Douglas Kearney’s first full-length collection of poems, Fear, Some, was published in 2006 by Red Hen Press. His second manuscript, The Black Automaton, was chosen by Catherine Wagner for the National Poetry Series and published by Fence Books in 2009. It was also a finalist for the Pen Center USA Award in 2010. His chapbook-as-broadsides-as-LP, Quantum Spit, was released by Corollary Press in 2010. His newest chapbook, SkinMag (A5/Deadly Chaps) is now available. He has received a Whiting Writers Award, a Coat Hanger award and fellowships at Idyllwild and Cave Canem. Kearney has performed his poetry at the Public Theatre, the Orpheum, The World Stage and others. His poems have appeared in journals such as Callaloo, jubilat, Ploughshares, nocturnes, Ninth Letter, miPoesias, Southampton Review, Washington Square and Tidal Basin Review. He has been commissioned to compose poetry in response to art by the Weisman Museum in the Twin Cities, the Studio Museum in Harlem, FOCA and SFMOMA. Performances of Kearney’s libretti have been featured in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Europe and he has been invited to speak on poetics in New York, Los Angeles, Mexico City and Malmö, Sweden. Born in Brooklyn, and raised in Altadena, CA, he lives with his family in California’s Santa Clarita Valley. He teaches at CalArts and Antioch.
Joseph Quintela and Douglas Kearney interview with Meg Tuite
MT: Tell me all about the A5 series. I’m really excited by all the landmarks Joseph Quintela is adding to the map! Let’s here about this one.
JQ: Hi Meg, first of all, I'd like to thank you for inviting Doug and I to talk about A5 and SkinMag at the fabulous Connotations Press. It's always thrilling to talk to someone whose energy and enamor for the (re-)generative matches or even exceeds my own, and I think it's fair to say that it's a very generative trio assembled in this conversation. And it's always an honor to have the opportunity to share a few words with Doug whose work has inspired mine ever since I first encountered it.
A5 grew out of my continued devotion to the chapbook form and a desire to deeply engage with the Ludic or playful sort of writing that I think the form naturally invites. It's really wonderful to see interest in chapbooks exploding in the indie lit scene, but with that growing popularity comes a certain push to make the chapbook into a "more serious" kind of work than I think that it should be. After all, one of the loveliest parts of a chapbook is that it's only 20 pages long. It doesn't require the kind of commitment in either author or reader that a 100 page tome of poetry inevitably does. To me, the chapbook is a laboratory for experimentation or better, a barn dance for down and dirty dancing with ideas. It just doesn't have to drone on into the night. It can collapse in exhaustion after an hour or two of flashing feet.
To push this conception of the chapbook, I decided on a series that would be composed of 20 page chapbooks. I'd print the books blank, send them to a poet or artist and give them free reign to do anything they wanted in a month’s time. After that month passed, I'd ask them to return the book and print it precisely as it was returned to me, with neither edits nor typesetting. The first batch was sent out to Douglas Kearney, Prudence Groube, and Rachel Eliza Griffiths and I was amazed at the varied and imaginative approaches that they took in filling their blank pages. Doug, in particular, used a cut and paste approach to constructing SkinMag that truly adds a stunning character to the poems.
MT: How has this experience of working a chapbook through the A5 series been for you, Doug?
DK: It was galvanizing. Somehow, filling 20 pages in about a month seemed utterly reasonable at the time Joseph contacted me about it. It gave me the opportunity to try a bunch of different things out; for example, after lecturing about the Italian Futurists to my students a year or so ago, I began to feel like the typographically performative poems in my last book (The Black Automaton) were too neat. The A5 project had a DIY quality that was perfect for the messiness I was after. I tried to take a slightly different visual strategy for each poem. I can't wait to cannibalize these for my manuscript, Pornegrophy. Joseph was a joy. Besides, I love making chapbooks. I've done six.
MT: I love the concept of writing a chapbook as “a barn dance for down and dirty dancing with ideas.” I also enjoy watching where your fast and deadly mind will move next, Joseph. You are fearless in breaking the molds in the indie lit world. How do you see it all moving in the future?
