Interview with Keith Jones on “Shorn Ellipses”

Will Flaherty talks with Keith Jones about the artistic, intellectual, and philosophical influences behind his chapbook Shorn Ellipses (Agape Editions, 2017).

WF: The epigraphs and notes section of this book reveal the project to be ekphrastic in nature and very much in conversation with the work of painter Cy Twombly. How did you become familiar with his work? What made you decide that you wanted to write about it or in response to it? Have you previously written other ekphrastic poetry, or was this a new direction for you?

KJ: It’s hard to know how and where to take up this question with respect to these poems and Twombly’s work, and the sense, additionally, and more complicatedly, of its ekphrastic dimensions. Bracketing the ekphrastic for the moment, I’d say my turn to Twombly’s work emerged out of a series of convergences. It really developed out of a strange, overlapping chronology that is entangled in two of my earlier chapbooks, one of which involved the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, entitled Surface to Air, Residuals of Basquiat (2012), and the second involving the duets of musicians Don Cherry and Ed Blackwell, entitled Fugue Meadow (2015). In each of these poem sequences I tried to inhabit, or tarry with, what I would call their historiographic hapticality, or, perhaps, their theoretical vernacularity—that is, the kind of thinking they were doing as painting or as music with respect to the longue durée of the Atlantic Slave Trade and racial plantation slavery, and the false universalism of the nation-state form and its tragic, brutal practices of policing who and who does not belong to the “human.”

What intrigued me—sustained me, really—was the kind of openings these works pointed to or made possible in thinking the ongoing relations—the ongoing structures—of colonial logic and colonial violence. Basquiat’s paintings and Mu, which is the title of the 1969 album of Cherry and Blackwell’s I think alongside with in Fugue Meadow, taught me how to say things, or think things, I felt or had been feeling—things I had been studying—but in a way that exceeded, or was irreducible to, the rationalizations of prose, of language, of thought that scholarship—or academic knowledge production—is prone to. Turning to poetry—not necessarily consciously, but intuitively—enabled me to protect (or just pursue) the insights and feel “argument” otherwise blunts. I think a kind of poetics entered for me (or entered me) in that way Aimé Césaire suggests when he writes, “Poetic knowledge is born in the great silence of scientific knowledge.”

The “great silence” Césaire alludes to is deeply related, for me, to the ekphrastic. Etymologically, the ekphrastic refers to a speaking for, or on behalf of, things which don’t speak or can’t speak, or speak differently—perhaps remain obscurely voiced when articulated within other domains (or normative modes) of “speech” or legibility. It often takes the form of giving (or projecting) “voice” to “objects,” to that which is inanimate, a “thing,” which, by definition, is (perceived to be) without speech. I’ve always been interested in the kinds of “rules” or “laws” (said or unsaid, but always felt, haptically, bodily so) which govern speech—namely, who is permitted to speak for whom, who is not permitted to speak or who is not even thought capable of speech, or, as I prefer, and specifically with reference to Shorn Ellipses, those things (or peoples) onto which a crushing, silencing objecthood has been imposed (but which, crucially, has always been refused, or radically dis-avowed, in a double-sense—both by those who actually violently imposed such silence and by those peoples who were violently “silenced,” though, of course, never completely, never wholly). My engagement with Twombly’s work—my first draft of this poem sequence—chronologically precedes both Surface to Air, Residuals of Basquiat and Fugue Meadow, and yet it was the writing of these texts that taught me how to think alongside, to name and un-name, the silences (and musics) that would become Shorn Ellipses.

Framing ekphrasis in this way is important because it points to the historically absent or the historically silenced as well as to those kinds of significations which refuse silence, preferring an aesthetics, or a poetics—or even a politics—of “opacity” (Édouard Glissant) or “misrecognition” (Fred Moten). My writing—and teaching—is deeply concerned with the specific historical problematic of who speaks for whom or who ought not speak for whom within the ongoing context of the archive and archival silence within colonial modernity and anti-black social formations. I’m interested in literature, art, music, film—in cultural expression broadly—that enacts a poetics of refusal; that speculates, tarries with, dwells in, and honors, these impossibly vast, impossibly vague yet determinate (perhaps determinative) moments in the life of various lives and in the life of various events and histories. In this sense a certain radical or innovative poetic tradition—the black radical tradition for me, uppermost—is less about giving voice to than a kind of listening with. So the ekphrastic dimension, or what might appear as such, for me is more a practice of adjacency that permits all manner of proximity to and intimacy with a general sort of singular thinking about loss, violence, subjugation, resistance (or fugitivity) and the impossibility of beauty within the complex constraints of so much ecological (human and nonhuman) ruin in our epoch of racial capitalism. I’m thinking the ecological, here, expansively in terms of worlds, in terms of a concatenation and entanglement of worlds (and of life forms and art forms) in that way that Stuart Hall thinks about when he speaks of “living with difference.” There’s also, then, an aggrieved dimension to the ekphrastic which carries with it an important, insidious ideological residue—let us say, after Saidiya Hartman, “the unthought” in its summoning—which is the assumed superiority of Western European cultural forms—the differences its traditions won’t take up or think, or do only as a kind of resource plucked, and thereby presumed rescued, from the margins. Even in its erasures and vanishing glyphs, Twombly’s work fetishizes the very graphemes and phonemes of the West. It’s a minor thing, I know, but I hope not inconsequential, that I tried to think (along with others)—in language, on the outskirts of language—what it might mean not to leave such “disappearances” in place. It is a small act—a “small axe,” as Bob Marley might say.

