The poet and performer Douglas Kearney grew up in Altadena, an unincorporated area in northeast Los Angeles County, a suburb of a suburb snuggled up against mountains, a town with a robust Black middle class and clusters of white wealth, where Rodney King was raised, where Octavia Butler is buried. I grew up here, too. Kearney watched his brother play Little League in the park across the street from my childhood home, where I’ve been quarantining since March.
I’ve been lonely here, so that sense of shared space is part of why I was so thrilled to talk with him about his work. I also was curious to hear about Kearney’s long career on the cutting edge of experimental poetics. A Whiting Award and Cy Twombly Award for Poetry winner, he’s published four books of poetry—FEAR, SOME (2006), The Black Automaton (2008), PATTER (2014), and Buck Studies (2016)—as well as Mess and Mess and (2015), a crossgenre suite of criticism, and Someone Took They Tongues (2016), a collection of libretti.
But I was most eager to ask about Kearney’s newest body of work: cut-and-paste digital collages that thrum with texture and taste like chewy jouissance. He’s likened the poems to sampladelia, a style of sample-based, psychedelia-inspired hip-hop. “Sampladelia,” the Afrofuturist media theorist Kodwo Eshun writes in More Brilliant than the Sun, “is a mandate to recombinate … Sampladelia is both the reality-effect of samples you recognize and the Origin Unknown effect of samples you don’t. These Unindentified Sonic Objects can suddenly substitute themselves for the world, eclipsing it, orphaning you, washing you up on its shores.” Washing up on Kearney’s world, in Kearney’s Altadena, with Kearney’s texts, is a strange but undeniable joy.
We talked over Zoom in early August, as Kearney was preparing to teach creative writing courses virtually at the University of Minnesota, where he is an Assistant Professor. We soon realized that we both spent our adolescent years singing in nearby youth choirs, he in the Pasadena Boys Choir, me in the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus. That’s where this interview—edited and condensed for clarity and verve—begins.
LIT: Your work brims with music, and you’ve talked about various musical influences. Now that I think about it, there’s a sense of ensemble, of polyphony, that makes itself present in your work. Did your choral upbringing influence your poetry?
I wasn’t great at music theory, by any stretch of the imagination. But I came to find it fascinating, this component of abstract knowledge about singing, which is also bodily. The idea of composition and dynamics that I learned in the Pasadena Boys Choir was not terribly distinct from the church tradition I grew up in. I was not raised in the Baptist tradition, or the AME, or the COGIC tradition—I was raised a Lutheran, at Hill Avenue Grace Lutheran Church in Pasadena. There and in the boys choir, we used some Western music theory to rehearse and to practice that music. So: thinking about the ensemble, thinking about the collective, and thinking about scoring. All of those have some connection to the music theory I learned in the Pasadena Boys Choir, especially the idea of a textual or graphical system for scoring, for understanding how utterances work.
It wasn’t until later that I became familiar with more experimental scores, with artists like Wadada Leo Smith or Cecil Taylor. I don’t even know if they’d call themselves “experimental”—their systems of notation are designed to create other sounds. I could find templates that suited me more. But the idea of the score—that definitely has its roots in my time in the Pasadena Boys Choir.
LIT: Do the more ‘experimental’ musical modes that you referenced—do those feel like the analogues to your poetic-visual work? Those artists you mentioned, Taylor and Smith, do you have a sense of collaborating with them, in a different medium?
It’s not collaboration. ‘Cause let’s say you play guitar, let’s say I’m a sculptor. If we say, Oh, let's do a project together where you play guitar and I sculpt, we're not actually blending our disciplines, we're just doing them simultaneously. Interdisciplinary, to me, would be that I look at how you play guitar, and I say, show me how to do that with your hands, and now I take the pick and I take my hands, and now I can only shape the clay using that same set of gestures. Now my sculptures become this sort of plastic representation of what’s happening with your hands. That would be something closer to interdisciplinarity, because your practice has transformed my practice. It would have to go deeper than that, of course, but the transformation, I think, is key.
So if I’m looking at the work of people who are making notation to capture sounds or create sounds or suggest sounds—which might include anything from turntable scratching to the different sorts of textures or timbres that would come out of playing an instrument in a way that is not conventional to, say, chamber music—then what that does for me is gives me a foundation to begin the process of imagining. Oh wait, there’s another way to represent textual utterance than dit dit dit dit dit dit / line break.
So, the sense of collaboration with these other art forms and their techniques becomes one in which I begin to find meaning—either through an attempt to synthesize, or from an initial misunderstanding that creates a generative failure, like a Mondegreen. Like oh, I think this is what that means, and then realizing later, oh no, I got that wrong, but look what I made as a result of that mistake! Or something that’s much more directly ekphrastic. Which is like, I want to describe what’s happening there and then reproduce it. How does that transform my own process or my own sense of sound?
