Kelsi Villarreal lives in Eugene, Oregon and works in mental health. On days off, she writes, bikes around town, or hangs out with her cats for her own mental health. Her work can be found in Neutrons/Protons, Vagabond City, and on the Oregon Poetic Voices website. Her poem "Theft" is included in the Spring 2016 Premium Edition of Carve. Preorder or subscribe by April 29 for special savings and discounts.
Is "Theft" part of a series or collection you are currently working on? If so, can you tell us about it?
"Theft" is part of my first manuscript, Loudly And From A Distance, which deals primarily with the aftermath of my sister's suicide in 2011.
"Theft" has a distinct form built around negation, as the speaker explores what did/didn't and could/couldn't have happened with a lost loved one. Did you start it by writing about the subject and eventually found the form, or did you begin the poem around the idea of the form?
"Theft" is about one of the only times my sister came to visit me away from home. Our relationship was never very good and didn't start to get better until the year before she died. It was a weird visit because it felt like we were closer than we'd been since childhood, and we talked a lot, but most of what she told me I didn't understand or didn't believe. I'm writing this from the NW district of Portland, which is the setting of the beginning of the poem, and even being here and remembering, I'm still unclear about what happened during that visit and what it meant. The earrings, for example: I'll never know if she really stole them but at some point I chose to believe she did. Is that unfair? I disapproved but was also really moved by the gift, and I don't think I ever told her.
So a couple of years ago we read Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson in my MFA program, and in the beginning of the book Carson has an appendix titled "Clearing Up The Question Of Stesichoros' Blinding by Helen" that is written in the form of a conditional proof, an "If, then" format that doesn't "clear up" anything, and which of course she makes even more uncertain by using an "If, either" format instead. It chases a resolution that can never be reached. A classmate suggested this form as a prompt, and almost immediately "Theft" came, form and content together.
How does your work in mental health influence or inspire your writing?
Working in facilities for people with mental health issues gives me interesting anecdotes that I try to record in poetry, but I often struggle with the urge to "say" something about mental health issues, which are complicated and resist any generalized insights. I also have the urge to include useful information about suicide and mental health in my poetry, but am trying to find a good balance without becoming a suicide prevention presentation. I dislike the cliche that working with people with mental health issues (or in assisted living, or with any disadvantaged population) increases your compassion and empathy; I think it does, but for me it has also starkly shown me the limits of my compassion and empathy, just like losing Roxanne brought me into the empathetic world of the grieving, but also shut me down in a lot of ways. I'm interested in exploring that further.