This interesting piece is brought to you by Writing Studies student Krisann Janowitz. Thanks, Krisann!
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
To learn more about Kevin Killian, visit his link on The Poetry Foundation’s website.