Kelly McNerney is an American poet and translator. A regular at Spittoon Poetry, reading both her own work and translations, she has also served as the editor in chief of Fourteen Hills, the acclaimed literary magazine out of San Francisco State University, and is currently at work on a book-length collection, translated works by Minerva Margarita Villareal. We're excited to present here four new poems by McNerney. A brief interview follows the work.
I dreamt a couple lost their squid in a gutter canal.
When they found him, they asked me to let it swim in my mouth.
They asked me to lie down and put my feet in the
dirty puddle, and I did.
Misery loves company, so they want me there all time.
Something is swimming in my mouth, so I can’t say what’s wrong.
I can’t even say goodbye, so I slip out the back door.
By the time they notice I’m gone
it’s the eighth of June, your birthday,
impaled on the split fence
at the San Andreas Fault—
next to the memorial of
minor purple bruises
to keep me
What I have been meaning to start to finish
I was hydroplaning in your sunlight reflected in the puddles. The showers have nowhere to seep in April. Something in me went to the window. Small creatures circling in the air. Mennonite children running barefoot in the grass. In a memory I perform for you as a girl who has spent a lot of time in the ocean. You were babytooth. A mute corrects my grammar with a large red pen of silence. Think of anything you’ve done start to finish. Reckless captain, in his cups, now look at the mess. Oil-soaked pelicans. Someone turn off the footage. So many days with no word. I want to take off the day, the years that led up to it. I want to take off my bra and take my hair down. Sleep a deep sleep without dreams about teeth, or oil or the sea.
the more we dive into the pile and rake it
the more autumn will arrive with carving knives
the sooner we dredge up snow banks with plastic disks
throwing stones to dislodge icicles
from the height of the factory walls
and when the daggers fly down
we catch them between our teeth and
suck on them for water
when we peel off wet gloves
our pruned fingertips
form blue black
crystals that fall off
in the night water will freeze on
the branches of pines and send them
through phone lines
through roof and beam and cars parked along the street
we’ve limped through the house
past the snowdrifts in the hall
into bed, tracking blood, drowsy
knowing that with a light concussion
we mustn’t close our eyes
This is the first day of Spring
And somewhere people are calling it the New Year
All but fouled-up already
too early the sounds of sunrise
It’s ok to be affected
Normal really she says
I leave a number for spring
but it just gets the dah dah dah of the voice that says I can’t be reached.
A memory of her has come at dawn, consoling me
with her anxiety and her xanax
her unborn children’s names she’s got all picked out
one for her boy and one for her girl
the pressure that makes her ears pop
the vodka in the water bottle
and so on
If you get jaundiced it’s probably too late
so I prefer to think of her far away
engrossed in a book I didn’t write
yet somehow contains much of me
I could throw away the computer,
the miserly nature of an hour, a warm day
slow time down all the way until I press stop
And there we’d remain
pricked by the spinning needle, un-aging
except for our nails and hair
which continue to grow
while we sleep.
MB: How was your trip back to the states?
KN: Awesome. Overflowing with good things.
MB: What was your time at Fourteen Hills like?
KM: Working at Fourteen Hills was a wonderful experience. I began just working on the journal’s general staff before moving on to become the Poetry Editor and then the Editor in the following years, so I had a really wide range of learning experiences with the Fourteen Hills.
A really important lesson in the beginning was just learning the foundations for how to discuss people’s work in useful and thoughtful ways. That year was really solid training in moving beyond my own objective tastes, my own particular likes and dislikes, when it came to reading and talking about others’ poetry, and trying to get deeper into what a poem was trying to achieve on its own terms. My last couple years with the journal, I got to learn a ton about the actual nitty-gritty process of putting together a journal: working with the printers and writers, page counts, deadlines, proofreading, event organizing and so much more.
MB: Did your time at Fourteen Hills (heading up a literary journal in general) change the way (or the kind of work) you submit to other journals?
KN: Definitely! I think in a general way it made me appreciate literary journals (and all the work people put into them) a lot more, which resulted in me reading literary journals much more than I previously had. The more familiar I became with different journals, the more I cognizant I became of what kind of work was being published in general, and what kind of aesthetics certain journals seemed to lean towards. I think now I really only submit to journals that I both enjoy and also think my work aligns with.
MB: Can you talk about the process of writing these poems?
