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. The interview appears 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.
DLG: Yes. You represent this visually with those ants eating those words on the cover and in the frontispiece of Patter.
DLG: With a book comes the notion that ideas are laid down for a long time if not in perpetuity. You challenge this here. I wondered too if that image were not a representation of the consumption of words.
DK: Absolutely. One of the great pleasures of having publishers who let you design your own books is that you get to do things that would be harder to communicate to another designer and therefore harder to have happen. Those ants are doing a lot of work there. The idea of consuming the words, and carrying them off, not only carrying them off, but carrying them in, into the book. What happens when ants take something into their hills? You have no idea. It’s broken down, it’s taken apart but it fuels more. It fuels something.
DLG: Back to this idea of refrain and repetition. I think of African diasporic traditions of call and response, refrain and repetition, of the circular, the vortex, of refrain as epistemology.
DK: What refrain says is OK I know this language, I know this phrase, I know this chorus, I know this much. And yet the repetition of it transforms what it supposedly meant. And then with the idea of revision almost asking well, do I know this? Is that what you said? Is that what I said? What did I say?
Refrain is one of those words that I love. It’s an antagonym, one of those words that means itself and its opposite, like cleave: to cut and also bring together. Refrain is do it again, but also stop. I love that aspect of refrain. I like this musical aspect that is connected to poetry. We don’t have to take a side road through jazz to take refrain into poetry. That’s one of those things that we’ve been able to work with for centuries. I love the idea that a refrain essentially calls back previous knowledge but brings it into a new space. And of course that also reminds me of looping and sampling . . . We have all these vocabularies of sound of music, of culture, of language. The loop is one of those things that creates a kind of structural principal for me . . .
DLG: You tackle form in remarkable ways.
DK: Thank you.
DLG: The sonnet appears periodically. In Patter: “Sonnet Done Red.” In Fear,Some: “The Chitlin Circuit,” which I am reading as a sonnet, and which reminds me of Mary Ellen Solt’s “Moonshot Sonnet,” which takes up the sonnet’s structure but contains no words. “The Chitlin Circuit” is hard to read but it’s undeniable at the same time. Were you thinking about it as a sonnet, with its 14 lines, then those huge borders?
DK: I had not thought about it as a sonnet to be honest. The thing I was thinking about was the work of a Russian futurist named Pavel Filonov. Back in 2000, I was commissioned, along with three other poets, Bao Phi, Marcie Rendon and Yerick Kaslow, to write poems in response to an exhibition at the Weisman Art Museum in the Twin Cities. There was this painting by Filonov, The German War, and one of the things he was doing was trying to display motion in a static image.
I would look at this painting and I would see what appeared to me to be bunch of fingers, but like a fan of fingers. I kept thinking about how the wrist appeared basically stationary but the fingers were panning, like a hand waving. I began to think about how you could accomplish something similar linguistically. With “The Chitlin Circuit,” that word shimmy in the center of the lines acts as the pivot of that phrase. Using the consonance and assonance, and sometimes rhyme pivoting off that idea, I wanted to see a train that would metamorphose in a surreal “Pink Floyd, The Wall” animation kind of way.
As a reading experience, this poem loops more than any other of the poem I feel I’ve written. The direction I give myself when I’m reading this poem is read the railroad ties, the ladders, the ladder rungs, the boot-shaped trace in the tracks. I read those as many times as I can and get louder and louder and louder and louder—and when I don’t think I can get any louder, I do it one more time, and then exit the poem. To me the page is constantly rotating. I probably couldn’t tell you how many lines I thought it was to be honest. A sonnet, 14 lines, yeah, yeah.
DLG: Oh hush.
DK: That’s a sonnet right there.
DLG: What of “Lovepoem Por De-Familiar” in Fear, Some, whose title appears it seems in the middle of the poem. What’s up with that?
DK: The pleasure of the first book is that you’re trying a bunch of different things, you don’t know what’s up or what people will find interesting. This poem was first actually published in a self-made chapbook. The chapbook just sort of spawned . . . but dropping that title into the middle of the poem: the god honest truth is that this poem was an attempt to write a Russian formalist sonnet.
DK: I promise you. When I read this poem in the past I introduce it as a Russian formalist poem. . . If you look at the third-to-last line “and count to 14,” that’s a reference to the sonnet. Then you have “ahhhhh, the volta” [a line from poem].
