Poetry Spotlight: ROGAN KELLY
by Philip F. Clark
When I first read Rogan’s Kelly’s prose poems, I was struck by both their intensity of imagery, and their quietude of emotion in telling their small, but evocative stories. On first finding and reading his work, I knew that he was a poet I wanted to meet. Gladly we did, and a most valuable friendship bloomed, and continues to. If the test of a poet is the ability to be both vulnerable and strong, while continuing to deeply develop the craft, Kelly has been one of the most instructive in how poetry allows us to reach deeply in, and reach out. His work, as well as his constantly compelling reading of it, is always a pleasure. With pathos as well as humor, his work resides in that place where words resonate to remind us that we are human, and at the service of our changeable hearts.
I was honored to interview Rogan, to discuss his work, the methods of his craft, and the inspirations that have led him to an ever-growing and important body of work, which is thankfully being see and read. His debut chapbook releases today at Seven Kitchens Press. Here is a selection of his poems, and our interview:
The bulbs of the motel sign here are the only working lights in this empty lot. No Vacancy reflects from the half-drained pool. Cold Moon; 75 degrees, December. The lobby smells vaguely familiar like dead mice in the wall. The manager says, they’re under construction. What was their Beirut 1982 stage is now Belfast circa ’83. His accent drops when he tells us, there’s coffee. His eyes direct to an empty pot. There’s a lilt when his mouth moves, take the last room. His eyes flash towards the exit like it’s our last chance to leave.
The Beginning End
One winter, he renamed snow angels snow Sandras. Her leg shook nervously at the bar when they met, and settled against his knee when he laughed. She turned to him in that first hour and said, I’m having the best time, her fingers tenderly brushed the back of his hand. She reminded him of his ex-wife in a way untold here. The divorce not final. He kissed her in Hoboken; black beans dabbed with butter in her mouth.
Dream of Brooklyn
where I was an unlicensed contractor afraid of heights, frozen on the breaking, broken steps of the tallest brick and black stone building with a giant smokestack of a bygone age. The piping heartbeat like a mad drum. You sure you could talk me down from anywhere. Your voice was the sound of sirens, but in the dream directing me away from the crashing rocks. Someone rigged those steps to crumble. Someone fired a gun from the building across from me, in a window with stained glass panes of a lost Ithaca that broke away, tumbled forth. Blue azure ornate tile ran like train tracks between floors and the Chase Bank sign shown bright in the puddle at your feet that you splashed in those square toe boots of yours I love. When you stepped forth to catch me in my fall, which proceeded a push from behind by a man I couldn’t see, the flash of stars in your eyes was breathtaking. You promised me a low rooftop with air rights and a water tower turned into a library with a bed and a fan and said we’d never take the ferry as a shortcut again. I was carried off on an ambulance stretcher, and from the corner of my Cyclops eye, made out the sketch of a man with a chalkboard eraser who removed the graffiti from the Williamsburg Bridge.
Poe, at Death
A man imagines a great gray bluff in the ebony dark,
another kind of cliff from which to fall from
& he does—
spills the streets of Baltimore,
thrashes against wet cobblestone,
green gas lantern light reflects in the shallow puddle
he chokes on—
He is famous enough for someone to recognize &
call out his name, & even amidst the inaudible
the indiscernible ravings of a mad man, witnesses
heard him close with
a familiar refrain.
The poet Gwendolyn Brooks once said, ‘We are each other’s magnitude and bond.’ What are your ‘magnitudes and bonds’ in poetry?
Poetry has been the constant. It’s saved my life a couple times. I think for the longest time I associated it with sadness, though. It was there for me at those times. And certainly early on, and later when I started writing again, I was in a dark place. But in a way, it wasn’t fair of me.
Writing isn’t just a necessity now. I love writing poems, the friendships and bonds with other poets. Finding readers and being a reader for others. And gaining new dynamics with mentors who have been invaluable in helping me build my first book.
Having the opportunity to read and publish has been a gift. And the lack of money aside, this is a calling. I’m grateful to have found it. Poetry is stuck with me.
Why did you choose the prose poem form, over other poetic forms? How does that formal choice enable your poems to best express what you write?
Narrative is often a dirty word among poets. As if a poet’s gift can’t reside there. There’s so much more to the prose poem than narrative, but it begins there, leans in. I found an unlock with it. At 18, I wrote my first free verse poem, and I thought it was going to be easier, simpler somehow, than the rhyming verse and sonnets that were my first poems. But there were more choices and I had to own all of them, couldn’t hide behind rhyme or meter. I love the line break and white space possibilities in poetry and I miss them sometimes. But I found the prose poem wasn’t easier or simpler. For me, it removed another mask.
If I were to name a quality that your poems have, I might first say they are poignant reminiscences. They also have a sense of of being present in them: interiors and exteriors, place and landscape — both of mind and body. They are also very vivid: the imagery is abundant, as well as their emotional content. How would you describe what your poems are about?
There is a staging and stage for me. Geography, a sense of place. There’s a grounding and then I try to create movement, action. This can be in the form of something emotional or narrative turn. Always after a truthful surprise. I need good sound, compression or a deliberate avoidance of it. I rarely repeat a word in a prose poem but I am conscious of and open to echoes between poems. I look to surprise myself and not condescend my reader. Art has the ability to change us. We can be altered after a poem. I’m forever after that. I’ve often called them vignettes but poignant reminiscence sounds better.
