Keith Leonard

KL author photoRamshackle OdeKeith Leonard‘s first full-length collection of poems, Ramshackle Ode, is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in April 2016. He is also the author of a chapbook, Still, the Shore, published by YesYes Books.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Game as Good Medicine

I say hooray to the no-look dish
and the ball kissing
the glass before netting.
And I say hooray, too,
to the backpedal then—
that brief chapter of joy
the squeak of the sneakers
read aloud from the court.
Today, I want to love
the loop of the game,
the ball, and whatever
sends me volleying back
and forth so blissfully.
Isn’t it good to do
one thing well
then try to do it again?
Think the looped beat
and the hip bone
like a round pestle
grinding the pelvis
into a lover’s. Think
the lavender perennial,
pulsing its purple
each spring, to which
you might lower your face.
I first ran the loop
with abandon on the recess court,
then sweated through
half of history class
where all the books
read in a straight line
from left to right.
I remember chapter one
led to chapter two
and we reached our present
in June. But the problem
is that math says lines
stretch forever. And the problem
with distance is it makes one forget.
The problem is honesty
comes shaped like a circle.
Like a loop. Like a low hum
of reverb shaking wild these days.

 

Seed

Though the rain tastes like nickel
it is not blood, but like blood
makes the child, rain plumps
the melons beneath thick leaves
this summer, and each summer,
and it’s a genius I rarely think of,
this world swelling, the hay field
rising, and I was not ready
for my love to be suddenly
doubled by the ultrasound,
but it was, the little heart drummed
over the speakers, and the room
swelled, and it hurt the good hurt,
and though the June bugs
beat against the night, the sound
is not a heart, but like the heart
it is dumb in its brazen pulse
and smack-the-screen joy,
and like the heart there are billions
here, each alive and mostly well,
here, where two legs pressed
against two legs become six legs—
and that is not an impossible math.
I could believe the world only wants
to double. The hay field rising
into seed. The June bugs’ dumb love
lifting the night to its feet.

 

The Clam

That shell like a frozen ripple;
that living stone burrowed in the silt;
I was wary of it—how it must
live static, an anchor, and what
is life without a little recklessness,
without a little touch of mess
to pivot up the day—the lightning
plucked like a wrong note
brightens the sky— I believed
the metronome had already died,
and circles were the saddest shapes,
and who would lasso their finger
with a little silver ring? Only fools
or lunatics—and tonight
restlessness rips me from sleep.
I watch the baby breathe. I imitate
stillness, for fear the antique floor
might creak. The clam opens up
to let the current in,
and by doing so, lives.

 

The Third Commandment

Some think the cuss
a prelude to a smoky
eternity, and maybe I’m
a little smug, a little
ruffled, to not believe
I’ll be strapped naked
to the rack and prodded
with little tridents
just for whispering goddamn,
but there are moments
that empty the well-stocked
pantry of my hyperbole,
and there are moments that drop
an invisible bell around
my head and let it ring—and goddamn—
the boy was pushed into this world
and delivered to her chest, wet
and serrating my every theory
of the possible, and bewilderment
came shaped like a pink mouth
to which was slipped
a pink nipple, and goddammit,
the country of amazement
has no lexicon or address—
that country’s charter
was written in a single breath.

 

The Could Be

Even through closed windows the world
smells like woodstove this morning.
It could be a neighbor’s burn pile.
It could be a windstorm and a power line
fallen to a fresh pile of leaves.
I don’t know. I do know
there’s a frowning boy
who lives in my breast pocket.
He sometimes climbs up my collarbone
to make his little sad hush
about danger and decency.
He’s always trying to lasso and prune
the chimney vine of me.
The cookies-on-the-top-shelf
-and-the-child’s-taut-fingertips of me.
It’s hard work, and sometimes
when he’s through he lays down
in the rough bassinet of my hands
and sleeps. Just listen: even our enemies
whimper a little in dreams.
Quiet now, little aardvark who roots
the nonsense away. Sleep, little gardener
of my soon enough grave.

 

A Conversation with Keith Leonard and Phillip B. Williams

Phillip: Keith, so good to have you! I’ve been waiting on this interview for quite some time and apologize for the delay. How are you?

Keith: What?! No apology needed. I’m honored to talk with you. Things are doing great over here. How are you doing?

P: I’m well. Let’s get started! I want to know more about this book of yours, Ramshackle Ode, coming out through Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in April this year. Please define for us what a ramshackle ode is and how you came to write these odes.

K: First off, congrats on your own collection coming out recently. I’m a big fan. The book is amazing.

A ramshackle ode is an ode that attempts to praise, while also acknowledging or moving through an obstacle the best it can. In my MFA at Indiana University, I had been writing a lot of elegies, and while I’m happy to have written those, every time I attempted to write a joyful poem, I couldn’t do it. I was intrigued as to why that was, and eventually realized that if praise is to be honest, it has to take into account great suffering–and sometimes I found it impossible to praise, and I decided to include those failures as odes as well. So, really, the “ramshackle” is describing the rickety nature of joy.

P: You say in your poem “The Game as Good Medicine”:

The problem is honesty
comes shaped like a circle.
Like a loop. Like a low hum
of reverb shaking wild these days.

