A Conversation with Poet and PhD candidate, Charles Kell

Charles Kell is a PhD candidate at The University of Rhode Island and associate editor of The Ocean State Review. His poetry and fiction have appeared in The New Orleans Review, The Saint Ann’s Review, Kestrel, Columbia Journal, The Pinch, and elsewhere. Cage of Lit Glass, chosen by Kimiko Hahn for the 2018 Autumn House Press Poetry Prize, is forthcoming toward the end of 2019. He teaches in Rhode Island and Connecticut.

Heather J. Macpherson: First of all, congratulations on your manuscript, Cage of Lit Glass winning the 2018 Autumn House Poetry Prize judged by Kimiko Hahn! And thank you for participating in an interview for the URI Graduate Blog.

Each section of your collection falls under a particular set of defining terms. I am wondering if you cuan speak to how you developed these section titles and the process in which each section came together?

Charles Kell: The Ashbery quote that opens section one is important, which I discuss a bit later. I had this quote cemented in my mind, I knew I wanted to use these lines from his poem, “Litany.” The second section opens with a Rosmarie Waldrop quote, from her amazing book of prose poems, The Reproduction of Profiles (1987): “like the phantom beat between two rhythms.” Waldrop is the poet of gaps, interstices; there is no one like her in the landscape of contemporary poetry. Much of my manuscript is concerned with doubling, of “two-ness,” of gaps and interstices, and this quote, like the Ashbery quote, works as a guide. The idea of “phantom,” of something haunting and haunted runs through my manuscript as well; the specter, the figure of the ghost as that which is neither present, nor absent, neither dead nor alive, is something always in my mind. The object one cannot shake. How people and things can be simultaneously present and absent, there and not there. I love the sound and notion of “the phantom beat” as well. This section plays with some of these ideas a bit; whereas the first section, “Enclosures,” takes, initially, as its base, the ideas of physical, emotional, philosophical spaces, the second section, “In a Field,” attempts to move “outside” of these enclosures, to deal with some of the ideas raised in the Waldrop quote, there are more leaves, trees. My third section, “Exculpate,” takes up themes of guilt, of wanting to pay, notions of the criminal. The quote is Herman Melville, from Pierre; or The Ambiguities (1852): “But it still remains to be said, that Pierre himself had written many a fugitive thing…” Pierre is a favorite novel of mine, such an oddity, such a wonder. A streak of criminality, of the outlaw runs through the manuscript and is at play in this section. My final section, “False Requiem,” opens with a quote from Daniël Robberechts, from his zany novel, Arriving in Avignon, and goes: “This is Avignon? That’s how his Avignon is.” The idea of place, of thinking of place as a specific, concrete object, but place is never this. How we think one thing, one place, one experience will be, and it is never that. The final section, in a few ways, is, maybe, a return, not necessarily a reckoning, for nothing ever ends.

HM: I’d like to return to one particular epigraph: John Ashbery. Was he an influential poet for you? How does his work inform your own?

CK: Ashbery is a huge influence in the way I think about poetry and art. Ashbery means the world to me. One of my favorite Ashbery quotes, from an interview, illustrates my care:

My poetry is often criticized for a failure to communicate, but I take issue with this; my intention is to communicate and my feeling is that a poem that communicates something that’s already known by the reader is not really communicating anything to him or her and in fact shows a lack of respect.

I love this statement for a number of reasons. First, it invites the reader to come along on a different type of journey; it welcomes one to wade into strange waters, unknown lands. Ashbery’s poetry is quite inviting! Second, it gives a level of respect to readers while also asking the reader to do a little work. These poems aren’t necessarily going to give readers exactly what they want and what they’re looking for. They don’t illustrate, what Don DeLillo calls, referring to a certain mode of practice in American fiction: “around-the-house-and-in-the-yard.” They don’t reaffirm our beliefs about prosaic and domestic matters, they push elsewhere. As far as my writing style goes, I’m nothing like Ashbery, though I count myself as a member of the “Tribe of John,” to use the title from a great collection of essays by Susan M. Schultz. My construction is quite different. From line-to-line Ashbery can swerve from deep pathos to knee-slapping hilarity—a rare, unique gift. It’s impossible to write a John Ashbery poem, though people try, over and over. My practice is often more personal, on some levels, and often not. I think, sometimes, as someone, a minor character from a Kafka novel or story, perhaps, if this person were to try and write a poem or a story. Titorelli, from The Trial, or, say, Sordini, from The Castle were to construct poems. Or if the novelist, one of my favorite novelists, John Hawkes were to write poems, or a character from one of his novels…

