up, and finished to fulfill its purpose. This poem further delves into comparing and contrasting people to trees (that have become sickly) “Imagine if you were them: staying near treeline so long something goes wrong, the sickness twists your intestine again,…” Did this juxtaposition serve as a challenge?
I think a lot of poems start for me through juxtaposition. I have two images, and I want to explore the friction between them, or I have a thought that’s abstract—the notion of pain, for instance—and can’t quite get at it until I find something grounded and real in the world for it to bump up against. Often I just have to keep my eyes open for these natural juxtapositions. In this instance, I was invited to stay up at a high altitude cabin for a few days—which included having to chop our own firewood—but I ended up deciding not to go because I wasn’t sure how staying at that altitude for even a few days might start to impact my Crohn’s symptoms, and we would be at least a couple hours away from emergency services. (In truth, I haven’t done much extreme landscape exploration at high altitude for that reason: I tend to stick to places I can at least walk or drive to easily, in case I get myself in trouble with illness stuff, snakes, or lightning). Mulching this over in writing, the axe image felt like an image with heat, and the poem grew from there.
“Mercy” centers around loss, pain, and devastation. What drove you to use the image of horses?
My poor MFA cohort has probably seen enough horse poems from me to last a lifetime, ha! Horses are weird. I’ve lived in proximity to them and ridden them a little but also can’t say I have extensive experience with them the way my ranch friends and acquaintances in Nebraska and Colorado have. They’re a weird, fascinating animal. I spent a summer volunteering as a site interpreter at a fossil site in Nebraska where there were a ton of skeletons of prehistoric horses excavated in the ashbeds, along with a modern horse skeleton hung on the wall. That was essentially my office every weekend for a few months. I feel like that kind of constant imagery doesn’t go away. In this poem, I’d been circulating around a distinct memory I had of seeing horses released from a corral at a state park, but I wanted to juxtapose it with something completely different, not connected to that memory. I found my way into the second half of the sonnet from there.
You paint beautiful and rugged settings in “Love Song for the Colorado Anthropocene” Why these landmarks? Could you discuss the significance that each place and or scene holds to you?
Thank you! I have kind of an obsession with Rocky Mountain Park. I don’t think I’ll ever get over it. Like, I have kind of a love affair with it; I did prior to moving to Colorado and it only intensified after. Right after I moved to Colorado, I took a road trip on my own down the I-25 corridor to Pikes Peak and back. It was my first time officially moving to a different state and living on my own, my first time navigating Denver traffic like that, my first time just spontaneously taking a trip to somewhere in the state. It was touristy, sure, but I also in some ways wanted to go see places along I-25 as a way of telling myself: Let’s see more of the place that’s going to be your home now.
The language in “Asexual/Aromantic” carries the poem well while providing a supportive structure. How were you able to maintain such stability throughout writing this poem?
Something I think a lot about in revision is finding the “turns” (Michael Theune’s written extensively about this) of the poem, what its substructure is. I’ll have a lot of language to start with, but then I have to think about what structure and turns the poem seems to be taking, whether it wants a more compact, neat form (quatrains, tercets, etc.) or if it wants to explode out all over the page. This ended up being the latter, so it was important to find ways to still mark the structural turns and shifts, whether through white space, a shift in tone or location, etc. I think I was also thinking about the conversation the poem was partly having with some of the zipper imagery in works of poets like Eduardo Corral and Sam Sax, or riffs on what that particular thing means to me—those poets are doing just stunning things with engaging with that, and it also holds really different ace aro connotations for me. Finding the substructure in the turns and in the different indoor/outdoor spaces the poem navigates, and thinking about the key images that appear along the way, provided enough tension against the white space and the language to help the poem cohere.
“Assexual/Aromantic” shows us a particular kind of support from a parent in time of need. Could you talk a bit about this poem and that feeling of leaving an empty nest while seeking shelter from a parent or parental figure?
In some ways I think I’m always thinking about shelters—domestic spaces, which can feel really coded as entrapping and heteronormative for me, can also be sources of incredible vulnerability and tension. People and bodies can be shelters, too, whether they be parent or friend. I think I’ve been thinking a lot about the tension of interior/exterior space, of the pull to leave and engage with the public sphere—and all the ways my body becomes coded and looked upon by other people—and the private sphere, where I’m seen in a totally different way. Outside of the worlds of the poems, my parents have been incredibly supportive as I’ve ranged out as an artist, and they remain a safe place to return to. They’re both artists, too, so they really taught me a lot about that push/pull of art life and family life and striking the right balance, as well as claiming time and space for myself and my work.
Mud Season Review has blossomed out of a workshop, could you share with us your first workshop experience? How did you acclimate to changes in your work?
My first workshop experience was with the poet who went on to become my first mentor, JV Brummels. Actually I ended up having two poetry workshops my first semester at college, which seems…intense, now, but I was really excited and eighteen. I was struck then, and continue to be struck by all my workshop experiences since, by the incredible generosity of the people around me. All of us were pretty inexperienced in those classes, so I think we bonded really tightly and, even if we didn’t have the critical framework or terms to talk about poems beyond the things we got from our instructors, we tried to be generous with the work. I learned not to be so quick to throw aside some of my poems that I felt weren’t working, and I pushed myself to try to be more honest, draw more emotive response with each piece. That’s not to say I didn’t have to learn to bring a critical lens to the feedback. Sometimes a piece just didn’t land the first readthrough, but it did in subsequent reads from the class and a slam performance, which is where I started to learn about teaching the reader how to read and understanding that some stuff won’t necessarily be everyone’s aesthetic, or won’t connect them on a first readthrough. Which is fine. That was crucial to pushing through the manuscript I just finished: It’s a book-length poem on chronic illness and the Anthropocene that’s a bit experimental (although who even knows what that word means—it was experimental for me at least) and oscillating between prose poems and lineated sections. The groundwork for that kind of permission to do that, and that kind of personal lesson/mantra to just keep going, came in many ways from that very first workshop. And it has horses, and JV worked with horses, so in some ways that feels like something that came out of that very first workshop too. I’ve been fortunate to find mentors like Sasha Steensen, Dan Beachy-Quick, and Harrison Candelaria Fletcher—and my writer family—who’ve reiterated that permission again and again.