Under Pressure: Kelly Grace Thomas

Kelly Grace Thomas‘s debut collection, Boat Burned is out now from YesYes Books. Her 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. Kelly has received fellowships from Tin House Winter Workshop, Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing and the Kenyon Review Young Writers. Kelly lives in the Bay Area with her husband, Omid, and is currently working on her debut novel, a YA thriller, titled Only 10.001.

Here, Kelly Grace Thomas discusses bodies and the storm behind Boat Burned.


Gabriella Graceffo: How long did working on Boat Burned take, from conception to publication?

Kelly Grace Thomas: Overall, Boat Burned took about three years from conception to acceptance. When I say conception I mean that I put pages together and called it a book, however looking back it was nowhere close to finished: there was no backbone, cohesion, or arc. But you don’t know what you don’t know, right? From the first submission, it has had seven different titles and 50% of the poems have changed. 

It wasn’t until I wrote the “Boat of my Body,” that I really understood what/who the book wanted to be. The overarching metaphor of women, the body, relationships as boats, unlocked it all. Once I had the right metaphor or vehicle I then saw a clear direction and shape. In “The Creative Habit,” Twyla Tharp talks about how creative words need a backbone. Without the metaphor of boats, Boat Burned had no backbone and couldn’t stand on its own. Once I realized this, everything changed. 

GG: Where did you get your title inspiration from? Have you always been interested in boats or was there a particular appeal to Vikings or sailing as a child?

KGT: I have always come to poetry to feel but more importantly, understand. Writing is a process where I translate the world around me, myself, and those I love. When I started the collection I didn’t like who I was as a person, more specifically as a woman, but I didn’t know why. I felt weak (even though I wasn’t) and apologetic (I was); I was looking for power outside of myself, I knew there was a reason beyond my own insecurities. I don’t believe it is ever as simple as that. 

I was in a Korean spa in Los Angeles and I was taking off my clothes and I thought to myself, what if all us women take off our clothes and we are something different besides humans underneath our clothes. I thought, “I would be a boat.” So matter of factly. I sat down and wrote “The Boat of my Body.”

The poem spoke about the performance of gender, the ownership of women’s bodies, and the weight that is placed on them to be (and carry) so many things. It was important that I reclaimed my power. I thought about the distance and adversity I felt with my own body, like we were separate, almost adversaries. Where did that come from? I said to myself, “I never want to feel like this again, there is no turning back, the suffering (eating disorders, abusive relationships, addictions, financial issues) has to end. But it can’t unless I understand what caused it in the first place. I asked, “What was I trying to protect myself from?”

In essence, I had to burn down the old idea of me. I have always loved the saying “Burn the Boats,” meaning the only choice is to move forward, to go back is death.  I have had a really close relationship with boats, I used to go sailing with my family every Sunday after my parents were separated. When I was ten, we spent a month sailing from New Jersey to Florida to help my father relocate to Florida after my family went bankrupt. I also used to race sailboats when I was young. The ocean, and particularly sailing, is a place of quiet introspection where the world was quiet enough that I got to ask the question I needed to ask. 

GG: If given the choice to spend 24 hours in a museum creating something, what medium would you prefer?

This is such an interesting question: besides writing, the medium I am closest to is photography. I take a lot of pictures, it’s my love language. So much of poetry is focusing on one moment or image, zooming in or zooming out. A shift in perspective. A door or an invitation. I adore photographs for the same reasons. Annie Leibovitz has a Master Class on photography that I can’t wait to take. 

GG: What is a favorite piece of advice from a mentor of yours? How did it help you with your writing?

KGT: I have been blessed to have so many amazing mentors that to think of a favorite is too difficult, but the first thing that comes to mind has to do with my relationship with language. I studied and did some private editing with Shira Erlichman and she spoke about the element of surprise in terms of language. She calls it “peanut butter and fireworks.” 

I love that poetry breaks the rules of language, that you can make an adjective a noun, change syntax, grammar, and parts of speech. I love that I get to play, even with the heavy stuff. Surprise, whether in subject matter or language is what keeps the reader going to the next line. We are (usually) creatures of habit, we come to art because we want to feel something new, or get a new take or a familiar feeling, even if it’s just a simple metaphor that burrows in the heart.  