So, already you acknowledge that there is circularity in what we experience and in that circularity is the act of remembering and forgetting. Is the “shaking wild these days” in response to the living life as it comes, with the expectation that some things will be retained and other things rumbled into dissonance? I’m thinking too of your poem “The Clam,” where “The clam opens up/ to let the current in,/ and by doing so, lives.” Is this, also, a sign of how we need, as you’ve said, the “great suffering?”

K: Great question. Yes, and in the case of “The Game as Good Medicine” I was trying to think of how “timelines” can be a terrible model for teaching history, as they can position one event at considerable distance from the present, where more often than not, those past events have drastic implications for the present. So, a loop, or a circle, seems to be a more honest depiction of time, really.

And as far as “The Clam”–yeah, being open to whatever happens is sort of how one needs to live life when they become a new parent, I guess.

P: And how has parenting informed your writing? Congratulations, again and again on this new addition to your family! I love the poem “The Third Commandment,” for how it includes this miracle from your own timeline.

K: Hey thanks! And thanks, too, for the kind words about that poem.

Becoming a father has informed my writing (and living) more than I could have expected. Having a little boy has forced me to reconsider many of the narratives I was told about masculinity and the narratives our culture continues to tell. I want to write poems that are as tender as possible to make a different narrative available to my son.

P: What are some things you were told about masculinity that you want to reverse? I can see already in your poems the idea of sensitivity and vulnerability that is missing in so much of what we call masculinity or manhood. Speaking of your own work, how do you use your craft to express this newfound breath in translating what you were taught into a more useful language for your son?

K: So many things! American culture implicitly tells men so many narratives of possession, entitlement, violence, emotional deadening… those aren’t narratives that I think a poem is going to reverse (or maybe it will, I don’t know), but I guess I just want to show him its ok to love and express joy and how my life has been made fuller by giving myself permission to love and be loved tenderly.

And I think the craft of the poems might reflect that–as they usually take shape as one cascading stanza which might weave its way towards some type of joy. I’m interested in how syntax and enjambment can push a poem further down the page towards maybe some type of transformation or discovery. It’s a type of poem I learned from reading Ross Gay, Aracelis Girmay, Tomas Q. Morin, and Gerald Stern, among others. I just kind of love how it mirrors the roving nature of the mind.

P: In your poem “The Could Be” you write:

“[…] I do know
there’s a frowning boy
who lives in my breast pocket.
He sometimes climbs up my collarbone
to make his little sad hush
about danger and decency.”

then further down

“It’s hard work, and sometimes
when he’s through he lays down
in the rough bassinet of my hands
and sleeps. Just listen: even our enemies
whimper a little in dreams.”

I read the frowning boy as an ars poetica presence, the self’s voice of doubt always reaching up and saying no, no, not that, not this. It makes sense that the boy is so close to the heart as though the proximity has something to do with his apprehension. But even he can be placated or exhausted into silence. If he is an enemy then surely he is part of the self as enemy. Can you talk a bit about if you see yourself reflected in these poems not as the speaker but sometimes as the boy, the aardvark, the hoop, or the hum?

K: Absolutely. It’s clear to me that my experience in America is one of great privilege—and that no matter how well I know this, my life is still being made comfortable every day by the same mechanisms that disenfranchise others. I am, by my very existence, complicit—and I try to be conscious as I can about how my daily life reflects that complicity. The awful truth is that I’ve internalized “the boy” and “the aardvark,” “the hoop,” and “the hum.” In many ways I’m trying to use the space of the poem as a space of self-interrogation. And I think this self-interrogation is suited to poetry because in paying close attention to language, I can see how very closely my language reflects assumptions and problematic representations, and how that might influence how I was taught to see the world.

P: Let’s talk about the erotic. From your poem “The Seed”:

like the heart there are billions
here, each alive and mostly well,
here, where two legs pressed
against two legs become six legs—
and that is not an impossible math.

Your use of sex is not gratuitous, which in and of itself would not be a bad thing, but specifically you use nature and the natural dealings of desire with such clarity and connection to the earth that it’s refreshing. There is something very enthusiastic about how you express desire in your poems and see the human body intertwined with nature. As with joy, did you once find yourself having difficulty writing the sensual, the sexual?

K: So this is going to be sort of a maybe quaint answer, but I worked on an orchard for a few years, and I witnessed that orchard all full-up on sex. It’s a crazy erotic place with the birds and the bees pollinating everything, the apple trees dropping their seeds. Everything there is involved with reproduction. Even the spiraling head of the sunflower is designed to fit in more seeds so there are more opportunities for little sunflower babies. And of the many praiseworthy desires of consenting adults, “The Seed” is about a specific type of desire—a desire to produce a human—a little miracle of a human who would breathe and think and invent and cry and hug—so I couldn’t help but connect it to the wild sex in the orchard.

But other than describing that particular desire to reproduce I guess I haven’t really explored writing the sensual/sexual too much. I don’t know if its territory I’m going to explore any further any time soon, but I’m certainly interested in reading it.

P: Thank you so much, Keith, for you taking the time out to speak with. I know your answers will bring even more life to this already compelling work. Congratulations on your book.

K: Thank you for the questions, and the great work you do at Vinyl and on the page with your own poems.

 

 

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