Local poet Candice Kelsey writes her life story into neighborhood landscapes

By Meera Sastry

For her new book of poetry, Candice Kelsey drew inspiration from favorite Westside landmarks and eateries

Candice Kelsey has made a home on the Westside for over twenty years, all the while working as a teacher and honing her craft.

Her book of poetry “Still I Am Pushing” released with Finishing Line Press earlier this year. Kelsey’s work deals with the complexities of family relationships, the realities of growing up as a woman and much of it is illuminated by the backgrounds of Venice, Santa Monica and Marina del Rey.

Although she has felt a lifelong affinity for the craft, Kelsey turned to writing poetry seriously about five years ago. A transplant from Ohio to West LA, Kelsey was living here when a series of personal events prompted her to begin writing. When a friend suggested that she consider publishing her work, she produced over 400 poems. And the rest, as Kelsey says, is history.

The local poet has been published in literary journals such as Poets Reading the News and Poet Lore, and received awards, including an Honorable Mention in Common Ground’s 2019 Poetry Contest and a nomination for a 2019 Pushcart Prize.

“Still I Am Pushing” — Kelsey’s debut book — gathers poems that deal with a range of subjects both personal and contemporary and structures them in a way that makes for a compelling whole. The collection is primarily divided into sections that correspond to the arc of a Greek tragedy with choruses, antistrophes (a section of an ancient Greek choral ode) and a designated catharsis. Kelsey likens some of the dynamics she sought to capture to this mode of drama.

“When I was thinking about expressing what it’s like to be a daughter and what it’s like to be a mother, I realized that there’s such an element of tragedy in it, in the ancient Greek sense,” Kelsey says. “I see echoes of these great stories in all of our attempts to navigate family and identity.”

The personal nature of her work is the standout quality of her poems. The emotions expressed in her poems are not always neat or complimentary, but the whole collection rings with empathy, as Kelsey digs into her past experiences while acknowledging the cyclical nature of her relationships — mother, daughter, wife, sister.

“This collection is really about reconciliation,” Kelsey says. “Naming what’s happened, addressing it, moving forward and understanding all of the people it speaks to.”

There are also sections that connect to the present; one is titled “Facebook” and several feature excerpted text messages. Not only is “Still I Am Pushing” grounded in time, but in place as well. West Los Angeles establishments like the Cafe in Marina del Rey and the restaurant Ashland Hill in Santa Monica lend themselves to poems’ titles, and Kelsey makes many more small references to the landscapes that shaped the years of her life in which she wrote these pieces.

“I want to write a letter as reckless as the cars metal rip tides speeding over our hill / this Dog Town street,” Kelsey writes in “Married Love, Part II,” “I want to write our house watching fig lemon and avocado trees frame a sprawling vista / the Marina… I can’t write back steps we climb one last time… only the Jacaranda knows.”

“In many ways,” Kelsey says, “I feel like I grew up in Venice and in Santa Monica. So many of my pivotal moments of growth and challenge and sadness occurred there, in restaurants or on the bridges of the canals. Place is so integral to both experience and memory, and I really wanted to honor that.”

These concrete details give the work a sense of reality, and Westside readers especially will be able to identify with the tensions she explores between the iconic landscapes of Los Angeles and the struggles of building a life here. As Kelsey says, “It’s rough to try to make your way in Los Angeles. It’s kind of a love-hate relationship, that raw struggle in the midst of paradise.”

Another prominent aspect of Kelsey’s life is her work as a teacher at the girls’ campus of Yeshiva University High School of Los Angeles.

“I’m definitely more in tune with the creative potential of my students,” Kelsey says. “It’s made me more sensitive and more probing. For years, I didn’t use my voice, and I really want my students to not only find their authentic voices, but to use them for good.”

Kelsey continues to write. Some of her most recent work, she says, expands upon her ideas of place to discuss the other places she’s lived before, including Hong Kong. She plans to publish a chapbook called “The Pier House,” which is also largely set on the Westside — focused on the loss of a home in Ocean Park — and is working on a project with the O, Miami Poetry Festival. Just as writing poetry has been a transformative experience for Kelsey, she hopes that her work can be a constructive and reassuring experience for her readers, given the state of the world today.

“Each person has a collection of poetry in them, even if it never manifests,” Kelsey says. “Reading and writing and acknowledging poetry is the opposite of destruction and suffering. It’s life and it’s hope and it’s connection; it’s what this world so badly needs.”

Copies of “Still I Am Pushing” are available at finishinglinepress.com/product/still-i-am-pushing-by-candice-kelsey. Visit candicemkelseypoet.com to learn more.