Anyway, Ashbery’s importance for me is brought to mind from when my father was dying, in the summer of 2013, I’d been back and forth from Ohio, and I was just flat broke, I had finished up my first year as a PhD student at URI, I wasn’t working (it’s difficult to find summer work here); he had a few days left, and I just got in my car and drove to my parents’ house; he was back home, from the hospital, and my mother was caring for him, feeding with a feeding tube, bathing, administering morphine, etc., and driving there, I kept thinking about the first stanza from “At North Farm,” from A Wave (1984), my favorite Ashbery book; I had the book on the passenger seat, and every so often, driving back, I would flip to the poem, run my fingers across the page…. Here is the first stanza:

Somewhere someone is traveling furiously toward you,
At incredible speed, traveling day and night,
Through blizzards and desert heat, across torrents, through narrow passes.
But will he know where to find you,
Recognize you when he sees you,
Give you the thing he has for you?

Now, this poem has nothing overtly specific in it about someone dying, but it meant so much to me during these hours, these moments of driving; it helped me think about all of these things and it did this, moreso, at that moment, then a traditional, say, elegy about someone dying. Many people would disagree, perhaps, but that’s how I feel. Ashbery’s work influences me in its embrace of possibility; his poems are maps to different, unknown lands, and I’m always willing to follow.

Two people who are dear, very dear to me, two friends—Andrew Field, a great poet and librarian living in Cleveland, and Sara Lundquist, my professor during my Master’s degree at Toledo, and a wonderful Barbara Guest scholar!—are my two Ashbery interlocutors. My time with them really deepened the care and appreciation I have for Ashbery. The epigraph from the first section, “We must learn to read / In the dark” (8), is from the poem, “Litany,” the famous poem with the columns of poetry, the simultaneous columns, from the book, As We Know (1979), and the line conveys so much, on so many levels. The practice of “reading,” which to me is the most important thing; the idea that “we,” and the “we” is important, must learn this practice, and learn it well, in the dark. I love what I call this Ashbery trilogy (though no one else calls it this!), of As We Know (1979), Shadow Train (1981), and A Wave (1984). This is such integral, ground-breaking poetry. Shadow Train is a work that doesn’t get talked about much (or at all), and I want to do something, write something about this book.

HM: Several poems throughout the collection convey, and/or portray, an intense, physical brutality of the self– I am thinking about “Bodybuilder”; your villanelle, “Empty Specter”; “In a Dark Room”; “Lincoln Town Car.” There are many pieces in this collection that seem to present incredibly raw images. Are you concerned about the physical and emotional weight in these poems, or does the distribution of weight somehow direct or maneuver each poem in some way?

CK: The body is something I am never not thinking about. I have a love/hate relationship with my body—this horrible, pleasurable, desiring thing…this excreting, ejaculating monstrosity…. I am endlessly fascinated with this brutally beautiful object, with the changes a body can go through, can endure. How equally fragile and resilient it is; how we are equally trapped in our bodies and can modify them almost at will: we abuse them, starve them, feed them, disorient them with alcohol, drugs; how we think we are in control of our bodies, but if one little thing tilts, our lives are ruined. The poem, “Bodybuilder,” is one example, a glimpse. I love lifting weights; it’s a very vulgar, I guess, working-class past-time, only a certain type of individual practices this form. I’m working class and vulgar, no matter how many books I read or degrees I get, this is what I am—so be it! (But I also consider myself a shameless aesthete!). Bodybuilding doesn’t jive well with academia, it’s so incongruous, out of place. I’ve lifted weights for twenty-seven years, and, at first, it was about sport, training, getting big with muscle, staying out of the house for as long as possible, staying away. Now it’s more meditative, a philosophy, where the mind—during each rep—is almost empty; quite different from the type of work involved in writing, reading, teaching. But like reading, writing, and teaching it has an effect, it gets one “high” in a sense, gets the endorphins running. Lifting weights has built, has helped my body, and has also hurt my body. In 2013 I was diagnosed with spinal stenosis and degenerative discs, brought about through lifting weights all these years, and I was in pain, but I never stopped, only modified this practice. I can’t stop. Like reading and writing, weights are part of my being. Another close friend I love so much, who I lifted weights with in Ohio for years, we’ve known each other for over thirty years, he had spinal fusion surgery (lifting weights played a role), got addicted to painkillers, overdosed on heroin (his daughter found him and called 911), and now he’s clean, practicing sobriety, and using working out, lifting weights to help. He looks amazing! He’s in the best shape of his life, razor abs, everything! So, it’s this weird Derridean “pharmakon” thing at work, that helps, hurts, and can help again. I know many folks using the gym, using a clear, regimented schedule of working out, of lifting weights, to help with sobriety. It works. Further, I’m obsessed with different physical spaces and the gym plays a role; different gyms are unique conglomerations of individuals. It’s a space of ghosts, in many ways, not only my friend above (who I want to get in the gym with over break!), but another great friend, Mike Bufano, who lifted weights with me for years in Ohio, who died in a motorcycle crash in 2010, at the age of thirty. He was beautiful. My poem, “Sciosophy,” from the manuscript, is about him. Each time I lift weights or walk into the gym, though now I do it alone, these people are with me.

