“The Writing Life is Now” – Interview with Kevin Simmonds

Kevin Simmonds won the 2004 RHINO Editors’ Prize with his poem, “The Smell of Nutmeg“; we also published his poem “The Poet, 1955″ that year.  I met Kevin when he gave me a ride to and from the Squaw Valley Poetry Workshop where we were both fellows in 2010 — but discovered our RHINO connection when I was putting our new website together two months later. This interview was conducted March 10, 2011. ~Valerie Wallace, Associate Editor

VW: I love this photo of you for many reasons, but one is that it shows an aspect of your personality that I think is connected to your physicality — that is, you carry yourself like a performer, you use your body in your art. The two seem interconnected. Is that the case?

KS: No one has ever said that to me. I do know that I tend to overuse my body, especially my shoulders and neck, which stems more from stress than any kind of grand performer’s carriage. I did have a strong interest in dance. Unfortunately, my mother and stepfather didn’t take notice of me running around the house kicking up my legs.

VW: What took you to San Francisco? Tell me about the poetry community there, and your poetry community specifically.

KS: I moved to San Francisco in 1996 to live with a very accomplished composer and conductor. We’d met 3 years earlier when I was senior in college. I did love him but it was more awe than love. He was much older and doing everything I thought I’d wanted to do. We were together for a short time before I moved out.

San Francisco is a very disappointing place for someone (like me) trying to find a poetry community. It’s a very expensive place to live and people are always hustling, trying to get their work out into the world while making rent. Frankly, I have not found one person here that I consider poetry kin. No one commits to long-term, involved relationships. Maybe it’s me. Maybe I expect more than people are willing to give. Whatever the case, despite all the hype, the poetry writing groups, readings and all that, I find it an insular, mostly uninspired place for building community. I know many would probably disagree with me, especially those who are connected to the spoken word scene and the older, Beat or political poetry scenes. I know nothing about that.

VW: During our trip back from Squaw Valley you told me about your Hugging Asians project. Please explain it, and where things are at with it.

KS: Last April, Tian Sheng Yu, a Chinese Oakland resident, was beaten by two intoxicated Black teenagers. He died as a result and the media spun it as yet another example of Blacks targeting Asians for crime. It bothered me because, as a Black man who has an Asian partner and who’s lived and worked in Asia and with immigrant Asian communities in San Francisco, I know we certainly won’t benefit from reports amplifying perceived and real tensions between these groups.

I started thinking about what happened three years earlier, in 2007: Imus’s “nappy-headed hoes” comment and New York DJs JV and Elvis’s (Jeff Vandegrift and Dan Lay) racist call to a Chinese restaurant happened within a day of each other. Why didn’t Asian activists stand with the Black community? Why didn’t Blacks stand with the Asian community? Where’s our solidarity? To begin processing these questions, I wrote a poem entitled “Orient.” Then I decided I wanted to create a website featuring the poem and photographs of me hugging Asians — strangers and friends. I grew up in the South and we hug. I lived in Japan for a few years and, though it’s not at all culturally acceptable to hug, I did it frequently. It was my way of embellishing my language skills. An additional way to communicate. huggingasians.com went online last spring. Some people thought the site was great, others derided it. Regardless, huggingasians.com was part of my process and remains online. I add to it occasionally.

A few months later, I had the idea to create a multimedia performance piece entitled “ORIENT: a new anthropology,” which I’m working on now. I got a 2011 San Francisco Arts Commission grant for it. ORIENT will trace the lives of Asians and Blacks in America, beginning with the divisively racist work of early anthropologists in the mid-to-late nineteenth century.

From the beginning, Asians and Blacks were pitted against each other as each group tried to build lives in a country that resisted their very presence. I want to underscore our interconnectedness, not just as people on the margins but as two groups that have stood together historically. Richard Aoki, a Japanese American, helped start the Black Panthers. He donated some of the first weapons. I learned that very recently. I know of a Black woman in LA (the mother of a friend) who, during the Japanese internment, took care of the belongings of a Japanese family. ORIENT is helping me get an education. And I think it’s especially pertinent now. The 20th anniversary of the LA Riots is next year, 2012. 20 years ago Asians and Blacks were killing each other on the streets. Have racial tensions diminished at all? I’m going to travel to LA several times to interview people whose lives were affected by the riots. Much of the poetry, music and images in ORIENT will emanate from interviews.

