interview with Keaona Gray-Outlaw
Melissa Studdard chats with Associate Editor Keaona Gray-Outlaw about poems, film, and the writing life.
KGO: First, I’d love to start out with your poetry collection I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast, specifically because this poetry collection is also turned into a short film. Was it difficult to transform this writing into something visual? What do you think this film does that’s visually different from the writing and do these differences shift your own perspective of the material when you see it as a film?
MS: I actually had no hand at all in making the film—which frees me to say how much I love it. Dan Sickles is brilliant and has won awards ranging from the Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize to the International Documentary Association’s Best Feature Documentary. So, my guess is that I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast was not too difficult for him, though I know he worked hard on it.
You’re so right to cue into what’s visually different between the imagery in the poem on the page and the imagery in the film. I think those differences are part of what makes the film so spectacular. On the surface, the poem is about a pancake, but at its deepest levels, it’s about connection, mindfulness, creation, sustenance, and elemental divinity. Dan chose to amplify the deep-level themes rather than the surface-level imagery. His film is not just a representation of my poem. It is a whole new work of art that found its genesis in my poem. What an honor!
KGO: The poem “Planted My Shame in the Backyard” is filled with so much imagery. Can you discuss the role that imagery plays in this poem?
MS: “Planted My Shame in the Backyard” is a raw, gritty poem that gains its power through the accumulation of images. I was thinking of all that’s piled and piled on women—ills we own, and ills we don’t own but that others have hoisted on and into us—ills we’re forced to absorb so society doesn’t have to face them. In this poem, the narrator has to bury so much that you wonder if she can ever dig a hole big enough for it all. Then you realize it’s what she has been carrying, somehow, alone. It’s a lot—exponentially too much—and I wanted the reader to feel that through the imagery.
KGO: In your poetry, do you use writing to reflect on defining moments within your life?
MS: Yes, but the poems are not autobiographical, exactly. For me, a poem is like a dream in that its symbols are not literal. In the same way I may dream that my next-door neighbor is also my mother and also Diana Ross, poems mix up times, places, people, experiences. A story someone told me or that I read in a newspaper may better express my truth than my own actual experience would. On the other hand, a personal experience may express the truth of some larger societal theme. In the same way the dreaming mind breaks off fragments of experience and rearranges them into a new sort of symbolic collage, so, too, does the poetry mind.
KGO: What is your favorite part about being a writer?
MS: I love everything about being a writer. I’m in love with it.
KGO: Are there any authors or publications you look back to frequently to draw inspiration from? What genres of writing are you most drawn to?
MS: I could list and list, but I’ll just toss out names of the writers who pop into my mind instantly—Pablo Neruda, Cynthia Cruz, Aimee Bender, Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Rumi, Diane Seuss. The thread linking them is not genre—it’s fantastical, imaginative, unleashed originality.
KGO: If you could change one thing about the writing/publishing community, what would it be?
MS: I’d pay writers for every little and big thing they did—every reading, every publication, every interview, every school visit, every review.
KGO: Do you make goals for your writing process as far as planning your time management or choosing specific topics to focus on?
MS: I was diagnosed with ADHD late in life, and I finally understand why I’m never going to be great at time management. But, yes, I try. I’m usually reading at least 10 books at a time (scattered around the house—a few in each room) and working on at least 5 manuscripts at a time. I’m trying to figure out how to focus better and finish projects before I start new projects, but ideas are pesky, and when they show up I have to write them down. So, I guess the real answer is no: it’s all chaos. But I hope …
KGO: What do you think makes a poem a success?
MS: A poem is a success if anyone in the world loves it, whether that is a brilliant critic, an unsophisticated adolescent, or the person who wrote it.
KGO: What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever heard?
MS: “Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment” –Rumi
KGO: What do you want us to know about your forthcoming collection?
MS: Dear Selection Committee wrestles with issues like climate change, addiction, modern distractions, gender presentation, religious questioning, and the nature of pain. It’s framed as a job application and is “a subversive, sexy love song to an endlessly messy self and the burning world it inhabits,”—and I’m terrified of it, so that must mean it’s hot.
Melissa Studdard is the author of two poetry collections, I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast and Dear Selection Committee. Her Awards include The Penn ReviewPoetry Prize, the Tom Howard Prize from Winning Writers, the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, and more. Studdard’s poems “Planted My Shame in the Backyard” and “We Made a Gala” are featured in this issue.