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Interview with Kevin Simmonds

A Crooked Letter Special Feature
Kevin Simmonds

Kevin Simmonds is a writer, musician, and performance artist originally from New Orleans. Mad for Meat (2011) is his debut collection of poetry. He is the editor of Collective Brightness: LGBTIQ Poets on Faith, Religion & Spirituality and Ota Benga Under my Mother’s Roof. He also wrote the music for the Emmy Award-winning documentary HOPE: Living and Loving with HIV in Jamaica. Most recently, he wrote the music for Emmett Till, a river, a Japanese noh-inspired theatre work debuting at Theatre of Yugen on November 7, 2013.

James Madison Redd: You were born in New Orleans and earned degrees from universities across the American Southeast. The poem “Inheritance” from Mad for Meat gives us some insight into that experience. How has growing up in the South shaped your aesthetic and your attitude toward writing?

Kevin Simmonds: First, I have something to say about my hometown New Orleans.

Yes, New Orleans is in the south and is “southern” but, given its French and Spanish pedigree, possesses a cultural history more complex than other southern places. Louisiana was settled by the French, occupied by the Spanish and then bought by the US in 1803, when New Orleans was an already thriving international city.

The New Orleans I know is an insular place. Natives are very proud of its eccentricities (and theirs) and, from where I come from in the city, most people remain there all their lives. They are never stirred to go elsewhere. I haven’t lived there since I left for college at seventeen, yet I still find it hard to live other places. Everywhere else is just so different. In New Orleans, you talk to strangers, there’s an ease about things, what the Americans who flooded into the city after the Louisiana Purchase considered a peculiar laziness. We also shorthand things in our quite inelegant (yet eloquent) patois. I often have to repeat and clarify out here in San Francisco, where people speak in longer sentences.

This distinct lived vernacular of New Orleans is poetic. It just is. I used to resent the mythologizing of my hometown, but its history is epic and felt in the present. I see why people want and need it as a totem.

New Orleans is aberrant. Promiscuous. And in opposition of all that. My writing is the same--contradictory, willful, elusive, attached to history, detached from it.


JMR: Emmett Till’s murder is one of the great blights on the histories of Mississippi and America. Tell me about your new work, Emmett Till: a river.

KS: A few years ago, I reconnected with poet Judy Halebsky on a plane from San Francisco to DC. We’d taken a class together at Mills College in the late 90s and had both gone on to live in Japan. I went to teach and perform and she went on a scholarship to study noh, an ancient Japanese theatrical tradition.  Judy had run across my poem, “The Poet, 1955,” which considers the murder of Emmett Till, and told me she’d been interested in doing a noh play about him.  At the time, she had just begun a residency at Theatre of Yugen in San Francisco, the leading noh theatre in the US. We had some conversations at the theatre and went on to get a pretty substantial commission from the Creative Work Fund. We did some work-in-progress performances last year and will have a two-week performance run, plus a couple of student matinees, later this month.

Frankly, this project has been my most challenging collaboration to date. While it’s certainly stretched me as a composer and poet, I see many fissures in the process, especially in establishing what the choreographer Liz Lerman refers to as “the horizontal"--when your various work and lives aren't segmented, when high, rarified art work like noh or ballet doesn’t exist independent of my social activism. They coexist on the same plane, enriching and informing each other. Though I absolutely intend all of my work as social activism, this project--from conception, funding, talent recruitment, publicity and marketing to work-in-progress performances and the upcoming run--remains segregated/insulated from a host of audiences (and performers) I’d like to see in the theatre. And that segregation during the process, even, has a bearing on work itself.

To whom will it matter? I think about my work in many ways and the context of an audience is one of those ways.

This piece brings together Emmett's mother, Mamie Till, and Carolyn Bryant, the shopkeeper whose husband and brother-in-law murdered Emmett. In noh, people can be called to a place to reconcile themselves to a tragedy. Even the dead can return. This work, less theatre and more oratorio, has two actors, a male chorus, western flutist and noh percussionist and nohkan (Japanese flute).

It's odd and tells the story of this American tragedy in a very slow and deliberate way. It's not for everyone.


JMR: You write music, film, plays, poetry, and essays. How important do you think it is for a writer to be well versed in all of the creative arts?