I’m also fascinated with the body as an object that feels pain. This relates to your mention of “Empty Specter,” “In a Dark Room,” and “Lincoln Town Car.” Despite my back—which feels great now—I’ve never experienced any “real” pain. I know people with pain, have known many people suffering with chronic pain. I’m so lucky. I’ve never really suffered for days on end; I don’t live with chronic pain. And I’m thankful, so grateful. I wake, or at various times of the day, I pinch my body and say: “no pain!” My body still functions, I can do all the things I want to do; it’s a wonder. I’m lucky. But the darkness might be on the horizon; the fact that, I know, one day this body that I’ve loved and fought with so much, will begin to break down, to rot away, and I don’t know what I’ll do. Deal with it, I guess. Deal with it like Beckett, like one of Beckett’s characters. “Empty Specter” is a villanelle about a wreck. A close friend, Mark, died in 1999, and another close friend, Marc, was driving the Jeep, and he lived. And this is a thread running throughout the manuscript, Mark and Marc, two friends I love; one’s death, absence, and the other dealing with it, living with this guilt, this sickening guilt. The body that is no more and the body that remains, drifting through life. I’m interested in the “body” of the book, the manuscript, each poem as a different body of sorts, of writing about these things.

I worry about the body often, and I think this comes through in some of the poems. I worry about the bodies of others, though I have no control over this. I don’t want the people I love to suffer pain, but I know this is not up to me. I don’t have many concerns, really, many wishes. I don’t worry about money; I’m not worried about paying back student loans (I’ll pay a little at a time, I guess). I’m not up at night fretting over my dissertation. I trust my committee and URI that they will ensure I do a good job. These things are within my control. My concern is with what I have no control over. When my mother dies I don’t want it to be a slow, painful death; I want my sister to remain healthy; if I had one wish it would be for when my wife, Carrie, dies one day, not to suffer, not to have any drawn-out, physical agony. But I have no say in this. And what a selfish wish, as if my life is any great matter; as if I get to escape this world with these dreams. Or that my body, somehow, will escape. My attention to the body comes from this paradox.

In many ways, initially, I saw the poems, the ones where the body is at the forefront, as love poems of a sort, for different people, for the body. A friend of mine, a poet, read many of them and didn’t see it this way. “They are brutal,” he said to me. And I totally didn’t see it; I missed it. So, I went back and tried to couch these poems in-between, maybe, softer ones, ones where the physical weight is lighter, is lessened, in a sense. I had “Bodybuilder” and “Lincoln Town Car” further in the MS, in different sections. Peter Covino said I should move them to the front and I did. I trust him with my life. So, to answer your question: not only was I (am I?) not overtly concerned with the physical and emotional weight of these poems, initially I missed this aspect. I still see these poems as love poems, in their own ways. My idea of love is, perhaps, skewed in certain aspects (and we can talk about this another day).

So, again, and I appreciate your emphasis on “the distribution of weight,” in these poems, I imagine I became more cognizant of spacing them in the manuscript, juxtaposing them with subtle, lighter poems, with different images. This way the poems can breathe a little more, they don’t confine, bludgeon, and/or suffocate the reader (at least I hope not). There is breath. But, what are sometimes viewed as “raw images” to others are simply “images” to me; images I love, that haunt me, images that I care for deeply. Images that I live with and think about each day.

Heather J. Macpherson is a second-year PhD student in Literature focusing on Creative Nonfiction, Poetry, and Animal Studies. Her work has appeared in The Worcester Review, Pearl, The Broken Plate, Blueline, Spillway, Niche, Gravel and other fine places. She has work forthcoming in the Bennington Review, 580 Split and Blueline. Read more by Heather at scribblehysteria.wordpress.com

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