Sho, Douglas Kearney
Wave Books, 2021
2022 Griffin Poetry Prize • International Shortlist
interviewed by rob mclennan
The 2022 Griffin Poetry Prize will be announced on June 15, 2022.
Douglas Kearney [photo credit: Bao Phi] has published seven books, most recently Sho (2021), a National Book Award, Pen American, and Minnesota Book Award finalist. Buck Studies (2016) was the winner of the Theodore Roethke Memorial Poetry Award, the CLMP Firecracker Award for Poetry, and silver medalist for the California Book Award (Poetry). Kearney’s collection of writing on poetics and performativity, Mess and Mess and (2015), was a Small Press Distribution Handpicked Selection, and Starts Spinning (2019), a chapbook of poetry. His work is widely anthologized, and he is published widely in magazines and journals. Kearney teaches Creative Writing at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities where he is a McKnight Presidential Fellow. Born in Brooklyn, raised in Altadena, CA, he lives with his family in St. Paul, MN.
You’ve described your work as a kind of “performative typography,” a phrase that just sings across a whole range of possibilities. How do you feel this element of your work has evolved across the length and breadth of your work-to-date?
Thank you for this question. I’d argue that any typeset poem is a designed object; but when the design hews to more conventional typography (in English, say, left margin aligned, consistent point sizing, etc), a practiced reader perhaps doesn’t notice the decisions they’re making about where to begin, proceed through, and end a reading of a poem. When I think of what I’ve been calling performative typography, I mean to mean poems that make us conscious of our active participation as readers and the inherent agency of that activity. Most of my development in this vein has paired technology with compositional possibility. The bulk of my praxis has used page layout software and, as such, has pushed a bit at the idea of spaciality as a means of creating associations even when sentences do not. It has also been important to me to use similar typographic styling within the performative typography poems to assert similarities between those and the more conventionally-arranged ones.
Where I find myself now—and these aren’t in Sho, though there are some published on the internet—is in a closer conversation with hip-hop sampling techniques. These poems are more truly collaged from found sources, marking my interest in the textural as well as the textual. For these poems, I compose them in photoediting software, often revised from freehand drafts in my journals.
There is very much a sense of music and rhythm in your work, one that plays off such wonderful collisions and contusions of rhythm and vernacular. Do you see this as an element of performance? How did this emerge?
I’ve grown up listening to hip-hop, so what you describe richly as collisions and contusions has accompanied my own life almost long as I can remember. Yet, hip-hop music expressed through rap felt close enough to the kinds of rhetorical performances that featured in my Black household and block that I understood it simultaneously as folk music and commercial music. I sometimes have to remind myself how dynamic and weird it is to hold those two characterizations as the music and culture were developing in real time with my listening.
Another important aspect of collision and contusion (a new C&C music factory!) was that where I grew up—Altadena, CA—was nestled right in the foothills of the San Gabriel mountains, northeast of downtown Los Angeles. Sometimes when we would drive around, the valley would make the radio station signals careen into one another. Generic and cultural interruption were features of my radio listening, an audio equivalent to seeing signage in Spanish, Armenian, and Chinese logograms while looking out the backseat window of a car.
Your work has long been known for an engagement with a variety of political and social concerns. How do you feel your response has evolved over the space of your published work?
When I first started, I think I was deeply invested in the fiction that I had all of the answers. This led to a style in which I wasn’t trying to understand people—including myself—rather I wanted to project certitude in a way that diminished its power. Understand, I’m not interested in creating ambivalence when I don’t feel it. Like: white supremacist-driven domestic terrorism is f_ _ king evil. Certainly. Yet I am interested in blending/bending tones to create unsettling effects. I want myself and my reader to think about what we assume is the response that makes us comfortable and what happens when we question that response.
I find myself pushing back against false equivalencies, it’s why I’m wary of simile and metaphor. I’m often less driven by literary effects that remove the reader from the conscious act of reading, seeing letterforms on a page, so I find myself being more deliberate and sparing of images than I used to be. But I don’t know how programmatic I am about that. Sho draws poems from as far back as 2008 and while I did revise the poems to speak to each other, I wanted many of them to retain their particularities and peculiarities. Thorns.
Still, one of the things that I find exciting about a praxis of intentional constraint is that when I change constraints, I’ve rewired my approach. I once wrote an opera in a counterfeit language. It was my MFA Thesis at California Institute of the Arts (it was called Jungaeyé then, but it’s published as Benbannik). In the act of creating the language (‘Ngmbo), I realized it wasn’t enough for me to focus on words for nouns and verbs. The real complexity was imagining prepositions and conjunctions, prefixes and suffixes. When I finished the first version back in 2004 and wrote in English again, I found that my sense of syntax had fundamentally changed. It was wild!
If syntax is a significant component of how a culture organizes its sense of the world, how it presents that ordering and its values. I find myself treating syntax—thus, prosody—as a political and social concern. I imagine, then, that the content and execution of my poems is that engagement your question names.
The beauty of working any art form for an extended period, naturally, is in the realization of just how much we might not know, and creating as a way through which to discover. I’m curious if you had any particular poets or writers that prompted, or even confirmed, some of these thoughts or directions in your writing?
Harryette Mullen changed everything for me. When I read S*PeRM**K*T, I realized that a poem could focus on the systems of rhetorical play associated with the Black praxis of signifyin(g). A poem with this orientation didn’t have to center images, but language itself as a site of dynamic emotional, intellectual, and political engagement. Pun, repetition & revision, and irony became the devices that meant the most to me and they’ve animated my poetry ever since. I had encountered signifyin(g) in my parent's house, parts of the community, and hip-hop, but Mullen’s work struck me as the apotheosis of it.
Have you been writing much in the way of poetry since Sho was completed? What have you been working on since?
As far as poetry, I’m working on two manuscripts. I Believe I Been Science Fiction Always, which actually coalesced at the same time as Sho took shape. IBIBSFA pushes the visual poetry absent from Sho into a direction that I find as textural as it is textual. There’s a series of poems that imagine armor pieces via Afro-Diasporic musical practices; several poems combining image and text to consider the preposition “over” as it relates to cultural practice and tropes; a long poem that works with and about time by way of turntablism. Fun stuff. The other manuscript is called Mysteries! Give Me Power. The sentences that seem to want to cleave together in that manuscript have been a trip to think and feel through.
I’ve a collection of craft/critical writing—the
lectures I wrote for the Bagley Wright Lecture Series. That book is called Optic
Subwoof, and Wave is putting that out this fall. There’s stuff in there
about banter as self-destruction, visuality in poetry, taxonomies for violence
in poetry, and my lifelong ambition to be a werewolf. I’m working on a children’s
opera and a monograph on dramaturgy as a strategy for listening to Black music.