Gender & Poetics: An Interview with Kevin Killian

This interesting piece is brought to you by Writing Studies student Krisann Janowitz. Thanks, Krisann!

Photo Credit: Brittany Humann

Photo Credit:
Brittany Humann

 

Kevin Killian Photo Courtesy of the Poetry Foundation

Kevin Killian
Photo Courtesy of
the Poetry Foundation

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last year, I attended a lecture at Temple University given by the San Francisco based artist Kevin Killian titled “Gender & Poetics.” Killian is widely known for his three novels, multiple short story collections, forty plays, and two collections of poetry, all primarily exploring LGBT issues. At the lecture, Killian presented his latest venture– “The Bulletin Board,” in which he took photographs of primarily partially naked men holding up a hand-drawn picture of male genitalia to their actual genitalia. He also read a few of his poems. After the lecture, he gave me his personal email and thus began the best email exchange I have ever experienced. Killian’s thoughts on gender identity and the art of writing poetry are utterly enthralling.

Krisann Janowitz: First, I’d like to say thank you for that very interesting lecture. I also really enjoy your poetry. I read quite a bit of it online. I find the unapologetic nature of your work enthralling.

My first question was how much do our genitals or gender have to do with our identity both as a person, and specifically as poets? Gender and also sexual orientation seem to play a big role in your work and I wonder if it plays the same role in everyone’s work. Are some people just ignorant of its influence whilst others (perceivably like yourself) are more aware and speak to it more often as a part of that awareness?

Kevin Killian: While maybe I’ve thought more about it after photographing so many guys (well, mostly guys) with their clothes off, and asking them about their feelings about their genitals, I expect almost everyone must realize to one degree or another that our gender assignment plays a huge role in our social development. If doctors and parents (you might say the “state” in general) see that I have a penis when I’m born, they set me on one track right away; if they see a vagina, I am raised and categorized in quite a different way.

KJ: To follow up, how does sexual orientation kind of mess with these “assignments?” Does the expanding understanding of sexual orientation, and even gender, actually challenge the black and white “categorizations” or do you think we will continue buying blue items and Tonka toys for boy baby showers forever?

KK: Yes, you are right, sexual orientation does mess around, as you put it, with gender assignment, leading all the way up to gender reassignment, actual corrective operations our great grandparents could never have dreamed of, and hormone infusions that induce in one the mindset of the gender one was meant to be. I was thinking that in the digital age, you have the age where sex partners don’t even have to meet each other so that I, for example, could pretend to be Rihanna, and vice versa, so that the actual status of our sex organs seems easily overcome, while they go sour on the vine from lack of use. Gender vestigial, and that’s why all those photos of the guys who have somehow lost track of where the drawing is in each photo, because it was no longer important to have it nearby, least of all as a tag to identity.

KJ: I also had a couple of questions about your poetry. Even with the poems you read at the event, pop culture seems to be a theme in your poems. Whether you are making references to famous actors and actresses or brands like “Oil of Olay” referenced in your poem “While you Were Out,” aspects of popular culture seem to appear often in your poems. My first question is if this is intentional and if so, why? Is it a statement on the prevalence and importance of popular culture? Or is that possibly an influence from Jack Spicer, who also seems to do this a bit in his poetry?

KK: It’s not a statement per se maybe, but think of the pop culture in my work as a sort of texture, or tone, rather than a theme. I have little to say about pop culture exactly; but I do know how it can flavor a poem and make it maybe not so assertive or didactic as other sorts of reference. Imagine if I quote from Britney Spears rather than, say, Aristotle. That will give the poem a more playful feel, won’t it?

KJ: At your lecture, you expressed that Jack Spicer is a major influence in your life. How, then, has your poetry been influenced by Jack Spicer?

KK: I have been working on Spicer for over 20 years so it wouldn’t be surprising if my poetry did take after his. I do believe that in general I don’t write my own poems; I try to make my brain empty, like a mayonnaise jar scraped clean of the last scoop of mayo, and trap the words that float into the jar, like fireflies, and the poem is the jar lit up by fireflies, but I don’t really know what they’re saying. That, Krisann, is my own version of the poetic mechanism Jack Spicer called “dictation.”

KJ: I read in a 2009 interview that you said “It doesn’t matter if the poem is good or bad. What matters is the gesture I’m making with it.” Many critics would disagree and say that of course poems can be good or bad, although they often don’t state the practicalities. So, what does it mean for a poem to make a “gesture” and how do you know what sort of gestures poems are making?

KK: Maybe I spoke too broadly or rather too narrowly, for I was thinking of the gestures one would make if one was Jackson Pollock—the sort of work art writers call “gestural”—that might be big jagged brushstrokes, or maybe Pollock’s drip, drip, drip style.

