HE WAS ONCE MY STUDENT
KEVIN CAREY with Rod Kessler
Jesus Was a Homeboy
(CavanKerry Press, 2016)
If it hadn’t been official before, it’s official now: as soon as Garrison Keillor of NPR’s Writer’s Almanac recited “Reading to my kids” from the just-published collection, Jesus Was a Homeboy, we knew that its author Kevin Carey, my one-time graduate student, now friend and artistic colleague, had made a permanent spot for himself on the nation’s literary map. It’s more than Garrison Keillor. Carey just enjoyed the spotlight at the Dodge Poetry Festival, and he’s on the program of the upcoming AWP convention in Washington, D.C. Besides this new book, Carey has also put out The Beach People in 2014 and The One Fifteen to Penn Station in 2012. And that’s just his poetry. His movie scripts have been acclaimed (he co-wrote Peter’s Song) and his one-act plays have been brought to life on stages in New Hampshire and in Massachusetts (his home state). He’s a filmmaker, too— co-director and co-producer (with fellow poet Mark Hillringhouse) of the documentary All That Lies Between Us, a portrait of New Jersey poet Maria Mazziotti Gillan. And now Carey and Hillringhouse are shooting a documentary about Malcolm Miller, eccentric poet of Salem, Massachusetts, who died two years ago at the age of 84 and whose papers I am editing. With this dead poet between us, I see a lot of Kevin Carey these days, often behind the lights and camera. There’s more that connects us. Over two decades ago, he was taking my workshop classes and other English courses at Salem State (Do you think he earned A’s? Read on). He was recently hired—after years in the trenches as a part-timer, fill-in, and adjunct—to take my place on the creative writing faculty. We met over coffee to talk about Jesus Was a Homeboy, and then our conversation spilled over onto the Internet.
Rod Kessler (Rail): On October 17, Garrison Keillor chose “Reading to My Kids,” the poem you placed at the very end of your new collection, to read on Writer's Almanac on NPR—a radio program with an estimated audience of over 2.4 million weekly:
Reading To My Kids
When they were little I read
to them at night until my tongue
got tired. They would poke me
when I started to nod off after twenty pages
of Harry Potter or Lemony Snickett.
I read (to them) to get them to love reading
but I was never sure if it was working
or if it was just what I was supposed to do.
But one day, my daughter ( fifteen then)
was finishing Of Mice and Men in the car
on our way to basketball.
She was at the end when I heard her say,
No, in a familiar frightened voice
and I knew right away where she was,
“Let’s do it now,” Lennie begged,
“Let’s get that place now.”
“Sure, right now. I gotta. We gotta,”
and she started crying, then I started crying,
and I think I saw Steinbeck
in the back seat nodding his head,
and it felt right to me,
like I’d done something right,
and I thought to myself, Keep going,
read it to me, please, please, I can take it.
What was that experience like for you?
Kevin Carey: I was so surprised. I’ve listened to Garrison many times. To hear my poem in his voice was a little surreal. I’ve known poet friends who have had their poems read there; I just never thought it would happen to me. When you put the numbers out there like that it makes it even more surreal. I’m grateful and overwhelmed by it. He reads it well. Both my kids were home for the weekend. I woke them up to tell them before I left the house this morning.
Rail: With the passing of a few more days, have there been any more consequences of your poem’s appearance on Writer’s Almanac? Book sales up? Heard from eager editors? Long lost friends? Is it a life-changing experience or does life-as-usual quickly reassert itself?
Carey: I did get emails from folks I haven’t talked to in ages who heard it on the radio. Last Saturday (Oct. 22) I read at the Dodge Poetry Festival in Newark, N.J. It was one of the highlights of my writing life. We were seated in the front pew of a Baptist church, and I heard a man behind me say, “I came to see this guy after I heard his poem on NPR.” I have received some really surprising comments like that one and some wonderful acknowledgements from old friends. One of them, a retired teacher from Vermont, told me a former student sent the link to him. Yesterday I got a message asking if I wanted to read at a college in Western Mass. I’m not sure if it had anything to do with the broadcast, but the timing might be an indicator. It’s been a good few weeks for my poetry. Someone said this could be the start of bigger things. I told them it’s more likely that I’ve peaked. It’s early to say if it will sell more books. I do know I’ll have trouble reading that poem in public now, having to follow Garrison Keillor.
