Douglas Kearney, Poet
Douglas Kearney is a poet, performer, and librettist from Altadena, California. Kearney has received a Whiting Writers Award, a Coat Hanger Award, and fellowships at Cave Canem, Idyllwild, and others. His work has appeared in a number of journals, including Poetry, nocturnes, Pleiades, Callaloo, Fence, LA Review of Books, The Iowa Review, and The Ninth Letter. His produced operas include Sucktion, Mordake, and Crescent City. He lives with his family in California’s Santa Clarita Valley. Kearney teaches at CalArts, where he received his MFA in Writing.
Kearney’s first full-length collection of poems, Fear, Some, was published in 2006 by Red Hen Press. The Black Automaton was published in 2008 by Fence Books, which was a PEN Center USA Award finalist in 2010 and Catherine Wagner’s selection for the National Poetry Series. His chapbook-as-broadsides-as-LP Quantum Spit was released by Corollary Press in 2010. His chapbook SkinMag was published in 2012 by A5/Deadly Chaps. His most recent poetry book, Patter, was released March 2014 by Red Hen Press.
Candace Butler spoke with Douglas Kearney via telephone.
Candace Butler: Your new book Patter is an emotional outpouring: at times crude and witty but overall real, emotional, and serious. How long did it take you to write and assemble the 46 poems in Patter?
Douglas Kearney: Well, the vast majority of that book was written between 2010 and January of this year. There were a couple of poems that existed as far back as 2008. For example, the “Goooooo or Goooooo or Goooooo” poem—I think the first draft of that would be from 2007 or 2008. “The Pool, 1988” is the oldest in the book, but the bulk of those poems were written between 2010 and now. So they are really highly concentrated in that they’re grappling with the process of becoming a parent and responding to my wife’s pregnancy, which was basically from summer of 2009 to March 2010. Our twins were born in March 2010, so the bulk of the book has been the last four years.
CB: Patter has a unique blend of wordplay, structure, and creativity. Two of my favorite poems are “Sonnet Done Red” where words overlap without becoming obscure and “The Miscarriage: A Poetic Form” where one word carries the weight of the entire poem. Then, “Word Hunt” is not like any poem I’ve read before. Could you explain your inspiration for “Word Hunt”? What do you hope readers will find in this poem?
DK: What I hope people will find in the book as a whole—are you saying the book as a whole or specific, individual poems?
CB: I said the poems, but you can speak to both.
DK: I’ll go with the particular poems that you mentioned, “Sonnet Done Red” and “A Poetic Form.” “Sonnet Done Red” is trying to make it’s way through two questions at once—that you point out beautifully. One is the nature of poetic composition. How does poetic form order thinking? So “Sonnet Done Red” means to visualize the Elizabethan sonnet’s approach toward reckoning questions of and arguments essentially about, in this case, love. For me, the conundrum that warrants that is, “I love your body. I hate it.” As it travels through the rest of the book, it becomes a question around how does a male, or let’s say the person who isn’t carrying the child, cope with fertility issues and miscarriage in light of a physical trauma experienced by the child-bearer. How do I talk about the love that I have for, in this case, my wife as a person who isn’t there just to make children with? How do I deal with that question when we are trying to have children, when there is a miscarriage, or when there are other reproductive blocks?
For me, a big challenge of the book was how to write about my wife’s body without either turning it into this mythological mysterious space where the woman’s body is unfathomable or this site of failure. Both of which are problematic ways men have written about the female body as this Other state that is mysterious, beautiful, and horrible. I wanted to document attempts at that. Even if those attempts fail, I wanted the reader to be aware that the initial question—I wanted to document those failures. The “Done Red” poems all document a kind of attempt to write around that process and write to that process. With “Miscarriage: A Poetic Form”—to go back to what I was saying earlier—this kind of collision between this refined, rhetorical poetic structure of certain formal approaches to writing are difficult, raw, and emotional. Initially, I had written down the poetic form, and I was going to write a poem that would fit that poetic form—several internal rhymes, perfect rhymes, slant rhymes, then a broken internal rhyme; though if you look at some literary guides, it’s impossible to write a broken internal rhyme because a broken rhyme happens at the end of the poetic line. The final rhyme is actually impossible. It’s not viable—to use a term that would apply both to matters of pregnancy and composition. So within that poem, it’s really just about how to write about something that is so difficult to articulate. What happens when all we have left is the form of what was supposed to exist?