Think of a poem that replicates some big gestures, and what I meant was that the poem itself didn’t have to be well crafted, but if an idea or gesture was visible in it, then it has a sort of integrity of its own.

I guess I’m talking about conceptualist poetry. But my photo project will perhaps better underline what I mean. If my photos are technically good or bad they are carrying out an idea that I had that interests people, and thus they will be interested in it, maybe more so than a series of well executed pictures that have nothing to say or show, or nothing to challenge people with.

What is good and bad is subjective, but what is gestural, not so much. I wanted to be an artist, not a poet exactly, and what I mean was to make a poem the way an artist makes art.

Outside of that, I am from California, where we have a great interest in the contingent, more than in other parts of the country—we welcome accidents, we don’t mind when things go wrong, we make work that won’t last, that’s partial, that doesn’t aim for the perfection of New York City or Philadelphia. That has long been a hallmark of the California artist—in the 50s they called such work California funk-junk assemblage. Make it out of junk, make it out of wax paper, it will soon disintegrate but in the moment of making, my God, it was vital.

I know a lot of this must sound goofy, and trust me, not everyone agrees with me about this, but that’s what makes a ballgame.

KJ: Thank you very much for taking the time to answer all my questions. It has been a thrilling exchange.

Krisann Janowitz writes poetry and loves connecting with other poets. Feel free to email her at krisann.janowitz@gmail.com.

To learn more about Kevin Killian, visit his link on The Poetry Foundation’s website.

Ryan Halligan’s Parting Words for Writing Studies

Ryan Halligan is our next volunteer for the Parting Words questionnaire.

halligan

Ryan Halligan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Do you have any parting words or shout-outs to share with current students and faculty?

Thanks to the director, faculty, and administrative staff of the Writing Studies program—all of them top notch. Thank you as well to my classmates who dedicated thoughtful responses during workshops and raised the bar by sharing their fantastic writing.

A special thank you to Father Brennan for his guidance and valuable input as my thesis advisor.

Which Writing Studies course or course reading was most interesting or useful to you? Why?

Creative Nonfiction with Dr. Spinner and Poetry with Professor Stanford. Both were workshops, and both invaluable. The genres share a real kinship: writing as a journey to discovery.

How do you plan to use your Master’s Degree in your career?  

I plan to teach as an adjunct for a part-time second job. Coursework like The Writing Teacher Writing with Dr. Green has motivated me to consider teaching again. Also, I’m going to keep up my practice of writing and submit, submit, submit.

Do you have any tips for future students about choosing classes, juggling the workload, or writing a thesis?

If you work full time, go easy on yourself and maybe take one or two classes at a time. Working inside of your available time and space allows for getting the most out of the course. The program’s catalogue offers a good range, so choose the classes that suit your needs/tastes/career goals. Don’t forget to try something                   new, as well.

Thanks for your input, Ryan, and congratulations!

Parting Words by SJU Writer Don Philbrick

Don Philbrick (Nice beard)

Don Philbrick
(Nice beard)

Uglyville Cover

Don published Uglyville under the name Sawney Hatton.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Do you have any parting words or shout-outs to share with current students and faculty?

I didn’t know what to expect from a graduate writing program—besides the degree—but I can honestly say all my classes were engaging, enlightening, and enjoyable. This can be attributed to the outstanding professors in the program. Every one of them deserves commendation of the highest order.

I would like to spotlight a couple of folks: Tenaya Darlington, Graduate Director of Writing Studies and a damn fine professor, for all her guidance throughout my time in the program; and Dr. Paul Patterson, my thesis advisor, who helped me polish my novella UGLYVILLE into the shiny opus it is today. Both deserve extra credit for putting up with my nonsense. (As do all of my professors, come to think of it.)

Which Writing Studies course or course reading was most interesting or useful to you? Why?

The most invaluable part of my classes was the feedback from my instructors and peers, a talented bunch who really contributed to improving and encouraging my work. I hope I was able to return the favor in equal measure.

How do you plan to use your Master’s Degree in your career?

In addition to earning a living wage writing and editing, I would also love to teach. Pursuing my Master’s Degree has already opened more doors for me in all these arenas.

Do you have any tips for future students about choosing classes, juggling the workload, or writing a thesis?

Choose the classes that interest you. Don’t procrastinate about getting assignments done. Write the best thesis you can. Eliminate anybody who gets in your way.

Any advice about writing in general?

Pay attention. Pay attention to everything you read, everything you watch on TV and at the movies. Pay attention when you are strolling down the street, driving in traffic, or eating at a restaurant. The world—all the people, places, and things you encounter—is your source of information and inspiration. Greedily accept everything it has to offer.

