Books In Conversation
John Keene with Akil Kumarasamy
Punks: New & Selected Poems
(The Song Cave, 2021)
John and I are colleagues at Rutgers University-Newark. John is a poet, fiction writer, teacher, and translator. His books include Annotations (New Directions, 1995), Seismosis (1913 Press, 2006), Counternarratives (New Directions, 2015) and most recently Punks: New & Selected Poems (The Song Cave, 2021), which received the 2022 Thom Gunn Award in Gay Poetry, 2022 Lambda Literary Award, and the 2022 National Book Award in the Poetry. In 2018, he received a Macarthur “Genius” Fellowship. We met up recently in Jersey City at Lackawanna Coffee to chat about our books (My debut novel, Meet Us by the Roaring Sea, just came out with FSG), capitalism, the Dark Room Collective, the queer archive, writing across genres, and a few other things as well.
Akil Kumarasamy (Rail): I'll say it again. Congrats, John! How does it feel? After all the accolades including most recently the National Book Award. I know it’s been such a long project, and you had to piece together different parts and make sure it all worked. It seemed like it was quite a task.
John Keene: So first of all, it feels unreal. It feels wonderful, but still, like, unreal and surreal in the more imaginative sense of that word. And I say that because I think I did not expect this. I thought that once the book was out, it would find readers. And that was basically the greatest satisfaction that it would find readers, because it took me years to get it into print. The fact that it has gone on to have, you know, a kind of life in the literary world and has found many, many readers has been has been the greatest gift. And so the National Book Award is an amazing honor, but it’s kind of like, this is in addition to the fact that it's out there.
But I will say that when I gave the manuscript to The Song Cave, one of the questions that we both had was, how do we make this work? I have published books of poetry before. But for a book this long, writing fiction was very helpful because I tried to think of how to give it a sense of movement. One of the things I love about poetry books is that they have this sense that you're going on a journey and it's an associative journey. It's an imaginative journey. And you don't know exactly where you're going, but you feel like you're building towards something and you reach these little moments. Crescendos. So that was what I was trying to think about. And I worked with the two editors, Alan Felsenthal and Ben Estes, to structure the book, and they were fantastic to work with.
And that leads me to want to talk about your novel, Meet Us by the Roaring Sea. Your first book, Half Gods, was a collection of short stories. It was innovative and inventive in a lot of different ways. And thinking about this novel, one of the things that struck me was that, again, it's innovative on multiple levels, on the level of form and content. People always talk about innovation, but it’s not often in terms of content. It was also innovative in terms of the near future speculative mode. Can you talk a little about how you conceived it?
Rail: It's funny because when I think about your fiction, I think about how it’s innovative on both a subject matter level and form like in Counternarratives, your short story/ novella collection. In one novella you switch from third-person to first-person and then you even have an actual testimonial inside. It feels like you’re constantly pushing some kind of boundary. And I think for my novel, Meet Us by the Roaring Sea, I started with writing this inner translated manuscript, not knowing what it was.
The inner manuscript takes place in the past and then the outer narrative in the future. I was thinking that the metaphor of the future would allow me to speak about the present in some way. With the past, I was very conscious of archives. I wrote an essay about reading W.E.B. Du Bois’s romance novel, Dark Princess, for the first time. Sometimes we think we are doing something so fresh and avant-garde but then you look in the archives and people have already been doing it.
With Meet Us by the Roaring Sea, I was wondering if I could make a book that feels like science fiction and also has a translation inside it and deals with high/low technology, from AI to video cassettes. Can I blend all these elements together and make this book feel almost irreducible?
My novel very much deals with memory, on a very visceral sense, which is also a big part of Punks. Grief and sorrow are so fully embodied from that poem “Suit” or “On Receiving a Letter Back Stamped Deceased.” It reminded me of a quote that I have in the novel by Joseph Brodsky—“If there is any substitute for love, it is memory.” There are many moments where we feel the weight of a lifetime in an instance or this deep longing for different possible things that could have happened.
Keene: I really love that you brought up that Joseph Brodsky quote. Memory is really a way that one can think about time. Poetry and fiction can sometimes feel so much truer to reality that we often give these poems credit for. There is a sense in which I feel like throughout Punks that there's both this great distance, like this gulf of time, you know, which of course is also in your novel. You literally have this archival manuscript that's being translated by someone in the near future. So there's this great distance, right? But then once you are with the text, the past is right there with you. Right. You kind of have this permeability, which I just find so fascinating. But yes, so I was just thinking, for example, with a poem like “Suit,” there’s the physicality of grief and the embodiment of grief, right? The poem is dedicated to someone I worked with, Phil Horvitz, who was a dancer. I was in graduate school and we were working at a company called National Video Resources. I was actually working on a project called “Viewing Race,” right, where we’re compiling a list of videos that dealt with race, racism, white supremacy. It was an anti-racist project. Then I learned his boyfriend was the artist Nayland Blake whom I deeply admire, whose work I find fascinating. And there was a performance he did where Nayland would put on this bunny suit, and Phil choreographed it. They were dancing in the suit, and I thought what a powerful metaphor and a metonym for grief, queerness and basically struggle. It's also something that's quite beautiful. So I thought, can I come up with a poem to tap into this? And then it came to me. But this also takes me back to something you were saying about the archive, too, because I feel like so often when we talk about archives, we talk about formal archives. I’m also interested in the archive of our memories, the archive of our bodies or archives of the spaces we move through.
