Douglas Kearney is known for a poetry that aims to refuse rules and assumptions except for those he invents or consents to. An impossible ideal that he revels in reaching for. And his seven books of poetry demonstrate the possibilities, like those of no other living writer, of what’s sometimes called concrete or typographic poetry—poems that take typeface as a tool, that take the arrangement of words on a page as an occasion to scatter them the way a tree scatters leaves. His play is serious—Kearney writes from the raw ugliness of history, using the untethering of the shapes and sounds of his poems to articulate a confrontation with oppression and death of all sorts. His sense of humor springs from his virtuosity: this is a poet who, in his latest collection Sho, rhymes “POTUS” with “notice,” a wickedness that reminds me a little of Michael Robbins’s poetry, though Kearney doesn’t write nonsense, and his poetry is sweeter than Robbins’s.
Sho is an interesting choice for a title, in part because it suggests—to the ear—the writing workshop mantra “show don’t tell,” while to the eye it hints at a Black vernacular. What’s more, Kearney has always allowed himself only sparing use of description, which is to say he seeks neither to “show” nor to “tell” but rather to find his way to a language that approximates an experience or an emotional state or a lived process. In this sense he’s a poet of the eye, because the shape of his poems on the page always matters as much as anything, but always also a poet of the ear, because he composes and revises by listening particularly to the accumulating syllables and notes, and by consciously responding to them as sounds sometimes before he responds to them as meanings. Here’s what that’s like:
Night of it, N and I
misgave it as ours,
making ruck in the rented house
nicked and dug at it that night,
as all the while reckoning us
as tearing at what’s ours
This latest book leaves out much of Kearney’s signature typographic and concrete experimentation. Some of the poems seem more openly narrative in their aims, like the one I’ve just quoted—called “Manesology”—or the great COVID-era poem “Close,” about sheltering in place, month after month: “We keep some sickness / out.” What I’m trying to say is that it would be misleading to see these poems in any one dimension. They are as gorgeously wide-ranging as Kearney’s work always is. While some grow out of recent events like worldwide plague or the nightmare in Charlottesville, and all of them are animated by the politics of our time, others, like “The Showdown,” began life over a decade ago, only now coming to the surface. A thread of dance calls—“Do the Backseat Jam!,” “Do the Cruiseline-up! Slowgrind-up!,” and “Do the Six-Foot Jump Down!”—weaves through the book, and these, though they seem spontaneous and newly animated, Kearney tells me have been in the making for the better part of six years. Other poems embody the song that sound would make if sound were a singer. At the end comes “Manesology”—manes, Latin for the souls of ancestors—concerned with the hauntings of history, and how you might imagine surviving them. Kearney’s imagination is as various as any possible list of influences: he seems to have swallowed and metabolized the whole of Western culture. He has the spiritual force of a postmodern Melvin Tolson, the rhymer’s ear of a Q-Tip or a Seamus Heaney, the irony and beautiful bitterness of Harryette Mullen or Vievee Francis, the imagination for new shapes you find in Jorie Graham’s poems, and the disdain for cliché you find in Forrest Gander’s.
But even that string of names doesn’t begin to capture the singular magic here, magic made by a poet as comfortable in pop culture—and white pop culture’s endless obsession with Black culture—as he is in deploying a torchon, a form Indigo Weller evolved partly from the sestina. The overall effect in Sho is Kearney’s signature dynamism, and the text argues for the intricacy of the formal imagination—for the sense that a poem can sometimes grow best by the artist’s explicitly asking what would happen if this or that variable were introduced into the language. That this is the lifeblood of art, the ritual and the engine that helps us escape ourselves, and so, crucially, find ourselves, or find a revised self, a previously unimaginable sound, perception, soul. “The hunt, I’m used to it,” writes Kearney, “Still, how my pulse double.” I can’t think of a couplet that better catches the moment we’re living through even as it implies the world we wish for.
JESSE NATHAN: I’m curious about what poems do as much as what they are. What kinds of lives they lead, and what kinds of lives they lead us to lead. Some of your work has something in common with incantation—to “drive out what was called”—some with physical movement, some with prayer, witness, some even with weaving. Your poems seem to be experiences that happen to look like objects, or objects that masquerade as experiences. How do you think about representation? How do you think about what a poem does?
DOUGLAS KEARNEY: I love these questions, and there are a few ways to go about getting to them. Last year, I was judging the Cave Canem book award; I chose Aurielle Marie’s Gumbo Ya Ya. One of the things that struck me about Aurielle’s manuscript is that Aurielle writes poems with the assertion of their activity. The poems do something—you mentioned incantation, there’s a poem in Gumbo Ya Ya where the poem is a curse. Not about curses. Not the curse as metaphor. Not even a wish to throw a curse, but a curse itself. The poem didn’t show us Aurielle doing something, instead the poem did what it does.
Because I am suspicious of certain equivalencies, I try to be conscientious about using figurative language in poems. I also hope to be sparing with visual literary imagery. This is not programmatic, I don’t go back through poems culling them except when I do. Yet while I write, if a sentence is unsatisfying to me, it’s often that the syntactic formulae of comparison has crept in. Simile and metaphor distort things but front like they don’t; even poetic blazon about the beloved pushes the beloved away from themselves. These techniques often make people into assemblages of things that are not people, and that is the techne of dehumanization, which historically has abetted lots of bad shit. When I use those figures, I tend to be intentional about that precarity as part of the poem’s operational work: I mean to mean a thing about dehumanization and power. Now, synecdoche dismembers—its violence isn’t in the cut, but all right out there. It seems more honest to me. But metonymy! It often amplifies the relationship between things, pointing at the symbol as a cultural product, suggesting the reader recognize how the symbol operates in and out of the poem as its own device. I find that more consonant with how I’d like to work my mind than substitution or comparison. Specifically my mind—again, I don’t imagine this as programmatically the “right way” for all experiences of the world. Perhaps I think about relationships between what might usually be a tenor and a vehicle and generally let them keep their own skins.
My prosody is the way it is in part because I favor the experience of the words’ sounds rather than the sound it might direct the reader to hear indirectly. I like that sensuality—I like what my poems ask readers to do with their lips, tongue, mouth, and breath. Similarly, the appearance of letterforms themselves is as interesting if not more interesting to me (as I write) than a word that tells you to “see” something else. Again, this isn’t about purity—I have literary visual imagery in my poetry, I’ve used “like”/“as” and ravenous “is,” but my ambivalence is a significant root for my poetics as they have come to develop. “Experiences that happen to look like objects” is a brilliant way to think about it. Thank you for that!