Interview with Kelly Cockerham

Kelly Cockerham

Sherry O’Keefe: I enjoyed your poem “Becoming” in this issue, Kelly. Does your life inform your poetry, or does poetry inform your life? This is a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg question, but I’ve been a fan of your poetry since I first read you and I’ve come to realize one of the reasons for this is that I am drawn to the organic sensibility in your work.

Kelly Cockerham: This is a tricky one. I guess, logically speaking (which I don’t excel at), I’d say that my life informs my poetry, but at the same time, I hold to something I heard in a workshop once (but I can’t remember who said it):  I don’t know what to write until I know what I want to say, but I don’t know what I want to say until I write it down. I very often write things that I don’t completely understand. Those are the things I try to keep when editing, sometimes just because they sound good, but most often because I find that when I come back to the poem later, I get it. Then I wonder, how did I know that then? Poetry helps me figure out what I know, what I believe, what I love, what’s important, but I can’t go into the writing of it without knowing all of those things (on some level). It’s a chicken and the egg conundrum. So maybe, poetry helps me refine my life. It helps me pick out those details that rattle the rest of my life. What falls out of all of that rattling are the parts of life that I hold onto the tightest and you’ll see their wrinkles throughout my work.


SO: Writers are often natural observers, and good poets take that to a heightened level. Your poetry is a good example of the poet tuning into finer details. The price for this, though, often removes the writer/poet from the more immediate participation in life. So: are you outside looking in? Or are you inside looking out? And how do you balance this in your daily life when you are away from pen and paper?

KC: I think I’ve spent most of my life on the outside looking in. Growing up, I didn’t feel like I ‘fit’ anywhere, and so I spent most of my time, I’d say, content to sit back and observe, just watching everyone around me. I find people fascinating—what makes them do the things they do, say the things they say, feel the way they feel. If ten different me’s started out in the same place but made slightly different decisions through the years, how far away from the me that I am now would I be?  I try not to dwell on that in the fatalistic sense, the sense that I am not the person I should’ve / could’ve been had certain things not happened and I’ve found it a bit easier to do as I’ve gotten older. I think I’ve gotten better at accepting that everyone has lives they can’t completely control and things happen that change us. I’m extraordinarily lucky to be where I am now no matter where or how things started off, but sometimes I do wish I could live two or three lives simultaneously.

I think now, I’m more able to be on the inside but it takes a conscious effort to get there. I’m naturally an introvert, so having children and moving around a bit has forced me to step outside of myself more and join the fray. I’m not a large group person though; I prefer small, intimate gatherings with just a few friends. I find it much easier to step out of myself with just a few people at a time.

In either setting though, something in me tunes in to those moments that count, those ‘poet’ moments. Something says, this is important. And it’s at those times that I make myself step back, no matter the situation, and start studying people, paying more attention, and the poet starts taking notes. The poet opens the door to that other place and somehow the words, the moment, the people all start to blend together into /images and words, into language.

What I love about poetry, and what has always connected me to it, are the details. It’s all in the details, really. Life is in the details. I always tell people that I don’t write fiction because I don’t do plot, which is true, but fiction is just too big for me. What I love are those little things that tell a big story, how one word can buckle someone’s knees, one image can make people gasp in recognition. I did a poetry workshop once in a battered women’s shelter and I took in some poetry by Lucille Clifton. After we read “if I should,” one of the women raised her hand and asked what imploding meant (“the small imploding girl”), and when I explained it, she suddenly started to cry. I could see this room full of women crack on that one word. I love that about poetry, and that need to be specific, to make someone know exactly what I mean was as important to me when I started writing as a child as it is today.


SO: Let’s say you are in a canoe and it’s going to be a bit before you reach any shoreline. Very likely a poem will come to you on this water, and yet you are not allowed to be alone. That’s right—you are required to have someone in the canoe with you but not someone in your immediate life. Who would you hope would be in that canoe with you? (The usual lack of restrictions applies. Any universe, any century, any number of people.)

KC: I think I’d want Jason Shinder in my canoe. I don’t know if he’d be much help rowing but he’d be a pure joy to drift with. Jason was one of the kindest people I’ve ever known. There was something about being in his presence that was calming to me, that lifted me. He always made me smile, and I learned more from him than probably any other teacher. And somehow, he always made me feel like I already knew it. How did he do that?