One of the things that I love about your novel is that you disorient us in terms of some of those things. What becomes clearer and clearer as we move through the world with Aya is how in fact, even in the opening pages we get a sense of a kind of living archive that she’s making sense of as she goes on to translate and make sense of this archival text. Also, it’s in Tamil, which I found so fascinating.
Rail: Thanks, John! And also, I wanted to point out that “Suit” comes right before “Herring Cove Beach.” There’s so much queer joy and love in that poem before we get into that sorrow of “Suit.” I really felt that movement you mentioned earlier and also how you’re modulating tone. When you reach “Punks” in the middle, it feels like such a crescendo, a burst. Also, like how that poem is in all caps, screaming in this subversive way. Can you talk about the many meanings of that word punk?
Keene: That poem, “Punks,” was originally called “Hypnos and Thanatos,” and Andrew Blackley, who’s an amazing curator, had invited me to look at the art in this NYU archive and gave us a list of possible people to look up. I came across a box of the work of Martin Wong, who was in the collection. I was blown away by his work because he was this vital but mostly unknown New York artist, who is now getting more attention, which is great. The world lost him too early to AIDS.
He was a queer, Asian-American artist, but of course, the worlds that he intersected with were multiracial and so vibrant. And you think about who is championed and remembered and who gets forgotten. One of the things that I wanted to do with that original version of that poem was to do justice to him. I didn’t know Martin because I didn’t get to NYC until the late eighties, but the interesting thing was when I went in to revise it and I read it out loud, I realized that I had been transported back by my ear and my inner compass to that moment in the late seventies through the eighties when I was a teenager and listening to a lot of hip hop. When I read that poem out loud, it’s basically like a hip hop song. It always kind of blows me away because, at that moment, I felt like as a young person, there was a kind of huge divide between blackness and queerness. Of course, the reality is it was much more complex, with people like Afrika Bambaataa. But I didn't know that as a young person. All those threads came together in that poem. I said to Alan and Ben, where do we put it? I believe Alan figured it out.
This was also the moment of punk rock. I think there was this one fascinating review by, I think, this very young person. He basically says, you know, John Keene doesn’t know what a punk is, except for in this poem. This poem really is like a good punk poem about punks. And I’m like, you don’t understand. I grew up hearing that word all the time, and it had a completely different meaning. It had a very negative meaning, well several negative meanings. I feel like those are all reclaimed, it’s part of the project, you know.
Let’s talk about your narrative. I’m interested in hearing your experience about how you put the novel together because your collection of stories, Half Gods, is very innovative in terms of moving between persons (first to third) and also moving between places and time. It’s beautifully woven. Your novel is similar but in a different way. What was that writing experience like? Were there any texts you turned to?
Rail: I feel like doing a story collection, you get to try out different things. One of the stories in that collection was a story within the story. I had a second person story and a first-person plural story. In some ways I had tried all the different structures that are in Meet Us by the Roaring Sea already. I think having done a collection and experimenting so much made me feel bolder. In this novel, I started with the inner translated manuscript, not knowing it was a manuscript or a translation. I actually watched this film Vagabond by Agnés Varda when I was sitting in a film class. Agnés Varda is the director, but she is also part of the movie. In the beginning of the film, a young woman who has frozen to death in a ditch and the director, Agnes, tries to recreate what has happened to this young woman. It seemed to me that there was so much love in that gaze, trying to bring someone back to life. Of course, this young woman is elusive to capture, but there is this attempt to understand. That made me think of the act of translation, how it’s such an act of love and a kind of resurrection. The main character is trying to resurrect this text that’s sort of forgotten and bring it back to life. I was thinking about that relationship. The tricky part was trying to make sure both of those two narratives kind of kaleidoscope together and create a deeper resonance each time you move back and forth.
Keene: Also I would like to say it is a labyrinth in the best way, kaleidoscopic in the best way, because the reader thinks they might know where the narrative is going. You give us all of these clues and anchors, and yet you constantly keep the reader thinking. As a reader, you realize, okay, I can sort of anticipate what's going to happen, but you know, what Akil is doing is assembling all these pieces in such a massive way with real artistry. That I think is so fascinating.
Rail: A lot of the writing process was a discovery for me as well. I think many of these characters are getting caught into each other's orbits and entangled in a surprising way. It’s not moving in a cause and effect, Newtonian way. I think it’s moving a little quantum like, where just putting your attention on somebody is going to have an effect. When you bring your attention to this translated manuscript, the text is going to seep into you somehow. I think I was really trying to play with the borders between individuals, which is at the core of the idea of radical compassion that the translated manuscript is exploring. I wanted to interact with the reader, and in that sense the POV itself feels sort of immersive because it is in the second person and first-person plural, which can include the reader.
Thinking about the collective first-person plural, I know you were part of the Dark Room Collective. It feels like a collective in the truest sense, and its existence itself feels really remarkable. It was not institutionalized and not based on credentials, which is very rare when thinking about the current landscape. I don’t know if it could exist today. So much of this world functions on this credential value system, even literary spaces. It’s like who are you? What are your publications, pedigree? The capitalistic structure of things is so deep. Dark Room Collective felt very visionary, even having regular people in it.
