Poetry Centered

Douglas Kearney: Not a Melody, but a Thorn

January 27, 2021 University of Arizona Poetry Center Season 2 Episode 6
Poetry Centered
Douglas Kearney: Not a Melody, but a Thorn
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Douglas Kearney discusses recordings that give rise to reflections on human interaction and the potential for both connection and violence held there. Kearney introduces Rosa Alcalá as she uses found text to chart the shape of violence (“Are You Okay?"), Martín Espada as he encounters “reeling hyper-reality” in the courtroom (“City of Coughing and Dead Radiators”), and Ai as she pushes the limits between understanding and sympathizing with cruel narrators (“Abortion”). Kearney ends by reading a poem sparked by Fred Moten’s essay “Black Kant.”

Listen to the full recordings of Alcalá, Espada, and Ai reading for the Poetry Center on Voca:
Rosa Alcalá (2020)
Martín Espada (1992)
Ai (1972)

You can also find readings by Douglas Kearney on Voca, including his most recent with percussionist/electronic musician Val Jeanty, which was given as part of the Thinking Its Presence conference in 2017.

[00:00:00.00] [MUSIC PLAYING] 

Julie Swarstad Johnson:
[00:00:02.82] Thank you for joining us for another episode of Poetry Centered. I'm Julie Swarstad Johnson, and I'm here to welcome you to the show, where we invite a contemporary poet to introduce recordings from Voca, the University of Arizona Poetry Center's online archive of recorded poetry readings. Joining us today is Douglas Kearney. He's a poet, performer, and librettist, who teaches creative writing at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. He's the author of six books, including his most recent, Buck Studies. 

[00:00:34.98] In this episode, Douglas introduces recordings by Rosa Alcalá, Martín Espada, and Ai, that each give rise to reflections on human community and the possibility for both connection and violence that they hold. To close, he reads a poem sparked by writer Fred Moten's essay, "A Natural History of Inequality." Douglas, thanks for joining us. 

Douglas Kearney:
[00:00:59.81] This is Douglas Kearney, recording from Rondo in St. Paul, Minnesota. This is Rosa Alcalá's "Are You OK" from Thursday, January 31, 2020. I've kept Rosa Alcalá's My Other Tongue with me for the last few months, nightstand, desk, satchel. I've been reading it slowly, which is to say, I am reading it because no one has made me responsible for reading it, but because I get to read it. This kind of reading is precious to me, but it is also practical here for how Alcalá in these poems breaks breath and stop tri-syllabic lines, em dashes, interior tabs, a library of silences. 

[00:01:51.49] Thus, she plays the contents precarity amplifying it. In picking a poem from the archive, I hope to find a reading of something from my other tongue, curious about how she sounds these sudden absences. I found instead, new translations of Cecilia Vicuña and uncollectible originals. Meaning, I found more hella good stuff. I could have chosen one of the Vicuña's. I nearly did. A new erotic designs for furniture is right there, but as I listen to the whole set, "Are You OK" came up. And frankly, it set the dramatic tone for this whole podcast episode, one in which I'm thinking about banter, socialities, and human cruelty. 

[00:02:41.91] First, in the banter, I love how Alcalá for a moment ruptures the agreement between herself and the audience. She sets out to text a friend, put Raquel Gutiérrez during the reading ignoring the people there to hear her. In that moment, the structure of a poetry reading is playfully transgressed. The performative intimacy is unsatisfactory. Gutiérrez isn't present, thus Alcalá becomes ambivalent enough about the event to pretend to ignore it for a pass. This also allows for a sociology to be a simple concentrated one that is critical to the poem itself, a found poem built of vital linkages between friends through the technologies of social media. 

[00:03:32.64] What the poem will reveal is that for a friend to be absent unaccounted for, this must disrupt business as usual revealing larger social structures at work. In Alcalá's framing and composition of the poem, we note that these connections intention with the structures putting work in on them are key to keeping one's breath unbroken. The cruelty-- oh, you'll see. 

[00:04:04.23] Here's Rosa Alcalá from Thursday, January 30, 2020 reading "Are You OK." 

[00:04:11.72] [MUSIC PLAYING] 

Rosa Alcalá:
[00:04:14.67] This is called "Are You OK." This is a found poem-- and is Raquel Gutiérrez here somewhere? How should I make it to my reading? 

[00:04:24.42] [LAUGHTER] 

[00:04:28.62] Imma text her right now. 

[00:04:30.12] [LAUGHTER] 

[00:04:35.50] I'm reading a poem with something you said in it and you're not here. 

