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So you want to be a poet?

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So you want to be a poet?

by Nina Gee, Reporter

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He brings his hands up in a wild gesticulation, arms spread wide like the wings of an eagle, then sweeps them down, sending a silent wave of charisma crashing across the room. Despite the grandiosity, no one in the room seems intimidated by the gesture. It’s a comfortable atmosphere; 12 college students sitting round a table in front of one projector-illuminated Douglas Kearney: husband, father, creative writer, professor, occasional R&B singer, but most importantly, poet. That’s what he’s here teaching, after all, and what’s brought him the most acclaim.

Kearney began his journey with poetry early in life, reading the works of a poet that many recognize even today.

“I felt like if you could just have a book full of poems, it was probably Shel Silverstein,” Kearney said. “Later on you learn that parts of the Bible are actually poems, and you know, I was always interested in mythology as a kid, so I’d read parts of the Iliad or Metamorphosis and then I later realized that those two were epic poems, but as a kid… I’d probably say Shel Silverstein [poetry].”

As a child, his interest in poetry came from many different places that, though seemingly unrelated at the time, had a significant impact on his pursuit of the craft.

“When I was a kid I think what I liked about poetry was the chime that comes with rhyming. Hearing that kind of play with language, with rhythmic and musicality and rhyme, was something that was really pleasurable to me––the way the patterns of those sounds kind of played themselves out.”

Kearney discovered his affinity for poetry in college, not only through the challenge and support of his writing community but also through taking a few wrong turns. Through a short story he wrote as a college student based off of Gwendolyn Brooks’ ‘We Real Cool,’ he discovered his affinity for sound over narrative.

“What I slowly came to recognize was that I was more interested in the sound than I was in the characters,” Kearney said. “For a while that just made me think ‘Ah, well, I just need to get better at writing short stories,’ but then I learned that poetry could just be a consideration of sound in a space. If a person sits and watches you play with words or language for thirty lines, there’s a different feeling than if you wrote novella or novel.”

Much of the inspiration for his poetry comes from an unlikely but entirely viable source; the rhythms and wordplay he incorporates into his craft is a product of his connection to mid-90s hip hop and rap, and the visual creativity of his poems comes from the textual imagery of comic books.

“One of the things that’s really important I think in emcee culture is mastery of language, virtuosity with language, but I like how so much of that mastery is hinged upon an idea of language being fungible, like double meaning, triple meaning, humor, pun,” Kearney said.

There was a divide between what people talked about as page versus stage. What if you could turn the page into a stage? I think most poems do that; you’re telling your reader something about how the poem breathes and how it lives, but I wanted to make that more overt, more performative, so that you’d look at it going ‘Woah! How am i supposed to read this?’”

— Douglas Kearney

The versatility of language that Kearney grew to love so much was not only present through the hip hop he grew up with but also through the everyday vernacular of his friends and family.

“One of the things I love about it is, that’s the way that my dad and my mom would talk in the house. That kind of plasticity of language, that kind of nimbleness of thought was something that like happens at my friend’s house when we were just talking, and not just my poet friends. That as a kind of artistry with language was just something that I admired.”

Despite many obstacles, Kearney always made sure that poetry was a part of his life.

“I would wake up at 7 so i could get to work. I would get home at 6. I would hang out with [my wife] till about ten. She’d go to sleep and then i would write till 2 in the morning. Then id do my day again. Because i was going to write. But I was also going to make sure that [my family was] able to be taken care of. Nobody could look at me and say that you weren’t taking care of your business because of poetry.”

Kearney’s unique style of poetry consists of oral performance, visual complexity, and sociocultural commentary. He combines spitfire polyvocal narratives with tapestries of typography, all while tackling issues such as what it’s like to grow up as a young, black man in modern America.

“There was a divide between what people talked about as page versus stage,” Kearney said. “What if you could turn the page into a stage? I think most poems do that; you’re telling your reader something about how the poem breathes and how it lives, but I wanted to make that more overt, more performative, so that you’d look at it going ‘Woah! How am i supposed to read this?’”

Kearney’s full length poetry anthologies include Buck Studies, Fear, Some, The Black Automaton and Patter. As a graphic designer, he not only creates the content of his books but also designs the covers.

Now, as a published poet, as well as a husband and a father, Kearney teaches poetry at California Institute of the Arts, where he earned his MFA. There he not only fosters his students’ love and understanding of the power of language, but also continues to pursue learning things himself, at time attending graphic arts classes to further his knowledge on the visualization of his text.

In his teachings, Kearney emphasizes the need for young writers to enjoy the process of writing rather than the finished product.

“You’ve gotta love writing,” Kearney said. “You can’t just love finishing a poem or publishing a poem, you actually have to love writing, and if you love writing, that actually can be more sustainable. But if you only love finishing a poem, that kinda narrows it, and if you only love publishing a poem, that can kind of narrow it too. . .

“What poetry allows us to do is to note the value of language. What we do with that knowledge of that value is going to be completely contingent on who we are, but I think that that’s what poetry offers us; it offers us a space to think that language is important.”

A shortened version of this piece was originally published in the pages of The Winged Post on March 6, 2018.

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So you want to be a poet?