Between the Cover Podcast Logo

Between the Covers Podcast - Transcript

Between the Covers Douglas Kearney Interview

Back to the Podcast

David Naimon: Today’s episode is made possible by Northwestern University Press and their new release, The Monster I Am Today: Leontyne Price and a Life in Verse by Kevin Simmonds. Leontyne Price remains one of the 20th century’s most revered opera singers and notably, the first African-American to achieve such international acclaim. As he melds lyric forms with the biography of one of opera’s greatest virtuosos, Simmonds composes a duet that spotlights Price’s profound influence on him as a person and an artist, “That’s how I hear: Her.” Listeners receive a 20% discount on The Monster I Am Today or any other title with promo code pod20. This offer is available at Today’s episode is also brought to you by Matthew Specktor’s Always Crashing in the Same Car: On Art, Crisis, and Los Angeles, California, a vibrant and intimate inspection of failure told through the lives of iconic, if under-sung, artists, Carole Eastman, Eleanor Perry, Warren Zevon, Tuesday Weld, and Hal Ashby among others and the author’s own family history. Through this constellation of hollywood figures, Specktor unearths a fascinating alternate history of the city that raised him and explores the ways in which curtailed ambition, insufficiency, and loss shape all of our lives. Says John Jeremiah Sullivan, “Always Crashing in the Same Car is going on the shelf with Play It As it Lays and The Big Sleep and my other favorite books about L.A. I couldn’t stop reading it.” Always Crashing in the Same Car is out on July 27th from Tin House and available for pre-order now. I’m excited to share this conversation with Douglas Kearney, not only because he is a great poet and a great thinker about both poetry and the performance of poetry, but also because this conversation covers new territory for the show and really does so in a deep way. Before we start, I want to tell a story that isn’t really at first going to seem relevant but stick with me. Doug and I talked on the day the Pacific Northwest heat dome broke. I had never heard of the term heat dome before that week. The three days of the heat dome with temperatures up to 118 degrees in Portland, obliterated all past records and did so in June, two months before things typically get warm here. This 118 degrees up here in the North is a higher temperature than the highest ever temperatures anywhere in Florida or Louisiana. A hotter record temperature than most places in Texas or New Mexico have ever experienced. Unlike many of these places, most Portlanders don’t have air conditioning because it doesn’t get hot here, and weirdly, it was even hotter than this much farther North in places in British Columbia that reached 121 degrees. The night before our conversation, the heat dome broke and within hours, the temperature dropped over 50 degrees. There was this otherworldly ecstatically weird and wonderful oceanic breeze moving through the Willamette Valley. We sat on our porch and felt the ocean in the air, truly like an act of grace. But the next morning, my cat didn’t show up to wake us up as she does every morning. I know what you’re thinking, “Why is he telling us this?” This isn’t a show on pets. Douglas Kearney isn’t known as an eco poet and this conversation doesn’t engage with climate change, but bear with me. I found Ewok under a bush in our backyard, just before my interview, unable to put weight on one of her front legs. I figured she had either stepped on something that wounded her or broke something in her foot but she didn’t seem in distress, so I plopped her down in the office where I record and she spent that time with me talking to Doug until I could take her to the vet hospital. After we were done, I spent the entire rest of the day and night at two hospitals that were absolutely flooded with people with pet emergencies. It was there that we eventually learned that Ewok had thrown a clot that was preventing blood flow to her leg. But what struck me, waiting those hours in the waiting room among so many others was that—and this isn’t an exaggeration—around half the people there were with birds, with fledgling eagles, falcons, cooper’s hawks, and crows. Birds that had leapt out of their nests before they could fly because of the heat and people who are taking the entire day to try to save them. It’s complicated because young birds do this normally too. You aren’t supposed to disturb them unless they are injured. But given that in Seattle, there were mass deaths of just such birds, it seemed like this was happening far more than usual. Several days later, I learned that this was unprecedented at the hospital. Couple that with the more than a billion, more than a billion sea creatures, mussels, sea stars, barnacles, hermit crabs along the Pacific Northwest coast that died during those three days and apparently looked as if they had been boiled or cooked. All of this makes me think of Douglas Kearney’s poetics. A poetics that works against catharsis and against relief. A poetics that in his words is about getting people to sweat together, to acknowledge with their bodies that they are, despite what they might think, in it together. I’m thinking this is the poetics of the moment, not just the poetics of a poet exploring the impossible contradictions of being black in the United States but also the poetics of even if you don’t think the billion sea creatures that died in a three-day span, just before we talked, has anything to do with you, even if you have a nest, a home that you could air condition unlike the hundreds of people who died directly from the heat across the Pacific Northwest, we are in fact all in the same nest. There’s nowhere to leap. There’s something amazing about how Kearney is trying to get us to feel that in a way that won’t leave us. Rest assured, we aren’t talking about climate apocalypse or massive die-offs in this conversation. This isn’t a doom and gloom conversation but one that I think is ultimately life-affirming. But I do think we are talking about these things nevertheless. Even though we start by talking about poetry and performative typography within poetry in a way that will be candy for poets, it doesn’t take long before things break open to really be about everything, art making, social justice, solidarity, and more. In that spirit, unlike my conversation with Doireann Ní Ghríofa where I mainly edited Ewok and her dog Mossy out of the final version despite Mossy’s great skills at licking the microphone, I decided to leave several instances of Kearney’s dog Luna and hobbled Ewok in the conversation, these two other creatures interjecting themselves on their own time frames to remind us that they are there or to remind us that they are here with us. For the bonus audio archive, Kearney adds two new poems. One that he mentions during our main conversation when we’re discussing what topics he finds most difficult to write about, a poem where he moves into new territory for himself and another that is part of a future as of yet unpublished collection. This joins other bonus audio, everything from Nikky Finney reading and discussing Lorraine Hansberry, to Ross Gay reading Jean Valentine, to Teju Cole reading John Berger and Etel Adnan. As long time listeners know, Between The Covers only exists and continues because of you. Currently, about 3% of listeners are listener-supporters and my goal this year is to try to get this to 5%. If you find this a valuable resource for your writing or art making practice, or simply a moving or educational or insightful experience within your life, consider becoming a supporter. Bonus audio is only one of a huge number of potential benefits of doing so. Head over to to check it all out. Now, for our conversation with Douglas Kearney.


These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”

David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest, poet, performer, essayist, librettist, and interdisciplinary artist, Douglas Kearney, is a graduate of Howard University and the CalArts MFA program. He’s a Cave Canem fellow and the author of seven books including Fearsome, Patter, The Black Automaton—which was chosen for the National Poetry Series—and Buck Studies, winner of the CLMP Firecracker Award for Poetry and the Theodore Roethke Memorial Poetry award. His work has appeared in Best American Poetry, Best American Experimental Writing, Role Call, a generational anthology of social and political black art and literature, and what I say innovative poetry by black writers in America among many other places. A recipient of the Whiting Award and the Contemporary Arts Cy Twombly Award, Douglas Kearney teaches creative writing at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. He’s also the author of the work of lyric criticism, Mess And Mess And. Mess And Mess And is an ars poetica of sorts, an artistic examination of questions of poetics and performativity, and a book of which Fred Moten says, “Humans have made a mess of things and nothing but swarm, sheen, shimmy, stagger and stutter is going to get us in deep enough to get us out of it. An old-new analexical word search and blackword research project, an anamessianic mess for the end of time that no one can tell us how to use, Mess And Mess And is Miss Ann’s apocalypse, Amos ‘n’ Andy’s under manumission, Douglas Kearney’s antimassapiece.” Douglas Kearney is also a librettist with four operas staged and the recent winner of the inaugural Campbell Opera Librettist Prize. The book, Someone Took They Tongues, collects several of Kearney’s libretti into what M. NourbeSe Philip called, “A seismic, polyphonic mash-up,” which includes an opera in an invented afro-diasporic language. Harryette Mullen has said of Kearney, “You have nothing to fear from this writer but the truth.” Terrance Hayes says, “I have never encountered poetry like this before.” Former US Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith says, “Where, oh where would we be without the dynamic intelligence and feats of lyric daring that Douglas Kearney’s work has delivered to American poetry?” It’s a great pleasure and honor to have Douglas Kearney here today on Between The Covers to talk about his seventh book of poetry, Sho, just out from Wave Books, and the collaborative live album with Haitian sound artist Val Jeanty, out from Fonograf Editions called Fodder, an album that includes multiple poems from Sho. CD Eskilson calls Sho, “A stunning union of poetic formalism and sonic performance. Through rhythmic experimentation using Black vernacular, artificial language, and song lyrics, Kearney’s poems are powerful examinations of masculinity, race, and Christian faith.” Ken Chen for NPR adds, “These poems elide the ego and present the self either as a lexical robot (superego) or magnetic meat, the ignoble body of the id. Kearney’s prosody is miraculous. Explosive double beats launch the lines or hit the break like a hi-hat. Slant rhymes suggest infinite puns, but Kearney sometimes downshifts from complexity and just cruises around the neighborhood. Formalism as syncopation and signification: I can’t think of another writer as gifted as Kearney is at sound.” Finally, Diana Arterian says, “Reading this book is like stepping into a torrent. Kearney’s poems wash over and around you with remarkable power. His desire to explore the mess and music of language is more exact than ever.” Welcome to Between The Covers, Douglas Kearney.