DLG: Ah, the volta.
DK: So it’s this meta-poetic attempt to write what I understood or misunderstood to be a Russian formalist sonnet, which is also why “De-Familiar” is defamiliarization. I would probably be able to do something like that a little bit better now. That sort of play, that sort of slippage is a little something I’ve gotten better at . . . But this poem was also about the process of sitting down to write a love poem. There are also the kinds of tensions and pressures that come when you’re talking about the diaspora, yet you’re using two degrees of European thought and recognizing that, even having attended Howard for undergrad. The literary criticism that I’d studied was often times filtered through the canon. And so this kind of question emerges, how does one do this? Do you kind of break and riff off the notion of the sonnet? But shit, I got a Tina Turner epigraph in there!
DLG: In another series of poems you reference Kung Fu. Kung Fu just jumps out. I thought oh my god.
DK: That poem is actually my attempt to write a Blaxploitation film.
DLG: Its actors include Douglas Kearney as the poet. You do film, you do ars poetica, you kung fu your way through language. Readers consider your work experimental, and I believe part of your project is to experiment. Do you feel that to be the case?
DK: I had a great conversation with my colleague Tisa Bryant about these terms that we often use interchangeably: experimental, innovative, avant-garde . . . I often-times think of innovation occurring when a poet addresses a difficulty, a problem, a challenge that people within poetry acknowledge as being a difficulty or a problem. So the poet figures out some kind of way to address this matter, whether it’s oh, we need a meter that reflects the dialogue, the conversational voice of the people or something else. That becomes an innovation. I wonder if you can innovate if no one else kinda goes, yeah that works.
DLG: Right. Otherwise, you’re crazy.
DK: Exactly. Experimental doesn’t necessarily have the restriction or constraint of being effective. An experiment can fail. If we really do take the metaphor that we’ve gotten in bed with around the experiment, if we take it to its end, the poem that is an experimental poem that fails is actually still a successful poem in that it gives us something, it teaches us something. Well we can’t do that. We can’t actually synthesize putting manufacturing in sestinas. We can’t. We realize that that sort of thing is not going to work.
I really am interested in trying things, and it’s not just because there is this label I feel comfortable with, that I like having. I have certain problems when I try to turn certain kinds of lines, when I try to make certain kinds of phrases. Like I said, I’m suspicious of the epiphanic especially when it’s me. There are people who say something and you think this person is tremendously wise and I totally believe this. But the idea that a book of poetry will have 60 poems, each with a lasting epiphany, ugh. If I am writing and I begin that sort of syntax that tells me I am about to write a simile, that something is like [something else], I get really sort of skeeved out. I think, what? “like”? really?
I was with David St. John’s students at USC a month or so ago, and one of those brilliant grad students who had been reading the work said you have a problem with equivalences and I said what? Yes, you have a problem with equivalences. And I said Oh my god, yeah. If I take away the simile, if I take away the epiphany, if I take away exposition, I cannot stand it. If I take away those things and as you said earlier about narrative, if I kind of take away narrative, I’m losing a lot of the tool kit, but I still have to make a poem.
I have to juxtapose. I have to contrast. I still want to be able to present something that is not just going to be abstraction. I still have all these interests in musicality. I don’t want to just spiral down into this vortex of self-reflexive word play. So I have to come up with other syntaxes, I have to come up with other larger formal ideas in order to write the thing, because all this other stuff to me feels wrong. This is not master’s tools.
DLG: That’s what I was thinking. I was thinking this.
DK: Maybe it’s at some kind of essential level . . . I’m always curious about what we’re locating as the tool. Is it English? Is it language? Is it these kinds of systems of difference? What is the actual tool?
DLG: I get it. I wonder if this impulse against linguistic equivalency has led you in the direction of the visual.
DK: If I’m going to take a certain level of exposition out of the poem, if I take a certain level of background out of the poem, then I need there to be something that’s a space of recognition. But I need that recognition to be more than just oh I know what that is. It has to be I know what that is and I know how to use it. I know what I’m supposed to do with it. So if I have a survey [embedded in a poem], or a questionnaire then people know that there’s a back story. With [a reference to] Darth Vader, there’s even more of a sense of oh, I know what this is. [Readers] kind of bring it with them. If I say Oedipus’dad, many readers say, oh, I know.