VW: What else are you working on?  Do you have any themes or preoccupations that you find yourself returning to?
KS: I’m putting the finishing touches on Ota Benga Under My Mother’s Roof, a collection by the late Carrie Allen McCray Nickens. I can’t tell you how very special this project is to me. I met Carrie through Cave Canem in 2004 and, while I was finishing my Ph.D. in South Carolina, she and her sister Rose were my family. I’m talking about them cooking for me, opening up their home and giving me my own room during my return trips to complete my dissertation, telling me stories, coming out to my performances, giving me strength to endure and understand the grand (wizard) peculiarities of South Carolina. Carrie was 91 years old at the time and an accomplished and widely published writer. Rose was 92.

The collection tells the story of the Congolese pygmy Ota Benga who was infamously exhibited at the Bronx Zoo in 1906. Shortly after that, Carrie’s family took him into their home in Lynchburg, Virginia. I edited many of the poems for a theatrical adaptation we did in 2007 and, after Carrie’s passing in 2008, a team of extraordinary people (poet Kwame Dawes and Carolyn Micklem, the former director of Cave Canem, among them) helped get these poems into print. The collection will appear in early spring next year.

I’m editing the first LGBTIQ anthology featuring poems about faith, religion and spirituality. It’s called Collective Brightness and the title comes from Benjamin Grossberg’s beautifully odd poem “Beetle Orgy.” It’ll be published by Sibling Rivalry Press this December and I’m extremely excited about it. Religion has done major damage to LGBTIQ people and this anthology will show how resilient, observant and resourceful we are. I hope it travels into the most dangerous places for us in America.

VW: You’re also a composer. I recall from a session we shared at the workshop a poem of yours which included a rhythmic hitting of the table.  Is that a typical style for you?

KS: That was new for me. I was trying to bring musical notation into a poem. It was effective for that one poem that one time.

VW: How do your music and poetry feed each other?

KS: I have a good ear for phrasing, tempo and timbre. I think that comes from growing up in New Orleans in a household with music. My mother played Motown and jazz records quite frequently. And it’s true what they say: music fills the streets of New Orleans. I heard it at school, walking in the neighborhood, at Catholic church and, of course, in the French Quarter.

But I’ve  always been in love with words, too. I’m pretty sure I get that from my mother and her sister, my Aunt Trina (now deceased). They loved books and reading. The first trophy I ever won was for a poetry contest in 2nd grade. My ear feeds my music and writing. It’s a body-based practice. No matter how much I try to get away from my ear — and the sounds and subject matter I keep wanting to manipulate — there’s no use. I actually feel a physical discomfort if I sing, play or read something that’s willfully intellectualized outside of my own personal “powers.” I’m not sure how to say this.

VW: One of the most revealing questions you asked me on the way home from SVWW was “Who do you want to publish your first book?”  This question forced me to consider myself beyond “being” a poet to consider how I wanted to activate my goals.  Tell me how your forthcoming book came about, and what your goals are for it.

 

KS: It’s a great story. Salmon Poetry, one of the foremost poetry presses in Ireland, had an anthology call for poems about dogs. I sent “Seeing Eye,” the only poem I have about dogs and, about a month or two later, got an email from the publisher. She poked around online and saw my other work and asked if I had a manuscript. That’s how it happened. (And they did use “Seeing Eye” in the anthology.) My first collection, which will appear in September 2011, is entitled Mad for Meat. The title comes from the final couplet in the poem “Inheritance.” The poem is about, among other things, my appetite for food, substantive human interaction, especially with men — in their various “cuts.”

I figure a debut collection should tell you about the poet and his concerns while leaving room for readers to want more — a second collection, perhaps. There’s growing up in New Orleans, being an altar boy, gay, Black, the child of divorced parents, my travels (especially my years in Japan), music of all kinds, struggling with Christianity and racism — the list goes on. There are also persona poems in the voice of historical figures. Before I became brave enough to write more directly about myself, I wrote loads of persona poems.

VW: I remember when I was back in Chicago working on the new RHINO website, and came across your poem about Jacqueline du Pre. It blew me away and then I found out you wrote it in college!  What was your relationship with poetry then, and how did you find out about RHINO?

KS: I’m pretty sure I wrote that poem when I was finishing my master’s degree, not college. I didn’t write in college but did take a poetry survey class with Dr. John Plummer my sophomore or junior year. Dr. Plummer was extraordinary and everything I learned in that class affected how I would read poetry for a number of years. And it was music that influenced my decision to take Dr. Plummer’s course. I studied voice very seriously in college and was drawn to American and British art songs, especially the works of Barber, Britten, Copeland, Finzi and Vaughan Williams. I adored the sonic properties of their melodies, harmonies and all that, along with how the text transformed.

