Douglass Kearney and his book covers

by Abdul Ali

A decade before publishing his full-length debut collection Fear, Some, Douglas Kearney was an active member of an all-black comic book collective, “Flatline Comics,” on the campus of Howard University. You can see an illustrator’s sensibility in all of his books, especially in their signature covers. This is most pronounced on the cover of The Black Automaton where all of the buildings are drawn in block shapes resembling a funhouse Gotham City.

Kearney’s writing challenges his readers to brush up on their pop culture and historical references, while loosening up their collars a bit as humor permeates almost all of his poetry in Fear, Some, The Black Automaton, and Patter, his most recent collection. Mr. Kearney is a celebrated poet and his numerous accolades include having his second book, The Black Automation, selected by Catherine Wagner for the National Poetry Series Prize. A winner of the prestigious Mrs. Giles Whiting Writing Award, Kearney has also received fellowships from Cave Canem and Idyllwild, among other institutions. His work—which has appeared in Poetry, Callaloo, and the Iowa Review, and many other literary journals—epitomizes what poet Thomas Sayers Ellis calls “the spoken page.” His poems are neither flat nor timid. They pulse, are often comic, and unafraid to collapse time. I would be remiss if I did not mention that Douglas Kearney is probably the most animated reader of his work I have encountered to date.

Patter is as an elegy for the unsaid, for what we—particularly men—do not discuss in public spaces: how language sometimes fails us about miscarriage, infertility, the love/hate relationship with our mates’ bodies. Kearney and I spoke via telephone at length, attempting to close the gaps between the lines of his poems, the messiness of fatherhood, and what exactly is meant when people call his work “experimental.”

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ABDUL ALI: I’m aware that experimental writing is marginalized in reading communities and in graduate school. No one takes the time to get it or to see an inherent value in making sense in a different mode. When did the visual poem really take root for you? What inspired you to write visual poems? Who were you reading?

DOUGLAS KEARNEY: The first time I was made really acutely aware of visual poems, I had written a poem about breakdancing. I guess I had written what people would consider a spoken word poem. I was writing understanding that the primary way people would receive my work is if I were standing in front of them performing it. If you look at a lot of spoken word poets’ work, line breaks aren’t essential. It’s like: “I know how to say this.”

I showed it to Yona [Harvey]. She looked at it and was like, “here you have a poem about breakdancing, but it’s all in this one big block tucked over to the left. What would happen if you made the poem breakdance?”

At that point, I started working in Microsoft word and using tabs, and moving stuff around. About a year or so after that, at my first Cave Canem retreat, I had written a poem in that same format, playing with the tabs, and read it in Tim Seibles’ workshop, where Tim Seibles remarked, “your poem is doing all these spaces on the page, but you just read it like it was straight through. Your reading didn’t reflect the formatting. Why is that?”

So through these two experiences, that’s how I came to writing my poems more visually. A poem [could be] a dynamic activity, visually, but also what does that demand of you when you read it? So you have the sonic aspect. Then you have the visual. If you think about the visual and sonic, and I get the sense aspect, then I’m firing on all cylinders.

ALI: Is there ever a worry that because your experiments are happening simultaneously on multiple levels, the reader may not get it? How do you reconcile risk-taking and your creative process?

KEARNEY: In terms of the reader not getting it, I’ll put it like this: I was in a grad school class once talking about this sort of thing. I remarked to one of my classmates, like, “well, you know, if it’s going be really difficult or obscure, there’s got to be some kind of reward for them to deal with it.” And she was like, “don’t you think that’s kind of condescending?” In my head, well, I was like, shouldn’t there be pleasure, something to make a person go “ooohh damn?”

If someone’s going to sit there and engage a poem, there has to be something in it for her. One of the things I try to do is create a poem that has a sonic richness. I want to create the kind of poem where even if you may not “get the content,” there’s a sonic richness. So if someone isn’t getting the content at this moment, there’s something to make him go “wow, that was sensually pleasurable.”

ALI: I want to talk about Patter. So much of writing about fatherhood is stuck in recovery mode. It’s such a loaded term: black fatherhood. So many of us are trying to bury stereotypes or further respectability politics that much of the messiness gets left outside of the writing. What I really appreciate about your book is that it deals with the messiness. What lead you to write this book?

KEARNEY: The first thing is that I wanted to document what my wife and I went through. It was, in many ways, a strange interruption of our lives together as a couple. We’d been married for some time before we actively started trying to have children. And the expectation is that once you try to not have kids, you’ll have kids, right? You take the condom off and you’ll have kids. But that didn’t happen, and we had a lot of disappointments along the way, culminating [in] a miscarriage. When I write, it’s largely to make sense, to understand. If I feel a way that’s not acceptable, I write about it. And so, notes became very important. And when we did have a kid, there were all of these other anxieties.

