10/10/2013 08:44 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Into the Vortex: An Interview with Paul Killebrew

Once you read Paul Killebrew's meditative, funny, and often strikingly lyrical work, it is very hard to stop thinking about it. With so much forgettable poetry in the world, this memorable strangeness is a minor miracle. Slippery lines such as, "Sometimes we blubbered through the fallout / of willful confusion in pants that didn't fit the legs / we sawed off" munch on readerly mind with a wry smile. The familiar world of parking lots and day-jobs turns weird in Killebrew's poems--but, crucially, not just for cheap surrealistic effect but so readers can, as gently as possible, feel fully implicated in what we like to call "The System." If John Ashbery managed Dunder Mifflin he might send memos like these. Canarium Books has now published two Killebrew collections, Flowers and the recent Ethical Consciousness , and both inspire and confound. I've known Paul since we were undergraduates together at University of Georgia, and I've always found his take on poetry - his own and others' - to be gratifying and enlightening. He took time to answer my questions while on furlough from his job at the Justice Department.

Why did you call your book Ethical Consciousness?

Fair warning, I'm going to give you a really roundabout explanation for this. When I wrote these poems I worked at Innocence Project New Orleans, where I represented prisoners who were actually innocent of the crimes for which they'd been convicted. A recurring character in that work is the eyewitness who got it wrong--someone who sincerely believes that the person on trial is the murderer, but he or she is mistaken, as DNA testing or something else proves decades after the trial. There's been a lot of research into why eyewitnesses are wrong as often as they are, and, to no one's surprise, race can be a factor--they call it "cross-racial identification", meaning that people are sometimes better at identifying faces of their own race than another. The effect is especially pronounced in areas where races are heavily segregated. To me this lines up with two other ideas about how race works right now, the contact hypothesis and implicit bias. (You'll have to forgive me for getting all social science-y, but these are things I think about a lot, and I'll try to explain how it all hangs together with my sense of myself as a poet in a minute.) The contact hypothesis says that a powerful way to reduce conflict between an oppressive majority group and an oppressed minority group is through interpersonal contact. It can backfire, but it has also proven out time and time again. Implicit bias is a term that's become fairly common, and my understanding of it is the negative mental impressions you might associate with people of other races, despite your understanding of yourself to be tolerant and unprejudiced. Many, including me, would argue that implicit bias is the bread and butter of racism today, and however it comes about, I believe that it relates to our unwillingness to acknowledge basic things about ourselves and how we perceive.

This is a lot of jargon, and I recognize that language like this can be distancing and abstract, so let me be clear that I don't consider myself somehow above any of this; I feel entirely implicated. I grew up in a heavily segregated environment in the South in which racism was often explicit and unapologetic. I went into this at length in a podcast not too long ago, but the private school I attended from first to twelfth grade has a deeply racist past. My neighborhood and the street I grew up on weren't entirely segregated, and luckily my parents were pretty good about explaining right and wrong, but I don't think you can overstate the complexity of race or its presence in one's perceptions and decisions. Or anyway I can't.

As a white person whose experience of my own race is almost always the privileged position of obliviousness, I assume that it was the work I was doing that brought these things into my thoughts so often. It occurred to me that ethical living should reach to the level of perception, that even the form your basic sensory experience takes has ethical dimensions. What I'm trying to get at is recognizing that the basic activity of receiving stimuli has the capacity to harm yourself and others and so implicates your obligations as a human being.

Poems work with all that--a particular word following another particular word creates a certain mental state, and the choices we make about the placement of those words--their order, where they appear spatially, and so on--gets close to ordering the reader's perceptions. Poets talk all the time about the ethical dimensions of those choices. So it all--consciousness, ethics, and poetry--felt like a vortex to me.

Okay, walk me through it. Can you give me a specific example of a poem in the book that takes this on?