Kevin Simmonds composed the music for the “Voices from Haiti” Pulitzer Center project with Kwame Dawes.

A poem on paper is different than its incarnation as song. Two different musics. I’m still fascinated and confounded by that. Often, as a composer, I’m unable to find “additional” music in poetry. It’s a running joke between Kwame [Dawes] and I. I’ve set several of his poems to music and, anytime we begin a new collaboration, he wonders aloud if I’ll be able to find that music. He’s funny.

I’m pretty sure RHINO entered my consciousness because of an edition of Best American Poetry.  To date, you’re the only journal that’s ever awarded me a prize. It meant so very much to me. At the time, I was finishing my PhD and overwhelmingly miserable. You published two very different poems of mine: one about famed cellist Jaqueline du Pré; the other about the racially motivated murder of 12 year-old Emmett Till. Many journals don’t include such range in subject matter.

VW: Any advice for managing and advancing the writing life?

KS: Unless you have a benefactor, you’ll always have to do something to make money. You better figure out a way to compose in your head, make notes during your lunch break and in the bathroom. The writing life is now, not later. Sure, there will be blessed moments when you get a residency or your partner takes up more of the burden so you can get away. You might get some breaks. But chances are you won’t get very many. And certainly not enough to conceive of something, develop and finish it. Don’t be selfish: send out your work and give readings. No one will know you and your work exists otherwise. Don’t be selfish: support other writers by attending their readings and purchasing their books.

VW: Please tell us what poetry events and poets have inspired you most recently. And, what do you do that is NOT poetry or music which feeds your creative life?

KS: I’ve been enamored by poet Nikky Finney for years. Her latest and long-awaited collection, Head Off and Split, takes me to church and school each time I crack it open. It’s next to my bed right now. She’s one of the most important poets writing in America. I was lucky enough to hear her read at the book launch at Howard University during AWP. That experience will carry me for a long time. I can’t say enough about how much contemporary art/performance art and dance inspire me — both live performances and film documentaries of those things. San Francisco has a strong contemporary dance scene and I take advantage of that. We also have art galleries and world-class museums everywhere. All that inspires and sustains me. Other than that, I enjoy swimming, finding new restaurants, traveling and working on my Japanese.

_____________

Kevin studied voice at Vanderbilt University and taught middle school in Maryland for two years. Then, after stints as a teacher and part-time graduate student, he finished a masters degree in music at Middle Tennessee State University while starting Tono International Arts Association, an international arts presenter in northern Japan that sponsored the 2001 Tono American Music Festival.  Simmonds Company, a gospel choir that grew from workshops he led for amateur singers, won Second Place at the 2002 All-Japan Gospel Competition at Toyko’s Nakano Sun Plaza; the Company continues to perform throughout Japan.

He returned to the States, started his fellowship with Cave Canem, and finished a Ph.D. in music education at the University of South Carolina. He received a Fulbright fellowship to Singapore where he got hip to the work of Kumar, Alfian Sa’at, Cyril Wong and Su-Chen Christine Lim. Kevin has published poems, essays and reviews in journals like 42opus, American Scholar, Black Issues Book Review, FIELD, jubilat, Kyoto Journal, LA Review, Massachusetts Review, Poetry, Rhino and Salt Hill, and in the anthologies Beyond the Frontier, Gathering Ground, The Ringing Ear, To Be Left with the Body and War Diaries.

As a composer and performer, he’s collaborated with poet and writer Carrie McCray on a musical adaptation of Ota Benga, Under My Mother’s Roof and with poet and writer Kwame Dawes on I Saw Your Face, Hope and Wisteria: Twilight Songs of the Swamp Country. Wisteria was the subject of a 2007 BBC Radio documentary and Hope received a News and Documentary Emmy in 2009. His music has been performed throughout the US, Japan, the UK and the Caribbean. sfexhale.com features his photography.

Kevin has received fellowships from the Atlantic Center for the Arts, Cave Canem, Fulbright, Jack Straw, Squaw Valley, Napa Valley and the San Francisco Arts Commission. His debut poetry collection, Mad for Meat, is forthcoming from Salmon Poetry in late 2011. He creates and teaches privately in San Francisco and can be reached at simmondskevin at gmail dot com. http://kevinsimmonds.com/.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>