Douglas Kearney is a poet, performer, librettist, and a faculty member at California Institute of the Arts MFA in Creative Writing. He is the author of three volumes of poetry, Patter (Red Hen Press, 2014), The Black Automaton (Fence Books, 2009), Fear, Some (Red Hen Press, 2006) and several chapbooks.
He was interviewed by Danielle Legros Georges for Solstice Magazine in May 2015. Excerpts of the interview appear below.
DLG: It seems that you study language from all kinds of standpoints and perspectives, from the pedagogical to the linguistic, to language as visual object. These approaches were really fascinating to me as I read your work. What about your pursuits and your background have given you these various lenses through which to see and to build your poems. Where does this stuff come from?
frontispiece (designed by Douglas Kearney) of Patter
DK: There are a lot of different sources. My family loved to talk and signify and make bad jokes. My mother bought me a book when I was in high school called Get Thee to Punnery. It was all exercises and word games and that kind of thing. My parents also had this Reader’s Digest reference called Success with Words, which had etymologies, but they would have these microglossaries. There was Boontling, the invented argot in Boonville up in Mendocino country in California. They would have Appalachian and Boston Brahmin microglossaries. I would come across a series of words, and textures and meanings. I became obsessed with the Black American English microglossary. What’s funny is that later on I realized the problematic of it. All these other cultures and ethnic groups within the racial groups had regionally-specific microglossaries. You’d have Northeast, you’d have South-coastal, but Black English vernacular was just nationwide. There wasn’t a differentiation made between, say, people of Brooklyn and people in Louisiana and people in Southern California. Later that became an issue to me. I think that really crystallized for me as something to be alert to through listening to hip hop. When it became easier to find West Coast rappers, you suddenly realized oh not only do we sound different, but we’re using whole different words that you never would hear in De La Soul.
An interview with Richard Hoffman on the occasion of the 20th Anniversary Edition of his memoir Half the House, with a foreword by Louise DeSalvo.
An excerpt of Half the House is available here
How did the process of writing Half the House differ from your second book, Love & Fury? Do you see Love & Fury as a continuum of the first memoir? Do you plan to have a third book/trilogy?
Half the House was written over a period of sixteen years or so, little by little, writing and rewriting. I was terrified about saying many of the things in that book. First of all, there was the boyhood rape. No one had ever written about that before, at least so far as I know (I wasn’t even sure, for a long time, if that had ever happened to anyone else!) and the injunction not to tell of it was so deeply planted in me by the man who violated me, by the shame with which such silence is enforced, that I would quite literally shake and sweat when I thought of someone knowing this about me. You see, the shame is so isolating because you are taught that the rape is about you, and it is such an intimate violation that for a long time that seems true. It isn’t, of course, as the staggering number of victims coming to light, worldwide, shows. Now it’s possible to see the real nature and scope of sexual violence against kids, but back then I was in relative isolation, just sick with fear. So it took a long time.
Yay! Congratulations your book is out! What will you do next?
Now comes the uncomfortable part of art for many of us: commerce. After all that’s a huge aspect of the book—to get people to BUY it. In a world with literally millions of books that’s not an easy task.
I recently completed a second book of short stories, which I’m in the process of editing. Meanwhile, my first e- book, Sad Girls and Other Stories, is literally sitting there in the ether of American literature… and it’s lonely. It might even be lonelier sitting there in its tiny corner of the Internet than I was when I was sitting in my office late at night writing it.
See, you can’t just write a book. You have to find readers for it.
I spent a good amount of time watching, okay, stalking some of my favorite authors online to see how they did it. And then of course, I tried to emulate them. Here are some tips I can offer based on my first experience promoting a book:
My parents loved Sinatra. I recall many Saturday evenings in the mid-1980’s sitting in the backseat of my father’s Buick Regal as we drove slowly around what was called ‘the big circle’ listening to the radio program “Saturdays with Sinatra.” Both my parents sang along as I cringed, a teenager trapped in her parent’s back seat, wishing everything—this night, this drive, time in general—would move much faster.
Wendy: Why did you decide to submit “Calligraphy,” your winning piece, to the contest? Did you see it as a good fit for Solsticelitmag and our diverse voices theme?
