Contributing Editor Kalireyna Streeby

Featured Writer Interview: Kendra Tanacea

Kendra Tanacea, attorney, holds an MFA in writing and literature from Bennington College. Her first collection of poetry, If You’re Lucky Nobody Gets Hurt, was a finalist for the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize. Her collection of poetry, A Filament Burns in Blue Degrees, was a finalist for the Idaho Prize for Poetry and was published by Lost Horse Press in 2017. The Alchemy of Us was a semifinalist for the 2019 Washington Prize. Kendra’s poems have appeared in North American Review, Poet Lore, 5AM, Rattle, Moon City Review, Licking River Review, Stickman Review, Barely South Review, and Soundings East, among others. She has studied with Kazim Ali, Henri Cole, Amy Gerstler, Robert Hass, Juan Felipe Herrera, Brenda Hillman, Ed Ochester, and Sharon Olds. Kendra attended the June 2016 Community of Writers Poetry Workshop, the 2018 Napa Valley Writer’s Conference and the Bay Area writing workshops with Kim Addonizio. In 2017, her poems “Perennial” and “Making Risotto for Dinner When His Ex-Wife Calls” were featured on the Writers’ Almanac. She frequently performs public readings in the Bay Area. 


Kali for O:JA&L:          Tell us a bit about yourself.

Tanacea:          I grew up in Monroe, Connecticut, when it was mostly farmland. There was a creek behind our home, horses in a nearby pasture, pigs further down a dirt road. I was a lonely child and spent much of my time outdoors, or inside reading and memorizing musicals. We lived in a multi-generational home with my grandparents who immigrated from Greece and Albania. My grandfather was an expert craftsman, a carver and woodworker. One winter, he carved the Lincoln memorial out of snow and ice. He built our home with a secret entrance accessed by a rolling bookcase. He was quiet, creative, capable and loving. Often, I return to him and the home he built for our family in my poems.

During all my school years, I kept diaries, jotted down (bad) poems, and primarily shared my feelings only with the blank page. When I went to Wellesley College, I majored in English and worked in the English Department. There, I took classes with David Ferry and Frank Bidart. After that, I moved to San Francisco to attend U.C. Hastings College of the Law. San Francisco opened my world: it was full of writers, performers and artists. For many years, I lived in the Haight-Ashbury and absorbed the entire city. The Bay Area offers writing workshops filled with amazing, supportive writers. For many years, I attended generative workshops with Christopher P. DeLorenzo (Laguna Writers) and revision workshops Kim Addonizio, at that time writing only for myself.


Kali for O:JA&L:          When did you decide to pursue your graduate degree at Bennington?

Tanacea:          Around 2004, after the demise of a significant relationship, I felt propelled to take myself and my writing more seriously. I studied for two glorious years at Bennington College Writing Seminars, a low-residency program, which allowed me to continue to work as an attorney while obtaining my MFA. The faculty and the students were smart, encouraging and gently pushed my work in new and exciting directions. In my first term, Ed Ochester handed out a suggested reading list and checked off certain books for each student to read, saying it was like a prescription. He taught me to analyze a poem for content and construction: what is the poet doing, and is it worth doing? I also studied with Amy Gerstler, who always drilled down to the essence of the poem and also opened up unseen possibilities. I completed my first manuscript at Bennington and then revised it over many years, until it was published in 2017: A Filament Burns in Blue Degrees, by Lost Horse Press. I was thrilled when Garrison Keillor read two of my poems on The Writer’s Almanac.


Kali for O:JA&L:          Who was an influential person in your life?

Tanacea:          From an early age, I loved reading novels, plays, mysteries and poetry. In fourth grade, I was so lucky to have had Mrs. Shogren who helped me choose books from the school library—as I was desperate for stories with female characters. Mrs. Shogren would write me a pass to the library whenever I wanted to go. I think of her often because she recognized my hunger and satiated it.

Much later, when I read Sharon Olds’ Satan Says, I remember thinking: YES. This is it. I want to do this. I was desperate to read women’s writing, just as I had been as a young girl after reading the three biographies of women in the school library: Amelia Earhart (my favorite), Florence Nightingale, and Clara Barton.


Kali for O:JA&L:          What is your writing life like?