JQ: Honestly, I’m trying to see less and move with life more. Doug mentions the Italian Futurists, of whom I’m also fond, but there are obvious problems with their fervent, forward-looking modality; their ballistic disposition. I use the barn dance metaphor because I’m really in a mode of thinking with my hands, thinking with my feet, thinking with my skin (as Doug has shown us in SkinMag), thinking with my lips; in short: thinking in the embodied present. Then I try to find ways to fuse this kind of performative thought into writing and publishing. So I’ll keep building community with like-minded explorers in the next releases of A5 and in other (ad-)ventures like rIgor mort.US, where Eryk Wenziak and I are trying to re-imagine the meaning of publishing itself as a highly generative body that can be actively re-used and re-made without the constant impetus for new materials. These are models for living, which is why I am inclined to the arts.
MT: The pages of the chapbook that you’ve shared with us, Doug, are wild, messy and provocative. I feel like its poetry slam on the page. Do you think of the audience when you’re writing your poems? How to get them worked up while reading your pieces?
The formatting is absolutely meant to create a sense of orality, a kind of scoring for the poems. What's funny to me is that some of the scoring is easier to understand visually than to perform. Vice versa, too, I'm sure. I started writing poetry when a lot of my peers were having the "page/stage" argument. After trying to think of writing poems that would be the same on page as on stage, I became more interested in the differences between the two (particularly after seeing an opera with projected supertitles). The "messier" poems take the page as a stage. I am absolutely thinking about the audience. My arrangement of the mess is just as concerted as my decisions about a line break or a slant rhyme. I want there to be a visceral accompaniment to the poems, but I don't want to rely on a musician or visual artist. I can do that myself using type and space in such away that the poem becomes its own accompaniment—which of course means the poem gets to have an urgent, sensual, visual language at the same time as it has a verbal, subtle and at times more nuanced language. These are not at opposite ends for me and they move in and out of each other as the poem demands. The thing is, the formatting must never be a mere special effect. Just as a stunt-enjambment or metrical decision must not. If the poem needs it, I have to figure out how to achieve it with compositional integrity.
MT: Joseph and Doug, I’m finding what I’ve read and seen of the A5 series really exciting and different. You are creating a language that also includes the visual artist all in one without collaboration. The words are jumping off the page, so I’m not only reading an amazing poem or piece, but it’s moving around in such a way as to feel almost three-dimensional. The words are curving into each other and morphing into shapes. I find new phrases and meanings every time I read them. How do you see this changing your work from now on? It appears as though you’ve upped the ante for your next project. I apologize for bringing up the future again, Joseph, when you are working hellfire through the now, but I’m curious because every piece that we put out there moves us to a new place. I would love to hear from both of you on this.
JQ: Ha! Don’t worry, Meg. I have nothing against the future. It is, after all, inevitable. I’m just interested in modes that consciously avoid over-privileging sight and futurity. One might say that the future must account for the past and that is why we remain in the present. “What I will do” is always interpolated with “what I have done” and the site of interpolation is “doing now”. But I resist a uni-linear or ballistic insistence in formulating this relationship. As does the A5 series. For instance, SkinMag, though highly visual, actually evades any possibility of simple readings (seeings) via its kinetic energy. The text hides in its motion as much as it jumps off the page. The visual intensity actually decelerates the reading, forcing you to spend the time with each page that is necessary to actually feel the words trembling in your skin. Doug says “the poem becomes its own accompaniment” and, as a reader, I would only add that the poems are also their own mediators. This is true of the way that Rachel Eliza Griffiths uses an equal palette of black and white in “Memoria, Memoria” or that Prudence Groube uses alternations between visual chaos and order in “You Are Not Here” (the two other chapbooks in the first A5 release). These formal choices enable the poetry/art to both accompany and thus mediate their reading in ways that exceed simple linearized seeing.
DK: I like what Joseph says about the text becoming its own mediator, its own interlocutor. I've long dug puns, but there were opportunities for visual ones that have no analogue in an oral performance. In terms of procedure, dealing with "Drop It Like It's Hottentot Venus," in live performance makes more sense when I can project the poem and the audience can see the dead ends, the way the text drops. I could present it identically without the image, but the audience won't understand that the text dictates wrong turns and terrible mistakes.
