Kevin McLellan: A Conversation on Craft with Danielle Beazer Dubrasky
In my correspondence with Kevin, I commented on the texture of the lines in his poems, borrowing from Jack Meyers’ The Portable Poetry Workshop where he makes a contrast between lines that have thick or thin texture based on the white space between lines. Unbeknownst to me, Myers was one of Kevin’s mentors at Vermont College. I also took a manuscript workshop with Meyers; thus, I feel I have I crossed literary paths with Kevin.
He is a master of the enjambed line, creating contrast between fragmented images and moments of wholeness, the fragmented images sometimes being extensions of a refracted self. In his poems, images mirror each other, or refract and split—like tributaries—often leading the reader to a line or single word as a point of unification. The poems face head on the challenge of using abstract language to describe both the world of the imagination as well as the physical world—and the border between the two is sometimes made transparent through consecutive enjambments as in the poem “Slope”: “this crystallization / an otherness / which keeps.”
This interview took place from August–October 2017 via e-mail from our respective places of Cambridge, MA, and Cedar City, UT.
DBD: I admire the conciseness of your poems in Tributary. In “Split Personality: i. Bouquet” the transition from the first line to the last is such an elegant cat-leap—a move I see in other poems. I sense that many of your lines are the result of what has been carefully pared away. Can you comment on the aesthetic or process of paring away to get to a core image or concept?
KM: Bouquet—the first section of “Split Personality”—is a single sentence (composed of language from the same/similar register), four couplets (not of dissimilar lengths), and one punctuation mark (a period to end the sentence/poem). This particular construction allows its language to move fluidly with brief pauses between stanzas, creating a thin texture.
In order to address your question, I will need to talk about my usual process—the roles/actions integral for me. There is the forager and scavenger, first, who searches and records: images that resonate, overheard language, unusual language that assembles and presents itself in my head, and words that swirl or creep or twirl or leap when heard. Once I have intuited that there is enough language to comprise a poem, my role as forager/scavenger must give way to the collagist that determines what information best abuts other information, yet best doesn’t always mean logical. This as an opportunity to assemble dissimilar, and sometimes disparate, pieces of information to create tension and/or to challenge logic or create new logic. The collagist decides where language needs to shift and where bridges need to be constructed. It is as if the collagist uses language like puzzle pieces, some fitting and others not fitting, for the purpose of making a sculpture.
Once a first draft is constructed (there is always remaindered information which is either recycled or retired), the sculptor takes hold of the poem, listens word by word and between each word to determine what information from beginning to end can stand alone as poetic lines. Simultaneously, the sculptor must also determine if and when silences (white space, line breaks, stanza breaks) are needed, and these combined tasks will eventually give light to its innate form. Further line adjustments are usually necessary for the poem to better meet the form. And then the chiseling begins, or furthers, for the purposes of providing the necessary space for resonant language and its key images.
I am interested in the mechanics of poetry, Danielle. Lately, I am most attracted to enjambed lines that create subtext, a threat under the poem’s skin, and especially when the subtext challenges or overthrows the meaning created out of a given sentence or sentences—THIS, for me, or rather HERE is where brushing shoulders with poetry is more possible.
DBD: So let’s consider “a threat under the poem’s skin” in “A Bedrock” and “Of Bones.” There are lines in “A Bedrock” such as “He didn’t recognize his face” or “He won’t recognize himself” that stand quite unified in contrast to the split lines of “in the outside window of the / bridal shop. He won’t marry / nor father. / Sacrifice is a river of perennials: tiger lilies / surrounding a stone house.” And there are other enjambments that create more splitting in “Of Bones”: “You stopped placing me/atop your shoulders” as well as the lines from “. . . (The residue / of you yelling something / hateful” to “(I’m the son / of a gun).” These poems also conjure the idea of the “split image” as in the following definition: “An image in a rangefinder or camera focusing system that has been bisected by optical means, the halves being aligned only when the system is in focus.” I appreciate how “Of Bones” is quite literally a split image. What can you say about the concept of the “split image” in these or other poems and how you shape a line to create a focus?
KM: Please allow me to back into an answer, Danielle. I must trust my intuition. I must consider the preoccupation with the self—or rather for the purposes of this response, the whole self—and the fragmented self/selves as the other. I must explore how their different lenses, agencies, and agendas interact. I must employ poetic conventions and images that illustrate and support the complexity of self and (the self as (the)) other. We must consider each line an independent division of information that has the ability to accommodate both separation and wholeness. Yet each line also informs or speaks to the abutting lines, challenging the sentence, the sentence’s preoccupations, and the reader’s expectations.