There’s a sense of collaboration that comes from playing with other people, or singing with other people, as we’ve both done. What happens to you and your body as you are holding a note, and you are reaching the end of your comfort with a note, but you know that the singers on the either side of you are—
LIT: Going to keep singing for you.
LIT: Your work has for a long time engaged in experiments of typography, placement, and form. But I feel like the sampladelia poems you’ve published most recently in Poetry Magazine have been even more collage-y, with even more visual elements and even smaller units of meaning. I thought it could be cool to look at one of your newer poems and talk about it, a sort of close looking. If someone were to ask you to read this poem, a ship crashes down… what would you say? Is there a way you would read it?
LIT: Ooh, I was going to ask about that! I was wondering, on a technological, almost banal level, just how you put something like this together.
Then, there are the InDesign poems. Prior to the one we’re looking at right now, those were pretty much the poems that I call would call performative typographic poems.
But this is a poem that was built and composed in Photoshop. What that means is that the techniques of composition have changed significantly form the InDesign poems. And chief among the reasons for the change is an interest in texturality as well as textuality.
To put it as simply as possible, if I type something up in InDesign, InDesign is going to automatically render everything in the same smooth font, because it’s using an image protocol called a vector. So everything’s going to be very smooth, unless I choose a font that’s pre-distressed. And pre-distressed fonts always irritate me because at first you think, this “o” is so distinct and grungy, then you realize, oh, every “o” looks exactly the same. And that’s always bothered me, to the extent that the front and back cover design for The Black Automaton, which I did using Adobe Illustrator, I actually hand-altered every letter so that none would be the same.
I wanted texture without having to fake it. This ties into my ideas about hip hop culture and sampling. If I sing, “and I am telling you”, that’s not sampling, that’s re-singing. It’s only sampling if I find the recording of Jennifer Holliday or Jennifer Hudson, whoever you prefer, and chop that recording.
So if I type, “let us go then / you and I,” that’s the same thing as me singing, “and I am telling you.” That isn’t a sample, it’s a retyping, a re-singing. So in order for me to sample T.S. Eliot, I would have to scan a page of T.S. Eliot, or find an image of the “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and then cut it. So that basic kind of technical distinction leads to the Photoshop poems.
Also, somebody, maybe about three or four years ago, did this thing that I think is always really fascinating: when somebody sees an influence in your work and says, Oh, well, obviously you are influenced by this person and it's a person whose work you're not familiar with. Unless they're being really snide about it, I’m always like, Oh my gosh, I should know this. And so this person was saying, Oh, you’re influenced by Susan Howe. So immediately I go online and I look up Susan Howe and think, oh this is who I should have been looking at. Because Suan Howe’s use of fragmented text takes on this almost sculptural or architectural quality, which reminds me of really chopped and diced sample production, like Dilla’s Donuts, or Premier, or Madlib.
When I went in with that, I had a period of really base imitation of Susan Howe, because I picked up Debths.
LIT: That’s the only one of hers that I’ve read. I found it very challenging. It resists, in some ways, the reader. In fact, I wonder how you think about creating poems that resist readers, or resist easy reading experiences, because your work has a similar tendency.
LIT: You’ve made a choice, and narrowed the field of interpretation.
The first time I started writing The Black Automaton poems, I thought I’d introduce a poem like “The Black Automaton in de despair of existence #3” and then I’d read it, and then I’d say immediately after, “The Black Automaton in de despair of existence #3”, and then I’d read it again a different way, And then I’d say, “The Black Automaton in de despair of existence #3,” and so on. But that felt like too much of a jerk move.
So instead, I would give a poem to somebody in the audience and give them a pen and say, number it how you think I should read it. That demonstrated that I did not have a predetermined reading strategy for it. And I would say, this is Jordan’s sequencing of “The Black Automaton in de despair of existence #3” and I would read your sequencing as best as I could.
And I did that for about five years, until I felt like I’d gathered enough information about how people read the performative typography poems.
LIT: That’s a fun fringe benefit: you’re collecting data about the way people interact with your work. They have to, on the spot, come up with their most intuitive way from top to bottom.
Now I recognize that the history of Black performance culture, specifically in the U.S., has long braided those two things. So this is not supposed to sound like a revelation. But it got weird-feeling. It was a moment of, I don’t know how it feels to do this.
