Interview with Erin M. Kelly

MN: Erin, your first book of poetry How to Wait was published in May by Finishing Line Press, which has been one of the leading presses for its willingness to publish the debut book of women writers with disabilities. Can you describe what the process has been like for you?

EK: The publication process for my book, How to Wait has been very interesting and enlightening. This is the first book I've had published in my career. I'm extremely grateful and humbled that Finishing Line Press was the company to take on this endeavor – not only because they agreed to publish the book, but also because of their mission to seek good, quality work by all writers regardless of circumstance or disability. I think the fact that Finishing Line Press has established itself as such a diverse publisher is a testament to the Staff's dedication to helping aspiring authors get their work out into world.

I submitted my manuscript for How to Wait to the Staff in early 2017, as a contender for one of their annual contests. I received an e-mail six months later, notifying me that even though I did not win the contest, my manuscript had been accepted for publication. And now, a full year later, I'm able to hold a beautifully crafted finished product in my hands. I was completely shocked when I first got the news, because I submitted this particular manuscript to countless other publishers, with the hope that my cerebral palsy wouldn't get in the way of someone recognizing my lifelong dream of becoming a published author. With that said, I commend the entire Staff at Finishing Line Press for their professionalism, craftsmanship, and overall commitment.

MN: Once your book was accepted for publication what kinds of editorial changes did you have to make to the original manuscript? Were there other decisions to be made or ways that you had to be involved to help get the book published?

EK: The editing process for the book was actually quite simple. The original manuscript was pretty much unedited throughout the entire process, except for one minor error. I had been tinkering with the manuscript since my senior year of college in 2009 and even before that. I just kept adding small details to it over the years, and by the time it got to Finishing Line Press, I was happy with it.

I had the opportunity to proofread everything throughout the editing process, as well as have personal input into the design of the book. I got to choose my own photos and arrange how I wanted the front and back covers to look. This part of the process was a lot of fun and a welcomed change of pace because I don't always get to do that with my other work.

MN: One of the poems in How to Wait, "Autograph," is dedicated to Erin Murphy, and it is actually through Erin Murphy that Wordgathering first became aware of your work. What kind of influence did she have on you as a writer? Do you feel that the poetry reflects what you learned from her? In what way?

EK: Erin Murphy was one of my English professors in college, and is still one of my many mentors today. She has been very instrumental in helping me navigate my career and particularly, helping me make good, informed decisions regarding "How To Wait". In fact, the poem, "Autograph" was written as a way to thank her for everything she has done to shape me into the writer I am now. Erin also wrote a stunningly beautiful blurb for the back of the book, so I'm very grateful that she has been in my corner since Day One.

I always tried my best to take each comment to heart, because I knew she was giving honest feedback – and I could tell she knew exactly what she was doing. Erin was already where I wanted to be from a professional standpoint when I was one of her students, and I wanted her to know I was taking every bit of guidance she gave seriously. Even now, I hold her advice in high regard because again, she knows what she's doing and she has a very keen sense of the writing industry not only from a business aspect, but also from a writer's point of view.

In fact, the poem, "Autograph", was written as a way to thank her for everything she has done to help me become the writer I am now, and what kind of what kind of writer I wanted to be when I first started out. The poem is essentially about the moment when I knew someone else knew I could be a writer. I always believed it in my heart, but knowing that someone believed it too, was huge for me. I bought Erin's first book soon after I wrote "Autograph", and she was gracious enough to sign the book for me. When I saw her signature, that was it. That's when I knew there was no turning back. Erin's sound advice and constant encouragement fueled my desire to become a writer even more.

To say that Erin has influenced my work would be an understatement. She has ultimately made me a better person and a better writer. She's extremely generous with her time and talent, which I don't take for granted. I am proud to say that Erin and I are still keeping in touch and working on occasional projects. I have an essay being published in the forthcoming anthology, "Bodies of Truth", which Erin co-edited with Renee Nicholson and Dinty Moore. "Bodies of Truth" is due out in January 2019.

MN: Take us through your writing process. How does a poem like "The Journalist's Prayer" or "Saturday Moments" come about for you. Is it something that comes to you suddenly or does it involve a lot of editing and re-write?

