Conversations with Contributors: Trevor Ketner

Trevor Ketner is the author of Major Arcana: Minneapolis, winner of the Burnside Review Chapbook Contest judged by Diane Seuss and Negative of a Photo of Fire (Seven Kitchens Press, 2019). They have been or will be published in Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day, Best New Poets, New England Review, Ninth Letter, West Branch, Pleiades, Diagram, Memorious and elsewhere. Their essays and reviews can be found in The Kenyon Review, Boston Review, Lambda Literary, and elsewhere. They hold an MFA from the University of Minnesota and have been awarded residencies at Vermont Studio Center and Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts. They live in Manhattan with their husband.

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When I read Major Arcana: Minneapolis by poet Trevor Ketner, I had to remark on how perfectly on-brand this chapbook was for me to read, think, and talk about – I am also a non-binary tarot reader poet living in the city of Minneapolis, and it was incredibly good fortune to have the chance to interview Ketner about their work. On a grey Sunday across time zones, Ketner and I connected through our laptop screens to chat about the mysterious world of tarot, place, poetry, and beyond.

Halee Kirkwood: Congratulations on winning the 2017 Burnside Press Chapbook contest! I really admired this collection for it’s exploration of place and gender and tarot. As a poet myself, I’m always fantasizing about the day that I win one of these mysterious prizes. I am curious, did anything surprise you about winning a chapbook contest, or its  aftermath?

Trevor Ketner: I was really intrigued by how anxious I got when I received the call from my publisher, knowing finally that this project was going to be in the world. I had a number of poems published in journals previously, but it was nerve-wracking to have something of my own out in the world. The chapbook catalogued my love for a place and the people in that place, and knowing that people would be able to get inside of it was suddenly really real.

I was excited to submit to the contest. Diane Seuss was the judge; she is amazing and I love her work. She wrote a paragraph blurb about the chapbook as part of making the decision process and it seemed like she really got the collection without knowing me. It was reassuring that other people could get it too.

You have all the big prizes, such as the Bull City Press chapbook contest that most of us want because at the end you have this miniature, perfect bound book. But I often encourage people to submit to all sorts of little contests too. In some practical ways, the submission pool for these smaller contests are, well, smaller, which doesn’t mean the quality is any less but you may have more of a fighting chance. And this was a really specifically focused project, one I thought it would fit with the press and with what Diane Seuss writes. I felt she would be open, as a judge, to the exploration of queerness and spirituality.

I do think it’s important to think of a chapbook as a real book when you’re putting it together. Not just taking all the poems you’ve published and putting them in the manuscript, but making sure they all make sense together. I wrote Major Arcana: Minneapolis over the span of a month. It was a really intense process of knowing that I was about to leave Minneapolis and at the same time learning tarot, and I thought a lot about structure and how the whole thing was holding together.

I think historically chapbooks worked as a loose assembly of the poems someone had written, and there were a lot of full-length collections that worked in this way, but they weren’t what some call “project books,” and the market now has a lot of project books. You can decide whether or not you want to write that, but it is definitely something to think about.

HK: It’s awesome you were learning tarot while at the same time getting ready to leave Minneapolis. I had a similar experience learning tarot while preparing to move from my home in Northern Wisconsin to Minneapolis to be in an MFA program. I was really torn between continuing to write up north without being in a program or taking that next academic step, and I drew the Two Of Swords tarot card that told me to trust the instinct to move, to just do it. And tarot seems to really be having a moment in poetry and in the world right now. How did you come to this structure, and can you describe how you use tarot in your own writing process?

TK: To elucidate a little more on writing the book, writing the poems helped me to get a handle on the major arcana. It was a way to study the symbology. I was still learning the symbols, but if I could relate them to some person or place in my real life, I could remember them better. So they were just kind of poems for me at first. And then I just wrote them all, all of a sudden, which is how I end up approaching a lot of things. And in this way tarot is helpful because it slows me down a little bit—it’s like, ah, pause for a second!

I don’t use tarot in any direct sense in my writing. It’s not like I sit down and I have a reading when I’m feeling stuck in a project, though I have lots of friends that do that. It’s taught me an approach, an openness to the possibilities in my work as I’m writing it, as well as an openness in revision, to be able to come back to something, to what ends up being a set of symbols, emotions, and images in a poem, and looking at how they fit and don’t fit together.

