John Keene: Interview

by D. Scot Miller

John R. Keene was born in St. Louis in 1965. He graduated from the St. Louis Priory School, Harvard College, and New York University, where he was a New York Times Fellow. A longtime member of the Dark Room Writers Collective of Cambridge and Boston, and a Graduate Fellow of Cave Canem, he has taught at Brown University; Northwestern University, where he served as Director of the undergraduate Creative Writing Program and Acting Co-director of the MA/MFA in Creative Writing Program; and other institutions. He serves as a fiction and hybrid writing editor at the literary journal Obsidian and teaches at Rutgers University-Newark.

His first novel, Annotations, was published by New Directions in 1995. A collection of poems entitled Seismosis, in conversation with artwork by Christopher Stackhouse, was published by 1913 Press in 2006.

In May 2015, New Directions published Counternarratives (now in paperback), his collection of short fiction and novellas. In my review of this amazing book for Ishmael Reed’s Konch Magazine, I say, “Throughout this collection of novellas and short stories, Keene understands the power of names to the brutalized and enslaved people of color who have been stripped of name as extinguished indigenous victims of early colonialism to Africans across the Middle Passage. To the characters in the book, names are more than bonds. Names are codes. Nick-names are resistance. And naming, un-naming and re-naming yourself is a fugitive act. Fugitive tales are told from the thickets. And Counternarratives is a fugitive book full of fugitive tales.”

Keene’s most recent book, GRIND, is an art-text collaboration with photographer Nicholas Muellner, published in February 2016 by ITI Press

D. Scot Miller: As one of the first poets we published in giovanni singleton’s journal Nocturnes (Re)view Of The Literary Arts, I first became familiar with you as a poet. I must confess, that I only recently became aware of your marvelous prose. Could you talk a bit about your next project, GRIND, and how your poetry and prose relate, if at all?
John Keene: I’ve written both poetry and fiction at the same time. My second book, Seismosis, was a collaborative project with Christopher Stackhouse. This book is a return to that kind of collaborative project and it comes directly out of my experience this summer at Image Text Ithaca. This new book is more of an art book than full poetry book. One of the projects I worked on was collaboration with the photographer Nicholas Muellner, Image Text Ithaca now has a press, ITI Press, and this is the third book they’ve done. It speaks to today because it’s based on the dating and relationship apps and websites out there, whereas Counternarratives is taking a look at the distant past and making a loop into the present. It very much speaks to the present, covering many of the same concerns but in a very different kind of way.

DSM: I’ve always noticed your keen (pun intended) eye for composition and form, and I’m curious to see what you’ll do with “found materials,” or unscripted content from these sites. I’m a major fan of the Burroughs/Gysin “cut-up” method, and I tend to use it especially with found material. What kind of content did you choose to use, and how did you compose it into working poems?
JK: They are direct quotes in certain cases, and I slightly modified them so the poems are two concurrent lines that can be read either up and down or left to right. Even if the poem itself is a static entity there’s a way it opens up to multiple ways of reading. In a sense, it’s trying to capture some of the movement on those sites. Nicholas also kept this in mind in his composition and I’m excited to see this project come to fruition.

DSM: On February 19, New Directions published your syllabus, “Temples for the Future: 20th and 21st Century Black Literary Avant-Grades.” It’s a very impressive and thorough survey with a reading list that includes Amiri Baraka and Bob Kaufman, to Renee Gladman and Nalo Hopkinson. How did this syllabus come to be?

John Keene.  photo credit: Nina Subin

JK: That was one of the courses I was teaching when I was at Northwestern University. One of my responsibilities was teaching Contemporary African-American Literature, not just Creative Writing, and I always had a lot of leeway. I thought this would be an excellent opportunity to introduce some of this material to my students and also bone up myself on it. That’s where that syllabus comes from. And of course, a lot of it informs my practice, so this was a genealogical tracing for me to think about where this work I do comes from. Some are works I was introduced to in college, and from my time with The Darkroom Collective and, later, Cave Canem. People like Baraka and Gwendolyn Brooks go back to childhood. It was a question of how can I share this knowledge with my students, to “plant those seeds for the future,” like Hughes said.

DSM: I like how you said, “genealogical tracing.” When I’m going through my notes in preparation for a project or lecture, I experience the same vague feeling of “reaching for roots,” and every time I do, I feel that I’ve learned something about myself or my practice. I’m wondering if there was anything you learned about yourself or these works that you did not know, or realize, before you taught them?
JK: I realized that I read more critically than I give myself credit for. And I also realized that, regarding my practice, the strands of the larger weave of African-American and African-Diasporic literary and cultural practice are all there. So, ultimately when I’m writing I’m aware of certain things in the back of my mind. But when I was teaching I found that all of these layers were becoming visible. I’m talking about one thing, and all of these others flash up in front of me. And that happens when I’m writing. It was great to approach this from a pedagogical standpoint. Because anyone can pick up Funnyhouse of the Negro or Ohio State Murders by Adrienne Kennedy and get a great deal out of it, but there may be some things that you do not get. Walking through them with the students was a great way for me to start to think about, “What drew me to these works?” and “What are the multiple things they’re saying?” I think about them, in part, in relation to my work.