Keene: You know it was an impossible project that the founders and all of the participants pulled off. The Dark Room started in 1988 and in 1988 and the society was well into a neoliberal, capitalist moment. I used to read these texts about late capitalism and it's like, okay, you know, it's going to die. By the time I’m 40 years old, we are going to be in another world! Democratic socialist or social democracy or something. I mean, as we see, capitalism is tenacious, right? And brutal.
First of all, I give a lot of credit to the three founders, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Sharan Strange and Janice Lowe, who had the vision of starting this organization with no money. They had a vision. They had a dream. They went to James Baldwin's funeral, and then after this funeral, they decided we're going to start this reading series with no money. They had rented a house on Inman Street in Cambridge. I think about how much more expensive everything is now, but even then everything felt incredibly expensive. They would then go and contact writers.
The writer Cyrus Cassells, whose first book, Mud Actor, came out earlier in the decade, an extraordinary debut, actually wrote to me to say that Thomas cornered him in the supermarket. Nowadays I feel like people would have an expectation—if they read, they are going to be given a certain amount of money. It’s based, as you say, on people’s credentials and pedigree and the wealth of the institution. But again and again and again, the Dark Room Collective would reach out to people. Some of these writers were at the very beginning of their career. Like Elizabeth Alexander, Paul Beatty, Randall Kenan. God rest his soul.
Some were mid-career people like, you know, Essex Hemphill, Terry McMillan, Martín Espada. Some were very famous like Alice Walker, Derek Walcott. They agreed to come.
I was saying this the other day. I was working at a bank and went to the barber shop and saw a little card and thought it was a bookstore. I went to the door. I rang the doorbell. It was the wrong door. The woman told me that the young people next door were having something next week, so come back next week. Then I came back next week, and it was extraordinary. I mean, there were people, young and old. Everyone was very friendly. I later learned, of course, some were visual artists, some were musicians, some were just regular people who didn't do anything or just wanted to hear readers. They welcomed me. I attended that whole first season. I didn't miss a single week. I believe it was the end of the season when Sharon Strange said to me, “Would you like to join?” I was doing drawings, and she heard about my drawing. The Dark Room had our ups and our downs. We had people who joined and then they left. We moved the reading series eventually from Cambridge to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Boston. We became a bit more big time. Things changed in terms of that, but the dynamic was still always like anyone from the community was welcome.
One last thing I'll say about the Dark Room was it gave me a completely different sense of literary community. Because when I was in college, I felt very fortunate to have many great teachers. One of my last professors in college was Ishmael Reed, and his classroom space was so welcoming. And I was part of the literary magazine, The Harvard Advocate, etc. I would also go to readings in Boston. But Boston was a very racially and class hostile place. Even if you knew some people, they were just like somewhat standoffish. There was a clear hierarchy. In that way the Dark Room was so radical. There was no hierarchy. Also, everyone was bringing different things. Some people had gone to college. Some people had not gone to college. Some people had started but couldn’t afford to finish. You had people from the community, regular people.The founders created a little library. We would have all these books, some of them not exactly paid for. We watched movies. It was another education without credentials. I think I understand why it would be so hard today to do that because, you know, the power structure doesn’t respect that, except as a kind of archive. You can look back. People write dissertations on stuff like this, but it’s sort of like you should be getting x degree for doing so. It brings me to ask if you would talk about your experience. You went to University of Michigan for your MFA. I’m curious to hear your thoughts about that program. It does seem like a great program with great people there.
Rail: Right now, in this moment, it’s all about pedigree to get into spaces. This idea of a democratic space where anyone can enter feels like, as you said, can only be found in the archive, which of course is disappointing. It makes me think of the ethics of writers. Back in the day my mom wrote to Noam Chomsky, and he responded! He does spend hours responding to emails, etc, and that is so difficult to do. Self-care is important. And it’s so hard to go through emails. For Octavia Butler, strangers would send her manuscripts and she would read them and give feedback. It’s such a generous thing to do for someone, especially a stranger. It’s also a private act. It really just astounds me. This is not like a public thing that you can post on Twitter or Instagram. This has no sort of commodity value. These are just private acts that no one will know about. I was wondering how you navigate these spaces and what your own ethics are as a writer. The creative process is one thing, and the publishing industry is some other kind of machinery. Even the word bestselling speaks to this capitalistic engine. You mentioned how difficult it was to get Punks published. What is your own relationship when it comes to publishing?
Keene: I say it's a challenge. You know it was a very interesting thing to be a young person in the eighties because with Reagan and George H. W. Bush, two figures who I think are symbolic of that moment, you could feel like a dramatic shift. But there was the ethos, the writers, the kind of political ferment of the sixties and the seventies. I grew up on Black arts, poetry and writing. When I was in my twenties, I encountered lesbian separatists and feminist writing, and of course there were ethnic movements and bipoc ethnic studies and politics.