CB: You make bold typographic and form choices, your language can be dense or brash. Your strong emotional content can, and does, evoke a strong response from readers. “Blues Done Red” is even a flowchart. Because your poetry is so edgy and different from other American poets, do you ever fear that your work will be perceived as having an element of shock value?
DK: That’s always a possible risk. My only real response to that is I feel like I’ve done the work to move beyond that. If someone does not wish to engage the work, then ultimately there’s nothing I can do about that. And I’m aware of that—that some people may not ever engage the work. They find it shocking. They’re not interested. They don’t like the cover of the book. Any number of reasons. I feel there are so many things to keep a person from reading a poem that for me—and I use this term a lot—the “contract” that I have between the reader and myself is that if I make a decision to typographically set a poem a certain way, you know, that is a compositional decision that I make.
Sometimes we choose a word for its sound or another word that might essentially be the same thing but might not be as raw—we choose this other word. For me, for example, if we’re talking about “Kronos: Father of the Year,” which uses the word cunt—that isn’t necessarily a word for an erotic poem. It’s a word you might not want to use in conversation, but Kronos is an entity who ate his children for fear that they would supplant him. This is not a person who thinks much of bodies that are not his own, so why would he be gentle? There’s a level of contempt he has for other bodies. He converts his children, essentially, into shit. He feels that they are shit. Or that they will haunt him later. This isn’t a character who would speak in a lovely way. It would be off-key. It wouldn’t make sense to have him blush at the c-bomb. And, ostensibly, we could all agree that saying a mean thing about somebody is preferable to eating them. (laughs) I don’t think that he’d be like, “Oh, but I can’t say that.”
So, maybe there are people who will be shocked. There are people who will feel like that’s all I’m doing, just trying to shock, and to them I would say read more closely because there is more to it than that. And that’s my job—to make sure there’s more to it than that. If they read it closely, and they still decide, you know, “I still don’t think there’s much to it,” then both of us have done all that we can do if we’re being honest at that point. But the “Fathers of the Year” poems—they’re not about nice people. If they are possibly nice people, they’re appearing in this work in a moment where we are being very skeptical of what it is they’ve done.
I think that cultural literacy is very important….I’m very suspicious of terms like tolerant and sensitive because I think both of those things displace responsibility.
CB: Can you discuss your vision of the audience for your poetry? To whom do you hope to speak?
DK: I was asked this question a couple weeks ago. I think that—and this is to me an honest answer—anybody who wants to listen or wants to read closely. And when I say read closely, I don’t mean it to sound so self-important or patronizing. When I say read closely, I don’t mean pore over it like every line I drop contains a universe of wisdom, and you are there simply to receive it and be edified by it. I guess I just mean somebody who is willing to go along for the ride and be alert to what’s happening in the poem. If I did not feel that the poems were worth considering—if I didn’t feel like there would be something that would amount to something pleasurable, that would amount to something worth your time, I wouldn’t have published the book. I am the first and harshest critic, I think, of whether a poem I’ve written gets into a book. They’re not compendiums of everything that I’ve written over a short amount of time. There are poems that don’t get in there. There are poems that I like very much that don’t get in there, but they don’t get in there either because they don’t build on anything that another poem doesn’t do better or they’re really only talking to me and a very, very, very, very small circle of people. Those kinds of poems I’m not going to publish. Facebook is for that. CC on an email is great for that. For a book, though, I want people who are willing to read closely, who are willing to have an experience that might surprise them. If you already know what I’m going to say and how I’m going to say it, then there’s no point for you to read it. But I’m hopeful that somebody who reads the work is willing to be surprised by something. It’s not always a happy surprise, but I don’t think people who read poetry are always only looking for a singular, simple experience of pleasure or affirmation or, on the other end, tragedy or horror. I want people who are alert to a complicated set of emotional responses not always delivered in a way that’s complicated and difficult to follow.
