Interview with Douglas Kearney

At this years Association of Writer’s & Writing Program conference in Seattle, Washington, I witnessed an audience with dropped jaws and speechless reactions at a Douglas Kearney reading. The first poem he read titled “Thank You But Please Don’t Buy My Children Clothes with Monkeys on Them,” referred back to an actual event that occurred at a Costco shopping center, where Kearney encountered a line of dolls displayed on shelves for sale. Each doll was named in correspondence to a small animal included with the toy purchase: the blonde doll was named “Pretty Panda,” the brunette doll was named “Precious Teddy,” and the black doll was named “Little Monkey.” Kearney’s poem critiques the subtle racism embedded within the names of each doll. His delivery during his reading was unlike any other, one filled with voices, screams, deafening silences, and his body and voice transforming into characters of their own.

Below SpitJournal and Douglas Kearney talk about the influences behind his poetic genius.



KARLA CORDERO: So I’ve got to ask, who are your influences in regard to how you present your poetry on both page and stage?

DOUGLAS KEARNEY: For the between poem banter, I trace my influences to stand-up comedians. I think the best ones have developed a sense of timing, surprise, and fearlessness I find essential to “set up” a poem about, I don’t know, genocide or miscarriages. Richard Pryor’s ability to move seamlessly between registers of pathos and quiet anger; Louis C.K.’s performatively shameless/shame-filled confessions of failure and inadequacy; Eddie Izzard’s skewed didactism; Sarah Silverman’s cruel ignorance to social boundaries—these folks and others help frame the way I present the poems.

In terms of the poems’ performance, poets like Amiri Baraka, Wanda Coleman, Sonia Sanchez, LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, Bao Phi, Tracie Morris—these folks have all informed my sense of how to remember poems as sound. However, the poem’s sound is also, for me, routed through a kind of drum machine or sampler familiar to listeners of say, late-80s to mid-90s hip hop and J Dilla or Madlib’s production from the aughts.

For the sense of the poem, I dunno. I have some theatrical training, but I also just talk a lot.

CORDERO: During your writing process, what comes first, theme and words or form and presentation?

KEARNEY: It absolutely depends on the poem. I have no orthodoxy in that regard. My journal is full of thumbnails of page layouts just to help me imagine possibilities. I’ve written one of my favorite and maybe best poems from an exercise where I jot down titles of nonexistent poems in a kind of “dream table of contents.” I will say that often, when I fixate too much on a single line—maybe it comes to me when I’m driving or walking—and instead of writing it down, I repeat it over and over and over, that usually makes the line too precious to monumental to work with. So I suppose I need to keep that language nearby, but not in hand precisely.

 CORDERO: I noticed in all three of your books you have some kind of critique on social and cultural issues. What writers in particular have influenced you to talk about these issues?

KEARNEY: There’s a pretty strong tradition among Black writers when it comes to addressing the culture-at-large, often in a productive tension with what we might think of as stylistically lyric concerns. I am a grateful inheritor and participant in that tradition, that set of inquiries, that collection of tropes, so even before I think of individuals, I have a large body that feeds me. I’ll name a few folks here, but these are hardly representative. Amiri Baraka used to scare me and piss me off, honestly, because I felt I was being indicted, implicated; yet I still found something magnetic about reckoning with his work. He made poetry matter to me as a human being even when I wasn’t reading it at that moment. Harryette Mullen’s ability to render brutal social criticism with deft humor and a mastery of language’s unruliness has been a drinking gourd for me; S*PeRM**K*T is my favorite. Then, rap crews like Public Enemy and individual emcees like Ice Cube created a certain urgency that, embedded as their voices were in apocalyptically funky soundscapes, remained complex and artful.

CORDERO: How does the attention to social and cultural issues play into your own work?

KEARNEY: I want my readers to be alert to their active role in reading and thus completing a text. They are remembering the text with meaning and that is crucial to—here’s that word again—reckoning with a world full of surfaces teeming with text and signification. Social commentary is a frame for a number of human emotional essences/experiences that exist independent of a particular political program: racism for example is a site of violence, fear, shame, humor, anger, loneliness, pleasure—I’d argue that there are far fewer poems about race than take race into a spectrum of ways to experience being human in the world.

CORDERO: What is the aesthetic function of your poetry on page? What do you want your readers to experience as they journey through your poetry?

 KEARNEY: Typographic writing is a rendering of sound into a visual medium. I want the reader to experience the sound of language, voices, meanings in concerted tension.

CORDERO: What would you say is the difference between a reader encountering a poem on page, versus performed?

KEARNEY: If you are reading (or watching a clip you control, listening to a track on your device), you control time. You can stop, rewind, speed through, repeat a segment. This power is very different from going to see a performance where you are subject to the performer’s sense of time. This is the fundamental difference, and, I’d say the thorniest.