Shanyn: “Calligraphy” is one piece from a collection of related stories that I’m currently writing. The collection focuses on the four Yu daughters as they grow up and struggle with cultural, generational, and personality divisions. That being said, I don’t really think about issues like diversity when I’m writing fiction. Academic writing is all about navigating the politics of discourse, and there’s a certain pleasure to engaging in that kind of thinking. But writing fiction gives me a break from that world and balances me out creatively. It’s nice to be able to tell a story that I feel needs to be told and just allow the narrative to go where it will.
One thing that has struck me about the movement toward diversification is the way that categories intended to mark difference can actually encourage monolithic and segregational thinking. Asian-American literature, like many hyphenated sub-genres, has become bracketed within a certain set of terms and conventions that can become restrictive. I think it’s important that formulations of difference do not end up mandating homogeneity within their boundaries and that these boundaries remain fluid enough to accommodate individuality of experience.
The fact that the Yu family is Chinese is important, certainly, but not more so than the story of a mother trying to come to terms with having a child who is so different from herself. Difference and diversity, therefore, exist on a number of levels in this story, and I was really gratified to have that recognized by the editors of Solsticelitmag and the contest judge.
David: At one point in your contest-winning essay “A Fable for Our Times”, you write, “The call for change did not die, but its message often seemed lost amid the static roar of greed and violence that filled the next forty years, until new leaders again stirred the conscience of the nation.” As someone who was active during the Civil Rights Movement, do you think there is a similar energy surrounding our nation’s current Black Lives Matter movement?
Michelle: Even at my advanced age, I still believe in the idea of moral progress. So it always comes as a brutal surprise to me that we are still having to assert the basic tenet that the life of a Black woman, child or man is exactly as valuable as the life of, say, Rick Perry. The unbearable conception of the Black body as merchandise, and thus disposable, is woven into the creation myth of this country. So the movement is always working to change something that runs deep and strong in our collective unconscious. I do believe that many people know right from wrong and want our nation to do the right thing, but most of us aren’t watching very closely. I wish that were not the case, but it is. So we desperately need the people who are watching to speak up, speak out, use bullhorns, make speeches, run for office, interrupt. Disrupt. We desperately need disruption. So, yes, I think Black Lives Matter is a desperately needed disruption, and in that sense it is a continuation of the same struggle, the same movement, calling our attention to contemporary forms of the same fundamental injustice.
You are currently pursuing a PhD in linguistics at Yale. In what ways do you see overlap between your work as a linguist and as a poet? In what ways do you see these as distinctly separate fields?
My linguistic work and my poetic career are both sourced in the same love of language. I am fascinated by what language is capable of, how it works, why it works the way it does. In linguistics I get to approach those questions within a scientific framework. Poetry allows me to explore the expressive and creative power of language from an aesthetic angle. But that is where they diverge. Dealing with formal semantics is dealing with proofs, logic, argumentation, and math. Dealing with poetry is like dealing with a bird, or some kind of living thing with a will of its own. So there is always more of a risk involved and consequently more of a payout.
And on the first day, God made snow. Day one of my MFA program at Lesley University got cancelled because of a blizzard. So much for auspicious beginnings.
And on the second day, I took selfies. In my hotel room. In the cab on the way to campus. In front of the Lesley University sign. The seven dollars cab-fare was, I discovered, a waste – I could’ve walked. But I didn’t know where the school was and I wasn’t about to go exploring. Hey, I’m from Trinidad: I don’t do snow. That shit is kryptonite to Caribbean people.
At 5:30AM on the Tuesday after Labor Day weekend, I woke up to three post-midnight text messages from friends who have the luxury of staying up late. Had I heard about the controversy regarding one of the contributors to Best American Poetry 2015? Did I read the recent blog post by this year’s guest editor, Sherman Alexie? Forgive me for sending if you’ve already heard, but . . . Scandal!
I read the articles by the glow of my phone as I brushed my teeth, as my husband made me coffee, as I ate my oatmeal, standing in the kitchen. By now, many tweets, essays, and posts have covered the incident. A white man from Indiana decided that he would make a point about race, art, and the publishing world by adopting a Chinese moniker: Michael Derrick Hudson donned the mask of some imagined Yi-Fen Chou.
I like to tell people who ask about my graduate schoolwork that I gave up the lucrative field of journalism to take up the more practical work of creative writing. Sometimes my audience gets the joke.
