Interview with Keith Flynn, September
Interviewer, Rob Neufeld
R: Could you give me an
example of how you teach poetry?
K: I try to upend people’s expectations, and give them lessons to help them when they leave me. Everybody has their own tool box, ways that they find their voice, ways that they construct their work. What I try to do is provide them with some of my tools that they can put in their tool box and take away with them. Poetry is language with a shape. Also, poetry, as Mallarme said, is made up of words, not ideas. What I try to do is break it down into its smallest components and to think about poetry from the inside out. Poetry is made up of sounds. It’s sonic architecture, just like a song is, but a song and a poem differ in that a song has to have metric regularity, and there are chord progressions that force the melody into collaboration with the other aspects. Also, typically, a song has a refrain, a chorus that you go to every time and that sets up expectation in the listener. That’s really what soul is in singing or playing, it’s playing behind the beat, finding out where the backbeat is, and then laying what you’re doing there. The expectation between the attack and where the actual phrase comes, that small moment where the expectation is created in the reader, that’s where the soul resides. It’s that expectation that becomes satisfied. The chorus also does that. The verses are full of information. The chorus is there to satisfy the appetite, and to repeat the information in a palatable way. But a poem doesn’t have all these support systems in it. It does, but they have to be invisible, whereas as song clearly shows its instrumentation and clearly shows its chord progressions and clearly has a melody going through it. A poem has to have all those same things, but the seams can’t show. You have to build your Frankenstein, but it has to be as beautiful as Marilyn Monroe so that the reader is seduced. The reader is seduced by rhythm. Rhythm. Rhythm is insidious and it’s the thing that we love most. It’s what our bodies respond to best. There are poems right now that are nosing around out in the dark trying to find readers to infect. That’s just the way it is. Rhythms, they get into you, and you can’t get away from them. When I teach, I ask my people to go away and, for every piece of music they hear, try to find out where the One is, the One that the whole piece is built around, how to recognize that. They should be able to do that in their own poems. There’s a One in a poem, a beat, a pulse just like your own heartbeat that should move through that poem and bring the reader through it. Most people have never thought of their own poetry that way. Once you begin to think about poetry in terms of sound, and in terms of the smallest components of sound, and how you build those sounds into a complete sonic architecture that the poem can be rigged upon, then you’ll never think about your poetry again the same way.
R: It’s interesting that you start off talking all about sound.
K: I used to be a singer. I was singing in church when I was five or six years old.
R: Were you singing gospel or hymns?
R: Was there some of that beautiful, expressive gospel where someone is able to take off?
K: Yeah, and mostly I did that when I was a kid. Usually what would happen is I sang so loud that they couldn’t hide me in the chorus, so to get me to shut up the rest of the time, I had my own little lead that I would sing, my own little song, my own verse, and then they would get me to shut up the rest if the time. I was a lead singer in my mind when I was five, six, seven years old.
R: You were like those five-year old preachers!
K: Well, that was the expectation everybody had. I was baptized when I was eight years old, and most folks in my church thought that was what I was going to do, become a preacher there. When I went to college and we were going to go to law school…
R: Who’s we?
K: I think of my family as the royal we, I guess.
R: You were the hope for your family?
K: Well, I was the first one to go to college.
R: This is Mars Hill College.
K: I went there on a basketball scholarship, and then, after two years, when I became a poet, which happened there, and I was nineteen, I transferred to UNCA and was the first scholarship student for their creative writing program.
R: Mars Hill College turned you from a preacher to a poet?
K: It did.
R: Wow. You may very well have had a genius for appreciating sound and movement. You just couldn’t help yourself.
K: Well, my gift as a teacher has always been my ability to hear out loud what’s wrong with a poem.
R: We’re talking about sound, we haven’t talked about sense yet.
K: When you take your car to a mechanic, the first thing he’s going to ask is what kind of a sound is it making? He’s going to be able to identify the problem based on the information you give him. I force my students to listen. We read poetry out loud, and then we talk about what the problems are. Most problems in a poem are either psychological or structural. If they’re psychological, it’s because the author hasn’t worked out in his mind the central dilemma that the poem was built to address. If it’s constructive, you can almost always hear that by a simple reading of the poem because something in the poem begins to bog down. Something rhythmically becomes gnarled or you can hear there’s an obstruction of some sort, and the minute you hit that obstruction, there’s something wrong with the poem, and that’s a pressure point in the grid of the poem that you can then identify as a problem. Once a poem has been rid of all of its sonic difficulties, then you can begin to talk about the ideas that work or don’t work in a poem.
R: You have such good ways of explaining things. Have you accumulated a large store of colorful analogies?
