Introduction: Meeting New Friends at My First Book Signing
Several months ago, fellow local author Brian C. Miller (The Cosmic Tour, Finishing Line Press 2018) invited me to participate in a group book signing at our public library. I was excited to participate and when I arrived, I had the opportunity to meet another local writer, Erin M. Kelly.
I always enjoy supporting my fellow writers, especially other local writers, so I happily purchased a copy of Erin’s poetry collection How to Wait. I also had the opportunity to sign a few copies of my own humble chapbook Through My Good Eye: A Memoir in Verse before I had to leave to tend to a pastoral emergency. (The life of a clergy woman is never dull but always deeply fulfilling).
I knew that Erin also wrote a column for the Altoona Mirror, so I expected that her writing would be good; however, when I returned home and started reading Erin’s book, I found that I was unable to put it down. I was completely blown away by her poetry.
Erin’s words- poignant, raw, and real- brought tears to my eyes. I felt as if I recognized something familiar in her writing. As a person with a visual disability, I felt as if Erin had managed to perfectly capture the frustration I feel so often on a regular basis in her lines of verse.
Erin’s life experience is different from mine. She has cerebral palsy and I have extremely limited vision; however, any person with a disability is all too familiar with the feelings of frustration and struggle that come from attempting to navigate a world that is not designed for us.
I was so touched by Erin’s writing that I asked her if she would allow me to interview her. In this interview, Erin speaks eloquently and candidly about her writing process, the quest for publication, and where she gets her inspiration. She also offers advice to other aspiring writers with disabilities.
My Review of How to Wait by Erin M. Kelly
How to Wait by Erin Kelly is a rich and multilayered chapbook that explores the complexities of the human condition. Kelly writes with fierce vulnerability and honesty as she shares her unique view of the world. I found the pieces to be complex, beautiful, and deeply moving. I hope she writes many more books because I deeply enjoyed reading this one. Kelly truly does have magic in her fingers.
About Erin M. Kelly
Erin M. Kelly is the author of How To Wait, her debut collection of poetry. She enjoys writing in all genres. She was born with Cerebral Palsy and wants to be recognized for her work rather than her disability. Her work has been published by The Huffington Post, Upworthy, The Mighty, and others. Her essay, “Reluctant Reliance” is featured in the anthology, Bodies of Truth: Personal Essays on Illness, Disability, and Medicine”. She writes a monthly column entitled, “The View from Here,” for the local newspaper in Altoona, Pennsylvania, addressing the challenges she faces daily.
Interview for Erin M. Kelly
Rebecca: I was deeply moved by the poems in your book, How to Wait. Can you share a little bit about your writing process? How long does it usually take you to write a poem? How long did it take to complete this collection?
Erin Kelly: Thank you! My writing process is pretty simple. I take mental notes before anything is written down on paper. I also do a few days’ worth of research before I write, whether I’m soul-searching or gathering factual information for my articles. For my book, it was a matter of writing/compiling enough poems for a collection, and then sending the manuscript to potential publishers. I have cerebral palsy – a common disability which can affect everything from speech/dialect to fine motor skills, such as tying a pair of shoes or brushing your teeth.
Many of the challenges I face on a daily basis have become the fuel for my writing.
It’s almost second nature for me to write about something that’s connected to my disability, especially on an emotional level. For me, emotions such as anger or frustration are easy to write about because I often don’t have to think about why I’m angry or frustrated. Not only that, but my reasons for feeling that way are always tied to my cerebral palsy in some way.
After about ten years of getting rejected by publishers, How to Wait was published by Finishing Line Press in May 2018. The entire writing process, from start to finish, took approximately three years.
Rebecca: What was your favorite part about writing How to Wait? What was most challenging?
Erin Kelly: How to Wait is my first book, so it’s difficult to single out one part of the writing process as my favorite. I loved seeing it come together over the course of many years. I based the manuscript off of my senior project in college, which was a theater production that featured many of the poems in the book. When I had that foundation, I kept adding new poems to it. I’d say that was one of the most challenging parts of the writing process, because I ended up with so many poems – enough for a second manuscript.
The other challenging part was simply waiting for the appropriate publisher to have enough interest in the book to publish it. There was an added layer to that, because all of the poems in the book deal with my circumstances, whether it’s directly or indirectly. The question became, ‘Who’s going to be mindful enough to put this book out into the world?’
I was confident about the quality of each poem, but I quietly always hoped that the book would eventually be published by a company that focused on inclusiveness rather than disability. I thought that would make a bold statement without having it feel like a forced decision.
That being said, I’m extremely fortunate and grateful that the staff at Finishing Line Press saw something special about the book and decided to publish it.
Rebecca: What inspires you to write poetry? What do you hope people will take away from your work?
Erin Kelly: I write poetry because it’s so uniquely different from any other genre of writing. There are many layers to poetry that aren’t always obvious. I think exploring those layers is the true beauty of poetry, both as a reader and a writer. Not only that, but there’s an element of discovery that’s built in – whether it’s my own or someone else’s, mainly the person who’s reading my work.
