Kiley Lee On The Political Nature Of Poetry, And Finding Your Tribe

Animal Heart Press Assistant Editor Amanda McLeod talks with Featured Artist Kiley Lee on how our words can incite change, and finding your artistic tribe (among other things!).

Kiley Lee                                                Amanda McLeod

Amanda McLeod: You’re very creative and engage in a lot of artmaking as well as poetry. Where do you find inspiration?

Kiley Lee: I like the idea of elevating wonder in the ordinary, so I try to think deeply about things that might be passed over or taken for granted. This could mean, being completely present and aware of my body and surroundings and translating that into some form of art, or replaying a conversation with a friend or family member in my head to remember the way the light fell on their face when we met for lunch. I try to listen completely, feel widely, and put it down on paper. Sometimes I use words. Sometimes I use paint or charcoal, but it’s always just me processing my existence. I’m always trying to see things more clearly.

AM: The first poem of yours I read was Burning Front Porch, Appalachia, published in Ghost City Press. It’s about the opioid crisis in your home state. Do you think poetry is inherently political? How can our words incite change?

KL: I always say that I hate discussing politics, maybe because of where I grew up, but yes, poetry is political. “Rhetoric stems from our confrontations with others, while poetry stems from our confrontations with ourselves,” as Yeats put it. I believe that poetry can be used to heal people and places that have been hurt, even if it’s only ourselves. Sharing experiences creates community, and I think we need to cherish the people around us and hold each other up.

I won’t get into the statistics about how many pain killers were mass shipped into West Virginia because there are lots of well-written articles already out there, but I will say that ordinary people in my home state were given a death sentence. Children will never know their parents, and some parents barely know their children anymore. This plague has broken homes and families and lives, and we’re still here, struggling to survive and live on with whatever dignity we have left. I write poetry and make art because maybe even one person might feel change.

AM: You mention the importance of community. How did you find your poetry ‘tribe’?

KL: I still consider myself rather new to the poetry scene, so I suppose I’m still finding my place. Most of the connections I’ve made have been via Twitter. I’m thankful for social media to a point. I love that I can connect with people all around the world and that I can hear voices and stories I might never have heard otherwise. I’ve met several wonderful and supportive people through the writing community on twitter, but I also believe in investing in the relationships around you. One of my goals this year has been to find a balance concerning my use of technology, and I think my conscious effort has made a difference in the lives I encounter in my home and my community.

AM: What is it about poetry that you love?

KL: I work in a lot of different mediums, but I’ve always considered myself a poet. I love how slippery language can be when approached creatively, and a major focus of mine is inviting the reader to play with the words I write. I often choose words because of how they sound. Chen Chen recently discussed this, and I wholeheartedly agree. Poems are not always meant to be decoded for some higher meaning. Sure, there may be one, but I also love words for their musical quality. For example, “clavicle” is one of my favorite words because of how percussive it sounds when read aloud. I also have a line of poetry that reads “There they’re.” It’s not “proper” English, but it’s absolutely something I heard growing up in the Appalachian foothills. Poetry allows me to play with language, and I think you have to love language to be a poet.

AM: I like what you said about ‘slippery language’ being something you love about poetry. Who are your poetic influences?

KL: 

I owe my having become a poet to “The Lady of Shalott” by Tennyson. I fell in love with this poem as a child, and it opened my eyes to how beautiful language could be. From there, I found Frost, Eliot, and my birthday buddy Maya Angelou. At one point, I loved Plath and Poe. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been drawn to Mary Oliver, Anne Sexton, Diane Seuss, and Marie Howe, and the rules of Imagism are marked on the first page of my notebook. I’m also always discovering contemporary poets. I love reading what my peers are writing, and how we’re all inspiring each other forward.

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