Rail: It’s comforting to think that Keillor keeps up with new poetry. I can’t. Can you? Last year’s listings of the best poetry collections of 2015 included ten titles selected by the New York Times, sixteen by Buzzfeed, and five by the Washington Post—together a total of thirty-one best works. Of these, only two—Tony Hoagland’s and Juan Felipe Herrera’s—appeared on more than one list. There’s evidently no consensus about what’s the best poetry—and, in any case, a ton of poetry is being published. The Times’s David Orr notes, “The poetry books published in a given calendar year usually take up about 18 cubic feet of space, and would thus fit comfortably into the average refrigerator.” You have a life as busy as any: you’ve been carrying a heavy teaching load, you’ve been working as a filmmaker, you’ve got your family life—you’ve even been coaching seventh grade basketball. Can you keep up as a reader of contemporary poets? Are they influencing you? And if not, who are the poets whose work you go back to or see as models?
Carey: It always starts with Phil Levine. He’s the reason I got into writing poetry, those narrative Detroit poems, that kind of poetic storytelling. I was lucky to see him read some of those poems at the Mass Poetry Festival a couple of years ago before he passed away. I’m a fan of Charles Simic, Franz Wright, Rita Dove, Gerry Stern, Ruth Stone, Billy Collins, and recently Dennis Johnson. I’m also lucky to be friends with some great local poets, January O’Neil, J.D. Scrimgeour, Jennifer Martelli, Jennifer Jean, and Colleen Michaels. The New Jersey poetry scene has been an influence on me as well, Maria Mazziotti Gillan, Bob Evans, Mark Hillringhouse, Laura Boss to name a few. There’s a lot out there to draw from.
Rail: Yes, Philip Levine. When you were a student in my grad classes twenty or so years ago at Salem State we read him together—in that class on contemporary American poets, the one literature class I was ever assigned. You were a regular as well in the writing workshops I usually ran. Now, at Salem State still—perhaps in the same classrooms—you’re teaching graduate-level workshops yourself. How has stepping into the full-time tenure-track scene affected you as a poet?
Carey: I am grateful for my experience at SSU, your classes especially. In your classroom, you had a way of making me (and others) feel welcome. That was a big deal for a guy who had come back to school after a long time away. I try to do the same for my students now. I said to someone the other day, “I’ve had a lot of jobs in my life, this is the best gig I’ve ever had.” To be a homegrown product of SSU and to be able to work on the same campus that set my writing dreams in motion makes me a lucky guy.
As a poet, it’s a blessing to have the job of teaching poetry (as least part of the time). There’s nothing more fulfilling than sharing what you’ve learned with eager young writers, igniting the flame that was lit for you in the same way. Plus there’s often a reciprocal effect. There are days, when discussing or writing with my students, when I feel I am learning as much as I am teaching.
Rail: Do you remember what years you were taking those graduate courses at Salem State—early 1990s, right? There you sit in my memory—you and your pal Eddie Boyle, two affable and agreeable older grad students, not very much younger than I. And I knew of your interest even then in filmmaking and thought of you two as blue collar guys—you came to us, at least, from the world of day jobs. You were certainly a competent writer, but by no means a stand-out. I’ve kept my notebooks and see that in our poetry workshop in the spring of 2003, you received a B+. And you earned a B+ the next semester in the fiction workshop. I was always an easy grader, and many of your workshop-mates earned A-’s and A’s. But you’re the only one (well, there’s Joe Salvatore, too) who would go on to publish three books, albeit with twenty-or-so years intervening. Way back then, did you sense at all how things would go for you? Do you think I missed seeing what you had in you? Is there a lesson in this for us workshop leaders and writing professors?
Carey: I think the grades in those workshops were fair for the work I was doing then (perhaps even generous). It’s funny you bring them up. When I remember those classes, I don’t remember that part of it (the academics). I remember being excited to have the experience. There was a lot going on in my life during those years, including my wife giving birth to two kids. I knew I wanted to write, and those workshops gave me the confidence to keep at it. I’m sure many of the other students were writing things that were much more polished and worthy of higher grades. I remember I was pushing coffee in the mornings back then, working construction, dipping my feet into the filmmaking world, yet something made me take those classes when I did, long before I ever matriculated into an MA program. You mention my friend Ed. We wrote a few things together back then (and still do today) so I think maybe we might have decided to jump into to a workshop to help with the things we were collaborating on. I never imagined I’d be doing the things I’m doing now. I have worked at it, though. I may not always be the brightest penny in the room, but I am a hard worker.
Rail: Let’s talk about Jesus Was a Homeboy. In such poems as “The Home Movie,” “Same Old Story,” and “Coffee Shop,” you incorporate not only imagery but terminology as well from the world of your other art, filmmaking. The effects can be striking for their freshness and precision, as here, in “Poetry Snob”:
Then they each grab a piece of the stroller and walk out
of the frame, and I roll-focus to the Maine poet...
How does having that “other art” shape your writing? Does the influence extend beyond imagery and language—say, to ways of seeing and attending? And does the influencing go both ways? Does being a poet make you a better filmmaker?