K: People often comment about how many quotable lines there are in The Rhythm Method. I think sometimes, if you can build an aphorism or build an idea, or give the idea an abiding image, you can then take the idea away and there’s that central metaphor in your head that you can go back to. There’s a little lever in your subconscious that will jump to that phrase over and over again because something got embedded in your consciousness. A lot of times it has to be a visual aid, but I think most of time, particularly in poetry, it’s sonic. Children learn language, I believe, to tell the stories that are already within them…It’s all built on sound.
R: You have a workshop on inspiration coming up. What do you teach in that?
Number one, how to recognize true inspiration, and separate that from the clichés and old ideas. How to know when inspiration is true and how to put it to practical use, how to seize a decisive moment and then apply it to your own writing. Do you know what I mean? My workshops are a frenzied affair. I throw lots and lots of information at people. Well, you’ve heard me talk. Typically, I will come back to a central motif that will be moving through the idea process.
R: Can you talk about a poem of yours that is a good example of making and revising and putting a poem to music?
K: “The Men’s Movement” is an interesting one. It’s in The Book of Monsters. R: What the story of that poem? K: It’s funny. When this book was published, I was twenty-nine years old. It was the last poem that got in this book. There are poems in this book I wrote when I was nineteen years old. The poems still stand up, I’m still proud of it.
R: Talk about how you built the poem, “The Men’s Movement.”
K: If you look at the first line: “I was thinking of Chicago and wind and Little Milton.” Look at all the n’s in there. Thinking, wind, Milton. Both of the ands are used as connective tissue in that sentence to keep the nnnnnn sound in your mouth, which in my mind is mimicking that drone of the wind outside your window. One of the things that’s happening is the sound begins to open. “How he hated the icy gusts that roa-oa-red through the boa-oa-rds from Lake Michigan so-o much.” One of the things about elongating the o’s through the fourth and fifth lines, you immediately start opening up the sound of the wind and the sound of the poem so they can take in more information.
R: Do you remember writing this poem?
K: I do remember writing this poem.
R: It’s a very personal poem.
K: It’s funny. I was listening to it last night. It was up on Facebook. Bill [Altman, The Holy Men guitarist] put it up there with a little weird mix on it. He put it up and said, “This is just a taste of the album which is coming.”’ At the beginning of the second stanza, I had written, “I am twenty-nine years old today.” It’s a poem about how every hill’s an Everest because I’m not a boy any more. Well, that’s very true now when I’m forty-eight years old, when I’m twenty years past this poem. Now when I recite it, I have a whole different interpretation in my head of it than I had at the earlier time even though the words are the same. Age colors all the glasses that we look through. It’s funny because I wrote this poem as a response to my tenth year class reunion. And I recently went to my thirty year class reunion. And yet the poem still works. That’s another thing. Twenty years after the fact, it still works. The truths that I thought were self-evident then, are just as important and probably even more applicable now.
R: This is a good poem to use to talk about The Holy Men because it is one that you will be performing.
K: What I do now is speak the poem. I haven’t changed anything in the poem except I’ve added two things. I’ve taken the phrase, “I don’t go too fast down this hill,” and turned that into a sort of a pre-chorus. After every stanza now, there’s a pre-chorus that talks about what did I do with myself anyway, “well, I don’t go too fast down this hill. I don’t go too fast down this hill any more. I don’t go too fast down this hill. I just prefer not to go.” And then it goes to a chorus: “‘Cause I am a man. I said a ma-a-an. I said M, I said A, I said N. That spells man.” So, what I’ve done is I’ve taken a blues chorus from Muddy Waters, fastened it onto a pre-chorus that’s a line that’s taken from the poem so that the poem is now almost unrecognizable as a poem or a song. It serves both purposes at any given time. The pre-chorus is taken from the interior of the poem as an idea that resonates throughout. Then the blues echo of Muddy Waters, which in some ways, I hope, makes people think about what the idea of a man was in the 40s, 50s, and 60s; and what the idea of a man is now, which are totally different things. The simple invocation of a Muddy Waters blues thing, invoking the wildly masculine idea of electric Chicago blues, to me has a resonance that helps transmit the real grit and power of the poem.
R: You say what a man is now is a totally different thing. How has being a man changed in twenty years?
K: There’s a line here that’s tongue-in-cheek about Robert Bly. “Well I’m a man I answer,/ or as Robert Bly would hasten to add,” his definition of a man is “a mythopoetic Iron Man on a spiritual odyssey.” I typically say that tongue-in-cheek and as absurd and ironic as I can because I always thought that Iron John was the demarcation point in his career where he decided he was going to be a guru and quit being a poet. He’s still a very fine poet, but the challenge of his poetry, the greatness of his poetry (went) through that prism of Iron John and the men’s movement. Also, the men’s movement to me is sort of ridiculous. Why do men need a movement? Men have been running things for all this time. One of the bedrocks of my thinking, too, is the idea of reverie or the feminine principle, and that we need to get more feminine decision-making, and more women making decisions in our political thought process. Men need to think more like women because women think about the environment. They think about the family. The issues that are important to women should be the issues that are more important to everybody because they’re the protectors of the family. Men are typically the protectors of their pocketbook, which they think protects their family. We’ve known for a long time that that’s one more way to make the nuclear family implode.
