DEAN RADER: Douglas Kearney is a fantastically original poet. His work has resonances with some other poems and poetic movements, but there is no one who is doing what he is doing. Reading his poems is an experience in the true sense of the word. We’ve both been intrigued by Kearney’s poems for some time; however, some readers may be unfamiliar with his work. How would you describe his poems? And how would you describe this book? What do you think he is trying to do with/to language?
VICTORIA CHANG: What a tough question — I think if we are to answer that dreaded and horrid question of what this book is “about,” I think this book is about race, the white imagination and gaze, violence through the gaze as entertainment. I think Kearney is using language as a way to tell stories, or perhaps to deconstruct narratives, but what I just wrote feels slightly confusing because Kearney’s poems aren’t operating in any conventional narrative (or lyric) manner.
Kearney’s body of work is very much about play with language, yet, that somehow feels like it diminishes the political aspects of his poems and his body of work. Perhaps play itself in Kearney’s work is a political act. I find this tension fascinating because on the one hand, I often get carried away in Kearney’s language (and the conceptual aspects of his work), but I’m also acutely aware of the humanity in his work (or the exploration of anti-humanity). In this way, maybe play and the political are not mutually exclusive. Maybe for Kearney, play = confrontation.
But now I’m thinking of Kearney’s sleight-of-hand language play as allowing the reader to enter the work and the hard work of racism and atrocities against humanity, specifically against the Black body. In this way, perhaps the language play is both a deflection/an undermining, and a direct confrontation. What do you think?
DEAN: Sorry. That was a hard question. Three in fact. But, if anyone can handle them, it is you!
In this case, I was curious how — to you — the poems enact their poemness. I suspect readers could have wildly different reactions to this book in part because Kearney’s poems operate on a variety of levels. For example, I see quite a bit of “Signifyin(g).” I am definitely not an expert in this field, and I do not want to claim any sort of authority about African American linguistic practice, but there are a lot of similarities in what is going on in Sho and what Henry Louis Gates Jr. writes about in The Signifying Monkey. Essentially, “Signifyin’” is wordplay. It involves puns, indirection, and plays on the gap between connotation and denotation. Gates defines “Signifyin’” as a
a trope, in which are subsumed several other rhetorical tropes, including metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony (the master tropes), and also hyperbole, litotes, and metalepsis (Bloom’s supplement to Burke). To this list we could easily add aporia, chiasmus, and catachresis, all of which are used in the ritual of Signifyin(g).
In Kearney’s work, I would add play with sound, play with line-breaks, and play with homophones and homonyms.
Take the opening lines from the poem “Do the Backseat Jam!”:
Stop there fam and jump to the brand spanking
back again you know how it go throw your hands
in the air when the lights on maestro raise the baton
and swing till you feel it the beat what’s taking over
the street to the club when I say you say ow
it thumps let me see those hands all the people
in the be quiet get down on the floor like you know
this’ll be the sure shot hit sweat through your clothes
Notice how, in the first line, Kearney has some fun with “fam” (for family) and rhyming it with “jam” in the title. Then there is the double play with “brand spanking,” which is riffing on “brand spanking new” and also the idea of a commercial “brand” spanking “back,” which both makes sense and does not. Then that phrase bleeds into “you know how it go through” which is sonically gorgeous from a poetic perspective but is, technically, grammatically incorrect. That syntactical fluidity subverts traditional notions of “high” and “low” linguistic deployment. Then we move to the phrase, “throw your hands,” which is a reference both to the dance-floor command and also to exasperation. Now, notice the double meaning of “taking over,” as well as the many connotative functions of “ow,” and “thumps.” But then the poem really does something impressive with the phrase “get down” — I love the ’70s dancing reference à la KC and the Sunshine Band — but also getting down on the floor for an active shooter. Suddenly, the speaker’s call to raise hands and Kearney’s use of “shot” and “hit” has transformed a previously light, playful poem into something deeper, edgier, and notably more political. Now, if you go back, the lines where the baton swings “until you feel the beat” no longer seem to reference music but rather, they describe a policeman beating someone.