To me it creates this space where I have a form. When you have a form you have familiarity, you have expectation. When you have expectation, you have the power to subvert, to surprise, to sort of parasitically use that expectation to bolster what you’re making to a certain extent. We don’t make new words when we write a new poem.
DLG: You do.
DK: But not everytime.
DK: Generally, we don’t think about language that way . . . That would slow us down a lot. But that’s what you’re sort of counting on. If I say Sidney you’ll say who’s that? If I say Sidney, my cat, you’ll say, oh, I see. I think that the visual gives me a sense of direction. It gives the reader a sense of orientation. I’m also interested in engaging these questions of literacy and how we read. There is something that advertisers and graphic designers used to be taught. I imagine they’re still taught it now. I think it’s called the Z formation . . . With an advertisement, readers go from left to right to read the language—if you’re writing in English, then they look down at the picture. Most people who can read in the West at some point are able to read advertisements. They don’t look at the fine print first . . . I’m constantly asking questions about the literacy of the reader, the ability for the reader to follow a typographically performative layout. That gives me the ability to, as I said, push away the idea of simile, to create associative properties because of the spatial relationship as opposed to the syntactic relationship.
DLG: I was really struck by “A Miscarriage: A Sunday Funny” in the series of poems on miscarriage in Patter. It is unsettling on two levels to me as a reader. One, of course is that it is not funny. Two, it is not a Funny. There is a bitterness saturating the text. And then the poem uses only three words to tell us a story. Moreover, it uses 12 frames to tell us the story. It’s genius. I was curious about how you thought about this.
DK: There is a poet, Lillian-Yvonne Bertram whose book But a Storm is Blowing From Paradise has a poem in there called “The Science of Heart,” and in that poem there are four squares. There is text overlapping them. I saw that and I thought that’s kinda cool. Like the four chambers [of the heart]. I saw that, and about three-and-a-half years ago I was thinking about the idea of poetry and comics with renewed vigor . . . This came back to me when I was thinking about different ways of performing the miscarriage poem. So those two points of reference came together for me. That is an example of how Lillian-Yvonne Bertram’s experiment led to another experiment.
So I go back to those kinds of things, how to make something that feels like sequential art, the question I had years ago with Pavel Filonov of how you make movement out of a static image. Then you just have the graphical rightness of the fact that blood and bed both begin with b and end with a d. Those letters placed next to each other make certain kinds of beds in profile. Then you have that e, a vowel in the center. Having that slight suggestion of the o, the partial o, they visually slant rhyme and they sonically slant rhyme, so that became something that I could work from. Then you start laying it out, writing it out, sketching it out and seeing if will actually work. And this time it did . . . To me, those kinds of moments, where you go oh, blood and bed, b, d, those kinds of moments when I find something like that, I feel like I have to chase it. When something is there waiting to be noticed . . .
A lot of that has really been abetted by my poems being published and not always doing them as readings. You can’t really read this poem . . . If you do poetry readings and you have poems that take less than 10 seconds to read, it’s kind of difficult to get the crowd into it. There are all these practical considerations that are connected to performance. When you realize oh, it can just only be these 3 words, and these 3 words can be moved around, that let’s you try different things. Of course there are poets who would be perfectly happy reading a 5-minute long poem that consists of 3 words and that kicks ass.
The ability to see your way through the compositional questions just comes with all this time, and time, and time, and experiment and failure, and failure and experiment, and reading. Yeah, that’s where it came from.
DLG: That poem seems autobiographical—not that I believe that all poems are or should be autobiographical. It seems deeply personal, about family. How have you worked with that and managed it? I find your work very brave.
DK: Nicole, my wife, is my first reader. She sees everything. She may not see the first drafts, but if I start thinking about putting together any kind of manuscript, she reads it. The Black Automaton was actually a third manuscript because the one I’d been working on before that, she read and said this is very wanky. And I was like OK, all right. And I took a walk and got rid of it, and cannibalized some of it, and de-wanked it.
DK: She doesn’t want me to lie. She knows that if there were anything she did not want me to publish, I would not publish it. And because she knows that, she is not fast and loose with that. There are fewer than four poems that I have ever written that were about us where she felt could that not be in the world. And honestly, none of them would have been anything that would have been in Patter. These were all prior to 2005 and then there are poems that she says suck, and she says, don’t play yourself like that.
