Somewhere near the middle of his third collection, The Monster I Am Today: Leontyne Price and a Life in Verse, the poet Kevin Simmonds defines “monster.” Or, rather, refers us to its Latin root, monere, which is “to remind, bring to (one’s) recollection, tell (of); admonish, advise, warn, instruct, teach.” Monster as teacher. The “life in verse,” of course, is not the life of famed soprano Leontyne Price, who possessed a voice so beautiful it was cited in a Supreme Court decision as the standard for soprano sound. (It’s not unironic, in Simmonds’ treatment of this fact, that Antonin Scalia made the citation of Price in an opinion arguing against affirmative action.) The “life in verse,” rather, is Simmonds’ own, making the book a Künstlerroman of sorts: in chiseled, lucid, stunningly clear long-lined prose-like sections that sandwich aching terse persona poems written in the voices of Price and other figures, the poet details his own painful path trying to become an opera singer, and failing. We move from his lonely and broken and music-steeped childhood to his immersion in the white world of the Vanderbilt vocal performance scene. There he struggles to hold onto his voice, to what he describes as the Blackness of his sound. Simmonds must be one of the only poets working today in English with extensive training as an opera singer. And whither the monster? Is his life — his “ordinariness,” or what he calls his “stunted development,” his failure to achieve major success as a musician — part of the warning? Is the tokenizing Price experienced — and Simmonds, too, at Vanderbilt—part of the warning? Surely the racism that drenches American life is part of the monstrosity here. The writing — it’s astonishing to watch the unfolding, complicated beauty of it — renders something about how the poet has, in his life, heard the call of Price and her voice. The book itself is a gorgeous monster, longer and more varied than many contemporary poetry books, with three sections spanning 160 pages. And its hybrid approach — mixing fragments of what you might call prose with quotes, lists, invented FBI memos, transcripts, and traditional lyrics — rises up, a glorious Frankenstein of genre and style.
JN: There’s a profound tension in your work between saying and not saying, between withholding and expressing. A lot of people talk about poetry as self-expression. But you’re discreet about your personal life — as was, it sounds like, Leontyne Price (“her unflappable bearing,” you write, “remains impenetrable, off limits”). I know that you guard your privacy, a harder and harder feat these days. In this new book, you reveal more of yourself and your story than in past work. But part of your artistry continues to be, it seems to me, a sense that there’s some daylight between the artwork and the artist, that the voice on the page is careful in its confessions. I keep thinking of your sensitivity to the limits of language, to the way it doesn’t do: “the language,” you write at one point, “gathering in my throat like the sound of dead beetles crunching underfoot.” What’s the relationship in your art between self and self-disclosure? Is poetry self-expression? Is the artist’s story important?
KS: Art reveals the artist. The artist chooses what’s given over for public scrutiny. I’m most captivated by what’s withheld from the public in the poem, song, sculpture, dance, play — what remains after the artist’s (re)visions of emphasis, concealment, and adornment.
I want less answer and more question, more wonder and uncertainty. Yet it seems that, right now, endless commentary and disclosure are what people crave. Maybe to encourage them to face the conditions of their own lives. Maybe to avoid facing the conditions of their own lives.
I’m not big on fandom. Even with Price. I revere her sound and her resilience, but I’m not a fanatic about her. Or anyone else. I won’t wear the t-shirt, sign the roll or get a membership card.
JN: So, is poetry self-expression?
KS: Its creation is almost always conscious and, therefore, contrived. To what degree? Depends. It’s a unique form of performance, but it is performance. Many conflate story with identity and an identifiable linearity, a conventionally presented chronology that gives shape to something larger. I think we live in fragments that elude or outright defy attempts to snap them into place with each other. We’re not dealing with Legos. At least I’m not.
When I try to (re)member my life, I must first recall fragments, arrange them into something I can follow, then externalize that into a written form discernable to other people. I’m not always keen to follow those steps, or to keep to the same order. The contradictory fragments of my existence occasionally cohere into discernible contradictory fragments that I sometimes claim and then constitute as my story. Everything that happens to me, or that I think I make happen, is me. I’m unsure if it’s meaningful to anyone else.
I’ve often said that I write to clarify and complicate. While walking around New York’s Lincoln Center three years ago, I thought of Price and how I’d dreamed of singing at the Met. Then I wondered two things: “Why her?” and “Why didn’t I get here?” Or something like that. It’s all fragments. The poems came first. They were and remain fragments. The rest, which I’ve been told amount to essays, reveries, memoir, sketches, prose blocks, emerged because a couple of folks who read the poems early on essentially said the poems weren’t enough. I get that a lot. I usually ignore those observations, but this time I didn’t. I responded by writing more, and called that taking a risk.
I wouldn’t say I’ve avoided admitting or acknowledging my life in my work, which is how I understand the “confessional” in poetry. If I’m to believe what people say about what I’m demonstrating in my work, then I’m “brave” and “bearing my soul.” Yet I’m careful what and how much I disclose because people are largely incapable of facing the totality of their own lives, let alone someone else’s, with love, mercy, and understanding. And that’s what I’m after.