The poem is a masterclass of indirect directness, of play via pain, of the wounds wound into language.
VICTORIA: You just threw a lot of vocabulary into your response! Impressive! I had to look up some of those words myself. I’d like to talk a little more about puns which incidentally are also called “paronomasia,” which looks a little like the word paranoid, doesn’t it? You smartly talk about the effect of Kearney’s wordplay, and I’ve been thinking about what puns are sometimes used for — humor, obviously, but also rhetorical effect. I think Kearney’s poems do both quite well, sliding back and forth between the two, but underneath the surface of play, as I implied before, these are actually very serious poems. In this way, the premise of the poems is that of trickster because at the end of the day, the poems in Sho, at least many of them, are poems of protest.
In truth, I feel like Kearney is so smart (and such a sonic genius) that I’m struggling to frame this discussion at all — it just wants to spill all over the place, much like his poems. But since you started with punning, let’s stick to punning and the effects of punning. For me, the punning, if we are to use the terminology and metaphor of syntax, feels very paratactic or side by side — without hierarchy.
For example, in the poem, “Eulogy for a Pair of Kicks,” there’s the playful meditation of a pair of shoes juxtaposed with violence, loss, and societal degradation. Playfulness and gravity have equal weight in Kearney’s poems, so much so that the reader might need to read the poems numerous times to catch the complex layering. The poem, as the title says, is a eulogy, praise for something that has died — in this case, a pair of shoes. There’s already humor in the title of the poem (and grief) and the poem begins slyly with an apostrophe to God:
Almighty Lord, give unto me two pair
of wings to hie them unto Thee on high!
Permit these worn gums take the sky.
O my soles!
Where’er your tread pressed
the rugged earth’s crust,
there you bore me home.
Now, I walk bare and alone.
God have mercy,
let be blessed
what shod me,
now, unbound for rest.
Note the pun of “O my soles!” which is a pun for “soul” and could also be a play on the singular (as shoes are in pairs). Just in one stanza, there’s so much sound play of “tread” and “pressed” and “crust,” along with alliteration of “bore” and “bare” and the slant rhyme of “home” and “alone” which also has assonance of the “o” sound.
And as I said earlier, the poem traverses between the humorous and the serious throughout. Those of an older generation might chuckle at the “Brown bustered tot you untied!” which is a reference to Buster Brown shoes and the character, but even here, “Brown bustered” has a double meaning with the inverted syntax so that the child is a person of color. In fact, there are sly references to color throughout this poem. Another example is: “Slick winter slips you black tracked!” instead of “back tracked” or “your canvas coke-white / as Death’s icy cheek — ” Note that “white” is associated with “Death” (instead of black) and leads fluidly to the speaker praying for the well-being of the dead shoe, hoping the shoes can make it to heaven, mated. This final color association with white is the associative pivot point of the poem as it barrels toward its ending.
A close reading will reveal that the poem has multiple meanings and is also a poem about race, violence, and the perils of religion and faith, as the poem ends with the shoes transcending Judgment’s “concertina barbs” with the word “barbs,” like so many of Kearney’s choices, holding so many meanings (end of an arrow, an unpleasant remark) and thus changing the possibilities of the poem:
So, kick back, my kicks.
Kick yourselves off my toenails
till that Great Quickstrike
with you, deadstock anew,
tonal gold, the Lord’s own grail.
May the hellhound’s marring maw
snare only air
as you ascend clear
of Judgment’s concertina barbs.
Reading Kearney’s poems is like being inside of a crystal — depending on the time of day and how the light is shining through the crystal, the poem’s meaning can change. It is truly a disorienting prismatic experience.
Reading Kearney’s poems makes me wonder about the poem’s relationship to the reader. I genuinely feel alive and also eaten alive while reading these poems. These poems are not meant to be easily consumed or consumed at all. They repel capitalism.
I’m also fascinated by Kearney’s avoidance of lyric epiphanies, narrative, and overt arguments. It’s the latter that actually interests me the most — these poems make arguments, but the minute language gets too close to actually stating the argument in any conventional way, the poet tosses the argument into a blender and the language gets mashed up and rejiggered into a brand-new language.