It's like that Ron Padgett quote: "When you're in the vortex, you're in the vortex," so yes and no on the specific example. What I was describing above is more like the mental weather in which the poems were written, but it wasn't necessarily the topic under consideration. That may not be what you meant. The title poem is probably the most direct articulation of what I was thinking about the vagaries of consciousness and the problem of grounding serious things like ethics or knowledge in it. Here's how that poem begins:

The shape through which

all sensations

pass changes

with such irregularity

that the whole

idea of

sympathetic vibrations

instilling each

likeness with likeness

along the spine

of disposition

seems as precarious

as your belief

in life

The long poem that ends the book, "Muted Flags," has a long narrative sequence about a video artist who is experiencing failures of perception due to his intense focus on sound during long video editing sessions, which then contorts into a problem of self-awareness as the narrative goes on.

It occurs to me that there's one sentence in the middle of a poem that may have been the first one I wrote in this book, "The Ideas," that's in this territory as well:


is prosecuting

the neighborhood

as the continuously

variable angles

of the eyes

to the world

make modest corrections

to the ideas.

Are there other contemporary poets in the vortex?

When I lived in New Orleans I had to drive a lot for work, and there were four long poems that I listened to recordings of in the car almost daily. Looking back it's clear to me how much I was stealing from them. Two of the poems are ekphrastic, and the other two involve some psychedelic shifts in voice, and ekphrasis and voice modulation show up big time in "Muted Flags".

The first ekphrastic poem is "Phil-" by Jacqueline Waters, and it's in her book One Sleeps the Other Doesn't (Ugly Duckling Presse 2011). The recording I listened to can be found here.

The movies Groundhog Day and The Odd Couple both make appearances in the poem, and, similar to the way shots in a movie ping-pong between objective and subjective, the perspective goes back and forth between the audience and the characters on screen. The poem also goes unexpectedly into and out of narrative, which to me seemed to do interesting things with my cognitive state as a reader. My mind so readily locks into any suggestion of a story, and when the poem cuts away from the narrative moments, I feel differently attuned to what follows, a feeling of heightened awareness that is often only a feeling.

The second ekphrastic poem is "Typing 'Wild Speech'" by Dana Ward, and the recording is here.

The poem is a total heartbreaker, full of affection and care and the caverns that form within us. It leaves me right about the same place that My Dinner with Andre does, wishing I didn't waste so much time picking spiritual ass. Andre Gregory's stories are actually a useful analogy for the poem's ekphrastic qualities--accounts of art projects, games, and other artists in a talkative voice that assumes familiarity and a common purpose.

The two voice-modulating poems are by poets of a different generation (Waters and Ward are both around my age), John Wieners and Frank O'Hara. The Wieners poem, "from Memories in a Small Apartment," has never, as far as I know, appeared in print. I've been told that Wieners wrote in journals and at readings would sometimes just skip around in them, shaping a poem for the moment. The modulations in voice in the poem are actually just shifts in the speaker altogether; the opening lines are said by someone who is very clearly not Wieners, but near the middle of the poem there are lines that sound very much like his personal reflections, which he says in a voice that is keyed up and out of breath. The recording is here.

I can't find the recording of the Frank O'Hara poem, "For the Chinese New Year and for Bill Berkson," online, but it's on O'Hara's Voice of the Poet album. The printed poem is in quintets that are lightly punctuated, so it's easy to read straight through it without thinking much about the poem's changing intensities. But O'Hara's reading of it is koo-koo; he's conversational, bitchy, accusatory, and nearly yells proclamations.

Do you feel like you got to the end of your explorations with this voice and vortex with this book, or is it an ongoing thing?

It's definitely still ongoing. Right now I'm deep into a long narrative poem titled (at the moment) "Negro Yachtsmen I Have Known," which is about a playwright and his artist friends and their aspirations to live up to their political commitments. It's weird to me because something that was really important to me early on as a poet was rejecting narrative, and here I am doing it left and right. Although I think maybe what was really going on with the younger me was not exactly rejecting narrative. It was more like I had this obnoxious elitist bent where I felt like there was nothing as embarrassing or that so marked you as uninitiated as interpreting an "experimental" text in narrative terms, like saying "The Skaters" is about a garbage man on acid or something. Or that works that appeared experimental but could be fully explained in narrative terms were a failure. There's a line in Matthew Rohrer poem that I can't quite remember but captures the sentiment: you get to the end of the story, and it turns out he was in a mental hospital the whole time.

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