CB: Your live readings engage the audience. And that’s one definition of Patter, a speech geared toward audience participation. Does the audience always react the way you hope they will?
DK: You want to know what my main hope is for an audience reaction? I want people to ask questions. Even if the question is, “wait, did he just say what I thought he said?” That’s a fine question. Hopefully the question isn’t, “why the hell did I just waste my evening being here?” I’m really interested in people having to actually think to themselves, “how am I supposed to respond to this?” Not in a defensive way. In that way where a listener thinks, “this seems to be about a really horrible thing, but the tone doesn’t seem like it was horrible; how am I supposed to understand that?”
Or from “The Miscarriage: A Minstrel Show,” for example, “why are there minstrels in this poem space?” Or “is that just there to shock?” Well, what better way to talk about the notion of shame and having to behave as if everything’s okay than the image of the minstrel? Especially if you’re talking about black subjectivity, right? It’s literally putting on a happy face that does not contain the actual, real experience. That’s the kind of question that I’m interested in. I had a poem in my last book, “Swimchant for Nigger Mer-folk” about the Middle Passage,and people were asking, “Should I be laughing?” That’s the kind of response I’m generally looking for: should I? I love should when people are talking about their own personal reactions because it means that they’re actually asking themselves a question. It means they’re engaging the work.
If people laugh at certain parts during a poem, I usually don’t get too revved up. Sometimes there’s a surprising work where somebody laughs or there’s a work where somebody doesn’t laugh, but the reaction I want—the only reaction I feel that you have a right to ask of an audience—is just that they listen. If people are on their cell phones texting or something, I get pissed. Other than that, the response belongs to you. I can’t say what that is. I can say of a certain poem, I felt like this is what I was communicating. But if there are ambiguities in the poem or ambiguities in the delivery or somebody missed a part of it, then you have to allow for responses you, as the writer, didn’t expect. That’s really important and that’s part of why we write.
By the same token, people are skeptical of artistic intention sometimes—and maybe in other art forms that’s there—but we’re talking about poetry, which is based on language. We use language every day to get an intended result without thinking about it. If you call me and say, Are you ready to do this interview? and I say, Yeah, I guess. If you’re ready, that would be different from, Yeah! I’m ready. We’re skilled at understanding what someone else is saying on a daily basis. If we were not, we wouldn’t be able to get shit done. So I think that while I can expect certain things from just basic communication we have going, I also recognize that poetry creates a space where we pressurize things or make them more complicated. Generally, I get the range of responses I think are likely to happen.
CB: Do you have any writing rituals?
DK: When the kids were born, I really got back into writing freehand. Before, I started writing on the computer. When I wrote The Black Automaton, a lot of that was written directly into the computer because I had more time. I had time to sit down at the computer and know I was going to be able to sit there for a couple of hours without any kind of interruption. And once we had the kids, that really changed. Just trying to sit in front of the computer made it harder because sitting down there, locking eyes with that screen, becomes a kind of disengagement with the external world for me. It’s harder. It takes longer. Whereas if I’m writing in my journal, I can scribble something down in a minute and then get up and get back to whatever I was doing. Or standing up in the kitchen, I can kind of just scribble it down and move on. I’ll be honest. If I set my laptop up at the table, and my children ask me a question—we have twins—it’s like, you just interrupted me. Clinically, it would register on a Richter Scale. It’s very different if I’m just scribbling something down. I actually feel bad in most cases writing in my laptop when I am with the kids because my patience drops. In some kind of way, the freehand allows me to describe the color of the idea if I haven’t found the right word, the right sentence. It preserves it better than when it’s all left in line in the computer. I don’t feel like I’m chasing it in quite the same way.
CB: You mentioned once that you had several unpublished manuscripts in your files. Do you ever draw from those manuscripts? Do you have any unfinished poems you look at occasionally?
