Boomerangs Toward Mystery: An Interview with Keith Leonard by Cate Lycurgus

May 19, 2017

Keith Leonard is the author of the poetry collection Ramshackle Ode (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016). He is also the author of a chapbook, Still, the Shore (YesYes Books, 2013). His poems have recently appeared in the Academy of America Poets Poem-A-Day Program, Horsethief, and Copper Nickel. Keith has received fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and Indiana University, where he earned an MFA. He lives in Columbus, Ohio.

Cate Lycurgus, Interviews Editor: I’ll start rather embarrassingly here, with an admission: I always thought I knew that ‘ramshackle’ meant ‘homemade’ or ‘eclectic.’ Then as I read through this collection, the balance of ache surprised me some—how so many of the poems teeter in painful territory. Or like the sister in “The Lords and Serfs of Sand and Sea” who “slips through the hole in the fence as whatever liquid she is—as whatever benediction—and the ocean dismantles the helix that makes her,” threaten to spin out to sorrow. Calling the collection ‘ode’ led me to re-examine ‘ramshackle,’ which is actually ‘loosely made or held together, rickety or shaky.’ What elements, either within individual poems or across them, hold the collection together as ‘ode’?

Keith Leonard: First off, thanks for wanting to interview me. As you know, I’m a fan of your work, and since I get some space here to speak, I get to suggest that anyone reading this interview pause for a second and head over to The Adroit Journal to read your poem “Skyline-to-the-Sea.” I love what you do with language.

As for your question, I think sorrow and joy are two fingers of the same old hand. They operate together. They make each other possible. One thing I think of often is that I am incredibly vulnerable to the experiences of my wife and son, the people I care the most about. If I do something that upsets or disappoints them, it generally ruins me for days. And that’s because my grief is contingent on my love for them. If I didn’t care deeply, I wouldn’t be pained deeply. So, say I’m writing an elegy about a death of a friend. Well, it can’t be all sad because I’m recognizing that I loved them enough to be pained. That, I think, is a lucky thing.

CL: Oh! I’m flattered. The admiration is mutual then, because every scrap of language you use has a sort of hybrid vigor. You write as much about the same old hand in “Ode to Two Syllables,” where a student says her name is her favorite word. The poem ends: I say hooray to Ashley,/ and to the vigor of joy/ sequestered in my palms/ that tingles like a star/ when I clap them together.” There’s a self-generating joy here; since sound slapped from a pair of hands makes more noise than one can create. You often employ a smashed set of words, too, like “smack-the-screen joy” or “bastard-slapping my veins” or “boot-thudded by love.” How does these mash-ups work to change the rhythms of simple praise, or of simple lament? What role does the music play in these elegodes?

KL: That’s a really good question. I think I like smashing a set of words together (as you put it) because I’m curious about the limitations of what we can describe in the English language. There’re a finite number of word combinations, and I believe those combinations pale in comparison to the number of ways we experience the world. Language simply doesn’t do justice to the wonders of our surroundings. It can’t. It can’t, since language is born out of the senses and even our human senses fail to experience our surroundings in a complete way.

I was thinking about the sense of sight this morning, actually. I read this fascinating passage about the vision of chickadees. Unlike us, chickadees have a fourth color receptor which permits them to see in ultraviolet. This, of course, aids them in insect and predator detection. I knew that, I think. But what I didn’t know was that since birds and mammals share a reptilian ancestor, humans also had a chance at a forth, ultraviolet receptor long ago.

So what happened? One hundred and fifty million years ago, during the Jurassic period, our mammalian ancestors went nocturnal. They became night hunters. And because there’s less color at night, natural selection pruned off the need to see in startling technicolor.

This means when I look out to the backyard right now, I see the dead leaf brown remnants of perennial flowers under a grey sky, and I think that’s uninspiring. But in reality, it’s my processing of my surroundings that’s uninspiring. There’re a hundred shades of brown my eyes are lumping together; that grey is all manner of vivid white and blue.

But it’s not necessarily a bad thing that language is inadequate. It allows for an interesting challenge. Poets enliven the language to make up for our weakened senses.

