Interview with Douglas Kearney

Poet/performer/librettist Douglas Kearney’s second, full-length collection of poetry, The Black Automaton (Fence Books, 2009), was Catherine Wagner’s selection for the National Poetry Series. It was also a finalist for the Pen Center USA Award in 2010. His newest chapbook, SkinMag (A5/Deadly Chaps) is available. Red Hen Press has just published Kearney’s third collection, Patter. He has received a Whiting Writers Award, a Coat Hanger award and fellowships at Idyllwild, Cave Canem, and others. Two of his operas, Sucktion and Crescent City, have received grants from the MAPFund. Sucktion has been produced internationally. Crescent City premiered in Los Angeles in 2012. He has been commissioned to write and/or teach ekphrastic poetry for the Weisman Museum (Minneapolis), Studio Museum in Harlem, MOCA, SFMOMA, the Getty and the Poetry Foundation. Raised in Altadena, CA, he lives with his family in California’s Santa Clarita Valley. He teaches at CalArts. Chaparral’s Assistant Editor, Itiola “Stephanie” Jones, sat down with Doug in February of 2013 at a Red Hen Press reading he gave at Annenberg Community Beach House.

Jones: So first of all, I wanted to say thank so much for giving me the opportunity to interview you. The first question I would like to ask is: did you find poetry or did poetry find you?

Kearney: I was lucky enough to have a lot of exposure to poetry when I was growing up. I was in the Pasadena Unified School District, and we read a bit of poetry. There were people in my family who were really interested in poetry. My grandmother would talk about how she won a contest reciting “The Raven” from memory.

I think poetry found me mostly through rap music. If one thinks about the attention to language that happens in rap music, that dynamic is very similar to poetry. While they are, I think, different arts; in rap lyrics, there is an exploration of what language can do beyond telling a story.

Funny though, when I was an undergrad, I was actually writing short stories mostly, but I learned I didn’t really care about my characters; I cared about the sound of the language. I was really interested in writing short stories that sounded like oral folk tales. There was this kind of musicality of oral folk tales in collision with this desire to play with language, that led to poetry in the shadow of rap music.

Jones: I noticed that you have a few self-published chapbooks.

Kearney: Yes

Jones: For poets who are going to route of self-publication, how does one make their work more known if they choose this route?

Kearney: Well, I mean one of the things that a lot of poets should know is with most small presses, you will still do quite a bit of promotion yourself; they definitely support and help but different presses have different levels of resources. When my first book came out, Kate Gale at Red Hen Press taught me a very important lesson. She said the press would set up three events for me, but any other events would be on me to arrange. They’d make sure my books got to the readings I arranged, that I’d be advertised on the website, and that they would connect me to a network of other writers—they would give me those kinds of resources. Getting press, however, was going to be more of a team effort between their staff and myself. They wound up doing more than what they said they would but from the jump, I knew I wasn’t just going to get to sit back and watch my books sell.

So people who are used to that self-publishing hustle, whether it’s doing hand-to-hand sales after readings, or traveling and going into book stores, barber shops, whatever [that needs to be done] to put the work out there, that skill set will help you if you do get published by a smaller press. You’ve got to put those walking shoes on.

One of the ways to get your work out there is to print out a small, relatively cheap chapbook. The first chapbooks I had were hand-made, photocopied, stapled things I did at Kinko’s. I had one called Anthem (Collapsing) and one called Atomic Buckdance. The first one I made was the one in Minneapolis and the second was one I made when I moved back to Los Angeles. Chapbooks have a history of being disposable, so you don’t have to put a lot of production value on them. You can handwrite one and photocopy it. It’s really about having something in hand to give to a reader as a way of connecting. David St. John led a chapbook workshop where he said, “You can think of the chapbook as a business card, really, and just get the work out there.”

What I’ve done recently is I’ll put chapbooks on my websites as PDFs so people can just download them. The first time I had the idea to do that, I had a series of poems that were about the trial of the officers who beat Rodney King; the pages were originally designed as posters. They were in color, and they were larger, so I knew getting them printed would be cost-prohibitive for those whom I felt should have access to the book. Making them into a PDF made it so I could present them in full color, or any size, and it didn’t matter: people could look at them on a screen or print them out. That was InJury. I decided to post books for nine month periods. InJury was downloaded about 1600 times; which is pretty good considering there was no advertising campaign—it was all word of mouth. Many first-run books from small presses, they’ll publish 1,000 copies of your work and if you sell out of that, it’s pretty exciting. The second book I did that way was called Spare Parts + Lost Cities. I think I might be overdue for another free chapbook over my website.