I think tarot and poetry fit together so well is because they both relate to the stringing together of a narrative from disparate parts. A few years ago I interviewed Airea D. Matthews and Hoa Nguyen for Catapult, where we talked a lot about this. It’s the overlapping of the universal and the specific. I taught for three years at the University of Minnesota and this was a constant struggle to explain to students. A lot of times they were writing really vaguely, they wanted their work to “relate to anyone” and so chose not to include specific details. Theoretically that makes sense, but when you really look at the page, what you really need are those hyper-specific details that work as a catalyst for readers.

That was part of this project, too. Figuring out how to make these universal concepts and symbols and systems that are supposed to apply to anyone’s life, and seeing how they actually fit in my life at that moment.

HK: In your chapbook, I was struck by how you use tarot iconography in a manner that is incredibly intimate. Can you talk a little more about how you let image guide you in this project, and how you approached memory and personal experience when choosing the moments and objects that have a close association with tarot?

TK: It was really associative. I was doing actual research into the legacy of tarot, starting with the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, which is the first iteration of how many understand tarot today. Raider, Waite, and Smith put together a whole book that’s available for free online, so my computer screen was a mess. I would have a section open for whatever card I was writing about, I’d pull out the pieces and images that I thought were especially important to the meaning of that card, and then (not in any intense way, meditate) but meditate on how those mapped onto the life I was living and, really, leaving behind. I wanted to commemorate the Minneapolis I lived in when I was there, mostly knowing that when I left everything would be very different.

I didn’t, at first, really edit myself. Whatever I was thinking of that fit into the rhythm of my association was what I was going to write about. The images ended up coming into conversation with one another, sometimes literally echoing what I saw on a day-to-day basis, and sometimes they just needed a little interpretation.

For example, in the poem “Temperance” the waiter in the poem is an amalgamation of a couple people. The bar it takes place in is the CC Club—

HK: I thought that’s where that poem took place!

TK: We all know about the CC Club. [laughs] But the person wasn’t an actual person who worked there. It was a friend I had who worked in food service somewhere else, but they just belonged there, in that poem. And an example of a symbolic image mapping onto a real-life image was that waiter putting their boot in beer on the floor. A major part of the Temperance tarot card is that Temperance is straddling earth and water, and I had to ask myself how that could translate to a bar—and I was like, oh, a bar is messy. People spill beer.

HK: Is there a particular tarot deck you’d recommend to writers?

TK: I really think that anyone interested in learning tarot should start with the Rider-Waite-Smith deck. It’s what most other decks are going to be coming out of, and it’s nice to get familiar with the symbols and iconography that way. I have six tarot card decks and they all have totally different personalities, but I wrote Major Arcana: Minneapolis with the Rider-Waite-Smith; I think it would have been a completely different book if I had been using a different deck at that time.

HK: Do you see poems that respond to tarot as ekphrastic poems?

TK: I think that mine are, as they are responding to the cards as objects and images. And I think generally most poems about tarot are, but only insofar as ekphrastic poetry is looking at someone else’s symbols and then using or re-purposing them for your own work. That’s a pretty generous definition of ekphrastic, but for me that’s how they work.

HK: In a big way I read Major Arcana: Minneapolis as a love letter to genderqueerness, particularly in the closing poem, “The World,” where you write “The best day will be the day / I fold myself into Hermes, tie pronouns to my shoes like wings.” Reading this poem in conversation with “The Moon,” where you write “The moon is a symbol for nothing / except maybe what it’s like to understand you can see / only one side of something,” I wondered what your relationship, as a poet, is to the sometimes binarist symbolism in the tarot and in other practices . Do you seek to subvert these characteristics in your poems?

TK: I don’t think, in any active way, I am attempting to subvert anything. I guess I take more of a weird Marie Kondo approach? By which I mean I give away anything that doesn’t give me joy—does it serve me in this moment? Does seeing the sun as masculine serve me in this moment? Sometimes, it can be helpful for myself, as a genderqueer, AMAB person raised in an evangelical household, to be reminded to step into feminine energy that was already there, that I already have, but that I tend to repress.