DSM: What do you feel is the difference between the Black Avant Garde and the Avant Garde?
JK: The aims of Black Avant-Garde are different. One of the first articles that I had the students read was the famous one of the history of the French Avant-Garde by Linda Nochlin, which was talking about how the Avant Garde in French literary and visual culture deeply political and they had certain kinds of political aims that went against the academy. It was not just an aesthetic movement, but a political one. When you think about the Black Avant-Garde, you think of Alain Locke’s The New Negro and the various manifestos that have come out of the Black Arts Movement, and Trey Ellis’ “New Black Aesthetic,” or the landmark Black feminist and Black queer text, there’s something deeply political. Black Avant Garde, both inside the US and abroad – and I’m thinking of this as a continuum. Not an “either/or” but a “both/and” – there is this profoundly political component that is linked to Black liberation. When we talk about Black Avant Garde, these are not solely aesthetic movements. In almost every case, when you look at the works these various writers, artists, and filmmakers, are doing in the world, they are deeply tied to a larger project for Black liberty and Black equality.

81xVcg1RvnLDSM: One of my favorite characters from Counternarratives is Zion from An Outtake from the Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. I didn’t want to give away too much in my review, but it’s clear that Zion is a witness to his own hanging. It takes a close reading to realize this. He’s an archetypical trickster in that he’s tricking his persecutors, just as the story has tricked us. Zion and the story itself are unreliable narrators. Could you talk a bit about how you constructed this and made it work so effortlessly?
JK: I love your reading of this story. At the end of the story, as several critics have pointed out, Zion gets away before, Zion -somehow or another – gets away again, but he is to give this account before he is to be hanged to this Anglican minister who has just forgotten it, so there’s a record, you get an account of the hanging that is a neutral language, so the stories are open and constantly being broken up. There is a difference between the neutral, beauracratic language, the historical discourse, almost a bureaucratic discourse and something much closer to violence itself. Who witnesses this? In a sense it’s Zion and us, the ones who come after. We’ve been conjured up. I think this trickster figure has been so important, and there have been so many. One my teachers- Ishmael Reed – has played with this concept of “conjuration” through language in many of his works. What does it mean to draw upon, and draw this past into the present, and draw upon these other spiritual knowledge systems into our present moment? When you think about “casting spells,” language is a way that people cast spells, and that is a current that runs through the entire book. Language as a means of not just power and knowledge, but of other ways of seeing and being. I think that definitely comes through in that story.

DSM: The other thing I loved about the book is that you re-inject queerness into the historical narrative, as opposed to high-lighting it as an anomaly, like so many writers have done in the past. In my review I call it “The unknown knowns” found in Langston Hughes’ Blues (“He slept like a rock/Or a man whose dead.”), the gentle caress between Carmel and Sophie, or Red and Horatio.” And close by saying, “Keene succeeds in “un-queering” history by queering historical text. Not so much re-writing it, as reclaiming it.” As much as it shouldn’t be in this day and age, I found the way you configure queerness into your narratives bold and refreshing. Was that intentional or just a natural out-growth of your practice?
JK: I believe it was Toni Morrison who said, “You write the kinds of stories that you want to see,” or you don’t see. When we were in The Darkroom [Collective], we had this idea that “Total life is what we want,” and in a sense, with both my first book and this one, in different ways, I tried to imagine a past, but a past that gave a counter-narrative to even the usual counter-narratives of the past. There are counter-narratives within these larger counter-narratives of the master narrative. I just want to think of a richer and do more complex of work that you usually see. I think you see that in the level of content, in the level of form, in the concept, in the multi-layered weave, and queerness is part of that.

DSM : As someone who has published successfully for several projects with a major publisher, how does a Black, queer, male writer negotiate #BooksSoWhite, in light of the currently heightened awareness of publishing’s desperate need for “diversity”?
JK: I think it’s very tough. My own personal story has not been an easy one, but I’ve been very, very fortunate. I was fortunate with my first book. I sent it out blind, and New Directions accepted it. If you talk to any black writer of my or a younger generation, you’re going to get a different story, but it’s not easy. That’s one thing. Another is that publishing industry is constantly changing. When I first started there were a small number of major publishers, a small number of independent publishers, and a few tiny-little publishers. Since then, there’s been an explosion of independent and small publishers. You can publish directly to the internet today. There are far more journals out there today than before, so I think there are more opportunities than there were in the past. The publishing industry, as many of the recent articles have pointed out, is like Hollywood: Very white, very straight. But unlike Hollywood, which is predominantly male, the publishing industry is mostly women. But if you are persistent. If you feel it’s important, there is a way to get it into print. Maybe it’ll be a big publisher, an independent, or you can put it out on your own. There are so many ways to approach publishing that did not exist thirty years ago. My own personal experience hasn’t been a walk in the park.

DSM: Since this is a conversation for Mosaic: Any advice for young writers of color just starting out?
JK: Read, read, read others. When you can, write reviews. Books that you love. Books that inspire you, books that amaze you, books that astonish you, books that drive you up the wall; what do other people know about these books? Especially books from writers of color? And if you’re writing, share your writing with others. I think there’s a way in which we’ve moved over the last twenty-five or thirty years into established institutions. I think that’s great on certain levels, but you need to think about what connections you have to the communities around you. If you’re in formal institution, think about links with writers who are not. Think about creating organizations within the community that are independent so that you can a range of voices that you wouldn’t get in an institution. Think about sharing your work across generations. Years ago, I had the opportunity to teach a memoir class at The Queens Library, and many of the students were seniors. I’ve taught in junior and senior high schools. For young writers just getting started, keeping those connections alive across the age-line is so crucial. I think it’s really important. You want to be your toughest editor. Don’t accept mediocrity and push yourself! Push yourself beyond where you usually go. Those are all important, but the most important thing is reading. Read these authors, study how they do what they do and try to bring some of the best of that to your own work.

D. Scot Miller is a Bay Area writer, visual artist, teacher, and curator. A regular contributor to Gawker Review Of Books, Sensitive Skin, City Lights, and Mosaic. He is the author of The AfroSurreal Manifesto and sits on the Board of Advisors to giovanni singleton’s Nocturnes Literary (Re)view.

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