[00:04:39.49] [LAUGHTER] 

[00:04:41.92] Just kidding. I will get her back, though. So this is called "Are You OK." This is a found poem. I think you'll recognize the references, but I wanted to dedicate this to those of you who are from El Paso here. I know Gabe is here and Rafael is here from El Paso. I don't know who else is from El Paso. Anyone else? Oh, yeah. Hey. What are you guys doing here? Well, are, but you're from Nicaragua, who is passed through El Paso, former student. Nice to see you. 

[00:05:23.98] So one of these lines is something that Raquel Gutiérrez wrote to me, so I wanted to acknowledge her. But there are a lot of other voices here since the found poem "Are You OK." Checking in, let me know you're not anywhere near Cielo Vista Mall. Please, active shooter in the area. Just heard about the shooting in El Paso. You guys all OK? I just read there was a shooting in an El Paso mall. I'm assuming you're all fine but just checking. 

[00:05:57.64] Si usted y su familia están en El Paso, espero que estén a salvo. Safe and sound? Are you guys OK? You guys OK? Thinking of you and El Paso and our American addiction to gun violence. ¿Cómo están? Que tragedia horrible! Les mando muchos besos querida. 

[00:06:16.63] Are you all OK? Sending double hearts emoji and cariño. Just reading about El Paso. Sending all my heart emoji. Colleagues, I hope you and yours are all safe. Heart emoji. Just want to tell everyone I know that I love them. XXOO. I hope you and your family are safe. My dear, I'm sorry to text you to ask you if you are all safe and sound, but I love you and I must. This is horrific. Please tell me you were nowhere near a Walmart today. Praying hands emoji. 

[00:06:47.98] Hey, fam, thinking of you. Breaking heart emoji for El Chuco. Are you OK? How are you doing, hermana? I miss you. Terribly upsetting situation in El Paso. My heart goes out to you all. ¿Cómo están ustedes? ¿Estás bien y tu familia y conocidos? Crying emoji. Muy doloroso. No paro de llorar. Thank you. 

[00:07:09.97] [APPLAUSE] 

[00:07:12.84] [MUSIC PLAYING] 

Douglas Kearney:
[00:07:19.08] This is "City of Coughing and Dead Radiators." From Wednesday, December 2, 1992 by Martín Espada. I believe Imagine the Angels of Bread was the first Martín Espada collection I read. Was it a friend from San Diego or the Twin Cities introduced me to Espada's work? I can't recall. I do know A Mayan Astronomer in Hell's Kitchen was one of the first books of contemporary poetry I went looking for on the strength for the past read. 

[00:07:51.81] "City Of coughing and Dead Radiators" is the title poem from the collection come before Imagine the Angels of Bread. And in it, like so many of his poems, we are led by Espada's speaker as advocate this time in a courtroom crowded with tenants and landlords. The narrative swells to with jump cuts into impressionistic railing hyperreality. This woozy blend spoke to me then. How language could rupture with the abrupt image like the sound of a father cussing about a landlord, and how that could conjure the landlord themselves a room away, leering in the dark. 

[00:08:35.34] I'm struck now by how the separate stories of the lawyers, Espada's clients, form a sociality that he cannot join. From the opening line and the poem’s last stanza, the speaker is associated with power, yet lacks access to its full range, quote, "I cannot evict them," goes the first lines critical enjambment, quote, "from my insomniac nights," end quote. And in the ultimate stanza, the we the speaker joins, quote, "shut files and click briefcases to leave," end quote, as petty cruelty teams with violent callousness to crush the lives of the Latinx, Latino, and Latina poor. 

[00:09:20.74] I've been thinking a lot about banter at poetry readings recently. And Espada's finish here has an irony that isn't funny but funny. Here's Martín Espada from Wednesday, December 2, 1992, reading "City of Coughing and Dead Radiators." 

[00:09:43.31] [MUSIC PLAYING] 

Martín Espada:
[00:09:45.69] What I do now as a lawyer is I help to run a program called Su Clinica Legal. Su Clinica Legal is a legal services program for low-income tenants in Chelsea, Massachusetts. Chelsea is a tough little town right across the Tobin Bridge from Boston. It is the poorest town in Massachusetts, and it's about 40% Latino now, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and requires a lot of Spanish speaking legal services in the housing area. 

[00:10:22.91] One night I couldn't sleep. I was thinking about the clients, people who had passed through my office, who had passed through that courthouse. And I wrote the following poem, which is the controversial title poem of the book that Norton's going to publish next year-- it's called "City of Coughing and Dead Radiators" Chelsea, Massachusetts. 

