Voices of Bettering American Poetry Volume 3 – Keegan Lester

What’s the earliest experience, or a stand-out experience, you can remember that made you realize that you can be yourself, write as yourself, and write about issues that matter to you? Has this been difficult for you?

Prior to moving to back to New York City, I’d spent the year in West Virginia working for West Virginia University and working on a book of poetry, and had also been a caretaker for my grandmother who suffered a stroke. The hardest part was leaving her, and I don’t know if I would have had she not said one day, “I don’t know exactly what it is that you do, but you have to go do it, and I think you have to go New York. So, go to New York.”  But she didn’t say New York because of her stroke. She pointed out a window at a cloud and made the shape of a building. And I knew some part of her wished she had had the opportunity to do something like that, and so I did it for us.

In the first couple of weeks of being back in New York City, I just felt overwhelming anxiety and loneliness and I ended up buying the book Crapalachia by Scott McClanahan, a writer from West Virginia. It was the first time I’d read anything where the characters sounded like my family and friends and spoke to the concerns I had and used a language that was both beautiful and gritty and utilized cadences that were authentic and it wasn’t afraid to show light amid dark and tow the line of sentimentality in order to explain devastation.

I read and reread this book several times over the summer. I wept publicly while reading it. I take it everywhere with me. After that, I bought every book McClanahan ever wrote. I started writing non-fiction.  My poetry began to change. It went from this thing where maybe I sought out gratification for a craft to be more of a gift that I wanted to share with others. Scott’s writing helped me believe I could accomplish writing the kind of stories and voices that mattered to me, that I felt weren’t being told or told complexly. His writing taught me how to move people. And for that, I owe him my life.

What have you been reading, watching, or listening to lately? What new or emerging writer do you want the world to know about? Who would you love to collaborate with?

Recently Elizabeth Catte’s What You Are getting Wrong about Appalachia, and every article she has written on Appalachia. I’m reading Dope Sick by Beth Macy and Emergency Brake by Ruth Madievsky. I’ve been reading Hanif Abdurraqib’s They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, (which I love) Joe Halstead’s West Virginia (which is really, really good) and of course Scott McClanahan’s new book, The Sarah Book. I’m always reading and rereading Richard Siken’s Crush, I have a copy which I take everywhere with me. I’m often reading Eva Maria Saavedra’s PSA winning chapbook Thirst. I pretty much love everything Jess Rizkallah has ever written. Camille Rankine’s Incorrect Merciful Impulses does all the things and is usually one of the first books of poetry I recommend young poets read. In my second manuscript, I’ve been experimenting with higher lyric forms and have been turning to Stay, Illusion by Lucie Brock-Broido. I’ve been reading and re-reading Carly Joy Miller’s Ceremonial, Devin Kelly’s In This Quiet Church of Night, I Say Amen, Ada Limón’s The Carrying, and find myself going back to Dancing In Odessa by Ilya Kaminsky and spend countless hours with Chen Chen’s book When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, who is also one of my favorite people. I’ve been spending a bunch of time mining Eduardo Corral’s poetry, both from Slow Lightning and his newer work, which is popping up in some of this country’s finest lit journals. In my opinion, his images and precision at the line level are the best in poetry today. My favorite poem right now is by Cortney Lamar Charleston “I’m Rooting for Everybody Black.

In terms of watching— recently: West Virginian Documentary maker Elaine Sheldon’s HeroineBlood On The MountainOzarksPushing DaisiesFriday Night LightsBeasts of The Southern Wild, Last Chance U, The Fall, The Thin Red Line, really anything that has complex character development. Music wise:  William Matheny, Nick Waterhouse, Leon Bridges, Robert Earl Keen, Charlie Parr, Blaze Foley, John Prine, The Shout Out Louds, Bahamas, Ray Charles, Sophia Rehak, John R Miller, Roswell Kid and everyone doing things in West Virginia. Chen Chen once told me I only listen to sad music and took over DJ duties on a road trip to Salem, so that might tell you all you need to know about my music taste.

