Poet on Poet Interview: Erin Keane and (yours truly) Brandon Stettenbenz

[For this one-time interview, I bow to the superior journalist skills of Ms. Keane. At her suggestion, we will take turns answering questions about ourselves and our writing. Presenting, the KLL poet-on-poet one-shot!]

Erin Keane is the author of three books, Death Defying Acts (2010), and The Gravity Soundtrack (2007) both on Word Farm and the chapbook One Hit Wonders (2006) put out by Snark Publishing. Ms. Keane is a graduate of the Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts, Bellarmine University and Spalding University’s low-residency MFA program. She currently covers the arts for 89.3 WFPL, and has been an active contributor to and supporter of Louisville’s local literary community for many years, including a stint as director of the InKY Reading Series. You can find links to her poetry books and journalism at her home page.

Brandon Stettenbenz (“Keep Louisville Literary” author incognito) is a graduate of Indiana University Southeast. His poems are published or are forthcoming in Straylight magazine, GlassFire, and Crack The Spine. Brandon has also published reviews and news stories in L.E.O. weekly and The Louisville Paper. He lives in the Highlands of Louisville with his partner Ariel Fischer and daylights as a Barista. He is currently applying for entry into several competitive Creative Writing MFAs and submitting his tentatively finished chapbook manuscript to potential publishers.

 

Brandon. Q: Your education and experience is well-rooted here in Louisville and the Bluegrass Region. Could you elaborate on your past experiences with Bellarmine, Spalding, Velocity, and the Louisville arts community in general? With three books and an ongoing career in journalism relating to the arts, I assume you’ve found great support and opportunities here locally.

Erin. A: I have found great support for my writing here in Louisville. The Spalding MFA program was such an important apprenticeship for me, and the lessons I learned about work ethic and the importance of grindstone over genius go to work with me every day. After I graduated, I started a personal blog to keep myself writing without the pressure of publication, which led to a gig blogging for Velocity, which led to reviewing plays for LEO, which led to a full-time arts writing job at Velocity and The Courier-Journal, where my editors were extremely supportive of my literary career. Heck, my boss ran a literary journal and small press (Five Chapters) himself. Budget cuts, lay-offs, blah blah, back to freelancing, until I was hired by Louisville Public Media back in the spring. Now I’m a full-time arts and humanities reporter for public radio and I couldn’t be happier. I’m working for an organization that’s growing and that shares my values and coverage interests, and I’m lucky to feel a great deal of support for my work from Louisville’s arts community.

The thing about Louisville that I’ve always found amazing is how willing folks are to give a new event or a new publication a chance. You don’t have to spend a lot of time defending why you’re creating a new reading series, or a new magazine, or putting out a book, and why it’s cool enough for the “right” people to care about. We’re a fairly enthusiastic community, I think, with a natural curiosity about new projects. That welcoming atmosphere can be really freeing for an artist, too. In my less confident moments, I don’t have to worry about whether I’m creating something that fits into the scene, right? That leaves my less confident moments focused on myself—what I want out of my writing, what I need to create at this moment. The best way I’ve found to handle those episodes at this point in my career is to take a long drive or a long walk—depending on the severity of the crisis—alone, to free up my mind to wander without any distraction. Discernment takes time and space and a busy working and creating life doesn’t always allow for that to happen naturally, so I’ve learned to create time and space when I need it.

Erin. Q: So that leads me to my question for you, Brandon. As a writer, how do you handle your less-confident moments?

Brandon. A: As far as creative process & confidence, I try to write whenever I get an idea and to remain as non-committal about a poem as humanly possible until I’ve had time for multiple revisions. My natural self-criticism can be overwhelming at times, but I don’t toss anything until I’ve worked it over, sometimes for weeks. This can go the other way. At times, I torment myself over pieces that just don’t work.

Quiet-space and free-time have been in short supply for me since I started writing, so it’s hard for me to find the breathing room that can be necessary for writing. I’m naturally an active person, and when I start reading a story I have to finish it. Instead of resisting my nature, I’ll often bury myself in other people’s poetry. To prevent an assumption of another writer’s voice during these reading stints I make sure to diversify what I’m reading at any given time; I generally try to keep 2-3 poetry collections or journals with me. So, for me, its finding the right types and amount of creative ballast to keep my own writing afloat. Reading poetry during open-mic segments helps. Trying to have new, strong poems every few weeks to perform keeps me from slumping too much.

Brandon Stettenbenz. Q: As a reporter on the arts and culture in our fair city, you are able to continue endorsing the arts and helping our community to grow and thrive. Please tell us about your segment/column. Who are some performers you’ve been excited about covering lately?

