Poetry as Rebellion and the Pursuit of Freedom: A Dialogue with Jeremy T. Karn
Jeremy T. Karn writes from somewhere in Liberia. His work has appeared and is forthcoming in 20.35 Africa: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry Volume III, The Whale Road, Ice Floe Press, ARTmosterrific, The Rising Phoenix, Up the Staircase Quarterly, Lolwe, Minute Magazine, FERAL Poetry, Liminal Transit Review, The Kissing Dynamite, Ghost Heart Literary Journal, and elsewhere.
His chapbook, Miryam Magdalit, has been selected by Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani of The African Poetry Book Fund, in collaboration with Akashic Books, for the 2021 New-Generation African Poets chapbook box set.
BY NKATEKO MASINGA
This conversation took place between Nairobi, Kenya and Monrovia, Liberia via email.
Nkateko: Hi Jeremy. Thank you so much for agreeing to have a conversation with me. I have been an admirer of your work for a long time and I had the honour of writing alongside you in the inaugural RARI workshop a year ago. What was the highlight of that workshop for you?
Jeremy: I must thank you so much for having me for this interview. I am thrilled and honored to be invited for this conversation.
The RARI workshop was one of the best things that happened in my life last year. We had quite a troubling year but the first four weeks of 2020 wherein I learned new things from people that gave their honest critiques of my work helped me so much with my writing.
Getting to know poets like you, Sihle, Ife, Leanne and the others was awesome. The workshop is one of the reasons I have improved in my writing. The RARI workshop holds a special place in my heart.
Nkateko: The workshop was truly a life-changing experience. Being in communion with other writers, even virtually, is so affirming. You mentioned honest critique in your response and it took me back to the line-by-line feedback that we gave and received during the workshop, and how that informed my own revision process when looking at my poems again. I strongly believe that every word in a poem needs to audition for its place, and the detailed workshop feedback strengthened that belief because I had to justify my use of certain words not only to myself but to trusted peers.
What noticeable improvements have you seen in your own writing and revision process these last two years, despite the difficulties caused by the pandemic?
Jeremy: Thank you. When I began writing in 2016, most of what I wrote was filled with clichés and poor diction. Some of the poems had no true meaning. It would be totally unfair if I considered what I wrote back then as poetry.
It delights me now that my work has improved for the better. I believe that every beautiful poem must show a good command of meaning, diction and imagery.
The nerves that I built into myself to avoid clichés, the ability for me to capture huge ideas on things that I was once scared to write about and the making of beautiful word choices are some of the noticeable improvements I have seen in my writing.
I think the RARI workshop helped me in handling these things better.
Nkateko: What inspired you to start writing in 2016?
Jeremy: I don’t think I was inspired to start writing. I was pushed or forced against the wall of my skin to write.
In 2015, I lost my uncle who was eaten by fire. It was the first time I saw a burnt man becoming ashes. It was the first time I saw a dead person breathing out blue smoke from his body. I am still living with the trauma that follows his death.
Prior to my uncle’s death I had no interest in writing, even though I did some essay writings while in high school. The only known book I had in my house concerning poetry was Ebony Dust, a book written by Liberia’s foremost poet and writer, Bai T. Moore.
The quest to express myself was what pushed or forced me to start writing poems in 2016, about how I felt about his death and his memories. I saw it as a safe haven to hide my grief in.
Nkateko: I am terribly sorry about the traumatic loss of your uncle. Writing is a safe haven for me as well, and on several occasions I have felt myself being pushed to write as a way of mourning. The notion of being pushed against the wall of one’s skin is powerful, and I would like to interrogate it further. Does the push to write elicit a feeling of being confined, or one of freedom, or can it perhaps be both?
Jeremy: Thank you, Nkateko. I do experience total freedom whenever I write about the pain that pushed me to be a writer. Writing makes me feel like a bird.
The feeling of being hurt is like being a caged bird. Whenever I write about the things that have eaten me up, I do believe that I am setting myself free, tearing down the cage that sits in my bones and planting feathers in my body to fly myself to freedom.
Writing gives me reasons to mourn my loss with so much freedom.
Nkateko: The notion of tearing down a cage in the bones is so profound. This has got me thinking about the long periods of isolation we have collectively faced in the past year, being “caged” in our homes due to the pandemic. What happens to these physical cages, the ones that we cannot tear down with our words? The ones we have to just live in/with because it’s the only way to stay alive?
Jeremy: Staying alive in this world is not an easy thing to do, especially when you are caged. Since the pandemic began early last year, we have been in our own physical cages and there are some cages even our words can’t tear them down into dust, but the audacity and the nerve to keep living, to keep breathing and hoping; it can put small cracks in them to be torn down and I think that’s what we are all doing.
