profiles in poetics and linguistics: Kristen Nelson


Kristen Nelson is a writer who bends, grinds, lavish in the poignancy of blown glass, language in camber and body. We saturate the ways in which form in the syntax of space is able to emote, to breathe, to entangle us, and create physical properties of the body she writes back onto the page. Investigating, “conversations about and awareness of how women are encouraged to modify their bodies in order to achieve ideals of beauty.” Sound, she names, “feral,” has properties written into bones, body, in times of closeness to another, and in times of solitude.

But it is not the body that is alone in the liminal space of self, of excavation, rather, it is how the self interacts in conversations with “other”. Intimacy in times of love, grief, and joy, invite collaboration that extends beyond creation, out of sharing the unknown. The conversation she says, is intimate, a “moment between one. The intent … to represent the ability of the speaker to love herself and maintain her independence.” Leading us to question the interiors of our attachments.

Nelson is a cross-genre writer who believes that “writing by women in the past twenty years has taught us all to be brave.” And, she says, “when I drink whiskey I think I’m a unicorn.”

Kristen was born and grew up in Mount Vernon, New York 20 minutes north of Manhattan. She earned a BA in English with minors in Marine Science and Biology from the University of Tampa in 2000. She worked for The Village Voice in New York City, The Weekly Planet in Tampa, and for two years as a full-time staff reporter for the Rivertowns Enterprise in Hastings, New York. She was a freelance reporter for various newspapers and magazines for four years until relocating to Tucson in April 2003. Kristen worked as an editor of the The Institute of the Environment at The University of Arizona from 2003–2009. In May 2009, she left her job at the university to run Casa Libre full-time and pursue her MFA.

1.)    What were the first inspirations that made you desire to become a writer? Who are your favorite writers and how did they change over time?

I do not remember my earliest inspiration to write. It was always there with me. I know my first journal dates back to when I was 10. Before that, when I was 7, I wrote my first short story. It was called “Linda and Her Unicorn” and my great-aunt Vera kept it framed in her house. The year before Aunt Vera died, she gave it back to me along with my great-grandmother’s dowry linens, and her wedding silver. It felt precious in its black frame with shifting glass next to these items. I remember typing the story on my mother’s typewriter and the frustration of my fingers pecking along at a jumbled up alphabet.

In college at the University of Tampa, after 2.5 years of a biology degree—vertebrate zoology, invertebrate zoology, genetics, organic chemistry, parasitology, etc.—I finally had the nerve to switch majors and pursue what I really loved. I had this mantra floating around in my head at the time: Every blade of grass tells a story. I still don’t know what it means. Not really. But that mantra and a college mentor encouraged me to follow my passion.

My favorite writers when I first began studying literature were JD Salinger, Hemingway, and Shakespeare. In the last 15 years, I’ve switched to reading more and more female writers. Carole Maso, Janette Winterston, Anne Carson, Rebecca Brown. Most recently I’ve been obsessed with Lydia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water. I also read everything that Kate Greenstreet, Selah Saterstrom, and Kristi Maxwell publish. I love Roland Barthes and Jenny Boully. Mine is a muddled mixed-up group of inspiration.

2.)    Who have been the creative inspiration / mentor writers in your career?

My college mentor was Doctor Andy Solomon. I was also extremely frustrated and inspired to think by Don Morrill. For ten years, I found inspiration and mentorship from my peers including Julia Gordon, Julianna Spallholz, Kristi Maxwell, Elizabeth Frankie Rollins, and Selah Saterstrom. I took 10 years off of school to found a non-profit literary center, and finally found my way to grad school a few years ago. I was blessed to study with Bhanu Kapil and Rebecca Brown. Rebecca threw me in the dirt and taught me to ground. Bhanu taught me to float in the sky. Between the two, my work has found the tension it needed, tethered between dirt and sky. I also think that writers have the divine gift of being mentored by other people’s writing without having worked alongside or below a person. One of the most influential books I’ve ever read is Carol Maso’s collection of essays Break Every Rule. It was her conversations on the feminine and queer aesthetic that rocked my world—gave me permission to write outside the lines. I also fell deeply in love with Rumi about 5 years ago. He has been the only person to describe a concept of God to me that makes sense—a spirituality that I can get behind.

3.)    How has your own work changed over time and why?

I always thought I would be a prose writer when I grew up, but my sentences kept getting shorter and shorter. Then they became much more concerned with the lyric, sound quality, rhythm, and meter. I have become more interested in the liminal space between poetry and prose—combining tools from both genres. My work has also been more influenced by loss, grief, and the body as my life has become more concerned with these topics.

4.)    What are your plans for the future?

I am working on a multi-genre art project called Experiments on my Body. Experiments will promote conversations about and awareness of how women are encouraged to modify their bodies in order to achieve ideals of beauty as dictated by society and the media. The project begins with “care packages” sent to female artists. Each package contains a photograph of my body, a letter discussing my memories and engaging the individual artist with details of their own art projects, and objects relating to one or more of four categories: pain, hair, weight, and make-up. The intention of the categories is to define pervasive, accessible, and socially acceptable body modification—tattoos and weight loss versus scarification and breast augmentation. For example, a package may contain a close-up photograph of an un-waxed bikini line, a letter describing a first experience of getting a bikini wax, and objects such as fashion magazine clippings, wax strips, and a tarot card which relates to the theme discussed in the package. The packages are designed to prompt conversations between artists on how women are expected to modify their bodies in order to achieve “beautiful.” Each package also includes an artistic statement introducing the project and inviting a response. This project will culminate in performances in the home cities of participating artists and in a web archive of work generated during the correspondence—writing, fine art, photography, video, music, movement, etc. The website will be open to submissions to add to this original archive.