Additionally, of course, the body and sound, the presence of the poet beyond the mediated, polished space of the book is riskier. It can alienate a reader (I didn’t like the sound of his voice; she seemed rude) just as easily as it can create an affinity (she really paid attention to the audience; he was funny and well-dressed).

I used to try to eliminate all of the distance between the page and the stage in my presentation of the work. But that seems wrong-headed, now. I honor the visual scoring of the page when I’m focused and not nervous or feeling rushed (those line breaks should guide breath and rhythm). I don’t tend to purposely add/change words or make repetitions that aren’t in the text. But I’m mostly trying to highlight the emotional narrative of the poem, rather than emphasize the language for the language’s sake.

CORDERO: Can you shed some light behind the inspiration for the “Flood Song Series” in your book The Black Automaton?

KEARNEY: I wanted to write about Katrina. To have a say. But I was alert to the fact that a number of writers experienced it first hand. That people who weren’t writers were on the news testifying. I didn’t see how, with my skill-level at the time, I could be useful publishing work that sought to amplify the trauma via the occupation of the victim’s subjectivity or the outrage that, frankly, Kanye West had nailed so frankly with his indictment of George W. Bush. So, after several tries (including a poem influenced by Carl Phillips’s masterful “Cortege”), I thought about taking another angle. I wondered who benefitted from the disaster, the neglect, the suffering. Such entities would have to be animals. I took that, considered what would be the “occasion of utterance” for these animals and, since the media had focused on New Orleans as a synecdoche of the Gulf Coast, and U.S, culture has often used musical styles as a metonym for New Orleans, I gave each of the local creatures a song.

 CORDERO: From your first book Fear,Some, is there a particular poem you enjoy performing the most or have a personal connection to & why?

KEARNEY: Enjoy isn’t quite the word, but “Live/Evil” is important because it documents a moment when the poem was smarter than I and I had sense enough to cop to that. Considering the poem’s subject matter (violence toward women in particular), the implications of the new understanding is far from merely aesthetic—that is to say, I am fortunate in that “Live/Evil” didn’t just become a better poem, but it taught me about rhetorical violence as a facilitator of physical violence. As a writer who is compelled to write about violence, I have a responsibility to recognize that relationship.


CORDERO: Can you please talk about the aesthetic function in the poem “The Miscarriage: A Sunday Funny” in the book Patter?

 KEARNEY: This is the first poem I’ve written where I think the sonic possibilities are deeply trumped by the visual. The slant rhyme of “bed” and “blood” is, of course, important; but the typographic recurrence of “b” and “d” as first and last letter is what makes the poem work if it works at all.

CORDERO: Which particular program(s) do you utilize to manipulate text on page? How were you introduced to this skill?

 KEARNEY: I use Adobe InDesign. I started learning about graphic design in middle school when I went to a weekend class put on by a student from Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design. This was all hand drawn illustrations and lettering copied from type collections. I am so grateful I got some analog before it all went digital!

I took one other class in desktop publishing at Howard University as an undergrad—at the time, we spent, I don’t know, a few weeks learning how to use PageMaker. When I graduated from HU, I moved to San Diego and joined a temp agency focused on placing creatives just to take advantage of the free, hours long tutorials in the Adobe suite of Photoshop, Illustrator, and PageMaker.

I got a job doing PR and had to use MS Publisher to make collateral. I played with that a lot, trying to figure out how to push it. When I discovered that office also had PageMaker, I went back to it and made lots of mistakes. But I got better. From there, I moved to Minneapolis, worked in a full-on ad agency as a copywriter, but studied Quark Xpress so I could back up the art department (I was using Illustrator then as well, which I still use for my covers). I got my hands on InDesign once I got out of grad school.

My library is full of books about graphic design. Theory, manuals, catalogs—I’m a fan and enthusiast.

 CORDERO: How are all three of your books: Fear,Some, The Black Automaton, and Patter similar and different from each other?

KEARNEY: I think Fear, Some and Patter are more closely related. They are both more autobiographical in content, and seem to me, interested in the body as a presence than in absence. Of course, Patter inherits the absence of The Black Automaton in its poems around miscarriage and infertility, and it continues the visual experimentation of both its predecessors, but again, like Fear, Some, Patter’s performative typography is less aesthetically systematized/similar than The Black Automaton’s. They’re all concerned with violence. I dunno: Fear, Some is a pop album, The Black Automaton is hip hop, and Patter is soul music.

Douglas Kearney’s Bio:
Douglas Kearney is a poet, performer, and Librettist, he is the author of three collections of poetry, Fear, Some ( Red Hen, 2006), The Black Automaton (Fence Books, 2009), and Patter (Red Hen 2014). He has received a number of recognitions and awards, and currently lives with his family in Santa Clarita Valley, California and teaches at CalArts where he received his MFA in writing.

Read more about Douglas Kearney at:

Douglas Kearney performing his poem “Swimchant for Nigger Mer-folk (an Aquaboogie Set in Lapis).


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