Carey: I do think visually with much of my writing, and as with filmmaking, I enjoy the idea of telling a story in pictures. I want the reader to see the different “shots” of the poem I am writing, so in that way, the crossover exists. I also find myself thinking in filmic ways about the editing and the transitions, about how to connect one image to the next. You refer to some filmmaking terminology in your question. I use that in a few poems, not so much to reinforce my filmmaking as a writing tool, but because it seems natural to think in those terms about storytelling, whether it’s creating a poem or making a movie.
It’s that way with the project you and I are working on together, “Unburying Malcolm Miller.” It’s a film about a poet and other people’s stories about that poet as a writer and a person. In putting this film together I feel like we are living this idea of “poetry” and filmmaking informing each other. At its most successful moments, the poetry moves the story forward while the story sets up the poetry.
Rail: Your poetry is overwhelmingly about being alive in the face of time’s passing and not about poetry as such nor looking self-consciously at the writing of it. But in that same poem “Poetry Snob” you comment on technique—alluding to Frost’s advocacy of form (playing tennis without a net) and extolling the importance of story—and perhaps you raise the curtain on your own approach/technique. How much does technical awareness and poetic theory affect your approach? Do you see yourself advancing or working out a method or philosophy of writing?
Carey: With that poem I am advancing the idea of storytelling in poetry. In this excerpt, it’s there in the ending:
But actually it’s not rhyme I’m missing, it’s story.
And just then I look out the window next
to the young poet . . . and I see what could be
a mother and a daughter arguing, a baby in a stroller
between them. The mother is smoking a cigarette
and she looks like life has gotten the best of her,
and the daughter, a chip off the old block, yells
something back and they ping pong insults
until they both turn away and get quiet
like all’s been said that needs to be said.
Then they each grab a piece of the stroller and walk out
of the frame, and I roll-focus to the . . . poet
still flipping her cards, and part of me wants to stand up
and confess my snobbery, while the rest of me wishes
she would read something human, something dangerous,
forget the net I want to yell swing for the fence.
I suppose I’m making that point because that’s what appeals to me. Poems that are driven strictly by “languaging” or word play are less in my wheelhouse. The poems I remember, the ones that have affected me deeply, are almost always about a person or a place, and something is happening in those poems, an event, a crisis, a loss of some kind, a dramatic moment. It doesn’t matter how they are constructed, formal or free, as much as what they say. I try to capture moments in a narrative and accessible way. Maybe I’m just not bright enough to write poetry that rhymes or adheres to a strict form. It’s not natural for me. I’m stuck to my own voice, often writing poems like long-winded sentences, or breaking lines for my own cadence. It’s a self-indulgent approach, but I do feel like the poem is a representation of how I would read it to an audience, and I hope it comes out on the page that way.
Rail: Among the poems in Jesus Was a Homeboy are a few about you as a homeboy, and a troubled one at that—“Sarasota Airport, 1984,” “A Holiday Poem.” You reveal to readers—is it for the first time?—the bad boy hidden in your back pages, a troubled and troubling you at odds with the family you kept your distance from—maybe at odds with yourself. I sensed that in turning to this material you were breaking new ground, and I wondered what was behind it. Aging? Death of a parent? Your own kid’s coming into his own?
Carey: It just seemed to be the right time, I guess. I wouldn’t say I never broached the subject before, but perhaps I might have come at it a little less directly. The personal poems that point back at me can sometimes be the hardest ones to write. My folks are both gone now. My kids are grown up. They know more about me. I’m not sure I would have written these poems the same way as a younger man. Aging definitely has a lot to do with looking back critically at your own life, your regrets. I’ll be sixty in March. It seems clearer when you’re firmly planted in the second half.
Rail: In such poems as “Things I’ve Lost” and “Not much to it,” one senses a preoccupation with the passing of time—with the slipping away of the past. Here it is in “Things I’ve Lost”:
Things I’ve Lost
My father’s wedding ring
my tax returns
my bronze baby shoes
my orange high-cut sneakers
my first Christmas ornament
my ability to play defense
on a basketball court
some of my friends (living and dead)
some of the wonder
some of the grace
some of the time I spent
looking for love
or something to fix me
that one week when I was twenty six
all of it lost somewhere,
that sick feeling in my gut
running to New York, for what?
That was the day I lost a big
chunk of it, the gray two-families
out the train window staring back at me
like the sentries of some ancient prison,
and I’m reaching out with both hands
trying to pull the day back from where it came.
And there’s an aura of sadness around this theme in the book. Yet in such poems as “At the car hop” there’s an acceptance of the future, of what’s coming—including death. What’s up with this looking backwards and forward? If these are your preoccupations, how have they pushed you into poetry? The book is divided into three sections. Are we meant to see thematic development along any of these lines? You mention approaching the 60 yard line in life. Is aging a resource? How do you see your poems working with readers still at the 25 or 30 yard line?