In many ways, poetry is a metaphor for my life. People don’t always look beyond my wheelchair/cerebral palsy. They have to look a lot closer to realize there’s more to me than what they actually see. More often not, it takes some time for people to feel comfortable enough to really get to know me. My work has helped tremendously with that; however, there’s always that handful of people who don’t see past my chair.
I hope that people are willing to change their minds when they read my work. Or at least, think about the way they look at me – and disability in general.
I also hope that readers understand my work is a labor of love. It’s a process – intellectually and emotionally. It’s sometimes difficult choosing what I want the world to know, and what I want to keep to myself.
Rebecca: Do you have a favorite piece in this collection? Would you share the story behind it?
Erin Kelly: All of the poems in the book are special to me for different reasons. I don’t have a favorite, but the title poem, How to Wait, carries a lot of personal heaviness. I was quietly frustrated when I wrote it years ago, in a way that no one else around me could relate to. That particular poem still carries a great deal of weight, because I have to wait for people (mostly family members) to help me do certain things on a daily basis. I’ve learned to have a lot of patience because of that, which is a big part of why I wrote the poem.
I tried to convey my frustration in a manner that didn’t lend itself to pity. I never want my work to make readers feel bad for me because of my disability. I did, however, see an opportunity to give readers a genuine glimpse of my life in this poem.
It isn’t meant to be sad or pitiful. I just wrote from my heart and hopefully, the poem leaves some kind of impression on those who take the time to read it.
Rebecca: In How to Wait, you call Cameron Conaway a “Warrior Poet.” Can you share a little bit about how his work has influenced your own? What other poets have influenced your work? Who are some of your favorite poets?
Erin Kelly: Cameron is a very prolific and accomplished writer, author, and poet – earning him the name The Warrior Poet across the United States. His work inspires me to be fearless, as a writer and as a human being. In October 2012, he hired me to write for The Good Men Project, a global online platform that covers everything from marriage and relationships to current social justice issues. At the time, he served as the Social Justice Editor there and built upon his already impressive career. However, Cameron’s offer to hire me is a beautiful, unexpected story in itself.
Our paths had never crossed prior to 2012. I didn’t know who he was, nor was I familiar with his work. I just received a lengthy e-mail from him on a chilly Fall evening. He praised my ability write about my cerebral palsy, explaining that he read my column in The Altoona Mirror – my first job as a writer. Cameron also noted that disability was a topic which hadn’t been written about at GMP, and he felt I could bring something fresh and new to the table. I was absolutely shocked because had no fear or hesitation in offering me the job. He knew very little about me, except that I had potential as a writer.
He hired me based the merit of my work and nothing else, which is something I’m very grateful for and have always strived for throughout my career. As we got to talking, Cameron and I realized that we attended high school and college together – but again, never crossing paths or knowing who the other was. it was a strikingly surreal coincidence that revealed itself during the hiring process.
I don’t know if Cameron planned to reach out to me all along, or if he simply decided to e-mail me on the spur of the moment. I’m incredibly grateful either way. He not only helped me take my career to a national level, but he also introduced me to other writers in the process, which is always helpful when I’m writing.
Rebecca: Your writing speaks candidly and gracefully about your personal experience of being a woman with a disability. What advice would you offer to other writers, especially women and people with disabilities, who would like to make writing their career?
Erin Kelly: First, I think it’s important to do everything you can to learn about your disability – and understand why you have it. Most importantly, be honest about your circumstances. Then, you can begin to feel comfortable with it and see where they might serve as an asset in other aspects of your own life or in the lives of other people. It’s a very difficult process, and it’s something you have to work at every day. In my personal experience, all of these things help me feel free and independent on an intellectual level. Ironically enough, it helps me be a better writer because my mind isn’t tied down by the weight of my cerebral palsy.
Rebecca: I see that you also write for The Good Men Project and the Altoona Mirror. Would you please share a little bit about both of these projects? For example, what are your goals for these columns and where else can readers find your work?
Erin Kelly: When I started writing on a professional level, my main goal has always been to help others feel comfortable interacting/talking with me. Not only that, but to also help others feel comfortable talking about disability in general. I was hired as a columnist for The Altoona Mirror during my senior year of college at Penn State Altoona. That was truly the first big step in achieving my goal, because my boss was very skeptical about hiring me at first. I had to prove that I was able to not only do the job, but also keep up with deadlines and other responsibilities that came with the position.
My goal remained the same when I was hired at The Good Men Project. There were two big differences, however. I had already gained a following with my column in The Altoona Mirror, and someone (Cameron, who you mentioned above), was already familiar with my work. I think those two things helped to spread my message about disability.
I also feel that the decision to hire someone with a disability, especially a writer with a disability, speaks volumes about an employer.
I’d like to think I’m accomplishing the goal that I set years ago. Or at least doing something good for others, whether they have a disability or not.
Get your own copy of How to Wait on Amazon!
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