Alexandra Mattraw with Kevin Simmonds

Kevin Simmonds and Alexandra Mattraw
Kevin Simmonds and Alexandra Mattraw

Of his work, critic Julie Marie Wade describes, “It would be redundant to ask if Simmonds plays an instrument when his voice is an instrument, a conduit of incomparable depth and range.” This embrace of the semantic musical phrase and the traumas that call them forth is what seems to bind Kevin and I as confidants. Although our friendship began as a cyber introduction turned to workshops and readings, it solidified through the online correspondence we’ve continued for six years, a compassionate but often thorny banter in which we discuss everything from poetics and publishing, family and death, to race and sexuality. I’ve sought to mirror the raw urgency of our cyber encounters in this interview, revealing what motivates Kevin’s mercuriality in both his poetry and his life.

Alexandra Mattraw: Every critic who’s ever written about your work has said something about your careful concision. One called it “condensed linguistic play.” Sean Singer says of the poems in Bend to It, “he does not favor pyrotechnics, but prefers simplicity and clarity.” Others might compare your lines to the sharp but playful image condensation of Lorine Niedecker. Do you see your work as condensed in any of these ways, and if so, what draws you to such?

Kevin Simmonds: Words are not equal. Choose them carefully and poems will be, more or less,​ concise. That’s what I’m after because I often compose poems at the word or phrase level. That’s how I build. It has to do with sound. I’m drawn to this as a practice amid the too noisy, too busy, too sprawling world around me. And all the verbose writing, even among poets, regrettably.

AM: It’s interesting to think of the cities you’ve lived in– New Orleans, San Francisco, New York– as “too noisy, too busy” constraints responsible for those exact, precise poems. What would happen to your work if you lived in a quieter small town or countryside? Do you think there would be any reverse effect, or do such places produce as much condensation from you?

KS: When I lived full time in Japan, I lived in the countryside. So answering this isn’t conjecture. I write less, much less, in rural locales because the generative material is almost entirely related to deficits, lack, an impoverishment of real estate, places to sprawl and be unseen. And that’s the material of a city. In my experience, at least. Less compression, less to write about. I suppose entering middle age will change this perspective.

AM: Julie Marie Wade concludes her review of Bend to It with: “​What I hear here: Let us make a canticle of our catastrophes. Wrecked as we are, let us cast ourselves beautifully and rhythmically upon the rocks.” Your work is lyrical. What, in your musical training, accounts for this?

KS: Musicians are taught about the importance of the line, singers especially. Since I received several years of voice training in the classical style, it’s no wonder that I pay attention to the line, that I insist on lyricism. That’s the simple answer.

AM: Speaking of music, you weave some of your poems with tight rhythm that feels connected to intentional meter, such as in the poem “Singing” in Mad for Meat. Lines like “what we are / twin to gold” feature mainly trochees and mirror William Carlos Williams’ variable stress pattern. Do you ever create intentional meter patterns in your poetry, such as you would when composing musical measures?

KS: It’s all music to me. So, yes. But, like received forms, strict and sustained metering is nonexistent in my work because it requires formality, which I avoid as a rule.

AM: The Rumpus claims that Bend to It is not “kind or nice” but written with brutal and “blunt force.” Harsher critics might argue that you write what you feel and see for shock value rather than for the purpose of social activism. One might cite poems such as “A Date on the Bay” that ends with “That’s when I wanted him to die,” a line that responds to the date’s offensive claim that Alcatraz inmates must have “fucked like animals” because “What else would all those men do for recreation?” Can you speak to the place that grit and bluntness have in poetry?

KS: I’ve repeatedly heard this said of my work and it’s amusing. It’s essentially ​a style and scruples question. I stylize. Poetry is art(ifice) after all. But I​ have very few scruples on paper. Part of my style, if you will, is being more unsparing when it comes to veiling the vernacular. Poets deform poetry when trying to “elevate” the vernacular. Vernacular, by definition, is shorthand, utilitarian, no frills. A face without makeup, the word “fuck.” I let them stand because they’re clear and precise.

AM: Do you ever find in your creative process that you “stylize” more or less when writing about the people closest to your heart?

KS: My heart moves as I write and I cannot properly judge its proximity to people or things. When I aver that the poem is done, I can judge. This answer is not entirely honest.

AM: Your answers here form a peculiar paradox: You’re unsparing and unrestrained in expressing your beliefs yet habitually restrained and sparing in crafting the music of your work. Do such absolute, diametric mind frames ever lead to writer’s block? And is there some kind of carry over of this divide in your daily life— say, between work and poetry?

KS: It takes work and time to assert the denial of the ego to create meaningful poetry. I fail and succeed. And those failures and successes occur in every poem I write. I fail more in some poems, I succeed more in others. But there’s each in every single poem. To achieve this, which is the most I can achieve, I must be restrained and sparing because neither come naturally. Poetry is natural. Writing a poem is less so.

