Monday, August 3, 2015

book interview: badass by les kay

I’m curious: what’s your elevator pitch for your book?

Badass is a hybrid long poem set, primarily, in Dallas, Texas one Fourth of July near the turn of the last century. The poem, which uses both lyric and narrative modes, follows a group of working class white men from the suburbs, who are not yet old enough to drink legally but bristle—already—with machismo, as they wander the city’s arts and club district after having missed the holiday’s “official” fireworks. As the narrative unfolds, sometimes as a rewriting of the Gospels, the poem flashes forward and interrogates the story itself as well as the conditions that lead to such stories. It is, in short, a poem about the intersections of youth, whiteness, maleness, and class in America.       

How did you come upon the subject of your book?

The subject matter is semi-autobiographical, emphasis on the “semi.” As with a horror film, I’d urge readers to be deeply suspicious of this “based on a true story” claim. It’s only “true” in the sense of Aristotelian invention.

Basically, one Fourth of July well before I was 21, I did go out with a number of friends. Some people were carrying guns. We did have a half-keg in the back of a small truck that would get towed, and we did miss the fireworks and wander around Deep Ellum because it was “something to do.”

For a long time, that was just a story I told at parties. It was, I suppose, one of those cautionary tales about the stupid things many of us do when we’re young and think ourselves, as the cliché goes, invincible. And in a lot of ways, it was one of the more “filmic” episodes in my life, so I thought it made for fun, if somewhat frightening, conversation. 

Then a few years ago, I discovered that one of those friends became a Naval SEAL who had served, I believe, in Afghanistan. That knowledge, gleaned second hand, made me rethink that story I’d told so many times as a joke, and more, it made me rethink my own story of how I grew up and helped me to continue reframing that story. Maybe there was more to the story than the laugh lines and the then unspoken, but now quite apparent, refusal of who I had been.

In telling that story the way I did, there was always this sense of “but look at me now, so level-headed and mature” with no acknowledgement of just how we became fucked up enough to risk everything again and again. Or how lucky we were that nothing truly horrible happened—that night.       

When I made that discovery, I was a first-year PhD student at the University of Cincinnati. In my third quarter, I took a poetry workshop with Alice Fulton, who was visiting the university. As part of another class, we read her Cascade Experiment: Selected Poems, and I dove more deeply into her notions of “fractal poetry” through her remarkable collection of essays, Feeling as a Foreign Language: The Good Strangeness of Poetry. I also interviewed her for the journal Memorious, so naturally I spent a massive amount of time familiarizing myself with her work and her thinking. Her ideas about using the page as a canvas, as Mallarmé had, as well as her ideas about how different registers of speech could be juxtaposed for poetic effect, helped me find the techniques to re-imagine and re-tell the story that’s now Badass.  

And the title? Sometimes, it seems to me, titles can strike like lightning or can be extraordinarily elusive. How did you go about finding your title?

Like many poets, I often struggle mightily with titles. I’m far more likely to have to try a title on a collection, let it sit for a long while, and then decide that title is absolutely awful. I was very lucky with this one and only went through three titles. The working title was “After School Special,” which I still think is relatively apt and funny, but tonally all wrong. When I began taking the poem seriously, as more than a way for me to experiment outside of the kind of work I normally do, I changed the title to “After School Special: Badass” but started referring to it simply as “Badass” when talking about the poem with my wife, Michelle, or my friend, T.A. Noonan, who are the only people who saw the poem before it was sent out. Then, as I was editing the poem to send it to Lucky Bastard Press, the “bolt” came: just cut the working title.   

Now, I think the title does everything it needs to do. It succinctly evokes that landscape of gendered youth where one does everything possible to give the appearance of toughness and avoid vulnerability, but that title still feels, at least to me, indeterminate and transgressive because who really takes such a term seriously?

Tell us something about the most difficult thing you encountered in this book’s journey.