Nkateko: While in my own physical cage, I have found comfort in the virtual spaces that hold us together despite the distance that separates us. Do you think it’s important to have a literary community online, and how do we sustain such communities when so many of us are experiencing “Zoom fatigue” from overusing virtual platforms?
Jeremy: I think it’s important to have literary communities online. Since COVID-19 emerged, most of the literary readings are done online. There are various online readings happening that have kept poets connected to each other. This has helped to keep the beauty of poetry alive. It’s tiring but when you love and have passion for something, you sometimes tend to ignore the fatigue and tiredness that come with it. The overwhelming love we have for the craft is what we will unleash to sustain the communities.
Nkateko: The emotional intensity in your poetry reminds me of what my friend Edith said to me as I struggled through a breakup a while ago: Pain demands to be felt. These words anchored me in what I was feeling and allowed me to desire to stay there, although I was secretly hoping that healing was imminent. In your poem titled “My Country’s Lullaby”, published in Liminal Transit Review, the speaker says,
“we don’t hide our scars like the way others do
the first toy given to every child in Liberia was a gun
the second were the heads of our fathers”
Can you speak on the importance of refusing to hide our scars, of speaking openly about our individual and collective trauma? Do you agree with my friend that we have no choice but to accept pain, to accept its demand to be felt? Does poetry, by bringing this pain to the surface, offer relief?
“The feeling of being hurt is like being a caged bird. Whenever I write about the things that have eaten me up, I do believe that I am setting myself free, tearing down the cage that sits in my bones and planting feathers in my body to fly myself to freedom.”
Jeremy: I do agree with your friend that pain demands to be felt and we have no choice but to accept the ache and trauma. One can’t escape pain. No matter how far you run away from it, you will be found.
I believe that being pained is part of life. I have experienced my own side of it.
And in order to get rid of a pain it must be felt within the depths of you.
In my country we all have this collective grief from the scars we had from the civil wars, but the level at which we talked about it and had refused to hide our scars had helped us to place our feet on the path to be healed collectively. This is another way we had allowed the pain of losing our loved ones to bullets be felt. Though it can’t erase the pain completely. I think every time I feel this pain inside of me, it makes me feel more alive.
I think I have more scars on my body from the pain of losing my friends and my relatives. I have refused to hide these scars because it’s my identity. I want my pain to be seen and that’s why I believe that poetry offers a small relief for these pains that I sometimes get from my scars.
In the last two to three years I have lost a lot of childhood friends. This is something that pained me. Every time I think of our memories together, our childhood hands in the dirt and our shirtless bodies exposing the emptiness of our bellies.
Writing poems about them has demanded me to feel the pain of losing them. It has also offered a place for relief.
Sometimes I do consider my body a small map of scars because I have refused to hide them.
Nkateko: In your poem, Portrait of a Liberian’s Boy, the narrator’s language implies a kind of intimacy with the subject, which contradicts the notion of an ‘anonymous boy’ (as stated in the epigraph). Was this an intentional juxtaposition of the idea of anonymity with the intense knowing alluded to in the poem? What I mean to ask is, does the anonymous boy represent every young queer person who is forced to hide their sexuality because of the violence imflicted on those who do not remain anonymous?
Jeremy: Absolutely yes, the ‘anonymous boy’ in my poem represents every young queer person who is forced to hide their sexuality in Liberia. The same way the ‘anonymous boy’ I wrote about now lives in fear, it’s how many of those young queer people live in fear of their lives. In Liberia people are more loyal to their homophobic views than God.
If you’re queer, coming out in Liberia is like giving room to death threats, bullying, depression, stereotypes, and so many other things. If you’re a queer person, the only way to survive here is to hide your sexuality from the many people that see you as a devil and a mad person. It’s the same thing the ‘anonymous boy’ is doing.
I think he represents every young queer person who is forced to hide their sexuality from a homophobic society.
Nkateko: That’s really powerful, and heartbreaking.
Let’s talk about your chapbook, Miryam Magdalit, which is forthcoming in the 2021 New-Generation African Poets chapbook box set. Congratulations on this amazing achievement! Could you talk me through the process of selecting the poems that are included in this chapbook?
Jeremy: Thank you, Nkateko. I got the invitation to submit for the 2021 New-Generation African Poets chapbook box set two weeks to the deadline date. It was quite an intensive and exciting moment for me because I needed to come up with 18 to 25 pages of manuscript of poems. Gosh! I almost gave up. I am glad I didn’t give up.
Most of the poems in the chapbook are themed on my experiences growing up with my mother, aunties and other amazing women who are dead or still alive, trying to survive what they experienced during the war and the earlier post-war era.
I selected two poems from the many poems we wrote during the RARI workshop and I selected a few poems I had written and submitted to magazines. I wrote the majority of the poems in the chapbook in the span of a week and half. It was challenging but I needed to take hold of the opportunity.