We moved and I was going through all these books that I have. I got rid of like 200. It was like pulling out a rib. I kept all these books and I was kind of amazed. I have these books written in the eighties. Some focused on Black Britain and Black Asian solidarity and Black feminists and global south feminists. These amazing approaches by people that were so outspoken and so brave. That animated me to a certain degree. Thinking about what you were saying about the ethics of interacting with people. Particularly from the time I was very young, there would be writers who were peers who would send me their work, and I would read it. I mean collections of stories, collections of poems. Some of them went on to publish. Some of them didn’t. Of course, we had a kind of internal workshop experience in Dark Room, which was before I went to an MFA program. When I got to the MFA program at NYU, I was like, oh, I’ve kind of done this, right? In the Dark Room with incredible generosity, but it could be contentious. It was in the Dark Room that I received unalloyed support for my first book. They read it and they didn’t say, “This is too strange.” They said, “Keep going,” which is really the key. I’ve tried to do that too. I mean, it’s gotten harder, with teaching and being an administrator. It’s hard to convey to people the sheer amount of reading that you do. There have been times where I’m just like, I can’t look at anything, but I have to answer emails. It’s an endless tide of things to read but it’s important. That makes it a challenge. From my own experience, I was always very wary of writing to writers. I worked at the literary journal Callaloo, and for several years I was an advisory editor. Then, I went and worked as a managing editor. That experience was one for ages or annals. When I was trying to get my first book published, I said, “Okay, I’m going to be very ethical and not write to anybody that I’ve dealt with, except for one of my favorite writers in the world, Wilson Harris.” I just wanted to see what he would say. I also wrote to John Ashbery and one other writer that I can’t remember. They didn’t respond, but Wilson Harris not only read the manuscript but also wrote this extraordinary assessment. I was stunned into silence. I sent the manuscript to New Directions and they passed it around. It was on the slush pile. Then someone read that letter by Wilson Harris and they were like, “Can we use this quote?” I wrote him back and told him they’re going to publish it, and he said “use whatever you need.”
He's one of the greatest original writers in the English language, really extraordinary person and figure. He actually didn’t know me, and he read the manuscript and didn’t just say, “Oh, I like it” or “It’s great,” but wrote several paragraphs that were among the most profound readings I have ever had—“This opens up into an inner dialectical scanning.” I remember that. It was actually a kind of model of how you interact with the world. But it’s difficult.
Rail: Yes, it’s difficult. As you said, you thought you would reach the age of 40 and capitalism would be over. It just got more deeply entrenched. I think Gwendolyn Brooks, after all the accolades, published her books with Third World press, this small press, which nowadays would not be the case. What would be celebrated is the choice to go to the biggest publisher and get the biggest advance.
It seems like the Dark Room Collective and the generosity of writers like William Harris and Ismael Reed were very foundational in thinking about what kind of literary citizen you want to be in these spaces. I was talking to Alice Elliott Dark in our event at Rutgers and we were discussing the meaning of success and failure. It’s so hard just to enter the publishing space and have a book come out. Many students think that publishing is the end goal and one’s career is a straight shot up after. Really the trajectory of a career is strange and probably non-linear and wobbly. Also, this idea of success is very weird because the measuring stick keeps changing and often our evaluation of success is tied to notions of acclaim and longevity.
Keene: I’m so happy you mentioned that. On the one hand, when I was younger, there were these models. One model that was often held up, especially in school, was mainly white male fiction writers. They published book after book, and they were reviewed in The New York Times. Like John Updike. That was one model. And then the other model that I got as a child was Black art poets like Amiri Baraka and Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez. Then also fiction writers like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, who, of course, were successful. But I had the sense they were very much connected to community. They were very politically engaged. Like June Jordan and Lucille Clifton, outspoken. They did receive honors, a varying sorts.
There was a shift after the seventies. You get this conservative backlash. But these two models were out there, and I never thought okay, when I’m older, I’m going to be winning awards. I was in my twenties during the AIDS epidemic and we had a severe economic crisis. Then there was the crack epidemic. All these awful things were happening. I thought, okay, on the one hand, will I make it to 40? We’ve got to have this socialist utopia. What is a career? What does it mean? There were so many people I invoked in my speech the other night at the National Book Award ceremony. I knew a number of writers who were so talented. I mean their names are just at the forefront of my consciousness: Roy Gonsalves, Craig Harris, Donald Woods, Steven Corbin. These were incredibly talented young people. Then they were gone right before they even had a real chance to have what we think of the success and a career.
Writers like Melvin Dixon, who published a book of translations and one or two novels. He was also an amazing poet. And then again, he was taken from us by AIDS. I feel like my sense of expectation was shaped by that earlier approach. In the 1990’s I went to an MFA program. Many of the Dark Room people did. Because it became clear that to get a job, to be able to feed yourself, you would need to have some kind of advanced degree. It wasn't like in the past where I had creative writing teachers, writers, who barely finished college or had a master's degree in English or another field.
Capitalism kicks in and it kind of shifts our expectations again and again and again. So we're now in a moment where there's a powerful neoliberalism that I see. I don’t criticize them, but I see some young writers, expecting after they published their first book that they’re going to win the Pulitzer Prize. That does happen. You know, as Alice and you were saying, it is a kind of thing where you can't plan. I mean, well some try to plan it out.
