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On the Things that Haunt Us & the Ways We Haunt:
An Interview with Kelly Grayon her chapbook, 
The Mating Calls // of a // Specter

Shilo Niziolek: Hi Kelly! I am so excited to get to talk to you about this potent and biting chapbook, the winner of the Tusculum Review 2023 Poetry Chapbook Prize, The Mating Calls // of a // Specter!


Kelly Gray: Thank you so much, I’m thrilled to have this collection with Tusculum Review, and submitted gleefully when I saw that Justin Phillip Reed was the judge. Also excited to send you this collection because you are a fellow body writer, and what’s more body than a ghost? 


SN: Both of us have used ghosts and hauntings to write about difficult subject matter. In The Mating Calls // of a // Specter you use haunting and being haunted as a medium to write about sexual assault and rape. In the very first poem of the collection, “I Come Back to Do What has been Undone” you write, “I whisper to my descendants, I am the haunted one, / and they keep crying back: // This place is haunted! // Possibly, this is semantics. // I look down at my body and it is one part / fog drenched, barn titled, backroad thigh. // I suppose I have become / a place. // My intent is to bury him in my soil.” The spectral has so many different jobs in these poems. Here, it feels almost like a call to arms, a warrior cry, a screaming banshee yell. What is it about ghosts and the idea of haunting that feels like such a potent tool to write about assault, abuse, and rape?


KG:  Can I just say I think we write about these ghosts because they aren’t tools but because they are real?  In my mind, ghosts, or hauntings, are fractured memories stepping out of the body or the collective consciousness in an effort to be heard. They straddle the past and the future, what’s happened and what’s been taken from us. I wrote this book because parts of me have died at the hands of rape culture and those parts continue to haunt me. I also wrote the collection about a specific place that haunts me, because those are my death grounds, and how wonderful that I can visit the ghost of little me and see what she’s been up to and listen to her stories. Maybe a portal of sorts. It’s deeply cathartic to give her a body, a voice, a page, a landscape. Writing poetry is a form of deep listening, and I think ultimately, as writers and as ghosts, we want to be heard. 


The formatting and switching of tense in the collection works to mimic a ghost world where everything, including time, has been rendered non-linear. That non-linear world speaks not only to ghosts but to a world where rape is intrinsic to how we do things; how we inherit rape in our bodies and teachings, how we are complicit in it, how we perpetuate it, how unisolated it is, how we carry it forward while crying backwards.

SN: So writing through ghosts is a sort of resurrection or cartography?


KG: I think so, don’t you? The anatomist comes to mind, too.  To name the bodies lost and the worlds we are creating forward, but also the places that go numb, that have died but are still attached to us. 


I’m equally enthralled and irked by formal anatomy and all the fancy terms because it makes our body seem as if it’s all disconnected and inaccessible, but also return to it because it’s  magical and unknown. This narrator got  a chance to discover her own anatomy while exposing the anatomy of rape culture, and turns out her anatomy was landbased. Which is just a lesson in interconnectedness.


SN: In the first poem in this collection you write, “You only get one hundred handprints a century.” In the poem, “Walking Through a Field I Move into the Bay to Wash Away what is Touching Me” you write: “ body is a tapestry of handprints. Each / palm stitched to a torn piece of skin, an organ floating this way or that, unhinged / from tendons.” Mid way through the poem, “At my very center two small hands around my heart. A ringed finger. Hands that / look like mine but aged. They are squeezing hard. We float. Me, these hands, my / heart.” And then, two stanzas later at the end of the poem, “These ones are my mother’s hands. Refusing to let me die. My poor heart. My poorer / mother. How does she lift the skillet at home in her blue o’ blue kitchen with no / hands.” In the very next poem, “On my Knees in a Night Blooming Garden” you write, “I can smell through my hands” and “I can’t quite place where his hands have landed / in this bed”. In the poem “//Memory, 16// Homecoming” you write, “She searched for a way to be wanted like that (again), a dead thing still alive held / to body under hands, hands, hands…” Outside of these moments, the word hand or hands appears 7 other times, but they are also invoked, the imagery of the hands, throughout the chapbook with words like: fist, push, pulling, grabbed, write, hold, held, fingernails, gather, wrapped, thick wrist, pinned, ripped, raised, grip, palm, unbuttoning, and more. Hands echo through this work like a clap down a dark tunnel. I wonder if you could speak more to the way hands are such an imperative element of your work, how in some scenes they act as a terror, in others, a tender kindness. Why hands? Why are you drawn to them?