DK: But in terms of family business and all that, she hasn’t censored anything . . . My sense is that if there’s anything with a kind of potential for that, I would have showed it to her before it’s in the manuscript. I think she would have a harder time in terms of the integrity of the project to take out a poem that’s already in a manuscript. She supports the writing and she just wants me to be honest. She knows when I’m lying, she knows when I’m slacking. At the same time, there are sometimes crafty, craft issues, and I say this is what I did! and she says, “OK, I guess you had to do that.” And I think some English major is going to be up at 3:00 a.m. saying, “oh my god, this is what he did!” I write for that English major, because that was me, last minute, trying to come up with some ridiculous thesis . . .
There’s a poem about my daughter called “I Have a Penis! Mama has a penis!”
DLG: Near the end of Patter.
DK: I thought a lot about that poem. She might not, when she’s a teenager, want there to be a book out there with this poem. My wife in her usual way said do you really think that when she’s a teenager people are going to be reading that?
DK: Let’s rein it in. It might not be that everyone in her high school knows that this book exists. That could be OK.
DLG: I really like that poem, and the poem “Raise,” and the gestures references in them. They are like brackets for that book, opening and closing it.
Okay. Next question. In addition to that 3:00 a.m. English major, for whom do you write? Do you think about that?
DK: You know, I do. It’s going to sound perhaps cheesy. I think I write for people who just want to engage the work. If you’re going to do anything that is not straightforward in a way that people expect, you have to do something to make them feel like being in the realm of that poem.
It doesn’t have to be pleasant, necessarily, it has to be something that makes you go Okay. They have to find something in there that makes it feel that they enjoy being there . . . I’m a reader and for some poems you need the right textual strategy to read it and draw something from it . . .
People forget that we had to be taught to read, taught the conventions we know. We are so thoroughly trained in them. If you’ve never read an epistolary novel before, you’d ask how do I read this, where are we? But once you’ve been taught this you can get very confident in what we’ve been taught. There is an emphasis in pedagogy that we get taught in a kind of seamless way so many of us don’t recognize when we are switching that on, or when we are going into that mode, when we’re using that textual strategy. I think that having different kinds of strategies in place gives you the ability to read things in a lot of different ways. I think that sometimes applying the “wrong” textual strategy to something can be constructively disorienting. Those kinds of things live together for me in really interesting ways . . .
I could say, oh yeah, I’m writing for folks who listen to hip hop, were born in the ‘70s and listen to hip hop and then went to school, and college. But that’s really not it, it’s not all of it. I keep imagining this community of people at some level. But then I go, maybe they’ll find [the work]. They’ll find it. Like a signal flare. I feel like there are ways in, for lots of reasons.
DLG: You do blackness.
DK: Oh yes, I do the blackness.
DLG: Blackness the country, blackness the concept. You write of black love. You write of the dangers of black life in each of your three books, especially the Black Automaton. I was interested in the genesis of this book. In it appears the black person as it, as product of the machine bent on making it sub-human, the new slave. I like the opening of the book. We are on rooftops, above the city, and we descend into it as demi-gods or demons. Fallen angels. There’s a great deal of horror here, urban blight. I could go on.
DK: What you said is exactly what I was going for, this idea of dehumanization, but also a specific kind of dehumanization. We can talk about being turned into animals, but we can also talk about the usefulness of the black body as a machine; as an industrial sort of thing. Of course, an automaton is useful because it’s not necessarily a robot, but it can be a robot. This idea of black as a designation is in many ways an invention of a very particular culture process designed for a very specific end. And that’s not normal. That’s not just everybody’s heritage. I’m not saying that that makes us the most abject, the most bereft, but it is a thing, a thing that is in some ways particular. My argument isn’t about the particularity of it. My argument is about exploring it as a thing. The it is in many ways an allusion to De La Soul’s De La Soul is Dead. They would have these skits and every time somebody cursed, they would punch in this voice that said Cracker [Kearney demonstrates robotic sound of voice]. Do you remember that?
DLG: [laughter] Yup.