DK: I allow there to be a fair amount of distance between me and those. I look at them, and one of the harsh things I have to tell myself is, are you looking at that because you’re desperate for content, or are you looking at it because you feel like you can actually pull something from it? The manuscript that has the ghost life that stays with me, in a way, from other manuscripts is the first full, chapbook-like manuscript I wrote, all based on this Romare Bearden collage called “The Dove.” I do feel like I could publish those as a book. They’re very different from the way I write now, I think. And I feel like, except for maybe two or three of those poems, they were solid. At the same time, I do wonder what it would be like to go back and look at that book now and revise those poems. If I ever wanted to do a collection that was all ekphrastic poems, I would certainly pull from them.
I do go back to other manuscripts. I do feel like there’s certain things that can inform my newer writing. A couple of those manuscripts were really project-based: I’m going to write all about x, y, z. And in those cases it’s really hard to imagine going back and really taking any of those poems. I think that whatever gymnastics I had to do in my head to write them has now become a part of a skillset that I have. And now, I can go back and maybe use some of the techniques. That, to me, is all that’s there. That, to me, is kind of like freestyling in being a rap artist. You don’t record all of your freestyles and turn them into full songs, but you turn the phrase in your head at some point. You realize that you can extend a rhyme into a song at some point. And so The Dove Sessions—that’s what the name of those poems are, I think—I do sometimes imagine I could go back and work with them. And then I pretty much pillaged all I could of Drowning the Cities for The Black Automaton. There’s still maybe 35 or 40 pages in that one that I didn’t use in The Black Automaton, which could make a short book or maybe a chapbook. But I feel like The Black Automaton improved on so many of the things that I was messing with in Drowning the Cities that to go back to that would literally be a going backward. I wouldn’t be making progress. I would be putting forth work that wasn’t as good as what I’d already published.
CB: You designed both The Black Automaton and Patter. How did you come to incorporate these images of red ants that invade Patter, which are bright red on the cover but by the end of the book are gray, flattened, and dismembered? Can you talk about your design process, from idea to execution?
DK: Yeah, absolutely. I’m so glad you used the word invade. They really are invading the book. The last poem, or series of poems, in The Black Automaton is called “The Six Cities.” The “Goooooo or Goooooo or Goooooo” [poems] were published some time ago in MiPOesias.com, but The Black Automaton ending with “The Six Cities” was in some ways a kind of artifact of the Drowning the Cities manuscript. They engage the question of infertility. So with Patter coming in sequence after that book—five years after [The Black Automaton] came out—I wanted there to be a kind of connection between the two books, so the ants are carrying the last line from The Black Automaton into Patter. When you open the book, the words are the last line of The Black Automaton. They’re bringing back that connection into the book. I always thought that if I were going to have the opportunity to design a whole book, ultimately where I would like to get is where the poems in the book would begin on the spine of the book or the cover of the book. If you’re designing an entire book, then that means you can do something that most poets who don’t design their own books or designers who don’t write poetry don’t get the opportunity to do, which is to really make the entire object of the book the poem. And in some ways, Patter is closer to that. It’s by no means the accomplishment of that notion. It’s closer, I think; it edges out into the end paper of the book, you know? It hasn’t gotten to the spine. It hasn’t fully gotten to the cover, but that’s something I think about as being a really interesting possibility.
Coming up with the section breaks for The Black Automaton, there is a logic behind all those different cities. I kind of think about those sort of dividersas themes. I think about it like an Easter egg. I wouldn’t want to publish what that is, or I wouldn’t want to say what that is. But if someone else figured it out and published it, that would be fine. So if I told you, it would be kind of off the record. But there is a logic behind that, and many poets work with images, visual things abstracted, that sort of structural constraint. For book covers as well as for those dividers in The Black Automaton, it’s like giving the image part of your brain a chance to work. Because I happen to be able to make those images, it becomes fascinating for me. You have all the representations of The Black Automaton itself, including the book cover, posters, and flyers I made—or the design of the website. I always wanted those representations to not be 100% clear about whether that great big automaton figure was dancing in a city that happens to be on fire or was violently destroying that city. With varying degrees of success, I tried to make that more ambiguous. I will say that if I had wanted it to look like the automaton was destroying the city, I would have drawn it differently. Again, a person might look at it and say, “well, it looks like it’s destroying the city to me,” but I know on my end of things that I would have made different choices if I wanted that to be the one way to read it, to see it. And the way the ants move from the cover, from that kind of invasion, from serving a purpose that seems to be working mostly for the book to being crushed at the end definitely follows a kind of a trajectory—a different narrative that’s acting in concert with the poems and the book as a whole. Did that answer your question at all?
