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Where are you now?

In my apartment in New York City. Eating mac n’ cheese. I just got back from having a few beers with an old friend, TJ.

 

Boring. What did you two talk about?

Well, he’s a math teacher in the city. He told me about the difference between binary and ternary systems. You know, like two options versus three options. I didn’t know about ternary systems.

 

Interesting, maybe. Really, I don’t care that much. How does that relate to your writing?

Ugh well I don’t know. I still find it crazy that most things can operate with a binary system. Like, where is the room for the gray area? Even a ternary system seems overtly simplistic. I think a lot about nuance, the idea that an infinite set of solutions and problems can exist at the same time. That we can spend an infinity trying to understand and that maybe such a time spent is worthwhile.

 

Well aren’t there such things as irrational numbers?

Yes! I learned this tonight. We know a few of them. Like pi, I think. And the number e. Whatever the fuck that is. But my friend told me there’s an infinite amount of irrational numbers – numbers that don’t repeat or ever end – between any two numbers. Such is life, I think. I think we are each irrational numbers. We never exist again. We never end. We are forever, I know, misunderstood.

 

You’ve got a book coming out, yeah?

Yeah, you fuck.

 

Hey, chill out! What’s it about?

Sorry. It’s called Blood on Blood. It’s a poetic take on Bruce Springsteen’s album Nebraska.

 

Bruce Springsteen? That old dude who sings about problems that don’t exist anymore? Why should I care? What’s so special about this album?

Woah, you chill. I get that, though. There’s a conception about Bruce now that he’s older and not making the same music he was making decades ago. But Nebraska, sheesh. Where do I start? I don’t know. Imagine one of the country’s most burgeoning music stars recording a bunch of songs on a cassette player when he had a whole studio at his disposal, and then releasing them, basically, as is? People have called it one of the strangest, most challenging albums ever released by someone on a major record label, because it defied all notions of money and production value. And then consider that the songs dealt with the everyday, the mundane, not even the down-and-out as a cliché, but the subversion of the cliché, that maybe life isn’t a long road with a white light at the end, that maybe life is just the long road, another night, another dawn. It was a risky move by someone who would go on to become an icon. I like risky moves. I love them.

 

It also sounds like a maybe-dumb move.

Well, sure. I buy that. There’s a part to me that says you had all this at your disposal, and you did what? It’s like, who are you to take what you have for granted? But as a listener and reader, I’ve always been drawn to woundedness, vulnerability. That’s what Nebraska is about, what I wanted to try to build upon, capture. Bruce’s voice on Nebraska is in its rawest form – it cracks, yelps, shrieks. It’s at once jarring and relatable. And I think this is something that’s coming into the fold again. I think of Kanye releasing an album this year that he was still tinkering with even after its release. Or Frank Ocean dropping two albums instead of one, with tracks like “Nikes” released in two different forms. Say what you will about quality or whatever, but I’m a fan of this, though I know it alienates. Because at the same time, I think of that documentary about Muscle Shoals, and how there’s this scene with Aretha Franklin, and they’re talking about all of her labor to get that one perfect take. And I don’t know if I believe in perfection, though if I did, it might be Aretha’s voice. But anyway, the beauty there is, for me at least, less in the outcome (that perfect take) and more in her trying. I am made more whole by her trying. I know I’m rambling here, but –

 

Well, you’re talking to yourself.

Yeah, yeah, I know. But it does say something about womanhood in our culture that, in the same year that Frank Ocean and Kanye and even Bon Iver release albums that display their trying for all to see, both Beyoncé and Solange release near-flawless albums, in terms of production value and music quality and like, everything. Men have had so many years of fame, and now they’re pushing back against it, and they’re calling that pushing-back a form of art. Women, on the other hand, still face ridicule at the top. I want to live in a world where Beyoncé can put out her rough drafts and we can call it the best album of the year. Because when we are exposed to each other’s trying, to the wounded cracks of voice that come when something just isn’t coming out right, I know we are better for it. Perfection is so inaccessible. It’s the process of trying to reach perfection that makes art resonate, I think. That’s why I love books like Barthes’ Mourning Diary. It’s written from a place having so little to do with publishing that it skips, hops, and jumps over that, and becomes its own self.

