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D. Herrle Tea Interviews - Tonya Kelley 

Welcome to the Tea Interviews.

I devised this feature to edify fellow artists and to share that edification with you readers/participants.  I've seldom met an artist, particularly a writer, who didn't tend to gab or spill opinions or offer musings on his/her own work and worldview.  Therefore I'm tapping into this common tendency.  

(Most of the questions are tailored toward the featured interviewee.)


 Tea Interview with Tonya Kelley


D: Let's not beat around the bush.  Your very sexy poetry book is entitled UNSEXY.  Please share the reason for this choice.


Actually, the title came when a friend made the comment "I've never known anyone to portray sex in such an unsexy way", and it stuck. No doubt about it, David, there's a lot of sex in the book.  But, having a lot of sex doesn't necessarily make something sexy -- most commonly it's viewed as quite the opposite. Most of the relationships, subjects and places in the book are depicted as dirty or ugly or just simply frustrating. Back then, that was my perception.  To me, sex was unsexy. 




 D: You make a cool twist in your piece "Sudden".  Rather than the usual bit about guilt creeping into moments of carnal abandon, you write: "Fleeting ideas of monogamy/Damn monogamy!"  And then: "Can we get to the dirty parts already?"  And later in "Kristin This Summer": " always,/I expect you to leave..."    An innuendo like: "I thanked him on my knees/The flute tasted better but/He took less practice".  UNSEXY is filled with such striking statements "that don't involve I love you".


I'm curious.  Can sex be truly independent of bond?  Can it be enjoyed and devoured without any attachment, on any other level?  Or does bodies' wanton congress inevitably leave a wake, residual connection, regretful loss, unrealized (if not realized) emotions?  (A reversal of your line in "This Is Normal ": "Guilt without sex"?


No, no and yes -- respectively.  With sex comes emotion, dependent on the environment, partner, circumstance -- but it always evokes something.  This in itself creates a "bond".  You're sharing that particular moment with one other person.  You're seeing them in a way that 99.9% of the population will never see them and, in return, you're sharing with them that image of yourself.  If that doesn't create a bond, I don't know what does.

The poetry in UNSEXY doesn't imply that sexual attachment is non-existent -- quite the contrary actually.  "Sudden" can be about a one-night stand or a long-standing affair, but it doesn't matter. Both can bring the same connection. Ultimately, it's exploring the wake of emotion and consciousness involved in a sexual act -- an experience where a more solid attachment is achieved and every moment is accounted for.  "The Soloist" ("I thanked him on my knees..."), on the other hand, touches on the longing for that relationship which doesn't exist -- a purely sexual one, with no regret, attachment, jealousy, guilt, etc.




D: Your favorite writer(s) and book(s) and why.


Jeannette Winterson blows me away.  Her book Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, portraying a lesbian teenager and her evangelical mother, should be mandatory reading.  Her collection of short stories, The World and Other Places, made me want to write fiction day and night.  I would give anything to live in her mind for a day.  On the other end, Shelley's Frankenstein has been my favorite read since I was introduced to it in college.  Lately, poetry has been all-consuming.  I couldn't even begin to name all of my favorites, but I definitely veer toward the contemporaries and younger writers.  Chris Edgar's At Port Royal is my flavor of the month.



D: Writer Ray Bradbury wrote: "There is more than one way to burn a book.  And the world is full of people running around with matches."  He was infuriated at sensitive groups, from "liberals" to "conservatives" and races and religions, ranting against writers' choices in their literature.  Fahrenheit 451's dystopia outlawed books on the premise that everyone is offended by something in some book.


I'm an outspoken critic of so-called "political correctness" (PC) and its frenzied assault on sensibility and thought-freedom.  Rather than producing better situations and status and outlooks, PC usually perpetuates its own agenda of bigotry, emboldens thought policing, and dehumanizes all involved.  The very "enlightened" who wield the PC sword against "witch hunts", "ignorance", and endless "isms" tend to be the most stubborn with hunters, ignoramuses, and ism-obsessed folks around.