R: That’s interesting, one of the revolutions of the last twenty years is the change in the idea of family.
K: There is no such thing as a nuclear family now because we have more varied ideas of what a family is and there are now more single parent families in this country than two-parent families. In the twenty years since this poem was written, that has all changed. The beginnings of it were happening when I wrote the poem, and the poem I think foresaw all those changes. It even talks about Arnold Schwarzenegger, and it’s funny because when I talk about him in the song, I rhyme Schwarzenegger with Governator.
R: That’s another change in the poem?
K: I’m updating it for my audience.
R: So this is a major theme of yours then, the breaking down of the nuclear family and patriarchal ideas?
K: That’s certainly something that’s through all the work.
R: Do we know where we’re going with this movement?
K: We don’t necessarily have to build a new platform until we tear the old one down. It’s important that we have new ways of thinking about problem-solving. And it’s very clear that a lot of this is tied up with the environment. If we don’t protect the mother, then there’s going to be no human race. If we don’t think of the human race as a family, a single tribe, or as a global community, all of whom have to equally share the finite amount of resources we have left, and (if we don’t) think about those finite resources as a woman or a mother would, and protect the family, we are going to lose everything…The Lost Sea, that’s what that whole book talks about, and the new millennium. We can now see, as a human race, the end of what is possible.
R: How does your poetry achieve that end, of raising consciousness regarding these things?
K: It calls attention to them, first of all. The poetry, over and over politically talks about what are the big problems and what should we turn our attention to. One of my beliefs is we solve them by adopting a more feminine idea of decision-making and bring more women into the political process. I think that’s key…What’s very important is that first of all we’re called to action. We recognize the problem, and then we begin to organize to take those problems on. I think having more artists as part of the political process is also very important.
R: Do you see yourself going even further than you are now?
K: Yeah, and in some ways, trying to test the limits of what my talent is. I’ve got a memoir, a book of essays, and a novel that I’m working on.
R: You have a novel?
K: It’s called The Ropewalker.
R: We’re going to see some narrative.
K: Oh yeah. It’s about a one-legged Mayan circus performer from around time of the Mexican Revolution.
R: Did we see him in a poem once before?
K: That’s funny. Because everybody says, “Where in the hell did that come from?” And you, who know my work probably as good as anybody, immediately went, “That’s completely in keeping with what you’ve been doing all along.”
R: “Rodeo Clown” and “Belleye.”
K: Right. The Book of Monsters. This book set up the pattern for a lot of those things—Chang and Eng” in The Golden Ratio, which is a poem I’m working on right now to try to set the music and that’s a narrative.
R: Why did you choose a one-legged Mayan circus performer as your hero?
K: This is the only time this has happened to me in my whole life. The story started coming to me in dreams. I started getting bits and pieces of him, and he just visited me in my dreams, and I got the whole story that way. That is the cheapest, most clichéd bullshit answer in the world, and it’s the truth.
R: Now, you’ve been thinking about it.
K: Well, I’ve been thinking about the Mayans ever since I visited Mexico about ten years ago. I went to Chichen Itza, Tulum, visited ruins. So I’ve been thinking about the Mayans for a long period of time…It seemed to me, as 2012 approached, and all these people kept talking about the Mayan calendar signifying the end of time, and all these neo-conservatives were happy to buy into that, the onslaught of the Rapture. They love that…But the Mayans didn’t really believe that, don’t really believe 2012 is the end of the time. That’s just the end of the next Mayan cycle, the way they count time. They don’t believe the world will ever end.
R: That trip to Chichen Itza and...
K: Tulum. That had a lot to do with sparking my interest in Mayan culture.
R: What aspect of it really sparked you? Was it the calendar?
K: Well, it was those gorgeous structures and the fact that that culture was so sophisticated.
R: So, one of the reasons you’re writing this story is because you’re tapping into the Mayan culture.
K: Yes, but also I think what happened in Mexico at that time is a story that bears repeating, and he [the hero] is also caught up in the Mexican Revolution. There are all sorts of things that happen in this novel. He takes flight from the Mexican Army. He loses a wife and a child. The child is not killed, but is taken away from him in the accident that takes his leg. Because gravity is his enemy, he learns to defeat gravity slowly over time…He becomes a holy man.
R: Oh man, you’re providing me my segue. The shaman figure keeps rising up in your work, frequently with some kind of infirmity or mark of Jonah on him. And now you have this group called The Holy Men. So, what is your connection to the figure of a shaman?