 

Okay, I get it. Tell me more about Bruce, then.

I grew up with Bruce. I grew up with a dad who went on a lot of long drives and only knew how to find the oldies station on the radio. So my childhood was Bruce and Willie Nelson and The Band and a lot of what those people pointed me towards – anyone from the Rolling Stones to Mavis Staples, Muddy Waters to Joni Mitchell. A lot of these artists taught me the importance of recurrence – that art can be something you keep coming back to without even making the decision. Every time I make eggs, I hum Joni Mitchell’s “Coyote” to myself – “staring a hole in his scrambled eggs.” For some reason I can sing all the backup parts to Gladys Knight’s “Midnight Train to Georgia.” And when Mavis Staples sings “The Weight” with The Band, wow. Show me something richer. Show me something so rooted.

 

You have a poem in the collection called “Watching Your Father Drive,” where you write “Please, never / grow tired of traveling. Time is better spent / narrowing the space between what you love / & where you are.” Talk to me, talk to me about this.

Thanks for reading the book!

 

I wrote the book.

I know, I know. But it’s funny. That poem is very elegiac, and, in that sense, almost archaic. But the older I get, the more I view those so-often-dismissed broad words (like love, like empathy, like kindness) as solutions. Like, fuck. Love is a solution. It’s also a choice, which I think people often forget. Everyday you have to wake up and be like “how can I love better?” At least if loving is on your agenda. But you have to do that! You have to wake up and make the choice to love. Because it’s hard. And I know that’s simple. I know it sounds self-help-like. But too often I think that we think the things that are right will put our minds at ease, but often they don’t. Often when you’re doing the right thing, it’s uncomfortable. Stagnation doesn’t happen without a human choice to be stagnant. That’s the thing. That’s what I was trying to get at with those lines. Failure, for love’s sake, is beautiful. Failure as a result of anything else is worthless.

 

Okay, I get it. Love and love and love. You seem too scared to dwell in the present, like you live in the past. How does this affect your poetry?

I tell a lot of stories in my poems. I’ve always enjoyed poetry as a genre because I feel like it’s generous – it makes room for everyone’s honesty. Terrance Hayes has a line in his poem “Arbor for Butch” where he writes “Certain arrangements must be made / if you want access to the past.” We’re liminal beings, suspended always between the vast ocean of what’s behind us and the vast or not-so-vast ocean of what’s ahead. We’re forever on a slim coastline, trying to look in both directions at once. You put a pup in that place and she’s just gonna go swimming. We stand and twirl and get dizzy and anxious. But anyways, I find that a lot of my poems tend to be stories because I like the elliptical nature that a story provides, the way someone telling a story tends to veer into other stories, other myths, other truths, in their telling. I think such veering, such halting, is a kind of key to unlocking meaning, or revealing it, or skirting what you thought was meaning and finding some other meaning. Because it’s meaning we want. A reason to be here. There’s something about human speech that’s very attractive to me. Eduardo Corral said that this book captures the “swerves & pauses of human speech.” I’m beyond grateful for those kind words. Beyond, beyond grateful. But I’m happy he said that because that’s something I try to get at in a poem – the way a person telling a story can repeat the same word over and over again without realizing, and the way, in a sense, that that’s kind of beautiful. I believe that the celebration of the mundane can inhabit various acts. It can become a romantic act, a political one, a poetic one. We all touch the mundane. How can we elevate this touching so that it becomes at once specific and universal? This is something I see my poetry trying to do.

 

So why is this book important, then?

