Cracking Open Clams: A Conversation Between Jared Beloff and Candice Kelsey

Poets Jared Beloff and Candice Kelsey
Poets Jared Beloff (left) and Candice Kelsey (right)

You scroll Twitter one evening, bored, maybe a bit lonely when one of your favorite online publications proposes a joint interview between you and another poet you deeply admire. Do you (a) keep scrolling, forget about it and go grab a bowl of cereal, (b) heart the tweet and move on, (c) heart and RT the tweet and DM the poet to start a Google Doc immediately? Thankfully Candice Kelsey, author of the chapbook Choose Your Own Poem (Cherry Dress Chapbooks 2023) and the full collection The Poet Dreams of Driving a Ding-a-Ling Ice Cream Truck & Other Means of Escape (Pine Row Press 2023) and Jared Beloff, author of Who Will Cradle Your Head (ELJ Editions 2023), chose the only correct option and conducted this wide-ranging interview about poetry, otters, macro-poetics, and what it means to be a harried teacher-parent-poet.

Jared Beloff: Hi Candice! It is so great to speak with you about all the crazy things going on in our lives. Recently, you likened interviewing another writer like this to two otters breaking open a clam together. As a writer, what kind of otter would you be and why?

Candice Kelsey: I think I would be the neotropical otter, who is diurnal, and who, according to my amateur research prompted by a poet I respect, coexists peacefully with other otters. Also, it prefers deeper and wider streams than most otters. This is just to say I do most of my writing in the day, value my fellow poets, and like to tackle deep, wide-reaching topics in my work. Bonus: I love this section in Dorothea Lasky’s “Me and the Otters” from Black Life (Wave Books, ‘20):

I have played tennis with so many animals

I can't count the times I have let them win

Their snouts that were wet with health

Dripping in the sun, then we went and took a swim

Just me and the otters, I held them so close

I felt the bump of ghosts as I held them.

For some reason, I can’t ever forget the “bump of ghosts”—what does that mean?

JB: The bump of ghosts! Is this the ghosts made flesh again? The remembrance of touch, of an embrace?

CK: Ah, yes, I think so. Also, a nod to The Tempest perhaps: “How sharp the point of this remembrance is!” A fitting reference in light of your Who Will Cradle Your Head, as I think we can now read The Tempest as climate change allegory. All this talk of sea otters brings me to my favorite poem of yours, “Animal Crackers.” I particularly love the line near the end: “Perhaps, the difference between accumulation and loss is a matter of proximity and scale, animals you can’t fit in your palm, two dimensional as an endangered list.” Can you share your process in writing this brilliant piece?

JB: There are even sea otters in that poem! All the animals in the poem were chosen because they are all on the endangered species list. The poem is true. We bought one of those bulk canisters of animal crackers in the shape of a bear. My older daughter was doing a “research” assignment on palm oil where she had to catalog all the foods in our house that contain palm oil. Meanwhile, my younger daughter is eating animals from out of this giant bear. The poem emerged from there. There seemed something innocent yet callous about naming the animals in cookie form while their live proxies are struggling in their own habitats, especially the orangutans that pop up in the speaker’s mind as he watches his daughter eat. They are losing their habitat to make way for palm oil plantations in Borneo and elsewhere. This sounds a lot less like a process and more like observing my stream of consciousness while witnessing my kids go about their day amidst the upheaval of the world outside. Your recent chapbook Choose Your Own Poem is very tightly crafted on the macro-level in that it invites the reader to choose a pathway from poem to poem after each read. How did you come up with this concept? What was the greatest difficulty in making it cohere?

Choose Your Own Poem: a chapbook by Candice Kelsey

CK: On road trips with my family, I read the Choose Your Own Adventure books, devouring the self-driven scenarios, their wild predicaments. What most attracted me was the concept of getting a second chance at something, a foreign concept in my family. Last September, as I curated my newest poems, I read an article in The New Yorker entitled “The Enduring Allure of the Choose Your Own Adventure Books.” Something connected for me. In alignment with the past two years of life in America, this format leans into life’s unpredictability, the monotony of lockdown, but also many surprising moments of fun. I had to rethink each poem because the book had to be in the second person in order for the reader to have agency and make choices. I relish the idea that my protagonist—the reader—will face unexpected twists such as endless page loops or trick endings, just as we all do in life. The toughest challenge for me was constantly renumbering which page the reader should turn to, and also deciding when the reader has met their end. What experience do you want your reader to have when engaging with your poems, or what choices do you want the reader to make?