Given today’s poetry publishing landscape, you might think that finding a publisher and all the almost invisible revisions that go into that process would be the most difficult thing in the book’s journey. But I was extremely lucky in that regard. I sent the poem to Lucky Bastard Press, and they accepted it.

In this case, the most difficult thing was simply learning to trust the poem and the process that led to the poem. As I suggested earlier, the poem really started out as something of an experiment. I wrote the first draft in 2010 while I was finishing my first year of coursework for my PhD. I revised it ever so lightly, and then set the poem aside, so I could carry on with other projects that were more squarely within my “comfort zone” as a poet and more likely to garner the approval of peers and professors. Even though themes of history, violence, and class occur frequently in my work, the poem still felt like an exercise, as though I was imitating an experimental poet. I carried that impression for years, like a rare strain of imposter syndrome, and didn’t return to the poem until after I’d completed my PhD.  

In retrospect, this is despite the fact that I’d been fascinated for years by verse/prose hybrids across the centuries like Basho’s haibun, The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, The Satyricon by Petronius as well as more recent long hybrid works like Ray Gonzalez’s Turtle Pictures and, of course, Gloria Anzaldúa’s brilliant Borderlands/La Frontera.

So in the summer of 2014, after I’d taken my PhD and was once again writing solely on my own terms, I reread the poem. Having mostly forgotten it by that point, I was stunned by how much it moved me, as a reader. It didn’t feel like any more of a performance than any other poem; rather, it spoke to those performances we make of ourselves, and importantly, to the silences that surround such performances. That’s when I returned to the poem, editing it, attempting to focus on the silences, to extend those silences, and to tighten the language and the way a number of linguistic registers might be juxtaposed. I also mocked up the poem into book-like pages, so I could better see the text as a spatial composition using the entire page. That’s when the poem started to feel like worthwhile, not just an exercise.

Because I tend to think of myself as someone who writes with a relatively conservative aesthetic that’s deeply informed by “tradition,” simply giving myself permission to write Badass the way that it needed to be written and to trust my instincts, my ear, and all the “non-canonical” traditions that matter to me was one of the hardest things I’ve done as a poet. And I think that difficulty helped the poem. 

And the most pleasurable?

The most fun I had was during that initial drafting phase when I thought, “hey, why not?” The poem felt very transgressive, and I kept making the narrative more transgressive by grafting one narrative on top of another on top of another until the speaker took a position not unlike Judas or John in relation to Christ. I liked the audacity of such comparisons, of the technique, and of slang brushing up against theory. It felt, for a while anyhow, like another poet writing this thing. I suspect that kind of alienation from myself, from the original story, and even from the version of myself that I initially imagined as the speaker was vital for the poem to work. Because in many ways it is a poem of alienation. Alienation through labor, through ideology, through education, through war.

But the thing is that those unfamiliar techniques, those different modes, and the sheer audacity of the poem helped me feel freer as a writer. They let me say “why the fuck not?” and actually get at ideas and feelings I’d tried for years to convey but hadn’t managed.

What’s the best and / or worst piece of advice (writing or publishing or similar) you’ve gotten?

When I was in the MFA program at the University of Miami, I had to take an incomplete in a course during my first semester (which was completed by my second semester). I had gone into the MFA straight out of undergraduate and was struggling to adapt to graduate school. I hadn’t yet figured out that feeling as if you belong is often as simple as wanting to belong enough to do the work to the very best of your ability.

So, just after the first semester, I had a meeting with John Balaban, and he told me this anecdote. An American poet (I’ve forgotten his name and apologize for this) was working on translating the sonnets of Jorge Luis Borges. The translator met with Borges and showed him a few drafts of his translations. Borges skimmed one or two then handed them back.

“These don’t rhyme,” he said.
The translator hemmed and hawed and then explained, “You see in English, there aren’t as many rhymes as in Spanish. They tend to sound artificial and funny to an American ear.”
“Try harder,” Borges said. “Try harder.”

I don’t know where John heard that story, but it has stuck with me for years. We have to try harder with our work. That, to me, is so much of what poetry is and means. It’s a collective way for us to try harder. 