KS: I have a strong need to express things and, as such, explore various ways to do just that. It’s my selfish need, then, that leads me to the work of other people. And it’s more about what they’re expressing than how. That lack of discrimination puts me into contact with the work of sculptors, dancers, architects, philosophers, impresarios, photographers, circus performers, performance artists, professors, the list goes on.

I’m fairly certain most writers explore similarly. And I’ve found that the most impactful writers are those who come to writing not simply as a writer.


JMR: Your Ph.D. is in music. As a fellow musician and writer, I wonder, what did you learn from music that helps you make great poetry?

KS: I got to poetry through music. Early on, my intensive study of vocal music in college--particularly British folk songs, French chanson, and German lieder--led me to the poetry of Baudelaire, Rilke, Goethe, George Herbert, William Blake, and Americans like Whitman and James Agee. Those musical settings were lush, lyrical and operatically tactile, and influenced my ear--my expectations of a line of poetry, a melody, etc. Being from New Orleans, however, I grew up listening to and performing music that was anything but lush and operatic, but gutbucket and steeped in the black tradition of repetition, blue noting, histrionics, and showmanship. 

My ear is bent, maybe even psychotic, having for so long been at extremes in both my training and experience in the music of words. Depending on the time of day or my mood or the alignment of the stars, my poetry falls between those extremes or, occasionally, at either end. 

To complicate this musical and poetic schizophrenia, I began living off and on in rural northeastern Japan almost 14 years ago. Enter austere, deliberate, measured, harnessed, teeming, and fragmented poetry and music. Of course, that’s not only the provenance of Japan, but, many would argue, of eastern Asia, especially. The stylized and ancient forms of haiku and noh entered my consciousness along with the work of contemporary East Asian writers.


JMR: You divide your time between San Francisco and Japan. Do you find that you write differently when you leave America?

KS: My experiences are often richer when I leave this country, so, yes, I write differently. By “richer,” I mean the exchanges I have with people are far less transactional than when I’m in San Francisco, say. I’m able to go beyond the surface and connect with people. They show an interest in me, and I show an interest in them. That’s exhilarating and inspires a different perspective.


JMR: Etheridge Knight’s Poems from Prison, written during the eight years he spent serving time for a robbery, is such a powerful book of poetry. Will you tell me about your experience of teaching poetry to prisoners in Singapore?

KS: I honor my experience, and those of the men and boys who participated, by not discussing it in depth. They all chose to take a poetry class--the first-ever at Changi prison--with this black American who they’d never heard of. Hands down, it was one of the most sobering experiences of my life. I know prisons are necessary in a civilized society, but you need civilized policies and civilized people overseeing them. That goes for Singapore and everywhere else, especially the US. I happened to be in the right place at the right time.


JMR: An abhorrence for those things of the flesh is one characteristic of traditional interpretations of Christianity, yet Mad for Meat puts a different spin on that theology. I think of the lines from “Serpent:”

Jesus loves me

this I know

my man’s body

tells me so

Will you expound on the importance of the body, religion, and sexuality to your poetry?

KS: I was paralyzed with shame until about seven years ago. Shame from being gay, family issues, all that. The center of it all, as I see it now, is religion. All religion is obsessed with the body and its functions. Religion teaches us to be afraid of our bodies. Anything that shames a person, makes them feel that they cannot explore and talk about what possesses them, is harmful--not just for that person, but for anyone who comes in contact with that person.

So you’d be hard pressed to find me unwilling to discuss or write about anything considered taboo or shameful. I've written about gay sexual fetishes, abuse, institutionalized racism, and white supremacy, gentrification, queerness, and other issues where the boilerplate explanations and avoidances just won't do. And, when it comes to the body, religion, or sexuality, I go at it head on.

A winner of the Mari Sandoz / Prairie Schooner Prize and finalist for the St. Lawrence Book Award, James Madison Redd’s fiction was nominated for Best New American Voices. His fiction, poetry, and scholarship have or will appear in The Oxford AmericanNew Orleans Review, Fifth WednesdayFiction SoutheastDeep South Magazine, and Briefly Noted. He is the editor of the Prairie Schooner blog.