GG: How do you feel about deadlines? Are they a good or bad pressure for you?

KGT: As an Aries from New Jersey, deadlines and competition help me thrive. I’m extremely goal and project-driven, I love having a carrot I’m working towards; without one I feel a bit aimless. It’s strange, and perhaps unhealthy, to say, but I prefer pressure, though it does give things a sense of urgency. I could work on a line, a poem, a collection for hours, thinking, and overthinking, each line. When I have an end goal, or timeline, I know I need to move strategically with more precision. 

When Boat Burned was accepted to the next round of YesYes Books’s Pamet River Prize, I was extremely driven. I had two months to send in my “finished” collection; it was the deadline and being so close to the finish line that drove me. For two months I wrote about four hours a day, I replaced about a third of the poems in the book in that short time, knowing the book had to be as strong as possible for that deadline. Every day I woke up and thought “it can be better.” I wrote up until midnight of the submission deadline. Above my desk reads a quote that says “Don’t stop until you’re proud.” It is my mantra. 

GG: Boat Burned explores women as vessels and the water surrounding them as their experience, sometimes whelming the boat while other times seeming becalmed. Did you try to organize certain experiences together or did you design the reading experience to be more turbulent?

KGT: That’s a great question. I wanted to feel how one feels when floating in the ocean, or on a sailboat. There are moments you think, this is the most calming, freeing experience I have ever had, and other times where you are terrified, being held under, looking at eight-foot waves and thinking, how will I possibly survive? You realize: I am so small. You also realize: I have the power to survive this and anything else.  I feel the same way about womanhood. The conversation around the role of women is changing for the better, but there are still men (governments) who try to dominate and weaken women. 91% of women hate their bodies and (many times) women’s value is based on their bodies, how they look, and what they can do. I’m proud to be a woman, but I can’t say it has been smooth sailing, if you’ll forgive the pun. The same goes for the relationship to my family. I’m 39 and have had a full life. I’m so blessed that I have parents who are divorced and best friends, but I often feel like a character in a novel. We have dealt with so many emotional struggles (divorce, eating disorders, bankruptcy, infidelity) and external struggles (outrunning hurricanes, sharks, almost sinking in the middle of the ocean, eviction). This has shaped who I am, which of course influences my writing. 

GG: When and how does inspiration find you? For example, do you go outside to find it in nature, or does it suddenly come to you in the middle of the night?

KGT: I think I find inspiration in two ways. First is reading, reading, and more reading. I pride myself on being a poetry mechanic. When I find a poem that undoes me I take it apart to see what makes it run. Then I try to rebuild that element, whether it is a turn in language, a form, a specific structure, using my own work. Of course, crediting any poet who has influenced this process. 

I also think poems come when I invite in quiet. The world is undeniably loud. In my head, poems follow me around like small children at my feet. They are constantly trying to get my attention, but the emails and deadlines and bills are screaming and often much louder. However, once I spend some time away, in nature or on the water, I hear them and listen to what they want to say. 

GG: What are some things you learned from creating this debut book? Do you have any advice you would give to writers putting together a first collection?

KGT: My story is different than others because I don’t have an MFA and was entirely self-taught when Boat Burned was picked up. I learned what I learned through reading. I think to be constantly reading is one of the most important things you can do. I have a few things I would recommend

1. If you have a dream press, read as much of their catalog as possible. I went to a YesYes Books reading at my first AWP where I saw readings from Danez Smith, Azia Barnes, Ocean Vuong, Fatimah Ashgar. I was floored and thought: this is my press. This is who I want to publish my first book. My brain was on fire with the poems the poets were sharing. I went to their booth and bought their entire catalog and read every book. I wanted to be clear on what kind of voices they were looking for and study the poems of these poets I so fiercely admired. If you are trying to place a collection, really think about the poets or writers a press you admire is publishing, ask yourself how can I learn from this?  Why this press? If the answer is because they are the best, encourage yourself to think more personally towards your work. 