[00:10:52.62] I cannot evict them from my insomniac nights, tenants in the City of Coughing and Dead Radiators. They bang the radiators like coal hollow marimbas; they cry out to unseen creatures skittering across their feet in darkness; they fold hands over plates to protect food from ceilings black with roaches. And they answer the call of the list, "All evictions in court," brays the clerk. 

[00:11:23.88] Quiet and dutiful as spectral troops returning, they file into the courtroom, crowding the gallery. The patient one from El Salvador, Shoemakers Union refugee, slapping his neck to show where that vampire of an army bullet pierced his uncle's windpipe. The red-haired woman with no electricity, but the drugs heat, swimming in the pools of her blue bruises white skin is the candle she lives by who will move this afternoon for $100. 

[00:11:56.50] The prostitute swollen with pregnancy and sobbing as the landlady sneers miscarriage before a judge poking his broken hearing aid. The girl, surrounded by a pleading carousel of children in Spanish bewilderment, sleepless, and rat-vigilant. Who wins reluctant extermination but loses the youngest lead paint retarded. 

[00:12:20.55] The man, alcohol puffed, graph of scars stretching across his belly, locked out, shirt stolen, arrested at the hearing for the rampage of his detox hallucinations. The Guatemalan boy who listens to the wall for his father's landlord defiant staccato jolted awake by flashes of the landlord floating over the bed, parade balloon waving a kitchen knife. For all those sprawled downstairs with the work boots crusted map printed on the back, the creases of the judge's face collapse into a fist. As we shut files and clicked briefcases to leave a loud faced man trumpets from the gallery, death to legal aid. 

[00:13:12.65] Well, there's a happy little poem, a joyous poem for the holiday season. I am available for children's parties, by the way. 

[00:13:22.95] [LAUGHTER] 

[00:13:24.84] [MUSIC PLAYING] 

Douglas Kearney:
[00:13:30.05] This is "Abortion" from Wednesday, September 13, 1972, by Ai. 

[00:13:39.88] Remembering what shaped my early work sent me back to the dramatic monologue, an approach to poetry what allows for shape-shifting among the living. My favorite writer of such poems is Tim Seibles. But 10 years gone, Ai haunts me still. 

[00:13:58.83] It is a discipline for many to memorize beloved poems. I'll be good one day, but for now, I settle with the way lines from the poem I have enchanted to recall stick with me. And with Ai's writing, not as a melody, but a thorn, something to worry at if I could reach it. These lines are from child beater. Quote, "So far, you've only had a taste of icing. Are you ready now for some cake?" End quote. 

[00:14:36.74] Ai is infamous for poems with cruel speakers. When I say I write to understand cruelty these days as I have now for most of the 25 odd years I've seriously been at poetry, this métier begins with Ai. 

[00:14:53.54] She helps me suss out the critical difference between comprehending and sympathizing with the speakers, even as she barefoots the razor herself. There was also a cool minute I was after an austerity like that of the Kid A album cover from Radiohead. Shit, I should have just reread some Ai. 

[00:15:15.05] In this recording from the archive, Ai's banter is wild. Sure, poetry readings hadn't formed Ford-like into the structures many of us encounter today, but out the gate, Ai explicitly undermines her participation in the reading as professional exchange. She hasn't practiced. 

[00:15:35.12] From there, she presences the professionalizing mechanism of the reading. She describes her credentials, making plain her bio, and how that operates to not only legitimize her but the venue itself through institutional entanglements. She also talks about her name and address. The poem's pilfered lives, all with a kind of tossed-off air. 

[00:15:58.51] Now, the sociality she creates is with the audience, yet as we know with Alcalá, there's a sense that the audience is incidental. The contrast, to me, is that while Alcalá's play and shout outs slyly show the people in the room with whom she'd most like to speak, Ai seems to pay the audience little mind in terms of what they might want from her. The lightness of it is the only thing that makes it surprising in the face of her poems. 

[00:16:28.60] The irony of Espada's joke about children's parties would be redundant here. Ai speaks a bit like she's actually at a party. Only now, she's about to tell a story about this couple she knows. Here's Ai from Wednesday, September 13, 1972, reading "Abortion." 

[00:16:55.95] I didn't really practice. I don't know what kind of reading you're going to get. I didn't say this, but I got a BA from the U of A in Oriental Studies and a Master's of Fine Arts in Poetry from the University of California at Irvine. I know they’d want me to say that at Irvine. 

[00:17:18.80] [LAUGHTER] 

[00:17:28.86] I call myself Ai because, for a long time, I didn't want to use my own name and I don't like it. And I had studied Japanese, but I have totally forgotten it and when I decided what name-- but it means love in Japanese. But actually, I was doing numerology, and A is one, and I is 10. Together they make 11, and that means spiritual force. 