CL: Yes! What infinite lenses for the world. I think I write because a poem is the closest I can come; since I can’t sing (at all!) the music and meaning of language together do some of that ineffable work, but still don’t get it quite right. Sometimes I see you get at this failure by repeating or recasting through imagery. For example in “Memorial” you write, “if you press a thumb against a flashlight/you’ll illuminate the blood//like a stained/glass window,” and the instructions the poem provides for abiding grief seem so intrinsic but so freshly obvious. This ordinary vision becomes otherworldly. And you also create rich emotional worlds in your poems, often through other characters, like Old Mercy, Muzak, the frowning boy in your breast pocket, the magician, or even the word “love” locked up in the dungeon of your chest. These characters you see (that others might not!) propel many poems, but how do they come to you? When they show up knocking, and how do you usher them in without gimmick?

KL: You know what’s funny, I wasn’t aware that I do create characters out of concepts that often. Thank you for pointing it out. You’re totally right!

I wonder why I feel so compelled to do that? Why does “mercy” have to be corporal? Why does “love” have to be in human form for me to empathize with it? I honestly think that might be a failure on my part not to extend my empathy beyond the human realm; to not let those concepts exist outside the familiar. I’m going to sit with that thought for a while. There’s something interesting about metaphor there that needs to be teased out.

CL: I don’t know that it’s failure; if we had imaginative empathy in the human realm, that personification might extend to the larger world as well. Most folks can’t manage the people part! This season I’ve been thinking about the importance of a corporeal divinity, why love must be embodied, if it must. I think somehow that imaginative ascribing, to another or to an abstraction, helps us negotiate what is difficult and act compassionately.

But back to your abstract characters—yes, I see empathy but also the speaker pushing back or further more than a literal line would allow. In “Strawberries for Dinner,” for example, the speaker writes “Limit is a cocky fellow://a pallbearer in a vibrant suit.//He named his daughter Bootstrap.//He loves the word ‘retirement.’//He thinks the myth of Icarus//should be printed on the back//of every birth certificate.” What a stinging indictment of glass ceilings of all kinds! Yet the character provides someone the speaker can spar with or meet, someone with whom to speak. So many of your poems do that work too, in conversation. How does conversation let you say what you might not be able to, otherwise? To whom do speak to when you write?

KL: That’s a really beautiful way of thinking about the abstract characters. Thanks for that.

I really like thinking of poetry as a mode of conversation. Reading poetry has redefined how I think of what constitutes a good conversation, actually. Common sense would say that a good conversation requires two speakers trading thoughts back and forth, but most poems obviously don’t have that set up. Instead, the writer carefully speaks, and the reader is asked to listen. Which means, of course, there’s a responsibility for the writer to say something worthwhile. But—here’s the kicker—I think there’s an equal responsibility for the reader to be open to listening well.

The problem is that listening is an extremely difficult thing to do. It takes a great deal of time and patience. I know when I approach reading other people’s poetry in a bad mood—or, more exactly, in a non-receptive mood—that poem often does not have its intended effect on me. In the same way, if I sit down with a friend and forget to listen well, I’m not learning anything and I’m not helping her much.

I tried to teach my high school students this recently with a seemingly simple assignment. They were asked to record a 20-minute interview with someone about that person’s spirituality. The only restriction was that they had to enter the interview with only one question prepared (something like “What do you believe?”). They then had to listen. They had to build the next question with only the material given in their conversation partner’s former answer. That sounds simple. But many students reported back that they realized they’d never had a conversation like that. They realized they usually entered conversations with their own agendas and spent those conversations trying to confirm their own opinions. But after listening—after really listening—they said they felt a lot closer to the person they interviewed.

So that’s the type of poetry reader I try to be. I try to listen deeply to whatever a poet might be trying to say and I try not to easily dismiss anything. And that’s the intended reader I try to imagine for my own poems. I hold them to the same high standard. Or, to put it another way, I try my best to be a good friend, and a good partner, and a good father, and in return, I expect the people around me to treat me well too.