K: We think of enlightened beings as holy men. I think what we all should aspire to is a sense of spiritual enlightenment that regulates and supersedes every decision we make. We hope to reach some sort of enlightenment. My hope is my readers are educated and enlightened by some of the lessons that I myself have learned. And I think there’s nothing that’s more generative of enlightenment than music.
R: So we should all be holy men.
R: But if everyone is a prophet—and I can see it. People participate in music; you’re teaching people how to do it with poetry; you’re talking about the feminine side. You’re envisioning a culture…
K: Not unlike Andre Breton, I know where you’re going with this.
R: Why did you create the name The Holy Men?
K: I had a song that I’d written when I was younger called “The Holy Man.” There’s a version of us doing that song live, 1990 or ’91 on You Tube, the Crystal Zoo. It’s a cable show that we were doing in Nashville or some city like that, and there’s a version of “The Holy Man.” The idea of everybody being a holy person, the idea of aspiring to holiness, was something I thought, yes, that’s a good thing. Also, “Keith Flynn and the Holy Men” has a lilt to it. It’s a little poetic.
R: You are so much a sound man.
K: Yeah, I needed something that would roll of the tongue and even have a rhyme in the title of it.
R: So, one doesn’t become a holy man just because of reading books and praying. There’s a painful journey.
K: Oh, yeah. It’s called sacrifice.
R: You lose limbs.
K: Yeah, you have to
make sacrifices. Being called to be a poet, to me, was like a
religious conversion. The only thing that I have to compare to it
was when I was eight years old and I underwent this spiritual
thing, and I was saved in the traditional Baptist sense of the
word, and baptized. I underwent some kind of spiritual experience.
I had a moment of enlightenment. I saw things.
K: Yes, I had a legitimate experience. I believe that.
R: That was a real experience.
K: Oh, yeah, when you’re Southern Baptist, they don’t just sprinkle water on you when you’re born. You have to be saved. You have to ask God for forgiveness for your sins. Now, I did that in the ways that I understood, being an eight-year-old boy. You know what I’m saying? Now, whether I believe there’s a God or not now, that’s another question in another conversation on another day. But, I’m widely read in the Bible and other religious texts. The Bhagavad-Gita, and I read the Koran at length. I think you don’t know what you believe if the only thing you’ve ever read is the Bible…You don’t know what’s possible. You’re very limited to what you’re thinking is. They, say, well, faith is to accept blindly. Faith is a belief in something that can sustain not only you, but everyone around you in moments of greatest distress or discomfort. If your belief system has any exclusionary qualities to it, then it’s not legitimate. Organized religion as a whole, for the most part, believes in exclusionism.
R: It’s hard to organize true religion.
K: Even in this book, the poem, “Doppelganger,” has a refrain in it “God is always changing.” It’s in bold. And every other stanza has it in there, and then God performs his “labor of rock, changing, listening, changing.”
R: You’ve talked about your novel. What is one of your biggest dreams for your work?
K: What I am hoping for is more of an audience for the work, to constantly grow the audience and to constantly surprise people who think that they have me figured out, to supersede expectations, and to upend expectations and provide people with surprise and astonishment.
R: What would you like me to say in this article that would surprise people the most based on what they think about you?
K: Oh god, I don’t know. That’s almost a rhetorical question that has an assumption that I know what people think. (laughs) Which I do not. I have no idea.
R: Wouldn’t it help you surprise them if you knew what they thought?
K: If I never settle for the lowest common denominator and I constantly surprise myself, I guarantee you I will surprise my readership. My own standards are so much higher, and the pressure I put on myself are so much greater than anyone else could ever put on me.
R: That’s what I’m getting at. What is the pressure that you’re putting on yourself now looking forward the next few years?
K: Well, to branch out into as many different types of writing as possible; and to try to tear down the expectations of what a poem is and what a song is. There’s an anthology that coming out from the University of Mississippi Press that’s going to be a ground-breaking anthology. I am writing the essay on the blues. Greil Marcus and Dave Marsh, Claudia Emerson, Kevin Young—someone of the baddest cats in the country—are contributing to this. What the whole third section of this book talks about is how songwriters have affected the poets that came after them, and vice versa. I had a poem in The Talking Drum called “The Horses” that I wrote when I was 21 or 22 years old. One of the lines is, “I want the strength to run among the horses, to be a being of pure sound, to make an orchestra of a single man.” Now, I’ve turned that into a song called, “The Horses,” which has been released one way on Nervous Splendor, and completely re-imagined for this combo. Now we do an acoustic version of it (with) the idea of making an orchestra of a single man who can play any instrument or understand any melodic thread, who is able to take all of the sounds moving through him and make art from it. That’s what I’m trying to do, and that way I’ll discover what the parameters are for this talent. If the last twenty years of my life are any indication of what I can do, the next twenty are exciting to think about.