Jones: I also notice you’re a performance poet. Do you feel performance poetry has enhanced your writing or has made you more accessible to your audience? And what would be some advice you would give some aspiring poets wishing to brave the mic?

Kearney: People who do a lot of readings to promote their work become aware in a very practical way from the experience of standing in front of a room of people, and how it feels to grab them and how it feels when you don’t. The sensation of reading a poem that does not connect is pretty visceral, you recognize it. That being said, some poems people need to sit and read in their own time, the language at times can be elusive and allusive. At that level, sometimes receiving it as a performance isn’t the best way to get it. I think what performance poetry has really done for me, along the lines of being alert to an audience, is whether or not I’m making the content more apparent for an audience or more occluded. It’s the audience’s awareness, it doesn’t stop with me.

The other bit is: if you are a writer of poetry, and you don’t read your own poetry aloud while you’re revising it and developing it, I would strongly suggest you do so. You can think of meter as this horrible, mechanical process that is difficult perhaps for a lot of contemporary writers. Some writers might think rhythm means it must scan in a traditional meter, it must be iambic pentameter. Those meters can be very useful for their musicality, of course. But when you read your work aloud what you can realize is that some of the musicality you create is not about counting on your fingers. You can hear when the language is beginning to kick into that musical gear. You can tell if there’s a line you stumble over that is awkward, then you realize the rhythm has gone all [haywire], and destroyed itself. Then you can revise towards a smoother flow or sometimes you might want those disturbances.

I love the musical possibilities of language, when it’s not sung or accompanied by an instrument; just hearing what language can do is one of the great pleasures of writing poetry. You’re right there, you’re at the ground-level, and you’re seeing the difference between, say, ‘woolen’ in one place and ‘thick’ in another. When I’m editing a poem, one of the things I’m always thinking of is: if I change this word what happen to the music of the stanza? Do I get new music? Do I lose all the music? Do I only get ‘sense’ or do I also get ‘sound’? So I’m always listening for this equilibrium between sound and sense. I think that performing your poetry in front of people helps you recognize what works, and it helps you realize that you’ve made good decisions about timing, image systems, all of that. I think any feedback, whether it’s laughter, silence, boredom, confusion, is useful at getting the kinds of effects that you’re after in your work.

Jones: To follow up on your lyric-oriented style of writing, how did you come to find that style of writing and do you feel this style particularly captures the voice you want in your poetry or are there other styles in your process of finding your voice in writing that capture what you want your poetry to do—how you want the movement of the language in your poetry to behave.

Kearney: Every time I finish a major project, I always think: okay, now I have to find a new language to use to speak to what I am doing now. When I’m writing in a mode that I think is much more akin to hip-hop culture, there can be a kind of repetition, a lot of tight phrasing, so that I feel more constrained in it. There is pleasure in it, the pleasure comes from: how can I spin more meaning out of the same collection of, let’s say 10 words being re-shuffled? So that’s one kind of thing.

Another kind of thing is, in my first book I wrote this long, obnoxious poem called “The Poet Writes the Poem That Will Certainly Make Him Famous.” I wrote that poem almost immediately after finishing a series of poems inspired by a Romare Bearden collage. The Bearden poems were really fragmented, elliptical, lyrical poems. They were really hermetic, engaging in a precise self-mythologizing. So when I was tired of that, I just wanted to write across the page. I wanted to court a kind of messiness. So how “The Poet Writes the Poem…” worked is, I would write a section, and the next day I wouldn’t allow myself to look back. Whatever I remembered could be incorporated into this new section. I did that for a solid month, then I looked back, and then I revised. It was like finally stretching after being truncated and restrained.

Language changes based upon the needs of the poem. A poem like “Swim-chant for Nigger Mer-folk,” the Middle Passage poem from my second book, The Black Automaton, has about—what—four or five linguistic registers in there, none of them last more than two or three lines, maybe except for the shark section. That is an example of a poem where I wanted almost an argument or a tableau of different voices, different fragments, and scenes. Recently, I’ve been finishing a series of poems, about Stagger Lee—the infamous bad man from black folklore. It took a long time for me to figure out how write those poems. I wanted to mix Stagger Lee with Herakles while Herakles was doing his 12 labors, and what I hit upon was this idea that Black Syntax, or “Black Grammar” wasn’t “broken” English, but double-jointed, and it really freed up how I thought about syntax. So those poems are all engaged in that. And a few poems from my third book, Patter—out next spring—use that kind of syntax. But really, a lot of the poems I’m writing for Stagger Put Work In, which will be out in 2016, are going to be experimenting more deliberately with the idea of double-jointed English. When creating that sort of music, one must ask: what’s the content? Where will these approaches create the most useful tension, and how can I create an environment that even if the reader doesn’t read it aloud, they get a sense of atmosphere, time, and place? It should be a kind of experience that is more than just reading, I hope.