Douglas Kearney: My gosh, David, thank you so much. People are very kind. [laughter] 

DN: The promo copy for Sho says something that I think is really interesting, it says, “Eschewing performative typography, Douglas Kearney’s Sho aims to hit crooked licks with straight-seeming sticks.” I like this line a lot. I don’t know if you wrote it but particularly that it says straight seaming sticks instead of straight sticks because when someone who doesn’t know your work written or performed opens Sho, there’s nothing that leaps out to suggest, just how formally adventurous the work of yours that precedes it is nor the possible ways you might perform these straight-seeming poems, which are quite different than what a typical poetry reading might be like. But before we talk about this straight-seeming book’s attempts to hit crooked licks, I wanted to start by getting our footing with the work that precedes it, most notably, performative typography. I know you’ve talked a lot about this before. I’m hoping to frame it a little bit differently. In your recent video interview entitled Navigating the Briar Patch, you are asked, “What’s one thing you want people to know about your work?” You say in response that you want people to know that you’re interested in holding contradictory ideas together and for the tension created to generate heat and friction. I think you could say that much of your work is holding together a tension between the stage and the page, and also between the ear and the eye, and perhaps between the word and the body. But even within that, there are tensions within tensions. For instance, if we take the question of stage and page, you’ve explored how to make the page into a stage or into the stage but you’ve also made work on the page that’s intentionally difficult or maybe impossible to perform on a stage. Maybe you could orient people who are discovering you now for the first time to performative typography, but not only what it is and how you’ve worked with it, but also in light of your interest in the heat and friction of contradiction.

DK: That’s a great question. The performative typography that I’ve used throughout most of my writing practice is about imagining, layering, and interruption at some level sonically. I’ve tried to imagine how to write a poem using say, a word processing program, like Microsoft Word where we could have interruption and layering. Another way of thinking about layering is the simultaneity. How can I make something feel like several voices are speaking all at once without using some of the cues that we might expect from a play? Paratextual language where there’s, in italics, simultaneously, I wanted to figure out how to make that just immediate and urgent, and no instruction manual required. What that leads to, of course, is the question of legibility. What happens when you have a black type on top of black type? Something that’s been interesting about that has been the idea that when you have those overlaps of a visual hierarchy of depth, the thing that’s furthest back versus the thing that’s right up front, becomes harder to suss out. I’ve liked how that can decenter certain parts of the text because you don’t know if the words father and year are overlapped. You don’t know which one is supposed to be in the front of the mix unless you add some kind of a visual cue for that. I found that writing in that way and using those techniques allowed me to create a chorus, and allowed me to create clash, and overlap. When I’m working with a word processor, Microsoft Word poem for example, what I’m hoping that I’ve done is that the syntactic possibilities of layered text and interruption or two words not being in the same sentence, but because of their spatial proximity, we connect them or associate them, I’m hoping that those typographic cues, visual cues have re-wired some of the way I handle syntax, even when I’m not collaging, even when I’m not layering. That has led to something that I’ve been thinking of as double jointed syntax as opposed to broken English. What does it mean to use a double negative and not assume that means a misunderstanding of how negatives work but to assume that it’s actually putting something through two ideas at once. Tension, friction, and heat manifest in the Microsoft Word poems using certain syntactic shifts that I’ve learned by having a line of text physically overlap and interrupt another line of text. That to me is why in some ways, the performative typography is in Sho. I’m not doing that beyond what a conventional poem does, which is also performative. A more conventionally formatted poem also tells you where to begin and where to stop, and that kind of thing. But when I think about performative typography, I always think about it as self-consciously drawing attention to itself as tight in a way that I think conventional poems generally don’t. (That’s my dog Luna). When I’m thinking about the idea of type that tells you, “Oh, pay attention to me, I’m doing something,” gives me an opportunity to talk to audiences a lot about the fact that every bit of type is telling you to do something.

DN: Yeah. In both your nonfiction book Mess And Mess And, and in a class that you’ve taught on ekphrasis writing, writing that engages with visual art, because in a way, you, also calling attention to the visual nature of words, just like you say that any text is performative but because most texts are performative in the same way we don’t see the performance and similarly, we don’t recognize perhaps the visual component of what we’re looking at a page, you quote in both of these sources in your ekphrasis class and in your Mess And Mess And, you quote Fred Moten who said, “I listen to some music that I love and it inspires me to write a poem. My poem is not going to be that music. And if my poem only attempts to imitate that music, it’s not going to be worth a lot. But if it’s an attempt to get at what is essential to that music, perhaps it will approach the secret of the music, but only by way of that secret’s poetic reproduction.” If we stay with the tension between the ear and the eye, between the heard and the word, and how you want to find a way to translate something that defies language using language, you’ve also wanted to figure out a way to bring something, like the sampling of early hip-hop into poetry and you’ve quickly realized that for instance, quotation on the page is not the same as sampling in music. But I’d love to hear about your interest in this music-to-language ekphrasis translation. It could be about sampling but just in general, this idea of translation in this sense.

DK: On the one hand, something I tend to default to when I’m thinking about music and language is, as you mentioned, early hip-hop and hip-hop in general. What I find striking about that is how hip-hop and rap specifically makes speech, language into a musical form, then with what sampling does is oftentimes, it takes a block sometimes just of music, sometimes of speech and transforms that source material in two really very fascinating ways to me. The first transformation is as an extracted clip, it becomes almost like a plastic whole. It becomes a unit of sound and total sound decontextualized from its original source but also, with its own particular integrity as this object. Then some producers, some DJs will then chop that unit up into new constituent parts, then they can shuffle and shift those parts around. It’s taking this flow of language that gets recorded, then that’s turned into a unit, then you get a sample of that, which removes it from that flow of language into the smaller unit, then you can transform that language by chopping, then reconstituting it, resequencing it. In some ways, what that does for me is it makes me imagine that each word, instead of like a laptop keyboard where each letter is a unit, I begin to think of each word as having its own key. If I wanted to say the word bop, if I program that onto a sampling drum pad, there would be just a square usually that has bop assigned to it, so I just go “bop-bop-bop-bop-bop-bop-bop-bop-bop”. If the original line was “It’s a bop,” then I could be like “it’s a bop, a bop, a bop-bop, it’s a, it’s a, it’s a, a bop-bop-bop, it’s a-a-a-a-a-bop”.  One of the things that I do in my poetics is, what happens if I imagine just having one sentence or a very short amount of text? How can I reconfigure that in so many ways that I could create an entire new unit of sound out of that? The translation for me, where I’ve gotten to now, a part of what I’m interested in translating, that is to move, not from, but to include the textual and the textural. Because something that’s important to keep in mind about sampling is it isn’t just that a recording artist needs a baseline, like “du-du-du-du-du”. Most recording artists with any budget could afford a bass player who could come and go, “du-du-du-du-du”. They might even know somebody who goes “du-du-du-du-du”, but what they want is the texture of that particular sample’s creation. They want that baseline, which was recorded in 1974 in a studio as played by this person whose base was rigged up this particular way, then they want that samples, texture, and timbre to come into tension with whatever other musical components are part of that track, including their own voice. All of those blended ambiances, all those blended timbres create something that you could not create by simply replaying the baseline and having a live drummer. Now, there are producers who specialize in creating new material and making it sound like it’s from a studio in Memphis from 1962. But that is a more recent development that’s completely related to this question of sampling, texture, and timbre.

DN: I love that one of the sources, and what seems, at least at first, like an unlikely source for your own breakthrough in transporting sonic techniques of say, early Public Enemy into your poetics, is Susan Howe. Tell us about Susan Howe in Public Enemy, and how she is at least one poet who has worked with the visual or with translation essentially of something non-linguistic into language on the page.

DK: Oh my gosh, yeah.  I was at a conference, I can’t remember where it was but someone was talking to me about my work and said, “Yeah, it’s clear that you’re influenced by Susan Howe.” I said, “I don’t know that person’s work.” Immediately, because I’m always excited when somebody sees a genealogy or sees a relationship, I try to push back on the idea that I’m the first person to do any stuff like, “No, I’m not.” But something I used to say to my art students is, “Picasso wasn’t the first person to use paint but if you are interested in Picasso, if you like Picasso, then there’s something he’s doing with paint that’s interesting.” That idea of being the originator of something isn’t necessarily important to me. I immediately went and looked, and it was Debths, and I think there’s a parentheses (b), so it’s debts, it’s deaths, it’s depths, it’s all of these different things and in that space, what Susan Howe was doing in that collection—that just messed me up in the best possible way—was when she would collage text, she didn’t seem to be interested in making sure that the text was completely cut around carefully, visually, like “I must make sure all the words appear, I must make sure all the letters appear.” Instead, there would be sections where we would just have the descenders of letters P and Q and the very bottom half of those letters. Some of them look like they were collage from typographical studies, not even texts but just like a study that’s like, “This is what the letter Q looks like in this typeface, we have a lot of Qs.” It’s possible that she would make it in layers but this is why that was such an important moment for me because when you cut a sample, there is—depending on how you do it—evidence of the cut. Now, some people want to make a perfect loop. If we go back to the old baseline or something like “du-du-du-du-du”, they want to cut that. If they just want to cut that “du-du-du”, they’re going to cut it, so it’s clean, so what loop says, “tududu-tududu-tududu-tududu-tududu-tududu-tududu”. But even in that, you hear this tiny little jump, this tiny little bump and that’s the cut. By doing the techniques that Susan Howe does, you’re aware that you’re looking at, or at least being convinced, that you’re looking at text that wasn’t just typed into this particular program, then reprinted. That you’re looking at cuts and those cuts are everything to me right now because that’s the moment in a sentence, like a sentence from my poem Demonology, which is not collage, but here we go, “What it means to be ‘End,’ but claims hella outsets;/ cants ever was from amnesia workshed?” All of those moments of words to me feel like two different sentences jockeying for position in one. I heard that in my head and I conceived that in my head as a cut. Sometimes, if I’ve written a line of poetry and it feels a certain way that’s before my feeling of, “I’ve worked this line down and I’ve worked it,” what I’m trying to do is figure out, “Where can I put a cut?” Now, in the visual work, that cut can be very immediate. But when you’re doing the stuff where the cut is going to be syntactic in that typographic, that has done so many things for my writing.

