Mormon Artist

Karen Kelsay

Karen Kelsay, a native of Orange County, is the founder and editor of Kelsay Books. Her poetry has been widely published in over two hundred magazines and journals in the past five years, and she has been nominated five times for the Pushcart Prize. Her latest full-length book, Amytis Leaves Her Garden, was published in 2012. Karen is the former editor of the online poetry and art journal Victorian Violet Press, and she lives in Hemet, California, with her British husband and tabby cat. Website
Photo courtesy Karen Kelsay

It’s good to share some time with you again. We last conversed in 2011, but since then you’ve been busy as a poet, an editor, and a publisher. What are some of the main things you’ve been up to in each role?

I have been busy developing a publishing company, and I’m involved in the day-to-day aspects of accepting manuscripts, making revisions, marketing, and publishing poetry books. I’ve slowed down quite a bit with my own writing. I only wrote a handful of poems last year, sadly.

What motivated you to start a publishing company?

I started an online magazine, Victorian Violet Press, several years ago, and I had the opportunity to work with a large group of excellent poets. Each poem I published was coupled with artwork, and the process involved layout work. I think putting each issue together helped give me the confidence to take things one step further when I was considering book publishing.

At the same time, I also sent several of my own manuscripts out to publishers, and I had the chance to observe how they went about the process of publishing my chapbooks or full-length collections. As I gained experience from this end, it eventually motivated me as a publisher to try to cut down the wait times for acceptances or rejections, and also to give poets much more input and control in the layout process for their books.

Tell me a little more about the company: What’s it called? What kind of work do you publish? What does your publishing model look like?

The company is called Kelsay Books and it consists of four imprints. Each imprint deals with a certain type of poetry:

White Violet Press publishes formalist poetry. The poets it publishes are advanced writers. About ninety percent of the poems in each manuscript submitted to White Violet are required to have been published in more exclusive magazines or journals.

I created Aldrich Press a few months after I established White Violet Press to accommodate poets who write free verse. Again, most of the poems included in the manuscripts submitted to Aldrich are required to have been previously published.

I set up Alabaster Leaves Publishing to provide a publication venue for poets who are submitting their first book.

Daffydowndilly Press was the last imprint company I established. As of the end of 2013 it had only published four books. It is a niche imprint, designed for poets who write poetry for children. If this poetry rhymes, it is always written by advanced writers. Oftentimes artwork is included on the pages opposite poems.

I created Kelsay Books and its imprints to make publishing a pleasant experience for poets: To respond to submissions within a week and not keep authors waiting for a decision. To create a relaxed atmosphere where the authors can take long as they need before they give the okay to print. And to relieve poets from the stress of pre-orders.

I want the poets I publish to be proud of their books and to not feel they have wasted two years perfecting a manuscript only to have no input on how the book design will look. I give my clients every opportunity to walk away from their publishing experience with the type of book that they have imagined. Basically, my clients and I are co-creators of a brand new work of art.

What kind of reception have the books you’ve published received from the poetry community?

Enthusiastic. Most of my clients are pleasantly surprised at my response time and my willingness to make change after change to their manuscripts without becoming irritated.

And how have they been received by readers? For instance, I read that some of the books you’ve published were being used as texts in college courses. To me that says something about the quality of the books you’re releasing, both in terms of the poetry itself and the way you present it (i.e., the way the book is designed). What are readers—beyond your clients—saying about Kelsay Books?

Yes, several of the books have been picked up by various universities, where they have mainly been used for creative writing classes. Because of the nature of the business, I’m one step removed from the end user. This year was the first time I cut royalty checks to my clients, and it amazed me how much revenue went out. So, the sales are good, and I assume from the re-orders I get that the readers are happy.

I’ve heard good things from some poets you’ve published about your work as an editor. What’s your editorial philosophy?

A large portion of my clients are English teachers, professors, and poet laureates. Because they’re experienced, they know what they want and I work with them to create something we can both be proud of. My philosophy is to treat everyone with consideration, fix any mistakes that occur, and never leave a poet unhappy in the aftermath.

How does working as an editor compare to working as a poet?

As a poet, I had to seek out editors who appreciated my style of writing in order to have my work published. I tried to expand my style, somewhat, to widen the scope of journals that would publish my poetry. So I concentrated on perfecting my writing and focused on being as prolific as possible.