2. Think about how the manuscript will change the reader and change the writer. As readers we should never end the book in the first place where we started. We need to learn and experience something new. There should be an arc, a change in thinking, a perspective shift, a journey. If that is not present in your manuscript, examine why. 

3. Look for linchpin poems. When I was writing Boat Burned I would lay all the poems out, think about the narrative being told, especially through the ordering, and think about where there were holes from the stories I hadn’t told. What poem(s) do I need to build towards the arc or transformation?

4. Be patient. Be scrupulous. I get so annoyed when I hear poets complaining about rejection. Yes, it hurts, but the first time you sat down to write it was because you loved to write. Don’t get hung up on the results. And for the love of the universe, do not let them define you. Sure easier said than done, but if you are only in it for the results, publication, recognition, ego, ask yourself why. I also think manuscripts get submitted before they are ready. I know mine did. Hire an editor, see where it can be tighter. If you can’t do that, trade with a friend or put it in a drawer then come back a month later with new insight. I was told it takes about 3 years for a collection to get picked up, so I thought it would be at least that, I expected a lot of hard work and a long wait, but because I love the act of writing, I knew it would all be worth it. 

GG: Besides writing, what other daily rituals do you participate in or feel are important to your writing?

KGT: Oh I love rituals and routines: I have a whole process in the morning that I love. I wake up, make coffee, practice Spanish while it is brewing, go outside on the ground and do Thai Chi, journal, pull tarot cards, and then dive into work. I try to write first thing in the morning and have a writing routine. My goal is to write before I start work; I’m currently answering these questions at 7:15AM sipping my coffee at half an hour after sunrise. I find that if I wait until the end of the day, I have given all my energy to something else. I think that journaling really helps. The book The Artist’s Way talks about the importance of morning pages and I believe that as writers we need space to really get out the junk–the worries, rants, questions, life compliments, blessings before we come to the page. I think of it like watery ketchup. When you put ketchup on a burger, you need a few squirts to get all the water and weak ketchup out; this is journaling for me. 

I think writing rough drafts without an outcome allows you to create with no consequences. How freeing! One thing I love to do is just set a timer, take a prompt or a line, and write for 10 minutes. There are usually a few lines that I really love in it, not a poem, but a start, which will get me to a first draft. 

GG: If you could describe Boat Burned in three words, what would they be? Why?

Stormy, innovative and intimate. This was a really tough question for me because there are so many words that I could use. There are the words I hope it is, the words readers might say, and the words I’m confident I can use. 

Stormy because it mirrors life. My experience has been like weather. The real tough stuff makes you question your power, the control you have, and what you would hold close. But storms have edges, you can see them coming and you know when they will pass. You find yourself defining who you are in the squall of it all. 

Innovative because I try in Boat Burned, as with all my writing, to always do something new. I come to art, like most, to be changed. I create art to be changed. This means that I must constantly challenge myself to do something new every time I sit down to write or revise. I’m a big believer in if I am not growing I am dying; it sounds dramatic but it is true for me. This can be my use of language, subject matter, realization. Even saying “no more” or “enough” at one point was new: I invented the strength that brought me to that point. Invented how to move forward. I love experimenting with language and form. This is why I come to poetry: to play with the alphabet, words, emotionality, images, in a way that makes the grass blue and the sky green. I want to be able to build tiny universes where parts of speech are subjective and leaps in logic are expected. What are artists if not exquisite inventors? 

Intimate because so much of this book deals with deeply personal relationships, beliefs, experiences, and perceptions of the world. I wanted to challenge all those things, or at least unpack them, in front of my reader’s eyes. In poems, I counted the cellulite dimples, examined the mother-daughter body image dynamic, recounted emotional abuse from a past boyfriend, before I had the strength to do it in real life. I’m braver in poetry than I am in life, but poetry usually informs the changes that will come later. The book is about distances and intimacies and having the strength to know which serves me best. Overall, it is a love poem to myself. A chance to sit down and understand who I was and what brought me here. Most importantly, it asks where I want to go. And I hope it invites readers to take the same opportunity, to burn their boats and build anew. 

Order Boat Burned here!