Recently, poet, artist and essayist Kelsay Elizabeth Myers sat down with Literary Arts & Wine to offer us insight into her creative process, current/future projects and her thoughts on the importance of the MFA in her writing career. Myers has read for the series twice, and is currently pursuing a Ph.D in Transformative Studies from the California Institute of Integral Studies.
"Setting for me is less important than the story and its other trappings: artifice or style, theme, symbols, characters, description—all of these interest me more on a personal level. I’m more of a meditative journey or experimental essayist."
Literary Arts & Wine: Your work explores identity and origins in interesting ways. When did you begin to play with these ideas—or have they always been a part of your thought/creative process?
Myers: I don’t think I even realized how much identity has influenced every aspect of my life until just this year. As an adoptee, not really knowing anything about my origins certainly has an impact, but that manifested in me taking my identity into my own hands and discovering my personality for myself. I was fortunate to have parents who wanted to discover that along with me and allowed me to follow any passing whim that struck my fancy by putting me in classes, getting me private lessons, buying me all the books I wanted and listening to me talk about everything I was feeling and learning as it was unfolding. That helped me develop my external processing, which has now become my creative process. By paying attention to this process: studying it, examining it, even creating it when necessary, I became a whole person, and that knowledge has led to me wanting to express and share my process of creation and identity with others and hopefully to inspire them along their own journeys of self-discovery. I’ve come to see this—identity studies—as my true work. Or maybe I’m just finally ready to admit that that is what I’ve devoted my entire life to.
Literary Arts & Wine: Is there a moment you can identify when both visual and literary art became your preferred method of intellectual pursuit (or, expression)? I'm not sure I'm asking this in the clearest way—but, there's more than one way to get an idea. You can study it historically, you can do a genealogy of it, you can dissect it, you can even live it. Why image, relic and words?
Myers: Not to be too glib because it is a worthwhile question, but the only answer I have is that it’s simply who I am. I understand and see the world in objects, images and words, not narrative moments, so that is how I communicate with it and with others. Mine is a mind drawn to things: material objects, states of being, people, symbols that represent ideas and concepts which compose larger themes and structures. Art, writing and intellectual curiosity are ways of expressing myself and how I see the world, but I’m constantly looking for other ways to understand the world and express myself.
One of the first ways I expressed myself on this planet was through dancing. So, here is a moment I treasure from childhood. I learned to dance on my father’s feet as he spun me around the coffee table in our living room to the Glenn Miller Orchestra song Pennsylvania 6-5000. After that I was in and out of tap, ballet and jazz classes for the rest of my life until I discovered the 5Rhythms™ and Open Floor Movement conscious dance classes in the Marin area this year. The focus on self-awareness, intuitive movement and revelation has helped me to feel my body and energy in deeper ways, and therefore has expanded my understanding of the world and how I connect with things.
Literary Arts & Wine: For an author who works in various media (and genres) is there one that you tend to rely on when you begin to create, or does it vary, project to project? Or, has it changed over time (and place)?
Myers: Usually, it’s the unifying concept or overall theme that gets me going. I can’t think of anything else that has led me to actually start doing. I’m an idea-driven writer and artist. That’s what inspires me, and it’s the inspiration that pushes me to begin creating. The form of the ideas or concepts can be different: a quote, a memory, something new that happens when I actually leave the house or maybe what a friend has to say will be that exciting thing that finally brings together all of these other little memories, quotes, experiences and conversations that have been abstractly forming in my mind. Once I have that uniting theme, all of a sudden these abstract forms take shape, and I’m able to write again or put together another installation.
I should also mention that I need to understand the structure of whatever I’m doing before I can begin too. If it’s a lyric essay, prose poem, spiral piece, creative academic work—the structure, or frame, is probably ground zero for a new project, but it lies empty until I have a theme.
A good example would be my current project entitled “100 Percent.” As you know from our time in the Nonfiction MFA Program at Saint Mary’s College of California, I had that title ready to go, as it’s pulled from a quote by François Truffaut about his own creative process. I knew I wanted to write about creative process and his love affair with Fanny Ardant juxtaposed with my own attraction to women and famous actresses. I also had an idea of writing a piece about idealization using the approach of chaos theory, where fractals repeat themselves again and again for infinity in the hopes of getting closer and closer to perfection. I also wanted to write about my weird spirituality. It wasn’t until Laura Springer, the woman I was in love with at the time, asked me to define what love was for me, and I gave a pretty shitty definition, that the whole writing project made sense to me. I would bring all of these ideas together in a quest for a definition of love, and I would devise a pattern of repeating words and phrases that I call “word-based fractals,” as well as the research of other great thinkers and writers who wrote about love from Fanny Ardant, Adrienne Rich and Plato to Thomas Merton, Susan Sontag and Hindu gods, in an effort to get closer and closer to that ideal definition.
Literary Arts & Wine: Who are the writers and artists who inspire you? How does their work speak to your own?
Myers: Some of the most inspiring writers for me personally have been philosophers, probably because I’m such a structural and idea-driven person. Immanuel Kant informs much of my writing and thinking, as well as Friedrich Nietzsche and Søren Kierkegaard. Lyn Hejinian’s autobiography My Life is one of the most brilliant and inspiring texts I’ve ever read to this day, and of course, Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being. It’s the combination of beauty, wisdom and freedom from genre and conventions that speaks to my soul in their writings, as well as makes me want to be that good myself! Someday, maybe.
Artistically, I admire Yoko Ono, Ai Wei-Wei and Marina Abramović, but I don’t think I’ll ever be that daring, even someday!!!