Many of us, as poets, have that ‘illumination’ I’ll call it, which first brought us to recognizing that poetry would be the writing we would seriously pursue. What, or when, did you have that light go on?
At 16, poetry saved my life. And at 37, going through a painful divorce, it did it again. There were alot of starts and stops in the in-between. Alot of denying who I was. Or trying to be something else.
I’ve only been writing prose poems for two years. I knew I had this first book when I had the first three clunky drafts. I was telling anyone who would listen. It embarrasses me a little to say it, but I think my illumination began here.
The poetry world today is huge, and growing. Managing one’s way in it — getting published, having readings, getting recognition — is full-time work. How do you manage these things, and what do you feel is needed to do them well, or successfully?
I’m pretty dogged in my process of drafting, editing and submitting, and failing those, reading. And I see all of it as writing. Or being a writer. I see the holding pattern that poets, especially get themselves into, and some of that holding pattern is pressed upon us by our community/industry, and some of it by the simple fact that most of us must do something else and pursue poetry on the side. I think the holding pattern is the death knell. When I began, the simultaneous submission was all but forbidden. There are pros and cons to having a larger community, because we’re still fighting over the same small pie. But one positive is if some part is being a gatekeeper, another part values you and takes you in. You have to find your champions, good people who value you and love your work. And I believe in championing others like that as well.
When I don’t give in to jealousy, fear, doubt, pettiness, perceived slights, what remains is a process that I love to be a part of. I love the grind and the possibilities. I live for the work and the friendships, the sense of community and of purpose. On the best days, it’s not daunting. And I’m still failing consistently. Rejections, weak drafts, poor edits. But I love being a poet.
Who are the poets that inspire you — not in relation to how you write your own, but in relation to how their work makes you reexamine how to express what you write?
There are too many to name. I return to James Wright, and ignoring that I’m not as good, am reminded of everything I love about writing. Though not a poet, Lydia Davis’s short stories have had an effect on me, continue to. She can be so experimental in her storytelling and every kind of telling seems possible.
Diannely Antigua is a friend; her poetry book Ugly Music, YesYes Books has a changing effect on me. We share a romanticism but her work is her own. I admire it and have been altered by it.
The poet Katie Peterson has said, ‘The clarity of the language doesn’t guarantee a clarity of understanding’. How do your poems grapple with that idea? How does language and clarity (transparency and opacity) come into play with your work?
Hopefully, I’ve entered the poem without full understanding. Without a sure course. I need a way in and then it’s a point of rummage or illumination. I read somewhere that Robert Altman would deliberately make it hard to pick up certain dialogue in his films. Because in life, when do we know everything, hear or see everything? It’s a discovery of what’s essential and the reader has their own journey with that, in so many ways. I still have a responsibility to myself and to the art, and to the reader. But I can’t control all of it — and I’ve only ever made poor poems when I’ve tried.
I pay attention to my vantage in a poem, and then to the reader’s, if their vantage is more or less obscured than mine. And through editing, am I okay with the viewfinder. What does the light say? What whispers from the dark? Where is there yelling or commotion and what does that do?
We spoke once, of the idea of the ‘notes not played’ in a poem. Can you speak to this in relation to what such silences are in poems?
I think when you’ve learned your craft, know the possibilities with wordplay and image, the way we naturally puzzle solve and make connections, all the tools at your disposal, the choice to hold back made consciously and with purpose can be the most powerful. We often talk about this in the form of killing our darlings, but there are more choices beyond that. But where and how we bring in second subject is a big turn. Where we enter the poem, where we exit. I’m not sure how to describe a rule of how or when to hold back. I just know that it can create a much-needed tension.
We’ve talked about this in the music of Chris Pureka. It’s in her guitar work, her voice, the styling of her lyrics that illuminate and then pull back. There are opportunities for poets to do this. Patrick Donnelly’s work can be beautiful in this way. His gift for narrative, emotional resonance, can be so illuminating and then pay attention to the places he cuts the lights, kills the sound. It’s stunning.
In creating an individual voice, how do you let your work ‘become you’?
It’s been a discovery and remains so. I love both high and low language. How is that? I come from working class New Jersey. There’s a sound and feel to that. I was also heavily influenced by my WWII grandparents. For me, that means old movies and Cole Porter. I love plants and plays. I was always in love with love and at 42, I feel a failure in it. I have a preoccupation with kissing, that I was unaware of till I wrote these poems.
There has been a discovery of self in so much of this work. I’m leaning into my leanings and learning what that unearths. Themes, and hopefully some truth, arise.
What were some of the challenges, and rewards, in creating your first collection of poetry?
It’s the most fun I’ve ever had writing. It’s the most I’ve felt like a writer. And the anvil lifts from my chest. I didn’t know the faith it took. I’ve never worked harder to finish my poems. It’s also been the least lonely process, and I was surprised by that. To run early drafts by writers I trusted. To land poems in journals and find editors who championed the work. Finding a talented publisher in Ron Mohring who believed in the project and me. There were days of doubt and self-sabotage. But most of it has been such a blessing.
Rogan Kelly is is a poet and educator. He was a finalist for the 2018 Jane Underwood Poetry Prize. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in many notable journals, including Bending Genres, Brazenhead Review, The Citron Review, The Cortland Review, The Penn Review, Small Orange, Tiferet, among others. “Demolition in the Tropics” is his first chapbook (Seven Kitchens Press 2019). Follow Rogan on Instagram and Twitter: @JerzyPoet.
Seven Kitchen’s Press: https://sevenkitchenspress.com/