I want to add one final thing. I had my first real encounter with Twombly’s work when in Houston—at the Menil Collection—shortly before traveling to New Orleans for the first time, which was shortly before Hurricane Katrina. Where we stayed, in the Ninth Ward, would be underwater weeks later. Houston, Twombly, Hurricane Katrina, the Astrodome, the Middle Sea and the Middle Passage, the Caribbean are thus all bound up with this poem sequence—as is the situation, the catastrophe, in Puerto Rico now.

WF: Your work seems to have a consistent flow of physical descriptions and cultivated references that pulse through your poems like waves, leaving readers with complex visual and emotional reactions. These complex reactions are similar to that of which one would conjure when experiencing visual art such as sculptures and paintings. Would it be fair to say that your poems work to close the gap between written and visual art? What would you say is important about the relationship between language and visual artistic expression?

KJ: I appreciate your use of flow for a number of reasons, perhaps uppermost because it helps me to think more precisely this suggestion of yours that these poems “close the gap,” as you say, “between written and visual art.” I trust you mean this in the sense of “bridge”; in the sense of proximity, which I like and think is useful, especially as it allows me to emphasize how much I think of these poems as adjacent, or appositional, to both Twombly’s paintings—and their own historicity—as well as the broader historical context of his work as an artist. Which is to say I was interested in the various temporalities internal to but also surrounding the work—the “now-time,” as Walter Benjamin might say–of his particular glyphs and how they at once literally and symbolically marked time, foregrounding a host of non-linear temporalities. But I’m inclined to say that I think of these poems less as closing the gap than in inhabiting a space, a temporality of a radical openness, the space-time, the materiality or immateriality of the spaces or places between, the time of what is not enclosed or at the threshold of the un-enclosable. So “flow,” in this sense, gestures toward the fluidity and porousness—the improvisation, the becoming of language and meaning and song—crucial to (if not the crux of) this song sequence.

I listen to Alice Coltrane very, very often, nearly every day. She and John Coltrane to me, coupled, are like Aimé and Suzanne Césaire, chief theorists of the past century’s efforts at decolonial thinking and thought—that is, opposed to all manner or modes of captive, bondaged “being,” which is to say thought, which is to say possibility, which is to say beauty. I’m liberated by her and John’s sound because it is what made possible for me a comportment to the world which Suzanne Césaire once said was the crucial political dimension of surrealism—what she called a “permanent readiness for the marvelous.” I don’t know how this could have happened, but it did—that I discovered John and Alice Coltrane and through them became attuned to the possibility of a different life, of different worlds, and to the belief that the right sound at the right moment can transform the universe. I don’t think of this as mystical. I take seriously the idea of visions; I take seriously the presence of voices inside of us that are and are not our own—what we might call, ecstatic experience. The motif or refrain of “vessels”—unsealed, sealed; whole, broken (“leaking life,” as the poem puts it at one moment in the sequence)—is thus key to Shorn Ellipses. Flow thereby returns in all of its concatenating, interpenetrating senses; in all of its grandeur, ephemera, affirmations, and annulments—tidal, lunar, stellar flow; the flow of speech, the flow of peoples, the flow of planets, the flow of time.

WF: These poems seem to want to address things in a very focused, intellectual way—and yet they often seem to eschew traditional narrative conventions. What do you see as the relationship between exploring themes with emotional and spiritual heft to them—human violence, oppression, and atrocity, for example, all of which can be found in the pages of this book—and the aesthetic approach that refuses to give readers easy answers or obvious direction, and seems to try to leave spaces for the reader to participate in the poem in some way? What would your ideal hope be for how a reader would interact with the important, and sometimes heavy, ideas that these poems are engaging with?

KJ: In Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie, the main character, says, “my tongue is in my friend’s mouth.” I meditate on this often as a kind of practice for thinking rigorously not just Otherness, but our own Otherness. I do hope, secretly, but in an open secret (here I’m thinking alongside Fred Moten and Stefano Harvey) that all of my work (on and off the page, in or on the edges of language) contributes to thinking through how we might make our way collectively, changed and transmuted, as more beautiful, empathic, non-violent creatures. I’m devoted to the margins, to Ralph Ellison’s “lower frequencies,” to the kind of “evidence” that Steve Lacy and Don Cherry mean when they take up, and extend, the music (and thought) of Thelonious Monk. I like where places of many truths pool. And I hope others with all their Otherness will join me there.