Graduate MFA students are keenly aware the odds are stacked against us. Very few, we are told, will go on to be classic authors like Ernest Hemingway or Flannery O’Connor. Not many will earn the cash of Stephen King or J.K. Rowling.
Still, Creative Writing MFA programs around the country have increased to near 300 from only 50 in in the 1970s, according to a 2007 article in The Atlantic by Edward J. Delaney: “Where Great Writers are Made: Assessing America’s top Graduate Writing Programs.”
Martha Collins is a poet, translator, the editor-at-large for Field Magazine, and an editor at Oberlin College Press. She is the author of the poetry volumes, Day Unto Day (Milkweed, 2014), White Papers (Pitt Poetry Series, 2012), Blue Front (Graywolf, 2006), Some Things Words Can Do (Sheep Meadow, 1998), A History of a Small Life on a Windy Planet (University of Georgia, 1993), The Arrangement of Space (Gibbs Smith, 1991) and The Catastrophe of Rainbows (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 1985). Her volume Admit One: An American Scrapbook is forthcoming in 2016.
She was interviewed by Danielle Legros Georges for SolLit-Diverse Voices in February 2015. Excerpts of this conversation appear below.
DLG: Do you consider your work experimental? How might you label your work if asked to do so?
MC: I have never thought about myself one way or the other, though it’s true that I’ve never particularly wanted to write like anybody else, and don’t think of myself as being influenced by others. Of course that’s not true: I’m as influenced as anyone else. But I have never identified with a school of experimental writing or any other school. One important turn, though, was doing an independent study with a student on John Ashbury. What I got from that slow reading experience was license, permission. Though the permission isn’t always easy to come by. One of the best lessons I have ever learned is to listen to my internal censors. When they say you can’t do that, they often point me in the direction I should go.
When Fomite Press accepted my first novel, A Free, Unsullied Land, a conversation began. Marc Estrin (editing) and Donna Bister (production) run Fomite along with a couple of interns, and the press is actively engaged with their authors every step of the way. Marc liked my characters and their story, but wanted more about the novel’s time and place, Chicago 1930. I was afraid of bogging the narrative down among facts, but got to work. Marc’s editing was detailed and dialogic through many drafts. Though I had already received excellent critique and advice on the novel from writing teachers Fred Schafer and Kevin McIlvoy, as well as the members of my own writing group, this final edit added a dimension that grounded the book in the real world and its history. Donna consulted me on all aspects of interior and cover design, something unheard of at bigger, more commercial houses.
How did you come to poetry?
I wrote animal stories as a child. In seventh and eighth grade classes, I’d read Tennyson and Poe, but then my friend Catherine Patterson sent me Sylvia Plath’s Ariel. Poems not in a textbook—and by a woman! I was hooked.
In college at the University of Virginia, I took two poetry workshops with Greg Orr—he was an encouraging and intuitive teacher. After graduation I worked in Europe, and became a member of a woman’s poetry group in Paris. I earned an M.A. in creative writing at Johns Hopkins (at that time a one year program) but I was not mature or savvy enough yet to teach myself how to make better poems. Eight years later, I foolishly enrolled at the University of Delaware because the graduate director said he’d “count” my M.A. if I passed Delaware’s M.A. literature exam. I did pass, by a slim margin I’m sure, but the process of studying for it made me see that the degree won’t matter if the work is not good, and good work in my case would take more time. Today I advise my students to see formal education as buying time. Anyway, I asked the same graduate director if I could start the Ph.D. clock over and he said no, so I applied to University of Maryland, which ended up being a better place for me anyway.
Yesterday in Brooklyn, NY I saw young mothers strolling their own children, and Jamaican women strolling other women’s children. Mothers and nannies walked, did errands, negotiated cease fires between siblings, bartered lollipops for patience, tickled and explained the teaming stimuli of the surround.
I thought of the ease with which people, beginning as strangers to each other, proceed to bend and twist, adapting like a tree to the turns and swallows of the river alongside its bank, reaching toward the nourishing light. We reach beyond our strangeness and otherness toward familiarity, love and intimacy. We want to insinuate ourselves into family, village or social group.
For over two years I’ve been researching and writing a poetry collection about sex-trafficking and objectification issues in America. When I give poetry readings there is always at least one person, if not more, from the audience who comes up to me and asks: “Why are you writing about this issue?” What I’ve discovered is, they’re really asking, “Are you a trafficking survivor?” I answer truthfully, “I am not.”
In the days since the massacre at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, I’ve been mostly silent, watching my mouth, and my mind, while others speak. I’ve felt the need to speak, because I certainly have feelings about what happened: rage and despair about the virulence of racism in this country. But I’ve had to think hard about what I could say that might not be primarily about my need to be heard.
I am a white person living in the South. I was born and raised in the South. Until I was 10 it was a Jim Crow South. My parents, products of the culture in which they’d been raised, held racists views. They taught me, by example, to believe I was part of a defeated nation, the Confederacy. Segregated bathrooms and water fountains puzzled my small-child self–what could skin color possibly have to do with cleanliness?–but because I had no contact with people of color, my bewilderment was in the abstract.
I feel for Rachel Dolezal. I really do. When the strange saga broke and blanketed the news I couldn’t help but identify with her a little. It’s the story of a woman who craves acceptance from a community she doesn’t belong to, goes to extremes to find it, and inevitably goes too far. It’s a plot we’ve all read before. Rachel Dolezal lied, of course, and alienated the same culture she hoped to become a part of. But the need that first put her on that path, I feel it too.
When I met the man I would eventually marry, a beautiful man from India, life became complicated. There are the vast cultural differences between me and my husband’s parents and extended family. There are verbal and non-verbal barriers that we chip away at, but will never fully destroy.
June was quite a month for race relations in the United States. Hard to believe at the beginning of the month we were talking about the pool party in McKinney, Texas, where officers were called to a scene that quickly intensified and turned into chaos. Next, we talked (at length) about Rachel Dolezal, the woman who was born white but lives as a black woman. She gave us a whole new definition of the “authentic self.” In a podcast with host Marc Maron, our president used the N-word in the course of the interview (in a perfectly acceptable way, I might add). Then there was Charleston, South Carolina, where nine worshippers were gunned down at a prayer meeting at Emanual Africa Methodist Episcopal Church.
KA: First, congratulations on winning the 2015 Maine Literary Award for Poetry. I know you’ve won several other awards as well. How does getting this kind of recognition affect your writing or sense of yourself as a poet?
BS: This is an interesting question because certainly winning an award is a boost to confidence, and it makes spending so much time writing seem like it has some value for someone beyond oneself. I am grateful for every bit of recognition I’ve received. But I’m also aware that awards involve a lot of chance and luck and grace. It’s a great gift to win some recognition, but it’s important to remember how many great books are out there not getting recognized.
And of course, poems come from some place deeper than public recognition, some deeper need and passion or vision, which is why people can continue to write with or without recognition. The work is really all we have; recognition comes and goes and follows currents beyond anyone’s control. Also, every poem is a new venture (hopefully) that we don’t know how to write, so we have to be a beginner all over again. Past recognition maybe helps a writer feel like the effort is worth it. But the effort is still necessary.
DF: In your craft essay “One Story, Two Narrators” included in the anthology SolLit Selects, you talk about how many personal essays and memoirs fall short, because they fail to create an internal narrative to accompany the surface-level events. Why do you think that so many aspiring nonfiction writers struggle with this? Also, you give some examples of the various things that your students deny themselves in their writing, for example you mention self-interrogation, or “asking the hard questions about yourself, the ones you don’t always want to know the answers to.” This is a tough one for writers to do because it involves reevaluating their core selves; as a teacher, how do you get your students to have the confidence to really pick themselves apart? How do you know whether or not they can or should dig deeper?
MJS: These are separate, yet, I believe, closely related issues. And both, I think, are tied to matters of imagination and craft. I say that because when I write anything (in my case, personal essays and memoirs), I never think of myself as the literal “I.” I’m “the writer at the desk,” the author who is trying, first, to figure out what it is that I’m writing about; then, how to best craft the work’s shape. As “the writer at the desk,” my biggest challenge is to create a fully realized, three-dimensional narrator to tell a particular story. And that’s an act of imagination. Once I’ve found that “persona”—I say “persona” as opposed to the literal “I”—the persona becomes the main character in his own story. That said, I believe that a personal essay or memoir (or any other literary work, for that matter), grows out of a not-knowing. Personally, I’m not compelled to write about what things I already know or understand. Rather, I’m interested in exploring what others (mostly fiction writers) refer to as “discovering what I didn’t know I knew;” or, “what I didn’t know I needed to know.”