DK: So it is kind of like that. it is always there to censor a pronoun. It hasn’t fully formed yet. It’s in this small cap type. It is like a bleep, a censoring. It’s like a guiding principle. One of the things I’d like to say is that even if nobody else knows what you’re doing when you’re doing something like that, if you know what you’re doing, it makes certain compositional things possible. . . . For me that it is a sort of rupture.
The Black Automaton poems came about because I was really trying to solve for myself this question of quotation in poems, and simultaneity in poems. I didn’t want the quotation to necessarily interrupt the poem . . .The way I take notes is very similar to the way these poems look. I’ll write a bracket, and draw an arrow, and go insert this here or think about this, when you’re writing this. This was that kind of thing.
One day I was sitting in front of my computer and thought I wonder what would happen if I typed up a poem as it is in my journal, and not work the notes into the draft, but work the notes as a draft. I did that with a poem that actually is not in The Black Automaton. I called my wife in and said Nicole, this is either the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever done or it’s the coolest, or maybe it’s both. She kinda looked at it and she said it’s kinda like mapping the hip-hop consciousness, and I was like hell’s yeah.
Then I started making these poems. I started to experiment with the flow chart approach as early at 2002 with “Lovepoem Por De-Familiar”—as it appeared in my chapbook, Atomic Buckdance. I made that and it sort of disappeared. By the time Fear, Some came out [in 2006], I started working on new stuff, and that became one of the ways I started working, taking notes out of my journal and transferring those into the design programs, and working from there. That gives me all these questions about the orientation of the text, the size, the proximity thing I talked about, the flow. All of that really comes from just sort of honoring the honest way I process text.
I became acutely aware that I was going to have to create a kind of grammar around that, so that if you know how to read one poem, you know how to read the others. To a certain extent I think that’s been effective. There are a couple of things I hadn’t figured out, but by the time I get to “Blues Done Red,” [in Patter], I could work a Black Automaton approach. I think of [the poems of The Black Automaton] as very public poems. They are dealing with an individual addressing subjectivity and subjecthood. That individual is not necessarily me. It is this black automaton, this cypher for black experiences. I wanted to see if I could do that with like a personal poem. The “Blues Done Red” poem explodes the grammar, in a way one-upping what I thought I could do.
DLG: Speaking of explosion, the end of Fear, Some is a veritable explosion. At one point I had to step away from that section, there is so much going on there. It called to mind Césaire.
I want to go back thought to The Black Automaton. The city figures prominently in that book. It’s visually there, you reference it, we’re in it. Then there’s a significant turn two-thirds of the way in. After all the horror there is a city of beauty. A green city. Was it established to counter the grey dread, the terror, the smoke?
DK: One of the things I held over from the jettisoned manuscript was the idea of the importance of the city to a very particular conception of the black poet: the black poet is an urban poet. So this idea of the urban poet, I don’t know if it’s a response to the “nature poem” as being a metonym for the white poet or Eurocentric poet, or a brainwashed poet. And the city is the space that’s supposed to be where the black people at, where the black poet is at. The city became really interesting to me because I grew up in Altadena, which is in the foothills. We’re right up against a mountain range, we border Pasadena, and we’re twenty minutes from downtown L.A. I would go to my grandmother’s house and there would be somebody on horseback riding to the liquor store, and right next to them would be a lowrider.
DLG: You wrote poem about that.
DK: Yeah, that sense of well, if I’m supposed to be a city boy, but I’m really interested in writing fully aware of what I’m supposed to be—then gamely trying to do it. There is something attractive in finding a way of making a critique, a cultural critique very personal. I wanted to make my way through these different conceptions of cities until ultimately the city would lose all of its specificity, all its geography, all its architecture and become this other thing. If I could just keep saying city city city city until it becomes a synonym for black people and not a metaphor, not an allegory, not a metonym, but a synonym for the body, the city as a body, and a particular kind of body. I really wanted that and I’m glad that you talk about that turn. I really wanted it to feel that we’re in a city, and then suddenly the city is the body after trauma.
DLG: It’s a release, a turn into a gorgeous space. It is interesting to me that your next book, Patter, would go into the body.
DK: I felt with The Black Automaton, I’d written about the body at risk via absence. The body was kind of off stage. Even in the Emmett Till poem, you get this cropped bit of his forehead. It’s almost like landscape. The book is laid out in landscape because I wanted to get away from portrait and move into the idea of landscapes, into environments where things happen, though we’re not necessarily sure of the body being there. That was one of the ordering principles of it.
