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Q&A with Poetry Contributor Kevin McLellan

Kevin McLellan is the author of Hemispheres (Fact-Simile Books, forthcoming), [box] (Letter [r] Press, 2016), Tributary (Barrow Street, 2015), and Round Trip (Seven Kitchens Press, 2010). He won the 2015 Third Coast Poetry Prize and Gival Press’ 2016 Oscar Wilde Award, and his poems have appeared in several journals, including American Letters & Commentary, Colorado Review, Crazyhorse, Kenyon Review, Sonora Review, West BranchWestern Humanities Review, and Witness. Kevin lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His poem “Own/Now” will be featured in the Spring 2017 Premium Edition of Carve. Preorder or subscribe by Sunday, April 2, for special savings and discounts.

In "Own/Now," the title words are anagrams separated by a slash. It occurs to me that the title may be read as a command to own the present. It might be interpreted as now being the only thing one can own. The slash can indicate a break, a pause, or a division between the words. It may even serve as an equalizer. The slash in the poem is versatile. Did you have a sense of its versatility as you crafted the poem?

“Own/Now” is from a manuscript-in-progress provisionally titled You. All of these You poems relentlessly use the disruptive slash (“/”). All of these poems are devoid of periods or commas. The slash is often in cahoots with enjambment and this creates more emphasis, or even pressure, on the neighboring language.

What sets “Own/Now” apart from most of these other poems is that the title also incorporates the slash/a slash. My relationship with titles is that I tend to consider them more, assess them, once I’ve read through a poem. My intention for “Own/Now is to make the reader pause or slow down before entering the poem and prepare and/or condition the reader for the forthcoming stops and pauses while also contemplating the title.    

Did the slash in the poem ever become surprising or achieve an effect you didn’t expect?

I feel like I am just beginning to understand the effects a slash can have on a poem. There are many failed poems from this series and I am sure that the risky slash is the culprit, yet it is exactly this risk — along with opposing responses to the slashes from editors/journals — that propelled me, held my interest, through the writing of all these poems.  

Which writers most influence your own writing?

I have been most influenced by, to name a few, Hans Faverey’s distinctive ability to examine impermanence and loss by making an action happen and then not happen by way of negation (Edwin Morgan insightfully describes Faverey as “…a poet of losses and silences, of meditations on change and how change undermines or strengthens our sense of reality”); Sylvia Plath’s unrelenting courage to explore vulnerability with “a voice like the thunder of God” (as described by Ted Hughes); James Schuyler’s meditations on the ordinary and especially when his exquisite mechanics substantiate transcendence; and Mary Ruefle’s uncanny shepherding and/or refusal to shepherd disparate, or seemingly disparate, pieces of intelligence that move in increments or leaps, thus creating language pile-ups or reductionist discoveries, poems that always risk everything for the sake of event-making.

The poem is deeply felt and concise. The language, image, and pacing work to create a movement and a meditation. If this poem is experimental, it also is in conversation with the canon of concision and clean lines. Do you think experimental poetry can or should separate itself completely from tradition? Why or why not?

Oh, a political question!

I enjoy all kinds of poetry, but don’t and/or can’t consider myself an experimental writer despite seeing this distinction as a compliment. I do engage in experiments, written experiments, and usually ones that attempt to employ first collagist and then sculptural techniques.

Please forgive me, but I need to begin to answer your questions with questions. Who is in the best position to make such an evaluation? Literary critics? Poets? The casual reader of poetry? Yet aren’t there differing perceptions and ideologies around innovation and can’t innovation employ already established conventions? Or does the experimental need to withhold ascetic, or specific, values? This is dangerously subjective territory, yet I believe that experimental poetry can and should incorporate and/or borrow from other traditions.