DEAN: That was Gates flexing, not Rader. I had to double-check metalepsis myself.
I love your claim about feeling alive and being eaten alive. I agree completely. These are not poems to be “read” in the traditional sense. There is no A to B to C to D. A and B are two sides of the same coin that has been flipped in the air by C while D clasps his hands together to keep you from seeing if it’s heads or tails. What is hidden? What is revealed? Where will the coin land? How fast is it spinning? And, most importantly, is it a coin with two tails? Maybe the reader never has a chance to call it correctly.
Your keen insight about a new language points precisely at something else this book made me think about — Charles Olson’s 1950 essay “Projective Verse.” I’m not saying Kearney intentionally invokes Olsen or is indebted to his ideas, but I kept being reminded of Olson’s claim that projective verse, which he also calls “OPEN verse” (his caps), is “COMPOSITION BY FIELD” as opposed to composition by way of inherited lines, traditions, customs, and formal expectations. I think this is apropos for Kearney because it places the emphasis on the energy of the poem rather than on the “genius” of the author or the “prestige” of poetic history. For Olson, projective verse is characterized by:
(1) the kinetics of the thing. A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it (he will have some several causations), by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader. Okay. Then the poem itself must, at all points, be a high energy-construct and, at all points, an energy-discharge
Kearney’s poems are nothing if not kinetic, and, as you suggest, that energy is absolutely transferred from where the poem originates to the reader. These poems are totally an energy-discharge. Olson again:
This is the problem which any poet who departs from closed form is specially confronted by. And it involves a whole series of new recognitions. From the moment he ventures into FIELD COMPOSITION — puts himself in the open — he can go by no track other than the one the poem under hand declares, for itself. Thus he has to behave, and be, instant by instant, aware of some several forces just now beginning to be examined.
It is as if Olson predicts Kearney’s project. The “problem” with decoding or interpreting the poems of Sho is that they “involve a whole series of new recognitions.” Because of his open composition, he has to give himself over to the many forces of the poem. Indeed, there is clearly more going on in these poems than you or I or Kearney can pin down. Maybe more than we know, and certainly more than we can “examine.”
For me, Kearney’s poems are fields of interrogation. They are not things but acts. Encounters. I mean, look at this poem. And I mean that: look at it first. Then “read” it:
O deep Black zenith — GOD
Go down lift up take in
sweet body of the body of
what’s on high —
O go down —
O[h] O[h] O[h] O[h] O[h] O[h] O[h] O[h] O[h] O[h] O[h] O[h] O[h] That god —
Good Spirit flow pierced run swayed bowed
what we owed the body I see
a sweet body of
the sweet body — We give I know it was —
What flow — in the row
in the body of
the things of the Spirit —
I turn a rock rocked tremor turnt thing, no body —
As someone who has spent his entire adult life, writing, writing about, and teaching poetry, I’m not sure I know the right way to engage this poem, but I know this: wow!
VICTORIA: First Gates, now Olson. I’m having trouble keeping up with you this round! This passage you quote from is from Kearney’s poem, “Fire.” This was definitely one of the poems in the book where I wasn’t sure how to engage with the poem either, so I just went along for the sonic joy ride, which you explain much more eloquently than I just did.
Something else that interested me about Sho is the idea of liminality — this book felt like a book of transitions, a book that explores the landscape of change (and literally a changing landscape of mapping the speaker’s move from the West to the Midwest, presumably) but interestingly, despite the changing physical landscape, some things remain the same: racism, the white gaze, and the Black body as spectacle.
In the poem “…Fox!”, there’s a fox that “lies on the shoulder / by my drive to work,” the speaker’s “commute,” and “our new block.” The poem also refers to the speaker previously living in a different landscape: “(had none of this stuff in our desert, nope!).”
In another poem, “Close,” the speaker refers to a house in the “now / ‘transitional’ hood, / we steal away where / some call ‘White Cliffs’—” and later in the poem, the speaker refers to challenging neighbors: “Minding my gap / twixt strained neighbors, / drilling what have I touched?”