Jones: Making the poem and experience.

Kearney: Yeah, you can write poems about events, or you can try to write poems that are events. And so a lot of times, I’m trying to write poems that are events. If you think that way it will change the way you think about composition. You’re no longer narrating something. You’re now dealing with, “how do I enact a dynamic?” You write a poem that is supposed to enact a car crash. What are you going to do, what decisions are you going to make differently than if you’re writing about a car crash?

Jones: What are a few books every poet should have in their arsenal?

Kearney: It’s obvious, but a thesaurus, a dictionary—absolutely those. I think having anthologies— even though a lot of people diss them, having an anthology is a really useful thing. Something I started doing was I bought this anthology of international poetry. I just started reading it cover-to-cover, as opposed to flipping through and saying, “Oh, I’ve heard of this poet.” I was reading it from beginning to end, trying not to make selections, but just to experience all these different approaches to language, all these different cultural vantage points, the images we use along with the subject-matter we choose. Trying something similar with any number of anthologies could prove interesting. At worst, you’ll come across some bad poems you’ll never want to emulate.

And the other thing I would say is: have some books about some other shit. Have a book about physics, about architecture, something else to inform, to cross-pollinate.

I also recommend books on literary and poetic forms. Lewis Turco has a book called, The Book of Forms. It has tons of forms, some things you’ll never use in your lifetime. It’s fascinating looking at what goes into creating a form, and it can help you develop your own. When you’re stuck, sometimes starting with a form can help inform you about what kind of content you can have, what kind of rhetorical design you want. A sonnet, for example, has less to do with love than making an argument, or making several, then changing the argument at some point. Think about the dynamic of the sonnet form, you can think about how you can start a dialogue then more than halfway through [you] have to change it. The change is going to be asymmetrical. You’ve spent much more time setting up an understanding of something and then making a change. Think about all the poems you could write that deal in that dynamic, because it’s not ‘love’ it’s about ‘change’. Sometimes form can really arm you. Some of my past students say, “I don’t like writing formal poetry”. I’m like, “Well…grow up.”[laughs]. You never know the kind of turn you can get out of the sonnet. You never know when you’re going to need that breath before an epiphany that you get with haiku. When you’re going to need that shuffled repetition that you can get from sestina. Plus, learning a form helps you more meaningfully subvert it!

The two things I love to hear other poets say are, “I don’t like to write formal poetry” and “I don’t like to read other poets”. Because when people say they don’t like to read other poets, I’m like, “If Michael Jordan never watched other players, do you think he would have still been awesome at basketball?”

Jones: For my last question, what would you say to people who claim they don’t understand poetry?

Kearney: One of the ideas I am navigating with my students—I teach a poetry analysis course, in addition to workshops—is, you’re not there to figure out a poem, it’s not a puzzle. What you are there to do is understand a poem. There is a difference between understanding a poem and decoding. Understanding means, “Here are a bunch of words, what do I think is happening, what does the poem give me that helps me create that understanding”? Decoding assumes that the poem isn’t saying what it means. It seems in poetry-reading education, there are these extremes: either poems are puzzles or a poem can mean anything, and that’s not true, a poem can’t mean anything. A poet has made certain decisions: the words he/she has used, the sequences he/she uses, and so there is a meaning that comes from that. Sometimes a poem is overtly narrative, sometimes it’s an emotional arc, often, it’s several things at once. I always suggest that people read a poem aloud, you find out what the language is doing. Then look up words you don’t know (most folks who have access to a written poem probably have access to a dictionary). If you have access online, you can look up references the poem is making.

Even without all of that, look at a poem and see what’s being said. What are the tones: does it feel like a happy poem? Does it feel like a sad poem? Does the mood change? The subject matter can be solemn even if the poem is funny. Don’t think you got it wrong. Think: well why would a poem that’s talking about something sad also be funny? I think we come to poems expecting to be tested, but [one should] come to own one’s own reading. The poet put it out there, the poet’s gone, done. Now you get to own your reading, and sometimes it takes several passes through the poem. It’s like meeting someone; you don’t know a person the first time you meet them. It could take several meetings to get to know someone. But look at the language, see what the music is doing, trust your instincts, and then when you think you have something see if the poem will bear that out. When you read a first line, you could think it’s about the economy in Yugoslavia. Does the rest of the poem allow that to be the possible idea? And don’t cling to your first understanding like it’s a life preserver. Read the poem, and if your sense of it changes, you’re learning more about what’s going on in the poem and in another person’s consciousness. It’s not about decoding, it’s about settling into it.