Selecting the poems was a hard thing to do. I wanted to select every poem that I have written on the said themes to be heard. I selected the ones that often wet my eyes.
Nkateko: I can relate to that pressure, and I am also glad you did not give up. I look forward to reading your chapbook, as well the others, when the box set comes out. Apart from the APBF box set release, what else are you looking forward to this year?
Jeremy: A few months ago I began two MFA program applications. Like most writers in Africa, I aspire to get enrollment into an MFA program, to sit and learn new things about my craft. God knows how much effort I put into the applications, but they didn’t work out. I quit them because I couldn’t get the required documents. Ha! Getting enrolled into an MFA program is one thing I am looking forward to this year.
Another thing I’m looking forward to this year is that I want to get published more in some awesome literary magazines. Maybe I can get into some free workshops that will help me improve my craft.
Though it’s difficult for us writers in this country to get into workshops that require financial registration, I have set a goal to read more so that I can help myself with my improvement.
Nkateko: I am sorry to hear that those MFA applications did not work out. It is very disheartening to miss out on opportunities because of factors outside of your immediate control, and I hope that your future applications will be successful.
When I returned to South Africa from the U.S in late 2018, I missed my friends in New York a lot and I wanted to go back. I was advised by a close friend to look into an MFA in Creative Writing as one of my options, and one day, while doing my research on the available programs across the U.S, I saw a program called DIY MFA by Gabriela Pereira and I was quite intrigued by it. I went through the website, downloaded the free resources and eventually bought the book. DIY MFA was a lifesaver because it made me realise that I did not need to go to grad school in order to improve my writing. I could curate a similar program for myself, using resources that are freely available online, and then go back to the U.S. on a tourist visa at a later stage. That realisation freed me from a lot of unnecessary pressure. With that said, I do believe that there is a benefit to fully-funded programs abroad because they not only provide you with knowledge but also expose you to a new environment and culture, all at no cost to you – unless you factor in the emotional, physical and intellectual investment required, of course.
I can relate to the challenge of finding free writing workshops, and as a person who hosts online poetry workshops, I also know how difficult it is to coordinate a class without financial remuneration. However, some workshop hosts, myself included, offer fee waivers for students who cannot afford the costs of participation. There are also some very generous people who are willing to sponsor writers who would like to buy books, submit to writing contests and apply for grad school. I am hopeful that you will reach all your goals and when you struggle, there is a community of writers that is willing to support you.
I am also committed to reading more this year, particularly because I spend so much time indoors. My current leisure read is Paradise in Gaza by Niq Mhlongo. For craft I am rereading The Poet’s Companion by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux. What are you currently reading?
Jeremy: Wow! What an experience you had. I have a poet friend that thinks that if you don’t get into an MFA program then you’re not enough of a poet. I don’t know if you or other poets share the same view as my friend. It sounds awkward to me.
I really do appreciate the fact that he’s aiming very high for something big. I, too, am aiming for an MFA program this year or the years to follow. I don’t hold the view that MFA certifies one to be a good poet, though it’s an exciting opportunity to learn about the craft.
I have been reading a lot lately. I was on a vacation from school and I spent most of my time reading work (collected poems) from Laughton Hughes. I love how most of Hughes’ poems are short and beautiful and relate to me as an African. His poems explored to me that poems don’t have to be long to be considered good.
Currently I’m reading work from Billy Collins and Charles Bukowski. I find their poems to be profound and very easy to understand.
Nkateko: I do not agree with the idea that not getting into an MFA program means that someone’s work is not good enough. You also have to keep in mind that the MFA in Creative Writing goes beyond poetry. Yes, you might have poetry as your specialty but the prescribed reading you will do in your course will expose you to literature beyond your primary genre, and this requires you to be open-minded. The selection process for graduate schools is also very subjective, so I would not give up after one or two rejections. The MFA is not a certification of good writing, it is an educational experience that gives writers time and space to hone their craft and come out with a complete body of work, whether it be a poetry collection or novel.
What I like about the MFA is that it is a terminal degree, meaning that you can go on to teach in your field after acquiring the qualification. There are writers with MFAs who then proceed to pursue a PhD in Creative Writing, which is fantastic too, but I believe it comes down to what your goals are as an individual and as a writer. After finishing my university studies four years ago, I took time to travel and find out who I am as a person outside of the medical field, and it helped me to give other facets of my identity a chance to exist, especially my writing. Our journeys as individual writers are very different and we should allow other people to learn and grow in the ways they see fit, whether that includes a university education or not.
It’s true that poems do not have to be long to be good. I have found that short poems are often the most memorable. When I started reading Warsan Shire’s work seven years ago, there were lines that would stay in my mind for days, even weeks, because they spoke right to my soul. I miss the early days of my poetry career when I was not preoccupied with craft and form, when the simplicity of the words was enough for me. Now we have all these discussions about what poetry is, the distinction between spoken word and page poetry, and it makes me feel as if we have lost our enjoyment of the art form because we are so busy being critical of ourselves and other writers. What are your thoughts on this?