DN: I love that. I want to stay and maybe embody this question of contradiction, the heat, and friction of the contradiction a little bit more. It’s not abstract or theoretical for you. You’ve talked about how your interest in contradiction is tied to the seemingly irresolvable contradiction of being black in the United States, or perhaps more broadly, a person of the African diaspora in probably most places in the Western Hemisphere. This may seem like an obvious or maybe a softball question, but could you speak into the contradiction of the lived experience of Black Americans for you in relation to your poetics before we actually move to your poems?

DK: I really appreciate you saying “for you”, that’s really important because I could ask my neighbor, they’d be like, “What?” [laughs] But for me, there’s a word I’m trying to put my hand on that I’m not able to come to but I guess I would say—and this isn’t quite the right word—the paradigmatic quest, a statement that I can think of when I think in this way oftentimes, you’re not a human, then the response being, “Yes, I am.” But what happens then is that we are going to create a world in which you’re not. [laughs] How does one reconcile being a human in an experience that is intentionally created to make your sense of self meaningless? There’s so much tension around this. You have people who are like, “Well, if you don’t act like a criminal, they’ll treat you like what?” It was never about what this person was going to do or not but the question then becomes, “Well then, do you just act any kind of way?” That becomes these circular moments of contradiction and tension or even paradox. I’m really interested in two quotes from rap lyrics that oftentimes help me think through this. One is now Yasiin Bey, but recording that, is Mos Def, he says, “Stay fluid even in staccato.” That moment of being fluid even in staccato, how do you occupy both of those positionalities at once? Or André 3000 from Humble Mumble, the song Humble Mumble, when he says, “I met a critic, I made her shit her draws. She said she thought Hip Hop was only guns and alcohol. I said ‘Oh hell naw. But yet it’s that too.’” That moment of absolutely not but also yes. That space of conundrum, paradox, contradiction, I know all those things mean different things, but that space to me is the kind of primary friction space. Something that I’ve been thinking about as a way that functions, again, to assume that there is a function of it that’s not just abjection, that’s not just lack, going back to that idea of saying, “I ain’t got no,” as not being, “Oh, they simply don’t know how to say I don’t have any.” No. What does it mean to have that double negative? For me thinking about that, I was thinking about this a few years ago in terms of the online world and how context, when we’re on a video or when we’re responding to a friend, in the 21st century because of the internet and all that kind of stuff, and this has been amplified by the quarantine, which is to say I have a friend who did a presentation in Poland two days ago but in her living room. [laughs] If I think about a world in which context and locality has been suspended and I think about the narrative that’s oftentimes been a part of Black Rhetorical Traditions about, “We’re going to get there, we’re going to arrive, we’re going to get to a promised land,” or whatever, I started thinking, “Well, what if the only way to actually survive the 21st century is to not assume there’s a destination anywhere and that you’re always just going places?” What does it mean to have an entire part of your cultural tradition that’s been about, “We’re moving, we’re moving, we’re moving. We’re living at the same time, we’re moving.” We haven’t gotten there sometimes, yet what are the technologies for the writers or the ontologies that come out of a tradition that is in part informed by always being elsewhere? How can that actually help in quarantine? How can that actually help in the 21st century? For me, I find those moments of friction, I find those moments of what seem to be unsolvable conditions, I try to look at them and recognize that if something is truly impossible, it doesn’t happen. [laughs] If something is impossible, it doesn’t happen. If it is possible for people to develop culture and live in certain conditions, this isn’t to say we should keep those conditions, this isn’t to say they shouldn’t be corrected, but it is a slight adjustment for me to now say, “What does the double negative do? What does ‘always trying to get there’ do?” Then it becomes possible to imagine maybe, destination isn’t the way. Maybe we should turn from destination. That becomes something that informs my poetics.

DN: This is a perfect segue to something I wanted to ask you about your relationship to catharsis. I feel like we can draw a throughline from the impossibilities of black life, the spectacle of black death, the forever promised and never delivered justice with your poetics, that your interest in playing with the variables of stage and page, interrogating and reinventing the stage in the page, breaking down the boundaries between the stage and the page or erecting unpassable boundaries between them is to get at the fraught history around black performance, and how black life—perhaps most notably, black death—is put on a stage as spectacle, as show. It makes me think of your reading and conversation with Evie Shockley to celebrate the publication of Sho in April. Your reading happened the day after Daunte Wright, a 20 year old black man and father of a two-year-old, who was pulled over for expired registration tags. During an attempted arrest for an outstanding warrant, the unarmed Daunte Wright was shot to death in front of his girlfriend by an officer who claimed to be attempting to tase him but reached for the wrong weapon. In that conversation, you talked about black predictive power, that we are here again in the new same place, that black people can see the future because it is the same. You then read a passage from Shockley’s book from 10 years ago that could have been about the day you were reading or the day we’re talking now. Shockley then reads a scene from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man published 70 years ago that, again, could have been about the contemporary moment she was reading it in. This is the frame rightly or wrongly from which I understand you when you say that your poetry resists catharsis. But I would be interested in hearing more about how resisting catharsis is embodying your poetics.

DK: I think that one of the things that I’m trying to do around catharsis and around that changing scene is I am trying to destabilize or unsettle, at some level, in a way that lingers. When I read something that changes me, it is very rarely my experience that something that’s exciting or dramatic or fantastic sticks with me in a way that makes me try to walk differently in the world. I understand that trauma exists for people and the desire to release that from oneself, or memory, is a real thing. When I’m creating a poem, I am interested in what stays and lingers, what makes you go, “I don’t want to keep doing this same thing over and over again.” What’s very important that I need people to know is that the first person that is directed at is me. The fact of the matter is I might be the only person who has that response to anything I’ve written. If that’s all that happens, I cannot look at that as being wasted because I’m a person in the world. I have contact with lots of people through teaching, through readings. If all I do is manage to change myself with the poem, then that self is the self that’s going out and talking to people who might not ever read any of my books or any of my poems. That matters. It’s not to say that I am walking around looking at people and in my best self, and in my best mind going, “You need to change. Take this and get fixed.” [laughter] That’s not the first thought. But what I can do is, with my knowledge of the history of performance, with the informal knowledge that is going to a reading and sitting with people, and watching when people go, “Whoa,” or “Phew,” or checking their phones, all of that anecdotal informal research, all of that does come back when I’m thinking about revision or when I’m thinking about, in the moment, in the instance of performing. Catharsis for me is relief. It might be something that’s hard to get through to get to the relief but I will say I’m not terribly interested in giving every reader I write for relief. I think there are people who will read my work and there will be a moment of recognition that allows a different positionality to the text that might make it so that they’re like, “Oh, okay.” It’s driving in a straight seaming line but I recognize something in there. I know now that I’m actually standing a degree or so away from the path of the poem. [laughs] I’m going to watch it go past me but I’m still going to get the dust and the coughing and all of that, that comes with that passage. Recognition is something I seek in the work. Sometimes, that’s at the level of a cultural recognition, a moment of allusion or a direct reference or a quotation but sometimes, it’s the power of pun to go, “I’m reading that, oh wow.” It means two different things happening and those things are happening at the same time. That moment of recognition is another way of creating a relationship between the reader and the poem in question, then it’s based upon that reader’s experience with the language, with what seems to be being summoned up or indicated that will determine how much they’re released or whether they’re kept in this space of tension. But most often, I will admit, I am looking for the space of tension. If I can say one more thing. I was at an AWP panel on conjuring and supernatural, those kinds of modes, and the Poet Jonah Mixon-Webster, who is a brilliant writer and performer, got up and did a poem. I was sitting next to him and the sequence was that I was going to present my thing after him. I felt like he was drawing in, way beyond his years, of tension, anger, fear.  I just watched him on the stage at the lectern doing this piece and when he finished, it was just silence, so I got up and I said, “If anybody in this room feels relieved or better or released after this, after what you just saw, get the f*ck out. This wasn’t a show.” That went back and forth. In thinking about that moment where to me, what was most apparent was pain but he was up there holding it, it reminded me of something that I saw, Rosamond S. King and Gabrielle Civil at another AWP panel where they said after they do their work, they do not do Q&A. They don’t come out there and now, put on a different face and talk about it. They actually go back into another space and do a kind of care work for themselves because people are drawing stuff in but it doesn’t leave cleanly. I fully believe that Jonah is walking around with that event still in his body. I believe that Gabrielle and Rosamond still had that in their body. They haven’t released in a sense of let go, have gotten rid of, and it’s gone. No. If they were hurt in what they did, they have injured themselves. I’m using them as examples because that’s me standing and looking at somebody because I know for myself, it’s not gone. I don’t know what I would have to do to experience actual catharsis because everything I do, I lived in with whatever that was. It stacks and stacks, and stacks. It doesn’t go “Pssh”. I know there are people who have made the concept of catharsis, the central tenet of their research and their knowledge base. There are probably people hearing that, like, “Oh, that’s a very limited and narrow understanding of catharsis.” I’m totally willing to say that’s fair and that’s fine but that’s my understanding. But I also think that when you talk to most people in an audience and you say catharsis, the idea is release and relief. I’m not terribly interested in giving anybody relief. I think there are poets who are very gifted at that. That is their work. That is what they do. But it is not something that I feel necessarily driven to do in most of my poems.