Rail: Like you said, with AIDS, there were so many young, talented people who didn’t get to have the full breadth of their careers. I see Punks as a kind of archive of their work too. Both honoring them and speaking of great loss and grief but also there’s great humor here too. Also I think it was really poignant what you mentioned about there being many artists who were taken too early by AIDS and didn’t really get this chance to have their work out. There’s moments of great loss and grief but also great humor. Like in “His Serpentine Tongue is a Vein of Joy,” where the speaker is attracted to someone but he’s also smelling kind of funky and he wants the man to take a shower but he’s also doing all of this in a foreign language and thinking how to say it in French and Spanish.
Keene: This makes me think of writing futurity and personal experience. How did you negotiate that in Meet Us by the Roaring Sea? And thinking about this near future, especially when we’re in this time where autofiction is so dominant. But then other times, it feels like the moment has passed. Annie Ernaux won the Nobel Prize. One could call her a memoirist or fiction writer. I mean there shouldn't be a wall. But I'm interested because, a few years ago, I had students who were somewhat skeptical of speculative writing, and they wanted to read autofiction. And then another year I taught all the autofictional texts and they said, “Oh, we want to read things that writers are inventing.” How did you differentiate that in terms of inventiveness but also personal experience and imagining the future but also imagining the past?
Rail: It does feel like all fiction is speculative in some way. In this discussion of success defined by capitalism, it made me also think of the archive left by the mother in my novel. She has passed away and over the decades had created this archive of her own making, things she had imbued with value. She might not be viewed as successful because that term often has a monetary value, but she’s very visionary. I feel like in my own life I have known people who were so imaginative but they were not great at accruing money or being financially secure. This society we live in doesn’t really reward that kind of being. It’s such a rarity for someone to become older and not become heavy of spirit, to still possess that kind of curiosity about the world. In this novel, I was thinking about how you honor that kind of energy.
In thinking about futurity, I know Ursula K. Le Guin talks about how science fiction uses different metaphors to speak about the now, how the future is just a metaphor. I think I was using futurity in that manner because it gave me a new defamiliarizing lens to speak about the present.
Also, it’s interesting when you brought up autofiction because your earlier book Annotations would fit under this category.
Keene: I didn't even know that term then. I wrote that book and I mean it's really a book of poetry and a novel of sorts. When I finished it, New Directions said, “We’ll call it a novel.” I knew this intuitively, but no one had really ever said that to me before, that a novel could be all kinds of things.
Rail: It’s interesting because you do a lot of translating as well. You know lots of languages. Meet Us by the Roaring Sea is a novel that directly deals with translation because there is a translated text inside of it. Also, I wanted to point out that in other languages, there’s not even a term for fiction and non-fiction. It’s just like everything is writing. I wanted to ask you if translation has reframed how you think about your own writing. Also, loved how you incorporated foreign languages into Punks.
Keene: To me translation always entails failure. You always fail when you translate it. Of course, depending on what you're translating, you want less failure or the level of tolerance for it changes. If you're translating in a court or a hospital, you really need to be as close to the source languages in certain ways. A particular kind of precision. But if there's always failure, there's always loss.
And the other thing, I was having a conversation the other day with Claire Berger-Belsky, who's also a translator. She translates Spanish and Yiddish. She was asking me about the implicit violence in translation and how a number of people writing about translation studies right now really are not acknowledging the violence there.
I'm going to ask you that question of what’s lost and how you bring that into your narrative. Because, of course, it starts with this sense of loss and grief about the narrator’s mother, but also this acknowledgment of this archive her mother has created. I love this because the material artifacts that you mention ground us. There’s a verisimilitude. That’s reality on one level. On another level, it becomes clear that we’re in this future moment, which I just love. Looking back to the translation, I feel like when you are encountering other cultures, you have to have humility, do it with openness, a certain kind of care.
I acknowledge my ignorance. I learn from it. It opens up a new window into English or Englishes. It also says, before this text, there are limits to what you can access. And how can you bring that into your own work? It's fascinating. I feel like I'm always learning. And when I was finishing up Counternarratives, I had translated I had translated Hilda Hilst’s novel, Letters from a Seducer, which is so radical, both in terms of content and form. It’s like multiple books kind of smushed together. It’s writing about writing, but it’s not solipsistic. It’s outrageous. So there I was just like, what is she doing? I was continuously amazed at the form of the book. Then at the level of language, she is doing such interesting things, and I actually wrote an essay about it. She was a poet, and so she lives in these moments where basically it’s almost pure sound. It’s sound linked to semantics. One of the things that I point out is there’s this moment where she takes this takes this morpheme, oco touco pouco. Readers and listeners in Portuguese would get the root meaning, but then they hear this rhythm. It’s very poetic. But then also what she’s writing about is just so hilarious and absurd. I’m wondering, “How do I bring that into English?” We’re told English prose should be efficient and not too musical. I’m thinking she’s showing us a completely different way. You have these multiple registers all at the same time. You don’t even realize it because it’s going so fast. Your brain picks it up and your body experiences it.
It was fun and a challenge. I’m always fascinated by what reading works in translation does but also by works that I translated and I go back to. I mean, even as a young person, I was reading all kinds of stuff when I was in high school. And my high school had Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali. This sounds really stupid, but I think it was just the name alone that piqued my curiosity. There was a sequence in it called “The Lover,” I think and I was transfixed by it. He was in conversation with Yeats and many of the major European writers, and yet he was coming out of a very different tradition. What does it mean to be 15, 16 years old and reading this and thinking, okay, there are other possibilities for thinking about writing. I was also reading people like Eduardo Galeano. These counter models were so important.
