Interview with Kelly Grace Thomas by John Sibley Williams
In the end the book became a love poem to myself, a recalibration of power, a celebration of strength and clarity of what I (we) are capable of. A reminder: to build a new name (voice, idea, love) you must burn another.
Inspired by her debut poetry collection Boat Burned, ISSUE I Contributor John Sibley Williams recently conducted this interview with Kelly Grace Thomas. In this interview, they discuss how gender expectations and violence shaped her book, how the female body is policed and shamed, what it’s like having a Persian husband in our culturally polarized society, and what it’s like to launch a book during a chaotic time of quarantine, among other topics.
KELLY GRACE THOMAS is the winner of the 2017 Neil Postman Award for Metaphor from Rattle, 2018 finalist for the Rita Dove Poetry Award, and multiple Pushcart Prize nominee. Her first full-length collection, Boat Burned, released with YesYes Books in January 2020. Kelly’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in: Best New Poets 2019, Los Angeles Review, Redivider, Nashville Review, Muzzle, DIAGRAM, and more. Kelly currently works to bring poetry to underserved youth as the Director of Education and Pedagogy for Get Lit-Words Ignite. Kelly is a three-time poetry slam championship coach and the co-author of Words Ignite: Explore, Write and Perform, Classic and Spoken Word Poetry (Literary Riot), currently taught in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Kelly has received fellowships from Tin House Winter Workshop, Martha's Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing and the Kenyon Review Young Writers. Kelly and her sister, Kat Thomas, won Best Feature Length Screenplay at the Portland Comedy Film Festival for their romantic comedy, Magic Little Pills. Kelly lives in the Bay Area with her husband, Omid, and is currently working on her debut novel, a YA thriller, titled Only 10.001. Visit her at www.kellygracethomas.com.
JOHN SIBLEY WILLIAMS is the author of As One Fire Consumes Another (Orison Poetry Prize, 2019), Skin Memory (Backwaters Prize, University of Nebraska Press, 2019), Summon (JuxtaProse Chapbook Prize, 2019), Disinheritance, and Controlled Hallucinations. A twenty three-time Pushcart nominee, John is the winner of numerous awards, including the Wabash Prize for Poetry, Philip Booth Award, Phyllis Smart-Young Prize, and Laux/Millar Prize. He serves as editor of The Inflectionist Review and works as a freelance poetry editor and literary agent. Previous publishing credits include: Yale Review, North American Review, Midwest Quarterly, Southern Review, Sycamore Review, Prairie Schooner, Saranac Review, Atlanta Review, TriQuarterly, and various anthologies. Visit him at https://www.johnsibleywilliams.com.
JSW: Boat Burned is an exquisite collection of intimacies and distances, exploring the various roles we play in each other’s’ lives and in society as a whole. You discuss what it means to be a wife, sister, daughter, and a woman within the confines of certain cultural expectations. I’d like to begin by asking about the relationships that inspired your poems, from those that left a bruise to those that helped navigate you toward self-acceptance.
KGT: When I started this book, I didn’t like who I was, especially as a woman. Full of doubt, shame, and an ocean of sadness, I started Boat Burned to examine feelings, to investigate their origin. Everything leaves an echo: your parents’ relationship, the media you consume, the things you say to yourself in the mirror. There was this need to apologize for who I was. I felt it in other women too. Everywhere I looked there was a woman starting every sentence, or day with the word sorry, women forever soaking in a bath of self-blame. Not all women, but enough.
I began writing about the scary stuff: how body image is modeled, the silence around disordered eating, the rocky waters of divorce and bankruptcy, the emotional abuse of my first boyfriend. The deeper I dug, the more water I found. Oceans and seas of sadness, not all mine, but this collective blue. Once I hit the bottom of it, the only way to finish the book was to swim back up. In the end the book became a love poem to myself, a recalibration of power, a celebration of strength and clarity of what I (we) are capable of. A reminder: to build a new name (voice, idea, love) you must burn another.
JSW: The water imagery laced throughout the book is multi-layered in terms of its metaphor. And thank you for touching upon it. Can you tell me a bit about your varied uses of “boat”? As you portray a woman’s body as a vessel bobbing and rolling over waves caused by others (predominantly men), this universal image speaks to motherhood, self-doubt, and gender-based violence. How did you decide on this overarching image, and what role does it play in your eventual self-realization?
KGT: The boat imagery came to me when I was in a Korean spa in Los Angeles. I was taking off my clothes and I thought to myself: what if we all took off our clothes and all us women were something besides human under them. I pictured women as tress, robots, all sorts of things. Then I said to myself: I would be a boat. It was so clear and matter-of-fact. I sat down and wrote “The Boat of my Body,” which gave the entire collection the backbone it needed.
Boats are such a ripe metaphor for so many reasons. First, boats are gendered. Men have compared them and their upkeep to women in a million ugly ways. There are so many parallels between that and the way women’s bodies are looked at, policed, shamed. Women have been taught for so long that what we carry is not our own. That our body is here for someone else’s pleasure, procreation, the list goes on. In older times, women were not allowed on boats yet were compared to them. Boats represent the idea of the body that was owned by others. Throughout the collection that perspective shifts, and there is a burning down of the old and a rebirthing of the new.
I also grew up spending lots of time on my father’s boat and racing sail boats. My parents were divorced, but we would spend all day Sunday sailing together on his boat named, Romance. When my family went bankrupt, my father moved to Florida. My family spent a month sailing from New Jersey to Florida to say goodbye.