CB: Yes, definitely. Thank you. As you know, Antioch University has a strong emphasis on social justice. Can you talk about what is important to you in shaping ideas about justice and social activism?
DK: I think that cultural literacy is very important. And that is to say I’m very suspicious of terms like tolerant and sensitive because I think both of those things displace responsibility. If you’re tolerant of something, you’re tolerant of things that are not going correctly. You don’t have to tolerate a healthy heart, a so-called regular heart. So it still puts the person who is being tolerant in a position of being able to define what is normative; they have the power to decide whether or not they are going to tolerate it, so it’s a bit problematic. I think saying somebody is culturally sensitive is similar. We’re sensitive to things that are sore or tender or delicate. Also because so much of our language is patriarchal, “being sensitive”—often considered a feminine trait—requires us to “weaken” ourselves. That is how a patriarchy mobilizes and understands that term. Someone else is weaker, and we have to be nice. Again, we haven’t shifted the power dynamic at all when we say, “culturally sensitive.” I think cultural literacy is more important because it puts the responsibility on the person who must be culturally literate to acknowledge what’s happening in culture.
The dominant group expects everyone to be literate in its culture to the point that they can sometimes forget that they’re actually talking about culture. They think they’re talking about nature. And so cultural literacy, to me, is something like in the poem “Thank You But Please Don’t Buy My Children Clothes with Monkeys on Them.” The company—Keystone Keepsakes—called a doll that had a little black girl, “Lil Monkey.” I’m not sensitive to the association of black people to monkeys any more so than a person who does not wish to insult an entire community of people would—I mean, why did that person do that? Why did that company do that? It’s just stupid. Unless you’re actually trying to insult somebody. And if you are trying to insult somebody, then own that shit and say it.
To me, another part of cultural literacy is to understand the range of how cultural [representatives] are pulling from a performance of a kind of cultural literacy that I think a lot of us actually have access to, whether you’re talking about the quotation of hip hop lyrics and pop music in The Black Automaton to references to modernist poetry. I think these are all things that are parts of our cultural milieu that we all kind of have access to should we choose to take it. And if one doesn’t have that access, in the age of Google it doesn’t take much energy to get that access. So that’s one thing that I’m interested in. I am interested in access: who gets to get things. When you close a door, who doesn’t have access anymore? And who do you let into the room before you close the door? In some ways, access is one of the fundamental questions around social justice. Do we all get to make the same mistakes? Do we all get to make the same advances?
So access is something that I’m questioning. For Patter, I actually created a notes page on Tumblr (http://dkpatter.tumblr.com/) so that you can go to the Tumblr site as opposed to the notes in the back of the book, which there do exist in Patter. There’s this place on the web where you can go and link to an article or music video, and it’ll say, “Page 43.” That’s another kind of access. Students, they read this. Teachers, they read this. Buyers of poetry, they read this. How can I increase the access in some way without assuming that a reader needs every clue, every reference?
You know, bringing children into the world is a difficult thing. And when you’re living in a society where certain children are seen as disposable, seen as threats, seen as less valuable than other children, these are more complicated questions; someone figures: we don’t have to kill them if they’re not born. I think that Patter, in some ways, builds a question around social justice particularly as we see through a lens of race, which is a lens. Typically, race is more often a lens than an actual subject in poems. I mean, African American poets are called upon to speak about race. I think oftentimes we’re not speaking about race so much as we’re talking about cruelty, shame, and violence. And racism and race then becomes a lens by which we view these things. I think people are equipped to dismiss race dynamics because they don’t think they have to deal with race when they are not black, not Other. And so they kind of ignore the fact that racism happens to fucking humans. Racism doesn’t happen to computers. It doesn’t happen to trees. It doesn’t happen to animals. It happens to people. And if you’re a person, ostensibly you should be interested in people. Those are the kinds of questions around social justice that I am interested in. The poems in the section “It Is Designed for Children” are directly commenting on some of these kinds of questions, such as what it means to terrorize people and how come everybody doesn’t get the same kind of care.