JB: On some level I want them to fully empathize with my speakers or come away with a feeling they recognize within themselves. It would be an accomplishment in my mind if a reader thinks to themselves “Yes, this is that feeling welling in my chest.” Ideally, a reader reading my climate work will change their lives and do better and we will solve all the problems of the current era! I wrestle with the efficacy of what we do here with poetry. Recently a family member who tried to read my book said, well I tried. You seem to talk about birds a lot and you use the word ice a bunch of times. I liked the attention to detail here, but I’m pretty sure my book wasn’t moving the needle. I’m not sure any of my poems will or could. Where do you see your poems in terms of their lineage? What poets do you connect to and learn from? From out of whose head have you sprung?

CK: If I may, I think the interaction your family member had with WWCYH was a success. Here’s why—poetry requires a different type of paying attention, as you know. And your family member experienced it, felt the urging that there was more on the page than a bird or ice, and I would bet felt a bit of curiosity “welling in their chest.” Perhaps that relative will never look at a bluebird or an iced tea the same again. One poet who changed how I view everyday items is Billy Collins. I know he’s fallen out of fashion of late, but his humor, playfulness, and jazz-inspired verse ushered me into the more accessible yet still magical world of poetry—without having to tie me to a chair and beat me with a hose. The poets who have sustained and inspired me are Linda Pastan, Lucille Clifton, Sharon Olds, Kwame Dawes, and Marilyn Chin. One of the many aspects of your poetry that I admire and enjoy is the artful way you construct meaning, the velvety diction, the sweeping syntax. Which lines, phrases, and images of your own or other poets’ are you drawn to and why?

Who Will Cradle Your Head by Jared Beloff

JB: I love nature documentaries and photography. A lot of the imagery in my book is an attempt to develop a vocabulary that evokes the sweeping look at the natural world you find in both. But there are so many images I have to consciously edit out. I love moss and lichen or having my speaker sit “in the sun” and having flies helix and don’t get me started about mourning doves! I keep trying to throw them into my poems and hear them cooing and then I keep throwing them out because there’s only so many times you can lean on their poetic name. Some of my beta readers have pointed out an obsession (especially early on) with “in between” in my poems. This is about liminality, but also the thing that stops people from being literally and metaphorically together. I dwell on that issue with my family often. Lately, I have been thinking about Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s description of writing poetry under the “tyranny of line breaks.” I like using the break to double meaning or force the reader to read the lines twice to see both types of ideas, to hold them together in an embrace but also in opposition. All poetry should, in my mind, be disruptive. Your poem “In Response to My Children Who Still Ask About the Coyotes” in Variant Lit (which was a finalist for Best of the Net this year) is a fantastic example of this level of surprise but also the way subtle movements of lines complement the language and meaning of the poem. Can you speak to this poem a bit more about its context and construction? Also, how does it fit with your overall sense of craft and aesthetics?

CK: Thank you for reminding me of Nezhukumatathil! I love her interview with Ross Gay where she speaks about wonder. Your poetry is striking in that way, the electric curiosity with which you approach nature, inspect the human heart, merge art with science, and play with form and shape. I’m dying to know more about your poems “Adaptation” and “Murmuration,” which leads me to answer your question. “In Response to My Children Who Still Ask About the Coyotes” is very much about how the speaker’s young children have to adapt to the cruel realities of renting in Los Angeles, which has shaped their family into murmurations as they move to the next rental. The poem was born from my anger at realtors relentlessly coming to our door or leaving their cards with the intent to buy, remodel or demolish, and sell the home we were renting. It felt so predatory. We also lost several cats to the coyotes when we lived by the 405 Freeway. I was struck by how humans have encroached on these beautiful, desperate coyotes, and I felt a kinship with their struggle for survival. The heart of my poem is the line “Los Angeles has swallowed so much of us.” I am fond of the Little Red Riding Hood story and often introduce literary criticism to my students by asking them to apply post-colonial, Marxist, and queer lenses to it. The imagery where I enter the coyote to find my dead cats stems from these explorations. Tell me about “Adaptation,” “Murmuration,” and anything Sasquatch-related!