I am also working on a new poetic manuscript, but for the first time, I’m not sharing any of the work in it, until it is complete. Another experiment.

5.)    What are your views on writing by women as it has occurred in the past twenty years?

I think writing by women in the past twenty years has taught us all to be brave. These women have come up against the towering white male wall of the cannon and rather than try to scale it, they’ve gone off in a different direction. They’ve stretched and manipulated genre, given credibility to writing about pain, language, and the body, and have continued to be brilliant, thoughtful theorists.

6.)    Who are promising women writers to look at in the future?

I would recommend that everyone keep an eye out for Kristen Stone and Liz Latty. these two women are tearing it up and they have only just begun. Also, Tucson is a bursting with female literary talent—including Elizabeth Frankie Rollins, Julia Gordon, Kristi Maxwell, Lisa O’Neill, Annie Guthrie, Dot Devota, and so many others.

7.)    If you were asked to create a flexible label of yourself as a writer, what would it be?

I mostly identify as a cross-genre writer, but when I drink whiskey I think I’m a unicorn.

8.)    In your chapbook, Ghosty, published by Drunken Boat, I would like to focus on your use of form and image. The beginning sequences are similar in form. The speaker is italicized, followed by a prose style that informs the dialogue. But as we move further into the piece, the form assumes the style of a picture book. Fitting for the content, we meet “Ghosty,” [Dad] and learn about his death. The writing mimics memoir / short story form and we read about the further displacement of the original speaker. Can you describe your decision to introduce image into the piece further fictionalizing the memoir nature of the work and how you believe this affects the experience of the reader?

[“Ghosty” is not a chapbook. It is a series of text-image pieces that were originally published in Drunken Boat, and were then published in my chapbook Write, Dad (Unthinkable Creatures, 2012). ]

The writing and collaboration that happened between Noah Saterstrom (Ghosty’s illustrator) and I was organic not planned. “Ghosty” is autobiographical. I was sitting in a cheap motel room in Scranton, Pennsylvania drinking vodka out of a ceramic mug. My sister and I had just made the decision to turn off the machines that were keeping my father’s brain-dead body alive. I called Noah, my friend and at-the-time roommate. Noah sketched those drawings while I was manically telling him stories of my experience there. When I returned home to Tucson, he shared the drawings with me and they gave me immediate access to the writing of “Ghosty.” He sketched from my grief-laced stories. I wrote from those sketches. That was the process. “Ghosty” was birthed in the month after my father’s death from grief, friendship, and a need to understand what just happened. Then Deborah Poe accepted it for Drunken Boat and sent it off into the world. Christian Peet wrote a really beautiful review of “Ghosty” on the Tarpaulin Sky Blog. I think he understood the piece better than I did at the time.

9.) “ix. Two Cups,” a poem of a larger sequence, The Length of this Gap, manifests a dialogue between the mind, the body, intimacy, and autonomy. The poem reads, “I have a body intellect much smarter than my brain, // My breasts know what temporary feels like,” proceeding, “If I had known that he was going, / I would have sacrificed too much to make him stay. // The men that go away that carried me in their wallets.” The speaker here acknowledges that the body encompasses an intelligence that seems to be in conflict with the mind. The rationality of the mind objectifies and alienates the self, surrendering an autonomy that is then consumed by the men in the relationship. “Othering” the body is a Western cultural staple. Can you discuss your intention using this specific lens to illuminate these frictions?

the length of this      gap in the entirety of the series, is attempting to measure grief—the distance between moments of joy. The gaping vastness that is mourning can feel unending. “Two Cups” is looking for some answers through body intellect. Our bodies have answers and truths stored. We can access these truths if we listen. If you read that line literally: “My breasts knows what temporary feels like” What I meant is that when my lover touches my breasts, I know if they intend to stick around or if this sexual experience will be fleeting. My body is better than my head or heart at interpreting the sincerity of other people. My head can be too clouded by hope, desire, and fear but my body knows.

10.) In the same sequence, the last poem, “xv. About this Big,” acts to describe love as a way to bring light and make visible the “existence” of something only seen by a lover. In this intimate, quiet, close encounter between two, “My love/ I dream                          you are writing me into / existence // Do not bring water / I wake to lilies                       their wild scent in big pink pushes spreading / shouting all of the heart wide open goofy dew // In this moment I am entirely alone.” We are alone. In the visibility of writing the self and lover in language we isolate ourselves in the process. Could you please address the logopoeia of this piece; writing, intimacy, autonomy, and the ways in which the body participates in this discussions?

This is an intimate moment between one. The intent of this piece is to represent the ability of the speaker to love herself and maintain her independence, confidence, and sense of joy, when the beloved is absent. I don’t think that love needs to be about losing yourself. When it works, love is a complement to an already full independent life. When I wrote this poem, I was in a relationship that taught me this truth.

Words are so much bigger than their letters and meanings. The aesthetic content of “lilies,” “pushes,” and “spreading,” for example, is filled with music—sounds that are stored in our bones and feral instinct. This poem is attempting to access the meanings of these words but also the interior attachment of the reader.