Winter may be coming to a close, but there’s still an abundance of talent we’d like to explore from our Winter Issue. Our first contributor conversation of 2016 is with Keith Leonard, poet extraordinaire. Read on for his interview with our very own Audrey Zhao to learn what he does and why he does it so well.
We asked our last interviewed contributor, Alex Dimitrov, to come up with a question for you! So, to start: What do you have for breakfast and dinner? What do you think about when you’re taking a bath?
Nearly every morning of the week, I get to cook up three eggatillas for me and the fam. The whole thing takes maybe 10 minutes to make. Easy-peasy. Here’s the recipe:
1) Sautee a big handful of spinach on a cast-iron skillet
2) Meanwhile, in a blue bowl, whisk three eggs with a generous helping of feta
3) Add the sautéed spinach to the blue bowl
4) Place a tortilla on the skillet and pour 1/3 of the eggy/spinach/feta mix on it
5) Flip once and salt
6) Serve and eat sort of like a healthy slice of pizza
Eggatillas work equally well for dinner too.
As for what I think about when I’m taking a bath, I try to think of nothing, which is mostly impossible, so of course, there’s the warm water, and there’s my naked body surrounded by water, like amniotic fluid, like the first home of my mother’s womb, and there’s the image of my mother suddenly preparing her garden beds 1000 miles away from here, and she’s kneeling on the dirt and not wearing gloves, so the dirt is under her fingernails now, she wipes her forehead and there’s earth smeared just above her right eyebrow, and that’s her loving toil, and there’s nothing to say the garlic she’s planting won’t outlast her, and I’m 1000 miles away from the place my thoughts take me, and isn’t the imagination horrible, and isn’t the imagination wonderful?
Your poems Becoming the Boy and Dead Man Float in Issue 14 seem to both address masculinity and, specifically, the challenges associated with ascending into manhood. What was the inspiration behind these poems?
Those poems were both written in response to finding out we were pregnant with a boy—which, honestly, terrified me. I hate the narrative for men in this country—the toxic, fearful, and possessive narrative that serves as a training manual for egotistically aggressive leaders and emotionally deadened adults. And maybe that’s nothing new, but personally, it took me some time to realize how my every action and thought have been dictated by (and still often are) that false story of boys. So, I guess I wrote those two poems to think about possible ways one might explain to our little, impressionable human that most likely everything he’ll be told about who he should be in this dominance-obsessed culture will be false. And maybe this means, I’m realizing now, that those poems were written for myself, not him, really—out of fear that I won’t be an adequate father because teaching him to question the narratives infused in so many advertisements and in how history has been written feels like an impossible job. But it isn’t impossible, of course. Of course it isn’t—because it can’t be.
These poems, of course, come from your forthcoming collection Ramshackle Ode, which will be out from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in April. (Congratulations! We at the journal are so excited.) Many of our readers may be contemplating embarkation on first collections—what do you think was the biggest challenge in this process, and how did you overcome it?
Thanks. The biggest challenge for me wasn’t putting together the book, but rather finishing it, by which I mean finding a way to value poetry when I was writing outside of the academy. Most of these poems were written in the year after finishing my MFA when I was spending my days in a dairy freezer stocking milk. It wasn’t a bad job, I really liked the people I worked with, but I was depressed that I’d taken out all these loans and gotten a job I could have probably gotten before graduate school. So I had to keep going with writing or live like a sad sack of grump, which would probably destroy my marriage and friendships. I came up with a strategy. I’d write out a poem by a poet I loved in the morning before work and try to have it memorized by the end of my shift. At least that way I’d stay active in poetry. I’d pull that poem out and place it on the shelf I was stocking, and do both my physical work and mental work at the same time. And—this is strange—but I remember it began to feel like I was eating poems, that they somehow converted to energy I could then use to write when I woke the next morning. So I kept eating poems and I kept writing in-between shifts. Soon, I’d write lines of poems on strips of cardboard I’d tear off boxes which held chicken breasts. I began to care deeply about the poems I memorized by Marie Howe, and Gerald Stern, and Terrance Hayes, and Steve Scafidi not just because they were good poems, but also because when I threw away the poem on the page at the end of the day, it stayed inside me—which meant they were part of me like a memory is part of me.Their poems became extensions of pure empathy—the words nuzzled up in my mind and are still there. I don’t really know how to explain it. But I realized that I had to finish a book because I wanted to participate with a reader like those poets unknowingly participated with me. And those writers probably questioned themselves a hundred times. But they finished their books and those books deeply changed my life. So my advice is to keep writing your poems because there’s someone out there in a dairy freezer that needs you to.
We have a potentially deceptively complex question: What is your definition of poetry?
As I’m sitting here trying to answer the question—typing out my answer then erasing it again—I’ve come to wonder about the purpose of a definition for poetry. It seems to me that definitions are most often used to place a thing within a hierarchy of importance. We love definitions because they attribute purpose, and that purpose is attached to a service, and that service is then more easily monetized. But poetry can exist without money because poetry can exist without materials. It takes a mind and a tongue to speak. So I’m hesitant to attribute any definition because I think poetry has the potential to break the hierarchy created by definitions.
But let’s try for the simplest definition for the hell of it.Let’s say “poetry engages the senses to relate experience.” I like the broad simplicity of that. But is that definition really that simple? Our senses are based on neural structures in the brain, and those neural structures evolved to reflect this particular planet, which revolves around a particular sun in a particular galaxy, which has very specific conditions. It could be easily otherwise. Our world could be nothing or a more potent brand of chaos. But we’re here, we’re alive, and we’re using these limited senses to interpret the strangeness of experience in this unimaginable universe. So poetry could be seen as a celebration of this living, the sheer luck and paper-thin nature of it. And being so, it is also a necessary critique of anything that prevents one fromliving this gift of a life well.
What is your approach to writing? When is the best time to write? Also, now that you’re a father (congratulations on that, too!), how have your writing and process of writing shifted?
So, it used to be that I’d try to write from 5am-8am. I’m an unashamed morning person. (In fact, when I used to live in a house that threw parties every once in a while, I had to disappear up to my bedroom for 20 minutes every couple hours so I could take a “party nap”). But having a baby changed all that pretty immediately. He caught on to my early morning routine and one-upped me by waking an hour before that. So I’m out of a routine at the moment, which can be difficult and frustrating sometimes. But then again, I get to play all day. I get to watch someone gaining access to language. I laugh a lot more. All that is instructive for poetry in its own way. And moreover, I’m under the impression that all good poems are written without knowing their end. They don’t know where they’re going. Being out of my own routine and responsible for this crawling, wild little boy means I never know what the hell is going to happen next. So, I like to think it’s a similar energy. I like to think that sometimes I’m living inside a poem.
If you could recommend one poet to our younger readers, who would it be and why?
Lynda Hull—her poems are electric and under-read.
Give us a question, if you would, to ask during our next Conversation with a Contributor.
What’s the best imaginary museum you’ve never visited?
Keith Leonard’s first collection of poems, Ramshackle Ode, is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in April 2016. He is also the author of a chapbook, Still, the Shore, published by YesYes Books.