DN: Would this be a good time to hear a couple poems?

DK: Absolutely. Let’s do it.

DN: How about starting with Black Flight?

DK: Yeah. [laughs] It’s a fun one. This is Black Flight, it’s from Sho.

[Douglas Kearney reads a poem called Black Flight from his latest poetry collection, Sho]

DN: We’ve been listening to Douglas Kearney read from his latest collection from Wave Books, Sho. Before Sho, your performative typography had sources and influences that were really varied, comic books, Italian futurists, advertisements, liner notes, and Joyelle McSweeney who writes a very glowing assessment of Sho for the Poetry Foundation nevertheless calls the departure formally speaking away from performative typography, “A frankly, alarming departure,” which I love because you releasing a straight seeming book would have the power itself to shock, to itself be transgressive and unsettling, speaks to what has come before Sho. But before we read another poem from Sho, just tell us a little bit about why these particular poems you decided you wanted to present in a straight seeming way?

DK: Yeah. Joyelle is a fellow traveler as you say. Sho was unplanned and I say that because I tend to be a planner when it comes to manuscripts. I’ve been working on a manuscript that I was calling Actors, Not Real People. This was going to largely talk about performance in a way that I hadn’t generally done largely through film. I was thinking a lot about film at the time. I’ve been writing these poems called The Techniques of Acting that were, in many ways, like lyric poems that a person could just type up if they wanted to review. [laughs] I’ve been writing these poems, and I remember this distinctly, it was December of 2018, I just finished my first semester of teaching at the University of Minnesota and so I said, “Well, let’s see what’s going on with that manuscript.” I began putting together all the poems, just to get a sense of like, was there a there, there, how close was I, what did I need, and I instantly realized that in order to make that a full collection, I was going to have to write a bunch of poems that I no longer was interested in writing. That was briefly a disappointing thing. I then started going back into all of my recent poems and deeper archives, and I put together a collection that’s called I Imagine I Been Science Fiction Always. I had a pretty good nucleus for that but I also knew that with those, there were some things that I needed to rework as well but I was excited about those, so I said, “Okay, let’s put that over there. That’s great.” In the act of culling from past poems to figure out whether I was going to have one or a second manuscript, the poems for Sho began talking to each other. The poem The Showdown, and The Post-, I think those are from 2008. Some of them are actually rather old but revised now with the intervening experience of writing from 2008 to, at that point, 2018, then 2019 when I was doing most of the revisions. What I became very interested in as that book came together, however, was thinking about Buck Studies and how Buck Studies, of all of my books at the time—except maybe Someone Took They Tongues—had the largest amount of what we might call the performative typography poems, what at the time I sometimes call InDesign poems and Microsoft Word poems. That had a high level in terms of proportion. With Sho, I was beginning to see the poems that I’ve already written that were performative typography, “Oh no, that won’t fit, that won’t fit, that won’t fit.” It got to a point where it seemed like I was going to have what in my briar patch of a brain would feel like as an equilibrium. It’s very important that the typographically performative poems are not read or looked at as gimmicks or special effects. I think the fewer you have, the more it can feel like, for a new reader or even somebody who’s familiar, that’s like, “Oh, this is a little thing he did and now we’re back to normal.” At some point, it got to this place where I was like, “These are the rules for Sho: I’m going to split it in half. Each half has to have the exact same amount of poems. The first poem for each section will start with a very similar start, then the last poem of each section is going to be an ology.” Those just became constraints. As I worked, it was just like, “Those won’t come in. I won’t put any performative typography pieces in there.” Because there just wouldn’t have been enough I felt like, to make it make sense. That’s when we got to the place that was actually me putting my money where my mouth is and things I’ve said in the past, which is experimental is not a style or an aesthetic, it’s a process. For me, making a book with no performative typography was an experiment. [laughs] It’s like anxiety but in a good way but also still, that too. [laughs] My anxiety, “Oh, hell no,” but yet it was that too about this book, and what it was going to mean? Would it look like a retreat or a course correction? What would it look like to readers who are an audience? An audience is something I think about all of the time as material. [laughs] The audience is, in some ways, material. That made me really want to push the syntax into something that would feel to me like I was writing it having learned something from the performative typographical work. That informed almost every revision strategy for the poems as the book came together. 

DN: Can we hear the title poem?

DK: Absolutely. Sho is written in a form called a torchon. Now, torchon is a form that was created by a former student of mine named Indigo Weller for a class that I enjoy teaching, which is a lab and creating new poetic forms. Torchon is the name of a lace weaving pattern I believe. At any rate, the teleuton, sequencing that comes from a sestina, sort of repeated n-word, has been sequenced based upon a lace-weaving pattern because Indigo’s grandfather worked in a lace-weaving factory. 

[Douglas Kearney reads the title poem Sho]

DN: We’ve been listening to Douglas Kearney read Sho from his latest book, Sho, from Wave Books. Given the absence of the obvious performative cues that are different from the normative ones, is there a way that you read each of these poems in Sho? For instance, when I think of your other books, there may be cues sometimes, say if something’s larger, smaller, or bolder, that might suggest louder, does this give you more ways to navigate or do you still have an internal grammar in terms of the performance of each of the Sho poems?

DK: What I do when I don’t have those visual cues, as you point out, is I try to use registers of diction, quotation that it’s possible for someone to go, if you see the text be misunderstood in quotation marks and the o is ooooooo, (Os of stood), then to me, that’s not just quoting a lyric, that’s quoting a particular performance of that lyric. The performance I had in mind is Nina Simone. A term I use a lot with students is constellative understanding, a bunch of different points that you can then draw and create an understanding from. A part of what I want to do when I have a moment where I imagine a different texture of voice or a different tone is I will use phonetics, I will throw all the exclamation points that my laptop will allow me to key in. I try to use as many textual cues as possible to give someone a sense of what I heard when I was writing it. At the end of the day though, you could have a very plain spoken piece of writing and people will still read it and go, “Well, it means this,” or “It means that,” or “I think it’s this,” or “I think it’s that.” There’s a part of me that’s like I am very much aware of the possibility that anything that I do that is designed to make it very clear to direct the reader on what’s supposed to be happening in a way that’s not writing a play or writing a script of some kind, there is still the deep possibility that they will come up with something different. For me, I would rather not sacrifice the textures and timbres that I can create using these kinds of sentences, using slips into and out of syntactic constructions that are reminiscent of something that might be familiar, again, that question of recognition. That space that’s created by a poem, even in the poems that I read, is so important to me. I don’t read poems to have information conveyed to me. [laughs] There’s so many easier ways to get information than a poem. I don’t look for that when I’m reading a poem. Now, when I understand something from a poem, I understand it not simply as, “Ah, this person is sad.” It’s understanding how that sadness feels or what it does to language. An exercise that I often have my students do is I’ll have them each pick up their pen and I’ll say, “All right, hold the pen in front of your eyes about four inches away or five inches away from your eyes, just like horizontally in front of your eyes.” I’ll have them look at that for five seconds and I’ll say, “Describe that pen.” They write that pen. Then I say, “Take that same pen, turn it, and angle it toward your eye, like it’s going to jab your eye and move it as close to your eye as you can without hurting yourself. Describe that pen.” It’s the same pen. It’s a completely different pen. That to me becomes what we can do in a poem. I don’t want you just to know there’s a pen in there. I want that pen to be the pen that this poem demands, so that to me becomes something. I am interested in ideas. I am interested in writing something that if a person cares to spend time with it, especially because of the expectations created by performative typography, doesn’t look like words thrown at a page. I’m not terribly interested in that. But my whole thought is I’m not thinking information, information, information in a very dry and adorned way. I’m creating an environment where if a person spends time in there, there is something engaging them beyond just, “I need to break through this sense, what is it saying?” You need to understand this line or the stanza. That’s the horse that a lot of my prosody or poetics and decisions is being drawn by. That direction of “I want to give you something that makes you want to stay in a place, even if everything else is telling you, ‘No.’” [laughs]

DN: I want to go deeper with questions of performance and being on stage, and start with a question from someone else to you. Up until now, all of the writers who’ve asked other guests questions have emailed them and I’ve spoken to them on their behalf, so it seems fitting that today’s question is the first time someone is taking me up on speaking themselves.

DK: Oh, whoa.

DN: One performer to another. Here we go.

Gabrielle Civil: Greetings, brother Doug, it’s Gabrielle Civil here. Your poetry says from back in the d-a-y, congratulations on Sho. The very title of this book synthesizes vernacular display, and one of my favorite things, performance. Those elements were also really alive in your recent Bagley Wright Lecture, so good on Banter, Self-Destruction, in the Poetry Reading. I love in general how your work moves on and off the page. In the title poem Sho, you write “I on that bloody rise of sweet Body; there you is, too.” I’d love to hear more about the “I” and the “You” in your work, especially in relation to the body on and off the page. “I on that bloody rise of sweet Body; there you is, too.” How do you figure and forge those dynamics of “I” and “You”? Is it the same in poetry as it is in performance? I’d love to hear. Thanks.