DBD: Your comment about lines as “an independent division of information” calls to mind the title of your book. Fragmented lines create tributaries of thought. Your poems inspired me to look up a few words and one word I explored was “astral.” The poem “Astral Beach (A Tribute)” plays around with tangible/intangible experiences (as does “Silver Lake”). Both describe a relationship—a tether almost—between the abstract and the concrete: “Thoughts / attaching themselves to / what is scattered in the / night sky” (“Silver Lake”); “Eyes hunt the language (echo / of the last words are roses / in an urn:…” (“Astral Beach”). I am struck by the physicality and directness of “Eyes hunt the language.” It describes simultaneously an interior and exterior perception. Both poems end on rain—the effect is of stepping from the realm of thought and suddenly noticing there is a world out there. Do you see your poems as tethers or mediums between abstract thought and the physical world or do you see them primarily as interior worlds that have an occasional brush with exteriority?
KM: Yes, I see a given poem, every poem, located somewhere on this spectrum.The physical world can reflect and perhaps inform one’s emotional landscape and one’s emotional landscape can reflect and inform the physical world. It is as if the abstract and the concrete exist for one another—codependent—despite, and because of, their opposition and contrast. Isn’t this the nature of duality? Duality in poetry can be a rich and productive territory, an acknowledgment of difference. Too bad we don’t see more of this in the physical world.
DBD: You quote Lacan in the epigram of “The Weight of the Second Person”: “language is always about loss or absence . . .” I see several of your poems as emblematic of desire in the presence of absence. And the speaker turns to an image to compensate for an absent person or for a happier moment. Especially the image of birds—birds seem to represent an alternative existence, free of the weight and illness of the physical body. Rain seems to also have a healing significance. What would you say is the emotional landscape that is reflected in these or other repeated images pertaining to the physical world?
KM: The images, the birds, and the rain, are everyday moving images that represent life for a grieving speaker who has been abruptly stilled by grief, so the images represent both loss and hope. An abruptly stilled position is necessary for some poets. My second full-length manuscript, Ornitheology (The Word Works, 2018) further explores this position.
DBD: Did these images develop as motifs during the writing of this collection or have they always had significance to you?
KM: These Tributary poems were written over the course of 15+ years. Many more poems wouldn’t make the cut. This manuscript was assembled in 2004 and this is when I became aware of, and accepted, my obsession with specific images and words. This awareness informed which poems to include in the manuscript and, in time, what poems would need to be written. So, yes, these images first developed as motifs within the poems and then within the manuscript.
There was some overuse of certain images and language in the penultimate version of the manuscript, most notably, “My body…” which I thought collectively created a sense of urgency. Once I changed some instances of ‘my body’ to “a body” or “the body”—which created a dissociative quality already under the skin of some other poems—I was able to part with some additional uses of “my body.” It is profound when one sees minor edits making such a huge impact on the rest of the language.
DBD: The book’s four parts create a subtle trajectory from a focus on the “I”/“you” relationship toward a more fractured “I.” By the third section, the speaker seems to be struggling with symptoms of HIV and experiencing a dissociation from the body. You foreshadow a kind of dissociation with these lines from “Astral” that describe the consequence of being cut from the source: “... in an urn / roses are no longer.”
The disassociation also is described through the following lines (though not exclusively): “My face as I knew it / went down the drain” (35), “Where is / your body? Shapeless distances near” (51), and “That some / don’t own / their bodies” (54). The section ends in the poem “Untitled” with a kind of truce between the interior world that is searching for wholeness from a fragmented physical world: “I / among the salt / & sand / & fire ants, lay / down markers / all the way to / my particular the.” The definitive words “salt,” “sand,” “fire ants” have equal weight with “my particular the.”
There is also the contrast between separation and wholeness in the final line of the book’s first poem “It was not long ago.” Though the speaker finds parts of himself, there is a sense of having found wholeness at the end by anticipating / hoping for the return of someone: “Sometimes / I don’t mind. That I believe. Tomorrow. / A without from where you speak.” The final clause is unified compared to the fragments in the penultimate line. So I am sneaking in two questions: What can you say about loss and disassociation and how language is a way to create unification?
KM: Danielle, it is as if your questions arose from the marrow of Tributary! In order to answer your question, I will need to be transparent, convey the personal circumstances that led me to loss and disassociation.
I trust that you are referring to the poem “Seroconversion” when you refer to the speaker struggling with symptoms of HIV. Seroconversion is a biological event one-to-three weeks after contraction, when the HIV antibody develops and becomes detectable, surges, and challenges the immune system. When I seroconverted, a doctor told me that these flu-like symptoms resembled HIV conversion. Since I had received two insinuated HIV diagnoses before, that ended-up being misdiagnoses, this was an established trigger, though this doctor was accurate. His informal diagnosis seemed not only derived from the symptoms, but also from my sexuality, like before.