Erin Keane. A: I report on the city’s arts and humanities news for our daily newscast, (89.3 FM) and I also write reviews and blog posts for our website, WFPL.org. I am a theater geek at heart, and Louisville is a great city for a theater writer. Actors Theatre of Louisville is exciting to watch right now because they have a new artistic director who’s also an amazing director himself, and so things feel very energized over there, and because I don’t know all his moves yet, he’s so new, it feels like anything could happen. That’s fun for a reporter, when you can’t guess what will happen next. Smaller companies like Theatre [502], Savage Rose and Le Petomane Theatre Ensemble also do so much amazing work with not a lot of money or time. On Monday, I’m interviewing two writers—Jason Howard and Justin Torres—about their recent books, and that means it’s going to be a fun day at work.

Erin. Q: So you’ve become a player on the arts coverage scene as well, with the new Keep Louisville Literary online initiative. What made you decide to start this project? Have you learned anything about Louisville’s literary landscape that surprises you?

Brandon. A: The KLL blog is a community building concept that has been in the back of my mind for the better part of a year. The true story of why I finally pulled the trigger on it actually relates to WFPL. They had a job opening posted online for a “Web Content Editor”, or something along those lines, and although I had some editing experience and my B.A., they also required someone who could manage their social media. I realized I knew nothing of the way social media has evolved since Facebook. Avoiding excessive social media was one way I sheltered myself while zealously pursuing my undergrad. I decided then that I needed to add social media to my resume.

Another major part of the project was a realization that the few people I had met while attending InKY and other literary events over the past few years didn’t know each other very well. For example, being an IU Southeast student, I knew only one or two UofL students or grads. I attended events when I could and noticed that those who attended InKY often wouldn’t be in attendance for Sarabande Books’ reading series at 21c. As I met more people, diagrams of various groups took root in my mind, and I saw a lack of bridges between them. Everyone is very busy; I understand this whole-heartedly. While pursuing my undergrad, I worked five days a week and took five days of classes for two years straight; I only had days off in December. So perhaps no one can attend every event, but there’s no reason in our internet-age that they can’t at least have the opportunity and the motivation. Doing interviews, sharing event invites, and linking poems/stories/essays by featured readers on the blog and across social media means that most if not all of our literary community can be interested and informed across the board.

The surprising thing has been a phenomenal amount of support from everyone in our community right out of the gate. I didn’t have to convince anyone about my motivations, conviction, or sincerity, and I haven’t encountered any elitism. From the self-taught to the academics, from the up-and-coming to the well-established (none of those categories are exclusive by the way) Louisville is teeming with kind, enthusiastic, talented writers who are eager to share their work, their experience, and the spotlight. At this-year’s Writer’s Block festival, guests from near and far all had the same sentiment “you have an incredible literary scene here in Louisville!” Even more recently I’ve heard some locals saying things like “our literary community is booming” or “we’re on the verge becoming a recognized as a great place for writers and literature”. Going into this project, I hadn’t realized the extent of our community’s recent growth (thanks to Sarabande, UofL, LLA, Typecast, Stone Soup and new players like Speak Social and Subterranean Phrases) and soaring potential. I’m ecstatic to be a writer in Louisville right now!

Brandon. Q: Considering your first two books, one would assume your muse lives in the electric air of a packed night club and within the tormented lyrics and wild riffs of rock n’ roll. What transition occurred that drew you away from these inspirations and toward writing persona poems like those in Death Defying Acts

Erin. A: I do love music. I grew up in a house filled with rock and roll and my first rebellions were musical (hip hop, indie rock, things my mom didn’t care about). But music runs throughout Death-Defying Acts, too—I wrote a Book Notes (http://www.largeheartedboy.com/blog/archive/2010/07/book_notes_erin.html) about the different playlists I created for each character. But what I really love are subcultures, the rules and norms that a community creates and what happens when you push against them. So much interesting human material comes out of that question.

Erin. Q: What about the world around us inspires your work?

Brandon. A: Man’s indomitable will to survive. My work often goes through dark places, which I believe to be natural since we live in dark times, but I like to think that the light cast by humanity’s intrinsic fire shines through that darkness. When I’m writing about the way late-capitalism has ravaged a character, I’m also insinuating what they have lost and just as importantly, what has endured. It’s the same beautiful struggle humanity has always been fighting and losing, and also winning since our origins. The same struggle that religion is founded on, that love facilitates and sometimes conquers. We see this perseverance every day of our lives.

In more specific terms, I’m inspired by the stories of other people’s lives and of course my own. Whether told first-hand, read, or re-told, our stories reflect our will to endure. Life is a beautiful struggle, and that to me is inspiring. All artistic mediums are an attempt to relate this story, at least I believe that sincere artists attempt it, and I am influenced by those storytellers.

Brandon. Q: Death Defying Acts is written from the perspective of several carnival performers, each with their own dark secrets, tormented perspective, and sordid history. Each character is not only believable in their profession, but also complex and emotionally compelling. When and how did the inspiration for this book strike you? Could you tell us a bit about your process when researching and writing this particular collection?