The landscape changes described in the poems are the “real” physical changes. But amid these real changes are fake changes too. In “The Post—,” the speaker critiques the way white culture performs seeing the Black body, but in the end, the Black body is still object and spectacle:
America is different now, isn’t it.
The circling birds are tracing hugs,
yes. They want us all inside? There,
a pink child flies my skin, a kite!
“Look mommy,” they said and mommy did.
“See how high it can go?” mommy said.
America is so different now, yes!
This poem, like many of Kearney’s poems, has a tone of skepticism, sarcasm, and critique. Even the question: “America is different now, isn’t it” ends with a period instead of a question mark, as if the speaker is saying that America isn’t different at all. The “hugs” and “They” who want the “us” inside seem to be mocking the performative aspect of seeing and allyship, and how whiteness supporting the Black body is ultimately for show.
In the next line, a “pink child flies my skin, a kite!” as if to say the Black body is an object on display to be beholden and controlled like a kite — for spectacle and fun — after all, a kite is a toy, and diminished further, a kite is a child’s toy. This image of the skin separated from the body and flown like a kite is truly arresting (as writing), disgusting, and heartbreaking all at once. Here, the speaker is stating that skin = race = racism, and that the speaker’s skin can’t really ever be separated from selfhood, and to even imagine so, is to have the self infiltrated, stolen, and used for entertainment.
And finally, there’s the echo of the last line with slight modifications: “America is so different now, yes!” where a “so” is added, and a “yes!” with an exclamation point. The excess of “so,” “yes,” and the exclamation point are comically not believable.
Similarly in other poems, the Black body serves as the object of the white gaze or the non-Black gaze. In the poem, “Sho,” the speaker explores the tension between performance and exploitation:
dusk, a spot where stood
Body. Thus they clap
when I mount banc’, jig
up the lectern. Bow
to say, “it’s all good,”
we, gathered, withstood
the bends of dives deep
er, darker. They clap
as I get down. Sweat
highlights my body,
how meats dyed bloody
look fresher for show
ing, I got deep, spit
out my mouth, a rig
id red rind.
Here the speaker is even juxtaposed next to “meats dyed bloody,” as if to say that his body can be killed, that it is an object to be consumed.
This might be a good time to ask you what you think is the significance of the title of the book, Sho. Maybe I’ll get us started: there’s “show” (performance), “sho” (or “sure” in African American Vernacular English), or the verb form — to “show” (show something, display).
DEAN: Agreed! All of that. And probably more! Not sure I can improve on your very insightful breakdown. Plus, I like it better when you talk. So, I’ll ask another question. When we were chatting about this book, we both saw-slash-heard traces of Harryette Mullen in these poems, but we did not get a chance to explore this in much depth. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
VICTORIA: I was thinking about Haryette Mullen because I recently read Urban Tumbleweed: Notes from a Tanka Diary (I too have written some Tankas) and was reflecting on how different the style in this book is from say, Sleeping with the Dictionary or Recyclopedia: Trimmings, S*PeRM**K*T, and Muse & Drudge (what a title!). I think I’ve also read somewhere that Kearney cites Mullen as an influence, so I don’t want to claim this as an original thought because it’s not. I love some of the poems in S*PeRM**K*T, and here’s one that is often referenced by readers and critics:
Lines assemble gutter and margin. Outside and in, they straighten a place. Organize a stand. Shelve space. Square footage. Align your list or listlessness. Pushing oddly evening aisle catches the tale of an eye. Dis-plays the cherished share. Individually wrapped singles, frozen divorced compartments, six-pack widows, all express themselves while women wait in family ways, all bulging baskets, squirming young. More on line incites the eyes. Bold names label familiar type faces. Her hand scanning throwaway lines.
I admire so much about this poem at the language level. Note how “list” becomes “listlessness” or how “oddly” conjures up the idea of odd and even and Mullen writes: “Pushing oddly evening aisle,” which is very clever as even becomes “evening.” “Individually wrapped singles” is reminiscent of cheese slice package labeling, but also becomes a single person once we read “frozen divorced compartments.” “Family ways” sounds like “familiar” and “familiar type faces” could be “familiar type of faces” or “typefaces” as in typing, and so much more.