KG: Wow, thank you for your attentiveness, I knew hands held a heavy presence in the book but I

hadn’t counted them out yet! 


Hands are often the first point of contact between one person and the next, from a mother receiving her child as it’s born or when someone physically hurts you. We gesticulate, we wave, we bury people with our hands. We use them to reach between our internal worlds into the world of being perceived. I often think, if I lost my eyesight, I would still be able to write. But if I lost my hands, I am not so sure. To me, they seem almost alive in their own way, and when I am writing, they are usually one step ahead of me. And that’s very personal, I know there are tons of people who can and could write while handless. My hands have an energy that feels almost hot and pulsating. When I meditate, I breathe through my hands. All of this is to say I didn’t set out to write about hands, but when writing about lineage and mothers and assault and seduction, they are bound to take up space because they are actively pulling me out of myself into the world where others can hear me.

SN: Animals and critters are another element that are frequently returned to throughout The Mating Calls // of a // Specter. The speaker engages with them and becomes them, or they become a part of the speaker: “the back of a deer’s leg / marks your path,” and “like a song made of beetles / under my skin,” and “I am a jellyfish with rocks dislodging from my jelly skin,” and “Hawkmoths descend to land on my back,” and “the cows quieted for wisdom,” and “I dig a small den // beneath the white blooms the foxes come.” There are many more instances of the speaker interacting with or becoming creaturely in these poems. How do animals, their wildness, or the idea of becoming creaturely, serve as a sort of protective force, a sort of spell, over these poems?


KG:  Glad you see the creature-ways of this ghost as a protective force over the work.


In writing about the ghost, I imagined the essence of her ghostliness being absorbed and contained, albeit momentarily, in different wild animals and landscapes, really as a function of the compulsive drifting from her “ghost birth” to her haunting of the town and then back again. When I was grappling with the end of the collection, I thought a lot about healing and what I ought to write versus what I want for this ghost. Two things became very clear. One was that the western notion of healing feels like a scam, and that she did not need to heal or find resolution in the human world to make the reader feel better. The next learning I took in was this; if I don’t believe in “healing” as resolution (let alone an interesting story arc), that my job as the writer, the person channeling her, was to intuit and share how the telling of her story served her. I sat with it for a long time, until I was clear that reabsorption felt akin to decay, and decay to rebirth, and that she was cycling, like we all are cycling, at any given moment in time. So she eventually became all things, from the owl to the algae, and she was heard by the land as well as the reader. 

SN: When thinking about how you wanted to end the collection you mentioned what you ought to write. How does the idea of what we think we should write, especially when writing about trauma and healing, interfere with both the real experience of writing and the felt experience of processing trauma?


KG: It gets sticky and muddy. I don’t want to process on the page, usually. That’s such a private experience and I don’t necessarily feel like I am in control when I am processing. I’ve approached this story for decades, through work and friendships and some unfortunate relationships and therapy and lots of walking. And short stories and poems, always looking for a way in to be able to hold it up, not as an individual experience but something that I could contribute to the collective discourse on body and rage and hauntology. As a reader and consumer of literature, which has mostly been what’s handed to me, right, like, American/Western work, I had to unlearn as I was writing because there is a specific and terrible construct around endings, and this binary bullshit about life and death, which is all very tempting. I am not obligated to heal this narrator or even create meaning for the reader. How womanly of me to consider it. Here is this broken thing in my hands, I gotta fix it and mend it and make it palatable. This narrator is not palatable but I do believe she is good. I don’t believe her rage is unwarranted, I believe she is acting accordingly. So then what is there to heal and what is my role? Again, I think it goes back to our ability to listen as writers, to step back from the telling, and actually act as channelers. Which means we have to put all the critical or needy voices aside, and the pre-fab endings, and actually look at what is in front of us, and then trust that the reader shows up curious and listening as well.


SN: One of my favorite lines in this collection is from the poem, “First Breakfast.” It says, “A woman is a series of deaths in a kitchen.” Now, maybe I am just drawn to this line because I’ve always loathed the kitchen, in part because I hate cooking and doing the dishes, but I think maybe my feelings toward the kitchen are more primal than this. The patriarchal gender norms of the kitchen and home being the women’s place leads me right back to assault–both of the sexual, like a woman’s place being on her knees—but also this sort of domestic assault on our own desires and wishes and dreams. I wonder if you could speak on this line and your thoughts around it? 