Literary Arts & Wine: Not all writers pursue MFA degrees. Can you talk about your experience in an MFA program? How do you think the pursuit-- and attainment-- of that degree speaks to your work now, and the direction you envision for yourself as a writer and artist in the years to come?
Myers: My friend, Nina Arnelli, told me the other night that she hopes I will be able to let go of this “do or die mentality [I have] and learn that it’s not, in fact, do or die. It’s just do!” What she was getting at was the extreme nature of my personality, which is also true of the doing! When I want to do something, I am all in. I want to do it to the max! I want to know everything I can about it, and then I want to figure out how to go even farther. That’s why I decided to get an MFA degree in Nonfiction writing and then one in Poetry. As a hybrid writer, I wanted to go as far as I could in both genres of writing that I exist between. This is also probably an underlying motivation for getting my PhD as well. There is a lot of debate about whether terminal degrees in writing are necessary since it’sabout the creativity and talent of the writing in the end, which some believe cannot be taught. I believe that when you’re passionate about something, you follow it wherever it leads you and try to know as much as you can about it to understand it, and yourself, more completely. Would I still be a talented and creative writer without two MFAs? Sure, but I wouldn’t know as much as I do now. My forms wouldn’t be as diverse or as tight, and I would have less of the world to draw on to make the kinds of connections that separate good writing from great writing and great writing from the masterpieces I have yet to write.
Literary Arts & Wine: Have there been any ideas or images you've created which surprise you? How did they surface, and what was so shocking about them?
Myers: Well, I always learn something new when I write or make an art installation, but it’s really tough to shock me and surprise me. The few surprises I’ve had in my life are from displays of action in the world, so by the time I’ve processed them enough to get to the writing stage, it’s not really surprising any longer. This could change though. Ask me again in 30 years.
Literary Arts & Wine: Has your interest shifted since you began writing? How can you account for this aesthetic/content/genre shift?
Myers: This is either a case of knowing myself too well and being too damn authentic so that everything I do ties in together or builds off something else I’ve done OR it’s a case of not straying too far from what I know and love. In my life, both could be true simultaneously.
In any case, the first form I fell in love with was the litany, and I still use it in almost everything I write! I watched my mom make long lists of everything she wanted to accomplish for the day, week and month every morning after she washed her hair on yellow legal pads. My lists are more creative and generated for emotional impact, but I haven’t strayed so far from what I know and love. My first major writing project was my undergraduate thesis where I used the ancient Japanese form of zuihitsu that Asian American poet, Kimiko Hahn, has modernized for an American audience. It’s an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink way of writing poetry that uses lists, diary entries, other texts, fiction and nonfiction in a seemingly random but very intuitive way of connecting it all. I decided to broaden the form by making it more expansive or essay-like and also adding academic texts…I don’t really think my interests have changed, though the form has morphed in a more solidly Western direction—to the lyric, hybrid, experimental and mosaic essays…and prose poetry.
Literary Arts & Wine: Your work speaks to several geographic locations—Korea, the MidWest, New York, Nashville and California (to name a few). How do you think geography imprints itself on the art (visual or literary) we create? Could you define the imprint of "California"?
Myers: Well, the setting for me is less important than the story and its other trappings: artifice or style, theme, symbols, characters, description—all of these interest me more on a personal level. I’m more of a meditative journey or experimental essayist. However, the fact is my journey has taken me from Korea to the Midwest, France, New York, Nashville, Budapest and California and these places (and many more) have left their mark, especially California because of how often I dreamed of coming here, and the independent life I was able to create for myself, even when affixing myself onto other people’s created lives. I still feel like California life is a bit of a dream, and I am a dreamer; dreams, both broken and attained, have left an imprint on my psyche, and thereby, my art. Perhaps it’s that imprint that’s still felt in the places I write about.
Literary Arts & Wine: What are you working on now?
Myers: Besides “100 Percent,” I’m working on expanding my lyric essay, “The Red Frame,” which was published in Waxwing’s Issue 6, into a full nonfiction manuscript. The essay I’ve already written will become the first section, and I’ll continue to expand on the meaning of the color red, adoption psychology, grief and loss, fairy tales and the trope of the lost or abandoned child, dreams and nightmares, objective reality and how to go about framing one’s life and stories. I’m also about to begin the Transformative Studies doctoral program at California Institute of Integral Studies where I hope to transform an old blog post I wrote for the Lantern Review Blog about my bowler hat writing persona, writing as response to other author’s works and dialogical self theory into something scholarly, creative and healing.
Literary Arts & Wine: Tell us something random about you or your work.
Myers: A couple of weeks I ago, I started thinking that I should become an astrologer. I’ve been reading about it off and on since I was 12, and I seem to have a natural intuition for understanding how the elements and signs work in people’s personalities. I see this as a natural, though somewhat offbeat, extension of my chosen calling in identity and transformation.
Kelsay Myers is a writer, artist and teacher living in Walnut Creek, CA. She is about to begin the Transformative Studies doctoral program at California Institute of Integral Studies. She received an MFA in Nonfiction from Saint Mary's College of California in 2012, an MFA in Poetry in 2013, and currently serves as Chair of the MFA in Creative Writing Program Advisory Board. Her interests involve using identity construction, personality theories, different forms of creative expression and aestheticism for personal growth and transformation. Recent work has appeared in White Stag’s #psychologia, Waxwing, New Delta Review, Portland Review and the anthology, More Voices: A Collection of Works from Asian Adoptees.
For more information, please go to kelsayelizabethmyers.com.