Write. Write fearlessly. Write powerfully. Write diligently. Write.

Be your own cheerleader and champion. Successful writers put themselves out there. After you have your work thoroughly critiqued and edited, submit it to literary magazines, query agents and producers, self publish (gasp!) it. Whatever you have to do to get people to read your writing, do it. Do not be afraid to promote yourself. Do not be afraid of rejection. There are many great writers out there who are floundering in obscurity, and many not-so-great writers who have become popular and prosperous. The difference between a successful writer and an unsuccessful one often lies in how they sell themselves. Shine your light as far as you can cast it.

Thanks, Don.  Congrats on getting Uglyville published!

 

Parting Words by Don Corcoran

Corcoran Head shot

Don Corcoran

Parting Words about Writing Studies from Don Corcoran

1. Do you have any parting words or shout-outs to share with current students and faculty?

Embrace the practicality of the program and if you are getting a Master’s degree to further your career goals, constantly be working toward publishing. Use the expertise of your peers to broaden your writing horizons. There is a lot of talent and passion here. Don’t waste the opportunity.

2. Which Writing Studies course or course reading was most interesting or useful to you? Why?

I am a huge fan of the group workshops. When you have 10 other people reading your writing you get a great deal of valuable feedback. Whether it be poetry, fiction, or literature, revision is the life of writing. This is where we hone our craft. If there is a significant workshopping element, you can be certain you will walk away with something you are proud of.

3. How do you plan to use your Master’s Degree in your career?

This is the bridge to my doctorate degree. I wanted to take something that allowed me to write and develop my platform. I don’t think there is a single class that didn’t inform my thesis. Plus, I can supplement my income with part-time teaching.

4. Do you have any tips for future students about choosing classes, juggling the workload, or writing a thesis?

The first draft is a small part of the final thesis. Don’t sweat the initial writing. Just write it. Sit down. Come to it with a plan. Bang it out. Revise. Use the information you’ve gathered from your classwork. Ask others to help read it. But get it done to leave time to have a polished product.

Great advice.  Thanks, Don!

 

 

Parting Words – SJU Writing Studies Student Ryan Latini

Latini Headshot

Ryan Latini

 

 

In our new “Parting Words” column, we ask recent and emerging graduates to share a few words about their experience in the Writing Studies program at Saint Joseph’s University.

 

 

 

 

 

Do you have any parting words or shout-outs to share with current students and faculty?

The late Francis F. Burch, S.J. was my friend, mentor, and invigorated in me a sense that even if everything has been done already, written already, it is my job to get out there and do it better—write it better. This was all during my undergrad at SJU. He wrote one of my letters of recommendation to the writing program after I met with him at end of 2011 or early 2012 for our last dinner together at the Jesuit Residence. He would tell me stories, and who knows if they were true, but we deal in fiction, and I feel I inherited from the man a tradition of storytelling.

My ever-patient thesis advisor Tom Coyne for not holding any punches in his insistence on rewriting and rewriting again, and his respect of writing as a craft—showing me how to couple impulse and craftsmanship.

Dr. Jo Alyson Parker for putting together probably the most interesting reading lists I’ve encountered. If you want to explore the dynamic forces behind narrative and the fictive dream, then she should be your go-to. Our exploration of temporal elements in her course inspired the structure of my thesis.

Dr. Jason Mezey and Joe Samuel Starnes for their kindness to me over the years.

Which Writing Studies course or course reading was most interesting or useful to you? Why?

Martin Amis’ Time’s Arrow and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. I read both in Dr. Parker’s class: “Experiments in Narrative: Narrative and Time.” Amis’ novel turns chronology on its head, but at the same time, a simple narrative twist in temporality can turn good and evil on their heads as well. The book gave me chills. Mitchell’s novel stuck with me because—aside from being a pleasure to read—it created a world so vast in space and time, the likes of which I don’t think have been seen since Tolkien. It was inspiring.

How do you plan to use your Master’s Degree in your career?

I’d like to throw my hat in the adjunct professor ring. Once I complete my course work, I’m going to pursue freelance gigs in my free time.

Do you have any tips for future students about choosing classes, juggling the workload, or writing a thesis?

Cancel your cable. Delete your Facebook account. Do the work. Do all of it. Then do it over. There is time enough, and if you want to write, you will make the time. Read as if your life depended on it—your life might not depend on it, but the quality of your writing does. Steal style, follow the steps of the greats, and then, when your legs are strong enough, take off on your own path. Listen to the men and women teaching the classes, because if you (or I) truly knew what we were doing, then we would do it at home and save a buck. It’s a favor to yourself to leave your ego at the door.

Thanks for contributing, Ryan!