As I was writing Patter, I was moving away from the really philosophical and often-times semi-abstract, and certainly abstracted language of The Black Automaton poems, and I was very interested in bringing the body, and fluid, blood back into it, and then you know, in my life. By the time The Black Automaton came out Nicole was pregnant. Before that, we had had a miscarriage, years of trying and failing, and so my life was becoming about the body. When you’re having trouble with fertility, suddenly the cycles of the body become these calendar things. We have appointments. We have procedures.
Before, I had willfully abstracted the body, and now, in my real life, I was seeing the body become abstracted and I was like no, no, no. I had to get back to flesh, and so that becomes a part of what Patter was really doing. I felt like it changed a lot of what I was writing, and the kinds of things I would write. To have that body be present and present as itself and not there as something else.
DLG: That book is like nothing else. The section “It is Designed for Children” is both heartbreaking and outrageous. The Costco poem, “Thank You But Please Don’t Buy My Children Clothes with Monkeys on Them” is outrageous and outraged. “Word hunt” is brilliant in its lure and frustration. We can do puzzles, but we really can’t do this blasted puzzle, can we? You are willing to tackle the disagreeable and the absurd, to take up stereotypes and awful histories to devastating effect.
In Fear Some, you write wryly “blackface is sometimes the truth” before flipping the statement back on us, with “blackface is sometimes a lie” followed later by “what is truth?” You raise, here and elsewhere, philosophical questions: What is the nature of truth? Who are we? And how do we conceive of ourselves through language?
Err. . Do I have a question?
DK: I have to say I am enjoying this. I’m super thrilled, I’m enjoying this profusely!
DLG: I will be cursing you in three days when I have to transcribe this interview—it’s so long.
DK: I appreciate you so much.
DLG: Okay. We talked about your ideas not sitting still. Is your work grounded in a particular philosophical framework? I’m thinking of the poem “Sonnet Done Red” with its lines “I love your body/I hate it” and Chinese philosophy’s notion of opposing forces actually being connected or complementary.
DK: The Black Automaton poems, and what I mean by that is all the poems that begin with “The Black Automaton in . . .” and not the book as a whole, are my attempt to synthesize or work with the notion of the koan. That was very useful to me.
In grad school, one of the faculty members who’s now one of my colleagues, Jon Wagner, said Doug, you’re a formalist and I was like oh, okay. He didn’t mean it disparagingly. Having something that I could say there is a tradition for, even if I’m bobo-ing my way through it, makes me feel good. I don’t have to be worried that something is illegible. It can be read. At some level, that’s really what I have to go with.
But the koan was a really important idea. The riddle or the thought experiment to me has been very important as a way of animating the sometimes very stripped-down syntax that I’m using. Sometimes my sentences are very lush with pun, but other times I can really just deal with this chopping, this J Dilla-like chopping of a phrase . . . Having the koan, and having the idea of the thought experiment, tongue twister, and the is-it-jive philosophy when Charles Wright says in [the song] “Express Yourself”
It’s not what you look like, when you’re doin’ what you’re doin’
It’s what you’re doin’ when you’re doin’ what you look like you’re doin’!
My first impression was this is some bullshit.
DK: But then, you’re like stop, let’s see what he’s doing. Nicole and I sat there when that came on the radio and said wait, we have to parse this . . . For me that becomes a model as well.
I grew up doing martial arts. There is that way that in broad strokes, that Chinese or even Japanese philosophy can enter your consciousness if you practice martial arts. There is a way in an oftentimes passive way it can enter your consciousness as a kind of cultural body . . .
If you grow up in a neighborhood with different kinds of people, a lot of different groups, the music that your neighbors listen to will affect you. You don’t say oh I want to listen to all the Raza radio I can, no, you hear it. And so when you hear it, there’s the kind of thing of oh, I recognize that, I can hear it, I know something of how to hear it. It kind of gets in there, it’s in that soup, it’s in that place. I tend to think in terms of what I will refer to as dynamics. I find it very useful as an interdisciplinary way of thinking.
In design, layout has dynamics. How do I translate [dynamics] into literature? I am constantly thinking in those ways. I do think about the notion of thesis and antithesis, these sorts of things that have a real place, a real home in Eastern philosophy, more so than in a lot of Western philosophy which often times is trying to grapple with linearity, and progression as being linear, as moving in one direction.