I worked with Jason through The Writer’s Voice for years, and then I was blessed enough to have him as my teacher at Bennington. The world lost a little of its light with Jason. I can’t tell you how often his words come back to me when I’m writing, submitting work, despairing over having no time to write. “What gets in the way of the work is the work,” he always said. I repeat this like a mantra all the time.

The first time I ever felt my son move I was in a workshop with Jason. It was a bit early in my pregnancy to feel movement but I think Jason just drew people to him. Even unborn children.:) I’d love to welcome a new poem into the world, drifting along in a canoe with Jason. He’d probably give up his seat to make room.


SO: Recently a poet told me he avoided writing from his life because once on paper the reality would change. What happens to your reality when you write? How do you address the blur between what is remembered, what is real, what is recalled? And how does that affect you?

KC: I don’t know how not to write about my life. Is that even possible? When I write, it’s definitely a case of everywhere I go, there I am. Does the reality change? Yes, I’d never thought of it that way before, but I guess it does. I think that often the world of the poem seems more real to me than the event that inspired it, especially in a poem like Becoming because so much of the writing that I do about abuse is a sort of filling in the blanks. Those memories are scattered, fragmented, and often take on a kind of dream quality that makes them really difficult to pin down. The details that I think I have the firmest hold on are the ones I created in those moments of ‘going away.’ I think that’s what I was trying to capture in Becoming. I think a writer is always writing, whether the pen is in hand or not, and in those times of leaving myself, my body behind, I entered a world that was much more real and immediate. It’s the details of that world that come back to me so sharply; it’s the memory of the words I would say over and over, the room I built in my mind that I entered through the top shelf of the linen closet; it’s the words really, and that writer mind that saved me. I thought they deserved some credit, some props, for the role they played. I wonder too though, back to the chicken and the egg, would the words still have come for me without the abuse. I hope so, but I don’t know. Is this, for lack of a better word, ‘artistic’ quality in a person innate or born of necessity? I think it’s an interesting question but in the end, I’m just grateful. Being able to write a poem that pulls those memories together in one concrete place is important, it makes them real for me in a way that they haven’t been before I mixed their colors.

Becoming is its own reality, born of a flash of visual memory, a painful somatic memory, and this peaceful slipping away from reality in order to keep going. It sat in my files for quite a while next to lots of other poems that I thought no one wanted to read. Who wants to know about this? I wish I didn’t know about this, sometimes. That’s what I always thought, but that voice is still there, saying, tell the story, and she doesn’t shut up until it’s told. I’m grateful that a magazine like r.kv.r.y. is in the world and that Becoming found a home there.


SO: The mountain or the river? The wing-beat or the soar? The forest or the trees? (Ha, sorry, but could not resist.) The eyes or the touch?

KC: The river, for the movement, for the speed, for the traveling. The soar for the opportunity to watch in rest and take in rather than the fight for flight. Though maybe the poem is in the fight? Sometimes I’d like to sit back and watch someone else’s fight though.:) the trees because every one is different and tells its own story. I’m all about the individual as part of the whole, as representative of the collected work. Eyes or the touch? You’ve got me. They’re just too intertwined to separate or choose.


SO: If you could ask any bird any question, what bird, what question?

KC: That’s a tough one. I’m not sure I’d want their answers so much as their eyes and ears, to borrow their bodies for a bit. I’d want to be a mockingbird to know what it feels like to possess that form. There’s something so elegant just in their shape. I’m not so elegant, not very coordinated, so I love them; every time one comes to my feeder, I get a rush of oh! Something beautiful just flew through my life!

Or the gray catbird. It’s maybe a bit dull looking but it spends the winter way down south eating fruit and singing someone else’s songs. I want to know what they see, where they’ve been. Every year they come back to my yard and nest, eat the grape jelly and seeds that I put out, and generally entertain me, but I always wonder—where have you been? It seems like there must be a world out there with the birds that I can’t see and I want to see it. I want to go through their portal.



Sherry O’Keefe is the author of Making Good Use of August and The Peppermint Bottle. Her most current work can be found in Camas, Switched-on Gutenberg, THEMA, Terrain. Org., PANK, Avatar Review, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Prick of the Spindle, and Escape into Life. She is the poetry editor for IthacaLit and is an assistant editor for YB Poetry Journal and Fifth Wednesday Journal. Her next book, On the Corner of First and Prairie, is soon to be released by BW Books. Visit her here:

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