Navigating the Briar Patch: Poetry as a Collision of Texts

An Interview with Douglas Kearney, Department of English and Creative Writing Program

“What does it take to make a way through a situation that looks impossible? As a writer and educator, I want to help explore what it means to reckon with instability and discomfort. To work with the mess and read the big patterns that stay happening—despite the differences playing over the surface. I'm also concerned with interdisciplinary modes of composition—in music and text, the social and private. How is composition embodied and enacted in the work I’m making? Especially when so much of my work critiques the nexus of spectacle, violence, and power? In all of my compositions—poetry, libretti, essays, visual texts—I'm trying to hold contradiction without seeking to resolve it. How do we live in that indeterminate space?”

Interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Describe the environment in which your creative instincts were nurtured.

If I think back to how I became interested in writing, my household was one in which talk and language and books were really valued. My father had this storehouse, this archive of vernacular phrases, riffs off of songs, My mother was just this deft, cutting, wry person as well. My brother was oftentimes riffing on whatever was happening in terms of popular culture at that time. He was the guy who really put me in contact with whatever people in the neighborhood were saying, and how they were talking. So, for me, I just loved soaking in all of this language, whether it was from the kinds of music that my dad liked to listen to or just all of the stuff he picked up from growing up in Raleigh, North Carolina, and then living in New York. There’s just all this language just constantly swirling around. In appreciation of that through talk, and through books—my mother had tons of books, and my father and my mother read—so, it was just a huge part of the culture of my household.

What makes your work different from others in your field?

Over the course of my career as a writer and my explorations as a writer, a lot of it has been trying to understand how to not only visually but syntactically get at those composition strategies—the layering of an audio sample and then a voice speaking over that sample. So, as my work has moved and changed, it’s oftentimes connected to this question about how do I make sampling in a poem feel something like sampling in a song? At one point I thought, “Oh, I could just quote the material.” But then, I began to think to myself, “Well, quotation isn't quite the same thing as sampling.” If I type out a line from another poem, that’s like a cover or a quote, or re-singing. That’s not exactly sampling. Sampling is taking the actual material and repurposing it and a lot of my work has been thinking through how to do that textually. So, I’m not just quoting or I’m not just covering, but can materially create the textures of samples inside my own work. What's been really interesting about that—for me and hopefully for readers, too—is the use of collage and the use of this kind of layering of my own content, my own writing, my own sentences and sampling collage sources from other places.

Tell us more about your visual poems. What led you to create this hybrid of poetry and graphic design?

Working with visual poems started off for me as a way of turning the page into a stage space. I imagined that the tension or the conflict between the idea of the page and the stage that flares up sometimes in poetry communities, or it persists in poetry communities sometimes, was a thing that I thought, “Oh, well, if the page itself is a performance space, then I could just rectify that problem for myself. The page is the stage and the stage is the page.” That’s how it started for me. I was really interested in how to make that page feel like more than just a score. Not just a score, because I do think that at some level any poem, if it has a line break right here and then you start here, that’s telling you how to read it. A sense of space and movement and proximity and composition was something that I thought that the page could bring. As I worked more at that, I began to realize that there was a productive gap between what the page could do and performance could do. So, instead of seeing that as, “Therefore, one is better than the other," I began to think about, “Well, how can I work within that gap and figure out new ways to explore the page, and how will that impact my performance when I’m live in front of people?”

When you do perform your Photoshop poems, is it completely different every time?

With the Photoshop poems, there’s a part of me that is more interested in them as textual and textural, partially because of the challenge of reading them, which is to say that because I don’t want to reproduce them at a reading, I don’t want to try to figure out what a font with a little bit of decay around its edges “sounds like,” versus one that’s slightly cleaner, versus one that’s bigger. So, I don’t read those aloud, though other people can! Some of that is tied into the question of critiquing spectacle and violence and their intersections. If spectacle and violence have a crossroads, and I write about that, which is something that has a long aesthetic tradition, writing songs, or poems, or performing dances based upon this idea of violence and entertainment. So, that’s not an innovation, that’s not new ground or a new problem. But I’ve begun to feel uncomfortable about being a body in front of a room full of people, and kind of doing these performances that are critical of performances, entertainment, and violence. So, when it comes to the poems that I call the Photoshop poems, voicing them has been something that has, at some levels, I’ve deliberately made either difficult or, I don’t want to say “impossible,” but just more trouble than it’s worth for me to do at a reading.

When I imagine one day publishing a collection of these, and doing readings, one of the ways that I've been thinking about how to address that issue of how to present them might be to use a drum pad. A digital drum pad like Push or something like that, and have a bunch of samples routed into my laptop. Then, just play things live so that it's not my voice up there, but it's this constellation of associative sounds that just bring you into the space of those pieces.

Where do you source the material for your Photoshop poems?

When doing the Photoshop poems, I try to think about it as if I am digging in the crates. As if I am a producer, or beat maker, and just going through sonic archives, that it would take to make a beat that would be a new set of sounds composed of old sounds. So, for sourcing the material for the Photoshop poems I will oftentimes use Google Books, and I usually set it to the 19th century. There are two reasons for that. One is really kind of a legal thought, in the sense that most likely the copyright has lapsed on that, so it’s fair use. But the other part about it is much more aesthetic in that people scan old books for Google Books, and the older print has a fascinating texture.

