- An Interview with John Keene
John Keene is a poet, novelist, visual artist, and academic. Born in 1965 in St. Louis, Missouri, Keene has a BA from Harvard and an MFA from New York University and is currently associate professor of English and chair of African American and African Studies at Rutgers University–Newark. He is the author of Annotations (New Directions, 1995), Seismosis (with Christopher Stackhouse, 1913 Press, 2006), Counternarratives (New Directions, 2015), and Grind (with photographer Nicholas Muellner, forthcoming). Keene’s fiction, poetry, and translations have appeared in several journals, including African American Review, AGNI, The Baffler, Encyclopedia, Gay and Lesbian Review, Hambone, Indiana Review, Kenyon Review, Mandorla, Ploughshares, A Public Space, Recours au Poe`me, and TriQuarterly. He has also translated Hilda Hilst’s Letters from a Seducer from Portuguese (Nightboat, 2014) and has been engaged in an ongoing, collaborative conceptual art project, the “Emotional Outreach Project.” He was a member of the Dark Room Collective and a graduate fellow of Cave Canem, and he has taught at NYU, Brown, and Northwestern. Keene has been the recipient of a 2003 New Jersey State Council on the Arts Fellowship in Poetry, a 2005 Whiting Foundation Award in Fiction and Poetry, and a 2008 Fellowship for Distinguished First Poetry Collection from the inaugural Pan-African Literary Forum.
Keene’s work is sprawling, crossing genres and forms, constantly shifting. His first collection, Annotations, is part-autobiographical, part-fictional prose poetry that explores the personal experience of marginality—a marginality “mediated by the social, by the discursive.” [End Page 1] At the same time that the text explores growing up black in St. Louis, it also reflects on the processes, conventions, and limitations of autobiography as a genre and memory as an apparatus, making marginalia and digressions central. Keene’s narrator writes, “And so, patient reader, these remarks should be duly noted as a series of mere life-notes aspiring to the condition of annotations” (78). It is a text that challenges its readers, a text layered with digressions and pauses that force readers to halt, reread, and stumble along. Each section, written as one long, unbroken paragraph, flits back and forth between material or historical specificity and abstraction. Take, for example, this passage:
Juneteenth, later, crowning the most torrid month, when the scions of the former slaves celebrated their ongoing battle for freedom. Inquiry thereby becomes a ceaseless aspect of living, its complement a vital and vigorous sense of improvisation. Against meaning. Lacking any concept of the “body” beyond its being the locus of received sensations, his self-esteem derived mainly from what others identified in him physiquely. In your case your hair was never considered completely “good,” which was why she quickly picked your friend instead. Imagine: one’s fingers as the branches from which the fruits of one’s desires tumble. You hid but they had quit the game some hours before, thus in the end no one came seeking. The problem is one of choosing.(27–28)
Historical, memorialized event here gives ground to a reflection on the daily balance between inquiry and improvisation. But the short, terse phrase “Against meaning” ruptures the vignette, preventing summary or synthesis. This interruption makes way for a new visual memory, for a new reflection on the body—its hypervisibility, its disappointments, its overdetermination.
Keene’s second collection is markedly different from his first;Seismosis was written in collaboration with a visual artist, Christopher Stackhouse, and asks how visual art and poetry might communicate. Here, the personal reflection of Annotations has been sublimated in favor of abstraction. In his foreword to Seismosis, Ed Roberson writes: “We feel the noise and the possibilities of preconception in exchange here. This book attempts to map the territory of those moments.” Its questions, he continues, are “deeply philosophical and psychological tests of experience and perception.” [End Page 2] Keene discusses the poem “Anamorphosis” as a key to the text as a whole:
I want to map this cluster feeling, the upheaval of falling for, drawing it, its negative and subordinate qualities, the process of seeing composing and decomposing mark-making. An interposition, as if I were to press the text...