New writers that I love: Jaime Zuckerman, whose poetry is sparse at the line with booming explosions, like being at a firework show where at this age I know what’s coming, I’m here for it, I literally left my house for the show, and yet I find myself unable to keep from losing my breath and gasping at the explosions of light in the dark every time I read her work. Kevin Chesser who is my favorite poet living in West Virginia, his heart and voice is everything I wish people knew about the place. His chaps are held together with staples and guts and stardust. Crystal Good is one of my favorite Affrilachian poets, never afraid to push, and she writes toward making West Virginia a better place and is also very politically active in the state house. Crystal is the real deal. Torli Bush is a young writer I met on tour this summer in West Virginia, who stopped my heart with his reading style, who comes out of the spoken word realm, and I figure next time we hear of him he’ll already have a dedicated audience and a booking agency behind him. He’s truly amazing. In my opinion, he’s the future of literary arts in West Virginia. Natalie Sypolt has a wonderful collection of short stories out on West Virginia University Press called The Sound of Holding Your Breath. Claire Hopple is another amazing writer based in Asheville, North Carolina whose collection TOO MUCH OF THE WRONG THING, you should probably order right this second because her writing blows me away. Rebecca Doverspike has a wonderful chap coming out in 2019 that I’m very excited about called Every Present Thing a Ghost and West Virginia poet Justin Wymer has his debut book coming out at AWP this year and all you need to know about him is “I want to feel believed./ If I tore my clothes into strips and / swaddled the spoiled orange would you / believe that there’s a light inside.”  Other up and coming writers I’m excited about are Caleb Milne, Isabelle Shepherd, Lydia A. Cyrus, Ezra Mars, Avery Williamson, and Nathan Thomas.

Queer Appalachia is a brilliant internet /IRL community space that I love, and one of their many projects is a print lit journal called Electric Dirt, which gives a platform to queer and underserved voices in Appalachia, the brainchild of Mamone, a truly amazing individual who fights homophobia, transphobia, racism, patriarchy, neocolonialism and neoliberalism and gives platform to millions of queer Appalachians. They will also bake your grandmother a cake. They bake the best cakes. Mamone is everything. They take up a large portion of my heart. Their lit journal, Electric Dirt, is filled with over 200 colored pages and has garnered $35,000 in preorders for their second issue.

I tour in the summer with the Travelin’ Appalachian Revue, which was founded by Howard Parsons, Tyler Grady and Bryan Richards and they make DIY zines, publishing some of the best writers and artists in the region. They curate events around the state often making special zines and stickers and prints for events, donating the proceeds to a slew of Appalachian, Feminist, prison reform and LGBTQ organizations. Their work inspires me each day.

The lit community in Appalachia, as a community, the participation is stronger and more diverse than many of the other lit scenes around the country I’ve experienced. It means more here to this community because these voices are truly ignored. And it’s such a large spectrum of voices that tends to get summed up as a “flyover state.” Because there is no infrastructure and little outside help to build it, people here build it themselves. All of the communities that exist in Appalachia whether we are talking about food, lit or music or whatever it may be, exist because there was a need. You just feel the difference when you’re there.

I’m rooting for everybody West Virginian and Appalachian.

What poets do you identify with, or feel you are grouped with by editors, readers, conference organizers, or educators? What misconceptions do you see about these groupings of poets? Do you feel these groupings can be useful, can be potentially marginalizing or disenfranchising, or can be both?

This one is complicated. Poems by Nikki Giovani and Rita Dove were how I realized in college I wanted to write literary poetry.  I had been writing poems my whole life but thought only dead people got them published. These voices made more sense to me, often speaking toward an America I more closely understood than say Frost’s.