What are your thoughts on this? 


The movement of "political correctness" is another way to keep the public from thinking and expressing itself.  There is negativity.  There are horrible things going on in politics and in society.  But, we can't talk freely about it because it's not PC.  We're both directly and indirectly told what we can debate, what we can joke about -- basically, we're told the "correct" way to express ourselves.  We are given freedom of speech, as long as it's the right speech.  What's especially disturbing to me is censorship on artists -- be it writers, musicians, painters, etc.  Everything is going to offend someone.  That doesn't mean that everything should be locked in a closet.  I stand by this:  No one can tell you what is proper. If you don't like it, be sure you know why you don't like it.  If you still don't like it, don't patronize it.  The most zealous on both sides of the spectrum (the PC and the "sword-wielders") have their own agendas...just think for yourself.




 D: You're a fan of Roald Dahl.  (I appreciate his SOMEONE LIKE YOU and CHARLIE AND THE GREAT GLASS ELEVATOR very much.)  Dahl said, in reference to children: "The adult is the enemy of the child because of the awful process of civilizing this thing that when it is born is an animal with no manners, no moral sense at all."


Which brings us to a question of morality.  Many folks seem to reject the idea of standardized good and evil while judging certain situations or people BY such concepts, however.  Or as C.S. Lewis put it: "The rebellion...against [The Way] is a rebellion of the branches against the tree." 


Though there are certainly gradations of behavior and actions, we seem to have an innate sense of basic goodness and evil.  Do you agree or disagree or just care to dispense with the consideration?  What are your thoughts on this? 


Okay, the abridged version.  Don Marquis says in The Almost Perfect State that "ideas pull the trigger, but instinct loads the gun."  That basically sums up how I feel about the topic. It's true that in society we become civilized.  But, we are born with a sense of what's good and what's bad.  I believe this whole-heartedly.  When society comes into play, we begin to expand on this basic sense and form opinions based on morals and laws and education, but all of these things stem from our instinct -- our "gut feeling". 



D: Your poetry possesses a riddle-like style: odd juxtapositions, seemingly random images, clever similes ("crept in like a rapist", "scooping up the foxes", "a wedding ring smile", "a mermaid tree", "smoky adultery", "women in welder's masks"), even the mention of dead-in-his-prime Joe Orton.


Is such verve of language more instinctive or contrived?  Do you plan ahead or do your poems spill in real-time, perhaps later polished?  Please share your "process".


When I am writing, I'm journaling my perceptions. My poetry most often "spills in real-time" or, sometimes, just a line or word comes from out of nowhere and an entire piece is built on that foundation.  The similes and juxtapositions form from a sort of stream of consciousness.  This is why, in context, they do tend to make sense -- for one reason or another, my mind instinctively placed the words as partners.  Charles Simic said, "Poetry is an orphan of silence. The words never quite equal the experience behind them."  My end of the bargain is to give the reader as much of my experience as I can. I have a dreadful habit of wanting everyone to know everything.  If the moment is confused or loud or soft or silly, I want to evoke that sense in someone else, more so than I want to tell them a perfectly structured story.


D: Please tell us about your experience with playwriting.

When I began studying creative writing in college, my intention was to focus on playwriting.  Even my first few months in New York City were spent working on scripts and making contacts in theater.  I had a couple plays performed at universities in London , but I put things down for a while after getting re-acquainted with poetry.  Writing for the stage is such a surreal experience -- being able to witness your words take life, creating action and movement and emotion.  It also allows for a broader audience which is, whether we are apt to admit it or not, the ultimate goal. 



D: You write in "Unsexy" (the title poem): "Pussy sells more than kittens".  This sparked one of my usual questions.  Do you think women have generally improved in the way of public respect, genuine worth, and in men's perception since the uncertain "old days" when women didn't seem to have much clout? Has organized "feminism" helped or hindered women?


(I happen to think fads like THE VAGINA MONOLGUES and such ultimately work against women's dignity rather than in its favor.  As I often say, "The vagina hogs the monologue.")

