Douglas Kearney

I mentioned recently that I just read Douglas Kearney’s two books, “The Black Automaton,” and “Fear, Some” (published in reverse order). Just wanted to say a little more about his work and about what I see as a sort of emerging state of poetry that he pretty well epitomizes.

So if you browse around the web for Kearney, there’s a bunch of stuff calling him a slam poet or a spoken word poet, which I’m usually, unfortunately, prejudiced against. But his work is not the standard I’ve found in slam circles. This actually applies beyond him, too, recently. People or poets identifying with slam, more and more, don’t tend to resemble the slam templates I’ve gotten accustomed to. There seems to me to be practically a generation of slam artists that are migrating into more innovative writings and it’s the younger of those writers. I’ve talked with some about the change and it often seems to be a reaction to the competitive nature of the slam and the fact that, apparently, after a while, many slam poets just end up writing poems they think will win slams, not necessarily poems they care about too much. And who wouldn’t get sick of that eventually? I would think there would be parallels to this in the worlds of academic or experimental poetry, maybe with book contests or something, but I haven’t really heard anything about it from anyone so I’m not sure.

I feel Kearney is existing in this really interesting neoculture of poetry. All that really defines it, for me, is poets striving to write innovative, inventive work while at the same time paying close attention to their reading or presentation styles. It’s the best of both worlds, to me, but it definitely might not fair too well in a slam still. I remember reading an interview Josh Wilkinson did with Abe Smith, who started out doing slams. Joshua brought up that, apparently, people had been citing Abe as “the first good slam poet” or something hopefully less ridiculous, I don’t remember–just noting that he has an energetic reading style unique to the bounds of experimentalists– and Abe’s response was basically, “that’s fine, except for I could never possibly win a slam with the poetry I’m writing now.” I think he actually said “I would lose lose lose and lose again.” Paraphrasing here.

Kearney’s walking this line really well. At his best, his word choice is on point, in sound, texture and concision. He gives the poem great attention as a visual object, experimenting with font sizes and types, placement on the page, weird, circuitous phrase navigations where you might find yourself twirling a book around to read the poem (reminded me of Susan Howe’s “The Nonconformist’s Memorial”). He’s obsessed with race, music and the John Henry folktales, which biased me immediately to really dig his poetry, since those are big contributors to my work as well (I named a poetry super hero I made, Otis Henry, partially after the mighty John). He incorporates collage, erasure, mash-up, lyric, narrative and other techniques all together to make a varied and interesting array of poetic expression. So there’s all that, which makes for reading him on the page really interesting. But then there’s the work he puts into his performance.

Consider this video of him reading a sort-of, kind-of erasure of the traditional hymn “Wade in the Water.” I first read it on the page and experienced it really powerfully, but more on a whisper level. Kearney’s reading, here, is more like a DJ beat-juggling, and urgent, like being tossed in a ship. When I read it to myself, I discarded the traditional melody, also, but he incorporates it and contorts it. I’ve seen other performance poets try techniques like this, but never so successfully. Perhaps that’s because Kearney is also trained in music (a librettist).

Or there’s the first poem in this video, a pretty disturbing interpretation of, well, admittedly, a pretty disturbing poem. It’s especially relevant right now, for better or worse, in light of all the “coonery and buffoonery” back and forth between Spike Lee, Tyler Perry and Cornel West. I’m not even so sure how I feel about the reading techniques employed here (they’re not necessarily rare), but I do appreciate what Kearney is doing here, embracing some historically awful expressions to hopefully make more clear his point. Mixing black-faced minstrelsy with carnival barkerisms, hybridizing geographies and building up to some steam engine rage, the only thing the reading of this poem has in common with the video above is its close–yet highly critical–ties with historic black expressions in America. Otherwise, this reading is pretty much a world away from the last, which is, again, something I really dig and appreciate.

I definitely suggest familiarizing yourself with what this guy is doing. And he’s dabbling in film, music, neo-benshi…I’m just addressing the poetry here. I’d love to bring him to Racine and see him bless the mic in person but, until then, glut yourselves on his two books and the many offerings online.


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