Ashley Keyser

Interviewed by Eileen Rush

Rather than being plainspoken, your work has both highbrow and lowbrow elements. You revive words that aren’t common and combine them with words newly invented. I’m thinking of “bitty Bible. / The mates skip courtship for midlife’s bitter harangues,/ kvetching as they hump.” This is part of the playfulness in your poems. I get the sense that you are playing as the poem moves along.

I am, because there’s a lot of room for play within our language. English allows for direct, terse, consonant-heavy speech, and it’s also studded with little polysyllabic Latinate jewels. Last year, I was drafting a series of erotic poems for each letter of the alphabet, so I spent a lot of time with a dictionary. That felt like looking into a high-powered telescope.

I’ve also lucky to have had mentors who are deft with wordplay, like Averill Curdy and Sidney Wade. They’re incredibly stylish poets, and a rare breed. Many writers are suspicious of extravagant style, because they equate plain speech with truth, even though words are artificial at bottom. There should be room, of course, for all poets at the table, but when I talk to minimalists, I feel like a glutton dining with a Soylent enthusiast.

While I’m bored by “language poetry,” which is just word salad, I’d love to see more playfulness in verse. We are not vestal virgins married to high art; we want to have some readers, and so we should try to actually entertain them. We live in scary, infuriating times, so there’s an impulse to take on a somber dirge of a poetic voice. But that is not always the most interesting or appropriate choice. In the poetry of someone like D. A. Powell, say, there’s always a great deal at stake, but also so much cheekiness, bawdy humor, music, and joy.

The New York Times quotes museum curator Joanna Ebenstein as saying of the exhibit featuring “The Kittens’ Wedding”: “It’s such a perfect object, with a tension between the perverse and the adorable.” Do you agree? This tension seems to go along with a lot of things you’re interested in—grotesque Victorian prim innocence.

That’s a wonderful quote, and yes, I love unholy marriages like that: highbrow and lowbrow, as you mentioned, and perverse and adorable, raw and ornamented. But the Victorians were never innocent, and that’s what drew me, in part, to this bizarre bit of taxidermy. The Victorians were all freaks. Walter Potter, I’m sure, just wanted to make a cute little wedding with kittens, albeit dead kittens. Look, though, at the artwork of his contemporaries. The Pre-Raphaelites’ paintings, or novels like The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dracula –they reek of morbid sexuality. Queen Victoria herself loved having sex with Albert. Insatiably. They had about a million children.

That fetid, hungry kind of lust also surrounded me while living here in Gainesville, when I first encountered Potter’s work.

Wallace Stevens’ “O Florida, Venereal Soil.” There is this permeating sex energy here. Things are always procreating. There’s never a resting period, that downtime when the natural world seems fallow.

And nature is always on the verge of taking back what belongs to it. My house was forever under siege by termites, roaches, lizards. Or like on your porch here, really disgusting cats. Engorged, flea-ridden cats. They’re such sluts.

They don’t discern. [Rises to feed cats on porch.]

If you stopped feeding the cats, they would just go to one of the other ten porches where there’s food left out. They just use you.

Yeah, you like the dead ones a lot more than the live kittens.

That’s not true!

I want to go back to this juxtaposition of highbrow and lowbrow words. Is there something erotic about that juxtaposition itself? Is there something sexy about the way that you are writing these poems in Subtropics, or your series of alphabetized erotic poems?

I’m sure a less charitable reader than you might say that I am indeed getting off on my poems. But of course, language is the most erotic thing there is. As in, I might describe to you some sexy thing and you will be forced to imagine it.

That combats the idea that sex should be some unspoken tension

Or the idea that it’s above words in some way. None of us are above sex, and we say all kinds of banal garbage in the bedroom that still has the power to affect us. It’s like what Flaubert says, “Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when we long to inspire pity in the stars.” So yes, mingling “high” with “low” language is absolutely erotic—at least for me, as it illustrates my own paradoxical experience of sexuality and romantic love. If I’m doomed to beat out tunes for bears, I might as well use words that are vulgar or colloquial or even silly, because that tension, between crass and elevated desires, is very human.  [Keyser struggles to open miniature bottle of champagne.]

It’s OK. You’re a poet, you’re not supposed to be strong.

It’s just – it’s the condensation on the bottle.

Yeah, it’s the condensation. You want me to do it? [Champagne is opened.] Your second poem in this issue of Subtropics draws on the time you spent in Ukraine. Can we talk about that experience?

I moved to Ukraine in 2010 and came back at the end of 2012. You and I have been talking about contradictions, and that’s a good way to characterize those years: contradictory. My father’s grandmother, Yetta, came from Kiev, but no one in my family has any Old World nostalgia. Late in her life, Yetta still could remember hiding from the Cossacks who harassed Jewish families like hers. But today Ukrainians treasure the Cossack as a folk hero, like a cowboy. The Jewish presence in the country is so small now, as if no Jews ever lived there. At the same time, as an American in a country village, I was conscious of my privilege, my freedom to return to a comfortable life.

I’ve written a lot about Ukraine, but “Scythian Barrows” is one of few poems which have satisfied me so far. You take on an almost bewildering responsibility when you write about others, whatever your attitude, because you set yourself up as their judge. That doesn’t mean you have to be nice—and I am often critical or bitchy in all my poems—but you have to own that responsibility, and own the risk of getting it wrong.

Did these things lock into place for you with the Ukrainian conflict? At the end of this poem, the crisis that started in 2013 is rumbling towards these people, it’s there.

No, nothing locked into place, it became more confusing. In “Scythian Barrows,” I tried to weave some uncertainty into the poem, along with my mixed feelings in regard to Sergei—sympathy, condemnation, self-disgust, desire. I think that’s the only honest way to write about other people, and especially about a country that isn’t yours: never being too rigid about your impressions. Still, when writing in the shadow of an ongoing crisis, I have to accept an even greater risk of coming off as tone-deaf or shortsighted. No one here cared about Ukraine in 2012. Now in the States, there’s a highly politicized conversation about that region, particularly in connection to Russia.

There are so many people who think that art and politics don’t belong together.

Or the reverse, that if art isn’t overtly political, then the artist isn’t paying enough attention. A front-page New York Times article, the other day, lauded all these reams of political, anti-Trump verse, calling it more relevant than the past century’s “confessional” poetry. That’s lazy literary history, and it’s a false dichotomy. Poets should not restrict themselves to either public or private languages—that is, to the speech of journalists, politicians, activists, or to the navel-gazing of a diary entry. The best poets draw on both levels of experience, that of our workaday selves and secret selves, to create original kinds of language. As for relevancy, it’s relative. The poem that tries to please everyone will please no one, because it’s insipid. The poem that sounds irrelevant to one reader may be the poem someone else has always been waiting for.