AM: The ancient noh form is perhaps alienating for some of today’s western audiences, particularly in its narrative that you describe in your 2013 interview with Prairie Schooner as “slow and deliberate” and “not for everyone.” You also questioned in that interview, “To whom will it matter?” and admitted the difficulties of that collaboration. In fact, it seems it was the assertive form that demanded audience members, regardless of background, to reckon (if not reconcile) with the ugliness of human prejudice through the austere measures of the play, which were punctuated by harsh noh percussion, screeching flute, and drawn out scenes. Now that you are on the other side of those performances, how would you address your original concerns?

KS: Noh is highly esoteric. Even among the Japanese, it’s not an art form ​considered popular or mainstream by any measure. I wanted that form for a telling of Emmett Till’s story for exactly that reason. Noh moves from “nothingness to nothingness,” completely unintelligible for many used to a conventional dramatic arc in Western drama. Till’s story fails on a stage if it’​s told in a way that’s not meditative, long-breathed, unsteady, amorphous. The collaboration was a failure because, given the cast and major collaborators, the performance could not​ attend to two essential components:​ the particular American racial tragedy and shame that defines the murder of that 14-year-old boy. My collaborators and the cast were all white.

AM: You stand out among black queer poets because while your subject matter and themes are explicitly queer and black, your style, diction, tone and forms are distinctly other. If you think this is the case, how do you account for this difference?

KS: Almost all of the poetry of contemporary black queer writers I know of reflects very accurately the public personae of those poets. They have a brand, not so much a voice, much less a voice that defines the times. I don’t live publicly in the same way so I can be more various on the page without concern for brand of style or public praise. ​

AM: Many of your poems recall rituals performed by a priest or confessions made to one. For example, in “Fail-safe,” the speaker confesses suicide to be an art form with which the willful poet can “make” identity: “I will / take my life / make it entirely mine / I / don’t bend. . .”). In “Katrina,” you write, “Daylight through these silent windows / and I’m sure now    Today is Sabbath / the work we do    prayer.”  Your Catholic background surfaces in such poems laced and barbed with pulpit language, though they usually stand apostate to the Church. Even at your readings, you have a way of encouraging the audience to experience poetry as prayer. Would you say that poetry has perhaps become a place of worship for you? How has your experience with Catholicism informed your work?

KS: The act of writing poetry gives me authority, regardless of the tone, subject or sentiment. And not needing anyone’s blessing is nice. That’s the opposite of membership in a religion and my preferred way of existing on this planet.

AM: Objectivists like Zukofsky once implied that poetry’s “sound” is more important than its “sense.” It does seem that in experimental lyric poetry there can be a tense balance between beauty of the musical poetic line and senseless abstraction. Although your poetry is not of the “experimental lyric” variety, do you have any thoughts on how you navigate or relate to that tension in your own poems?

KS: I used to be a choral conductor and occasionally my choir would participate in competitions. The judges would always complement the overall performance but criticize the clarity of diction. I didn’t care. I was after purity of sound, gorgeous dark vowels. I used to say that, if people couldn’t understand the text, they should follow along with the concert program or listen for another kind of understanding. I feel similarly about my poetry.

AM: Listening “for another kind of understanding” is a wonderful way to describe what feels miraculous in the experience of poetry. In closing, can you say a little more about what and who you listen for in those moments that lead to a poem’s emergence?

KS: I cannot say I’m shamelessly promiscuous in my affections. I wish I could. But my orthodoxy is narrow and at extremes. Beauty inspires me–and its absence. And beauty unrecognized. I see the most arrestingly beautiful men and boys on the train every single day. And, because they’ve been conditioned to be blind to their beauty, or be ashamed of it, or to deform it, I’m inspired to write. Conversation, the daily mundane transactional language, is often times emptied of beauty. Overhead conversations or fragments inspire me. None of that requires intention though. Listening to Allegri’s Miserere or watching the male pas de deux in Ulysses Dove’s Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven make in me the feeling of beauty. I try to transcribe that feeling. And that’s my poetry. All the presidential candidates’ empty words are ugly, violently so, and make in me a feeling. A police commissioner’s apology after a shooting. I transmit those feelings. That, too, is my poetry.


Alexandra Mattraw is the author of in the way of harbors (Dancing Girl Press), these threads a sound (Beard of Bees), and Projection (Achiote Press). Her recent poems and reviews have been featured at Coldfront, The Volta, VOLT, alice blue, and 1913 Journal of Forms. Alexandra curates a reading, art, and performance series called Lone Glen in Oakland.

Kevin Simmonds is the author of Bend to it and Mad for Meat (both from Salmon Poetry), and the edited anthologies Collective Brightness: LGBTIQ Poets on Faith, Religion & Spirituality (Sibling Rivalry Press) and Ota Benga Under My Mother’s Roof (University of South Carolina). He lives in San Francisco and Japan.

 

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