JB: Crawling into another body to search for what has been lost is such a profound thought, especially as we consider the quest nature of Little Red Riding Hood (I studied folktales through Vladimir Propp and structuralism during grad school). I do this quite literally with my series of Sasquatch poems. I wanted to write about the future and what it would be like to endure the apocalypse. Sasquatch became a figure through which I could “inhabit” that space but not in the ways we typically find in post-apocalypse narratives. I wanted to think about the end of humanity but as a way that decentered what makes us most selfishly human: Sasquatch is humanoid but not trying to colonize natural spaces for his use. How would he reorient the human perspective and voice? What is revealed when we stop thinking that humans are the center of climate and/or eco-politics? Adaptation and Murmuration are doing the same work but confrontationally. They are visual and lack specific meaning as we understand the term. I had read the IPCC report on climate and adaptation and maladaptation are at stake when we think about the future and survival. The word adaptation kept circling around my brain and I decided to structure the term in overlapping patterns that mimic starling murmurations, so they are recognizably mysterious but seem also an imperative stated over and over again. We are both teachers and parents and I’m guessing you get asked this a lot (I do) but how do you juggle and prioritize the writing life? You seem to have three books at once. How are you organizing readings, in person events? Do you feel like you are getting out there?

CK: Brilliant, your starling murmurations. I am reminded of Annie Dillard’s lamentation for Radford, Virginia’s ‘72 mishandling of their starlings from one of my favorite books, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. She would applaud your work, obviously. As a teacher and a parent, and most recently writing for a nonprofit animal rights organization fighting to end speciesism, I find your work so important. I also find so little time to attend what needs attending and to wonder what deserves wondering. But that’s what the poetry community offers—space to attend and wonder—and I am grateful for the likes of you and so many others. As for juggling, I recalibrate daily which of the balls are made of rubber and which are made of glass. Some can be dropped while some cannot be. On a day like today, my 15 year old daughter is made of glass; she is home with a concussion from a soccer game and needs mothering, so of course I can steal away to engage here while she sleeps, but I won’t be getting any writing done. I have a new collection with an unforgivably long title out now, The Poet Dreams of Driving Ding-a-Ling Ice Cream Truck & Other Means of Escape as well as my Choose Your Own Poem chap and my debut collection of essays, Puzzling Things. I am terrible at organizing readings and events, just awful really. It’s embarrassing. I would love to do much more! I was grateful to be part of your NAWP reading recently and hope to be more involved. You have an exciting event coming up with one of my favorite poets, Joan Kwon Glass–please share a bit about that and all things NAWP and what you have on the calendar!

JB: I’m trying to stay composed after such a flattering juxtaposition with Annie Dillard who introduced nature writing and SEEING to me as a writer. She is just fantastic, one of the best. Thank you. I love the juggling rubber and glass analogy, that makes perfect sense (sorry about your daughter!). I have likened it to guerrilla warfare, taking pot shots at my poetry whenever I can but there’s rarely a rhythm to it. This just makes a retreat for parents (with childcare and not during the school year) sound delicious and beyond reach. I overbook and over organize readings but I kind of thrive in that work. When Mitch Nobis and I started NAWP, we were just dealing with AWP FOMO, but highlighting people’s work has been so meaningful. I hope to continue expanding monthly readings, maybe workshops and discussions, too. The reading with Joan (AND CHEN CHEN!) was organized by my friend Nicole Tallman and really she’s working, like I am with NAWP, to provide readers with opportunities. She is a perfect champion for poets. I am looking forward to hearing from the poets I love. Which makes me realize: we should do a reading together soon! What do you think???

CK: Only if we can somehow incorporate sea otters opening clams… Of course, I’d love to put something together with you. If this interview is any indication, it will surely be a delight! Thank you so much, Jared—and Identity Theory for the idea.

JB: Yes! "Sea Otters Opening Clams: a Reading with Jared and Candice." Coming this summer! See you all there!

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