CL: Sort of like these interviews! At the same time, a danger in not having anything in mind when approaching the page is how insularity or a sense of self-absorption can stymie the poem before it even gets going. It’s a double bind though, because writing with certain readers in mind can lead to a more coded and private poem, or alternately an over-explained one. The best pieces balance invitation and intimacy, which is something I see in much of your work, even the poems that begin “Dear Steve,” or “Dear Kevin.” Take the beginning of “In the Headwinds of a Fable” for example, which reads:

My friends and I live with small patches of hurt,
              and I sit on the couch in the early morning
and write a word, then another, and imagine
              if this sentence stretches long enough, it might break
into a road with little rumble strips and ditch grass
              and guardrails for us all to hop in my car
to drive along, our pockets of worry torn from our shirts
              and flung to the faded dotted lines that disappear
a little more every day, because they must,…

This assertion for a collective healing requires a certain trust—and the triangle between speaker, addressee, and reader establishes an astounding intimacy. What sort of vulnerabilities does writing require?

KL: All of them. All the vulnerabilities. For a lot of people I know, writing poems seems to be a way at probing some of our most elemental questions: Why do we treat each other this way? What is happiness? Is this all there is, and if it is, why isn’t that enough? Poets toss out those question marks like boomerangs at big bubbles of mystery. And it takes a great deal of vulnerability to open yourself to wonder like that. It takes a certain type of courageous vulnerability to simply sit with yourself and think—especially these days when we can avoid our interior lives so easily.

And vulnerability is infectious. We’re much more likely to open up to someone who has told us something difficult. We’re much more likely to say, Yeah, me too, this is my story. Which means poetry provides a crucial service. Without vulnerability we’re sealed off from each other; we might as well be in separate rooms. Poetry is a way of propping open the door between us.

CL: While I agree, it seems the door often opens into two pitfalls—for men, silence, since so many shy from this vulnerability. I think of “Ode to the Unsayable,” where the speaker as a boy had been taught not to say “love,” comparing it to “a sunbeam-starved/and skinny/ dungeon inmate.” Though it’s really no better for women, who get dismissed as “sentimental” or “confessional” the moment they open that door. Can you speak to the complications between vulnerability and sentimentality, and maybe the role gender plays?

KL: There are probably many ways to answer this, and I don’t think I’m an authority on the subject, but I often think those two negative responses to emotional vulnerability—men shying away from it and women being dismissed for it—stem from the same false notion about power and authority. The story we’ve written for authority is that one must lock away their vulnerable self and create a steely persona so that others can rely on that rock image. I get the logic behind that assumption. But just because that particular model of power has been around for a while does not mean it’s a sustainable, a productive, or a healthy model.

There’s also certain vulnerability in possibility, which a lot of good poems have. Poems can show the kaleidoscope of experience, and so trouble easy narratives. When I hear people say that “poetry is difficult,” I actually hear them complaining about the narratives they’re used to being troubled. That’s a very productive thing, but it’s uncomfortable. And that discomfort with complication is one of the main reasons poetry isn’t more popular in American culture right now. American culture privileges the simple, sentimental stories of nostalgia, of political parties, of romantic love, etc., and a really good poem can claim existence is more complicated than that.

CL: The complications might be my favorite part about poetry. Personally, I love puns, or even when the multiplicity of a word does overtime work in a poem. When it means this and that simultaneously, so I must sit with both of those echoes. In your piece “Fiction,” for example, the speaker “hold[s] a compact mirror//up to her nose to see the fog/of the living. If I get the story//right a fog will settle/over the shore and there//will be no other place to look/but at each other.” I pause at “compact,” both as the mirror, and also as in “joined or packed together, solid, or united;” in those lines the speaker asks that we make a compact to recognize one another, however uncomfortable it may be. Do you have strategies for writing an uncomfortable poem?

KL: The only strategy I really have when writing any poem is that it has to “turn” at some point before the final period. What I mean by that is that when I start writing, I want to come out of the experience thinking differently or feeling differently about the subject I had in mind going in. And that is especially true for uncomfortable poems. A lot of the poems in Ramshackle Ode start in a negative space—say, thinking about not being able to say the word “love” often when I was a kid, or say, thinking about a friend’s disease that was wearing her down—and the poems try to push through those uncomfortable experiences and come out the other side still standing, or singing, or at least appreciating the reason I felt uncomfortable in the first place.