Tanacea:          I write every day. And always in the morning, pen to paper, when there is still a bit of dreaminess, of direct contact with the subconscious. After some time has passed, I will read these freewrites and if I find something intriguing or something that makes me laugh out loud, I will work on revising it. All of my revisions are done at the computer. If there is a poem that I like conceptually, but isn’t clicking or feels flat, I’ll try to shape it into a poetic form, such as a villanelle or sestina, which can bring about surprising results. After that, I workshop my poems with trusted poets for their feedback. Then, I will send a group of poems out for publication. Some editors are kind enough to give excellent feedback, so submitting poems gives me a better feel of which poems are the strongest. When I have enough strong poems, I organize some of them into a book.

Of course, like any writer, I get dejected. It is important, I think, to surround yourself with supportive and honest writing friends. Once, in a manuscript review, the publisher wrote: “The tone is aggressive and not inviting! As it is, I felt the speaker was standing a bit too close, talking a bit too loud about things I thought were a bit too explicitly personal.” Despite this, I did take some of her valuable suggestions to heart. Sometimes you just have to shake it off and keep going.


Kali for O:JA&L:          How would you describe your poetic style?

Tanacea:          I would classify myself as a narrative poet. There is such beauty in elevating a moment, however small, for the world to see. My tendency is to gravitate to poems like this; some of my favorites are James Wright (“break/Into blossom”), Tomas Transtomer (“intense as a bouillon cube”), Elizabeth Bishop ((“Write it!) like disaster”), and so many others. One book that I return to often is The Clerk’s Tale by Spencer Reece.

Lately, I would say that my writing has undergone a stylistic shift. I’m more interested in creating space for the reader to make connections and jump off with their own imaginings. It’s hard, because I don’t want to be incomprehensible. On the other hand, I no longer want to just tell a straightforward story. It’s a difficult line to walk and I’ve failed more than I’ve succeeded, but I’m still trying. After taking a workshop with Brenda Hillman at Napa Valley Writer’s Conference, I started paying more attention to writing as an object in space, as a score, as a physical thing to be picked up and examined. So, if I could achieve my intent, a reader would roam around my poem and interact with it as if it were an art installation at Burning Man.


Kali for O:JA&L:          Which poets were your earliest influences, and why did you gravitate to them?

Tanacea:          I remember the first poem that captured my attention when I was very young: First Fig by Edna St. Vincent Millay:

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!

I turned it over and over again in my mind, trying to picture how the candle would burn at both ends: Was the speaker holding it? Would it burn her fingers? I also loved how it included her enemies and friends. It was dangerous and short-lived but twice as bright. It was understandable and mysterious. I also read many poems by Emily Dickinson.

Last year I taught third graders at Flowery Elementary School in Sonoma as a California Poet in the Schools. At that age, children are unafraid of poetry. We would read a sample poem out loud and then they would enthusiastically approach the paper to create their own. I’m proud that one of my students, Angelique Lopez, was published in Molly Fisk’s California Fire & Water: A Climate Crisis Anthology, alongside well-known writers.


Kali for O:JA&L:          Who are you reading now?

Tanacea:          I read as widely and as much as I can. There is such a variety of styles and voices. Tracey Knapp’s Mouth is a wonderful book: inventive, funny and melancholy. I’ve read many poems by Devon Walker-Figueroa, whom I met at the Community of Writers conference, and marvel at her style, language, and dexterity. I read everything Blas Falconer writes; his poems are perfect, compressed, and filled with compassion. I just finished Jericho Brown’s The Tradition, which is formally inventive and culturally important. Tracey Smith (who has a wonderful podcast, The Slowdown), Jeanne Morel, Elisabeth Farrell, I could go on and on…


Kali for O:JA&L:          Do you have any upcoming readings?

Tanacea:          Not at this time. This year, I had two Zoom readings, one hosted by Peter Kline at the Bazaar Café and the other hosted by the Blue Whale Reading Series in Santa Barbara. While it is not the same as reading in person, it is still wonderful to be with my writing community. I look forward to the day we can gather together in person.


About the interviewer:
Kalireyna Streeby is an active-duty FC Chief Petty Officer in the United States Navy and a recent graduate of The University of Redlands.

Image: Portrait photograph courtesy of Kendra Tanacea.