You mention the lucrative business of plastic surgery, particularly patronized by women nowadays.  Why this mad scramble for extreme, fleshly aesthetics, do you think?


Rough waters here.  Outwardly, the respect given to women is, of course, much greater than before the organized feminist movements began.  My concern is the reasoning behind it.  I think that minds have been opened to the value of the woman, but there's also an enforcement of the PC (back to that again) way to value women.  My question, and I don't have the answer, is how much of this respect comes with the feeling of "I have to" rather than "I do"?  


As far as woman's need to be esthetically pleasing, I hate to be "one of those people" but I put a lot of blame on the media.  It's easy to say you should be happy with yourself, but when you're constantly shown images of "perfect" women who are so far from the norm, your own self-image is bound to come out with a few bruises. Because of this, as well as the fact that facial reconstruction, liposuction, breast implants, etc have all become so common and accessible, we feel the need to do whatever we can to fit the mold that's really only natural for a small percentage of people.



D: Your favorite music/musicians? 


I used to work for a music licensing company, then later as an editor for a music review column.  This allowed me to experience some amazing music I most likely wouldn't have heard otherwise.  My musical taste runs the gamut, so I'll tell you what's in my CD player.  Firstly, The Planets.  They are a European group that takes classical pieces and gives them an electro-rock edge.  Dulce Pontes is my guilty pleasure.  She's a Portuguese singer whose voice brings you to your knees.  Bjork and Tori Amos are the staples.  Leonard Cohen and Beth Orton are the alternates.  



D: The great writer Joseph Conrad wrote, "Fear always remains. A man may destroy everything within himself, love and hate and disbelief, and even doubt; but as long as he clings to life he cannot destroy fear: the fear, subtle, indestructible, and terrible, that pervades his being; that tinges his thoughts; that lurks in his heart; that watches on his lips the struggle of his last breath."


Do you agree that a rather constant, pervasive fear haunts humanity?  Can fear be dominated?  What are you afraid of?


We are blessed with the ability to think and analyze and ponder.  With that comes the need for everything to make sense and, with that, comes the fear of the unknown. It will always be there, as surely as we will never know everything.  Fear can be dominated -- more so we are capable of keeping it from dominating us -- but never eradicated.  We are capable of controlling our emotions and that is all that fear is.  Control and elimination, though, are two separate entities.  

I used to be afraid of doing anything by myself.  I wouldn't even go to a movie alone.  Then, one day, I decided to go to Miami solo.  When I got there, I remember sitting in the hotel room for about 2 hours thinking "what the hell did I do?".  Long story short, it ended up being the best trip of my life and now I'm addicted (almost unhealthily so) to doing things alone.  Facing your fears is the only way to dominate them.  Not to say that if you're afraid of heights you should jump off a building, but fear can be a bitch in that it keeps us from the best experiences.  Some, though, will be omnipresent.  Aging, death, invisibility, loneliness -- these are my fear.  Those, and clowns.




D: Any projects on your agenda at the moment?


I just recently finished my second book and am too excited about it.  I don't think I'll ever do another book like UNSEXY as far as theme is concerned, and the change in the new collection is refreshing.  I'm also looking forward to traveling for some readings this summer.  The first stops in late May/ early June will be Kentucky and Indiana .  I was there last summer and had a blast.  There's a great scene and the people are so welcoming and supportive.  Early August I'll be in Georgia where I'll get to meet up with Collin Kelley.  He's just brilliant and I'm hoping maybe somewhere down the line we're related, but I think it's a long shot.




 D: Tonya, I find your poetry vital, smartly stylish, and a poetic sweet-tooth's wet dream.  I'm pleased with our collaboration.  I wish your blessings on your path.

Any closing words for readers/fans?  


Thank you so much and blessings to you as well!  Everyone on this path has been wonderful, and for that I'm grateful.  Basically, the best I can say is know yourself.  Don't let anyone tell you what you can read or write or see or hear.  The best way to express yourself is by supporting what you believe in.  So speak up, buy books, go to readings and become a part of the "process". 




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