Faculty Shout-Out by Dr. Divya Victor: Kelsey operates like a serious poet; Kelsey is a serious poet. She is singular in her approach to what is clearly a gift for lineated forms, sensual and remarkably intelligent verse. I believe in what Kelsey has to say about our society because I know that she has what it takes to say it.”
Faculty Shout-Out by Professor Jeff Wray: Kelsey is a great example of a student coming to MSU, having a multitude of experiences and developing in many different ways beyond the classroom. Perhaps most importantly, Kelsey’s creative work has both reflected and is reflective of her overall growth. She is involved and engaged. She is an artist. She works at it. She struggles with it. She creates. She is a thoughtful and wonderful emerging young artist.”
How would you describe your time as an English or Film Studies major at MSU?
Encouraging and life changing. High-school Kelsey didn’t even want to go to college. If not for my family pushing me into it, I wouldn’t have; I have no idea who I would be if I hadn’t. But, being an English Major, I’ve had the privilege of working with so many brilliant people (students, professors, visiting authors and filmmakers). I’ve been able to write and re-work several complete poetry portfolios and four feature-length scripts with my favorite professors. I’ve had opportunities to read my work in front of generous crowds, which I never would have done in high school. Also, the film professors helped me realize that creating a film is much more achievable than I used to believe, and they’ve given me the resources to help me do so. For example, I learned how to use a camera here! I’m not a Film Studies major, but I’ve been able to film and produce several short films alongside other students! Now, when I watch a show or movie, I go “hey, I know how they did that, and I can do that too.” Or, if I don’t know how, I know I can still shoot Pete Johnston an email and ask him about it. All of this to say: My time as an English major has been thrilling and motivating. I’ve grown as person, a writer and a creator, and I know I can still turn to the CAL community for help.
Which classes, instructors, or experiences particularly stand out for you and why? How did they prepare you for the next phase of your life?
First and foremost, any class or interaction with Divya Victor always stands out. I’ve worked with Divya for two years and I cannot imagine my college experience without her. I met her in ENG 200: Creative Writing Community—she was a guest speaker. The space that she created for our class to exist in for that hour was nothing like I’d ever experienced. So, when I got a chance to be in her Intro to Poetry class, I was over-the-moon.
If I remember this correctly, she once said that she felt I should have been in Advanced Poetry instead of Intro Poetry. Since I was unable to make that switch in my schedule, she used her free time to cultivate a list of poetry from diverse poets so that I could read and adopt techniques from them. Then, when I told her about a narrative-poetry project I wanted to pursue, she told me about “Diving into the Wreck,” a poem by Adrienne Rich. After class one day, at a time when I barely knew her, she sat with me in the gazebo by the library (in the freezing cold), to help me understand “Diving into the Wreck” so that I could use Rich’s techniques to approach my own project. Since then, we’ve had regular meetings to discuss poetry, Claudia Rankine, Douglas Kearney, and life in general.
On an educational level, what I love about her teaching style is that I’ve never heard her say that anybody’s work is bad or wrong. Instead, I hear her say: “This is good work and what other ways can we think about this? How can we develop this idea? What if we approach it from this angle instead?” Unlike my experience with teachers in high school, I’ve always felt as if Divya and I are working together towards a common goal, and I’ve always felt that she has had a genuine desire to understand what I’m trying to do with my writing (or with my goals in life) so that she can find a way to help me get there. She has encouraged me to share my work with the community by applying to events like LiveLit or the CW awards. She’s helped me apply for scholarships and submit to writing competitions that I never thought I could win. She’s challenged me to consider ideas regarding identity and politics that I’ve never considered before, and, overall, she’s helped me grow and recognize my value in more ways than I can get away with explaining here.
On a personal level, I always feel seen when I speak with her (and I can only hope I return the favor). One experience that’s really stuck with me is back when I was in her Advanced Poetry class. My grandmother died over winter break and, despite returning to school as if nothing happened, I wasn’t well. I’d only known Divya for a semester by then, but she noticed that something was off with me when no one else did, and she made sure I knew that she was there for me if I needed anything—not as a social nicety, but as a way of making it clear that she cared for me on human level.
I’m crying now as I try to sum up my un-summarize-able experience with Divya, so I’ll just say that I am grateful to have her in my life, that I hope to continue to learn and grow with her, and that I’m always looking forward to our conversations where I walk away feeling more energized and inspired than did when I walked in.
My time with Jeff Wray (who, according to my mother, might be my distant cousin) stands out immensely as well. I also met him in the Creative Writing Community class where he talked about his experience writing, filming, and producing his own short film. I had no intention of taking a screenwriting class if only because I felt discouraged after my experiences in high school, but the way he spoke to us in his lecture made me feel as if I could create something as cool as his short film. After the lecture was over, I talked to him for a bit—he encouraged me to take his screenwriting class next semester. Next semester rolled around, his class was full, but he kept his word and got me in the class. In that class, Jeff helped me work on my first feature-length script, and he said two things that I will always remember. 1. Writers are selfish, and that’s okay. 2. If the idea of writing your script about a certain topic scares you, lean into it. Write it. Not only did the latter piece of advice help me explore my writing style as I moved into my next few years of school, but I’ve found it to be a valuable piece of advice to apply to my life in general. If an activity or an event scares me, I try to lean it—that’s led to me getting a job at a research lab, I’ve leaned into friendships and relationships I thought I would lose and I’ve made them much stronger, I began public speaking again to the point of which I’m not as anxious when I read my work to other people anymore.