I found that a kind of cultural project of people of the African diaspora in the States is how to create a technology with which to navigate contradiction, because the very subjectivity of the African diasporic subject is a contradiction in terms. You’re not a person. Well yeah, I am. No you’re not. Well, yeah I am. And that as a cultural contribution.
I tell this to my students all the time: contradiction is not really a problem. If it were a problem, when you did it you’d explode in a puff of smoke, or you’d have heart failure or you’d collapse. Flight is a problem. You can’t do it. It’s a problem, but contradiction is a rhetorical game. It’s a foot-outside-the-line in a rhetorical game. Double dribbling is not really a problem, unless you’re playing basketball.
For me that notion of navigating contradiction is always about thesis and antithesis. As I try to evolve, try to get more sophisticated, I become more interested in not only the notion of opposite but apposite. Really thinking about positionalities. What is this relationship of appropriateness? Here is one thing and now you’re adding another element that in some ways chimes with that thing. I am interested in that gap before we recognize that it chimes, when you’re moving this from Point A to a closer proximity with this object, with this concept. What is that moment before we know that they are going to play well together?
What is that tension before we know that this won’t explode, or that it will? What is that moment? This idea of proximities becomes really interesting to me philosophically and pragmatically. Trying to bring different things together, if there is the moment of excitement, of tension. That, I think is an experiment that many poets are engaged in . . . for example, here is my day in the gym, and here is a socioeconomic collapse in X, then Indiana Jones music starts swelling in the background. It works . . .
DLG: I appreciate the tension in the “Black Automaton in tag.” There is this instructional language, there’s formal English. It skewers things. You take no prisoners. Nothing seems sacred or off-limits. You take the Judeo-Christian god of the Negro spirituals, of wading in the water, and at the end of the “Floodsong 2: Water Mocassin’s Spiritual” write “god’s gon’.” There is no deliverance. No-one gets taken up and saved. I thought how terribly cruel, how cruel. Cruelty exists in you Douglas Kearney.
DK: I mentioned Lillian-Yvonne Bertram today earlier in our conversation. And we were at the Poetry Center in Tucson, for Poetry Off the Page [International Symposium at the Poetry Center, University of Arizona, 2012] and talking about my work, just chatting in the back of the room, about the banter, the modus operandi at live readings, the kinds of things I say between readings. And she said it’s very cruel. I can’t disagree with that. The idea of destabilizing the audience’s space and their expectations is really important to me. It’s in many ways the material of what I’m doing.
DLG: It doesn’t seem gratuitous.
DK: I’m glad of that. I’m trying to parse a way to talk about it. On some level I write because I want to document the way I think about things, and that documentation is in many ways about evidence. That is to say, if I write this down, I have to cop to having felt that way, having had those thoughts.
DK: Human cruelty is probably my chief subject. If often-times manifests itself through questions of race, but I am ultimately interrogating, which is of course an appropriate word if we’re talking about cruelty, the potential of human cruelty from the supposition of someone who knows he is capable of it and is not wanting to do that to people in my life, even if I know it happens. Back up. Back up. Not it happens, that’s a passive construction. Even if I know I do it. Even if I know I am cruel at times.
When I give a reading, I am extraordinarily alert to the fact that I am a body on stage in front of people, and being that body on stage, and the idea here is of a black body, comes with expectations. The kind of ways I navigate the space of danger, of ambivalence, is, I think, through a kind of cruelty. When I introduce the poem “Swimchant for nigger mer-folk,” I say it’s a peppy poem about the Middle Passage. And I look dead at the audience.
DK: I might begin a reading of the miscarriage poems, saying: A poet who is much wiser than I once told me that it’s always a good idea to begin a poetry reading with delight, and then go right into them.
DK: To be honest, a part of that comes out of a real anger with myself, of here I am, I’m going to trot this out again, and why? What possible reason do I have to put myself through this? It’s not cathartic in the sense of oh, I feel better now, I was tense. I was sad about our lost child, but now that I’ve given that some poetry, I feel good about it. That’s not it. So why do it? Why read it? And the only things I can say is because it’s the truth, because I wrote it. And, what’s worse, I’m trying to sell a book with that truth in it.
DLG: It’s like swearing.