KG: First, I should say the obvious, which is that a kitchen is a space, like any space, that we can layer with all sorts of meaning. I know subversive shit goes down in the kitchen, along with deep traditions and honor. I had a male reader respond to the collection by asking how I view kitchens and joy and poetry and it totally stumped me because I didn’t think I had conjured a joyful kitchen, but I always revel in how we write something and people find what they need to find, despite our intentions. 


But yeah, I loathe the kitchen, too. I look back at all these women in my life and they gave and they gave and they gave in the kitchen but they never got fed and now we are all stark raving mad and perpetually hungry. That hunger runs through the collection, the narrator first encounters it while observing her mother cooking. The kitchen represents hunger, body memory, epigenetics, and intergenerational trauma. And the ghost moves out of the kitchen, decides to eat elsewhere.

SN: Hunger is one of my favorite themes running throughout this collection. I love the word hunger in general because it can reach between both the physical/material into figurative/abstract. Ghosts bridge this gap well too. I wonder, if your ghost from this collection could only eat one thing for the rest of her haunting days, what do you think that would be?  


KG: Domestic metals. Cutlery, cast iron stoves, skillets, cleavers. 


SN: Wow, yes, okay, I love that so much! I sometimes feel like I am eating and spitting metal (forks in particular come to mind, though I’m not sure why). On Instagram you posted that your daughter’s favorite poem in this collection is “This Dress has Pockets” which comes in three succinct lines: “I have two knives, / one for each of his eyes, // so that I can undo his seeing of me.” To wrap up, I’d love it if you could talk a bit about the idea of seeing vs unseeing. The imperative nature of control when speaking/writing about the trauma of rape and sexual assault. And how is the idea of seeing or more aptly, exposing through your poetry the terrible truth of what so many–too many–girls and women will experience in some form in their lifetimes, important to your work and even your relationship with your young daughter?


KG:I think “This Dress has Pockets” is evocative for folks because it touches on how the memory of rape exists not only in the victim’s body but the body of the perpetrator. He can call upon these memories at will, he needs only to use his internal vision to “see” her again and again. There is something so childlike and hopeful in the ghost trying to figure out how to render someone memoryless with only two knives while wearing a dress, it’s kind of absurd. But it’s also very wise and I would venture a great self kindness because it is gruesome work. The work of repair. Imagine having to carve out someone’s eyes and the delicate work of pulling out the nerves, so that you can retrieve parts of yourself  in an effort to repair yourself? Is this metaphor or something else? 


SN: Is this revenge or justice?


KG: I don’t think this is revenge, and because of the brutality, we might not consider it justice either. I think this act of carving out the ocular nerves (which is how I envisioned it when I wrote it) exists in a liminal space that we don’t have words for, which is why poetry allows us to approach this type of violence and declare it beautiful. Between the violence and the beauty we sense necessity. 


I wrote this at a time when my daughter was just entering the land of rape culture, which is thick with ghosts and stories and lots of leering eyes. In the book, the rape and murder of the narrator happen off page—I really didn’t want any graphic depictions of that—and the narrator does not return to them in her hauntings. Rather, it’s the seemingly smaller instances- from peer pressure shaming to boys masturbating in the back of a classroom unchecked, that create the culture. I see that as I watch these kids grow up, that it’s the friendships and the adults that uphold the culture that insists on raping not only girls and women but the whole lot of us, the sky and moon, you know, here comes the gaping hole of trauma in the cloak of white supremacy to try to eat us all alive. But even from the bowels, we can see our way forward through the gruesome work of repair.

SN: Thanks for your candor, Kelly, and for writing this book which feels to me one of the more important artifacts of truth out there.

Shilo Niziolek is the author of Pigeon House, Fever, atrophy, A Thousand Winters In Me, Dirt Eaters, and her forthcoming poetry collection, Little Deaths (Riot in Your Throat Press, July 1 2024). Her work has appeared in Juked, Honey Literary, Phoebe Journal, and West Trade Review, among others. Shilo is a creative writing workshop facilitator with the Literary Arts and a writing and English instructor at Clackamas Community College. She is also the co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of the literary magazine Scavengers.

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