But a lot of times that strategy fails. I probably have ten times the number of failed poems than I do finished ones. But that’s okay, because I’m aiming to experience something in poems, I think. I’m aiming to surprise myself, since surprising myself is usually an act of pleasure, and pleasure is a solid reason to keep on writing.

CL: Thank you for that reminder. Since I so deeply want to offer some sort of fortitude or witness or illumination through poems, I tend to place a lot of pressure on the writing of them. Recently a writer I admire suggested I let poetry nourish me, rather than the other way around. I found myself surprised at the idea, (I’d forgotten it!) that poetry does provide pleasure, joy. What has poetry, or the writing of it, given you?

KL: What has poetry given me? That’s such a fascinating question. It makes me think about gift culture and possession, and how poetry—I believe, at least—might exist beyond the borders of what can be possessed. Of course I’ve been “given” some knowledge from the reading of poems—poems can contain facts and figures and human interest stories just like the news—but I feel most engaged with the reading and writing of poems when I’m not reading to “receive” anything. Rather, when I’m reading and writing correctly, I’m interested in experiencing the moment of bewilderment, of wonderment, of negative capability, or maybe even of the spiritual. I’m not quite sure there’s a term I like most for the experience.

…But now that I’ve written that out, I realize that poetry has taken away a lot more than it’s given me. By opening the door to wonder, it’s taken away my impression that I know a single true thing about this world or about my small existence in it. It’s taken away easy definitions of morality and love. It’s taken away my blind faith in the ability of language to describe experience. And it’s precisely that poetry has taken these things away that constitutes my attraction to it.

CL: Your interpretation of the question even highlights our manifold ways of looking at something! You might say poetry has taken away one truth, and I would say it has given me many; or where it has taken away knowledge, for me it has given mystery and humility; where it can empty us of all these things, I’d like to think it’s given me open arms in which to house my wonder. Maybe possession of a different sort—a way in which we are stirred and moved beyond our control or what we can grasp. I guess I would say poetry possesses me, and that is a gift. But let’s say you met someone who had never encountered a poem before, ever. What one would you give him or her?

KL: Oh geez, I don’t really know. I suppose if someone had never read a poem, they’d most likely be under the common misconception that poetry has nothing to do with contemporary life—that it’s an antiquated art written by people in sweater vests. To break that assumption, I’d give them copies of three different contemporary poetry journals so they might see their present day reflected. After all, it’s always been the poets that have tapped into the vein of a nation’s anxieties and aspirations.

CL: How are you currently tapping into these anxieties or aspirations? I’m curious where your interests have led you—what you’re now working on in terms of writing or other creative projects?

KL: I don’t know if I’m trying to dissect anything in particular in poetry right now—in fact, I just started writing again after what seemed like a long, somewhat frustrating lull. I feel poetically rusty. But I think that break in writing has happened for a decent reason. This fall, I started teaching at an independent high school in Columbus, Ohio, and I’ve sort of fallen in love with teaching all over again.

One of the advantage of teaching at an independent high school is that I get mostly complete control over my curriculum. I can change up my classes on the fly to address contemporary issues. Which means the class can go where it needs to go. For instance, during and after the election, students expressed anxiety about the bewildering concept of “alternative facts.” So my Advanced Composition course curriculum evolved into an investigation of fake news and media ethics. Students researched the economic and political incentives for fake news sites to flourish during the election. Then, they chose a story from the current new cycle and independently researched that issue, which helped them realize they can develop more nuanced views of polarizing events. At the end of the class, we had a sort of sharing jamboree where students deepened the simplified narratives their peers might had developed.

For some students, it seemed like a dawning of critical awareness. Some began to privilege questions over answers. That’s a deeply hopeful thing to see.

CL: Definitely. And many creative endeavors start with a question—I’m excited to see where yours lead next!

Cate Lycurgus’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in American Poetry Review, Third Coast, Gulf Coast Online, and elsewhere. A 2014 Ruth Lilly Fellowship Finalist, she has also received scholarships from Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences. Cate currently lives and teaches south of San Francisco, California; for more information, visit catelycurgus.com.

Previous post:

Next post: