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?
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.
So all of that converged for me, this idea that language was a place of serious play. I’d read a lot of folklore and I first started to write of lot of short fiction that was influenced by folklore and folktales. There was a kind of orality to it, a kind of musicality that I was really interested in. After a couple of years of working in that, I got exposed to the work of Harryette Mullen and she’s been key to me. S*PeRM**K*T just twisted my wig.
DK: I was like OK. Just this stanza is words preying on themselves and playing, and spinning off, though never a tangent. She had such discipline and control over the play, but it was deadly serious. That echoed things that I had heard in Public Enemy lyrics, in De La Soul lyrics, in Camp Lo lyrics, in some lyrics from Divine Styler. That really became important to me. That’s kind of where it all comes from: a love of language. And a realization that language as a system for making order, as a system for creating boundaries and creating categories and reaching for clarity, can be so easily muddied, can be so easily double- or triple-voiced. That is the key part of why I am engaged by poetry, more than practically anything else.
DLG: You jump across linguistic systems. You use all kinds of Black speech. Different registers of language in general. I find that an appealing part of your work. In addition, your work is highly inter-textual, as you mention. There’s also great density, and in some ways, with this density I feel you often move against narrative.
DLG: Is the move away from narrative intentional? You create series, moving against the epic it seems, against closure. I was curious about your propensity for modularity, for serializing, and why this appeals to you.
DK: It’s funny that you ask me that question. I am wondering whether that’s something that I’m still doing out of a kind of real interest, engagement. Is it just a habit? Does it just feel efficiently productive? If I think of a particular thematic and engage it from several angles, then I can create many, many poems without starting over. I’ll tell you honestly, when I first really started working in those ways- towards the serial, towards the modular (I really like that: modularity)- it was because of a desire to defer the idea of a closure, of a singularity. [The poems] started off as sort of arguments with myself and then became multi-voiced poems. Serialized versions allow me to accumulate huge vaults of sounds and lines that I can, because of my habit of repetition or refrain, go back and replay, that I can shuffle through, that I can contrast. There are other times that I have felt I was going for something, for lack of a better way of putting it, something symphonic.
Even if I’m not literally creating refrain of a precise quote from an earlier text, there’s a kind of conceptual rhyme that can happen, for example if I talk about Mars here and dodgeball here . . . I want to build and to multiply, and multiply as much as I can because I’m not convinced that the poet should be expected to be epiphanic, to be a sort of . . .
DLG: . . . individual genius
DK: Yeah, I went, I saw, that sort of thing. I generally distrust the epiphanic. I like the idea that I am making it more difficult to perform that kind of epiphany when I make the serial poem, or when I make the non-narrative poem. Yet I still want to have that sense of rigor, of robust attention, of consideration, that I’m not just spinning off and saying welcome to my book, then I’m going to tell you nothing, then I’m going to shout a lot. What I want to show through the serial, through the non-narrative, is the process of engaging the question, engaging the idea. And I trust the process more than I trust the idea or the product. We all know that something that we thought four years ago, thought that is the truth—very little of that actually maintains.