The Definition of Home, Keeping the Poem In the Poem, and Knowing What Moves You: Keegan Lester on His Poem “A Topography of This Place”
The first time I ever met Keegan Lester I was a daunted rural visitor to New York in the crushing heat of a mid-July. The impromptu tour he gave me of his favorite haunts near Columbia University (his MFA alma mater), was an unexpected gift – and the introduction to a poet whose work, perhaps more than that of any poet I’d met, mirrors his character: fierce in its insistence on gentleness, conscientious through its softspokenness, and present and alive to the world. These things made me all the gladder that Keegan’s first book of poems, this shouldn’t be beautiful but it was & it was all I had, so I drew it, had recently won the Slope Editions Book Prize ( available for pre-order here and due for release in the coming month). In the spirit of the new year and with Keegan’s encouragement, I’m introducing multimedia to the Primal School blog with these videos he recorded. In them he discusses his love of home as an idea as well as a place we choose -- the notion that “home”, no matter how small, can be a conduit for storytelling, for sharing, and for exploring those sadnesses, elations and struggles which make people more aware of their alikeness in a time of bitter polarization and difference. I personally feel lucky to have been a recipient of his “ocean’s newfound kindness.” – HLJ
so the sailors went home.
No one jumped from cliffs anymore.
People stopped painting and photographing the ocean
because the sentiment felt too close to a Hallmark card.
Everyone had treasure because
it was easy to find,
thus the stock market crashed.
Then the housing bubble burst
mostly not due to the ocean,
though one could speculate pirates
were going out of business and defaulting on loans.
When I say speculate, I mean I was reading
the small words that crawl at the bottom
of the newscast, but I was only half paying attention
because Erin Burnett was speaking
and she’s the most real part of this poem.
I’m speaking in metaphor of course.
The end of the world is coming
seagulls whispered to the fish
they could not eat due to their fear
of the ocean’s newfound kindness.
One of my professors spoke today.
She hates personification, treasure and linear meaning.
She hates poems not written by dead people.
She hates the ocean’s newfound kindness,
she wrote it on my poem.
Not everything can be ghosts and pirates, she says.
But that’s why I live here.
My rhododendron has never crumpled in the summer.
This poem seems especially relevant in our present cultural moment. Tell us what began it.
"It's a love poem to West Virginia..." Why it's important to entertain and write for others, and drop your ego from your work.
“Don’t revise the poem out of the poem.”
In your view, what purpose does poetry serve in the world?
A poem here is an attempt by the writer to understand something...then be a force of its own in the world which can preserve family stories and collapse false or misleading cultural narratives.
What advice would you offer to poets writing and practicing without the MFA/advanced writing degree?
“Find what you love, something that catches your eye and moves you, and then do it…do it every day, and know that it’s going to take time to get to where you want.”
Write a persona poem that draws from a place as far outside of your experience as possible then see what happens.
Tell us just one poem you love, and why you love it.
Here are three:
The first time I heard Nikki Giovanni reading "Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea (We're Going to Mars)” in a non-fiction class in undergrad, I knew instantly that I wanted to do what she was doing in that poem. Prior to that I didn’t know that contemporary poetry could be capable of such power. I enrolled in a poetry class after that and never looked back.
Jason Bredle’s poem "On the Way to the 53-B District Court of Livingston County, October 1, 1999” was a huge turning point in my poetry. I remember being in my thesis meeting and telling my advisors, “I didn’t know you were allowed to write like this.” This poem, from his book Standing in Line for the Beast, helped me see that in poetry there’s nothing that isn’t allowed. We can write our own rules so long as the poem moves someone.
In my opinion Richard Siken’s “Scheherazade” from his collection Crush is the most perfect love poem ever written. The entire collection is brilliant and extremely helpful for poets looking to expand their poetry skills, especially in regards to pacing, use of white space, prosody, and just working with images at the line level.
Give us an image of something that creatively inspires you.
These are two of my closest friends in the world, Crich and Courtney, in Crich’s living room in Morgantown, West Virginia. Lex, the gigantic puppy, is on the sofa.
When I’m in town I always help Crich walk Lex around a gorgeous neighborhood called South Park, discussing house design and other topics as we go. Crich has broken so many intellectual and aesthetic barriers for me, helping me see the world more clearly, most especially through film and design. I've taught him about contemporary poetry and we’ve been close friends for over a decade. We talk to each other in a language that I don't use with anyone else, unfortunately, which can be a lonely space to occupy. I think I often go to that place in my writing. So much of this room is where I live in my head.
In this photo there are many of these high aesthetic moves in evidence, from the Cunard poster in the background to the Sheraton Sofa to Crich’s Billy Reid sweater. None of it is pretentious. And each one has some kind of a cut-back to a story or revelation for me, some kind of vital experience. The sofa for instance was originally Crich’s grandmother’s, and it was in her house, and he brought it with him all the way from Louisiana. And he has this wonderful picture of the two of them, I believe in his dining room, sitting in that couch.
Keegan Lester is the winner of the 2016 Slope Editions Book Prize, selected by Mary Ruefle, for his collection this shouldn’t be beautiful but it was & it was all i had, so i drew it. He is an American poet splitting time between New York City and Morgantown, West Virginia. His work is published in or forthcoming from Boston Review, Atlas Review, Powder Keg, BOAAT, The Journal, Phantom, Tinderbox, CutBank, and Sixth Finch, among others, and has been featured on NPR, The New School Writing Blog, and Coldfront. He is the co-founder and poetry editor for the journal Souvenir Lit. You can follow him on Twitter @keeganmlester or on Instagram @kml2157. His book is currently available for preorder here.