Dispatches | June 28, 2013

Welcome back to our many-part series where we chat with Working Writers who have not had success in the traditional sense. No major awards, no books in print, maybe only a few or no publications, but are still writing. Our goal is to give voice to a wide range of writers, to learn from their experiences, and to open a discussion about living the craft. If you fit the description and want to be involved, please send an email to us at TMRworkingwritersseries@gmail.com

Today’s working writer is Kelly Clayton


Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I was born and raised in Louisiana. Actually, one of the first generations to leave the state in over eleven generations. We tend to stay put.I spent twenty years in NYC. It was there that I became a serious writer. I’d been writing stories and journals since I was a young girl.

The path to being a poet has been long and crooked, with many backtracks. I was a fifteen year old mother, and by twenty-three, had three sons under eight. My last son was born in NYC, making the total, four.

My work has been published Future Cycle Poetry, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literacy, Gloom Cupboard, and Unlikely Stories, as well as two Random House books by Jena Pincott (I was asked to contribute poems to larger works). Right now, I’m building my first book manuscript.

I’ve taught poetry at Brooklyn Public School, PS10. Currently, I teach poetry at the Lafayette Juvenile Detention Center.

Later this month I will be attending VONA/voices writer’s workshops at UC Berkeley. It’s an honor to study with Ruth Forman, and to submerge into poetry for a week.

You said that you’ve been writing since you were a young girl but you became serious in NYC. How do you think that breaking the tradition of staying in Louisiana and moving to New York has influenced your writing?

It gave me space to understand the reasons why I felt the need to leave. I became Kelly, and not someone’s daughter, wife, sibling. NYC gave me breathing room.

You mention that your path to being a poet included many backtracks. What would you say the biggest hindrance was to your writing?

I left school after finishing the eighth grade because at 15 years old, I became pregnant with my first son. I’ve never attended college, so to make up for it, I’ve spent the last million years in libraries. My husband teases that I have seven library cards from all over the US, but no credit cards in my wallet.

What sort of books did you read in the library to “make up for it”? Did any book or genre in particular significantly influence your writing?

Oh, well. Besides every writing how-to book I could get my hands on, I would get on wild tangents and follow them. Once, I studied parrots until I fell over. I haven’t used the information so far, but you never know. My guilty pleasure books are teen novels. I love Suzanne Collins, Gayle Forman, Garth Nix, Scott Westerfeld. I read poetry. And read, and read, and read. I often changed my youngest son’s diapers in the poetry aisle of the Brooklyn Public Library.

Well, they do always say every good writer must be a reader first and it sounds like you are definitely a reader. What drew you to writing poetry specifically as opposed to, say, the young adult novelists you enjoyed?

I spent a couple of years trying to write a YA novel. For some reason, I found my writing stiff and weird. Each time I became frustrated with the process, I would write poetry. It felt like releasing steam, and came much easier than working on the story. When I figured out that I was a much better poet than I was a novelist, I was pissed off. I didn’t want to be a poet because nobody pays poets. At least I had a twig of a chance with a novel. I accepted myself for the kind of writer I am, just like being comfortable with my body + gravity.

That’s fascinating. What is it like teaching poetry at public school and a juvenile detention center? Would you say it is a challenge to balance time to teach and to write? It sounds like a lot of work.

It gives me so much as a writer, and as a person. Yes, it’s a great deal of work, but I have little trouble integrating teaching and regular life because I mash both together. My youngest son just returned to school after three years home schooling. My solution was to take him everywhere. Now, I schedule teaching while he’s in school. Recently, I received an email from the director of the detention center. She sent a poem  written by one of the boys in my workshop. It was called “Jacket”, and was about how you need to choose a good coat for your walk through this world because it’s cold out there, and nobody gives two shits about you. He wrote this by himself, in his room. That’s why I’ll continue to give workshops there as long as they want me to.

Wow. That sounds incredibly moving. Helping these kids discover their talents and emotions can be incredibly rewarding. Earlier you mentioned that you had to accept what kind of writer you are when you realized that you were more of a poet than a novelist. How did rejection in submitting your work play a role in this acceptance? Did it make it harder?

I never submitted anything other than poetry. I knew my prose was bad.  I just look at rejections as mile markers. Most editors are kind, as many are writers, too. Rejection played no part in my decision.

That’s great to hear! You said that you are building your first book manuscript. What is that process like and what direction are you taking the book?

The process is strange because I need to keep in mind the overall idea of the manuscript, but then release that thought and trust that my material will somehow fit. The book is an offering to my female ancestors. Right now, my destination is fuzzy. Hopefully, the workshop I’ll attend at UCBerkeley in a few days will clear some of it up for me.

That does sound a little complicated to negotiate. It’s always really helpful to get outside input and opinions so that workshop sounds like it will be beneficial. Who are your favorite poets?

Yusef Komunyakaa, Wislawa Szmborska, Nikky Finney, Baron Wormser, Terrance Hayes, Natasha Trethewey, Philip Levine, Walt Whitman…I could go on all day.

Sounds like a lot of free verse. Do you read or write in free verse most often or do you employ some formal structures in your work?

I am studying about different forms and structure so I can write it myself. I think it’s a bit intimidating for most folks. When I began studying formal verse, I thought I’d never “get it” Reading helps. So does reading out loud. My poor family had to listen to me read Elizabeth Barrett Browning from the hammock while they barbecued and drank beer on Father’s Day. They are so patient with me.

That’s funny. Do you think that there is a legitimate place in contemporary poetry for strictly formal poetry- like Elizabeth Barrett Browning- or do think that is a bygone phenomenon?

I do think there’s a place for more formality. Speaking as someone who is learning these forms, I would love to see them blended with, say, rap/spoken word poetry. My interest would totally be caught if I saw gritty poetry as a sestina. I’m sure they already exist; I’ve just never read one.

That sounds very interesting. I too would hope that there is a place for formal conventions to apply to our real lives. Earlier you commented that your book would be an offering to your female ancestors. I meant to ask you what you mean by that.

Just that I am writing from the point of view of those who were rarely allowed a voice. I’ve done genealogical research for years, and through letters and court records, I see that my female ancestors had to navigate the world in stealth mode. They hid their language, methods of gaining property or traveling alone, and sometimes even their race. They did whatever they thought necessary to give their children an easier time than they had. My heart is with unnoticed women and children.

Wow, that sounds intriguing; I’d love to read your book when it comes out. Best of luck at the workshop and with your manuscript.

Thanks for the good wishes, I’ll take them with me.  I hope to be a poet that proves a person can be a good writer following a non-traditional path, or through college. Education is so important no matter which way you get it, and each writer’s way deserves respect. Thank you so much for your time, and your kindness.

You can follow Kelly Clayton on twitter @kellcreole and/or facebook here.