"End the Poem Singing": The 3-minute Interview with Keith Leonard

With this post, we begin a new series at the Porch blog, "The 3-Minute Interview," in which we ask just a very few questions of some of our teachers and favorite writers. A literary snack, if you will—a handful of words rather than salted almonds.  

Keith Leonard

Keith Leonard

Keith Leonard, a Visiting Lecturer in Creative Writing at Indiana University, will come to the Porch the weekend of April 22-23 for a reading and poetry workshop, "Letting Narrative Lead the Way." Leonard's debut full-length poetry collection, Ramshackle Ode, is now out from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; a chapbook, Still, the Shore, was previously published by YesYes Books. When Porch instructor Kendra DeColo raved to us about Leonard and suggested we bring him to Nashville, we were all-in. Leonard was kind enough to answer a few questions for us in advance of his appearance.

Your Porch workshop will look at combining narratives as a way toward a new poem. Could you give us a brief example of how you've done just that in one of your works?

Sure! I have this poem called “Osiris Ode” (which was first published here) in which I imagine my friends ceremoniously burying my body by planting corn in curved rows on my gravesite. That narrative eventually gives way to a second narrative of how frustrating that unruly gravesite would be for the groundskeeper whose sole responsibility is to make the cemetery look orderly. If independent of each other, each narrative is a little quaint—maybe even humorous—but together they combine to a become (I hope, at least) a meditation of living an unstructured vs. a highly structured life.

Tell us a question that you kept coming back to, or circling around, while writing the poems in Ramshackle Ode.

Well, I’m not really sure I answered anything, but I think that’s my intention with poetry. Besides the fact that I’m not all that wise, I was much more interested in poetry as a method by which I might poke at some questions I can’t answer. You know, some of the big ones—like why love? And that approach usually led the poems to wonder, and that—in turn—led the poems to an appreciation of my own small and miraculous life.

In your years of working with established poets and teachers of poetry, what's one approach or piece of wisdom that you've carried with you into your own classroom?

Maurice Manning once told me that a poem should never end in the emotional register that it began in. That might seem like a simple point, but I think it speaks towards what a writer and reader mostly want from a poem. We want change in the speaker. We want to know that something was realized in the writing of the piece, and that such knowledge has shifted the speaker’s understanding. And to go a bit deeper, I think that shifting of emotional register also speaks to how a poem might be an artistic mode well-suited to the expression of compassion. My favorite poems are the ones where a speaker starts out disgruntled and somehow—as if by magic—ends the poem singing.

Who would be present at your dream literary dinner party?

I’m generally a fan of intimate diners between no more than three or four people so I think I’d go with:

  1. Walt Whitman: I get the impression that he’s long-winded and has a big sloppy heart, so there wouldn’t really be any awkward conversation lulls.

  2. Lynda Hull: I’m an unabashed fan of her under-read poetry, so I could just sit there in awkward awe half the time. Plus, from what I gather, she lived an interesting life, so I’m sure she’d have some great stories.

And the menu?

Fondue? I’ve never had fondue, so if either of them have had it, they could show me what it's all about. And if none of us have had it before, then we would partake in the melty experiment and bumbling newbies.

Keith Leonard will read from Ramshackle Ode at the Skillery at 6 pm on April 22. His workshop, "Letting Narrative Lead the Way," will be held from 2 - 5 pm at the Skillery on Sat., April 23. Register here. —Susannah Felts