By Daniel Strawhun, A&E Editor
Kelli Allen, adjunct professor in the Pierre Laclede Honors College, held a reading from her forthcoming collection of poetry, “Imagine Not Drowning,” on February 23 at Left Bank Books. “Imagine Not Drowning” is Allen’s second collection of poetry, following the publication of “Otherwise, Soft White Ash” in 2012. “Imagine Not Drowning” is available for preorder from C&R press and will be released April 1.
In the new collection, Allen builds upon the familiar themes of sex, mythology, and the role of the unconscious in the creation of art. Her poems seem to fly effortlessly between material and metaphysical realms, often existing in both at once. After the reading, The Current was able to ask Allen a few questions about “Imagine Not Drowning” and her writing process in general:
The Current (TC): When did you start writing poetry?
Allen: From the beginning.
TC: You reference a lot of poets in your work, among them Rumi, Rilke, and Wallace Stevens. Are there any other writers who you feel have had a formative effect on your writing?
Allen: I have studied at the proverbial knee of Robert Bly, William Stafford, Lorca, and Galway Kinnell. These four poets have offered me the most in terms of deep image and attention to the natural world. That said, authentic experience happens from the body, first. I am concerned with physical and imagistic expression, both, when making poems. I do not attempt to escape my past and I do not try to retell the old stories and myths that shaped what I have become. Instead, use the old masters as voices set around some fire far older than I’ll ever be
TC: In “Otherwise, Soft White Ash” you write, “Speaking means falling into the pretty black bath, learning to accept the drowning.” Is “Imagine Not Drowning” in some sense a continuation of your earlier work? What did you want to accomplish in this new collection?
Allen: Each poem is a continuation of something learned. It is essential to not fall back asleep when dragging one’s own shadow bag behind. We are all close to drowning, nearly all of the time, and the beauty is in how we continually propel our bodies close to something we can breathe. The poems in both collections hope to remain aware of the presence above and below the well water.
TC: You are a successful poet in the 21st century, an exceedingly rare phenomenon. Do you think the role of a poet has changed in a culture that has largely quit reading poetry? What does it mean to be a poet today?
Allen: The role of the poet remains the same now as it has for our human history—to serve as philosopher, trickster, historian. Poets create and preserve artifacts. Their responsibility is to the Duende, to the rare flame that burns the shoulder and inner ear, but also to the tender belly parts that remind us how we are connected, endlessly, one to the other.