DK: That’s a toot someone. Thank you, Gabrielle, for that. I am much more likely in performance to do the basic assumption that the “I” is me when I’m thinking about that because of embodiment, because of the fact that even if I was using a found text and even if I read that found text without any change, my consciousness, my decision, my agency, my subjectivity are why that found text is being written and is being read, and performed right now. I don’t believe that you can stop being the “I” just because you’re reading somebody else’s words. You are there. The same thing then would come from a poem that I might write in persona. I love persona poetry. I think it’s one of the things that most excited me when I first started writing very seriously in the early aught. But even so, that persona comes out of you too. It’s not some other person. I wrote that line. Now, I might write it to be satirical or I might write it to critique it but I wrote it, so it’s not not me. It’s not not me. [laughs] I sometimes will say to students like, “Every poem is a persona poem.” You are presenting a version of yourself that’s not all you are. It’s just that the way we understand persona poems is that the point of them is that the reader recognizes, “Oh, this is a whole different character.” In a lyric poem, that’s not “You” to speak because “You” might have come up with the line, “The yellow house where I was born.” But your brain is actually going, “[1:15:39.9]” All that stuff is happening. So “The yellow house where I was born,” is a persona. This is the reflective me but it’s not necessary to think about that as being different from who you are in the way that a poem, like Midnight, the Coyote, Down in the Mouth by Tim Seibles or any of “I”s poems. That “I” when I’m performing is much easier for me to locate immediately in my body. I think when I’m dealing with “You”, again, that becomes the audience. I don’t find the poems that I’ve revised that I’m happy with last using a second person point of view that’s supposed to be me. I find often times, just totally my own sh*t, that if I’m still talking to myself as if I’m not myself and using that “You,” it’s usually for me because there’s something I’m still reluctant to think about or to have in my body or to say that “I” about. Now, on the page, going back to this idea, there are a couple of poems in Sho that I felt were important for people to hear them or read them as a persona, to see that it wasn’t me who was standing by these ideas as much as it was me who was presenting these ideas that I’ve created, therefore, these ideas that I’m articulating that I feel like you should read, I am still responsible for the poem. When I say it’s not my thing, it’s not about not my responsibility. I put them together, I wrote them, I decided, I made changes but that if you read a poem like Negroes Are a Fatsuit, ❤️ Hollywood, USA, it’s important that you know only that if you had gotten used to the voice and the subjectivity that was Do the Cruiseline-up  Slowgrind-up, that you were going to have to pivot a little bit when you read Negroes Are a Fatsuit, ❤️ Hollywood, USA. That’s strictly just because as people sometimes formulate an understanding of a poem, they use the poems that are around it to help do that. That’s me signaling, going like, “Yes, it’s still me but I’m no longer dressed for shoveling, digging a ditch. I’m now dressed in a tuxedo.” From that, you’ll now go, “Oh, tuxedo.” This is a different way to think about whatever the occasion or whatever is happening. That is where I would go with the “I” and the question of persona again. A friend of mine, Chaun Webster, has a practice. With a lot of his early chapbooks, he said. “Chaun Webster is guilty of this book.” [laughter] I’m like, “No.” It’s all a lie. [laughs] But if you’re interpreting and you need to understand why this person, who just seemed to be upset about the instrumentalization of black people, is now writing with an “I” or a perspective that’s like, “Yeah, this is what we do,” it becomes important for you to know that the one voice is distinct from the other voice. The “You,” [01:19:38] that is the tough, tough, tough question because that “You” should be an intentional description or indication of who you expect to receive this poem. Therefore, how are you talking to that person? Now, imagine two cards. One is a card that you’re giving to one of your dear friends. The other is a card you’re giving to your grandmother or your grandparent. You might write a certain way to the card for your friends. I would write in a different way to one of my grandparents. That is a really basic way of understanding the “You”. Happy Birthday to you, motherf*cker, it’s one thing. Happy Birthday to you, grandmother is another. There are moments where I have thought about if there are people who I want to have that experience of recognition that I talked about earlier. That recognition is culturally based. I am deciding at that point, is this for them, again, that driving toward them or is it for them, even though it’s not addressed to them, which is how signifying works. Signifying works that you directly address one person but it’s really for everybody else in the room to understand what you’re saying.

DN: I have a ton of curiosity and questions around the embodied “I” and the embodied “You”, so the audience perhaps that you don’t choose, that you happen to be in the same room with. Because this is a variable you’ve engaged with the stage in the body, The Black Automaton moves the body in a way off stage and Patter is very body centric. But when I think back to your early interest in making the page the stage, I think the one way they can never be brought to the page is simply all the things that are communicated through just the physical presence of a person in the same room performing the poem as other people. I mean this is many things—race, gender, ability, how they’re dressed, how tall or short they are—and you can indicate that in words, you could say this is spoken by a straight black man, but the actual body in the same room is going to convey something that isn’t going to convey, I think at least.

DK: I think that’s true.

DN: It seems to me that there’s this performative jiu jitsu required of you to perform your work because it’s a critique (Meow) Sorry, it’s my sick cat.

DK: Oh, it’s fine.

DN: Among the many things that are brought into play, it feels like you perform a jiu jitsu in that your work is itself a critique of violence against black people, being performed as spectacle. Where your performed work compared to most poetry readings is quite spectacular. I don’t know if it is a conundrum but it seems to be charged and full of risk. To risk being presumptuous, it feels like one that seems a risk that you’ve developed a lot of techniques to navigate. I was hoping we could talk about “You” in front of your unchosen audience, performing your poems which are critiquing the way black life is performed.

DK: Yeah. When I think about violence inflicted, enacted upon black people and I think about audiences, and the question of how to perform these poems that invite the question of the spectacle, then to perform them spectacularly in the sense of related to spectacle, not in the sense of like I’m so f*cking awesome, like in that other sense, that wears on me. It’s an old problem. It’s a problem of tradition. How do you sing about something ugly with your beautiful voice? How do you do that? What does it mean to criticize cruel entertainments and cruelly entertain? That’s not the contradiction that I go like, “Haha, look at this, it’s one hand that’s in the other.” No. As a human being, that feeling is corrosive to me. Some of the techniques that I’ve developed is this idea—and it’s something from the lecture that Gabrielle was talking about—that the most important part of any poetry reading for me is no longer the poem. The most important part is the space between the poems and how do I transform that space so that I don’t finish a poem, and have the equivalent of about, then this next one’s called boom-boom-boom. How do I do something that A, reminds us that we’re in a poetry reading, which is this really structured thing that many of the people who read my work will be familiar with? You go into there, you do this, you do that. What I’ve tried to bring into my readings, especially during the time of Banter, is I have tried to think about that time and that space in the same way that I think about writing a poem at home, at my desk, or I think of something or there’s some stimulus or something, then I respond to it first, immediately and quickly, I’m going to get a chance to revise it, I was like, “Oh, I figured I’ll write that down,” and I keep moving. But that writing, even if I cut that line later as anybody who’s revised work knows, if you cut that sentence later, you now have to see, do these other sentences or lines make sense without that? Sometimes they do, but other times I have to retrace and I have to figure out how to include that line that I’m cutting in such a way that I can now make the rest of the piece, the essay, the story, the poem, make sense. In a live context, that moving from association to association requires a kind of a commitment to taking it wherever it’s going to go. I’ve never phrased it this way but I feel like it makes sense because it’s a knot of things. I feel like it’s right because a knot of things is this. The way we most recognize that a poetry reading is a structured performance is to point out the aspects of it that are the formal agreement many of us have learned by going to poetries or other kinds of public speaking events. A way to remind us of that is to not play as though being in a room with people, have been flown out there this morning, and now you’re there, afterwards, you’re going to answer questions and you’re going to go have dinner with grad students. That’s just the way things are. We just agree. No. The point is to show the zipper in the sea monster’s costume. Once you start doing that, you can have a moment of, “Ah, that is [01:28:59]. Yes, yes, right.” It’s kind of a meta-moment. But if I want to turn that into a feeling of being in the brain of a Douglas Kearney poem, I have to keep going. I have to do the entire reading as though—because it has—I just got into a fight with a water bottle. [laughs] The rest of the reading now is affected by the fact that five minutes ago I got into a fight with a water bottle that fell off of the music stand, then I literally fought it. [laughs]

DN: I love where you’re going with this because one of the things I really love that you’ve spoken about is power and agency between being a reader versus being in an audience. When you’re a reader, you have control over your time. You can stop in the middle of a sentence, you can reread, you can close the book. You can read slowly, you can read fast. The reader has a lot of power in their engagement or a lack of engagement with a work of art. Whereas an audience member has very little. It’s orchestrated by the person performing, both the experience that they’re having, how long it’s going to last, how uncomfortable it’s going to be. But one of the things I thought was really interesting is maybe it’s the inverse of your interest in turning the page into the stage. You’ve also talked about how you’ve wanted to make the poetry reading into a compositional space for yourself as an artist. In a way, you’re composing your “writing” the poetry reading as it’s happening, which I think is what you’re alluding to with the water bottle, whereas the water bottle, whatever happened by chance or synchronicity with the water bottle. Is that partly giving some of the power that you have as a performer back? Because in a way, you’re now putting yourself at risk. You say there’s this normative way of doing a poetry reading, in some ways it’s on your terms compared to the audience, it’s not on your terms in other ways if you’re invited by a university and you’re supposed to give Q&A and then go do the grad students. But I wondered about this dynamic of putting yourself into a compositional space in front of an audience.

DK: This is what’s funny though, a kind audience gives over a lot of agency. But that’s not the definition of an audience. I’ve been into readings where in the middle of a reading, a person got up and yelled, “Parasites! Parasites!” because of something I’d said, and stormed out. They stopped the reading temporarily. They controlled the time of the reading. The main person at a poetry reading, who is actually the subject, is the reader. If I go up there and I just talk like, “Yeah, so I got on a play today, and wow it was really a weird time on the play and I didn’t really like it and everything,” that’s my 20 minutes. I’m done. I have not poeted. [laughs] I haven’t given the thing that I’m supposed to be giving. The opposite of this is this: I don’t have the right to demand from the audience member that they applaud or that they go, “Oh,” or that they stand up and say, “That was right.” I am basically up there with a task. That task is being constantly evaluated by the audience. In my head, that means the audience actually has more power. The audience has more power at a poetry reading.

