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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Douglas Kearney, Black Automation

I need to warn you that I'm really about to gush. Now, I don't mean gush in a girly way, but gush in a deep-book-language-poetry-artsy way.

Doug Kearney is one of the most creative people I've ever met. That says a lot since my life, my career, and my recreation center around creative poetics and prose, and arts and culture. He refers to himself on his web page as
Poet/Performer/Librettist/Educator, which in some ways doesn't cover the range of his talent, but more importantly, his skill. He has the visual sense of a graphic artist and the aesthetic consciousness of a painter. He has the ear of a musician. He has the mind of an architect who is also a linguist. He has the spirit of a poet, and the tongue of a storyteller. He has created poetry of the kind I have never, ever seen before, and yet, the work is immediately a delight, sometimes a privilege to be immersed in it.

I'm still gushing, I know, but the bottom line is that there is no limit of respect and awe I hold for this writer.
I can say, personally, that I've read this book three times, which is a great testament given that I tell my own students, each term, their goal as writers should be to produce something that their readers are compelled to pick up and read again, to go back to, to remember while they are shopping in the super market, on the train. I imagine, off in California where everything seems a bit magical in some way, his instruction is a gift and his students are some of the luckiest young writers in the country.

His new book Black Automation is a treat for the eye as well as the ear. I cannot imagine being a reader of Contemporary Poetry and not having this text in your collection. Hats off to Fence Books for seeing real talent, and investing in it. I applaud his work, and I'm certainly not the only one, as you'll see if you read on.

I've taken the liberty of excerpting some information from Fence Books and thank them ahead of time for not blacklisting me for doing so (insert smiley here).

Douglas Kearney
Winner of the National Poetry Series
From ambivalent animals thriving after Katrina to party chants echoing in a burning city, The Black Automaton troubles rubble, cobbling a kind of life. In this collection bodies at risk seek renewal through violence and fertility, history and myth, flesh and radios.

"First, you have to see Douglas Kearney's visual poems, which cheekily diagram cultural memes as if they were parts of speech (as they are). The Black Automaton has its share of sharp, tender lyrics, too...these exploit the political possibilities of puns and the way meanings hinge on inexact resemblance. Kearney's poems tweak and skewer pop culture and literary sources from Paul Laurence Dunbar to T. S. Eliot to traditional ballads and blues...Kearney's work turns poetic and cultural conventions disquietingly inside out."
—Catherine Wagner

Douglas Kearney's work as a poet, performer and librettist has been featured in many venues in print, in-the-flesh and in digital code. His first book, Fear, Some, was published in 2006 (Red Hen Press). In 2008, he was honored with a Whiting Writers Award. He lives in the Valley with his wife and teaches at California Institute of the Arts. For more info, go to his personal web site:

"Douglas Kearney's innovative new collection makes me tremble like a "mouth and mind full of fish hooks." It makes me think of the despair at the heart of ecstasy; of restlessness as a kind of anodyne. These poems literally vibrate with Kearney's precocious intellect and passion. They hum, they bang, they bite. This is a jaw-dropping, electrifying book. What else can I say? I have never encountered poetry like this before."
—Terrance Hayes, author of Lighthead and Wind in a Box

"We inhabit a world of automata, complicities, complacencies, sound waves, soundless suggestive sales pitches and blaring lingo-infested jingles, machines, robots, rotgut and gut-wrenching city-burnt silences, slave ships, space ships, straitjackets, samples, metonyms and nimble meta-limbs angling gangly nomenclatures, singularities, consecrations and condemnations, assassinations and ass-backward nations, disgraced antonymic masses of matter jostling in unchosen seas, types in stereo singing syncopated tunes out of time with the lock-step of what we might have been supposed to think. What good is poetry in such a world? No good. Not good, useful: "righteous art is a rod./rods are very useful." The Black Automaton is a whip-smart lightning rod: use it."
—Jen Hofer, author of one and translator of sexoPUROsexoVELOZ+Septiembre (Dolores Dorantes)

"Kearney's poetry flows from a consideration of urban speech, negro spontaneity and book learning not easily parsed if you haven't fully digested every major hiphop lyric composed between 1979 and 1983 and spent a considerable amount of time backtracking the library stacks stuffed with Zora Neale Hurston and Ishmael Reed's neofolkloric trails. The Black Automaton is the graphic afterbirth of a Jeep with a booming system driven at 90 mph into a stack of Bibles, small press journals and the Tibetan Book of the Dead by a man who mistook his mouth for a sledgehammer."
—Greg Tate is a writer/musician currently working on a book about James Brown and is still HNIC of Burnt Sugar, The Arkestra Chamber


the first black you met was on the radio.

this is true even if you lived with blacks.

the first black to speak the word radio

knew it meant the same as blood.

the first black to know blood meant radio,

claimed radio meant love, to better lure you.

the first black you dreamed about was on the radio

and waited for you there each night to fuck you,

you still believe this and sleep with the radio

on or off; it all depends.

the first blacks to realize they were blacks became radios

at once, singing something that could never be english.

the first black to confess it was a radio

did so to account for the snow filling its voice.

the first black you heard was a radio

and did not speak english even if it did: radios cannot speak.

the first blacks to change radio's

meaning from love back to blood are still here

and want to fuck you. they are doing so on the radio

right now. you don't like it but go to sleep.

Tallahatchie Lullabye, Baby

cattail cast tattles Till tale,

lowing low along the hollow.

crickets chirrup and ribbits lick-up.

what's chucked the 'hatchie swallow.

skin scow skiffs upon pond scum skin

going slow along the hollow.

now may mayfly alight brown brow.

what's chucked the 'hatchie swallow.

maybe bye baby bye baby by and by—

lowing low along the hollow—

we will slip the knot not slip will we?

what's chucked the 'hatchie swallow.

who's a bruise to blue hue 'hatchie,

going slow along the hollow?

who's a bruise to whose hue, 'hatchie?

what's chucked the 'hatchie swallow.

Kodak flash tattles Till tale

going slow among the hollow.

who's a bruise to bruise hue?

swallow what the 'hatchie chucks.

—Emmett Till (1941–1955)