Kelly Weber on Kinship with Nature, Asexuality, and Writing “Untraditional” Erotic Poems
The Author of If You Bury the Birds in My Pelvis in Conversation with Poets.org
Lit Hub is excited to feature another entry in a new series from Poets.org: “enjambments,” a monthly interview series with new and established poets. This month, they spoke to Kelly Weber, the author of the poetry collections You Bury the Birds in My Pelvis (Omnidawn, 2023), We Are Changed to Deer at the Broken Place (Tupelo Press, 2022), and the chapbook The Dodo Heart Museum (dancing girl press, 2021). She is the reviews editor for Seneca Review and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Their work has appeared or is forthcoming in AGNI, Pleiades, Waxwing, Gulf Coast Online, Electric Literature’s The Commuter, Southeast Review, and elsewhere.
She holds an MFA from Colorado State University. More of their work can be found at kellymweber.com.
Poets.org: Snakes are a motif in this collection, presenting various meanings in each instance in which they appear. What inspired the recurrence of this motif while writing this collection?
Kelly Weber: I’ve always loved snakes. I grew up with a pet snake, and I have lived in proximity to various species of wild snakes, including a nest of garter snakes that crawled in through my bathroom window and took up residence there one summer. For a creature that comes with so much metaphorical baggage in the queerphobic Christian communities I grew up around, I’ve always found them to be such vulnerable creatures, subject to fear and harm from humans. When I lived in Colorado, I had to be even more aware of snakes because of the rattlesnake warnings posted around trails and the rattling I could hear.
They require care—for them, for me, for other people. As I was writing these poems, snakes emerged as sources of (queer) tenderness, vulnerability, exposure, and transformation close to the queer speaker’s heart. They became an important aspect of the creatureliness of the book.
Poets:org: Queer poets are sometimes faced with the dual tasks of carving out space for themselves and finding new ways of writing into “traditional” poetic territory. Can you talk about your influences, particularly Margaret F. Browne, whom you credit as an influence in the Notes and to whom you dedicated “Ode to Asexual Libido?”
KW: Margaret F. Browne is a dear friend and a brilliant, brilliant poet. We were in the poetry MFA program at CSU at the same time and lived together with another brilliant, brilliant writer in the fiction program, Michelle Thomas. I feel like so many of my poems grow out of conversations with friends and what we’re all grappling with as writers, including the tasks you mention in your question.When I was writing “Ode to Asexual Libido,” I was interested in writing into what is erotic for me and how that exists without traditional alloromantic and allosexual attraction and desire.
When I was writing “Ode to Asexual Libido,” I was interested in writing into what is erotic for me and how that exists without traditional alloromantic and allosexual attraction and desire. I can’t write the erotic without immediately thinking of Margaret F. Browne’s stunning explorations of the erotic and the body in her poems. Browne’s poems take us through thresholds of desire to such vivid new consciousness via the mouth, via a sensuality that opens doorways for us.
In “Ode to Asexual Libido,” I wrote toward, for, and in conversation with Browne’s work and the many conversations we’ve had as friends about poetry, the body, and the erotic. I think good friends open those new spaces for us. I know Browne and Thomas both have for me. They, and my other dear friends, have helped me see what’s possible in my work and in my life.
I’m so grateful for them and in awe of them and their incredible writing. So many of these poems got their start in the home we shared together, during late-night kitchen table talks and under blankets shared on the couch. I’m so thankful for that, over and over again.
More generally—and I think this too has grown out of those conversations—I am often thinking about those two tasks you describe in your question. When I first started out as a writer, I didn’t have the language for my queerness yet, but I knew I was having a different experience from the alloromantic and allosexual attraction, desire, romance, etc. described in the readings I was assigned. Now in my work, I feel like I’m trying to answer a question that was posed to me at a reading, essentially along the lines of, “What’s erotic to you?”
Writing into the “traditional” poetic territory of the erotic and love means, for me, trying to articulate the platonic relationships that have my whole heart, as well as a sensual relationship with my own nonbinary and trans body, sexuality, and gender. I’ve been influenced by the work of so many incredible writers: Chen Chen, Danez Smith, Natalie Diaz, Kaveh Akbar, sam sax, torrin a. greathouse, Cassandra J. Bruner, Kayleb Rae Candrilli, Jericho Brown.
