Q&A with Kelly Cressio-Moeller: ‘Shade of Blue Trees’ and the Presence of the Body

Alana Frances Baer

Kelly Cressio-Moeller’s debut poetry collection, Shade of Blue Trees (79 pages; Two Sylvias Press), consists of thirty-seven poems, broken into four parts. Cressio-Moeller has long established herself as both a visual artist and writer, with her widely published poetry earning nominations for the Pushcart Prize, Best New Poets, and Best of the Net awards. Having spent most of her life in San José, California, Cressio-Moeller draws heavily from California terrain. She points to the heavy knots of human relationships, reminding us that love comes with grief. And she writes of and from daily life, mapping the jagged edges of relationships onto the soft body of nature. Her book’s title is fitting: Cressio-Moeller writes of longing and loss, coloring language blue.

Cressio-Moeller, whose poetry was published in Issues 101 and 110, spoke to ZYZZYVA about Shade of the Blue Trees via email.

ZYZZYVA: I was struck by your descriptions of nature. As a native Californian myself, much of the imagery felt recognizable to me. I would love to hear about how setting informs your poetry. What does California mean to you?

KELLY CRESSIO-MOELLER: Except for four years when I lived in Germany, I’ve spent my whole life in Northern California; it’s my touchstone, primary place of reference, home. Many of the poems in this book began (or were finished) in Big Sur; its topography, location, mood, and magic are important cogs in its moving parts. I attended poetry retreats there with Amber Coverdale Sumrall for over ten years and can say with certainty I would not have a book without that time, space, and silence. When I am depressed, grieving the loss of beloveds, in doubt of what to do, I turn to nature. She’s not always nurturing or peaceful (she can be that, too), but she gets me where I need to be. She’s my healer, truth-teller, soothsayer.

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Z: I was left reeling at the line: “shoulders that ride so high on worry, / they mistake themselves for wings.” Do you see yourself, and those close to you, in scenes of nature?

KCM: I appreciate you quoting from the opening poem “Portent with Moonset & Blackbirds,” a poem written from start to finish (in about thirty minutes, utterly rare for me) at one of the last Big Sur retreats in 2017. After my parents passed, I would feel them closest to me in nature. A strange thing as while they loved nature, they did so from a distance, via the television but not so much to travel to or be within it. Yet I’m convinced now they shapeshift into deer, geese, butterflies, etc. and visit me while I’m at the coast. An overwhelming presence, undeniable.

Z: The body—its presence and its absence—is a connective tissue of the collection. One of my favorite lines from “Panels from a Celestial Autumn” reads: “Grieving is also a form of dying.” Can you tell me about that line?

KCM: I’m happy this resonated with you; it was one of the last poems I wrote for the book. The “panel” is an invented form and this one is about the body: five sections, each section a new and separate voice. It focuses on the body’s trials, what it can and cannot heal from: injury, abuse, illness, addiction, and aging. I wrote a good deal of the book while I was mourning the death of my parents who died a year and a half apart. And after they passed, I needed two major surgeries with extra-long recovery times, then my beloved dog passed away and a few months later my eldest son was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. A long stretch of time spent wading through and being carried by loss, and I didn’t shy away from it; I rode the waves of grief the best I could. The line you quote refers to the depression that comes with grieving, the bottomless sadness. I was not myself and, in some way, a part of me disappeared or was forever altered. To be sure, one must grieve, absolutely, but there is a time to lay it down or transform it within you.

Z: Opening your collection is a quote from Virginia Woolf: “Death is woven in with the violets.” In A Night of One’s Own, you write, “I take odd comfort in reading even pages. / Virginia wrote only in purple ink that even the Ouse could not fade.” Can you speak on Woolf and what her writing means to you?

KCM: Before the book was called Shade of Blue Trees, it was Chiaroscuro with a different arc and structure containing more poems than it should, with another epigraph. When I restructured the book and changed the title, I happened to be re-reading Woolf’s The Waves, a favorite book. You can literally open to any page and be blown away by her brilliant imagery, inventiveness, economy, and precision of line. On this read, that line leveled me, and I knew it was the right epigraph—it beautifully summarizes the book in seven words. If I were to get another tattoo, this would be it. It’s my favorite part of the book.

Z: Panels from a Deepening Winter” ends with “white,” leading into the next poem, “White Stones,” seamlessly. Before “Meditations on Disappearing,” your poem titled “Threshold” closes with “as I disappear into the sea.” How did you decide on the order of the collection?

KCM: The wonderful Diane Seuss was instrumental in editing this version of the book. When she sent me off to axe and reorder, one thing helped more than anything anyone has ever told me about organizing a manuscript: her idea to “build a section”. I don’t know why this clicked for me, perhaps because I work best when breaking things down into smaller pieces to avoid becoming overwhelmed. Whatever the reason, it lit my fire and the process was both practical and intuitive. My goal was to create something seamless, where each poem had a purpose for being there, in that placement—that the poems spoke to each other but did not talk over each other. I hope that translates to readers.

Z: Thinking about the line “A book finished inside me,” I would love to hear how it feels to have your first book published and out in the world.

KCM: I am incredibly grateful and delightfully shocked it finally worked out. It has been a long haul, of writing, submitting, tearing down, putting together, pruning, polishing, finding the right eyes. For me, having a book in the world wasn’t “a” dream but the dream. I love that she is out and about with the possibility to be read, shared…but also quite terrified, too. My deepest hope is readers will connect with her.

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