By the end of the poem, the “throwaway lines” can be writing-related or the lines at the beginning of the poem (lines of people in marginalized communities, possibly) or were the lines at the beginning also lines of writing or are the throwaway lines at the ending, people? There’s so much to love in this poem and its unabashed playfulness and duplicity.
I mention this poem because I think Kearney’s work is also filled with this kind of playful, yet serious duplicity as I talked about before, at the opening of our discussion. I also love all of the possibilities in both of these poet’s works. Both Mullen and Kearney are critiquing and simultaneously sort of arguing that the act of critique isn’t narrowing but expansive. I’m enamored with this idea of critique as possibility. We see this in Mullen’s poem, which seems to be skirting around the margins of marginalized communities (where are we — a supermarket or a homeless shelter or…), as well as possibly exploring themes of societal loneliness and despair, and the writer’s desire and inability to document (thus perhaps pointing to the futility of the writing practice as a kind of ars poetica).
I want to ask you one final question, which is: Why do you think Kearney’s book, Sho, appears so visually “conventional” compared to his other work (at least, the work I’ve read)? These poems appear (at least visually) like many poems being written and published in America today. I know this is intentional or at least we can assume it’s intentional. I have some ideas, but I’d love to hear yours first.
DEAN: What an interesting question. I notice you did not offer your own insights here. Cagey.
We should be clear that many of the poems in Sho will appear as “experimental” or “unconventional” to a lot of readers (by the way, shout out to the folks at Wave Books for the design and execution of this challenging project). But, compared to some of Kearney’s other poems, you are correct: on the page, these poems look more like typical, lineated, left justified poems. There are even some sonnets and neo-sonnets!
My hunch about this decision — and I agree that it is intentional — is to create a book that is inviting to the reader who might be turned off by conceptual or experimental poems. Most readers have a visual reaction to poems. I see this all the time with my students. Poetry can be anxiety-making enough. If a poem is scattered all over the page, if words are split over several lines, if there is gibberish, if a poem looks as though it does not want to be “read” or “enjoyed,” if it looks like it requires some sort of intervention, then some (maybe a lot of) readers just won’t do the work to be in the world of the poem. So, my guess is that Kearney was a little more interested in inviting readers into the world of his poems. It’s like when the sitter arrives and your kids are in the middle of a tantrum — it’s chaos inside, but no need to scare anyone at the front door.
The artist John Baldessari wrote once, “The problem of art is art.” Some poets might say the problem of poetry is poetry, but I don’t think Kearney feels that way. If you have ever seen him perform his poems, you can imagine him getting frustrated at times with the limits of the page, but to me, Kearney loves the poem. I think he respects poetic history and wants this book to be part of a legacy. I see this book as a love letter to poetry and what it can do.
VICTORIA: Yes, I think you’re right — that Kearney wanted the readers of this book to be invited in. I think, and I could easily be wrong, that Kearney wanted the reader to pay attention to the language, what the language was trying to say/not say and by removing one element of the conceptual/the visual, he’s allowing the reader to focus on words a little more. The visual is stripped down so that we can see what is there, what is really there. In this way, I think the book is anti-spectacle. It is asking the reader to see, to really see (not for show), and to reckon with the atrocities of our time. All the while, Kearney’s language is always new, is always about possibility and expansion, and always dazzling.
Dean Rader has written, edited, or co-edited 11 books, including Works & Days, winner of the 2010 T. S. Eliot Prize and Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry, a finalist for the Oklahoma Book Award and the Northern California Book Award. He is a 2019 Guggenheim Fellow in Poetry and was just named a finalist for the Nona Balakian Award for excellence in reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. He is a professor at the University of San Francisco.
Victoria Chang is the author of five books of poetry, including OBIT, which received the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the PEN Voelcker Award, and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Prize, as well as was longlisted for the National Book Award, and shortlisted for the Griffin International Poetry Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. She lives in Los Angeles and is the program chair of Antioch’s Low-Residency MFA Program.