DK: It’s honest, and whether it’s right or not is not what I’m here to deliver. If a person is angry with me or dismisses the work because they don’t think it’s right, then I think we might not be after the same thing in the poem. I am after a truth, honesty, the flaw. Because I write about things I am not sure I understand, or things I want to understand better. Like human cruelty. I want to understand it better so I can figure out how not to do it. I really don’t want to do it.
DLG: Okay Titus Andronicus.
DK: There he is.
DLG: Why do you like red so much? Red is all over your stuff, on the book covers, in the poems, in the red-tinted photograph of you looking like the devil on the back of Fear, Some. Was that intentional, the devil look?
DK: Yeah, that was that. I’m struggling right now because I’m working on the cover for a book that supposed to come out from Fence in about a year and a half. I am trying not to make it red. Stop. There are other colors in the crayon box. Please. Red is the elemental color for me. It’s blood, it’s fire. It’s the mark of an error. It’s anger. From a design standpoint, people like red because on the shelf they can see it. It’s also a color I’ve loved without analysis for a really long time. It freaked me out at different points in high school when I wasn’t sure what the gang character of my neighborhood was. I was like wait I second, I can’t remember, is Fair Oaks & Washington Blood or Crip. Oh Man. I can’t do it. I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing right now . . .
[In reference to a book of poetics Kearney is currently writing] I was thinking that one of the things I might use as a way of talking about my writing is the bloody flux, the dysentery that many captives experienced on the ships . . . this mixture of blood and shit. If there’s one element that’s in my work more than blood, it’s shit. That connects to the cycle to being consumed and what happens after and so, that’s what the red is . . . I have to be willing to be a poet who wears several obsessions right out in the open. Red is also definitely a theme as I was designing a cover for a forthcoming series of opera libretti. I showed that, among two other color choices, to Nicole, and she was like not that one, and I was like why not, and she said because it’s red again, and you’re always using red. I said damn, you’re right.
DLG: Where is the poetry that is exciting to you coming from?
DK: Wow. There are individual authors who I love. Fred Moten, Latasha N. Nevada Diggs, Yona Harvey, Ocean Vuong, Amaud Jamaul Johnson. You’re always in danger when you start making a list.
DLG: I’m not a fan of that who is your favorite artist list question.
DK: If I had to say what kinds of things I’m interested in, there’s the sense that poets via social media are having to become more alert to the fact that they are actually in the conversation . . . I think there is a dawning awareness that people are actually listening to what you write—there’s been a lot of fallout over this reality. That has been a part of hip-hop. Recognizing you’re performing, know that you’re putting something down. And someone will respond. There is kind of an awareness that there are dialogues that are academic, there are dialogues that are social, there are dialogues that are interpersonal, and they are happening all out on Front Street. And I think this is doing something interesting with the work, because of inter-textuality, but also with the sense that there’s skin in the game for a lot of people now.
What I love about Harryette Mullen is that her play is not about not dealing with shit, her play is dealing with it. Fred Moten’s work is like wrestling with the theory and the praxis. It’s in it. Latasha Diggs’ work is, you want a cosmopolitan subject, you want to talk about globalism, here it is, almost coming up with the rhetorical technologies that will make it possible for us to deal with each other.
These are the kinds of things I’m really interested in, an awareness of an external world that you’re not escaping when you write your poetry. . . The thing about poetry that I feel any poet worth his, her, her salt is capable of doing is to produce craft, the refined thing without [our] feeling the fingers of the refining. Being able to go to a space that is perhaps isolated, but being able to come back with a thing that doesn’t necessarily feel like it was from this hermetic space. And if it is hermetic, it’s autotelic enough that you’re like yeah, this is a self-contained thing, this book is a world . . . dealing with so many different subjectivities, so many levels of discourse, so many different kinds of knowledges, and awarenesses. That’s the kind of work I’m really struck by. Work that knows that it is not in a vacuum.
When you know you’re not in a vacuum, some of the kinds of preciousness that can be destructive preciousness goes away . . . There is this kind of sense that the poets are talking to each other. God help us.
DLG: This is great note to end on. I still have tons of questions, we didn’t get to fatherhood, but maybe that’s for another time. It has been wonderful to hear more about your work and to hear you. Thank you, a million thanks.
DK: I’ve really had a great time. This has been very cool.