DN: You’ve convinced me.

DK: Yeah.

DN: Maybe less power over time, but not less power.

DK: Less power over time unless they interrupt, at which point, they have now taken control of time. If they heckle, which doesn’t typically happen at most in these university poetry readings that I’ve been to, it’s happened in some bar readings, it happened once, I read at the freaking mall once, but they can interrupt the flow even in ways—and this is one word where it’s not an angry [01:33:42], I want to make sure people like, “Have you ever been to a reading of any kind?” and the reader pauses and somebody in the audience thinks, “Oh, it’s over,” and starts clapping. That’s taking control of time accidentally because now the reader has to either go, “I’m sorry, it’s not over yet,” or talk over the applause or wait for that applause to end, that’s taking control of the time. I think that the audience even has some control over that. But they do not have control if they are going to sit and receive it, they do not have control over how fast or how slowly I read. That is a recent way of thinking because what you were talking about earlier, we talked about the control of time, was absolutely what I thought when I wrote that. It’s only now after writing a lecture on Banter that I’ve really started to think, “No, the audience can allow itself to be subject to time that they cannot control.” But at any moment an audience member can say, even benignly, “Could you please slow down?”

DN: You’re right. You’ve convinced me. [laughter] I want to talk about your Bagley lecture. You’ve talked before about your discomfort of reading or performing a poem, say about James Byrd, Jr. being dragged behind a pickup truck and then hearing the audience applaud when it’s over. Or as you’ve already alluded to, having to shift from something that you’ve performed, and as you’ve suggested, may still walk around carrying in your body long after the performance, then have to switch modes and do a Q&A. The lecture that Gabrielle Civil mentioned, the Bagley lecture you delivered, I Killed, I Died: Banter, Self-​Destruction, and the Poetry Reading, is itself a performative lecture and one that, on the surface, is about “how to be funny when reading at a poetry reading?” But the more you press on this word where, for comedians, to kill is to do great and to die is to bomb, the more your lecture becomes clearly an examination of the poetry reading itself but also the tension between wanting to be funny and thus entertain the audience and wanting to make the audience feel the pain that you feel or felt writing the poem, or the thing that inspired the writing of the poem, and then questioning that. You’ve, in various places, said that human cruelty is probably your chief subject and you’ve ruminated over the cruelty, to the poet themselves, of performing certain work but also have had your performances called cruel. Your response in at least one interview was, “That’s fair.” Here again, we’re at this doubling. You are really funny and seeing you perform is also very painful. How has this funny, cruel, collapsed polarity presented itself for you, and how has it changed or evolved or not changed or evolved over time? Maybe specifically in light of this new book and reading of it, is there anything in that polarity that is specific to Sho?

DK: The line that Gabrielle told from Sho, “I on that bloody rise of sweet Body; there you is, too. Sweat it, let’s.” The word that precedes “I” is “stood”, so “Stood, I on that bloody rise of sweet Body; there you is, too. Sweat it, let’s.” That’s a moment where I’m essentially saying that the murderers’ deaths of countless people, most immediately a person might assume that I’m talking about black folks, and yeah, but I also think about first nations folks, and here we are on that rise. I think about so many people, the people who are poor, people from Pan-Asia, Latinx folks, we’re standing on these bloody sweet bodies. The poems that I’m doing are so often about a dead black person or a harmed black person. It would be ludicrous for me to assume that at some level, if we imagine that image, that I’m not standing on it, but so are you without even writing the poem because look at the history of this country, so let’s sweat that together. Sweat before in this poem was about my labor, my energy, but it’s like, “Nah, you should be sweating too. You should be working on this too.” Do the work is now a very easy phrase, like throw into something and to signal something, but I want to talk about sweat as a source, as a way of imagining energy being expended but also as a way of imagining discomfort like flop sweat, that sort of thing. It’s like, “This should make us all anxious as we go about doing things.” I think that that’s one of the ways that Sho allows me, as a book, to talk about that performance in a very different way. Of course, that was facilitated by Mess And Mess And, and all of the work which feels like this continued arc. Buck Studies almost looked nothing like what it looked like because when it was very close to being published, we just had the recent uptick of attention towards black people murdered. Whether you’re talking about Trayvon Martin, Breonna Taylor, people were talking about that in a way that it had been quieter, I should say the mainstream media, people are talking about it more. Buck Studies, so the poem Stagger Put Work, which is a retelling of the Stagger Lee myth, I’m pretty sure each poem in that has Billy Lyons, a black man dead in the middle of the [01:41:15], and I was just sitting there thinking to myself, “Do I want this to be the centerpiece of the book?” The only reason I was able to still do it was because of the poem series Ecce Cuniculus, in which Brer Rabbit takes the place of Jesus during The Passion Play and therefore, a figure that’s associated with blackness averts suffering, doesn’t suffer, and that was the only way that book could make sense to me. Even that is informing, all of it is like a stream for me.

DN: When you talk about sweating together, and I think about maybe where some of these comments of “are your poetry readings cruel”, I think of the anti-catharsis impulse. Because I think you intentionally craft an experience where it’s hard to know how to parse what’s being delivered. For instance, if we’re talking about the performance you embodied in the room, you have a lot of facial expressions and gestures that happen—that people listening to the radio are going to miss—but you’ll often end a poem with a very exaggerated grin, for instance, but it feels like a false grin and it feels like a caricature of a grin. It feels like the last thing you expect at the end of that poem is a smile. Or you might introduce a poem by saying, “The first thing a poet should always do is begin with delight,” and then read miscarriage poems. You’ve created this performative technology that I feel like, when you talk about the way you, Gabrielle, and others carry, there’s this question of self-care and how much can you perform these poems, and what is that doing to you. But I do feel like you transfer that into the bodies of the audience. I don’t know if that’s your goal, but I feel like I attend a reading of yours and then I walk around with it uncomfortably for a long time. I don’t think the word cruel would have occurred to me for that but I do feel like if someone’s going to a reading to be entertained, maybe moment to moment, they might think they’re being entertained by you. But in the end I feel like something else is happening that lingers that’s not that.

DK: I’m really grateful for just that parsing of the feeling. The word feedback I think has been made into a euphemism, but I think of feedback as in like, “This is what my experience was,” and so I really appreciate that feedback. As you pointed out, I do want the audience to be impacted, affected, and to carry that. I remember once, a black woman came up to me after a reading and had this response that I thought was really important and clear but it was basically like, “You need to tell us,” it wasn’t precisely like a trigger warning—although trigger warnings are fine, people give trigger warnings, I think that helps a lot of people in audiences—but it was more about if you’re going to be ironic about something terrible, how do you prepare a person so that they don’t feel like they’re carrying the brunt of the irony? It’s one thing to play with irony, danger, or the grotesque when you are the person who bears the cost. It is a different thing to be a straight man, cis hetero man, and think that I can do a bunch of several wave after wave of poems that are misogynistic. But no, they’re ironically misogynistic, that’s what I’m doing. Because if it’s misunderstood, the main people who suffer for that are people who I’m not. That goes in direct tension, of course, with a perception that I think is important that people have today like, “Well, who are you writing about? Who are you writing towards? Who are you including in your formulation of the subject? If you have privileged access to certain kinds of spaces, what should you be doing in your poems? What should you be doing in that space?” There’s also, of course, always the opportunity of using your privilege to make room for other people or seeding certain opportunities you might get, but that question, of course, becomes a really fascinating boondoggle. I have had people say to me, “I want you to write more poems about an experience that’s not mine,” and my immediate response can be anything from, “I must. I must. I must,” or guilt or reject like, “Why would I do that?” But if I sit with that as a thought, I always come back to the problem, and this is a processional problem, “How will I write about that using any of the techniques that I have learned that I feel are the ways my poems work without doing harm to a person who I cannot claim to be?” If you rounded those people up, I wouldn’t be there. That becomes something that I’ve thought about for a long time and have worked at in different ways, and there will be people who will say like, “You write whatever the hell you feel like writing as the way you write it,” and I think that’s important to say as well, that if an audience member walks up to you or a friend says, “I wish you would write more about this,” you don’t have to do this, you don’t have to do that at all. Some people might think of that as an absolute imposition. I understood what this person was saying to me but it didn’t mean that I knew how to do it yet. At that point, maybe I didn’t write one and have it ready for the next reading. But I don’t think they were extracting that. They weren’t saying, “I need you to do this now and I’m not going to hear you again.” But it was like, “What does thinking about a subjectivity, that’s not even associatively your own, do for you as a writer? How can you manage that in a way that makes sense or allows the most precarious thing of all, which is for the poem to be smarter than the poet is something A. Van Jordan once said, that the poem is smarter than the poet, then that means that the poem is using the poet as a host body and poem doesn’t care what happens to the poet.” Poem’s like, “I’m out there, Great. Yeah, you’re in trouble. Me? I’m out here.” These were questions that came to me before what people might want to call cancel culture or anything. It’s not reactionary to that, it’s how you do it in a way that would allow you to leave all the right traces as well as the full-on presence.

DN: I want people to hear you performing before an audience. But before I play it, I wondered about your thoughts about Joyelle twinning Sho and your album Fodder. She says, “Sho may operate at a relatively low visual volume compared to Kearney’s previous books, but circuited to Fodder, it smuggles sound into text, resistance into compliance… Because these strategies are by nature fugitive, no one medium, form, book, or text can hold the whole of them. In this sense, Sho and Fodder form not just a fortuitous but an entirely necessary and uncanny double-body—audible, tactile, stormy, oceanic, profound.”