Cultivate the pleasure of writing poems. Try not to feel guilty about spending two hours deciding whether or not its blue or azure.
CB: How do you start a poem? How do you know when a poem is finished?
DK: Ah, the beginning and the end. I think that I’ll start at the back and move forward. There are some poems where I feel like I’ve gotten the perfect balance of ideas and a raw, energetic space; craft and more reflective layers. There are times when I feel like I’ve gotten the maximum tension out of a poem that I can get. Then three weeks will pass and I’ll be like, “I can’t believe I thought that was the right word.” Then you go in there and you change one word, and suddenly there are all these new sonic possibilities. There are times where I have revised a poem incorrectly. By that I mean, I might look at a poem and decide that what the poem needs is a tighter sonic construction, and that comes at the expense of something else. To me, that’s an incorrect revision. It doesn’t mean that revising makes your poems weak. In fact, I think when I revise correctly, what is strong about the poem is strengthened through the process of revision—not the other way around. The beauty, of course, is that I can go, okay, this poem has lost its way. Let me go back to version, you know, 12. I think that was where I was right before I started doing this thing that I felt ruined the poem. I can go back to version 12, and I can pick up there and not let that happen. I have this knowledge that this is going to fuck it up. So if I just don’t do that, and I go back to 12, I can make a stronger 16. I can make a stronger version 23. I love revision. And I love revision enough to sometimes say that perhaps getting to the stage where I’m tweaking and tweaking and tweaking a poem is really my happiest place. I have to be alert to whether the poem is done or whether I’m just twiddling with it because it’s easier to revise a poem that is almost done than it is to start a new one.
Starting a poem. There’s the start that is the gift poem, and that is when you sit down—you’ve been thinking about something in the back of your head. Maybe you have a title. Maybe you have a turn of phrase or something. And the poem just kind of spells itself out, and you’re basically transcribing. That happened a couple of times. That was the case with “Swimchant,” “The Chitlin Circuit,” and a couple of other poems that really felt like they were there when I sat down. And my revisions were really minor. Those are great. Oftentimes, I’ll have an idea or premise for a poem that gets me very excited. And I’ll sit, and I’ll try to get it down. And, you know, the first draft toward it hasn’t figured it out yet. And I just have to be patient when that happens. I have a premise, you know, a kind of a project will come to mind, and I just have to sort of figure it out. And something else that kind of gets me started, I’ll read some criticism and the writer’s identifying some interesting approach that he or she is finding in a number of different poems, and that makes me go, “Oh, that sounds pretty cool. Let me go try that.” It’s like a restaurant at that point. Oh, I’d like to try that. Let me see. (laughs) Let me try that food. Let me try “the nearly baroque.” I’d be interested in trying that.
There’s pretty much any way into a poem. I guess the only thing I’m reluctant to do—Like lots of folks, I listen to NPR a lot, and NPR is always full of stories that make me think, “Oh, wouldn’t that make an interesting poem?” But I have a feeling that there are, you know, 3,000 other poets listening to the same broadcast and thinking, “oh God! That’s perfect. They’ve genetically created a monkey that glows in the dark. That’s what I’m writing a poem about!” Like, naw. Just, naw. I can’t. I don’t want to do that because there’s probably going to be a thousand poems on that. And I think the idea of two poets—a hundred poets—writing about the same thing doesn’t bother me—it’s just, you know, the snarky essay that’s going to come out later, “clearly, these poets all listened to the same broadcast.” I don’t want to be on that list. That’s horrifying (laughs).
CB: How do you keep challenging yourself?