What one thing do you want people to understand about your work?

The time you spend with the poem, to me, is a way of navigating something that I think of as like the briar patch. How do you make your way through a situation that may feel at some level impassible or impossible, or unmaneuverable? What is signal and what is noise in this piece? What happens if what looks like noise is actually all signal? That, to me, is something that I want people to understand—the act of engaging it, again, not the act of solving it, because it's not like that. I’m hoping that there’s pleasure in just the sounds that people encounter, and that if it feels more visual, I hope that there’s pleasure or engagement in just seeing how there’s arrangement or seeing the way things have lined up.

Walk us through a current or recent project of yours. How did you design the work and decide what ideas to explore through it?

In 2018, I was invited to work on a series of lectures for the Bagley Wright Lecture Series. So, one of my most recent projects has been writing lectures for that series. For a long time, I just knew what I was going to do. I was going to write lectures based upon these discrete moments in songs. So, for example, there's a moment in E-40 and Keak da Sneak's song “Tell Me When To Go,” when E-40 says, “Ghost-ride the whip.” So, I was going to write an entire lecture about “ghost-ride the whip” as a moment in vernacular, and therefore folk culture where I heard that sentence, “ghost-ride the whip,” as an example of a sentence that I wish I had just invented out of thin air.

To say “ghost ride” means to be riding in a car, jump out of a car, walk next to the car, dance next to the car while it still rides. “The whip” is slang for a car. Ghost ride the whip. But then, to think about using the word “whip” with its associations with the Black presence in this country, and then “ghost” as a way of thinking about history. The riders, the “nightriders,” as a word for the way people describe the Klan. So, the ghost being people in white sheets, and then the whip... that's not necessarily what E-40 meant. I doubt that's what he meant. But in that moment, I just saw this beautiful, horrible sentence. So, I was going to write lectures about moments like that and write about that in their relationship to Black performance culture, and then, in their relationship to my poetics.

But the call for those lectures was to write about my own poetry and process as well as an interest, and here, the connection to my own poetry was always going to be shoehorned into a relationship with the song moment after the fact. It just wasn't going to work. So, at the last second, I changed the project and I decided to write a lecture called, "I Killed, I Died: Self-Destruction, Banter and the Poetry Reading." It’s about the phenomena at poetry readings where the poet banters with the audience about, "Well, this poem is about ..." Or, "I wrote this poem at this point and so—." And how that is an inherently self-destructive act. But I juxtaposed that with much more overtly self-destructive acts that have attended my own poetry readings, which include everything from sprinting into concrete walls at the Poetry Center of Tucson, or clipping binder clips to my mouth at a reading in Chicago, or just wrestling a bottle of water at Alabama. Just these different actions that are happening improvisationally. Because at one level there's a desire in me to take the poetry reading and expose its context as a structure of the mediated relationship between the poet and the audience as an exchange.

The poet is offering up something and the audience is acting as a judging critical body, and there's this transaction going on. Also, that the poetry reading can become a space in which instead of feeling that I'm just presenting this work that I've done, I ask myself “How can I turn the poetry reading into a space where I'm working, and not just delivering, but working actively?”

Can you describe the relationship between your creative practice and your teaching?

When it comes to working with a larger classroom setting and not just an individual student, the intertextual way that I work, when I’m blending these different layers of text and referencing a number of different contexts, comes in very handy; so many of the classes I teach are going to employ multiple media or a lot of different cultural contexts or references. A lot of the time, when I’m teaching, I’m fielding questions from students and having to do a kind of work that allows me to fold their questions back into the conversation as we’re having it. So, it’s processing this in real-time, and that takes in the sort of improvisational work of that active listening. Again, looking for signal and looking for noise. If I have a problem, if I have a teaching challenge, it’s probably that I am unwilling to see something as noise for a really long time. I will pursue it as signal for a really long time in a discussion. But oftentimes, that will reveal, again, connections and ideas that are still perhaps being formed but can really contribute to the discussion that we’re having in a class.

That sense of collaborative learning, that sense where I can come in with a plan, or a short lecture, or several points that I want to make clear to students. But then, after that, so much of it is us making knowledge together. That becomes this kind of exercise of a student saying something to me and me reframing that and sort of playing it back, and hearing a theme, and creating these motifs that we build collectively as we move through. Then, the associative thinking that carries through so much of my work, which might be realized as a kind of pun, becomes another way of layering knowledge and looking for chime with ideas that students have, the material at hand, and looking for ways to make connections.

What’s next on the horizon?

I’m working right now on completing a manuscript called I Imagine I Have Been Science Fiction Always. That one is a manuscript that's going to probably be 75—if not more—percent Photoshop poems. So, that one’s really an exciting project to be working on. I just did a thing where I've organized all the stuff that I feel could go into it right now, just to get a feeling for what's missing. If somebody were to ask for it tomorrow, would I be happy? What would I have to do? So, I have a sense of what I needed to do with that one, but I'm still working through that.

I have an opera that I wrote the libretto for, that's composed by George Lewis of the AACM, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. That's coming out in January 2023, it's called Comet/Poppea, and so I'm really excited about that.

To see more research stories like Assistant Professor Kearney's take a look at what other CLA professors have been doing in respect to research and creative excellence.
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