DK: I would say that is an accurate and insightful understanding of their existence. I don’t know what ultimately that means for the reading of my work, or perhaps, if it’s a big enough of a thing to enough people, what it could mean to engaging other people’s work. I can say a thing as much as I want but there is perhaps a limit to how often I can read a poem aloud in a certain way and not seem to be telling the reader, the listener, the audience that this is the way it’s supposed to be done. There seems sometimes to be a limit to how long people will really believe me when I say, “There’s punctuation that would tell you that that’s a question, that this is just the end of a thought or that this poem has ends with no terminal punctuation so that’s a different sentence,” I can do all that stuff, and then the rest is pretty much up to the reader. I’ve read poems carelessly before, read them aloud carelessly, not honored the line breaks, messed up a question and treated it like a sentence. But the more I do in the live environment, which I think of as distinct from, when I started off thinking of the page as a stage and now maybe I’m talking about the stage as a page, but I start off thinking about that, I was working under the assumption that you could reproduce the experience either way. What I came to—and Fred Moten’s quote has been very helpful with this—is that the poetic reproduction of Jimi Hendrix playing The Star-Spangled Banner or The Emotions hitting that, “Oh,” toward the end the Best of My Love or Patti LaBelle with LaBelle on Going Down Makes Me Shiver, which is, “I ain’t gotta say nothin’ ’cause you know,” that moment of voice crack, I could try to reproduce that poetically but it’s not going to be the same thing. There is a certain point where a photograph and a poem part ways, like, “Okay, you do that and I’m going to do this.” What I’m trying to do a lot of times is take it as far as I think I can take it because if I’m trying to make a vertigo zoom through a poem, I’m not thinking about the way I usually think about poems, and that’s going to make possible for me to write something very different than I usually do. Absolutely, I think that what Joyelle said is as is often the case with criticism that I read by Joyelle McSweeney, insightful and inciting. But I don’t 100% know what that means for the next thing and so in that way, that assessment is extraordinarily useful to me because will the next project have accompanying audio? How will I read poems that really are collaged in such a way that I’m not going to read them aloud? I’ve been thinking about the next manuscript and what that’s going to look like.

DN: Let’s hear a track from Fodder that is also a poem in Sho.

[Manesology, a performance of poetry by Douglas Kearney]

DN: We’ve been listening to Douglas Kearney perform Manesology from Sho on the album Fodder by Fonograf Editions. Is that weird to hear?

DK: The conundrum about the way I approach poetry readings, so much of it’s going to be improvised, and I want that part of my work to exist in some ways because as you were pointing out, I do think if I’m doing it right, it doesn’t cancel anything else out, it all feeds into each other. Or maybe doing it right is to obliterate one path, I don’t know, but it’s always weird because I feel least careful. The least careful I am in my life is doing a poetry reading.

DN: Yeah. But that’s also the choice to compose on stage, essentially. Thinking about the subtitle, (after Charlottesville, But Before It Too, Shit), and returning to this idea of the impossible contradiction of being black in America, I wondered if this was connected or related to your avoidance of equivalences or analogies when you say you’re skeeved out by similes or find that there’s a violence in metaphors. It made me wonder about this, but I want to unfairly attach this to another question also. Thinking about analogies and about your relationship to metaphors and similes, Afro pessimism has come up a lot recently on the show, and it’s gone through many episodes, but it all started with me watching you and Claudia Rankine where she made a comment that I’m totally paraphrasing now from distant memory, but something like, “Yes, black people in America are not yet fully human. We are not treated as full human beings and yet, we have to pretend as if we are. We still vote and run for office and work for incremental change step by step.” That carried forward into my conversation with Natalie Diaz who pushed back against this and rejected the terms citizen, freedom, human as terms defined by the people who had dispossessed the people who aren’t considered these things in the first place. We talked about Christina Sharpe and the totalizing weather of anti-blackness. That carried into my conversation with Viet Thanh Nguyen where we talked about Hazel Carby who’s the chair of the African American studies department at Yale. Her critique of Isabel Wilkerson’s new book—but also of Afro-pessimism, or at least Afro-pessimism as embodied by Frank Wilderson’s book, and specifically regarding analogy or at least in somewhat relationship to analogy, the subtitle of Wilderson’s book is Afro-Pessimism and the Ruse of Analogy—Carby’s critique is that in placing everyone who isn’t black, whether Palestinian or native American or whomever, by placing everybody as junior partners in anti-blackness essentially and ontologically rejecting analogy in Carby’s opinion, it was foreclosing the possibility of solidarity. It makes me think also then of your opera in a counterfeit language of Black Vernacular where one character reveals the English translation but at certain points isn’t able to unless legibility is prevented or blocked. I see this move also in a lot of works that I love like De Amicis, I don’t know if it was “I will not translate. I will not translate. I will not translate”, but something like that where much of it is presented or some of it is presented and there’s a refusal of carrying it across. But I was curious if you place your poetics in relationship to Afro-pessimism at all or into this philosophical debate in some way, but either way, whether you do or not, if this sparks any thoughts and maybe if you could just unpack a little bit more the questions of simile and metaphor for you as a poet and the problems you have with them.

DK: When I talk about simile and metaphor as being problematic for me, analogy, and the question of false equivalence, it is almost always animated for me by the idea that if we go, what is this person’s name who came up with the form who talked to Shinseki but talked about the formula of metaphor which is tenor vehicle? The language that this writer uses is that the tenor is the idea being expressed and the vehicle is the symbol that bears the associative weight. In the case of metaphor, the idea that something is being mobilized to support another idea, regardless of whether or not that thing being mobilized is allowed to have a wholeness itself, it does the work. There’s a lecture that I was thinking about writing that the irony was going to be in the title but it was going to be Metaphor is a Magical Negro Factory. Because the idea that the vehicle is always there to prop up the tenor and the vehicle doesn’t get to be itself anymore, it’s got to now do the work that the tenor doesn’t do anymore. On the one hand, the thing that always occurs to me when I talk about simile and metaphor in poetry, specifically poetry, is that most often, something is being either substituted or having its characteristics exaggerated in a way that usually moves things from a human into something that is no longer human. If we think of the blazon and sonnet, like, “Oh, your eyes are sun’s…” all of those things sound really good but you’re also now saying you’re not a person anymore. For me, when I think about those kinds of false equivalences, I’m oftentimes thinking about what is the pleasure that we get from going like, “You’re not this, you’re that,” and then going, “That’s right,” because a good sonnet, a good simile, or a good metaphor feels natural, otherwise, you’re working in the realm of the conceit which is a different thing. But you immediately go, “Oh, yeah, that’s true. This person is a tree.” For me, I would also look and say, if you are comparing people’s experiences, if the only way we can recognize that many people are subject to violence that is systemic is to say that we are exactly the same or that this part of you is what I’m interested in because it amplifies this part of me, I don’t find that helpful. I would rather say—and this is something that in a public conversation, we’re going to talk about police brutality—it isn’t necessary to say I don’t want police brutality because this subjectivity is what I’m part of and we get more police brutality than anybody. That seems to be helpful only to one person; the people who care about police brutality. If somebody has stolen money from you, myself, and three other people, it doesn’t matter in terms of what we want, who got more money stolen, we gotta stop this thief. We, together, have to stop this thief now. But what has happened historically is oftentimes people will say, “Well, I’m going to get my money back, you’re on your own,” and because of whatever access they have, it’s easier for them to get their money back, or some other form of restitution, than it is for everybody else. To me, I am uncomfortable with simile and metaphor in my poetic practice because I am less comfortable with the idea of saying something is like something only through a mode of substitution. I’d prefer pun because pun multiplies. Pun allows you to have both things. You find a similarity but neither one is obliterated by it. In fact, you can recognize something and you possess it in a different way. I am subject to the charm, the power, and the gift of a really good metaphor, a really good simile, but to me, those are defined not by me going, “That’s true. That does seem like that,” but defined by also revealing what is being taken in that transaction. I’ve had conversations with people of varying subjectivities that have said, “Well, metonymy is actually more problematic for me because of this subjectivity.” I’m like, “Okay. Great.” I am careful about false equivalences in life in and outside of writing a poem because I want to push back on the idea that in order to care for somebody else, the primary tactic is they’re like me.

DN: Yes. That’s basically what Natalie Diaz and I were unpacking also, is that honoring the gap in comprehension doesn’t necessarily foreclose solidarity between two people.

DK: Yeah. Difference isn’t the problem, it’s how we treat difference. That’s not “the” problem, it doesn’t have to be “the” problem. There’s something that I say a lot, and maybe it’ll be useful here, the definition of stereotype as formulated by Gordon Allport who’s a social psychologist, stereotype is an exaggerated belief in a category that justifies the way we treat that category. Why that’s such an important definition for me is that what is the first defense of stereotype that people always say? They do that, they are like that. What’s important about this definition of stereotype is that observable truth or lie are not the point because it’s ultimately not about what the stereotyped subject does or is, it is all about how the person making the stereotype wants to be able to feel good about how they’re treating that person. Therefore, it doesn’t matter if a person’s drinking or a person is doing these other things. What matters is why am I mobilizing stereotype? What am I trying to create a kind of alibi for myself? That to me becomes important. It’s the gap that you and Natalie were talking about like, “Yeah, we’re not the same, but what would we do with that? Does that difference mean I don’t care about you? Does that difference mean well, if bad sh*t can happen, it can happen to you.” That to me is something that I feel like the logic of metaphorical substitution, I feel like as we usually look at it, we say, “Oh, it is the same.” Yeah, that might be an important moment of time and recognition, there’s pleasure in that, but I want to be able to say, “Is it though?” and yet not lead to the foreclosure of embracing, supporting, and being a part of that thing on its terms. There’s a line in Manesology, it would be so very easy if I missed moments that I’d never use simile and metaphor like a person just goes, “Um.” But typically, when I’m using metaphor or simile, at some level, I am talking about the displacement of one of the things. I want the presence of the syntactic and rhetorical violence of that, I want that as a part of relation, not as smoothing out that substitution.