Erin. A: I started writing persona poems in grad school, and my first collection is full of them. At the time, persona poems felt to me like the perfect intersection of story and character, and I loved the freedom of exploring someone else’s motivations and desires. I wrote the first poem for Death-Defying Acts as a one-off about a tattooed lady, and the next time I tried to write a poem, I ended up back in her voice. I went with it, figuring that I’d write a series in her voice, but when I started imagining her world, the voices of her co-workers started butting in, and from there it kind of bloomed into a bigger narrative. On some level, each of those four characters is a part of me, but I did do research to get the details right. I read a very instructive book on big cat taming, and I read lots on clowns and aerial training, and watched circus films like “The Greatest Show on Earth” to immerse myself in the world. I went to the circus. I drank bourbon with dissolute men. I got another tattoo.

Erin. Q: Do you research for your poems? What are you working on now?

Brandon. A: I have, in the past, absolutely buried myself in research projects of all kinds for college. But I’m bad about researching for inspiration or to seek a cohesive direction. Sometimes I think I should assume a more scholarly approach with writing, but I tend to get ideas and run with them. This hasn’t quite yielded a coherent manuscript, so far, though I’ve put together a collection that holds thematically with struggle and survival in the face of a corporate world. Much of it is, perhaps unfortunately, my own history and experience, though there are other characters. Since there’s not quite a narrative, some poems being unrelated aside from theme, I decided to make it conceptual, to embrace the chaos of my rapidly evolving, novice poetic. The collection, titled “Lineating the Cranium”, divides and categorizes said group of poems based on terms coined in the twentieth-century pseudo-science phrenology. Many of us have seen their drawings of human skulls cross-sectioned by dashed lines, even if we know little about the actual practice. Pherenologists thought that personality and behavior could be explained by physically mapping the skull, and that the size of a single area correlated to certain behavioral traits. Interestingly enough, four of the main categorizes that I used are attributed to humans and animals. The latter two, firmness and veneration, were only applied to humans. The manuscript is short and the table of contents resembles something like a textbook. I suppose the concept is an observation of the modern man’s struggle through a clinical lens. Without discounting religion or philosophy, perhaps in response to both, the collection approaches our struggle cerebrally. Whether successful or not, I can’t say, but that’s the attempt. As for my newest work, I have no clear focus, but I’m writing almost everyday.

Brandon. Q: Aside from the inspiration of experience, who are some particular authors that inspire your poetic? In what ways do they inspire you?

Erin. A : I have stolen more moves than I care to confess from Molly Peacock, Richard Cecil, Anne Sexton, Alan Michael Parker and Kim Addonizio, though I always hope that by the time I run those moves through my little sausage factory they come out assimilated into my own peculiar mess. When I’ve overspent my allowance, I go back to Eliot and Yeats. But I can’t really point to how they’ve inspired me, except to say that it’s all part of what grinds and churns up in the factory, which also includes the visual poetry of Woody Allen’s Manhattan, Bill Murray’s sense of timing, the use of image in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, Michael Stipe’s deep image lyric, and Wes Anderson’s world-building. What I’m reading right now: Jason Howard’s A Few Honest Words: The Kentucky Roots of Popular Music, Traci Brimhall’s The Rookery, and Kelly Link’s Pretty Monsters.

Erin. Q: Who are you reading these days? Who’s really blowing the top of your head off?

Brandon. A: Timothy Donnely, Paul Guest, and Dean Young all blew me away with their last collections. M. Bartley Siegel whose book “This is What They Say” was put out this year by Typecast Publishing here in Louisville. That’s a great book, and his reading from it after Writer’s Block shook me up. He’s writing about the demise of the rust-belt and the closing of all those auto factories over the last roughly twenty years; gut-wrenching, true Americana.

I’ve also been reading more and more journals, many online, and there are literally hundreds of good writers who don’t yet have books or whose books I haven’t been able to read yet. I’m talking about journals like Diagram, Octopus, Transom, diode, Night Train, Pleiades (UCMO), Blackbird (VCU), Devil’s Lake (Wisc), Tin house, and many others. I could open up my bookmarks and drop the names of at least fifteen people I know almost nothing about whose poems I’ve read online over and over. A few: Sally Wen Mao, Rachel Marston, and J.P Dancing Bear. We also have many local writers who continue to innovate and surprise; I won’t name them because I’d feel awful to leave anyone out, but I will say that anyone reading this should go to a live reading and see for themselves. I think anyone could pick a Louisville or Lexington reading at random and be guaranteed at least one inspiring poet or poem, despite the obvious subjection of individual taste. Our regional literary community is growing exponentially every year.

Though the saturation is hard to filter and ultimately I can’t read even a fraction of what’s out there, I think this is an amazing age for poetry and writing in general. A writer may think that there’s too much competition and no opportunity, as I have lamented fleetingly in the past, but the truth is that there are many active writers starting new journals almost everyday. The tragedy, Twilight Zone style, is that we will never have enough time in our busy lives to read all of it.

Erin Keane and Brandon Stettenbenz will both read Oct. 28th at 5:30pm for the Stone Soup Series at The Bards Town (1801 Bardstown Rd.) with Ken Parks and Tish Moscow. Arrive early if you want to sign up for the open-mic; spaces are limited.

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