(I realize that this question points in some different directions.)
Carey: There is no doubt poetry is cathartic especially when it comes to dealing with loss or with regret or with aging. Thinking about a poem, writing a poem, can be a kind of self-examination, I think, a way to make sense of the loss, whether it be the kind of loss that manifest itself through mistakes I’ve made, or wishing I had done things differently, or just the natural passing of time. I do have periods when I think more about where I am, where I’ve come from, what’s next. There’s a lot of nostalgia going on there and a fair amount of wanting to fix what has already escaped me. If I didn’t write during these periods, it might be harder to deal with it all. I feel lucky, I guess, that I have poetry. It gives me the chance to come out the other side and write poems that celebrate the experience as well. Maybe folks who are younger can identify with the feelings or the similar situations. A poet friend once told me that poetry has a place as a historical document. It can show people how it was, how it was different “back then” or in some cases how it has stayed the same over time. The poet always hopes there’s universality in that.
Rail: Here I am, trying to get at the poems in this collection by probing the stage of life in which you wrote them—really, by probing the biography, the self—the consciousness and self-exploration of Kevin Carey. Am I right to do so? Would knowing the route map of your existential odyssey illuminate your poetry for the reader on the porch out there in, say, Peoria? On the pages of Jesus Was a Homeboy, you’ve created a self, an I, an historical I. Is that I part of your achievement or is it something, like a catalyst in a chemical reaction, that should disappear somehow in the reader’s engagement? Maybe I’m asking how and whether poems that are personal can transcend autobiography or autobiographical inquiry.
Carey: I think if I’m writing these personal poems well, then the reader can't help but paint a picture of the poet (me) even if it’s an incomplete one. I hope the guy or the girl in Peoria can relate to some of it on a personal or existential level. I hope my journey through poetry is like their journey. I want to be part of the same club, I want to connect with people. I do get a weird feeling sometimes writing so many poems about my life and those around me. A friend of mine used to say, “I may not be much, but I'm all I think about.” It’s true. I’ve written three books that all, in some way, have been generated from my own life experience. It might be time to move in another direction. How much of me can one take?
Rail: Many of the poems in Jesus Was a Homeboy, as you suggest here, evidently draw on memories, and one might be tempted to house the collection—including its short prose piece “Wishing Well”—in the bookstore’s memoir section. But doing so would ignore pieces that are not “personal,” that do not draw on biography. The poet’s eye also focuses elsewhere. A number of poems—“A Surreal Poem,” “Five Days of Rain Dreams,” “Heaven,” “Death Wish,” and “Waiting”—seem rooted in dreams, and others—including the title poem, look outward to the world of others (“The Center”), of places (“Revere Beach After Hours”), of social issues (“Justice”). What can you tell us about what, beside the unfinished business of memory, leads you into poetry? In “Get Thee to a Nunnery,” you allude to the practice of responding to prompts. Have prompts sparked your poems? What else besides memory and prompts?
Carey: Prompts have played a big role in my writing, whether from workshops or reading writing prompts or self-induced ideas. There is something wonderful about having your “back to the wall,” so to speak, and having to produce something within a limited time. This kind of generative, spontaneous production often produces the beginnings or pieces of poems that sit with me for a long time. Somehow the pressure seems to force ideas out that otherwise might lay dormant. Dreams are also great fodder for storytelling, the wild arrangement of images, the fantasy. I wish I kept a dream journal. Maybe I will after this. I like the way dreams can encourage me to take chances with narrative ideas. I’m trying to do more of that, as you say, looking “outward” after having spent so much time inside.
Rail: Can you recall specific prompts that led to poems in this collection?
Carey: Yes the “Nunnery” poem is about the process of the workshops I attend in New Jersey. “The Weird Kid” came from a prompt at one of those New Jersey workshops which was “write about the weird kid in grammar school.” “Bob’s Story” actually came from a story Bob Evans told me at a workshop where we had to write a poem from someone else’s story. “Things I’ve Lost” was an exact prompt worded that way. And I think the poems “Always” and “Revere Beach After Hours” might have grown from a prompt about “a job you had.”
Rail: A last, if obvious, question: What’s next for Kevin Carey the writer? What’s in the works?
Carey: The project of the moment is the Malcolm Miller movie. It’s in the editing phase with a few more interviews and some shooting left to do. I’m finishing up a new manuscript of poems as we speak and shopping two novels, a young-adult novel about a boy who lives in a junkyard (I have an agent for this one) and a crime novel set in 1980s Revere, Mass., where I grew up. I’m also working with a director to get a stage play off the ground by this summer. Fingers crossed on all accounts.
ROD KESSLER, after thirty-one years, retired from teaching creative writing at Salem State. Born in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, he now lives in Salem, Massachusetts.