DN: Would reading Welter be a good poem to read? Because I’m thinking, that’s a poem where you’re juxtaposing two things that are happening simultaneously, which is not the same as creating a metaphor with one towards the other. But what does that create when we have these two things happening? I don’t want to speak for you, but I’d be curious if you want to introduce Welter, that’d be great.

DK: Yeah. Welter actually has a written epigraph that works as the introduction.

[Douglas Kearney reads a poem called Welter from his latest poetry collection, Sho]

DN: We’ve been listening to Douglas Kearney read from his latest poetry collection, Sho. As you know, I reached out to the Poet Diana Arterian who was our matchmaker for this conversation, the midwife making this happen. She was also your editor at Noemi Press for your book Mess And Mess And. She sent me a question to ask you and a backup question in case the first one was too personal. I showed you the first one to make sure you’re okay with it, but I’m going to start anyways with the backup question. But first I’m going to read a page from Mess And Mess And, and then pair it with Diana’s backup question. You said in the book that she edited, “I am in the habit of thinking: ‘Every poem is an opportunity to destroy my career.’ When I think it, I imagine new work. I mean to surprise readers who have come to expect a particular kind of poem from me. I mean to surprise myself as well. I want it to mean that I am not afraid of trying something different, that I am not privileging my previous gestures, hiding behind what I know. But what it doesn’t mean, necessarily, is that I write the poem that demands to be written. You can spend a lot of time not writing such a poem.” Here’s Diana’s question: “I think often about how Toi Derricotte presses her students to write toward that which they are most ashamed or afraid. Now that you have over half a dozen books, what have you found you are most afraid to address in your writing either in topic, voice, or form? Put differently, what feels the least comfortable? While there is no denying you challenge yourself as a writer, do you find you right into or away from discomfort?”

DK: The most uncomfortable thing for me to write about is erotic desire. That’s the hardest thing for me to write about. A part of it is despite the fact that I hope I’m trying to do different things, I do feel like I have written largely about the body as a site of more pain than pleasure. I don’t know how to make the sentence that would hold my desire without damaging. I have tried. Some of my most recent poems are addressing the question of sex positivity, addressing questions about my ambivalence to the performance of the writing about my desire, of the ambivalence I feel about writing around my desire. I have written about it before but I would hazard that the times that I have written about it in the past were times where I would be most guilty of obfuscation, not amplification, not creating the environment that I talked about earlier, the two experience, the poem, then creating the pen that’s jamming towards your eye. I would say that is probably the thing that I’m least comfortable writing about. If it’s okay for me to allude to the first question that Diana asked, it was about religion, spirituality. I feel like I’ve written about religion and my own religious beliefs scattered throughout my writing in ways I feel more or less clear. I was raised as a Lutheran. My family was like the only black family in our church for most of my time there in Pasadena, California, so not some place remote. I have a lot of questions about that experience that, in some ways, I feel less committed to a public review of them than I am of other parts of my ideas or subjectivity that I think I would want to be responsible for or accountable for. Religion, in my experience, has been a hard thing to put up for conversation or discussion because at the end of the day, for a lot of religious trajectories, for a lot of religious practices, it isn’t an argument that you have, it’s a feeling. Yet so often, a lot of my religious experiences have been in one sociality or another. I have had private moments of religious experience but those are almost always not precisely what I would have learned in the church that I would do as a kid.

DN: Yeah. I wonder, circling back to your engagement with contradiction—and I think about the way paradox is used in religions—when you’re talking about this isn’t something to be argued, you can’t argue a paradox by nature and I think maybe, at least my notion of one of the roles of paradox in religion is say, the mind can go no further, the grasping mind cannot reduce this to comprehension, and that’s the whole point of them being there, not that it’s ridiculous when people laugh like, “Oh, well, the trinity is one and it’s three,” but to me it feels like it’s putting limits on what a human can reduce to something known but that doesn’t negate the presence of something that isn’t knowable.

DK: That’s beautiful. Something I think about a lot is the ineffable may exist but I think it’s much further out than a lot of people take time to look. I think people give up on language, for various reasons, before they’ve exhausted it or their capacity for it.

DN: I would love for you to read the poem Fire, but I was wondering if you could maybe expand on the note to it and the panel that you were on that helped you formulate what spirit is for you.

DK: Yeah. I was on a panel with the genius Alexis Pauline Gumbs, as well as Fred Moten, and also moderating this panel was Tyrone Williams. We were having a conversation about ghosting, the verb of leaving something. I can’t remember precisely how I was formulating to ghost somebody, I can’t remember how it’s formulated partially because the corrective that developed through it just did whatever latches were there, but a part of that conversation was the distinction between ghost and spirit. The ghost requires death—now I’m speaking as my take on it, so I’m not quoting either of my fellow conversationalists—but a ghost requires death. It is the echo. But a spirit does not require death to have existed, a spirit is an energy that’s given off by an activity, by something intense that can still be happening. That distinction was very important because it does not insist on death or obliteration to exist. It is simply a kind of resonation or reverberation coming from a source that maybe did but doesn’t have to be. That would be the distinction between spirit and ghost that has come from that conversation. Fire, as a poem,, in its most transparent and in its most fundamental, is about homophobia in Christian spaces that I’ve been in. The poem has been through a lot of permutations that have made its original reason less about the moral of the story but has informed everything about it. A part of my own sense of the complexity of that is that from the pulpit, a lot of churches will speak against LGBTQ and yet they will mobilize a language or rhetorics that—or sometimes even spoken about—have the erotic as a deep part of it and the subject of the Eros is almost always in this context Jesus. There’s this thing that on the one hand, we are taught—if you just listen, if you’re just observing and just sucking in anything you’re taught—that this is horrible and that this is wrong and yet the ultimate sign of devotion is oftentimes a kind of erotic relationship with Christ that men are supposed to have as well, and the language of it. Now, that, I feel like, would be a book, and many writers have done fantastic work around these kinds of questions, in my experience especially, within what one might call the black church, and black queer parishioners. I wrote this poem largely as a way of trying to understand the spiritual existence in tension with the limits of the rhetorical experience. If I had to set it up, that’s how I would set it up. I think it’s very clear, more in my setup than perhaps in the poem, that I could talk about violence towards black people as a black man, especially, as a black man because I’ve been thinking about that. I’ll just throw out, I’ll say whatever the f*ck. But I hope it’s clear that the flow of my conversation got a lot more deliberate because of what we talked about earlier and that is don’t f*cking talk reckless when you’re not in the damn car. That’s not to say that I don’t have a stake in it but again, to me the idea of who will take, who carries the weight of that if I f*ck up, that to me is significant and it’s meaningful. Again, it’s about how I’m trying to work in the world, it’s about how, if I care about the language that I’m putting into the poems, the specificity of it, if it does something, I want to be able to say this is why, that’s not about letting it stay in there and not knowing what the hell it’s doing, it’s also not an alibi, but it’s also not about being careful so I don’t get in trouble, no, it’s not about being careful so that I don’t get in trouble—although I don’t like being in trouble—but it is something that I think about a lot. All right, here’s the poem.

[Douglas Kearney reads a poem called Fire]

DN: Thanks so much, Doug. It was such a great honor and pleasure to talk with you about this today.

DK: Oh, my gosh, David. I’m so happy to have been able to be here with you. I just want to say that your show is a gift. It does work in the community of poets and people who are writing poetry to hear how much care you take into reading people’s work. It’s inspiring and it’s a tremendous gift. It makes it possible for me to tell the people who study with me that their decisions about what they write make a difference because people will be reading it closely. That’s a tremendous gift and service. I feel very fortunate to be here today with you and just thank you. Thank you very much.

DN: Thank you. It’s weird how when really important things happen, that’s when the words fly away, but you articulating that in words to me feels like a gift also. It’s a real pleasure to engage with it together during this time. We’ve been talking today to Douglas Kearney about his latest book, Sho, from Wave Books, and his latest album Fodder from Fonograf Editions. You’ve been listening to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.

Today’s program was recorded at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full-strength, makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. You can find more of Douglas Kearney’s work at For the bonus audio archive, Kearney adds the reading of two new poems. This joins Jorie Graham reading Creeley, Richard Powers reading W. S. Merwin, Arthur Sze reading three eras of chinese poetry translation, and work from many others; from Layli Long Soldier, to N. K. Jemisin, to Ted Chiang. The bonus audio is only one potential benefit of transforming yourself from a listener to a listener-supporter. There are rare collectibles by Ursula K. Le Guin, Rikki Ducornet, and Nikky Finney. There is the possibility of becoming an early reader for Tin House receiving 12 books over the course of a year many months before the general public, and all listeners receive the resource-rich emails with each episode pointing you to things I discovered during my preparation or places to explore once you finish listening. You can find out more about subscribing to the bonus audio and the other potential benefits of becoming a listener supporter at Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at I’d like to thank Noemi Press and Fence Books for providing copies of Kearney’s back catalog, and Fonograf Editions for providing the album Fodder. And of course, the Tin House team: Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Jacob Vala in the Art Department, Yashwina Canter in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the Director of the summer and winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank Imre Lodbrog and Barbara Browning for creating the outro. Their album Imre Lodbrog et sa Petite Amie can be found on iTunes and Barbara Browning’s trove of ukulele covers can be found at