Kelli Stevens Kane is a poet, playwright, oral historian, and accountant. Author Willie Perdomo describes Hallelujah Science, Kelli’s debut collection of poetry, as “a spiritual exodus to the lands of being Black, white, a poet, a woman, a shadow, and a human being.” She’s a Cave Canem Fellow who has also studied at VONA, Hurston/Wright, and Callaloo. She’s read, published, and performed nationally. For more about Kelli visit kellistevenskane.com.
Meredith: James Baldwin said: “Experience, which destroys innocence, also leads one back to it.” Can this be said of the process of writing or, in particular, yours? What happens to both the writer and their work—you and your work?
KELLI: Here’s how I see it. If you draw a horizontal line through the mid-point of an infinity symbol, I think experience would be the climbing up and the falling down part of the symbol, and innocence would be the three points where the line intersects it:
In other words, what my writing process teaches me is that, as we’re writing—sometimes struggling uphill, sometimes sliding down—innocence is still there. It’s the through line—where insight and discovery happen—where words transcend language. So, I don’t think that experience is capable of destroying innocence. As we’re making our way around the figure eight, we can’t always access innocence, but we’re led back through it because it’s always there.
Meredith: Have you ever have to betray your original idea for a piece of writing in order to create the work it becomes? How about your view of yourself as a writer—Have you ever betrayed an image, dream or hope?
KELLI: In writing poetry, I expect to have to let go of my original idea to some extent. Whatever that initial spark leads me to discover, through the process of writing, is the thrill. Writing the poem changes me, and I welcome that. I don’t see that as a betrayal of myself or the work, but more of an evolution.
Meredith: In life, we are destined, it seems, to repeat certain experiences until the meaning or lesson of the experience is conscious. Since the writing life is not separate from life-life, can you share how you’ve moved through a certain block that had always influenced (hampered) your writing process? How did you enter, tolerate, remain with the internal conflict you were dealing with, how did it show up in your writing, and how did it, eventually, resolve?
KELLI: My first poetry book, which is coming out now, took 10 years of submissions and dozens of rejections to get to publication. Completed work that sits unpublished for a long time can create its own sort of block. Not just because you wanted something and didn’t get it yet, but—picture a room packed with objects. Do you really want to make more stuff to cram in there? Can’t we please get rid of that huge piece of furniture by the door first?
It begs some questions: how to deal with so much rejection, and how to create in the face of it. My answer is “stubbornly and playfully.” Log that rejection and keep stepping. You wanted to know if this publisher was a good match? Well, now you know! Be honest—does it need more work? If so, do that work, but If not, submit it somewhere else. Not sure? Get feedback.
But remember, it’s all subjective. No need to question your entire self-worth. Take a break if you need to re-group. Then research your options, roll the dice, and send it out again. Play with new ideas. This has been my life for the last 10 years. Lather, rinse, repeat. Now that my first book is finally coming out—that huge piece of furniture by the door is out—I’ve got space, and new ideas for some long unfinished projects are flowing through it. Thankfully.
Meredith: Taking the stance that creativity is a natural state, why do we get stuck?
KELLI: Pretend you’re one of those last fall leaves that can’t let go of the tree yet—you’re stuck. Eventually you fall into a river and sail until you’re caught behind a rock—stuck again. There’s nothing unnatural about it. Even if we don’t like it, being stuck creates opportunities to experiment with our habitual reactions. Will we fight? Surrender? Dance? In that sense, being stuck is a gift. Without stuck-ness we’d just whoosh down through life, straight into our graves. With stuck-ness, we get the chance to be still, re-discover our creativity, and get moving again.
Meredith: When you write do words come first, or images, sounds, a sensation maybe? A cadence? Feeling?
KELLI: It can happen in different ways: It could be a sensation of Now—it’s time. Something’s coming in for a landing. Will I be the runway? Or a recognition of, It’s time, as in, this writing is a practice I’m doing each day at this time. Sometimes it’s a desire to access a between-state—territory that can be more accessible when sick, or half-awake, or in “the zone.” Free writing is great for that. A smell can also transport—the curl of a cartoon smell in the air that you trust will lead you to something delicious and necessary.
[Thank you, Kelli!]