Kelly Nelson: In July 2012, I was a Visiting Artist at the cultural center in my mother’s home town of New York Mills, Minnesota. My mother never said much about the place and never took us to visit. I found a family farm there, a family cemetery plot and people who remembered my mom and her family, including an uncle I had never met. Several people asked, “Did he die in prison?” I knew then that I had to find out about his life. And write about him.
RR: How has writing a lyric biography of your uncle personally impacted you?
KN: I’ve lived in nine states and Washington DC and never felt particularly connected to any one place. In learning about my mother’s family, I’ve come to find that I have deep roots in Otter Tail County, Minnesota. I also feel like I’ve extended my relationship with my mother (who died in 2007) by learning about her childhood—seeing where she lived and talking with her friends, cousins and classmates. And, on a very personal note, I met the man I’m dating while I was in my mother’s home town!
RR: What type of relationship do you see yourself having with your uncle, having never met him?
KN: He is my family secret, the disowned, black sheep outlaw. I am his biographer.
RR: Among your discoveries, did you find any similarities between yourself and your uncle?
KN: My uncle, while in prison, was given the Kuder Interest Survey, a test designed to help people pick a career path (not so successful in his case). My uncle scored highest in Artistic, Persuasive and Literary. While I’m not as persuasive as he was (able to talk guys into committing crimes with him), we share artistic and literary interests. I know we both play/played guitar and read/read a lot.
RR: How has your experience as a cultural anthropologist influenced your writing?
KN: Having been trained in field work, I was open to taking on this book project that requires a lot of research. I’ve spent hours in archives locating newspaper articles about my uncle’s crimes. I have visited all of the prisons in Minnesota where he did time and I’ve been interviewing people who knew him. And I suppose being an anthropologist predisposes me to want to understand a life so different from my own.
RR: Your blog is full of erasure poems using a range of texts including junk mail, Charles Bukowski poems and a memoir by Jeannette Walls. What draws you to this form?
KN: After I acquired my uncle’s 500-page prison record, I turned to found poetry to provide me with tools for incorporating language from these documents into my poems. One of my favorite techniques is erasure: removing words so that the remaining words create a new text. For example, my poem “His Mother Writes the Warden” was created through erasure using a letter my grandmother wrote to the warden. I love the surprise and challenge of uncovering new messages this way.