While I don’t live in a binary and I don’t think a binary exists as we tend to talk about it, gender-wise, sometimes it can be useful to find where you are between the nodes. That said, one of my favorite decks, the Amano deck, is illustrated by the original illustrator of the Final Fantasy series. And what I like about them is that a lot of the depictions are queer, like The Devil looks really queer: bright green with visible nipples, which feels like an intense way of depicting bodies to me right now.

And I like how in that deck there are really effeminate men and masculine women that exude a certain power that for a long time has been reserved for male depiction in tarot and other practices. And so I don’t feel like I need to subvert or topple. I become sort of a magpie, and I’m like, “This is a shiny thing that I like, this is a shiny thing that I like.” Then I’m like, the rest of this isn’t terribly useful for me, so I don’t need it.

HK: Do you see your own poetry in conversation with—or maybe in resistance to—the poets of the Victorian era who practiced mysticism, such as W.B. Yeats?

TK: I am woefully under-read, historically. My undergrad program really focused on reading contemporary work and learning how to submit your work, so I did not read a lot of pre-20th century poetry. And while I’m always aware of there exists a  legacy of mysticism that will be read onto my work, I haven’t researched it all that much. This was a really personal book for me, and I wrote it commemorate an phase I would soon be leaving behind. I think that is, in its own way, a political act—which isn’t meant to devalue the political act of also looking at and critiquing the work that your work is read with and next to. But it was not a conscious thing for me. Though I was reading James Merrill’s Changing Light Of Sandover, which is this impossibly long book. The whole process of writing the book is centered around a Ouija board, and so he was in contact with this spirit named Ephraim. And it’s so weird and kind of impossible to read, and while I love that book, I was kind of reacting against a sort opaque mysticism or spirituality. Like, “it’s really spiritual if I make it difficult to understand!” I think you can say things plainly and succinctly and they can still mean a lot, and they will maybe mean more to people because they don’t have to puzzle through it.

HK: Right. It happens in spiritual practices and in poetry. Like, what is the aim in intentionally excluding people from a thing you are sharing?

TK: And I was thinking very intentionally when revising these poems that I wanted someone who knows nothing about tarot to still read this book and get something out of it. I don’t want them to need to know tarot. Conversely, I want people who do know something about tarot to feel like they have some extra knowledge, that they can see some small things that someone else might not. I wanted to balance what the reader’s experience could be.

HK: One thing I noticed in this chapbook was a wonderful variety of forms. In particular I was grabbed by your use of the single, isolated line in a few of your poems. Could you talk about the power of the isolated line and when you decide to employ it?

TK: Looking again, I realize I perhaps didn’t do as much as I thought I did, re: formal decisions, but each poem was supposed to be 22 lines, which is the number of card in the major arcana. As I wrote them, I’d look at where the images within the lines were, almost visually determining what stanzas should be. Some poems required quatrains because the images in those four lines were married and it worked through the rest of the poem, and some needed single lines. “Death” was inspired by the poet David Wojahn—he had a poem that did these single lines that were really delineated with a mark between each line, and I was interested in that. With “Death” I wanted to stretch time and space out, for it to be different from other poems for the reader, while still maintaining the same line count.

I think that the line has to operate under its own steam. It needs to feel like a complete thought to justify being a single-line stanza, which sometimes means you change the language to fit the form. That should be happening in any revision, but especially with regard to single lines. They kind of act like a visual comma sometimes, between longer stanzas, and create a visual rhythm that I think is something I am always interested in exploring.

HK: I had an instructor who thought of single lines as bones of a poem, and it was always interesting to think about the poem as a body that needs to be filled. I always love to hear how people describe poetry. Like, what cool language do you have for me?

TK: And what I love about poetry is that all of us are right when we talk about it. As long as we’re saying, like, “the reason I did this is because of this,” we can all be right.

HK: Your chapbook is also an exploration of Minneapolis. How does a sense of place influence your poetry?

TK: Minneapolis was a place where I learned a lot about myself, my identity as a queer person, and the possibilities of spirituality that I had closed off to myself because of how I was raised. In that way, Minneapolis was the bowl that held all of this. That makes it impossible for me to divorce the things that happened there from the place. And when I moved to New York, I stopped writing about tarot almost completely. I started writing differently, my style shifted a little bit. I was assigned a project by another Minneapolis poet, Gretchen Marquette, who told me I had to write 100 words a day for the first 100 days I was in New York. It was very helpful because I had to write those 100 words, but I could also only write 100 words, too. I was never tired of writing.