KM: Yes! Big question! Most of these poems were part of my “Thesis,” which is really just a collection of poems. In terms of process, I think I might be a little all over the place. In general, I think I overwrite and free write without thinking about line breaks, or what sucks and is boring, and try not to censor or judge myself too harshly. Then, usually, in all honesty, I wait until I have some sort of deadline (self imposed or otherwise), and try to pluck interesting lines from this big mess of thoughts and memories and images I have written over many days or weeks, and try to find patterns and connections between them. I tend to write about a lot of the same things all of the time, so finding a way to braid or superimpose or mix disparate images and reflections about the same feeling or idea is the fun/challenging part. Sometimes it happens sort of naturally, like magnets, the pieces come together; most of the time it requires more writing.
I am definitely a fan of pen on paper though—notebooks, scraps, scissors, crossing stuff out, etc.— typing something is always the last (but also really useful) step.
MB: Especially in Ink, there's a willingness to shift gears, to change the parameters of the poem halfway through, then change them again. I can hear it in What I have been meaning… as well. What's guiding this? (Is it heavily constructed or are we watching you follow a thought?)
KM: Good question! I think the best response to that might be that “cleanliness” in poetry is not really anything I really strive for. For me, a pile up of images that perhaps don’t add up in a logical way, but that evoke a really tangible feeling, can be more interesting to write and to read than something that makes more obvious “rational” sense. Even if it’s messy, if it has heat, I am more focused on that.
That’s to say: I think coherence in terms of emotional resonance is much more important than being able to safely say exactly or literally what is happening at all times. Tension is what makes a piece of writing compelling, so in that way, I like for a poem to move around, and change, and get confused—“shift gears,” as you said. I suppose I think that “changing half way through” more closely mirrors what we experience in reality, than any sort of linear progression.
MB: What's your approach to rewriting poetry?
KM: “The Never Ending Story.” Ha! It’s usually something I resist, but is definitely, for me, the most important part of making a poem. I get attached to the way I think a poem is supposed to be—to crappy lines or images—and I depend on readers/friends to tell me when and how I am missing the mark: what’s boring, what’s pap, where I’ve said too much, or too little, and then have to be willing to throw away 50% of a poem or whatever it may be. The re-writing, which I would characterize mostly as cutting things out, not adding new things, doesn’t feel as exciting as writing something new, so I usually avoid it. Sometimes will even revise a poem 10 times and still feel like I hate it or its not right; but eventually I’ll do it, and eventually I get to a point where I say it’s done and stop messing with it (kind of).
MB: What do you look for in poetry? (Who are some of your favorite working poets and why?)
KM: I like reading poetry that surprises and disarms. I enjoy when you can hear the poet’s voice loud and clear, and the voice is funny, playful, grave, gloomy, and pissed off; reverent and irreverent from poem to poem. I have a lot of favorite living and working poets, but a few I have been reading and admiring a lot lately are Brenda Shaughnessy, Ish Klien, and Matthew Zapruder. When I read their books I feel like I am having a really candid and hilarious conversation, while simultaneously in awe of their craft. I like what Phillip Larkin said in an interview one time, “Oh, for Christ’s sake, one doesn’t study poets! You read them, and think, That’s marvelous, how is it done, could I do it? and that’s how you learn.”
MB: You do translation work, right? Has that craft affected your own writing?
KM: I do! I think translating has made me acutely aware of word choice. I think Ezra Pound said something like: in poetry, each word weighs a ton. This makes even more sense when you’re translating. Translating has also made me much more aware of the way that sound and rhythm overlap with the semantics of a poem.
MB: In terms of my own craft, I think it has made me slow down a bit, too. Translating is slow moving, and I think it has made me more patient with my own poems. In a lot of ways, writing poems in your native language is a type of translation (of experience)— something’s always falling a little short, or not quite right, and it’s always a struggle, so it’s easy to become disheartened or lose your patience. Translation helps remind me how difficult (impossible?) but also how worthwhile it is to keep trying (and failing) to fit experience to language.
MB: Working on anything right now?
KM: Yes! I am just putting finishing touches on a chapbook of new poems, and also revising a longer Non-fiction piece called “Way Out.” I am also working on finishing my first complete collection of translated poems, a book called Herida Luminosa, by a poet name Minerva Margarita Villareal.