DK: Just not wanting to be bored or boring. I feel like when I finish a book, then at some level I’m telling readers I’m done with x, y, z. And not in a collapsing-over-a-sofa-I’m-done but a sort of okay, I did that, you bought that, you read that, probably don’t want to do it again because you have it. If you want Patter again, you’ll read Patter. So when I finish a book, it’s very difficult for me in some ways to revisit. I think having those ants drag in that last line is a way to create a linkage, but also a way to transform at some level that poem from The Black Automaton to this new space. I might realize in two years that I still haven’t written the poem about miscarriage that helps me make sense of the miscarriage my wife had. I might write that poem, but I will tell you it would take a whole lot of hand-wringing for me to put that in another book because in some ways I feel like, well, I’ve written about this. And I’m completely aware that there are things I’m writing about over and over and over even now. I think there’s something different about taking on a trope or taking on philosophical questions or taking on a public event and revisiting it. There’s something a little different—and this is not a judgment on anybody who does so—but for me it feels a little different to talk about a personal event and publish it and then write about it some more and publish it again, especially after a book like Patter where that was the focus. If I wrote two or three more poems about fertility, infertility, and miscarriage and included them in another book that wasn’t focused on that, I’d honestly be a bit leery. I might keep them, but I don’t want to rewrite Patter.
So for me, whenever I’m faced with a new book or a long pause in writing, the phrase that comes to my mind is, I have to find a new language. I have to find a new language to justify another book of poems. It’s restless and it’s frustrating, but I find it rewarding. If I’m writing the same way I wrote in The Black Automaton, I would feel like I was pulling one over on people. I finished The Black Automaton in 2008: it’s been six years. If I’m still writing the same way—if I’m still thinking the same way—if I haven’t come up with another way to solve compositional problems, then that’s something that I pay attention to. I stay alert to that impression or that possibility.
Of course I know that the interrogative mood—the interrogative mood in a sentence—has not been exhausted. There’s always another way to go back to the interrogative or the imperative. But for me, I’m trying to do as robust and as rigorous work as I can. I feel like that’s one of the things that poetry offers us the chance to do. I feel like that is part of the deal. If I’m going to write another poem, let alone another book, then at some level I’ve got to be thinking, is this enough?Have I learned anything from the last poem I’ve written? And if not, you know, what’s that about? It’s not always self-censoring: I write anyway. It does affect what I choose to try to publish, what I choose to send out to journals, what I choose to put into a collection.
I’m working on another collection right now. And just this last weekend, I chucked about 10 poems out of it, which is a significant setback in finishing the manuscript. But they were slack. They might have been interesting, but they didn’t do what I felt they needed to do. They were ideas that felt too facile to pursue. So I kind of just chucked them. I probably won’t be able to generate an entire manuscript that I won’t be using this time around. And this was literally Monday of this week. So in the time between Monday and today, I’ve decided on a new title for that project that I think captures much more of what I think I can do. I’ve kicked out those poems, I’ve written one new poem, and I’ve started a couple of other poems that I think are helping me position where I think about this manuscript. How I do it is I listen to or read different poems, essays, music, arguments, and critical engagements to try to find new ways of entering the sentence—to try to find new ways to think about the problems I’m still thinking about. You’re running, and you’ve reached your limit. And you have to convince yourself to run one more lap. You have to say, you’re so close to writing a good poem. What you learned from that one—how can you go further? It’s kind of a mind game.
CB: Some of your poems rely heavily on rhythm and sonic quality. You mention an embarrassment of pop rap radio in “Rallying” in Fear, Some, and there are references and allusions to entire musical styles as well as individual songs throughout your work. What musicians have you been listening to lately? What’s on repeat in your playlist?
DK: I’ve been listening to that group Haim.
DK: It’s one of those things where I feel like I’ve got to one day just buy a Haim T-shirt and walk around with it like,yes, I’ve been listening to Haim. On a basic level I enjoy it, the punched way they sing. Even though there’s one main lead singer, they all sort of take on this adaptation of clenched-teeth sort of t-t (sound), this very rhythmic, percussive singing that I find really interesting. I also like the vocal samples that I push through—that hey!—these kinds of interruptions in punctuation.
At the same time, I have been listening to Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain a lot because of how narrative the tracks are, how evocative these pieces are. They’re not using the kind of riffs or circular structure that a lot of the music I typically listen to uses, whether it’s hip hop samples or jazz riffs—jazz phrases. I feel like it stretches out in a way that I’m trying to get to myself because I do feel like my default is to write very tightly. Not necessarily tight in a precise way but a constrained way: as in I have 15 words, and I’m just going to use those 15 words over and over and over. That reminds me a lot of hip hop production and the loop. But sometimes I feel like I need to somehow allow myself a sixteenth word.
