Today, we have an opportunity to talk to Kelly Hanwright. Kelly Hanwright has written the book, The Locust Years , a poetic memoir about being raised by an untreated schizophrenic. First, let me thank you for joining me. I appreciate you giving me your links and I want to share those with our readers.
That is great. For our readers, I want to provide your back page bio:
Kelly Hanwright is a poet, teacher, dog trainer and self-proclaimed rogue living in the beautiful Smoky Mountains. She loves her life with the man who helped restore its meaning. She pinches herself to make sure she’s not dreaming every day that she gets to pass on the magical, healing gift of language to her high school students. A Best-of-the-Net and two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, she plans to continue both devouring and publishing poetry. Work has appeared in Lady Literary Magazine, Birmingham Arts Journal, SoulLit, Heart of Flesh Literary Journal, American Diversity Report, and more.
This book is part of your personal journey. What led you to start writing as a part of your recovery?
As long as I can remember, I have always gravitated toward writing. Words, rhymes, and wordplay have always fascinated me. But I really began to rely on writing as a helpful tool in my teens. My mother’s main delusion was that my father was possessed. In my early teens, we moved out and life was even harder with just me and her, because then she began scrutinizing me all the time the way she had done my father. I also noticed more and more that something just wasn’t right with her. For instance, she would get mad at me if I tried to take a shower. She yelled all the time, over everything, and really that was nothing new, but since we now lived in a smaller area I was more often trapped with her.
Feeling trapped like that, I imagine writing gave you a voice?
I began journaling just to process everything that was going on. I also learned that although I never could get a word in edgewise or explain anything to her while she was in her extreme panic state, I could communicate more successfully by writing her a letter, which allowed her to calm down and think about what I was trying to say. Finally, my 8th grade English teacher taught us some poetry and I found that I strongly identified with using metaphor to describe the indescribable. I have pretty much been writing poetry ever since.
So, you wrote poetry around your own journey. At what point did you decide that it was something you wanted to publish and share?
Honestly, The Locust Years is the first book I really considered publishing. That book represents the 15 year journey of healing I have been on since my mother’s death and my entry into therapy where I was diagnosed with complex PTSD. The inspiration to put the poems I wrote over this time period together and publish as a collection came from knowing that I could help other people, raise awareness, and even just stand in solidarity. I know I am not the only kid to ever grow up with a parent who has an undiagnosed mental illness. I know my mother was not the only person with mental health problems who was terrified that if anyone found out about her struggles, she would be committed to some horrible institution and be stigmatized for life. And I know that fellow C-PTSD sufferers need to see that healing is possible. If there’s been one thing I’ve had to learn, it’s that healing is a journey, not a destination. So I guess to really answer the question, I have to say that I get inspired when I think I can create a book can really make a difference.
Do you have other hobbies that maybe provide an outlet for your message and do they ever play into your writing?
Oh my goodness, I have so many hobbies! I’ll try to focus on my favorites. I play the guitar. I always wanted to and kept putting off learning. Then my dad gave me his guitar on his deathbed. I figured that was a sign. I took 4-5 lessons til I could pick up the sound, and haven’t looked back since. I’ve even started writing a few songs! I also have picked up painting in recent years. I love art, and it feels very satisfying to create something original! Finally, I have always loved the outdoors, and this year have hiked pretty hardcore. I hiked all winter, even some in 30 degree weather, which I was really proud of because I hate the cold! Some friends and I are planning to do a section of the Appalachian Trail in October.
Do my hobbies play into my writing? I’d have to say yes. It has been my experience that all creative endeavors feed each other. Probably #1 though is hiking. The outdoors gives me endless new inspirations. It always has. There’s even a poem in my book titled “Relationships with Trees!”
What advice would you give someone who wants to be a writer?
Let it flow. Don’t judge what you write. Don’t develop some mental block about what it “should” be. Just let whatever your soul wants to say flow out authentically.
That is good advice. So often writer's don't write because.... and what comes after the "because" often is not something they can change or overcome. What is the best advice you have ever been given as a writer?
Any advice given to me by poet John C. Mannone. Everything he has ever told me has always been high quality advice, and I have gotten to where I follow his suggestions like gospel! He even helped me with the storyline for The Locust Years.
I have met John on a few occasions. He is certainly a wise and gifted writer. Do you write full-time or around another job? How do you schedule your time to write?
In addition to writing, I also teach high school English.
That is right. I remember in the afterward of your book you mention one of your passions is helping students see the power of words and language. That is a beautiful goal. You must reallylove the opportunity to teach?
I absolutely love it. I write when I can, and I pray over my projects so that I know if I really need to prioritize something, but as a general rule, my students have priority during the school year.
How many hours a day do you write?
I don’t really write every day. I do better in spurts. I wrote maybe 3-4 hours a day when I was double-timing it to finish The Locust Years, but now that it’s done I’ve only been brainstorming or freewriting a few things here and there.
What is your favorite part about writing?
Getting things off my mind!
Beyond it being a type of therapy, what does literary success look like to you?
Helping others or making a difference through what I’ve written.
I'd ask if you are involved in any writing groups, but I know I am in one with you. Are you involved in any other writer groups?