For me boats are rich in so many comparisons of body and gender, but also a place of joy and deep sadness. There was so much to unpack about my past and where I wanted to go.
JSW: This tender description, and your poems themselves, lean simultaneously into the intimate and the political. In your poem “Arson is a Family Name,” you describe your Trump-supporting family. Also, in a number of poems you discuss Omid, your Persian husband. Is there inherent tension in these two familial worlds? How does this tension affect your creative life and the metaphors you selected for these poems?
KGT: Thanks for this question. I want to clarify that I don’t have any Trump-supporters in my family. When I say it’s “is a family name” I’m thinking more about the lineage of whiteness and white privilege, and how disappointed I am in white women who voted for a president who spreads fear and hate.
Omid being Persian is not tension in my familial worlds. Our families are great friends and spend holidays together. This poem (and others) addresses the nature of white ignorance (mine included) and the way it hurts so many people (my family). We live in a country, rampant with racism. When Trump was elected he banned travel to Iran. Meaning my family couldn’t see the people they loved. I can’t speak to Omid’s experience, nor should I try. But he encourages me to share his stories saying “if it helps even one person see, that’s a start.”
The overt racism he experiences on a daily basis is heartbreaking. I’m reflecting on my ignorance about that before I saw it first hand.
And while I am always concerned that I might say the wrong thing, how could I not talk about it? Isn’t it important as a white poet with many white readers?
JSW: You approach these difficult themes of stereotyping and injustice, both historical and intimate, both for women and people of color, from various perspectives and using a variety of structures. From couplets to prose poems, right-aligned stanzas to unexpected punctuation, how do choose your structures and syntaxes? Do certain poems demand certain visual formats?
KGT: I think the way a poem looks on the page is just as important as the words in it. So I tried to make sure that the form and how it looked on the page was really intentional. In poems where I was addressing an internal (or external) struggle, where I felt torn, the lines were justified left and right to show the push and pull. For those that mimic anxiety, it might be a prose poem or block. For me couplets have always felt more intimate, where I use traditional form and stanza breaks for a more narrative approach. I sometimes put the poem in one big block and then ask it who it wants to be, how it wants to live on the page, what its house should look like.
JSW: How has it felt for these intimate, emotionally significant poems to reach readers who may also be suffering from body image issues and other forms of self-doubt? Have others reached out to you to show their support? Speaking as someone whom our culture has privileged with fewer reasons to scrutinize my appearance, I know your work has thrown open the windows and allowed some fresh, uncorrupted air in.
KGT: I recently read a statistic in “The Self-Love Experiment” that 91% of women hate their bodies. 91%. I could cry right now thinking about it. The number was heartbreaking, but not surprising. Sadly, I’m pretty sure I could tell you most of the reasons why.
But for me, the most important reason is: no one teaches us how to love ourselves. However, we are taught daily that we are not good enough. More importantly, no one teaches us how to talk about the fact that they don’t love themselves.
This is where the world’s ugliness comes from: mass shootings, racism, greed. We do not know how to love ourselves. Each of our bodies is a small country, where shame plants its flag. We react through fear. And the world grows sicker by the day.
After readings, women of all ages come up and say “thank you, so much! I have always felt this way about my relationship to my body/how my mother taught me to apologize for my body/for the way I gave away my body for what I thought was affection…” the list goes on.
One myth that I have been sold is that these issues of shame, insecurity, body dysmorphic disorder, will go away after you grow up. It didn’t. Not for me. I just grew into these thoughts, I thought they were who I was. Then I started to ask why.
If Boat Burned can provide company, representation, or conversation for one person who is wrestling with the same complicated relationship to self, that would be the highest honor as a poet. The book healed more in me than any meditation, drink, new dress, or therapy session. It instructed me how to ask the hard questions and look for the even harder answers.
JSW: Finally, Kelly, I’d like to ask you about launching Boat Burned during this chaotic, terrifying time of quarantine and political upheaval, when creative communities are more important than ever. How has it stifled your ability to meet new readers? Has it opened any unexpected doors?
KGT: This is such a great question. To be very honest, it’s been hard. This year is not what any of us expected. Boat Burned is my debut collection. I worked my whole life for this, but it feels like there are much more urgent things in need of our attention, if we want to heal this country, the world, and ourselves. That is important. It has definitely stifled my ability to meet new readers and sell books. I have 50 author copies sitting in my closet because of numerous canceled events. I was supposed to tour in September but that has been canceled.
However, there are worse things. So I’m trying to move with gratitude and think creatively. Right now I’m working on a virtual tour for Fall 2020 as well as launching a new interview series called “Body of Art.” I’m also leading online poetry workshops where participants “burn their boats” through poetry.
As for doors, it has opened a few unexpected ones. People have reached for readings that probably wouldn’t have happened in person. I began co-hosting a reading series called Words Together, Worlds Apart with my dear friend and amazing poet, Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach, and have connected with some amazing poets there. I also co-host a podcast called the Poetry Saloncast with Tresha Faye Haefner, where we talk to poets about their process, which has been great, so still fostering community. I’m holding conversations with poets closer these days and thinking of ways we can support one another, especially in elevating Black voices.
However, I can say personally that even with all the ugliness and uncertainty we suffered this year (and the years before), this has been a year of deep healing for me. It’s given me the chance to reconnect with myself, my body, my writing, my family, my relationship to nature. My perspective and gratitude have shifted to value the quiet moments and me time more. I have gotten to know myself better. For that, I am forever grateful.
This interview has been lightly edited for concision and to fit our style guide. You can purchase Boat Burned here.