I Have Always Been a Water Woman: An Interview with Kelly Grace Thomas

Interview conducted by Sarah Ulery 

Kelly Grace Thomas’s first full-length collection, Boat Burned, was 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.

Thomas’s debut collection Boat Burned circles around its central images of water and boats to explore themes of survival and what is inherited, whether it be disordered eating or gendered expectations. We first published Thomas’s poem Life/Boat in our spring 2018 issue and were delighted to learn of our former contributor’s success and forthcoming collection. Our editorial assistant Sarah Ulery spoke via email to her about inspiration, writing practices, and goals for the future.

Sarah Ulery: What inspired you to spend so much time thinking about the role of water/the ocean in your life?

Kelly Grace Thomas: In many ways I was raised by the ocean. When I was two, my parents separated but remained close friends. It was important to my mother that our father was still a big part of our lives, so we would spend every Tuesday and Thursday night together and all-day Sunday. On Sundays we would sail. I spent so many years on the bow of our boat, legs over the side, dipped into the cool, salt water blue, just staring at the sea. Speaking to it, with it. There were many confusing things in my childhood: divorce, infidelity, bankruptcy. But talking with the ocean or snorkeling under its water, I always felt safe, there was a certainty it provided. I have always been a water woman, I grew up surfing, swimming and racing sailboats. I spent more time in the water than on land.  It is where I feel most like myself. I have lived within a mile from the water my whole life until now. I ache for it daily.

I have also spent many years on boats sailing to different places. I have anchored and explored deserted islands in the Bahamas. Sailed the turquoise waters of the Florida Keys. When I was ten, my father decided to relocate to Florida after my family went bankrupt. We spent a month sailing from New Jersey to Florida, on his sailboat, the only possession he had left. At the end of that month my father would stay in Florida with the boat and my mother, sister and I would return to Jersey. It was one of the most adventurous and heartbreaking experiences of my life. Many of the poems in Boat Burned, center around this experience

SU: Do you have any advice for beginning poets/writers?

KGT: Pam Allyn said, “Reading is like breathing. Writing is breathi