Consider this relationship with the medical field upon receiving an HIV diagnosis. Imagine being cognizant of HIV occupying your body before effective medical therapies. Consider, a few months later, receiving a testicular cancer diagnosis (unrelated to the HIV) which would require immediate surgery and possibly further treatment, and this would compromise an already challenged immunity system. Consider how these diagnoses together will affect your relationship with sex, sexual relationships, and even non-sexual relationships. Consider how long it will take to come to terms with the above, and that there is no roadmap. Consider the stunned mind and its new clock.
Imagine being on a crowded subway train and feeling the loneliest you have ever felt. Imagine wearing sunglasses so that no one can see your eyes. Imagine that this seems like your everyday. Consider that the outside world (which is where the virus came from and the outside world is everyone else) and the inside world (your body) has already or will betray you, and the ability to not only cause harm, but also extinguish you. I believe that these specific circumstances laid the groundwork, forced me to face mortality, while also finding a new way to live. Yet there would be new obstacles—the bi-products anxiety and stress, and their by-product, disassociation. What was I supposed to do for myself?
Yes, I am well and doing well. Yet I believe that projecting a direct address, my inner queries under the auspices of limit and time, onto the page was not only a way to get through a day, but also a way to propel me through the maze that was my life—and to leave a small part of it outside myself, and for others to at least witness or even hold, like you with these questions.
DBD: I appreciate your direct and honest answer in describing the threshold between the exterior and the interior—the world and the body. I have been reading these poems as if I were inside something, but now I can also see them as artifacts, traces, shells, ghosts, your astral counterpart—“you” are no longer there. Very beautiful—and I am reminded of Gregory Orr’s book Poetry as Survival, which argues that poets have the linguistic facility to cross thresholds and place structure over chaos, loss, or trauma through their words. When they return from their linguistic journey, the reader benefits from the healing in the poem, without having to make the same journey. Orr argues that the poetic mind can survive in places where others might not. I see such a journey in the fourth section. The transformation of the word “last” into “salt” in the final section, defies an ending. Can you address any aspect of “Twelve Years of Looking at Nouns” and/or the tribute poems “Hands,” “Scattershot,” and “Form” in terms of journey and transformation?
KM: The narrative “Twelve Years of Looking at Nouns” needed to employ sections for the purpose of establishing duration and employ the third person for the purpose of creating emotional distance from a trauma and its tributaries—the beginning after the end of a sexual relationship, observing sickness and health in the animal world, an HIV diagnosis and the new role of writing—its related and interrelated concerns around death and possibly even renewal. Faith? The last section of the poem, subtitled “obituaries,” gives agency to: “he is a bird now,” a perch, the bird (a final time), dried seed, and then “the cage door opens,” and in that order. It implies freedom, yet the poem uses figurative devices throughout. You see, I desperately needed to find a way out of my own cage and wagered everything within language, something we all share, by letting my things (or rather nouns!) go.
The speaker and reader in “Scattershot” witness a beetle about to die, its motion toward immobility, and then the beetle is dead a few lines later. What we witness afterward, an incorporeal focus—with the trees and a shrub as another kind of witness and the allusion of a mourning dove—is also what the dead beetle misses, “a glass moon,” “a shadow under the trees,” and “threads of light / on this shrub // a silvery wet / gray-green // almost the hue / of a mourning dove // almost the our / of a cooing one.” This poem creates a liminal space, creates synonymousness for life and death, which seems an essential exercise for processing grief. I had no idea that this is what I was doing when I wrote this poem. I was just collecting evidence from the outside world.
The poem “Hands” employs an ambiguous “you,” since my body betrayed my mind and then my mind betrayed my body, so the “you” could be a self-reflexive “you” that the “I” in the poem can’t access or an important-specific “you,” like a partner or faith itself. The purpose of the enjambed lines and the information itself is to embody, if you will, the speaker’s disassociation, “a maybe-house: beforehand // the mind: my mind / is cut flowers: I lost / my body between // field and vases…” The poem “Form” also explores the relationship between the mind and the body and employs the “you” for this same theme of living with death, yet this is a poem I would prefer to let speak for itself.
DBD: Returning to your description of the poet working as a collagist then a sculptor, how did the collaborative process work in your chapbook Round Trip? What is unique about this collaboration is that each poem is co-written by another poet.
KM: We, the Round Trip collaborators, mostly used the exquisite corpse method by way of email: one starts off by emailing a fragment (usually two to three lines) and then the other adds onto this. If one is unable to respond to their collaborator’s information, one can alter this language in order to add their own information, and so forth and so on until a first draft is written—once through the poem. Then, there is revision. I also wrote several collaborative poems with Derek Pollard. Our poem “The Sky as Vault” and a statement about our experience with collaboration is forthcoming in They Said: A Multi-Genre Anthology of Contemporary Collaborative Writing, (Black Lawrence Press, Summer 2018). Our statement addresses, briefly, how collaboration creates an unusual kind of witnessing and accountability, so different from facing an empty, white space alone.