October 23, 2016
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?
TW: From 1996 to 2002, I was writing Embers (the book from which the opera was adapted). It is a novel in poems, and so I was completely focused on narrative poems. Once I had published that book, I was burned out on narrative poetry and wanted to explore something different. I did a book of praise poems that praised unlikely things (“In praise of denial,” “In praise of traffic on the 405”), quirky little lyric prose poems; then I started to work with cut-ups of pages of the encyclopedia. I suppose if I want to look for aesthetic ancestors I might look to the Oulipo movement, with its challenge to the notion of inspiration and its embrace of “liberating constrictions.”
Douglas, you’ve written operas and been involved in other performance modes, and these involve collaborative processes. Will you talk about what draws you toward collaboration, where other poets might have a more solitary practice?
DK: Because poetry can be so solitary, I move to collaboration when I get tired of being in my own head! I write the poems, design my books, illustrate the covers—it’s important that I destabilize my own hegemony, and other artists and writers can be excellent unsettlers. One of my great collaborators is the composer, Anne LeBaron. We’ve worked on several projects, including the HyperOperas Crescent City and Sucktion. I always think of her scores as a kind of feedback, a record of her reading. It’s dazzling! Plus, contact with other arts and artists stimulates me, makes new opportunities and problems, new ways of working.
Terrance Hayes once described experimenting with different approaches to poetry as wearing different shoes—say, Harryette Mullen on one foot and Kamau Daáood on the other. Do you see yourself as having tried on 12 different shoes last year? Were you always wearing a Terry Wolverton on at least one foot?
TW: Man, if I could wear a Harryette Mullen on one foot and a Kamau Daáood on the other, I would be walking on air!
But no, I didn’t try to become the poet I was collaborating with. I guess I thought about it more as getting to cook with different ingredients. I’m in someone else’s kitchen and I’m going to make dinner with whatever is in the cupboards. Okay, I’ve got some okra. I’ve never cooked okra, but here I go. I’m used to cooking spinach every night; I’m in a spinach rut, so getting to work with okra is a good challenge. And luckily, there are a few familiar ingredients—I’ve got some cooking oil, I’ve got some salt, I know what to do with those things. So the poems became a process of marrying the familiar to the unfamiliar. I don’t think I really got away from my own voice.
I suppose it’s obvious, but it was shocking to discover how differently some poets use words than the way I use them. And use different words. One of the poets had no body imagery in the words I received; my work always has all this skin and lips and tongues and hands in it—maybe to a fault? One of the poets had so many proper nouns—why don’t I do that? AK Toney used the word “bitch.” As a lesbian-feminist, I don’t typically use that word to describe women, but I decided to accept the challenge and claimed it to refer to myself.
I wish I knew a graduate student who wanted to do a study of this project. I’d love for someone else to look at it and observe what influences of the collaborators they see in the poems I produced, and vice versa.
Would you be willing to talk a bit about your journey to becoming a poet? When did you know? How did you evolve to be the kind of poet/performer/librettist you are?
DK: I have to admit that I get a bit giddy when I find out that someone’s teaching my work. I still remember being an English major at Howard and making my way through an analysis of a text. Sometimes, sure, it seemed as though the author left Easter Eggs for me to find as I typed at like two in the morning. But what was better was finding that the literature had the capacity to contain my reading and my ideas about what I had read. It just made my world bigger, and I felt like I was participating in something important.
Maybe that’s one of the things that brought me to poetry—or that keeps me here. It’s not that I think I’m important, but I think that writing is and that when I’m at my best, I’m a part of that. I have written some of my poems because I was aware that I had missed the opportunity to be a part of something I felt was important—say, De La Soul’s first three albums, or whatever I imagine Fred Moten, Evie Shockley, or Anne Carson might be thinking about at any moment.
I also write because I’m trying to figure stuff out and I hope that whatever I record will help someone figure out more than I have. The poems are then a kind of lab recording in the experiment of trying to be a better human being in this hard-assed weather.
But neither of these motivations would matter if I didn’t love the process of writing. This shit is fun! And the way I can ask questions in poems are, at present, the most exciting to me and that’s why I usually call myself working from that tradition. But I feel like I’m chasing an understanding of what poems can do, playing chicken with what I think they can’t do. My sense of it as a tradition is often in tension with my desire to play and break things, but as I said, I don’t overestimate my importance. I figure I might break the way I’ve done it, but poetry itself will very likely abide my flailing. How cool is that?