I am a member of the Chattanooga Writers’ Guild for 13 years now and have served on the board for 2 of those. I lead a group called Rogue Christian Writers Anonymous and participate in John C. Mannone’s Ekphrastic Group.
And, of course, let's give a shout out to the one we both belong too.
Most recently Calvin Beam’s Crazy Buffet which I am loving! It’s a super fun group and I have already learned a lot of new things.
And you are very active as a writer?
I attend as many CWG workshops as I can, and up until COVID, was a regular participant in KB Ballentine’s Open Mic at the Hamilton Place Barnes & Noble which is open to the public. Being a Guild member and participating in all these activities, getting to know other writers and strategies - it’s all so extremely helpful. I stumbled onto the Guild in college when I met John, and he invited me to a critique group meeting. If I hadn’t joined the Guild, I don’t think I would be a writer now. I am fairly certain I wouldn’t be published or nominated for 2 Pushcarts and a Best of the Net award! You just need that support and camaraderie, and for someone to share your journey and be like, your writing is important. Without that, you feel like, well what am I doing this for? Self doubt is a powerful thing. I know wonderful writers and poets from my college days who aren’t currently writing and it’s so sad because the world needs them and they don’t even know it. Creatives are so important to the ecosystem of humanity, but the world is so hard on us. If we don’t protect and actively preserve that creative impulse, life will attempt to beat it out of us!
And I can’t talk about writing groups without also giving nods to Open Mic at the Well friends, Nancy Lyneé Woo’s Rise & Shine Daily Writing Hour, and Tresha Faye Haefner’s Poetry Salon - all of which have been highly instrumental in nurturing and growing The Locust Years into what it is today.
That is great! I remember being in college and open mike nights were a favorite for me. I need to get back to attending one. Please tell us about your current release.
The Locust Years is a poetic memoir. It is written in the form of poetry because that’s literally the only way the words would come out. I guess ultimately, one way to describe it is that it is the heart and soul of my journey with Complex PTSD - from developing it through growing up in a household where I always had to be ready to fight demons and humans, to being diagnosed and beginning the healing work and forgiving my mother. I always say finding my voice saved my life. If I hadn’t been able to write all that out of me, there’s no telling what would have happened.
Can you provide us with a small exerpt?
As you might imagine, there were a lot of surreal moments in my life. This happened when I was about 10 or 11.
Why are we takin’ my daddy to a preacher?
To cast the demons out of him.
I have to keep pinching myself
to make sure I’m awake.
We’re going to a man who
really has cast out demons?
I stare out the window,
crank up my Walkman.
As we enter,
I watch Daddy closely.
If he’s really possessed,
he won’t be able to sit
in this room
in this church,
talk to this preacher.
I am stone silent;
holding my breath.
Daddy enters calmly
without foaming at the mouth
or passing out.
Do you believe in God…?
Have you been saved…?
Have you made Jesus Lord of your life…?
After Daddy affirms,
the preacher explains to Mama
a Christian cannot be possessed.
is not showing any signs.
Mama decides the preacher
is possessed too.
For having driven halfway
across Texas to get here,
the meeting is short.
On the walk to the parking lot,
I gather an impenetrable forcefield around me
like a coat to block out the wind.
As our suburban hurtles over bright freeways
I turn up Martina and wish myself
into the black sky looming above.
I remember this one in your book. By the way, I set my review below the interview. What exciting story are you working on next?
Next I want to do something fun - although it is really a bit existential too. I can’t help myself from deep contemplation, it seems! The new project is called Twisted. It intends to explore different ways our realities are really seen through a prism. So far it has 3 planned sections: Darkly Twisted, Naturally Twisted, and Epically Twisted, although I’m not sure I will keep that last one the way it is. The original idea was to explore epic characters and how they relate to humans, but I’m not sure that isn’t a whole different book. I’m more of a pantser than anything in that I let the story tell me what it wants to be, so I guess we’ll just have to wait and see!
One more time, where can someone go to purchase your book?
Add your links here again
Please share it with someone you know if you think it would help and inspire them because that’s really the reason I decided to publish it! If you like it or it helps you, I will also deeply appreciate if you leave a review.
I purchased a copy of The Locust Years to review. Opinions are my own.
The Locust Years
by Kelly Hanwright
Kelly says that in her childhood she "created the thickest possible fog in order to protect me from an unlivable reality." This auto-biographical book, and it really is a book more than a collection of poems. It is a life story, told through well written poetry and organized for the reader to walk alongside Kelly. As someone who has worked with mental health patients, this work brought me to both tears and smiles as I saw the life of a household through the eyes of a child. The lines of poetry evoke deep emotion and do what great poetry always can - place you in the moment portrayed in a small turn of phrase.
"I didn't think shadows made noise until Mama and Daddy started shouting in the dark."
"Mama, I want to go to school. I am not asking for the world, just a little part for myself."
"The art of your grand design was stealing while pretending to give, all the time making us feel the weight of your great sacrifice."
I read the book in two sittings. Each page led me to the next. I expected to find the book a request for pitty or a declaration of shallow restoration. What I found was so much greater. I won't ruin it for you. Instead, I will point to the opening Bible quote, "And I will restore unto you the years that the locust devoured. (Joel 2:25).