That ended up becoming a bridge series of poems called “A Spell Called Home” because I was trying to figure out what it meant to have a home. I thought I’d live in Minneapolis forever, and then I wanted to know what that meant to be in a new place. Place, for me, really determines what I write about and how I write about it. I write a lot about trains here (like many many New York poets). And stylistically, my line length has gotten a lot shorter. Everything is more compact here, I get to the image more quickly, I’m less interested in how a sentence can unfold and am more interested in how direct a sentence can be. I’m writing in form now. I’m in a space of understanding how one thing happens after another. and that there’s a real structure. The poems are like miniature skyscrapers that stack up in a specific way.

HK: The Twin Cities and New York City are both these incredible literary landscapes with talented writers and independent bookstores and publishers everywhere. Outside of formal interests, how do you see the literary communities as similar between these places? What are some differences?

TK: They are both very active lit scenes. In the Twin Cities you could go to a reading every night, and it’s the same in New York. But readings in New York tend to be either established or super underground writers, and in the Twin Cities readings are usually people who have a connection somewhere—lots of emerging writers on indie presses.

New York has a lot of indie bookstores that are sadly struggling to survive financially, since rent has gotten so high and landlords want to get them out of their buildings. But there’s not a huge indie press scene here. There are some in Brooklyn, but for whatever reason the Midwest seems to be a perfect place for indie presses. I worked at Graywolf for a while, in a number of capacities, and they are the pinnacle of what a lot of indie presses aspire to be. Making important books look good and getting them out to people. I don’t know enough of the publishing scene here in NYC to know why the Midwest is a perfect indie incubator though.

The most interesting similarity is if you go to writing events in either place, you will make writer friends. I have a few friends here, surprisingly. What I miss about the Twin Cities is how people gathered in domestic spaces. There were lots of house parties and house readings where people just hung out. When you were talking about writing, it was about writing as a craft and not as an industry. In New York, people don’t go to other people’s houses or apartments at all.

HK: It’s one of my biggest pleasures to be invited into another writer’s home, how they live and see how they organize their life, and if I’m lucky enough to see their writing desk or wherever they write, I am so grateful because of that feeling of intimacy.

TK: I only did a few readings in New York for the chapbook, but one was in this cool art space that was really intimate and that became something of a salon, where we’d read and talk back and forth. And that reminded me a lot of the Twin Cities scene.

HK: I have one more question for you. If you had to choose one major arcana card to represent Minneapolis, one to represent New York City, and one to represent your poetry, what would they be?  

TK: The Twin Cities for me is the Wheel Of Fortune. I was all set to go to another school for the MFA, and it was a good program but it was my alma mater and I wasn’t thrilled to be in the same spot. In late June I received a phone call from the U of M asking if I had accepted a spot anywhere, and that felt really lucky. It was a magical time where I kept feeling lucky. But it’s important to remember that those things can change, which is what the Wheel Of Fortune is all about.

New York is probably The Chariot. It’s the kind of place you can only survive in if you have a drive, if you’re heading somewhere and you know where you’re going. On the small scale, like on the street, you better know where you’re going and if you don’t, get out of the way. Also, if you don’t know what you want to do with your life, the city will either eat you alive or you’ll live the same life for 20 years, the same day over and over. That drive is required in New York and that’s given me something.

My poetry is The Fool. For me, poetry always feels like the most magical, naïve project. It’s so wonderful, always so exciting. It seems impossible—this thing you’ve spent so much time with, how is it that it’s constantly replenished with this energy you can then take into yourself? When I’m writing, I often ask myself, “Who cares?” And there’s something freeing about it, like I’ll just do what I want. But there’s a certain amount of naivety that goes into that. Is it your goal to write, publish, or do both?  The writing requires the naiveté, and the publishing requires excitement.

My poems just kind of fumble around in the world, trying to not fall off a cliff.

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Halee Kirkwood
Halee Kirkwood

Halee Kirkwood is a descendant of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe and a current MFA student at Hamline University. Their work has been published or is forthcoming in Muzzle Magazine, ctrl+v, Grimoire, Cream City Review, and others. Kirkwood is a writing mentor for the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop and was selected as a teaching fellow for the 2019 Desert Nights, Rising Stars writing conference at Arizona State University.

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