Monday, June 21, 2010
Last week, I wrote an interview with Doug Kearney for The Splinter Generation. Doug is a, as his bio says, poet/performer/librettist/educator. Much of his new book The Black Automaton (Fence 2009) is a mix of visual art and poetry that comes together in an investigation of race and culture in Los Angeles and the United States.
His poems reflecting on his experience with the L.A. Riots from his predominantly white neighborhood in Pasadena/Altadena definitely caught my eye. I was also in the San Gabriel Valley, and can remember the ominous plumes of smoke rising from the west and taking over the city. As an Angelino, a developing minor, and a person of color, the L.A. Riots meant something to both of us (and probably many artists of our generation), but in different ways. And that's what I love to discover, what this blog is about. It's about finding those connections within the human experience as much as the uniqueness and individuality.
From The Splinter Generation interview:
XB: In your book The Black Automaton the L.A. Riots are a backdrop for a series of poems. What hand do you think the riots had in shaping you as an African American poet?
DK: The riots happened my senior year in high school. I wasn’t a poet then. My family was the only black family at this white church. I had been in The Pasadena Boy’s choir, which was largely a white organization; so a lot of my peers that weren’t at school where white folks. When the L.A. Riots came down, having to ask that question, “Whose side [am] I on?” crystallized all these fears of not being sure where I belonged.
At the time, popular music included groups like Public Enemy and Arrested Development, so there was a sense among African Americans that you were supposed to have something to say. And [the question became] what would I have said? Who would I have betrayed? The riots, their impact on me as a poet, allowed me to identify a question that I figured I could only answer through the kind of introspection that poetry allows. And what is crazy, even after all this time, I still don’t know what I would have done. And I think, “City with fire and a piece of silver,” revealed to [that] me.
XB: You mention “City with fire and a piece of silver." That poem stood out to me, for one, because of its element of chance. In some of your more visual poems, like the “Black Automaton in Tag” series, there is a feeling of chance, almost like “Choose your own adventure” poetry. Can you speak about that?
DK: Those “choose your own adventure” poems came from people telling me that they would not have gotten the poem if it were not for my performance.They meant it as a compliment, but a part of me could only hear that to them the emotion and ideas of the poem were not in the language itself. That means that it wasn’t well written; it was really well performed.
So I wanted to go back to the lab, and try to write poems that would demand the eye, demand a reader. And not only demand it, but reward it. I wanted to try to create a poetry [where] the page itself would become a stage. And so, the text of the Black Automaton poems that you are talking about is partially about scoring a way of reading.
What’s interesting is that I wrote [those poems] not using Word, but using design programs that would allow me to put text anywhere I wanted. I composed it by putting a text box in a spot, and I’d be like, “OK, text here. No, that doesn’t work. Let me move that.” I wanted to create this page that would perform itself. And what I began to realize when I would look at [those poems], I had no idea how I would read them. If you are looking at the “The Black Automaton in what it is #3: Work it out,” I have no idea, necessarily, how to make the fact that the word “work” is repeated four times inside all these brackets sound. It really becomes an investigation of how we read a thing.
XB: Performance is something that certainly informs your writing process, and as you know there is a long-standing debate between performance poetry and poetry on the page. Where do you see your work falling on this spectrum?
DK: When I started writing and performing, I was going to a grassroots writing workshop called Writer’s Block in San Diego, and it was modeled after The World Stage’s poetry workshop. The only difference was during the workshop, Writer’s Block people never [brought copies], so you never got a chance to read the poem, only hear it, and it ended up being a critique of the performance. And that’s when I really started hearing about the debate of page versus stage. At that point I [thought], “Well, shoot! Why have an argument about it? Let’s have a poem that works equally well on the paper as it does in the air.” That lead to certain experiments that I was doing with poetry, and what I learned was, you can do things where the tension of the poem comes from the differences, the limitations of hearing a poem versus being able to see it and vice versa.
XB: Would you call yourself a performer or a poet?
DK: On my bio it says performer/poet/librettist, and those are all things I do. I consider myself first and foremost a poet. I think I do the most good for poetry as a culture by saying I’m a poet. Then you don’t think that going to a “poetry reading” involves sitting and falling asleep. And at the same time, you don’t believe that if someone does a dynamic reading of a poem they can only be a spoken word artist or a slam artist.
XB: As a Latina poet, I often think about the connection between ethnicity, politics and poetry, and I’m curious on your thoughts as an African America poet. Is it possible to separate race and poetry? What is the connection?
DK: It is totally possible that one day I’m going to feel I’m sick of writing about black face and minstrel shows, and race, and I will write a poem about seeing my wife coming out of the swimming pool. Then the question becomes—if I describe my wife—is it suddenly a poem about race because I describe my wife’s dark brown skin? Is it a poem about black pride and black beauty? That’s baggage the reader brings, to a certain extent. For me, I don’t see them as separate. To say that you are a writer, and the fact that you are an African American has no bearing on your writing is a little difficult to believe. You might not write about black shit, but that can be because you are black, at which point you are writing the blackest shit ever.