Jeremy: You’re right about the simplicity in Shire’s poems. Her poems are amazing and speak directly into the soul.
When I began writing poems some years back, I read more poems from Warsan Shire and Safia Elhillo. Their works influenced my earlier writings.
Spoken word poetry is something that’s beautiful. It’s now trending in Liberia more than page poetry.
I don’t think we have lost the enjoyment of our art form. I think it creates freedom for writers in choosing to be a spoken word poet or a page poet.
I view spoken word as a revolution in poetry. It has brought a lot of changes in the art. It makes writers careful in choosing their diction when writing a poem.
In Liberia, most writers think that spoken word and page poetry are two different things. Their arguments are based on the fact that spoken word is lengthy and page poetry is the opposite of it. But if you look at Safia Elhillo’s page poems like “Application for the Position of Abdelhalim Hafez’s Girl”, they are concise and really beautiful. The poem is both a page poem and a spoken word poem.
Nkateko: Safia Elhillo’s work is a literary marvel. “Application for the Position of Abdelhalim Hafez’s Girl” is a page poem, a spoken word poem and a poetry film, directed by Donna Lamar. This shows us that poetry can exist in a myriad forms.
“…spoken word is lengthy and page poetry is the opposite of it.” You and I both know that this isn’t necessarily true for all poems, but how do we change the perceptions of those who hold strictly to these distinctions? How do we introduce those writers to poems that fall outside of the norm?
Jeremy: I think we’ve to change their perceptions by introducing them to the idea that the length of a poem doesn’t certify it to be a spoken word or page poem even though most of the spoken word poems are lengthy.
The writer of a poem should be the one to decide whether the poem is a page poem or a spoken word.
And importantly, we’ve to introduce to them work particularly from Safia Elhillo and Rudy Francisco. These are poets that mostly used their poems both as page poems and spoken word even though their poems are written in a short form. Rudy’s page poems are often lengthy.
I believe that Elhillo and Rudy do decide which of their written poems are to be a spoken word or a page poem, it’s not by the length of the poems.
Introducing these things to them will help to change their perceptions that a poem should not be considered as page poetry or spoken word by its length, but the writer should be the one to decide.
Nkateko: You’re absolutely right. That’s why we have poetic license; it is liberating to be able to decide what to do in our work, even if it falls outside of what is considered the norm or the status quo. Can you think of any ‘rules’ that you consistently break in your own writing?
My broken rule is called the unsonnet; I write fourteen-line poems that aren’t sonnets in the traditional sense. One such poem is called “fourteen lines make a sonnet or an overdose”. I initially wanted that poem to be a proper sonnet with a strict rhyme scheme, iambic pentameter, the works, but the subject matter of the poem made me decide otherwise. I am consoled by the fact that I first studied the rules before deciding to break them. It is a principle I teach in my workshops as well; learn the craft with all its intricacies and right there, in the pursuit of the perfect poem in a particular form, you will find your voice. The part of you that rebels against what you are expected to say or how you are expected to write, that is your unique poetic voice.
Jeremy: I think I have broken many more rules than I can imagine. Maybe because I think of myself as a rebel.
Breaking these rules come about through my poetic voice and how it is shaped.
My poetic voice has enabled me to better understand my strength and weakness,
and it helped me on how to employ my own voice to get the most out of my poem without fear.
And because of these things, all of my poems are free verse without punctuation and rhyme.
Nkateko: I love the idea of poetry as rebellion, both in the ways that writers craft their poems and in the topics that they tackle in the work. I am honored to be living, writing and rebelling in your lifetime. Thank you for sharing your brilliance with me in this conversation. I have learnt a lot from you. I look forward to reading your chapbook when it is published later this year, and to reading more of your other work in the future.
Jeremy: Thank you, Nkateko. I am delighted to be given this opportunity. I too learnt a lot from you and I look forward to being in conversation with you again in the future.
Nkateko Masinga is an award-winning South African poet and 2019 Fellow of the Ebedi International Writers Residency. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2018 and her work has received support from Pro Helvetia Johannesburg and the Swiss Arts Council. In 2019, she won the Brittle Paper Anniversary Award. Nkateko is an interviewer and director of the Internship Program at Africa In Dialogue, as well as the founder and managing director of NSUKU Publishing Consultancy. She is currently a participant in the University of Iowa’s 2021 International Writing Program (IWP).
2 thoughts on “Poetry as Rebellion and the Pursuit of Freedom: A Dialogue with Jeremy T. Karn”
Am so proud of you best friend..
I wish you all the best in your poetic sojourn.
the future is bright Remy, keep doing what u do best