EK: For me, the writing process is very therapeutic. I always seem to learn something about myself or tap into a certain emotion or pattern of thought, which can prove to be good and bad depending on how I'm feeling and what's going on around me. Some of what I write comes naturally, but I work with a lot of it until it feels right to me. I never want my readers to feel sorry or pitiful for me because I'm in a wheelchair. So, I utilize my immediate surroundings as inspiration – as well as things I see and hear.

Having cerebral palsy, I think almost impossible to ignore the fact that I ride a wave of emotions every day, even though I don't make it known or readily apparent. With a poem like "The Journalist's Prayer," I want readers to hopefully see where that wave starts. I also wanted to explore what truly qualifies as a "bad" day, particularly with this poem.

Then, with "Saturday Moments," it's more about what I imagine things look and feel like through someone else's eyes. I actually wrote that poem for my Dad, from his perspective as best as I could. The poem itself is a tribute to him, but I think there's something relatable and universal about it as well.

At the end of the day, I try not to sweep any of this "under the rug", because my cerebral palsy will always be a huge part of my life– whether I like it or not, so I take my approach to the writing process one step at a time, and day-by-day.

MN: I'd like to quote some lines from the poem "Telling" by Laura Hershey. As you probably know, Laura was an early disability advocate and poet, and for her the physical act of writing a poem even using a computer took tremendous effort.

Those with power can afford
to tell their story
or not.
Those without power
risk everything to tell their story
and must.

I'd be interested in your reaction to Laura's imperative. I know you have mentioned several times that you would like to be recognized a poet first and only after that as someone with cerebral palsy, but how much responsibility do you feel to put yourself out there and tell your story? Do you feel that How to Wait accomplishes that?

EK: First and foremost, these lines from "Telling" are extremely powerful because they speak an authentic truth. It's the yearning to be understood, and to try to present oneself in a way in which helps others realize there's more beyond the surface. There also has to be a willingness – and a reason– to put oneself out there. All of these elements are a part of a crucial truth that, in my opinion, rings true for anyone with any type of disability – including myself. Like Laura, I have a story to tell. Poetry, and especially my book, has allowed me to do that, now on a much wider scale.

I wanted How to Wait to be a reflection of my life – not my cerebral palsy itself. Parts of my personal story do come out in every poem in the book, but I made sure to write the book in a manner that wasn't solely focused on the obvious. While I do want people to acknowledge my disability, I don't want them to be so focused on it that it's all they see. That's also a big part of why I want to be known as a writer before I'm known as a disabled individual. I've found that there's always more to a person than meets the eye – and for me, that extra "something" is worth exploring – even if it isn't made public.

I'm glad I chose to make my journey public – not only as a writer and poet, but also as someone with a disability. How to Wait is a testament to the way those things coincide on a daily basis, no matter how hard I try to keep them separate. More than that, however, the book is a testament to what it means to have patience in times when it's difficult to.

I hope, with time, the book stands on its own as a good read. I hope it will be enjoyed by everyone from teachers to web designers, to musicians and fellow writers. If anything, I hope How to Wait lets people know how important it is to tell a story – in whatever capacity they're able to.

MN: Along with the others that you have mentioned, Wordgathering would also like to offer its hope for the books success and its reception by a large number of readers. Is there anything else that you would like to add about your book, your work or yourself before we close?

EK: I'd be remiss if I didn't say the publication of How To Wait is something I've worked towards (and waited for)for a very, very long time. It's more than just a book to me; it's a representation of who I've become and how I want to be seen by the public eye. Aside from being truthful with myself and my readers, my career has always been about helping others feel comfortable interacting with me – as well as addressing the topic of disability in a crucial, yet down-to-Earth manner. I think the book is a huge step in that direction and I can only hope for good things from here on out.

My career has also been about proving myself, and proving my worth to every Editor, mentor, author, and writer I've had the opportunity to work with over the years. They're all visionaries in their own right and I have the utmost respect for each of them. They not only have taken the time to look at my work, but have also published my work based on my own merit as a writer, instead of my disability. That lets me know people in the literary world are paying attention, and are willing to give those with disabilities a platform to make their voices heard.

With that being said, I'd like to genuinely thank Wordgathering for this interview, the Staff at Finishing Press for their openness in publishing my book, and everyone who has found it worth their time to take me under their wing at any given point in my career. You've all made my job worth doing!