Interview: Kenyatta JP Garcia

Stephanie Kaylor: First I’d like to congratulate you on the recent release of Slow Living, your latest full-length poetry collection. How many books do you have published at this point, again? Like much of your previous work, Slow Living distills time while also giving readers the space to examine it. It seems the form, however, was a new one for you; rather than a full-length lyrical novel or singular poem, Slow Living is divided into the eponymous first half and followed by “Dear/Later” in the second half. Can you tell me more about this writing process, and how that coupling (or fracture) came to be?

Kenyatta JP Garcia: This is my tenth book/ebook of poetry which is kind of crazy. I mean, I write a lot but I didn’t realize how much of it I actually put out into the world. This particular book – Slow Living – has a bit of an interesting story behind it. The first half or rather section is an older poem. In fact it was written before This Sentimental Education and even Distilled! and A Northern Elegy. Slow Living was my first long poem after returning from a poetic hiatus. When I decided to start writing again, I wanted an escape but what I got was exploration. Slow Living was my way of exploring time and I knew that it would take some time to do that. I knew going into the poem that it would be fairly long and that was fine by me. I prefer long poems even though as a young writer, long poems were discouraged by teachers. Anyway, fast forward to the second portion of the book – Dear/Later – and we have a series of diary-like entries. I wanted to create another long poem but I ended up with a series. Or, I should say, I started with a series. My desire to write another epic was quickly pushed out of my head when I had the idea of the implemental poem. I wrote Dear/Later in a flurry of flashes – scintillas of consciousness instead of streams. I wanted it to be jagged or what I call lo-fi poetry. A bit rough around the edges because moving forward is rough, there’s not a lot of time for revising life. Dear/Later was written in daily or multiple daily installments where I only wrote what came to mind at the time. I never looked back at the previous pieces. For me, I wanted to see what sort of themes would naturally recur. I also wanted to stay close to the occurrence and create a sense of hyperrealism which is why there are so many quotes in it. Those all came about as they were from the books I was reading while assembling Dear/Later. Dear/Later was paired with Slow Living when I decided that I had two different ideas of time and space that could go well together. I wanted to play one idea against the other. I think starting with a lyrical abstract poem and moving towards chronicling would be something different. Plus, in the first portion we have no real characters and in the second half we have one talking to oneself as a you. I figured that might be fun for the reader.

SK: There’s certainly a Proustian element to your work; from the lyrical abstractions, to the musing of time and times past we see in Slow Living. And yet there are so many stark contrasts to his writing, such as the absence of characters and the “flurry of flashes” in Dear/Later. Who, or what, influenced this lo-fi edge?

KJPG: There are no characters in Dear/Later because I wanted to create an honestly lonely book. I couldn’t have any characters in it or it might undermine its sense and sentiment of being alone. Of course, let’s remember that Proust’s narrator is also unnamed so we have that in common. As is a nod to the naturalism and realism as is seen Proust’s work and Emile Zola and Guy De Maupassant who are all very close to my more prosaic and less poetic self. In this book, particularly the Dear/Later portion, I went lo-fi in order to create a very real hyper-realism. That is to say, I wanted to include the read word, the said word, the heard word and as much vision as I could take into consideration. I had to move quickly and fast isn’t always pretty. I could’ve revised the pieces to fix the awkwardness in some lines but then the experiment would have been compromised. Dear/Later is me at my most truthful or as I see it. And, that’s what not only Proust taught me but Pessoa and Jim Carroll too. I’ve always wanted to write diaries but I can’t seem to write them. In Dear/Later I did that by throwing everything around me into it. I had a few dalliances with beauty but I fell in love with the banal.

SK: From the turn-of-the-century French to Pessoa to Carroll— we just cut through a number of spatial, temporal, and stylistic borders and identities. I’m interested in how you see your own identity as genderqueer and Latinx playing a role in your work. There’s the unnamed narrator, the lack of pronouns in your work— much of this seems to come directly against contemporary trends in writing through social position.

