By Phuong T. Vuong, Interviews Editor
Keith S. Wilson is an Affrilachian Poet, Cave Canem fellow, and graduate of the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop. He has received a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Fellowship, a fellowship at Kenyon College as the Kenyon Review Fellow in Poetry, three scholarships from Bread Loaf, and scholarships from MacDowell, UCross, Millay Colony, and the Vermont Studio Center, among others. Keith serves as Assistant Poetry Editor at Four Way Review and Digital Media Editor at Obsidian Journal. Keith’s first book, Fieldnotes on Ordinary Love, will be published by Copper Canyon (May 21, 2019).
Keith’s work in game design includes alternate reality games (ARGs) for the University of Chicago and Game Changer Chicago, and “Once Upon a Tale,” a storytelling card game designed for Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago in collaboration with The Field Museum of Chicago. He has worked with or taught new media with the Field Museum, the Adler Planetarium, and the University of Chicago.
His writing has appeared or is appearing in the following journals: Poetry, Elle, The Kenyon Review Online, Adroit Journal, Crab Orchard Review, Prairie Schooner, Narrative, 32 Poems, Rhino, Muzzle, Blueshift Journal, and Vinyl. Additionally, he won a Best of the Net Award, the Rumi Prize, has been anthologized in Best New Poets, and was appointed a Gregory Djanikian Scholar. His nonfiction won a Redivider Blurred Genre prize.
Phuong T. Vuong: Thanks for making time to talk to me! Congratulations on your book Fieldnotes on Ordinary Love! It’s coming out next month from Copper Canyon Press, and I’m so excited for the world to read it! I think with this title, I have to ask you about love. There are poems obviously about romantic love and familial love and a more general love of the world. There are also poems about race and racism, its history and presence, like “Fieldnotes” and “Minotaur, Sixteen, Enters a Convenience Store.” Do you think of these poems as love poems?
Keith S. Wilson: That's a really good question, because I consider them all poems of a single kind, but I also don't consider my Minotaur poems, for instance, to be poems precisely about love. I think my love poems and the mythological or ekphrastic or race poems all fit under a larger umbrella of a kind of poetics of wonder. Minotaur is fascinating to me because neither of the two parts that make him are particularly terrifying on their own. To Greece, he was monstrous for being liminal, or hybrid, or unfamiliar. Or, as I see him, biracial. If heroes are worthy of epics for what they are, there is something wondrous to me in Minotaur being worthy of mazes.
As for the love poems, there are certainly a lot of them in this collection, but what made writing these different than the love songs I grew up listening to is that I'm concerned with love as it primarily exists--not so much in the explosive first moment of meeting someone for the first time, but in all the days you spent after that, with or without them. My love poems use a lot of the imagery of outer space because for me, this thing that is always present is all about wonder. It's boring, and distant and unknowable and terrifying, and yet it is never too much of any of that to keep it from striking me silent if I actually really consider it.
PTV: Ohh, a poetics of wonder. That makes sense. It makes me think, too, about being amazed by cruelty and history. I was going to ask about the role of astronomy and the sciences in your poems, but I think you answered that question here. Your writing about small, everyday moments and the planets create this contrasting scale, from pigeons to the bus to the sun, and it makes for really moving work. (One of my favorite lines is “catch your glint of everything off the edge of the fork.”) Then again, maybe it’s not about contrast, but readers’ emotions are evoked through a tension or a struggle with the unknowable or terrifying like you said. Is that how you would describe the relationship between wonder and fear or the mundane?
KSW: Yes, I think that's a big part of it.
I think the mundane is whatever we let become muscle memory—the land around us as we go to work, the people in our lives. Even those who are so important they are our lives are people we might feel we understand so well they’re like parts of our body. We might not think with intentionality about them unless they are suddenly part of an extraordinary process.
I mean, I think part of the tension between the mundane and the miraculous derives from the fact that they might be the same if the scope of the mundane were not hidden from us by its familiarity. What poetry does is what science does and is what ceremonies like baptisms do, which is it tells us to stop and consider a bigness—a bigness that might make us feel small or might remind us we can never be. I guess the central thing I kept asking myself over the years of writing this was, is there necessarily a reason why we are astounded by the scale of the universe and not by the scale of a moment? And even considering that, and having written these poems, I know there’s maybe nothing that can be done. I’m still constantly taking things for granted.
PTV: So maybe related to this tension, but maybe not, I want to ask about shifts in your poems’ speakers’ voice. The voice sometimes shifts to reflect on itself, to contradict itself, or to critique itself even—like in “The Test,” the speaker says, “I know, I know/ I am hardly making sense.” Other times it feels like a dramatic echo that highlights an idea or realization. It makes me wonder if your poems have multiple speakers or voices. How do you think voice functions in your poems, especially thinking of these shifts?
