So, Douglas—do you prefer Douglas or Doug?

Since you’re doing an interview, let’s go with “Douglas.” In conversation, I don’t care. But it helps when I’m Googling-off to reduce the search term variations. Also, it’s Kearney—with an E Y.

You could just use a wildcard.

I don’t follow.

I mean, when you are searching, you could just use a wildcard and it would find both “Douglas” and “Doug.”

Let’s go with Douglas.


One S. Not ASS.


So that’s one question asked and answered. This is fun!

OK. So, Douglas, how many books do you have published?

Two. Red Hen Press published Fear, Some in 2006 and Fence—through the National Poetry Series—published The Black Automaton in December 2009.

Is it true The Black Automaton almost didn’t happen?

I almost didn’t assemble it if that’s what you mean. I had written another manuscript, Drowning | The Cities but my wife didn’t like it. Thought it was “wanky.”


Nah, she was right. Shit was wanky as hell. So I scrapped much of it and began again. About six months later I finished Automaton.

Any other books moldering in a drawer somewhere?

Yeah, you know, if you count Drowning, I have like three full-length, unpublished manuscripts in my files. First, The Dove Sessions—persona poems all based on a Romare Bearden collage called “The Dove.” Then there’s Dust Radio which conflates James Byrd, Jr. and Orpheus and Osiris. I’ve cannibalized poems from them both.

What are you working on now?

We just had twins, so mostly I’m working on them. But I write when I can.

Quick, what’s the first line of your most recent poem in progress, and if you have one, what’s the title?

Uh—“the body a plantation of need.” The poem is tentatively titled “The American Blacks.”

Hmph. Kind of like “The Black Automaton.”

Yeah, I know. Sorry.

Just a bit wanky.

I thought I could wink at the last book.

A wanky wink. It’s time for a moment of speculative play. What is the name of the next collection you’d like to complete?

I want to finish a book called Aped or Invisible Apes. “Ape” is such a prickly word for a negro poet like myself, but I love that it also means to imitate. Remember that scene in Disney’s The Jungle Book with the orangutan—King Louie—singing, “Yoo-hoo-hoo. I wanna be like you-oo-oo!”

You allude to that scene in your long-ass obnoxious poem, “The Poet Writes the Poem That Will Certainly Make Him Famous.” You also quote Sebastian the Crab in your peppy poem about the Middle Passage, “Swimchant for Nigger Mer-Folk.” What’s with you and Disney?

Man, I loved Disney! I’m putting it in past tense like I don’t feel it anymore, but for me, Disney films function as folklore—not because they are “accurate” re-tellings of the old stories but because many people have seen them. They are a shared reference and they come packed with significations and assertions of cultural values. Yet because we know they have been authored by at most a few individuals being paid to make them, there’s the potential for a kind of suspicion about their  acculturating properties. They aren’t what the culture has managed to keep—they’re manufactured to remind us of what we might keep. I don’t know. Anyway, they’re like possibly poisoned candy. Maybe they’re a trap. I like placing them in poems that accentuate their danger.

Danger seems a theme—oh, a rhyme! I should be the poet, not the interviewer.

Why not be both?

Now you’re asking questions! Maybe I am the poet.

Then I’m the interviewer?

I believe that is the case.

But how can I be both interviewer and interviewee?

I am the poet.

I am the interviewer?

Was I the interviewer?

I was being interviewed.



[insert sound of exploding head here].


DOUGLAS KEARNEY’s collection of writing on poetics and performativity, Mess and Mess and (Noemi Press, 2015), was a Small Press Distribution Handpicked Selection that Publisher’s Weekly called “an extraordinary book.” His third poetry collection, Patter (Red Hen Press, 2014) examines miscarriage, infertility, and parenthood and was a finalist for the California Book Award. Cultural critic Greg Tate remarked that Kearney’s second book, National Poetry Series selection, The Black Automaton (Fence Books, 2009), “flows from a consideration of urban speech, negro spontaneity and book learning.” Someone Took They Tongues. (Subito Press, 2016) collects three of his opera libretti. Fence Books will publish Buck Studies in late 2016. He was the guest editor for 2015’s Best American Experimental Writing (Wesleyan). He has received a Whiting Writer’s Award, residencies/fellowships from Cave Canem, The Rauschenberg Foundation, and others. His work has appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, including Best American Poetry, Best American Experimental Writing, Wide Awake: Poets of Los Angeles and Beyond, Of Poetry and Protest: From Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin, and What I Say: Innovative Poetry by Black Poets in America. Raised in Altadena, CA, he lives with his family in California’s Santa Clarita Valley. He teaches at CalArts.

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