I think Blood on Blood is important because I think conversation is important. I believe it’s necessary to dig certain things up and see how they shine in the present tense, not just the past. And I love Bruce; I think he’s a far more unique and political figure than this generation gives him credit for, and I owe a lot of who I am to just the simple fact of listening to him growing up. Certain songs from Nebraska, like “Highway Patrolman,” for instance, echo in my own relationships with family, which is how I framed this book. In that song, some fictional patrolman has to chase his criminal brother down when he finds out the brother stole a car. It’s a simple story, perhaps dated, but in that basic plot, I saw my own relationship with my brother played out – one of silence, and running away. A relationship where the past was relied upon to rescue the present. My hope is that some of that echoes through, and that the book can resonate not just as a simple take on a Bruce Springsteen album, but as something that touches on our own personal relationships, our politics, our families. At a certain point, the book stopped becoming something existing in solely the past tense and started becoming something present, and that’s when I felt the most fulfilled. I have a poem in the book called “How to Use Old Sparky,” which is meant as a sort of protest to capital punishment. I have another called “Confession,” which is a response to police brutality and the failure of empathy (among many other things) on the part of our law enforcement. I wanted aspects of the manuscript to go beyond the self. I hope they do.

 

Okay. Self, self, self. Blah. Enough about you. Tell me why poetry is important.

Because it is. But also because of generosity. That’s a word I use a lot. I’m lucky and forever grateful to be in a place where strangers publish my work and strangers read my work, however few of them. But beyond that, poetry is, as I said, a generous genre. Reading it is an act of listening. If you read a poem a day, you’ll be a little better for it. And a little sharper. A little more critical of the outside world. And even beyond that – the people I’ve met through poetry are some of the kindest people I’ve met. Even if they don’t like your work, they are almost always respectful of its existence. There’s not much money in this. It’d be hard for poetry to become corrupted. It’s intrinsic, risky at heart, and deeply felt. I have so much love for so many poets who I’ve never met, poets whose work I read from afar. When I think of the current poetry world, I well up with a lot of joy, just thinking of voices. Voices, voices, voices. There’s so many of them. And that’s so beautiful, because so many of them are necessary.

 

So, poet as irrational number?

Yes! Poets are irrational numbers. Their words echo into infinity. And their words can never be replicated, only touched on to make new infinities.

 

That’s nice. Who are some poets today that inspire you?

The list is long. Poets like Steve Scafidi and the late Larry Levis taught me a lot about the beauty that the word “and” provides. The momentum it offers and the possibilities. But I find a lot of love and risk and gorgeousness in other contemporary poets, especially those who approach a poem in far more different ways than I do. Kamden Hilliard comes to mind. He’s a poetic genius. I’ll read a poem of his and be like “Fuck I’m gonna buy a boat (can’t, too expensive) and be without trying for awhile because what just happened there was impossible.” Jamaal May, too. Bianca Stone and Joanna Valente both blurbed my book, and that was such an honor, because they both write with such open and powerful lines that get at the rawness of the human condition, the failures of it. I help run a reading series in New York City, Dead Rabbits, where I’ve had – honestly, pleasure isn’t the right word, it’s not weighted enough with meaning – but, the pleasure to listen to so many of the most important voices writing today. From Eduardo Corral to Morgan Parker to Angel Nafis to Tommy Pico to Jameson Fitzpatrick. And so many more. And each night that happens, I say to myself, “I want the world to be here.” I really do. It’s necessary. The list of such beautiful voices goes on and on and on. It should. If it’s not, you’re not reading enough.

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Devin Kelly DEVIN KELLY earned his MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and co-hosts the Dead Rabbits Reading Series in New York City. He is the author of the collaborative chapbook with Melissa Smyth, This Cup of Absence (Anchor & Plume) and the forthcoming books, Blood on Blood (Unknown Press), and In This Quiet Church of Night, I Say Amen (ELJ Publications). He has been nominated for both the Pushcart and Best of the Net Prizes. He works as a college advisor in Queens, teaches at the City College of New York, and lives in Harlem.

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