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Interview with Deborah Keenan

April 7, 2008

Deborah Keenan, author of this month’s Poetry Book Club selection Willow Room, Green Door, is a pretty darn generous person.  I emailed her (late notice, I admit) to see if she would be willing to engage in an email interview.  Even though she was just returning from a trip, she took some time to answer my questions, which I’ve included below.  I’ll post the discussion questions for PBC tomorrow.  Enjoy!

1. What was your process for putting together this anthology? How did you decide which poems made the cut?

I sat in a hotel room in Vancouver–my husband was at a four day conference. For the first time in years I read straight through all my books, and the new long poem, Willow Room Green Door. I made lists, looked for some common themes, really tried to ask myself what poems still were of interest to me, what poems I thought might have stood the test of a bit of time, which poems maybe echoed with the new work. I brought all my lists home, met with Daniel Slager and Jim Cihlar at Milkweed. They had done the same process, and our lists matched at around 90 percent. We had decided not to try and do How We Missed Belgium, since it would be disruptive to the book Jim Moore and I had written together. I had decided not to do the angel poems, Daniel thought we should do the whole little angel book, and so we did. At first we were only going to use a few of the Good Heart poems, since that book is still selling well, in print, etc. but we decided lots had been achieved with my voice in that collection, and to offer more from that book. I am very glad we did. Kingdoms was being written as the decisions had to be made. That is the one sad thing since I feel some of the poems from Kingdoms really work in the new and selected, but they hadn’t even been created when the choices had to be made. That said, I am glad that Kingdoms is represented, and relieved we selected August/No Rain, since it won the Pushcart this past year. I wanted the new book first, then a deep drop back to my first book, a book I wrote and published in my twenties. after that choice was made, then it just felt natural to keep moving towards Kingdoms.

2. Did you have any “a-ha” moments when looking at the span of your work, themes that seemed more distinct or images that have developed over time?

Yes, that my native landscape is burned into my consciousness. That the creek is a fertile and beloved and tormenting image for me. That war, Vietnam, the Iraq Wars, the war in Liberia, wars haunt all my books, make me feel dread about my sons going to war, that I feel hopeless as a person about war ever ending, and that I see myself struggle as a poet about that. That I have been on a very long journey to be at peace with my father, his alcoholism, his own damage, and how his damage harmed my family, each of us in different ways. That I have always traveled with the spirits and strengths of other artists and writers and musicians, that they are my companions, and I want them visible in my texts, want anyone who reads my work to see a pathway to many many other artists and writers. That I was brought up inside religion, and therefore remain god-haunted and stunned by the power of those abstractions. That animals play a key role in how I perceive the world, its danger and goodness. And much more!

3. It seems, especially in your newer work, that you are favoring the pronoun “she” over the pronoun “I.” Was this a conscious decision?

She is a very conscious decision. In the new long poem I wanted only those five brief moments in lyric I. She gives me enough distance to get my work done when I am writing, considering life, personal, cultural, political life–She allows me to understand that my next book will not be so driven by overt images/narrative glimpses of my own life, but will instead draw more from other wells.

4. I’m really interested in the pairing of the last two poems in the first section, “Willow Room” and “Green Door.” Did you intentionally write these together? How did they develop as you worked on your book?

I was always writing towards those last two poems, but many times in that summer I doubted the journey. I was very rigid about the book–it was written from June 1-September 1 in 2005. I wrote with my artist notebook on one side, my writing notebook on the other side–whatever I had written, saved, taped in, whatever art, quotes, images were up for consideration, the green door is something I have drawn and painted many times. The willow room lives only in memory, and only in the memory of the four people and one cat who saw it. I had agreed internally to use anything the world sent my way that summer–I was very low about the Iraq war, the many many deaths, the sense I had of never having earned my safety from war, then jolted that Hurricane Katrina happened, and my book was not done, it wasn’t september first, so I went deep with that, the images on t.v., my rage at my country, my trying to understand what might comfort or protect enough so I could finish my book not in a scream, but with some sense of a whole life, and a choice to keep going, to stay on the path, to keep honoring the personal in the midst of such despair. I wanted to honor nature, destruction, choice, my tangled up feelings about those who have money and those who do not, knowing that I also wanted to be clear I live a life of safety, work hard to keep money in the bank, all that. i feel the book in its opening and its closing depends on a kind of halting thinking, the book almost ends, then does not end, the poem, I hope, starts in mystery but with enough energy that people will keep reading. I hope this makes some sense. There is much more I could say, but this seems ok for now.

5. Could you expound upon the idea of “value” that seems to recur in your newer poems? Is this connected to the idea of “being good” from Good Heart?

Value is a word I first learned in art class, then came to understand in human terms–to have value, to give value, to say something has value, to prove with one’s life that something has value–I have been enraged about the phrase, Family Values, enraged at how the word value was stolen by those I felt judged and condemned so many groups and individuals who I hold dear in my life and my own value system–so, I wanted to take the word away, reclaim it, and yes, I believe (though I hadn’t thought about it as you phrased it) that it is tied to the difficult thinking and feeling I’ve done my whole life about goodness, and what I value in human life and endeavors. I wanted to say–if the word value can be corrupted in this way (from my point of view, of course) then give it back to the painters, the instructors, and let them own the word and make art, not ruthless pronouncements about the GLBT community, or about whomever the family values folks decide to hate. Anyway–from my point of view as an older woman with four kids and many many many beloved students, many friends and comrades in life, love, compassion, generosity and kindness, my own version of ‘prayer without ceasing’ –that is what matters at the end of the day–to never stop striving towards wisdom, acceptance, to never stop thinking, working towards peace.


One Comment
  1. April 8, 2008 8:16 pm

    This is terrific. It is great to have her thoughts right here!

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