Rail: I’d echo that, how they offer other ways of existing and imagining this world. I was struck by what you said about the violence in translation. In Meet Us by the Roaring Sea, there’s the translated manuscript, but it’s sort of a very anti-colonial text. The fact that it’s being translated into English makes it a monstrosity in some ways. It’s being shaped into the colonial language, and the creators of the manuscript might not want that. By translating the text to English, she’s giving the manuscript a broader audience. Still, there’s a feeling of trespass, which feels interesting, thinking of the political act of translating.
As you said, in translating, you’re also acknowledging failure. This will be an imperfect thing. There’s a shadow book that’s missing. I’m also interested in what you said in finding the Tagore book in the library. It’s a serendipitous encounter that happened in St. Louis, and it also feels very random. I’m interested in how people get entangled in ideas/people/places that feel unrelated to them, at least on an identity level. I feel like I stumbled into languages like Japanese and German, without much rational purpose. Something is interesting to you, and you follow that impulse.
The translator in my book just stumbles into this Tamil class as an elective though she has no personal connection to it. Tamil is a classical language but it’s not as known as other classical languages in the area like Sanskrit, which takes up a literary imagination.
Many of the ancient texts in Sanskrit are about gods while ancient Tamil texts deal with falling in love, heartbreak. It’s more about the lives of people, all these highs and lows of being a human.
When you look at the archive, you see international encounters happen, solidarity movements across geographies. Like even W.E.B. Du Bois’s romance novel, Dark Princess, is this international encounter, grand love story, and anti-imperial text. In thinking about Meet Us by the Roaring Sea, I was thinking about bringing different temporalities, different geographies in conversation. Including a translation in the novel provided me that opportunity. It’s also a non-Western text, which I think is really important.
Keene: I think that's an excellent point. And one of the things I would also add to that is in regards to Du Bois and so many important figures throughout history is this process of decolonization and this anti-hegemonic effort. I don’t want to say counter hegemonic. You don’t replace one hegemony with another hegemony.
Rail: This reminds me of the last story, “The Lions,” in Counternarratives, when we have colonized people getting into positions of power and enacting these old colonial power structures. Throughout the collection, the colonial gaze is flipped, and we are given narratives that push against and complicate our view of history. With that last story, what are you supposed to do with that? What is the counter narrative here?
With your collection, Counternarratives, I think you were able to capture this kind of web of time, all this messy colonial history, and show us this interconnectedness across geography that felt so startling.
Keene: Well, I feel like part of what I wanted to kind of think about was like what kind of monsters are created. And even the title of your first book, Half Gods (2018), makes us think about what has colonialism has produced. When you think of what colonialism produced, what is the aftermath right now? I’m thinking of Christina Sharpe’s amazing book In the Wake (2016). What’s in the wake of colonialism? What is the climate that has been created? What is the weather we’re living in right now?
Thinking about your novel and your stories, what happens when you break the frame of English? I'd say the last twenty years have transformed the landscape of Anglophone literature. But when I was thinking about your book, I was thinking about how, yes, English as a colonial language is always kept somewhat unstable. In a sense, you have opened up a seam in the text. You mentioned all those colonial histories in Counternarratives. One of the things that I realized after I finished Counternarratives is that it makes some of those seams visible, and you begin to see it’s a bigger overlapping web of connections that are extraordinarily violent. The violence operating is social, political, and economic. But it’s also corporeal. We carry it around in our bodies and the violence reproduces itself in its own way. And this is not to let violent criminals off the hook. Often we respond to violence like this person did X, Y, Z, but we should look at the larger context.
Rail: You also have actual history mingled with a kind of imagined history like in the “Blues” with the possible sexual encounter between Langston Hughes, and his translator, the Mexican poet, Xavier Villaurrutia. I was struck by how you used ellipticals throughout. It perfectly captured everything that was going unsaid. How do you go about capturing silences? Writing into silences?
Keene: Well, I'm interested in these questions of silences, which I think you explore in different ways in the novel and the collection of stories. And the question was: what does it mean to think about silence as a protective space? Also thinking about all the silences in the archive because there is no record. I mean, I feel like you explored it in different ways, And this question was like, what does it mean to think about silence as a productive space, right? The silence is also about people’s lives, because they didn’t have access to the archive or there’s just no record of them.
With the Hughes story, I was especially interested in bringing together Global South modernists and putting them in proximity. The story that follows is a story about the great Brazilian modernist, Mário de Andrade. I’ll just say that I wrote the forward to Macunaíma, which is coming out in the spring and is beautifully translated by Katrina Dodson. She’s done an extraordinary job. That book is so—what’s the right word?—out there! It’s so free on a certain level, but it’s also interesting that there are certain kinds of silences in this book that mirror the silences we get with someone like Langston Hughes. One question is how do you represent that? I took that form specifically from Richard Bruce Nugent. I even gesture toward him in the first opening lines. At the same time, how do you give a sense of that moment? Kind of like the pulsations Walter Pater invoked with the “burning with the gem-like flames” idea. The silences are visible in those ellipses, what is not said and what do we feel? That’s so emblematic of the BIPOC archive and the queer archive.
