YPL: Was there a point in your life when you said to yourself, “Hey, I’d like to be a writer?” Remembering back to the time you were a high school student and college undergrad student, were there special people in your life who influenced you?
KELLY: There was. I was twelve. I’d written a poem, a short, rather dumb, poem, but I was excited about it. I told my parents I wanted to be a writer. My older brother was thinking of being a writer but he was also hanging out in New York, in Washington Square park, playing chess to make money, and my mother thought I was going to imitate Mike and become a bohemian. When I told her I wanted to be a writer, she yelled that she was not going to have another beatnik in the house and she ran to the kitchen and came back with a very large, very sharp, kitchen knife. She said she was going to kill me. Dad wrestled the knife away from her. Of course she wasn’t really going to do away with me, and he didn’t have to wrestle very hard. Many years later, after I published a couple of books, she offered to type a manuscript I had handwritten.
YPL: Who were some of the writers who influenced your work? Do you have a few favorite poets you could tell us about? Who do you read for enjoyment?
KELLY: Poets who were very important to me at the beginning included Henry Taylor and Richard Dillard—we were all in grad school at U. Va. in Charlottesville, though they were in English and I was in Philosophy. George Garrett was there, and though I wasn’t in his class, he was important to all of us. He found ways to get us published. He made reading suggestions (Thomas Mann and Joyce Cary, for me). We also read Auden, Stevens, Lowell, Pound, and showed our poems to one another. A few years on, I studied with Fred Chappell and Robert Watson. Watson is deceased but I’m still in touch with Fred, who is a superb poet. I sat in on a lit class Fred was teaching about William Carlos Williams. But I was secretly reading Russian poets in translation. Fred was not fond of those writers but I loved them. Abraham Rothberg came along when I was working in NYC at a Judaica publishing house. He wrote fiction and nonfiction but not poetry. He was a good teacher, and I learned from him. Not in a class—the boss of the firm had let him take an office in the building and he wrote all day. I met David R. Slavitt at a joint reading in Charlottesville. He too is superb—he writes fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and translates seemingly everything. He is a good friend.
I still like reading Russian poetry in translation; for that matter, I read a lot of other Russian books. Lately I’ve been reading a great deal about the Holocaust because I’m writing about it. I am, unfortunately, a slow reader. I need to hear the words in my head and then I need to think about them. My husband reads nonstop; I wish I could.
YPL: Could you compare and contrast your life of writing with your life of teaching? After retiring from the university setting, was it nice to finally get to consider writing as your “day job?”
KELLY: Yes, it was! U of Wisconsin was a good place in some ways, but the salaries were very low, particularly for women (ultimately I sued them), and I had only one sabbatical—which I wasted trying to write a memoir that I eventually consigned to a closet.
YPL: You have a new book just out, “Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer.” Could you talk a little about the publishing of this book? Are there some anecdotes you could share about the publishing process itself?
KELLY: This book took nine years. Of course, I wrote other things at the same time, but the research was enormous. Just about everyone has written about Oppenheimer and just about every author thinks he or she got it right. I do too. But I had been haunted by Oppenheimer from the age of fourteen, when my brother gave me one of his books. It was a simple little book but I’d never read anything like it. What do you call this kind of writing? I asked my brother. He thought for a moment, then said, Well, I guess one would call it philosophy. And I said, that’s what I want to study. Oppenheimer had a striking face, and though the cover of the book was black and white and I couldn’t know that his eyes were blue, the expression in them told me he was complicated and interesting.
The people at LSU Press worked very hard on this book. I suspect I drove the copy editor bananas with all my questions, doubts, and corrections. Fortunately for me, he is a nice guy who always deals calmly with my hysteria.
YPL: Do you still occasionally submit work to literary magazines for publication? How do you feel about the abundance of online sites available to writers? Any favorite sites?
KELLY: I do. And I get rejected regularly. I swear it was easier to get published before everyone decided to be a poet. That’s a joke, of course. The internet has allowed me to read poems by many different poets and kinds of poetries. Sometimes I feel lost, given that so many writers are deliberately writing against meaning. I sometimes try to write something similar, but I am, I guess, wedded to meaning. I loved philosophy for its various meanings, and I think poems should address meaning too. But there you go: either they are right or I am wrong, which leaves me wondering why I keep writing. The answer, of course, is because I love it.
Among my favorite websites are The Peacock Journal, the Agni Blog, The Smart Set, LitMag. I still send to Poetry Magazine but it’s become so “modern” I doubt they’ll publish me again. Arts and Letters is another of my favorite sites. There are a number of others, of course, and of course the ones I like most tend to be the ones that accept my work.
YPL: You have published poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and academic pieces. Do you approach each type of writing differently, or is writing just writing regardless of format?
KELLY: In my mind they are separate. Short stories are about sentences, poetry is about lines, novels are about scenes, and nonfiction is about paragraphs. At the base of this reply to your question is my belief that literature is rhythmic. Each form arises from rhythm. Many people prefer to throw this scheme out—prose poets, flash fiction, novels that focus on a moment or a day–and occasionally I engage in these forms, but I think it’s more exciting to use each form as its own stage.
YPL: If you were advising a 20-year-old who wanted to be a writer, what would you say? Should they go to a university to study English or Creative Writing, or should they get out in the world and dig right into creating something on paper?
KELLY: I think a student can learn a lot from a writing program, but whether the student does it before traveling/working or after is up to the student. We must always make room for the poet who decides to take a different path.
YPL: Can you tell us about your experience as Poet Laureate of Virginia?
KELLY: I got the phone call while I was at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. The caller said she’d call me back. She didn’t. I thought they’d decided they didn’t want me. There was no letter saying I was the PL or when the gig would start. I fretted and worried for half a year. Finally my husband called this person to ask whether or not I was the PL. (I was too scared to call her.) “Oh,” she said, more or less, “I guess I dropped the ball, didn’t I.” So I was PL for a shorter time than all the other PLs. A few places called me to do this or that, but we live in a tiny place with no colleges, etc. I decided to phone the local hospital and for a year I read poems (not my own) to my little group and encouraged them to write poems. They were ill and frail and dying, but I fell in love with them, though I also occasionally wished I were leading a younger group. Now I’m as old as those I taught—perhaps “engaged” would be a better term—and I share the concerns they had.