That piece of advice came full circle when I ran into Jeff at the Broad Art museum a few months ago (a common occurrence as I’m sure he could tell you) and asked if he’d still be willing to help me with my screenwriting projects. I don’t have an independent study or official class with him this semester, but Jeff has been kind of enough to take time out of his busy schedule (see: the sticky notes all over his desk) and dedicate that time to helping me with my latest screenwriting project. I’m forever grateful for that. That last thing I’ll say is that I don’t like checking my emails at all. But oftentimes, when I do check them, there’s a message from Jeff with notes for my script and a phrase of encouragement or appreciation that leaves me with a day-long feel-good feeling. Jeff’s a kind and caring person and professor; I’m ecstatic to work with him again and I hope that continues.
Special mentions: Swarnavel Pillai’s screenwriting class was not only a spiritual experience that fostered a small community between the people I took it with, but it also exposed me to different avenues I could take to produce and copywrite my screenplay. Pete Johnston’s cinematography class taught me how to work a camera, edit footage, and dissect cinematography—ultimately though, his passion for cinematography sparked a newfound passion inside of me. I haven’t taken classes from Robin Silbergleid, but our conversations are so encouraging and warm—she’s taught me a lot about communication and authorship, and her support has meant so much to me. I haven’t taken classes with Joshua Lam either, but we’ve been in correspondence during my senior year to discuss the Trickster Trope, as well as other facets of African American humor. He took time out of his day to help me, a person he didn’t know, find resources so that I could further explore the trope, and he met with me during his office hours—all of this to say, he is a very insightful, kind and supportive person who I’m happy to have met before graduating.
I could name every person I’ve learned from; the people in CAL are amazing and offer so much love and encouragement.
What advice would you give future English or Film Studies majors, based on your experiences in the department?
- If something scares you, try it. It might not be as scary as you think. In fact, it might be an experience that helps you grow as a person and a creator.
- If there is a professor you like (whether you’ve taken a class with them or not) and you want to work with them in some capacity outside of class, just ask! The worst that could happen is that they say no. But, if they say yes, you have a mentor, an ally and a friend.
- Prioritize yourself and your well-being. As an English or Film Studies major, you almost inevitably end up in a position where you have two eight-page papers, a presentation, a short-film, and script due in the week. I know it’s hard, but it’s necessary to find time to care for yourself. Ask for help and accommodations if necessary—again, the worst thing that could happen is that they say no.
- Some moments in life are going to feel so inevitably pointless. But if you can change your thoughts and frame those moments as an opportunity to learn/experience something new, you never know what might come out of that.
What coursework-related projects were/are you working on this year, and what interests or excites you about them?
For my capstone, I’m working on a thirty-page poetry portfolio with Divya wherein I explore my identity as a black woman, and wherein I experiment with the structure of poems. The thing I find most exciting about this project is watching it come together. Every week or so, I would go to Divya with a few small drafts and a lot of confusion in terms of what I could do with those drafts. But it was amazing to see how those drafts transformed into meaningful, heartfelt pieces over the semester. I’ve also been very interested by process of exploring what it means to be a black poet, and if blackness is still blackness when the poem is a tender exploration of a looking at flowers on a foggy morning, or if blackness is only blackness when it responds to the world’s socio-political state.
I’m also working on a dark comedy with Jeff (although, I don’t want to describe it quite yet). I’m excited by this project because it fulfills my need for comedy, and it gives me a chance to create strange characters and watch them interact which I’ve always found fascinating. Plus, I think the fun of screenwriting is being able to create these small but immersive, human moments, so I’m looking forward to that as I continue.
What are your hopes and aspirations, post-graduation?
This is a vague response, but all I want to do in life is create. I get this rush of adrenaline at the beginning of a project when I know something’s there and I’m trying to figure out what. And I get another rush at the end, when I see my mess of ideas come together in a cohesive way.
Right now, I have my heart set on writing and directing a TV show and/or a short film. But I hope to write many poetry books, a musical, maybe even a fictional podcast. I especially hope that the things I create help people feel seen, especially black girls who don’t have a lot of good representation in art. That would be invaluable to me.
Please reflect a bit on the strange experience of being a graduating senior during this moment of local and global crisis. What resources have been most useful to you in navigating this unprecedented situation?
At first, I was okay with the changes this situation has caused (cancelled events, online classes, self-isolation, etc.). Why? Well, two reasons: 1. Being the introvert that I am, I enjoy being alone. I thought self-isolation wouldn’t be a problem for me. 2. I’ll be honest with you: I didn’t want to attend graduation. I was going to attend regardless because I knew it would make my family and friends happy to see me on that stage, but I’ve never liked big, formal ceremonies, so I was okay with graduation being cancelled or postponed.
At the time of writing this, I think it’s my fifth or sixth week of quarantine. I cannot stress how deeply I miss being able to sit and write in the Broad Art Museum, or how much I miss the simplicity of being able to walk around the CAL office, talk with my professors, and, together, create a space with a very encouraging, exciting, and warm creative energy. I miss our in-person community, I mourn for the events that were cancelled, and I mourn for the idea of what my senior year would have been like under normal circumstances.
I know many of us have carried on as if nothing has changed except our ability to work from home, but it is okay to acknowledge that this is a weird and scary time. I’ve been talking with a few of my friends, and we’ve come to the conclusion that this experience is akin to grief for many of us. Personally, the physical sensations I experienced after my grandmother’s death have resurfaced – I’m grieving again. I think it was important for me to understand and accept that.
This is not a Sponsored answer, but despite mourning our in-person community, the resource I’ve found most useful is our community, as well as my friends and family back home. If I need anything, it’s clear that I can reach out to our community and ask for help. If nothing else, just remember: even if you feel alone, you’re not. Or, at least, you don’t have to be.