Also, I’ve been meaning to ask you about AI because Aya works in artificial intelligence and it’s one of those looming specters. It’s so extraordinary and exciting, but there’s also this constant drumbeat about the dangers of it. I’ve been very interested in what led you to write it into the narrative and what you see the function of it being.
Rail: This book really deals with languages and I do have a background in doing coding, though I haven’t used it that much. I was thinking about how we speak about these big structures that are invisible to us but are controlling our lives in many ways. And AI trained models are being trained with our data. In some ways, data is our collective consciousness being fed into AI. It can amplify different views and prejudices that we have though we think of it as some unbiased thing, unlike humans who are so biased. With AI, it’s still not clear how it makes certain decisions, so there’s this unknown factor in it. Much of our lives are being fed into these spaces. It was also this other lens to talk about things like race and class.
Ruha Benjamin has a wonderful book called Race After Technology. She also talks about the meaning of a glitch. That glitches are really showing something’s true nature. Also, Melanie Mitchell’s book, Artificial intelligence: A Guide for Thinking Humans, is also remarkable in being both technical and accessible. I also really appreciated getting these female perspectives on technology. There wasn’t as much fear of the singularity but rather how people in power would use technology.
Aya is working on an AI project, on a small part of a larger project and she’s in the dark about its larger purpose, but it feels like it might be for something insidious. She’s working in a company and everyone seems pleasant enough, but they are working on assignments that are highly problematic. How do you navigate or function within these spaces? What is your responsibility?
Keene: I feel like that's beautiful, a critique of capitalism. That’s what we’re all in a sense doing. I was reading something about elite universities and thinking about American education, its colonial roots, and thinking about what it has done, both in this country and all over the globe. Also, I was thinking of the power of education and decolonial education. As more and more people of color move into academia, what does it mean to be training them for success or getting jobs, etc.? We also want them to be critical of this world and to transform it.
Also, another theme you make visible in your novel is the ubiquity of artificial intelligence and algorithms. They are guiding so much of our behavior. We know people find it hard to put their phones down. It’s linked to the whole neo-liberal crisis. It’s supposedly all about choice, the choice that we think we’re making. You think you’re free, but so much of it is being very subtly guided by computer code, right? Through your novel, you’re making this visible at the same time your narrator is decoding this manuscript.
Rail: Oh that word decoding is especially resonant. I like thinking of decoding in terms of the translation. One of the scenes in the book with AI actually happened. A futurist came to a company meeting, and he was telling us the future with slides. They also said everyone would need at least a modicum of coding knowledge. Also, from looking at the slides, it was clearly a western future.
You mentioned the young people in academia, who might end up working in these spaces. There’s a lot of financial seduction. Of course, we live in this world of money, but how do you get into these spaces and critique it and not be so fully complicit? We are so complicit in many aspects of our lives. I guess that leads me to ask you what has been energizing you?
Keene: Right as the pandemic was sort of unfolding, I went on a competitive leave sabbatical and I found it hard to read. I could read the Internet and stuff like little books, but I found it hard to read because I felt this anxiety. I started watching movies, primarily Criterion Collection, but also like other services like, HBO and Netflix. I watched hundreds of movies. One of the things I was trying to do was see movies I hadn’t seen. Movies from around the globe. I’m thinking about a way to write about it now. I actually just wrote down the titles of the films.
I haven’t really binged on films since in my twenties and early thirties. I used to go to the World of Video in the West Village. They had all these non-US films. I had no money, right, but I got a great card membership. In a summer, I tried to see all the movies I could by this director and then that director. Mostly they were European, but not all of them. One of the directors I always heard about was Michelangelo Antonioni. I kept hearing it and it almost became oppressive. I watched Blow-Up, and it’s fantastic. Then I watched L’avventura and it is sublime. It was his first breakthrough. My favorite, which is problematic, is L’eclisse. In it there are bursts of colonialism that cannot be assimilated. It’s a visionary film.
Rail: I also watched so many films, and I think film became very crucial for my writing process for this novel. As you said, it was like the first time I was watching all the works by a particular director, getting the breadth of someone’s work and seeing all the echoes and themes circling through. I went through, for example, all of Wong Kar-wai films, and Happy Together really stood out to me, both because of how he displaces his characters in Argentina, the intensity of the feelings, but also how the story about these two characters breaks in the middle to introduce another character. I think Wong Kar-wai doesn’t really use a script and there is something really fresh about it. Also I’m just reminded of Beanpole by Kantemir Balagov, which takes place in 1945 Leningrad and we get this female gaze into war that was also very startling.
Because we’ve been talking about other mediums like film, I wanted to mention drawing to you because I know it’s been so crucial. My mom is very into comics, and I grew up with a lot of comics. New Jersey has the only college dedicated to comics in the country, and my mom took a class there before the pandemic. I remember at the open house that there were many students of color and the parents were asking questions like how will you help my child imagine, which just warmed my heart.
With comics, you really get to see reader participation in action. The reader has to move from one panel to another and they have to imagine into the gutter space between panels to make connections. I feel like drawing is beyond language. I am a very occasional doodler, so I wanted to ask you about your drawing practice.
