Terry Wolverton: Douglas, I first spoke with you about the dis•articulations project at the opening for “Oasis,” an art exhibition at Descanso Gardens in which poets and artists made work that responded to the landscape. I described to you how each month I was asking a different Los Angeles poet to collaborate with me on a series of exchanges that would result in new poems by both of us. The process was this: We would each find four poetry prompts in the media (print, broadcast or social), something we did not generate. We would exchange those prompts and use them to do four different segments of “fevered writing” (timed writing, without specific intention, a word spill for 3 minutes.) Then we would exchange the fevered writing, and write new poems using the words given to us by the other. So your poem would be comprised of words I had given you; my poem would be comprised of words you had given me. We didn’t have to use every word we were given, but we couldn’t add any words.

I remember feeling shy about asking whether you might consider participating, and was over-the-moon thrilled when you said you would. What made you decide to say yes?

 

Douglas Kearney: We’ve known each other for a minute, Terry, and I remember fondly our discussion about your adaptation of Embers for opera. I think it gave us an insight into each other’s ways of approaching language. At the time of your invitation, if I recall correctly, I had been kind of off-the-grid, locally. Holed up. It was a good way to get back out with someone I respect but hadn’t worked with in a creative capacity for some time.

I mentioned at a Dis•Articulations reading that I connected the approach to sample chopping—like say, Bob James’ “Nautilus” as sampled by 9th Wonder on “Murray’s Revenge.” Were you drawing the project frame from any particular aesthetic traditions?

we’ve places in our properties for them,
lots for growing them into lots more for us.
in the places, there, we can watch them,
our faces like hands having want. we, beaten

by a cooler outside, said they got a coat kind-of-
a-skin sewn up on their body until—beaten
by the cooler outside—we slip them out it
to wear it on us and so we

are we, for we wear their skin for us.

—Emmett Till (1941–1955)

cattail cast tattles Till tale,
lowing low along the hollow;
cricket chirrup and ribbit-lick-up.
what’s chucked the ’hatchie swallow.

up skimming skin upon pond scum skiff-ish,
going slow along the hollow.
now may mayfly alight brown brow.
what’s chucked the ’hatchie swallow.

maybe bye baby bye baby by and by,
lowing low along the hollow.
we will slip the knot not slip will we?
what’s chucked the ’hatchie swallow.

who’s a bruise to blue hue ’hatchie,
going slow along the hollow?
whose a bruise to bruise hue, ’hatchie?
what’s chucked the ’hatchie swallow.

Kodak flash tattles Till tale
going slow among the hollow.
who’s a bruise to bruise hue?
swallow what the ’hatchie chucks.


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.


OK.

One S. Not ASS.


OK.

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.”


Harsh.

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.


I….

I…?

[insert sound of exploding head here].