I also believe with Hortense Spillers that, as she puts it, “if rigor is our dream,” then we need to be dreaming more systematically about a different world, an otherwise “wise” world, wherein meanings (and senses and signs) are not only more productively unstable and destabilized, but also more openly and avowedly relational and co-produced. Modernity and Liberalism must give way to something else—beyond racial capitalism, beyond racial coloniality, and beyond a concept of and lived comportment to an “earth” designed solely, it would seem, for the dominion of a self-sealed, sovereignly-willed, profit-driven “man.” This Enlightenment figure of the “human,” whom Sylvia Wynter refers to as “homo economics,” is a disaster, literally, etymologically, without a star, and yet it stands in, cosmologically, for the whole of creation. I think there is a tremendous amount of rich and complex work across fields, disciplines, discourses, and art forms that is (and has been) engaged in rethinking the deep and long problems of our historical present. I want to add to this rethinking, and I think more of us are, more and more urgently, sharing in and taking up this project. I hope these pages are an invitation, then, to actualizing (by jointly engaging) that project.

WF: Do you have any other projects, recent or upcoming, that readers who enjoy this book can look out for?

KJ: I find it infinitely fascinating, almost mystically so, that we tend to see a thing more clearly by looking away or looking at something else, often with what is called the mind’s eye. There’s a certain kind of lucidity that comes from what’s often referred to a “second sight.” It is what the Buddhists mean, for instance, when they say lose one eye and gain a thousand. There’s a long history here—anthropologically ancient no doubt—of such efforts to describe this weird, oblique sense of vision: of seeing what is not seen; of seeing what is not there by looking at what is. I think at bottom this is what “art” is, beyond the merely allegorical: a way to hold in place the looking at one thing that is really looking at, by way of looking through, another thing, which, as a practice or mode of seeing, transforms one’s understanding of and place within the world—and perhaps the possibility of living within it with Otherness differently. I have two projects right now, each in manuscript form, that dwell with this sense of the unseen but do so through various voicings, various kinds of “brief riff”—as one section of one of the manuscripts is called. But each of these current projects is book-length, and I’m still trying to grasp something of that larger scale that is the “book.” It raises all kinds of additional questions for me about sequencing, about seriality, about the open field of the page in Robert Duncan’s sense, and so I am trying to learn how to carry an idea or a thought—or a series of thoughts—across a longer unfolding duration, if you will, without recourse to “narrative,” or to a sovereign, lyrical, teleological “I,” or to the dictates of a “theme.” I worry about and am trying to rethink not only what a coherent, bounded self means, but also what it masks; not only how it symbolically functions, but also what it disables, or annuls, in terms of thought. The two manuscripts at present are titled, repetition house, which incorporates much of Shorn Ellipses, and blue lake of tensile fire, the first section of which is also now out as a chapbook, and they each have this strange tangle of voices that takes me to the outside of “self” and leads me, happily, to the outskirts of language—of what is sayable; of what, when said, still remains unknown; I’m hoping to follow these voices, and listen along with them, and find moments at the edges of our worlds to get it all down and share it with others.

Keith Jones is the author of the chapbooks shorn ellipses (Agape Editions, 2017), blue lake of tensile fire (Projective Industries 2017), the lucid upward ladder (finalist for Verse Magazine’s Tomaž Šalamun Prize, 2015), Fugue Meadow (Ricochet Editions, 2015), and Surface to Air, Residuals of Basquiat (Pressed Wafer, 2012). His manuscript echo’s errand was a finalist for the 2016 Numinous Orisons, Luminous Origins Literary Award (Agape Editions) and the 1913 Prize for 1st Books (1913 Press). His chapbook the lucid upward ladder was a finalist for the 2015 Tomaž Šalamun Prize (Verse Magazine). His poems have appeared in Barrow StreetChicago Review, Denver QuarterlyFlag + Void, No Infinite, The Winter Anthology, Verse, and elsewhere. His prose has appeared in Consequence Magazine and Stylus, the blog of the Woodberry Poetry Room, Harvard University.

Will Flaherty is currently pursuing a major in Creative Writing and Literature at Binghamton University in his senior year. He has enjoyed writing creatively for as long as he can remember. His passion for the written, musical, and performing arts is reflected through his extracurricular involvement on campus: his writing is published in student literary magazines, he performs at poetry readings, stars in student production plays, and can be heard through the airwaves as a college radio disc jockey. In his spare time, he enjoys playing and listening to music, hiking and camping in the Adirondacks, and playing pickup soccer.

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