KSW: One of my favorite things to talk about in the first few days of a poetry class is not what a poem is, but what we all seem to believe it is. I much prefer this conversation because it avoids worrying over the impossibility of nailing down a definition and allows for anyone in the class to speak with a certain kind of authority. I think I am troubled by authority itself, and the more voices speaking with it, the less burden any single voice has of a dominant or supreme truth. Like, the last thing I am trying to say is “here is the absolute answer” because not only is it disingenuous, but depending on the subject, it’s also potentially dangerous.
PTV: I really love this answer. It’s making me think, too, about navigating the pressure—sometimes from students—for us to present a fixed, authoritative reading. Thinking about language and danger, your thoughts bring me to your poem “Scrapbook,” after Ladan Osman. I wanted to figure out which Ladan Osman poem it was written after and found versions of your poem from its first drafts to its published form in TriQuarterly, which is slightly different still from the version I read in your book. I don’t want to make you rehash the important concerns about the poem and its drafts that you write about in Underbelly (which everyone should read). Instead, could you tell us more about the poem’s form and how you feel it relates to the topic?
KSW: My revision process—picking pieces from many poems, leaning into associative leaps, and letting a poem emerge differently than whatever my initial intention was—all that makes it really hard sometimes to figure out the beginnings of a poem. I don't actually know anymore which of Ladan's poems this was initially inspired by. I think "Practice with Yearning Theorem: Tangents," which besides being about this kind of interrogation of violence, and approaching that through tangents, has these lines:
Then I saw a dog with his head,
forepaws outside the fence.
He seemed to need a pat
but I recalled his barking,
his paws slapping the fence.
I wondered if this was the same dog.
I keep thinking of the history of violence, and of the place of implied or potential violence in that history. The poem guides us into understanding that this dog might be the same one the speaker has witnessed being violent. That right now, it might only be pretending. We can't prevent violence if we refuse to listen to those who are at risk of being hurt, or to those who have been. I keep returning to that.
If you watch the news, you'll see that a difficulty for those in positions that have historically been violent is how easy it is to see that dog and get caught up in the other two possibilities. That however dangerous he looks, he may never have been violent himself. Or that he was violent but is now reformed. And it's a small leap from those conclusions to asking whether it is fair—to change the discussion from the woman who is afraid to walk on her own street to one surrounding what is fair to the dog. And of course I'm not just talking dogs or men but whiteness and colonialism and wealth and anybody who holds power that has historically come at someone else's expense.
Traditionally, a scrapbook was made literally of scraps—that is, before digital copies of photos, whatever photos appeared in a scrapbook might be all we had to remember someone by. Like, this is literally the only photo I have of my great-grandmother, or maybe I have no photo at all, but I have this note she left her daughter in a book. So formally, what I was interested in was my poem as a scrapbook, or something like a historical document, like the fragments of Sappho's writing, which has survived the violence of time. Is there a way to salvage what we're left with in a way that does not honor violence as heroism? And scrapbooking is an art form that traditionally, I think, women have taken up, and men have been discouraged from. So when I read Sappho or look at a scrapbook, I'm interested in how I might learn to pick up the pieces myself, somehow.
As I say in that interview, it's a difficult subject and I am not sure I succeed and worry that my failure might be harmful itself. I am, after all, trying to channel the genius of Ladan Osman, who already is writing. I think wherever this piece stands, people should go read Ladan's work.
PTV: We’ve talked about form and voice and your embrace of what could be seen as disparate pieces. It’s making me think about how this interest is embodied in the organization of your book. How did you go about organizing it? Are poems organized based on emotion, image, or concept? I ask because I get this sense of the book starting as a tight spiral between two people and slowly spinning outward (and then inward) to incorporate or explore all the relationships between people, histories, and things that affect us as individuals. It seems to relate to what you’ve said about form and voice in your poems.
KSW: Your question is definitely more interesting than my answer is going to be! I want to ask you more about that. I had a lot of trouble organizing my book. Maybe the most trouble, because the shapelessness of the book made me doubt the individual poems themselves, so it was one of many contributing factors to always being this close to just starting over from scratch. Artistically, I wanted poems to feel like they lead into one another rhetorically or emotionally but not logically--something like the way I link my lines together in poems. A lot of times, I want for the space between what is actually said to be its own poetic gesture.
But for me organizing my manuscript became a process altogether different than writing the poems. I mean that it wasn't as heavily an artistic process. Which I'll get into in a second what I mean by that. But practically, I was kind of aware that I have a lot of political poems, and a lot of family poems, and a lot of love poems, and I didn't want sections, so what I didn't want to do was have someone read a number of any of those poems in a row and think: "this is what this book is. This is a book of love poems. This is a political book." Because of course it is, but it's always also something else. So I bought multi-colored paper clips and made each color be a topic or theme, and made sure that in addition to having those associative leaps between poems, I wasn't leaping into another poem that felt too closely aligned with the first in the matter of its most front-facing theme.