Keene: I started drawing before I ever read a book, at apparently eighteen months. I drew for much of my life. I don't draw as much now, but for a while I was making these iPhone drawings, doing sketches on the train. As you say, it’s another way into expression that precedes words. I also think of it as very much related to the word making process, wordsmithing process. It was for so long for me a space of real freedom, where I felt—because I'm not a visual artist—that I could draw whatever I wanted. The challenge came when I would show it to a visual artist and they’d respond, “that’s interesting, interesting craftsmanship.” I came up with this conceptual project when George Bush was president. I still do it sometimes, though I haven’t for a while. It’s called Emotional Outreach Project. When Trump was president, it was an emotional roller coaster every day and this was before the pandemic. You had no idea what was going to happen. Life is always a dice roll. I was thinking of other modes of expression that don’t require so much technical skill.
Rail: That’s always a question, how to use other mediums that feels accessible but then also could be interactive and technical. When Trump was elected and closing borders, I was in Provincetown, and my friend, the artist Victoria-Idongesit Udondian, made a fake embassy for a country at the Provincetown gallery. I played a security guard. She made an application process to enter the exhibit and it was intrusive with very personal questions. Really she was trying to capture the discomfort and arbitrariness of the visa process. People were rejected, and they were upset. For many people attending, it was the first time feeling that kind of rejection, especially because with a US passport, you pretty much can go anywhere. It had me thinking of how you speak to the moment with your art.
Keene: When I was in high school, I did caricatures of my teachers. They had bite but they also were a kind of tribute. My high school was run by English monks, and one wrote a book about the history of the school and mentioned the caricature in a footnote. They ran these caricatures in the newspaper.
I have a cousin, Raquel Dowdy, who does calligraphy. It’s a kind of creativity that is beautiful and requires focus. I don’t know if you feel like this but when you’re in the moment of creation, it’s almost like you step outside of yourself. It’s such an amazing feeling.
Rail: It’s like the world is normally two dimensions and you suddenly stepped into this new dimension. How has your writing practice evolved? I remember for my first book it was a real brute force approach like, hit the page, while for the novel it was a much more intuitive and generous process, where thinking and pondering mattered. With the novel, I was becoming much better in embracing uncertainty and finding energy from it. Uncertainty could feel like a process of discovery, or it could feel like a place of fear of the unknown, both could be very generative, depending on how you channel it. I felt like I could go imaginatively wild with the novel. I could make moves like go into second person for one narrative and the first-personal plural for another. These might seem like risky choices, but to me they served the novel. I feel like with time you become more trusting of your writing process.
Keene: People are praised for control and then they are criticized for it. criticized for it. E. L. Doctorow gave a talk at Northwestern and he said he still approached the page with fear and that fear actually is a productive space. What you’re saying is very important. Did you feel like whatever challenge you faced in your writing, you could figure it out?
Rail: It was strange because the whole process of writing this novel I felt a kind of assuredness though I had no idea what it was going to become. It led me to all these different places like studying film at the Schomburg Center to collaborating with my mom during the pandemic when I moved home.
Keene: Oh I wanted to ask you—why was it important to end the book with the manuscript?
Rail: The manuscript felt to me like a message in the bottle thrown into the ocean, reaching a future shore. Maybe it’s a warning, a prediction. The first-person collective voice of the manuscript was where I initially started writing this book. It made sense to me that their voice is where it would end. It feels both elliptical, and it’s also a kind of entreaty, asking something of the reader. When thinking of a message in the bottle, there’s also this missed opportunity to connect with someone in this time period, at least connect in a bodily sense. The book is also a queer love story, playing with the ideas of time and memory. This makes me think about the ending of Punks, this aphoristic poem about love, “Beatitude,” that is biting and moving. Can you talk about why we end there?
Keene: Ben was the sort of big picture person about what goes where and Alan went through poem by poem. The three of us talked about placement. I wanted to start off with the simplest poetic form and then after “Beatitude” there’s actually a translation. What does it mean to end with love? The love in it is more radical, in loving difficult things, in loving the ugliest aspects of the world. Also, realizing what is outside us is also inside of us.
Rail: I feel like that radical love is so important. In the translated manuscript, the medical students are trying to come up with a new idea of compassion to help the people around them. People think of compassion as something soft and possibly easy, but it requires real strength. What does it mean to be porous to other people’s pain? It’s really a radical act to open yourself up in that way to others, which reminds me of the Dark Room Collective and that deep well of generosity with others and the idea of breaking out of these hierarchical systems and imagining different ways of being.
Keene: I was thinking about that word compassion, and the root words com and patior, which mean with and suffer. What does it mean to suffer with another, feel with another, sit with another? Like Christina Sharpe mentions, what does it mean to think with another? Not always approach something like I’m going to have some kind of critical assessment. What does it mean to be with other people? And to be porous, I love that term. I think your work beautifully demonstrates that and presents a narrative of this very powerful, radical, difficult, beautiful experience of being with other people and thinking with them and feeling with them. If someone asks what that looks like, this novel is what that looks like.
Rail: I would also echo that, because Punks is about being with people, community, even in the space of a club, the energy of two bodies suspended in space, or holding communion together in the dark tunnel of the PATH train. Or honoring those who were lost but forever present and living in ordinary things like a suit, in memory. It’s incredibly beautiful John, thank you.
Keene: Thank you Akil. Wonderful.