Yemassee Interview: 5 Questions with Kevin Riel

Kevin Riel’s poems “To a Sea Urchin” and “Sonnet with Asshole” appeared in Issue 23.1

Where are you from and where are you now?

I was born and raised in a funky, blue-collar beach town in San Diego called Ocean Beach. Because the airplanes from Lindberg Field used to take off freakishly low over OB (“where the ghetto meets the sea”), it made beach living affordable to college students, low-ranking military, the Hell’s Angels, junkies, drifters, hippies (like my folks), surfers (like my dad), and wage earners of various levels and backgrounds. It was a raucous, colorful, sometimes violent place to grow up. I now live in Claremont, where I am a student at Claremont Graduate University. Claremont is OB’s opposite: a sleepy, often desperately boring, college town on the eastern edge of Los Angeles County. Its saving grace is that there are a lot of poets who live here, and it’s less than an hour’s drive to the beach.

What have you been reading lately?

I have just begun studying for my qualifying exams in English, starting with my Early American list, so have been reading a lot of heartbreaking accounts of the viciousness of the first European excursions into and settlements in the Americas. The vulgarity is beyond belief. I think (/hope) that most people have a sense of this, but haven’t read much of the original material. I know I hadn’t, and we should, if for no other reason than to understand how the tragically familiar and persistent themes of our continent—racial violence and bondage, greed, natural resource destruction, and diseases affecting vulnerable communities—were initiated within the first couple of years of Columbus’s arrival. Also, several the US’s cultural characteristics, like obsessions with self-improvement, entrepreneurial hutzpah, and a proclivity for spiritual (you might also say psychedelic) experimentation were in evidence by the early 1600s. Huge aspects of our national character (viz. our demons) were maturely developed within the first 150 years of European conquest.

I’ve also been reading through The Racial Imaginary, edited by Beth Loffreda, Max King Cap, and Claudia Rankine (a neighbor (I told you Claremont had poets!)). Essential reading. And Ocean Vuong’s new book, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, can’t arrive in the mail soon enough.

What do you think is the most unique part of your writing process?

I dress up. If I am stuck, or don’t want to write but want to, I put on laughably formal clothes like a suit and tie. I got the idea from Dickinson, who dressed “wholly in white.” Getting dressed is a creative act, and certain clothes summon certain characters that you play/are. Lacking an all-white dress that flatters my figure in any way, I dress up to look as much like a modern version Yeats or Blake as I can—both of whom wore a kind of formal outfit when working. It helps. It reminds me that writing is both a professional discipline and a creative one. It reminds me that I am both at work and goddammit a writer (a self-identification I often sheepishly avoid).

What is the most valuable writing advice you’ve been given?

Trust me when I say that I am not in the habit of quoting Frost—who was, by most accounts, a complete asshole, which, frankly, matters to me, belies a failure of moral imagination, moral imagination being something that I prize in poets and their work (which his is mostly devoid of)—but his many insistences on the importance of tone (“Tone is everything”) has been a bedrock principle on lyric poetry for me. This is not necessarily advice, but is extremely valuable as a conceptual resource I carry in my mental back pocket. Every word has a unique sound, pitch, color, length, charge, attitude, history, class, aura: tone; together, words and their tones render distinct psychological atmospheres, personas, choruses, worlds, sites of ontological dislocation where reader becomes another. If tone is poorly handled, the lyric machinery breaks down. Defining “Poetry” is a mugs game, yet for my own purposes I am comfortable defining lyric poetry as: tones assembled with words.

I feel compelled to describe “To a Sea Urchin” and “Sonnet with Asshole” as poems that want to wriggle off the page, a quality I attribute to their sneaky sound-play and angular approach to their subjects. To define my experience of reading these poems more plainly, the turns in these poems surprise me, and so they seem to come alive. I wonder if you could explain your approach to the “poetic turn” in your work. And, more abstractly, what parts of the poem do you deliberately pin to the page and what parts do you leave to wriggle?

I’m so pleased my poems wriggled for you! And that they surprised you. My hope for each one is that they are always grasping at some reality off the page that the reader might become surprised by, curious about, and/or think more deeply or differently about. As for “what parts” are pinned vs. those that wriggle, a strategy that I am maybe halfway aware of during composition is: I like to include material that is familiar, perhaps even kind of flat and prosy, then turn it, contort it, rename it, reshape it, recontextualize it, defamiliarize, thus, I hope, surprise and provoke.

As for sound play, I am especially fond of “To a Sea Urchin.” It is a poem mostly about my horror at how much pleasure I get from eating animals (I’m like 95% vegetarian, 90% vegan). I also happen to love/revere animals (not enough, apparently), though I feel most animal (non-self-conscious body doing exactly what it wants to) when I am eating (fucking is a close second). In writing the poem, I wanted to play with certain sounds that, when spoken, activate the parts of the mouth I use when I am deep in eating. Ts, Ks, Ps, Ms—when I speak the poem it makes me salivate, the lips and teeth are constantly active in a way that feels connected to eating . . . until “choicest deforestation,” a turn! The CH and STs have the mouthfeel of drinking, are like this long, delicious swig of wine. The line also functions as, to use your word, an angular reference to the way our thoughtless consumerism is bound up with the destruction of the planet, which is to say our self-destruction. I/We can’t seem to help myself/ourselves. The pleasure is too immense.