Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Candice Kelsey’s “Toward an Arctic Circle” is #269 in the never-ending series called BACKSTORY OF THE POEM

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***Candice Kelsey’s “Toward an Arctic Circle” is #269 in the never-ending series called BACKSTORY OF THE POEM where the Chris Rice Cooper Blog (CRC) focuses on one specific poem and how the poet wrote that specific poem.  All BACKSTORY OF THE POEM links are at the end of this piece. 

Can you go through the step-by-step process of writing this poem from the moment the idea was first conceived in your brain until final form?
I often collect phrases that I find unique in sound or ambiguity and see just how fecund they can be. Should they sprout in my imagination over time, I watch the process until it's time to sit down and play with them. That's what happened with the descriptions of the Arctic Circle I was reading about in a National Geographic magazine. Something about "club moss" and "naked chive" took root for me. 

Soon I widened my focus and came to see the geography of Northern America somewhat paralleled my complex relationship with my mother, especially the recent text messages she had been sending me. It's one of life's inscrutable pursuits -- making sense of family -- so once I made the connection, the poem wrote itself. (Below Right:  Candice with her mom.  Copyright by Candice Kelsey)

Where were you when you started to actually write the poem?  And please describe the place in great detail. I wrote this poem while sitting in the local fish shop where I live -- an odd place for a vegetarian, I know, but they have Pacifico on tap, lovely rice and beans, and just enough kitsch decor to forbid me to take myself too seriously. I kept squeezing more and more limes into my beer until finally, my thumbs were sticky on my phone as I typed into the Notes app and imagined wild salmon rather than the fried cod the firemen at the next table were scarfing down. (Below Left:  The Local Fish Shop where Candice wrote "Toward an Arctic Circle")

What month and year did you start writing this poem? I believe this poem was written in the spring because I was trying to get to LMU on time to teach my freshman writing class. Although, in Los Angeles one never really notices distinct times of year.

How many drafts of this poem did you write before going to the final? (And can you share a photograph of your rough drafts with pen markings on it?) This poem had three distinct drafts, the final of which was sent to members of my writing group. Their notes are attached. (Right:  Candice Kelsey's rough draft of her poem "Toward an Arctic Circle"  Credit and Copyright by Candice Kelsey)

Were there any lines in any of your rough drafts of this poem that were not in the final version?  And can you share them with us? I definitely changed the title of the poem from "My Mother Watches Dr. Phil" to 'Toward an Arctic Circle." Also, I added a bit more about why the text message about Dr. Phil upset me while also exploring a more contemplative tone as opposed to an indignant one by adding these lines:

"and succumb

to my marrowed guilt

for hesitating

to accept this apology"

What do you want readers of this poem to take from this poem? I hope there's at least one reader (daughter or mother, or both) who can identify with the all-encompassing yet often elusive quest to connect with one's own flesh and blood.

Which part of the poem was the most emotional of you to write and why?  Definitely, I felt deep sadness in the final two stanzas:

I know now

we’ve gone too far –

these dunes

a desert mirage warmth

mere Ice Age relic –

so I tell it

thirty-five miles north

of us:

this place

I call

our Arctic Circle.

Has this poem been published before?  And if so where? It was first published by Tiny Seed Press

and featured in my collection Still I am pushing 

Toward an Arctic Circle


There are lines 

my mother and I

cross borders 

we step past 

where flesh and bone 

meet cranberry 

and clubmoss  

outside the truth 

I like to call

our lower forty-eight.


We paddle 

sometimes motor 

up the Wild 

Salmon River 

toward the Boreal 

Forest I know

as the northern limits

of mother and



Like today 

when she texted

I’m watching Dr. Phil

between caribou 

and birch 

and now I realize

I involved you 

in adult issues when

you were just 

a teen forgive me



I mark time 

to the rhythm of 

the Great Kobuk dunes

while she inhales 

the onion portage its 

naked chive 

growth glowing like

the screen 

of my phone.


I’m watching

the white ruffs 

chalk caribou 

bulls' noble antlers

I read their

autumn pelage verse

and succumb to

my marrowed guilt


for hesitating

to accept this apology

not because 

she’s thirty years late 

to this continual night of

dwarf shrub 

silence –

but simply 

because her epiphany 

came from 

an unlicensed tabloid 


who peddles failed

weight loss 



I know now

we’ve gone too far.

These dunes 

a desert mirage 


mere Ice Age relic

so I tell it

thirty-five miles north 

of us:

this place 

I call 

our Arctic Circle.

CANDICE KELSEY's debut book of poetry, Still I am Pushing, just released with Finishing Line Press. Her poetry has appeared in Poets Reading the News, Poet Lore, and others while her micro-chapbook The Pier House is available from the Origami Poetry Project. She won the 2019 Two Sisters Writing's Steve Carr Contest, received Honorable Mention for Common Ground's 2019 Poetry Contest, and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Currently, she is working with the O, Miami Poetry Festival on an exciting project. An educator in Los Angeles for 21 years, she is devoted to working with young writers. (Right: Candice Kelsey giving a public reading. Copyright by Candice Kelsey)

Visit Candice at

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