Tell us one of your favorite books you’ve discovered recently and say a little about why.

Ruth Foley’s Creature Feature is a really remarkable little book. I was lucky enough to blurb it, so I saw the chapbook before it came out this summer from ELJ publications. It’s a fascinating collection that uses classic monster movies, like Frankenstein and Dracula, to examine—in deft and subtle ways—our cultural ideas of monstrosity and beauty. I really can’t recommend the book highly enough. It’s delightful and savagely smart. 

Can you share an excerpt from your book? Give us a taste.

Here are pages 20-21 of the poem. You can see both prose and verse in play and notice one of the (many) changes in register:

Hush, hush.
                                                            Shhhh . . . 

Teach me the language of stealth

The sea snake strikes

Of serrated blade, filmic violence, 

Tell me how it differs from TV,

To feel vertebrae crack 

In your palms—

To feel Life, pulsing in your palms

As Necessity—cold, silence

Pops open into possible

Capture, your own End

Staring—blackened eyes,

Dripping seawater. Teach me,

My friend, your silent trade. 

Hush, hush. 


[By pre-established logic, we should build a passion. Here, a platter. There, thorns. An inversion. A tilted simulacra of the original. Good news stalling in parched throats. Stigmata, looped again and again like the final scene of a snuff film. Broken lives transcribed, refigured—a sort of plastic surgery on the face of history, the rhinoplasty and tummy tucks of the soon to one day be sainted. Tsk-tsk. St. Fuck Up, St. Outcast, St. Believe You Me & the outpouring of one day, the dissemination—whispers, letters, faxes, emails. Until their small bodies are as forgotten as what they said, until their small bodies, broken like a baby possum’s back in the jowls of a hound, broken like a promise never promised, broken like earth. And upon that day, that one day of which we dream, families will drop their spades and halt their threshers, come in from the fields to feast, meager. And families will bless their hollowed names, attempting with a frequency approximating never to live lives of fastidious purpose. Only later, much later, will it be revealed that there was no purpose to their spurious wandering. Only later, much later, will it be revealed that there is nothing to reveal. Bodies of bone, bodies of blood—absence and aporia—they will have become (as we are becoming) the space in which we etch our fictions, the catch in a throat.] 

What’s a question you wish I asked? (And how would you answer it?)

I’m not sure there is one, but I was surprised you didn’t ask about influences, so I’ll answer that question. 

In Badass, it’s difficult for me to trace the influences other than those already mentioned and the obvious presence of the Bible as literature. While I suspect some brave reader out there will notice the nod to Emily Dickenson in a few of the lines quoted above or be able to spot tones or strategies from New York School poets—who are incredibly important to the whole of my work—I struggle to see more than a handful of direct influences on the text. 

I do think, however, a number of poets of the working class, like Jim Daniels, Sean Thomas Dougherty, Phil Levine, and even Carl Sandburg had a profound impact on me as both a poet and reader. There’s probably a hat tip to one or more of them in the book, but more than any direct textual influence, those poets made me think it was possible to write such a story and for it to be taken seriously as poetry.

In terms of Badass, specifically, in addition to Alice Fulton, whom I’ve already mentioned, a number of aesthetically more radical poets were on my nightstand as I thought about how to make this poem work. Foremost among those is Lyn Hejinian. I hope there’s at least a touch of her disruptive lyricism and sense of play evident in Badass.

Finally, I really adore Arda Collins’s first book It Is Daylight. In that book she uses double-spaced lines again and again to suggest a kind of endless hesitation. I liked the look and feel of those lines and the way those double spaces suggested silence seeping through what was said. I definitely attempted, in a number of ways, to make silence speak in Badass, and that marvelous book helped me do it. 

OK, we’re smitten. Where do we go to buy your book?

Badass is available for pre-order from Lucky Bastard Press. It’s only $7.95 plus $3.50 for shipping. Check out their website at

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