When I sit down to write, I think about the wider conversations happening in contemporary poetry and contemporary queer poetry. I also try to find ways to make legible my own experience as an asexual, aromantic, nonbinary, trans poet. Desire (whatever that word means) is going to feel a little different for me than it does in some of the queer poems I adore. How do I write into that?
And I feel like I end up relearning the same lesson with each book I write, which is that I’m an experimental (whatever that word means) poet at heart. Every time I sit down to write a poem, I feel like I’m teaching myself to trust my weirdest instincts more and more. I hope that keeps leading me further afield into whatever my poetry wants to do, which can only be weirder and more interesting than my limited desires as a poet.
Poets.org: You Bury the Birds in My Pelvis opens in the second-person—a form of address that recurs throughout the book and which is reinforced in “Crown this Chronic Body in IV Tubes” wherein you write, “This poem is a contract between me and you.” Could you discuss your usage of the second-person and how positioning the reader as “you” aids in the collection’s explorations of sexuality, intimacy, and chronic illness?
KW: Intimacy felt crucial in the writing process for this book, and the “you” became a way of holding many plural identities, persons, and readers at once while keeping the poems grounded in a simple, direct relationship: you and me. I watch the way documents, systems, companies employ false intimacy and trust in their direct address to readers, and I want a poetry that pushes back on that while also questioning what a poem even is, how it can address a “you” from an “I.”
Reaching for someone as a poetic gesture, as a “you know what I mean?,” as a conversation with someone trusted, as an attempt to articulate, as praise, as a situating of the book’s concerns. Writing much of the book in second- person rooted the poems in an essential softness that felt necessary in articulating the book’s crisis. In many ways, it helped me speak from the kitchen table with friends.
Poets.org: Nature and animals are observed and deeply embodied in this collection. In “Deer Skull Floating Over Blue Mountains (Four Panels)” the speaker says, “How we all want to be made landscape with vertebrae / someone could study with interest for hours.” What is your personal and/or poetic relationship to nature?
KW: The incredible poet Lucien Darjeun Meadows has discussed finding queer kinship with “ecological relatives,” a phrase he uses in the Electric Literature reading list “Ten Writers Finding Queer Kin in the Natural World.” (In full disclosure, that list includes my first book. Meadows and I have read together and corresponded quite a bit, and he’s just brilliant). I also recently taught a virtual generative writing class on queering ecology, and taught poems like Oliver Baez Bendorf’s “Dysphoria,” which talks about “an instinct” of queerness, of gender without explanation or the need for explanation.I think, in my work, I’m always trying to think about queer kinship with nonhuman others, with a felt sense of the erotic in the world as it extends to creatures and to rocks, water, grass.
I think, in my work, I’m always trying to think about queer kinship with nonhuman others, with a felt sense of the erotic in the world as it extends to creatures and to rocks, water, grass. The ecological feels charged with eroticism (as I experience it) and with queer possibility. I’m also always questioning what is “natural” in terms of sexuality and gender. Going through an estrogen puberty felt very unnatural in many ways, despite the rhetoric I received from so many people in my life, especially cis women who encouraged me to find power in it.
I’ve also never felt more creaturely in my “instinct” (to use Bendorf’s term again) than when I faced myself in a mirror for the first time, post-top surgery, and was struck by the electric feeling of how right and how “natural” the change was. So I think, in some ways, I’m always writing about queer kinship with nature and struggling with what “natural” has meant of and about my body.
Poets.org: What are you reading now?
KW: The work of Mosab Abu Toha, Noor Hindi, Hala Alyan, Deema K. Shehabi, Lena Khalaf Tuffaha. Free Palestine, from the river to the sea—end Israel’s genocide of Palestine, end Israel’s colonization and occupation of Palestine, end settler colonialism.
Poets.org: What are your favorite poems on Poets.org?
KW: “Mouth Still Open” by Mosab Abu Toha, “Dysphoria” by Oliver Baez Bendorf, “Sick4Sick” by torrin a. greathouse, “Things Haunt” by Joshua Jennifer Espinoza, “in lieu of a poem, i’d like to say” by Danez Smith.
“enjambments,” a monthly interview series produced by the Academy of American Poets, will highlight an emerging or established poet who has recently published a poetry collection. Each interview, along with poems from the poet’s new book, and a reading by the poet, will be published on Poets.org and shared in the Academy’s weekly newsletter.