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 breathing out.” I am an entirely self-taught poet, minus the handful of workshops and fellowship I have been lucky to receive. I have no MFA. I took one poetry course in college, all I have learned I learned from reading with care and curiosity. Read like a poet whose only teacher is the page, interact with the text, interrogate its choice, look at its blueprints and imagine how the poet crafted. Apply what you learned. Make it your own. But pay attention; every single poem has something that will transform your writing if you read close enough.

The next piece of advice is my mantra: first thought, worst thought. Our brains are always looking for low hanging fruit. When writing our brains lean towards cliché because it is easy, already there. Whenever you’re writing think of most predictable image/word/line you can, then think of three choices that are removed from that. For example, in my poem “The Women Said” I was struggling with a way to speak about the impact of gender norms, especially concerning women and their appearance. I had certain things I wanted to convey. For example, that women are expected to make men smile and smile themselves. However, the word smile felt like it needed more of a charge. I thought about smiles and the words associated with them. I went from smile, to grin, to smirk. I also considered famous smiles, and immediately thought about the Cheshire Cat. The line became “when the bling of our breast don’t make them Cheshire Cat the same.” I used similar approaches in the mixed signals women are given—the push and pull, stop and go—instead of mixed signals I thought of a noun that mirrors that function and how it might be used as a verb. The line became “the way out hearts / traffic light in the closet after sold ourselves/whole.

SU: Can you speak to the themes in your current project?

KGT: My husband and I got married last year and have been trying, with no luck, to start a family for the past year. This monthly cycle of repeated heartbreak has been, without question, the hardest thing I have ever experienced in my life. It nearly wrecked me for so many reasons. Some days, it still does. First, we grow up with the myth that is so easy to get pregnant. I remember ever adult tried to scare the shit out of me about it. Then you reach a certain age and they scare you to death that you will never get pregnant. Second, there is so much silence around fertility. Fertility issues affect men and women alike, but as a woman I couldn’t outrun this feeling of being broken. Like my biology was blaming me for something. While I am terrified to talk and write about these things, not wanting to create a self-fulfilling prophecy, I also need to talk and write about these things because I have never experienced anything so isolating.  The collection explores me dealing with my own inadequacy, the effects the struggle has had on my brand-new marriage, the decision over IVF or adoption and so much more. My most recent poems from this collection can be found in the March 2020 issue of Diode.

SU: How does poetry influence your writing in other genres?

KGT: I once heard that poetry is like screenwriting with an unlimited budget. The images have to be specific, the dialogue tight, you need to get in late and leave early. Meaning start with the excitement and leave with mystery (tension) still intact. I think both poetry and screenwriting call for specific beats and arcs. When I teach poetry, I tell my students, think of your poem like a screenplay. When screenplays are picked up by studios, you don’t know who the director will be. It is important to build a world, so undeniable, that the film will look the same no matter who directs it. You need to be precise with your language, tight verbs and sharp nouns.

Novel writing is harder for me to see the parallels. I always say poetry is like an affair and fiction is like a marriage. A poem allows you to flirt with all different things, subject, forms, it can be a short and hot or long and torrid. But you can move from poem to poem. You can write several over the course of a day, week, etc. A novel can take years, it is a commitment. You need patience. Plus, there’s story development. I really think writing a strong plot that will keep people turning the pages is a genre on its own.

SU: Your poetry is vividly personal yet relatable to a wide audience. How did you find the balance between writing what you wanted to write and writing in a way to which readers would respond?

KGT: What a lovely thing to hear. Thank you so much. And that is a tough question to answer, because I don’t usually think about audience appeal when I’m writing. Almost never. I believe that as humans, especially women, we all struggle with similar hardships, obstacles, shame, loneliness. I want to write the thing that makes me feel less alone. The things that help me be braver. I write to understand who I am, who I am trying to be. Poetry is how I process it all. If people read it, that is amazing. It is important for me not to get to worried about publication, or reception because that is not why I came to poetry in the first place. Sometimes I forget, but I try to stay true to the fact that I would do this even if no one ever read a word I wrote. It makes me sad when people take rejection so hard that they consider quitting writing all together. I think it’s important to remember why you started in the first place. And I can guarantee it wasn’t to get into such and such journal—it was for you.

SU: Can you talk about your writing process?

KGT: I’m an Aries. We are known to be goal-oriented and extremely deadline driven. I write the most and create the best work when I have a goal set out like submitting to a contest or getting a manuscript ready. I need a carrot. I have learned this about myself. When I was a semifinalist for the Pamet River prize from YesYes Books, I worked on my manuscript every day for maybe two hours a day, always thinking it could be better. I tried to put everything I had into it and more. Once it was accepted I wrote about twenty-five new poems because I knew they could be better. I didn’t stop until I was proud.

My process is a little different than most in that I revise as I write. I will write three lines and then read them out loud over and over again to try and get the music and meaning right.  Often, I will spend 10 minutes on those three lines before moving on. Then I might write four more lines and then go back and revise all seven. I revise my first draft constantly, so often