[00:17:52.99] And so that's the name I wanted to be under. And it also, for me, means the impersonal I-- the I of the universe. I was trying to get rid of my ego. And I can also write it as an Egyptian hieroglyph-- duh. Now, I'll start. And my dress comes unbuttoned, so just let me know-- 

[00:18:16.14] [LAUGHTER] 

[00:18:18.27] -- while I read. And I want to mention one other thing. There's this magazine out now called Ironwood. It has some poems in there. I don't usually read poetry magazines, but it's really good. And if you see it, you should get a copy of it. There are some fine poems in there. 

[00:18:40.04] OK, I don't like to read sitting down. I don't know how this will be. And my poems are harsh, but they're meant to show the truth, which a lot of people are afraid to face, and a lot of the poems are just psychological studies really-- the first one's called "Abortion." 

[00:19:06.57] Coming home, I find you still in bed. But when I pull back the blanket, I see your stomach as flat as an iron. You've done it, as you warned me you would, and left the fetus wrapped in wax paper for me to look at my son. Woman, loving you no matter what you do. What can I say, except that I've heard the poor have no children, just small people, and there is room only for one man in this house. 

[00:19:46.35] Now, people really like this poem. The line second to the last line is from a commercial on LA television, which says the poor have no children, just small people. So I stole that line. 

[00:20:01.77] [LAUGHTER] 

[00:20:03.12] But I thought it was a really nice commercial. The picture of the child on there, it's really good. 

[00:20:12.44] [MUSIC PLAYING] 

Douglas Kearney:
[00:20:18.89] The piece of writing that I would like to add of my own to the socialities that I've been bantering about is a piece called "the social whose life and exhaustion of the given has often been mistaken for death." The title of that comes from an essay written by Fred Moten, and that essay is called Black Kant. That piece is part of a series, which also draws its name from the same essay by Fred Moten, and the series is called A Natural History of Inequality. And so, as you can imagine, it's about certain cruelties. 

[00:21:01.91] the social whose life and exhaustion of the given has often been mistaken for death. Shit that our lives collectively need struggle for mattering. Is we, is we, is we ghosts? If so, passage through taxonomic walls should be categorical, but I stay busting my unmattered nose on the margin. 

[00:21:23.24] Meticulous in my essays, coming to pass these tests lay me leveled, a kind of plane of face. My research done been undone, lacking a working physics for immaterial contradiction. Onward, despite no way. What is too high to get over? I leap at. Or too low? I dig. 

[00:21:41.24] Or what holds fast, I throw us at many one [INAUDIBLE]. The blood on my face seems my face. Shouldn't it? On a theoretical ghost of conventions. 

[00:21:51.29] We lay down again, though face down this time. I aim to gain such insight into crime scene geography, but then that is it; a priority versus a posteriority knowledge. That is-- if I stay a kind of working way to get blood, we am such insight that knowledge. 

[00:22:10.79] Both, a ghost toils at haunting aware, if you're there hearing chains Bojangles, or no. Bet this place was haunted prior our being born here as trespassers. The wind that stutters yonder curtains ain't nothing but us breathing. There ain't no ghost they ain't already killed. 

[00:22:30.20] [MUSIC PLAYING] 

Julie Swarstad Johnson:
[00:22:37.60] Douglas, thank you for hosting us today and bringing those poems into conversation with one another and with your own work. We're grateful for your time. Thank you, listeners, for being here with us. We've got one more episode for you in season 2 that you won't want to miss, hosted by Jane Hirshfield. 

[00:22:54.94] If you're enjoying this show, we're always grateful for reviews, ratings, and shares with new listeners. We hope to be here with you again in two weeks. Poetry Centered is a project of the University of Arizona Poetry Center. Home to a world-class library collection of more than 80,000 items related to contemporary poetry in English and English translation. 

[00:23:18.07] Located on the campus of the University of Arizona in Tucson, the Poetry Center library and buildings are housed on the indigenous homelands of the Tohono O'odham people. Poetry Centered is supported by the work of Diana Marie Delgado, Tyler Meier, and I'm your producer, Julie Swarstad Johnson. Explore Voca, the Poetry Center's audiovisual archive online, at voca.arizona.edu. 

Rosa Alcalá's "Are You Okay?"
Martín Espada's "City of Coughing and Dead Radiators"
Ai's "Abortion"
Douglas Kearney reads "the social whose life in exhaustion of the given has often been mistaken for death"