Q&A: Kelly Franklin offers musing on poetry

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Structure by Kelly Franklin

My brown daughter by the slate-gray sea
puts broken shells and bits of shale in stacks.
She crouches, digging down through sea-drift and debris
to make and build and fashion. A gull mocks
us both from a granite sky. could it be
the same blest rage that made stonemasons bend their backs
at Chartres, Tikal, and Giza, block by block
raising a siege, waging their stubborn war on gravity?

They pressed up by pressing down, piling boulders till the earth cracked,
with torn hands, with shattered ribs and groans
to lift their priests up one step higher, or their dead. I see
and read the signs: a bird, a girl, a tower of rocks.
My child, you cannot fly for want of hollow bones;
we humans mount to heaven on heaps of stones

This poem was originally published in National Review. ____________________________________________________

Associate professor of English Kelly Franklin has been reading on poetry at Hillsdale since 2014, but he’s been writing poetry since he was in third grade.

Back in February, National Review published his poem “Structure.”

When did you start working on “Structure?” How long did it take you?

Lastsummer. In order to write I’ve been doing these monthly contests that have a prompt. In these contests they post an image, and then you write a poem about it. “Structure” was from the Rattle Magazine, they had this picture of a stack of rocks and a seagull. I knew right away what the last two lines in the poem were, because I saw the bird and the stones and I knew that birds have hollow bones. Then I had an idea as I was watching my daughter at the beach. She would build in the sand and just dig and splash in the water.

For me, it’s somewhat slow to write; and then it’s incredibly slow to get published. So, I had “Structure” accepted at National Review in the fall. But it takes a really long time between execution and when they were doing the final proofs. I think I came back to it with new eyes after a few months of not looking at it. It’s funny how much distance helps.

How long have you been writing poetry?

Since I was in third grade. We found a poem I wrote in third grade that was a series of similes. The only one I remember is, “I feel brave, like a centipede against a scorpion.” It was just a series of similes about emotions. Then I started my first book of poems in sixth grade. Sadly, that’s lost. I’m sure it was dreadful but it was just an exercise and I was so proud of it. I’ve always been very proud of whatever I do, even if it’s not that good.

I really began to write in college, especially when I took this class in grad school from José Kozer at Middlebury College. That was when I began to write poetry more seriously. Then I published my first poem. The year I got hired here, in 2014, I basically had a writer’s block for five years. Once I was here, I didn’t write another poem for five years. It was really discouraging and kind of painful.

Don’t be discouraged if you come through these periods of dryness, especially if you’re an artist. In my case, I actually think it had to do with needing to grow and mature. In the summer of 2020, I started writing again. It coincided with God entering my life in a newer way. I’m not surprised as I look back at 2020 that that was the time of God’s increased activity in my life that I could at least see. I’ve been writing and publishing consistently pretty ever since 2020. It’s been a great gift and I think it’s a fruit of God’s healing and growth in my life. The spirit of our relationship with God was the source of all of it. He wants us to be who we really are. God started to help me see who I really was and to deliver me from some of these false selves that I was trying to live.

Who’s your all-time favorite poet? What’s your favorite poem?

I think it’s Whitman and Dickinson. There just never were two more different American poets than those two who were writing at the same time. I think as a poet, Dickinson is the better. I think Whitman has more bad poetry. Whitman has some really great poetry, but I haven’t yet seen Dickinson’s bad poetry. For every great Whitman poem, there’s a dreadful one. For Dickinson, I haven’t found that yet.

Christian Wiman’s “Five Houses Down” is just it’s one of the greatest poems I’ve ever read. He has these very earthy, gritty experiences that he’s able to write about.

Which poet do you relate to the most?

It’s funny because I don’t know his work very well, but I think somebody like BH Fairchild. He has this really great poem about cigarettes. Also Christian Wiman. It’s like they’re speaking on my wavelength. Whereas I know other poets much better. I love lots of other poets, but the way that they write, it’s exactly how you feel when you read a poem and say you wish you’d written it.

What’s your favorite poem that you’ve written?

I guess it’s hard to pick sometimes, I feel like I just like whatever the one I most recently wrote was the best and then because it’s fresher. But I have a poem that I wrote about some statues that I saw, they were giant fists giving the middle finger. It was this place where they were selling these chainsaw sculptures of giant middle fingers. I wrote a poem about it, and I’m quite proud of it. It hasn’t been published or anything, but it’s under consideration somewhere. I’m really happy with the sound of it. For me, the sounds of the poems are what give me a lot of pleasure.

I think my best poem is one I wrote about an adoption that failed. We had a baby for a couple of weeks, but then we were not allowed to adopt her in the end and we lost her. So I wrote a poem about that. I think that’s probably my best work in the sense of it touches on the deepest feelings and I was able to understand the experience better through writing about it.

What is your dream for your poetry?

I plan to write a book of poems. I’ve got a friend who’s a poet, and he says he just “squirrels away” poems. You write one and then you just tuck it away for later. I’m doing that now. It’s going to be a while though. Even at my most prolific I’m probably getting one poem a month at most, so it’s going to be a while before I have enough for a book.

I think when you write, you want to be read; I think this is true of anything we write. You want your reader to resonate at the same frequency that you are when you’re writing. You want them to feel what you feel and to think what you think. I want people to read and feel and think what I’m feeling and thinking and I want it to give joy and do good and inspire or help people grieve. My mom is a writer and she said your greatest writing comes from the place of greatest pain. I was like, “Oh, come on. That’s just something writers say.” But I think I was maybe nervous to face some of those places of pain, but when I did, I started to write good poetry.

What advice do you have for student writers?

I think sometimes we want to write a great work, and that pressure shuts us down. If you’re trying to write “The Wasteland” or you’re trying to write “The Odyssey,” well those are some of the greatest lyric poems of all time. They’re monumentally great, but look at their little poems. For Whitman, there’s one about a mockingbird, or for Hopkins, the change between summer and fall. Those are sort of small and local things and writing about small and local and personal things is a great place and exactly where we have to start. Rather than trying to aim for the heights, what if instead you wrote a poem about a mushroom that you saw, or a poem about your grandmother? Those are precisely the kinds of things that make great poems – writing what you know, writing small, and starting with the things that are personal.

Franklin’s ekphrastic poem “Cartography” was just selected for Honorable Mention in the Muskegon Museum of Art “Poetry Talks Back” contest, where he’s invited to read the poem at an awards ceremony on April 28.

On the same day “Cartography” was selected, two other poems were rejected from a magazine.

“Such is the life of a writer,” Franklin said.

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