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Interview: Poet Doug Kearney, Author of 'The Black Automaton' and 'Fear, Some'

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I don't remember where I first saw Douglas Kearney perform, but it definitely left a mark on me. He just doesn't read his poetry, he embodies it, complete with full-out energy, inflections, song and dynamics. In all, it's a heartfelt experience that can leave you laughing hard while swinging your emotion to tears -- for me, it's just one of those "wow" moments. Although he once shared with us a poem for publish a few years ago, we thought we'd interview Kearney in anticipation of his big staged reading this week. And who better to do that than Brendan Constantine, a fellow L.A.-based poet. ~ Zach Behrens, Editor

This Sunday and the next, poet Douglas Kearney presents a staged reading of his award wining poetry collection The Black Automaton. Kearney is renowned as much for his exciting, charismatic reading style as he is for his vivid craft on the page. I had a chance this week to catch up with him and ask about this very different poetry event, a mix of circus and oratory at Theater-Theater on Pico.

To start us off, I’d like to know what's the first poem you ever loved?

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“We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks. The line that always gets me is: “We/ Jazz June. We…” I’m still trying to get at that idiomatic compression, the breaks in the English where the dark matter lays in the cut. I have a recording of her reading that poem and she hangs those enjambed “we’s” so hard, it’s ridiculous. Each one teeters on the edge of her breath—just like it looks on the page.

At what age did you first begin to write? What made you turn to poetry in earnest?

My family encouraged me to write and ramble. Language was big in our house. When I was 12, I wrote a Christmas musical for my church. It was called What is Christmas? and it involved four siblings going to planet Wooz where they each explain what Christmas means from their own perspectives. It was fun, the church was game and a few other churches performed it, too. I began seriously writing poetry when I realized I was more interested in language than stories—that would be about 1997.

Kearney reads from his book, "Fear, Some."

When you and I met, five years ago at Idyllwild Arts Poetry Festival, you were about to publish FEAR, SOME and I remember your dynamic delivery. To say that you act out your poems would be inaccurate. Can you talk about your reading style

Thanks, man. You’re a hell of a reader, so to hear you call me dynamic is an honor. I know that hearing a poem read aloud is a very different experience from reading it for yourself, so I try to make clear the emotional arcs and tones a reader would get after a couple of times through a poem. Essentially, I yell, I spit, I sing like King Louie from Disney’s The Jungle Book… One poem I’ll read at the recordings is about the April 29, 1992 urban unrest in L.A. But the poem—“Showtime in the Burning City” configures itself around a set of showbiz references, from a hip hop party MC to vaudeville to a minstrel show. I have to hit all those registers sonically to be true to the poem as it lives on the page.

I used to try to put on a persona at my readings and my wife, who always tells me the truth about my work, told me that was a bit “wanky.” That’s her go-to word for poetic affectations and whatnot. Since then, I just try to faithfully reproduce the sound the poems make in my head when I’m writing them.

Jean Cocteau once defined poetry in his diary, saying, “Beauty makes us lose our heads. Poetry is born of this decapitation.” I’ve always loved this quote, though it actually doesn’t say much about poetry! Do you have a favorite quote or philosophy about the art?

I’ve said this before, but it’s still true for me. It’s an adaptation of something David St. John once said. Mine goes: “Every new poem is an opportunity for me to destroy my career.”

Your upcoming reading at Theatre/Theater seems to be almost a hybrid, or synthesis of dramatic art and poetry. What can audiences expect to see?

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De despair ub existence!!! I will sing a slow jam from the perspective of an alligator. There will be a peppy poem about the Middle Passage with Parliament and T.S. Eliot quotes. I will have a couple of poems that require sequencing from members of the audience, one of which is a sort of club jam about genocide. I will sweat a lot.

I get the sense that this is but one step in an ongoing exploration. Do you have a another 'level’ in mind, a further direction for blending poetry and theater?

I write opera libretti which is one kind of blend. I want to get more involved with turning the stage into a page, so there’s some fascinating stuff involving video tracking and projection that interests me. I’ve started devising a scoring system for charted spoken word improvisations (kind of like how I imagine the modal charts behind Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue work). Sonically, I study what LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs does in terms of live electronic processing during her readings. But I still love the unplugged, poet-music stand-audience set-up.

What kind of poetry moves or inspires you these days? Who’s on your bedside table?

Got my hands on a couple of manuscripts from friends—Amaud Jamaul Johnson’s Darktown Follies and Ruth Ellen Kocher’s Ending in Planes; they push me to work harder as a reader and a writer. I have a copy of William Carlos Williams’ selected from New Directions on the nightstand. If that sounds snooty, I also have a book about a wizard detective in Chicago on there, too.

Congratulations, by the way; you’re a new father! Are you getting any time to write?

A little. It’s hard to tell how much of that is because of the kids and not because of The Black Automaton coming out a year ago. They’ve given me some new poems—“Thank you but please don’t buy my children clothes with monkeys on them” for instance.

How do you cope with the blank page? How do you deal with writer’s block?

I read. When you can’t write, read. OR, I try to figure out what poem I am resisting. Oftentimes, I get blocked because a poem I don’t want to write is sick of being ignored and won’t let me dodge it anymore. Writer’s Block: The creditor of the literary life.

Is there anyway people should prepare for The Black Automaton? Anything you want to tell us going in?

I chose live shows for a CD recording because I want to capture the interplay with the audience. Audiences drive the tension between loud moments and quiet ones, humor and seriousness, the urgent image and the more elusive beauty of subtle language through their verbal and physical responses. I want people to be ready for poetry that moves through a number of emotional and linguistic registers and I want them to also be moved.

This is very exciting! Thanks for making the time to talk. We'll see you this Sunday.

Kearney performing at the PHAMAKA gallery in downtown Los Angeles in 2009

Brendan Constantine is a poet based in Hollywood. His work has appeared in Ploughshares, Ninth Letter, Artlife, RUNES, The Los Angeles Review, & many other journals. His book, Letters To Guns, was released in 2009 from red Hen Press. New work is forthcoming in RATTLE, Ploughshares, 2River View & Verse Wisconsin. He is poet in residence at Loyolla Marymount University Extension, the Windward School, and with the Alzheimer's Poetry Project.

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