Les Kay is the author of Fronts (Sundress Publications, forthcoming 2016). He is also the author of the chapbooks The Bureau (Sundress Publications, 2015) and Badass (Lucky Bastard Press, 2015), as well as co-author (with Sandra Marchetti, Allie Marini, and Janeen Pergrin Rastall) of the collaborative poetry chapbook Heart Radicals (ELJ Publications, 2016). His poems have been published widely in journals such as Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, The Collagist, The McNeese Review, Redactions, Santa Clara Review, South Dakota Review, Whiskey Island, and The White Review. Les holds a PhD in English and comparative literature from the University of Cincinnati with a primary emphasis on creative writing, an MFA from the University of Miami, and a BA from Carnegie Mellon University with a double major in creative writing and professional writing. Les currently teaches writing in Cincinnati and volunteers as an associate poetry editor for Stirring: A Literary Collection.
DS: Why do you write poetry?
LK: To change the world.
I know that sounds grandiose, but it's not. I think of poetry primarily as a didactic tool, not in the pejorative sense of the word, but in the sense that I believe any poem, if it's well executed, can teach a reader something about the world. Oftentimes, something about the world that's difficult to teach through other means, like prose or in the classroom. I recognize, of course, that there's a tendency to equate such a view or poetry with elitism—a problem that's been core to poetry in the English language since, well, "Caedmon's Hymn." And if I'm honest with myself, it's probably still a problem with my poetry, primarily because of how I think and the need, at least for now, to engage with multiple visions/versions of poetic tradition.
But let me be clear that I'm not talking about romantic or Romantic notions of a Poet writ large, stumbling down a mountaintop; rather, I think that poetry gives us access to all that is not ourselves and sometimes that which we are not yet. I honestly don't think there's anything that horribly special about me, as a poet, except in the sense that we are all—every last one of us—remarkably special. So my goal isn't to teach, necessarily, all the "important" things I know, but to offer a simultaneously tiny and vast prism on the world and perceptions of the world around us. So, in this way, I think poetry is a radical act, a means of resisting and hoping. A means of sharing knowledge that may otherwise be unquantifiable.
And I think that's part of how the world (of people anyhow) has been and will be changed, but slowly. It's not unlike the recent Doctor Who episode "Heaven Sent" where the Doctor, trapped inside a "confession dial," punches his way through a diamond wall over eons and countless lives. That to me is what the writing of poetry is; it's punching a diamond wall.
Or maybe I just punch the wall because of life's peculiar momentum. I've written poems for so long, why would I stop?
DS: What do you hope to find in poems written by other people?
LK: I want to catch my breath. I want to learn something, however small, about the world around us. I want to see that tiny sliver, like a crack of light in a concrete wall that tells me that this will be different. I want an experience, buttressed by craft, of what has happened, even if only through the contours of imagination. I want to see, hear, taste, smell, touch, sense what I would not otherwise know without the gift of that poem.
DS: What are your current writing projects?
LK: Well, I'm the sort of "prolific" writer who typically has a number of projects in various states of disrepair, so if I'm writing on any given day, the work could be any number of projects, so here's a brief overview of what I'm thinking about these days with the understanding that this is by no means a complete list.
A collaborative chapbook called Heart Radicals, which includes poems by myself, Sandra Marchetti, Allie Marini, and Janeen Pergrin Rastall was just published by ELJ Publications, so I'm spending a fair amount of "free time" promoting that. This summer, my first full-length collection, Fronts, will be published by Sundress Publications, so I expect that some serious editing work is forthcoming.
Aside from that work, I'm planning to revise what was my creative dissertation in a creative writing PhD program. I hope that will be my second full-length collection and pray that finding a good home for that book doesn't take so long or cost so much as Fronts did.
I'm also working here and there on short stories, particularly flash pieces. I have a chapbook in mind, but that's not quite to the stage where the entire manuscript can be sent out. So far, I've published three of the stories, but there are a few that need substantial revision before a publisher sees the book.
In addition, during the summer of 2015, I started writing a creative nonfiction essay about returning “home” to Texas from Ohio for a weeklong visit. It, somehow, became much more to me than a simple travelogue with scenes of family interspersed. In fact, that project became more in every sense of the word; the draft is over 50,000 words now and is growing. When I have time, this is the writing project I most want to focus on, for now.
DS: What are your hopes for the future of poetry?
LK: I'd like to see the audience for poetry grow substantially. I've long believed that our short-attention span, technology-infused, overwhelmingly busy lifestyles both need and want the tiny sticks of dynamite or swelling murmuration of starlings that can be found in poems. Read a poem on the bus, be transported. Read a poem during a commercial break and learn something that someone with too much power may not want you to know. Read a poem before bed and see that your mind, too, might reach vistas that even the best of films can only approach.
In some ways, I've found myself both baffled and fraught by the relatively limited reach and cultural import that poetry has in this country from the perspective of every poet who is not Billy Collins. This is not to suggest, as has been suggested in decades past, that poets should change what they do to make it "easier," "more relevant," or "more exciting." Poetry is already all of those things, though its ease is relative and frequently mistaken as something altogether different. I honestly don't think poets (for the most part) should change a damn thing other than what they are already changing in order to write what they need and want to write in the way that they need and want to write it. I think, instead, that publishers and editors ought to question, deeply, their business models. No one should have to pay a dime to have their poems read. They should need, only, to write good poems. Moreover, all of us involved with poetry, including teachers and writers, should be clear about what poetry does. It is not the answer to a quiz question or an esoteric religion or a complex puzzle. It is—even its most emotionally difficult forms—a technology and art that points the way toward joy.
And who doesn't want that?