I think I write towards what moves me on the page more than say who I might be identified with. I’m not sure I’ve ever gotten a specific kind of identification or grouping by editors. I love Mary Ruefle’s playfulness and turns, but no one will mistake what I do for her. I love Eduardo Corral’s images, the way he writes utilizing his spoken language, his movement between high and low image — which I steal from, but no one will confuse us. I love Asbury’s Tennis Court Oath, and though I live in New York City, no one ever groups me with New York City poets.  No one will ever put me on a stage with, Alex Dimitrov, for instance, and yet I feel like our poetics and worldview have more in common than me and Frank Stanford.

I’ve been called a poet of place, which can be a damning label, even though I grew up in Southern California, and have lived in West Virginia, Indiana, and New York City.  I write about all of those places and the places I’ve traveled. But I don’t know if I’d consider myself a poet of place.

No prominent lit journal / magazine will publish a poem/story about Appalachia unless it is in some way disparages the Appalachian or somehow brings pity upon them or shows them in a patronizing light.  America does not believe in the existence of Appalachian joy. America is truly not ready to see Appalachian joy, and much of my first book was just about talking about very mundane things that happen, places that have been hyperbolized. I live in a country where folks have been disparaged for living in trailers or hollers for decades and then rich folks that talk liberalism, that feed into mass incarceration, that live in segregated communities and redraw school districts, change the game by calling something a Tiny Home and all of a sudden freedom and living simply is not problematic.  In America, you are only allowed to live a certain way if you can afford to name it or you can afford to control the narrative. People in this country still don’t know that Appalachia is pronounced App A Latch A. People in this country still treat poverty like it’s a choice. We are not yet in the moment of this country where one can’t write a book or film that experiences commercial success about Appalachia unless one writes a book or a movie about Appalachian fatalism where people are destined to die early or are afflicted with drug or alcohol addiction because people only want to see my people after a mine disaster, or after opioids or heroine. For me Appalachia is more than that, because it’s my family and friends. It’s my language. For me, Appalachia remains the place I most find joy and community and home.  But I don’t own Appalachia nor am I any kind of a definitive voice for it. No one should be the single voice for millions of people, which is what I often find so dangerous about writers and artists being grouped into singular voices that are supposed to represent the thoughts and feelings and experiences of people they could have never known themselves.

I get called a West Virginian / Appalachian writer by people in West Virginia and Appalachia, and that’s all that has ever mattered to me.

I have no idea how others group me.

Any time I see a Lit Journal Issue that is all ____ or all _____  it feels to me like a calculated act, trying to make up for years of leaving out a historically marginalized people.  And what’s problematic is who gets the final say concerning who gets to represent for instance which Trans writers represent Trans writing, which Asian writers represent Asian writing, etc in America.

I think these single identity issues are more to show something of the journal complying with what they previously hadn’t and less of an act of changing literary landscapes. The only way to really change the literary landscape is to have revolving editorships at major institutions. When a person has been in one place for too long, I think they begin to wield too much power and this often further pushes editors themselves away from new voices. Kevin Young has made me fall in love with The New Yorker poetry again. Cathy Park Hong has been killing it at the New Republic. I loved the work Alex Dimitrov was doing at Poem A Day, and now with the rotating editors, it’s even more amazing. The revolving editorship currently at the Paris Review is wonderful and I hope it continues. If that was how all major lit journals worked, I feel, we’d live in a much different literary world. There’s so much poetry out there to be read and the more entry points we have, the better for everyone.

How do you feel about recent conversations about “literary success,” prize culture, personal brands, and the idea of “poetry business?” What are the best ways to support poets and poetry?

It exists. Brands exist because it makes it easier for presses to market people and books. We live in a society of capitalism, so the more definitive your brand the more likely an institution is to give you money because your book or presence represents to them a larger net with which to gain an audience for their institution.

You don’t always get to choose the ways in which your work will succeed, and success will always look very different to different people.  I think people get hung up on prizes. Prizes control the literary job market which makes it hard to discern them from actual self-worth, which is unfortunate.  For every famous writer we know, there are hundreds capable, who can’t break through, often because of the needs of an organization.