And what I think I hear you asking about is the difference in writing a poem about a subject and the decision to publish a book about a subject. It wasn’t until I really began thinking about what it meant to write from the outside about something that happens primarily in the body of a woman. [Conception] happens in the body of a woman and yet it has an effect on me. What would it mean to enter this really messy space of writing and to be willing to get some things right and maybe get some things wrong and see what kind of conversations [come up]? I think that’s one of the things poets can do very effectively: put something out there—whether it’s at your reading or whether you’re fortunate enough to enter a larger, maybe even national conversation. I felt like I had the opportunity, but also responsibility, to attempt to enter into the public this question of loss and how we deal with it—beyond the sense of therapeutic. The absence—not only in this case of my daughter but of language or ritual of presence and what men are supposed to do.

ALI: This is the work of the poet: how do we take the messiness of life and go deeper fearlessly until we hit a nerve.

KEARNEY: That was it. But what I came to as I was writing the work is that there’s no go-to. I love that you keep using the word mess. That, to me, is what we do. We go in, get our fingers all in there, and we produce something that, at some level, rearranges the mess. And we can attend it—“oh shit, that is messy.”

ALI: And the other mode that we write in—the recovery work—is that we wear these masks and we don’t know how to take them off. And the black male mask often suggests that we are macho, we are the bucks. So for you to write about this, my mind was literally on fire. I’m thinking he’s actually writing about going to a fertilization clinic? That was huge. That really takes us several miles ahead in terms of taking the mask off.

KEARNEY: My biggest fear was coming off as misogynistic. I was less concerned about my masculinity and more about the possibility that I was being misogynist.

ALI: Because of all of the references to the female body?

KEARNEY: Yes. That was literally my biggest concern. And I want to be very clear about what I mean by that. I was prepared for the line “I love your body/ I hate it” to be problematic. I knew what that could do. I was more concerned with a casual thinking. I can’t say that this would be that way because, in my head, I could see it, I would know about it and, in the revision, I would be making concrete decisions. I didn’t want anybody else to bear the weight of the experiment I was conducting. On some level in my work—if someone sees an experimental strand in my work—I want that strand to be in my head. If, for example, you write about homophobia but that poem actually hurts the LGBT community, to me that’s flawed shit. And that was the real concern that I had. That I would write in a way that would re-form or reproduce the woman’s body as this mysterious place—mystical—like, “I don’t know what happens in there!” Calculated mess—and that calculation would be in every step I took, like the phrase “I love your body/ I hate your body” counterbalanced by a performance of failure.

ALI: Was there anything particular you wanted people to get from your book?

KEARNEY: I wanted people to understand how hard it is for some of us to reckon with the idea, the reality, of becoming parents: trying to become parents; having little black children in the world where someone can shoot a black girl in the face with a shotgun; that things won’t be okay. I think a lot of parents have anxiety about bringing children into the world. The context of that safety, or lack thereof, can still also be culturally specific.

I also wanted people to understand dealing with infertility and that kind of difficulty. At the end, I hope people see that through all these poems (and many readers may not feel comfortable to men who struggle) what drives them is a desire to actually have a life— whether that is the life of, in my case, my twins, or a work of art—despite how difficult it is. I could have curled up into a ball and just not done anything. We went on anyway. In our case, we were fortunate. We got more than what we had ever asked for.

ALI: And by “more” you mean—twins?

KEARNEY: We got the twins. We got healthy children. We were just like, “can we get one healthy child?” At the same time, it’s hard having children—trying to keep our species going. There’s difficulty, but there’s also resilience. But that resilience comes from some kind of drive. Maybe it’s love. Maybe it’s biological but it isn’t necessarily inherent—some of us aren’t able to keep going. And it also isn’t an indictment of those who choose otherwise.

ALI: When you were writing these poems, were you trying to do something transgressive? So often our work gets tagged into categories, gendered categories. Women write these kinds of poems over there and men write these kinds of poems over here. Was that in the back of your mind at all?

KEARNEY: That’s of course a part of it. In just taking a step back and looking at the work, I felt like in order to communicate it clearly on one level, the whole idea of the book is—I suppose—a transgression. People keep telling me that a male writing poetry about fertility, infertility, and especially miscarriage is rare. (Chiwan Choi’s Abductions comes to mind.) So to write in a male voice in what folks consider a female domain trespasses and, as such, transgresses. Even so, I think it would be much more problematic for me to write about the same material through a female persona. Like, I wouldn’t dare try to assume my wife’s perspective! Nope. So, if it is transgressive to take on miscarriage and infertility as a male, then it would be dishonest for me to not be transgressive in Patter. Put another way: If you are swimming in the water, you don’t have to think about being wet. I’ll grant there are some transgressive figures in the book—many of the “Father-of-the-Year” characters—but that’s me trying to get my semi-Ai on. And unlike Ai, who was a master at making the repulsive seem somehow less so, I think it’s a bit less ambiguous where I stand on those guys. Maybe I should’ve asked you to define transgressive!

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ABDUL ALI
is a poet and a culture critic. His collection Trouble Sleeping was selected by Fanny Howe as the winner of the 2014 New Issues Poetry Prize. Ali teaches at Towson University and lives with his family in Maryland. Follow him at @abdulali_.