Upping the ante? Every poem can do that, whether the format is wild or not. But I admit, where in The Black Automaton, I felt I was exploring a fairly consistent approach, SkinMag was about trying as many different things as I could. That's the beauty of a chapbook, it's on the edge of a writer's "discography"—it's like a collection of B-sides, and I grew up listening to Prince, so B-sides are thrilling! My journals are teeming with ideas that can't possibly work and that shit's fabulous!
Sorry to move you into another realm, but I would love for you to talk about the flash pieces you’ve shared with us in this issue. We're publishing two of the four pieces you sent us as two were published elsewhere. What is the connection, if any, between the four stories?
JQ: The connection is that I wrote all four of them. Oh, dear! It’s always easier talking about others words rather than one’s own, and on top of that, fiction is the mode in which I play most (i.e. it is least my discipline). But here’s what I’ll offer: 1) each of the stories is titled with a rhetoric tautology, that is, a sentence which unnecessarily repeats itself; 2) each story deals with the insistent recursion of either a memory or an experience; 3) each story features slippages in the meaning of words and images that are instigated by their reoccurrence; 4) each story consciously eschews a plot in favor of a revel(-ation); 5) a word is a bird is a sandwich is a stone; 6) any closed concept can be re-opened by an unexpected re-experience of the simplest thing.
MT: Doug and Joseph, I am really psyched to have had this chance to hear more about the A5 Series, this high-powered project. Is there anything else either of you would like to add? I really enjoyed this and can’t wait to read the chapbooks all the way through! WOW! What are you working on now, Doug?
DK: I'm actually at work on two manuscripts. Patter centers around parenthood, infertility into fertility. But since fatherhood magnified my general sense of the public-private (babies' interiors are constantly breaching into the external) and horror, poems include a re-staging of a miscarriage as a minstrel show; a sequence on the eve of my children's birth—I wandered out toward L.A.'s MacArthur Park looking to get into a fight with someone; and one called "Thank You But Don't Buy My Babies Clothes With Monkeys On Them."
The second manuscript, Pornegrophy, which I've mentioned earlier, gets its hands dirty in the eroticization of black bodies at risk, the homoerotic (for lack of a better term, because I have questions about equating violence with homosexual pleasure) violence in gangsta rap (funked with in a series of poems setting folk anti-hero Stagger Lee on the labors of Hercules) and several poems from SkinMag.
Depending on how those go, I may put another free chapbook (as pdf) up on my website. I've had two up there in the past. Truth is, A5 is inspiring me to try for a trio, to be called Been Did, Here Lately and Gwineter but that's so fresh, it might just be a whim. I've been banging my head against an opera, a Western, called Dead Horses. Plus poet Yona Harvey and I are planning another issue of MuckWorks, a journal we first put out a few years ago when, like Joseph, we challenged selected writers to a little experiment. That sounds like enough to get me to 2014. I really want to finish these full-lengths, but the freebie chapbooks give me places to develop and contain other ideas. Other than that, I'll be teaching, raising twins and talking shit with my wife.
MT: WOW, Doug! You’re amazing!! I look forward to reading these projects as they come out into the world. Good luck with all and thank you so much for sharing some of your exceptional work with Connotation Press!
JQ: Meg, this has been such a lark, so enjoyable. I think I just want to add a final thought about working across disciplines. It’s so exciting and something Doug does so well and has really inspired me to bring more liberally into my practice. I do think it’s good to have a base: a discipline that you work towards mastery. For me that’s been poetry. But then every time you work in a different discipline you learn something new to take back to your primary mode. That amateur experience is quite important. Writing flash fiction teaches me how to make a poem move. Deconstructing books into art pieces teaches me fresh approaches toward thinking about the page. Performance Art installations give me new ways to think about approaching time and space in my poems. Heck, even balancing your checkbook can teach you something about your written work, if you let it. It all feeds back into itself, like a wonderful sort of self-cannibalism that doesn’t even hurt. I think collaborative work does a very similar sort of thing and I’m beginning to think that’s going to be my next move. Really, with projects like rIgor mort.US, it already is where I’m moving.
MT: Thank you so much, Joseph Quintela and Douglas Kearney, for your brilliance! It’s been an exceptional interview and really exciting to hear how you’re breaking through the boundaries.