Though, the landscape is changing. I think it’s getting better. I must say the National Book Award longlist judges the last couple of years have been doing a tremendous job listing nontraditional presses and more diverse voices. Six years ago, these kinds of books would not have had the capital behind them to get noticed. And so that to me is a sign that poetry and the establishment is changing and that we are moving in the right direction.

I find that the term emerging is used at the detriment of the writer, often so they will work or perform at lower pay than maybe they deserve. I think it’s a term that an institution uses to say, “Hey poet, we discovered you, and now you are indebted to us for it.” Plus, there is no firm rule for what emerging really is. So, this idea of emerging is another direct negative consequence of prize culture.

When I think of prize culture in other fields, I tend to think there is more out there than the person that won a Grammy, or Academy Award or Heisman, or whatever fellowship. Often those folks that win are exemplary, but It’s important to remember how much is out there that people aren’t talking about.  So, I tend to take prizes with a grain of salt. I’d rather work to discover new work, because I know the same big poetry venues will tell me to go out and buy the same 8-15 poetry books every year. There’s just way too much out there to get hung up on that.

When someone says poetry is a small community, I find that to be a little misleading. There exists this large overarching thing that the genre of poetry represents. It’s like an ocean with an unfathomable reach. The genre has helped me discover all kinds of communities I would have never had the chance to meet or interact with. Discovering America through poetry for me has been more important and more of a marker of personal success than any award I will or will not receive.

If you let your self-worth or the worth or your poetry get tangled up in prize culture, you may never write the thing that needs to be written.

The best way to support poetry and poets is by reading, by being a super fan, by making sure people know that a poet has moved you and keeping yourself as open to the writing of others as possible.

What would you like to see change in the literary world, or how would you “Better” American poetry? Can American poetry be “bettered?”

If the poetry world worked more on termed appointments, I believe it would be easier to make entry more accessible to writers. There are people who are readers or editors for multiple major magazines/book awards and I think that leads to a culture where poetry is less diverse, is less about discovering new voices and more curating based on the needs of an institution. I think we should as a poetry community be striving for sustainable versions for promoting diversity. It begins with diverse readers and editors.

How do you feel about the ongoing debates concerning “writing outside of your identity?”

It’s appalling. It was appalling in Birth of a Nation, just as much as it was in J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy just as much as it was in Best American Poetry. People are still trying to live down Deliverance and The War on Poverty’s photography campaign. When your community is the epicenter of something appearing exotic to American Norms, you come to find that you are never fully seen.  When you are told from the moment that you are born that you represent something, and you see confirmation of it through the media and in the education system, no matter how bad or untrue it is, you begin to believe it after a while, even if you know it’s not true. And then your children believe it. It takes generations to fight a vastly held false belief.

I’m so proud of my generation of Appalachians who have done an incredible job taking back their narrative through art, cuisine, music, and literature.

Is there a particular excerpt from your work in Bettering American Poetry that you would like to share? What would you like to tell others about this excerpt (i.e. how you came to write those lines, where they came from, etc.)? What did it take to write this poem? What does it take for others to read/experience this poem?

The poem itself is about imperfection. We all only know what we know until we know better and I know in that way, I’m always trying to learn. Every day, I’m trying to get better. The best way I know how is to listen.

Listen to people trying to tell their stories and believe them.


photo of poet Keegan Lester posed in front of an orange wall.KEEGAN LESTER’S debut collection of poetry “this shouldn’t be beautiful but it was & it was all i had so i drew it,” was selected by Mary Ruefle for the 2016 Slope Editions Book Prize. His work has appeared in: The Academy of American Poets: Poem A Day Series, The Boston Review, Brooklyn Vol.1, Boaat, The Adroit, CutBank, and The Journal among others and has appeared on NPR and Chapman University Radio among other podcasts and blogs. He’s mentored for the Adroit Summer Program and tours the country constantly. He tweets at @keeganmlester