As an editor, I’ve had to widen my appreciation for poetry on a larger scale, and perhaps accept work that is well-written, but not necessarily something I would write myself. So my hours are spent reading and advocating for other people’s work instead of writing my own.

How does your work as an editor inform your work as a poet and vice versa?

As a poet, being a book editor has devastated my inspiration to write. I’ve tried to convince myself that this is my time to take in beauty, to read poetry, to create book covers, and to become successful in a poetry-related occupation—even though I can’t seem to pick up a pen and write. I’ve also found more time to promote my last book, and that has been a positive experience.

Speaking of your last book: You say you haven’t been working much at your own poetry for the past year, but I know you had a collection published in 2012: Amytis Leaves Her Garden. Tell me about it.

Amytis Leaves Her Garden is a collection of formal poems. Every poem in the book has been previously published (some more than once) in magazines or journals. It is a solid collection. It actually won the Association for Mormon Letters Poetry Award for 2012, which was a lovely surprise!

What does the title of the collection refer to?

It is sort of an abstract idea based around Amytis of Media, who left her homeland and its beautiful surroundings to live in another country. Some of the poems are about loss and discovering how to embrace changes.

That seems like a fortuitous theme to be addressing at this point in your career, especially when your focus has shifted from writing poems to publishing poems and you’ve had to adjust to the new roles you’ve taken upon yourself. Was that an intentional focus or have you addressed the experience of change and loss in your previous work?

My life has gone through some massive changes over the past few years. The business my husband and I owned was devastated by the economy in California. In 2012, we lost everything we had worked for, including two homes. We had to bounce back. Many of my poems in Amytis Leaves Her Garden are about finding the silver lining. Writing poetry has always helped me filter out what is important to me, and it can also be a lovely escape from reality.

You mention the AML Award Amytis Leaves Her Garden received. What did the award citation say about the book and its connection to Mormonism?

This is part of the citation: “Clearly this is a collection of poetry that bears the hallmarks of Mormon life and the ideals of Mormonism’s gender ideas.” Being a convert to Mormonism, I’m not sure exactly why these poems fit into Mormon life so well. I can only guess that I try to write truthfully and fill the world with poems that offer hope.

In our last interview, you said that you sometimes let religion spill into your poetry. Thinking about this in terms of what your AML Award citation says about Amytis Leaves Her Garden, what hallmarks of Mormon life would you say inform your work?

Some of my narrative poems analyze people and things in detail, focusing especially on how I relate to them. I write a lot about gratitude and hope. I also write about small things that transpire during the day. So my focus is on experiencing and connecting with the people and things around me. I think this attitude is especially important for Latter-day Saints to have.

I don’t take life too seriously, though, which is another way I find hope and joy in mortality. I like to make good-natured fun of people, including myself. So not all of my poems are serious (see my sonnet below).

Photo Prayer

When cataracts form clouds across my eyes

like fog that settles on the coastal skies

and creaky knees require a wooden cane

to navigate my walk across the lane,

please help me not relinquish vanity

to illnesses or pain. Just swaddle me

in classic silk pajamas, sleek and black,

with little velvet shoes—no flannel sack

to drape around my bones, or pink housecoat

with fuzzy slippers skimming like a boat

across the kitchen floor. I’ll take a chain

of gold, Ann Taylor slacks. Let me abstain

from wearing spongy curlers that cause laughs

when children see me in old photographs.

Besides the praise that Amytis Leaves Her Garden has received from the Mormon letters community, what have people said about the book?

Recently Dana Gioia, a well-known American formalist poet and former Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, commented on my book. He said: “Amytis Leaves Her Garden is a lovely, lyrical collection. I particularly admire the musicality of your indvidual lines. You write with an admirable density.”

I have always tried to write mainstream poetry—that is, poems that are “in the world, but not of the world.” And to have a collection embraced by the LDS community and some of the best contemporary poets is a major accomplishment for me.

That is a major accomplishment. Congratulations! Now that you’ve made a mark in the mainstream American and the Mormon poetry communities as both a poet and an editor, what can we expect to see from you in years to come?

I think as I learn to adjust my business and become more and more organized, I will write poetry again. My future goal (in about five years) is to get out and do readings and be at conferences so I can connect in a more personal way with people who love poetry. I think I would also enjoy writing articles and essays, and I hope to do this later on. But for now, I’m enjoying connecting with my newfound poet friends online. ❧

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