A couple of things happened that were very useful. I did a reading at Kelly Writers House in Philly, and I heard from the people assembled that they worked with the InDesign poems in class by reading them collectively. That goes back to what you said earlier, about the collaborative or ensemble engagement of my pieces. And it wasn’t just that they were interpreting it collectively. There was a collective act of reading it. At the time, I was like, whoa, I’ve won the lottery. This is fantastic, I’ve made a thing that creates community around the act of reading a poem. That was huge to have in my life. It was a beautiful moment.
And then I began thinking about these Photoshop poems. So what I figured was, if we look at this poem, and imagine me reading it aloud: What is the timbre relationship between the typeface on the word “mission”—which comes from the movie poster to the Robert De Niro film Mission—and the black-letter of “und er wird immer…”? What should I do with my voice to communicate the distinction between those two texts? How will that not become distracting, aurally, in a way that visually it might not be distracting?
In my head, if I tried to read this poem aloud, if I tried to read this “heaven”—which is in this bold sans serif font, but it's also kind of receding—I’m immediately going to have to do something that I think is comical, because performing it feels silly. It would be like “heavenarple.” That would feel like I hurt the poem.
Whereas, you reading the poem in the theater of the mind (as they say in Dungeons and Dragons) seems right on point. That feels great. Or you and several other people reading it together. That feels super great.
So the long answer to your question: I won’t read it aloud. Not because I don’t know how it works. But I think it’s because me reading this aloud actually harms the work, something I’ve hoped my performance has never done.
LIT: I want to hear a little more about the craft of making this poem in Photoshop. What does editing entail for a poem like this? When you’re innovating a form—which, who am I to say that—but when you’re being innovative in formal ways, how do you self-evaluate? It’s harder to measure yourself against an ideal standard, I would guess, which might be dizzying or liberating. What does the tweaking feel like for you?
There are definitely things that I am carrying over from my work in InDesign poems. For example, if you look in this corner, where you see “Crrack,” the proximity of “ship” and “ship.” I have been working toward understanding a poetics of proximity.
Similarly, if I take a blank piece of paper and I put “cat” here, and “tire” here, and I don’t put words as ligatures or anything else on that paper, you are going to sit there and go, oh, there’s some relationship between cats and tires. So you’re filling in: cat is a tire? cat’s like a tire? Because of their proximity.
So when you have multiple words, how do you use proximity or other modes of association, especially if you're not going to use syntactic ligatures, to create associative connections or patterns? In past poems, maybe it was the typeface or the size. Maybe I made sure that all the words I wanted to be associated were tabbed on the same line, were horizontally associated. (In a poem like “Live/Evil,” that’s what I did.)
How can I begin to compose associative patterns through space and proximity? And then, another question is legibility. What do I need to be able to be read, and how much of a word do I need for a person to be able to read it? And then, what happens when a word is either illegible, or breaks at a point that creates another possibility? Like, am I okay with “heaven” being read as “heave”? What does that do to the poem semantically, prosodically, and visually? At that level, I have to think three-dimensionally about the language.
I see a relationship between that and pun. If you’re going to use words with multiple meanings, how do you control for a reader going, oh well that means this as well? Oftentimes, I try to tell myself that the rhetorical, prosodical problem that I introduce by making these layers has an analog that would exist in a Microsoft Word. That used to help me feel like I wasn’t just generating special effects. And, as a good Lutheran boy, I had to show that I had a strong work ethic.
But also now it’s a way of me understanding what it means to throw something on top of another, what rules I set. For example, I could have found a drawing of a cloud to get the top edge of this cloudburst we see here. But it was important to me that I used diagrams or graphics that were symbolic, that could be associated with reading or speech. So I couldn’t just use a cloud, I had to use a thought balloon from a comic strip.
I’ve relaxed some of those rules in some places but not everywhere. This poem still upholds them. But the process of the rule as a constraint is as meaningful to me as a strict metrical scheme might be to a different kind of formalist. When you break it, it doesn’t mean you’ve failed to absorb the lesson of it. I’m trying to release myself from the grid as much as possible, so that becomes a design question.
LIT: Right, there’s a sense of griddedness here with the poles and the axes, the sense of latitudinal connection. But it’s very broken and shifted and in different fonts, different sizes at different times. Which is cool.
LIT: A way in?
LIT: Does operating in this creative mode feel more like approximating or playing on something true to your life right now—maybe something related to how disjunctive 21st century media is, to the layering and overlayering of information that is the internet? So, working in a mode that is of this time? Or does it feel more like you’re trying to think and work beyond what is happening right now? Or is that a false binary?
For me, the Internet transforms the process of finding material, and beyond. Setting Google Books to the nineteenth century is one of the first steps of any of these Photoshop poems. (Why the nineteenth century? Pretty simple: I'm less worried about copyright; also the scans of the texts are usually nice, the texture is usually interesting.) I love looking up terms that people associate with speculative fiction and finding them in a text written in the 1800s and seeing what the language associated with them was at that point.