And that's kind of frustrating to me, because poets don't usually have to worry about that as much. Like, the economics of popular art imposes all kinds of artificial restraints that affect the shape and message of the art itself in really pronounced ways. So music tends to be around 3 minutes, and almost always has a "hook," because this is how you get radio play. Or TV shows tend to hover around a couple of very common running times, and even now that they're streaming, they're usually broken up into acts as if there are still commercials that go between them. If music or film were invented today, it might be as boundless. Like one episode of a show might be 23 minutes and the next 68, because why not?
But poetry is weird because on the level of the individual poem, I don't personally feel pressured to write with that kind of constraint, and part of that has to do with the fact that there isn't really a model for poetry to generate money for anyone at the level of the journal, so the constraints that push poetry are usually not on the level of how the poem grabs you. At least not until it becomes a manuscript, which is when there is SOME money involved. A book prize, or someone being paid to be a judge. And what that means is there's a tremendous pressure to have a fully edited manuscript that presents itself as exquisite and intentional, even when each poem is actually its own private book that wasn't designed to interact with other poems that way. I feel like there should be more room for "collected works" style books that are a poet's first book. I'm happy with the layout of my collection but something about the process feels like asking a director: "Okay, now that you have some movies under your belt, can you arrange them so they all speak to each other?"
PTV: Well, I think that was an interesting answer! Haha. Now maybe someone will organize a “collected works” first book and subvert the imperatives of publishing.
This idea about each poem being their own private book is beautiful. To me that is one of the beauties of poetry, how each line can stand alone, each poem, each book section (if you have them). And how these parts help make sense of the whole, or how meanings and sometimes new meanings—revelations—are created by these juxtapositions. To borrow from a professor’s favorite line, it sounds like you wanted contiguous connections, not continuous ones. I think that helps us see from new perspectives.
I’m sure there is much more we could talk about, but I don’t want to wrap up without asking about your current work, which feels wildly different in form. Maybe you’d call it visual poetry, but maybe it’s too soon to name it. Can you tell us more about what you have been working on lately?
KSW: It's all still pretty new, but I've been writing poems that take as inspiration the fact that poetry, as we receive it today, is largely a written form. That is, while the performance of poetry has a significant tradition (spoken word especially, but all poetry), a tremendous amount of poetry is found and experienced visually. And given that, it's interesting to me that we don't tend to think of poetry as a visual art form. So what I've tried to do is think about what it would be like for me as an artist to really try to consider the visual impact of poetry. To consider the interactions a poem’s text has with any of the potential elements of visual expression that might appear on a page—the typography and the layout, but also the implementation of images, or the associations that, say, black ink brings that gray ink doesn't.
So I’ve been learning to use InDesign, and studying graphic design alongside the poetry I might otherwise be reading (and a lot of folks like Diana Nguyen, Duriel Harris, Douglas Kearney, Anthony Cody, or Eloisa Amezcua, who are already doing this work). This all feels kind of weightless to talk about, so to give a more specific example, a very early lesson in a graphic design course might be that how increasing the white space of a design can increase the impact of whatever else exists on the page: if you want everyone to seriously consider a specific group of words, you strip away unnecessary images and colors so that it sits in a desert of white, so that your eye has nowhere else to go. That’s a discipline that doesn’t intersect with poetry at all until a poem is being published, and usually at that point, the poet is not present. But isn't that what poetry does from its conception? A poem is often written so that its line breaks result in huge swathes of white space, and what this does when you read the poem is that it visually raises the stakes of what is being said. It’s like a spotlight, and it's not happenstance: you could make a book that hugged the edges of all the line breaks in a collection so that poems filled much more of the page. But you'd reduce, somewhat, what those poems were, because poems are visual artifacts as well as aural ones.
So anyway, I am trying to write poems that begin from there. That don’t take advantage of white space merely because that’s what line breaks happen to do and I was raised on a tradition of poetry that values line breaks. But instead to write a poem from a more intentional place that considers what it does on the page. My “uncanny emmett till” poem came from that space, inspired by the visual art and poetry of Krista Franklin, but I don’t know where I’m going exactly. Like everything I write, I am open to seeing where it takes me, and maybe where it takes me is somewhere else entirely.
Phuong T. Vuong has publications in or forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, Kenyon Review Online, Cosmonauts Avenue, The Asian American Writers' Workshop: The Margins, and elsewhere. Her debut poetry collection, The House I Inherit, was released from Finishing Line Press in early 2019. Hailing from Oakland, by way of Hue, Viet Nam, she is currently an MFA candidate at the University of Colorado Boulder.