I find myself listening to a lot more rock in general. Queens of the Stone Age is a group I listen to. But I think the album that’s given me the most pleasure—where I’m kind of just sitting there like, wow, I could really listen to this a lot—is probably Haim. I don’t know what that’s going to do to the work, butI’m not listening to it strategically like that.
I’m about to get some software that will allow me to go back to making beats. I used to make beats, and the software I had died. So I haven’t been able to do that. Once I have that software again, it’ll probably change a lot. I was listening to a podcast today talking about the rapper Jean Grae. I’m really excited about her project, which is called Gotham Down. I was listening to her on that, and I was like, “Oh holy shit, I need to get that.”
Also, L.A. beat music! I’ve been listening to a lot of Flying Lotus and Mad-lib Instrumentals. There’s something about how expansive those things can get with just the presence of a single sample—not in the way that I tend to think of samples in relation to a rapper or when a rapper’s going to rap over a track, which is what The Black Automaton was about. I think that when a person is making beat music—and they’re not concerned about somebody speaking over it—it allows for all kinds of weird little disembodied yet associated things to happen. That’s really something I’m interested in: like, how to make a poem that looks like a wall of graffiti. Andyou’re kind of like, okay, I see why all these things are in the same space, but they seem like they were written by very different people at different times and are only associatively connected. I’m not really sure how that connection is working, but it feels like graffiti or a message board or one of these places where multiplicity happens.
So I guess I would say Haim, Miles Davis, beat music, and Queens of the Stone Age.
CB: What’s next?
DK: Okay, so the next book is called, well, right now is called Minstrel Cyborg Spider Radio, a collection of my opera libretti, and that’s supposed to come out in the next year or so. And then another one that I’m working on right now, which is more poems, until Monday was called Stagger Put Work In, but now I think it’s just going to be called Buck.
DK: Buck. B-u-c-k. And I told that to my wife today, and she laughed. Usually that’s a good sign. Both of these should be out within the next couple of years. So that’s what’s next. And the other projects that I’m working on include a few operas that won’t be in Minstrel Cyborg Spider Radio and then poems.
CB: What advice do you have for aspiring poets?
DK: Well, this is my mantra that I use for aspiring poets, which is—because we as poets often have to deal with people who aren’t really paying attention to what we’re doing—and so I say, “If nobody’s watching, at least be naked.” You might as well be naked. And then that way, if somebody does watch and say, hey, show me some more of that, then you know they were actually after what you have and what you’re interested in and not necessarily your take on official verse culture or whatever that phrase is, right? Do the thing that you find most interesting. Because, to be honest, if you wanted to be a conformist, you should get into a job where being a conformist would reward you much more handsomely than it does in poetry. Getting a teaching gig is a great blessing for a poet, but hell, if you’re going to do something you don’t really want to do, become a banker so you can get a yacht or some shit (laughs). Maybe getting a sabbatical every five years, why conform to get that? If you’re going to write poetry, write the shit that lights your fire. That doesn’t mean that you don’t pay attention to craft. It doesn’t mean you don’t ever read anybody else’s work. It does mean developing your approach, developing your eye, honoring your eye, honoring your voice. That’s something worth pursuing.
The other bit of advice that might be more practical is learn to love the writing of poetry. It’s not the same thing at all as publishing poetry. It’s often not the same thing at all from having finished a poem. Cultivate the love of writing the poem, and then your access to the joy will be much higher. If you’re interested in publishing poems, you can be happier by becoming a poem publisher because there’s always somebody making poems. If you just want poems out in the world, then become a publisher or copy your friends’ poems and post them on a website—that’s another way to think of publishing. But cultivate the pleasure of writing poems. Try not to feel guilty about spending two hours deciding whether or not it’s “blue” or “azure.” Love the act of writing the poem. Publishing poems after that is a completely different discipline. They’re not the same thing. You have to be really alert to the fact that they’re different, and that might be easier than cultivating the love of writing the poem. Know the difference between writing a poem, finishing a poem, and publishing a poem—and appreciate the difference. That’s the most practical advice I can give you.