But once I find that page, it’s never enough just to find that yellow highlighted hit. Partially because I want to understand the context, but also because I’m greedy for what else there is. Because at that point the Internet and I are in something real close to a collaboration, and the poem can be changed.
Another rule: I don’t just type up the language that I want and then throw it through Photoshop and make it look rougher and older. (I think I did that once—but that piece had, I think, about 100 layers, so I cut myself a break.) I can use things I’ve written before: “a ship crashes down in the mid,“ which you see there, and “holding a cross as one holds his telescope,” and “the sun rises and sets over and over again,” those are parts of a treatment for an opera that got rejected. I took screen caps of the pages of those treatments at a lower resolution then bumped up the resolution in Photoshop.
Those were never intended for poems, so that feels different to me from saying, you know what I need right now, I need this phrase, so let me just type it up. It may be silly, but I’ve literally spent twenty minutes trying to find a three-word phrase that I’ve still ended up having to rearrange from different Google Books sources, but I could have just typed up in Photoshop. This process is similar to that practiced by sample-based hip hop producers. It isn’t that they have no access to a bass player, it isn’t that they have no access to being able to play the bass—they’re after a texture. It’s why, every time I look for a phrase, I’m not going to take the first one I find. I’m looking for a particular font, I’m looking for a particular texture, and if I can’t find that, it’s really frustrating.
LIT: Being intent on, or true to, a former instance of a phrase—the text you are sampling from—makes me think of, in contrast, what is now considered the racist, or at least white, strain of experimental poetry, the Kenneth Goldsmith effect, that was also engaged in taking or appropriating work, but did so without the attention on, or awareness of, the original ambience, a subject-position in time or space, an indentity, that can’t be easily copied. To sample and appropriate, in your aesthetics and ethics, seems like it means to carry over and pay homage to the context. That was very long-winded. Does it ring true?
Where I would first like to differ with some people’s use of appropriation in art-making is the idea that appropriation is a kind of removal of one’s fingerprints from the site of the art. I would argue that to appropriate is to put your fingerprints all over that motherfucker. You sample because you want something.
LIT: It’s all about desire.
LIT: I can hear it, but I think we’re good.
LIT: Oh, thank you.
LIT: In what context was this?
LIT: I remembered a quote from Anthony Reed’s Freedom Time about you, Claudia Rankine, and the ‘postlyric.’ There’s a brief, almost throwaway line about the importance of “starting from the pleasure principle, starting from the material, starting from what really gives people pleasure.”
Reading your work, I always feel an intensity, but it’s usually an intensity of pleasure, of play. I think of the miscarriage sequence in Patter—the way you seem to approach the pain is through play and pleasure, and dark humor.
When it comes to appropriating texts or making poetry from the material of your own life, there’s an ethos of play and pleasure. There’s palpable work, and there’s palpable enjoyment of the work. Which I think isn’t something to be taken for granted.
LIT: Oh oops, yes, I think I read that in something you wrote, and just now am realizing I unconsciously appropriated it for that question.
What does it mean to have something people enjoy, yet it does something that a person feels is wrong? I’m not an apologist for it; I’m always suspicious of that urge. But what does it mean to hold those two things at once? Like, I know this is not good. Yet I enjoy it. That ambivalence is kind of a core site for me to revisit and revisit and revisit. And it’s a core site I find myself putting audiences in, whether it’s through the poems themselves, or in the banter between the poems, which has become a much stranger site for me during my readings.
LIT: I remember reading in an excellent interview with Daneille Michelle Legros about your enjoyment of the banter, the patter, the sort of live-action marginalia that occurs at readings. I really related to that. The poetry readings that I’ve attended, the things I tend to remember are the little aberrances, the little strangenesses. (Like, I saw Eileen Myles speak last year, and after they finished reading each page, they—how to describe it?—they pushed it off the stand and it tumbled to the ground. And so by the end of the speech, they were surrounded by their strewn pages. Or I remember being in New Haven and hearing Hanif Abduraqqib banter about New Haven winters, cause he’d lived there for a long time. Or I remember Frank Bidart’s scowl as he read. He was scowling into some beyond.) And so I just really appreciated your appreciation for those pleasures.
LIT: Do you think that assumption has to do with a fetishization of Black authenticity? The way Black poets are received by the white mainstream?
LIT: Right, it forces readers into a discomfort that, as you just talked about, you’re kind of trying to engender. People have to realize, oh this is fun to read, because it’s pleasurable—the assonance, the consonance—but oh my gosh, what am I talking about?