KJPG: Well, I tend to not use pronouns at all but when I do use them, I tend to use gender-neutral ones like ‘you.’ I rarely use ‘I.’ In much of my work I try to erase the self. I tend to focus more on observation than on actions. My work is about perception. As a Latinx writer and more specifically as a mixed-race writer, I’ve been on the outside a lot. After being pushed away so many times, you learn to live with that place but never really with that placement. I create observational poems but they tend to pine for understanding. I want poems to question image, to always ask more of the senses. There’s always a distance in my work but a comfortable distance. My work is melancholy but not necessarily sad. It’s all about feeling. Not emotions but just a knowledge that feelings exist. It’s lonely but connection is not the goal of the work. I don’t put too much faith nor effort into connection. And, because I don’t look for connection, I tend to take that away from the reader also. That’s why everything is always without gender. I want disorientation to be the setting of the poem. I don’t want readers to feel too at ease in a poem. I don’t feel at ease so neither should you. This is the life of an agender/asexual being. It’s not easy being a robot but I’m working on it.

SK: This disorientation– so often it’s attributed to Western modernism, but it seems your studies in languages, such as Arabic, have revealed otherwise. Can you tell me more about that?

KJPG: I can’t remember which book it was exactly but in the introduction to an anthology of Arabic poetry I was reading, there was a line about how one line of a couplet does NOT necessarily predict the next one. This has stuck with me. Of course, we could also say that reading the Futurists aka the Stray Dogs of Russia likewise inserted this idea into my consciousness but this really cemented the notion. I did not try to make connections. I just went wherever the mind wanted to go and wherever sensation could take it. In something else I was reading, there was also the metaphor of stopping where the camel stops. So, that’s what I did. Wherever the sensation let me off, that’s where I got off.  But, let’s go even further and deal with the looseness of a writer like Qabbani who constantly writes about not being able to write about what he wants to write about in his love poetry. That too had an impact upon my desire to come close and back away. To create blurred images that ask to be viewed but not necessarily described. This is immersion poetry. The idea of an image and the image of an idea. For me, once again as a Latinx writer with connections to Spain and a lover of Lorca, I really wanted to establish a poetic family tree going from modernist Spanish poetry back through the renaissance and to its Arabic roots. Writers like Ibn Zaydun, Ibn Al-Arabi and all the way back to the great queer writer, Abu Nuwas, we can also see these tiny disconnects and false connectivities. Like for example the use of the dual conjugation form when really there wasn’t always a we/us. Or, how oftentimes we can see male writers using the female case endings. Certainly, these are for rhythmic and romantic purposes but I’ll tell you what, if you don’t really understand Arabic nonetheless classical Arabic, this is disorienting as a student intent upon being a translator. So, maybe my own mistakes and frustrations have been taken out on you the reader in my poetry that coincidentally, I went back to as I kind of gave up on being a translator.

SK: Despite your rumination of irresolution– or, how you note in “Dear/Later”, “Because there are no guarantees there is no because.”, I have to ask: where do you see this family tree of immersion poetry branching off toward next, either in your own work or as a whole?

KJPG: I’d of course like to see the tree grow more branches but who knows how that’ll go? I think for me, I’ve been working through immersion in my latest series of hazy memories and incomplete desires tentatively titled This And That. I’m trying to leave room for the reader. All I can do is offer up a poem as a conversation. I can chronicle the time as it passes, stay close to the occurrence and then immediately return to nostalgia in a way that allows for multiple entrances and interruptions. My work has always been concerned with deep reflection but also leaving room for the daydream. I’ll continue doing that until I think readers don’t want to reflect nor daydream anymore.

Kenyatta JP Garcia is the author of Slow Living (West Vine Press), This Sentimental Education, Past and Again, and Playing Dead. They grew up in Brooklyn but currently reside in Albany, NY where they went to school for linguistics and it’s where they spent a decade as a cook. Now, they work the graveyard shift thinking of jokes and pondering the ins, outs and in-between of comic book characters while putting boxes on shelves. They were also an editor at Horse Less Review and their work has been featured in Brooklyn Rail, EOAGH, GlitterMob and Dirty Chai.

Stephanie Kaylor is a writer from Albany, NY where she completed a MA in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. She is currently finishing a MA in Philosophy at the European Graduate School and is Reviews Editor for Glass: A Journal of Poetry. Her poetry has appeared in journals including BlazeVOX, The Willow Review, and ALTPoetics.

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