My Face, My Attention, My Soul: A Conversation with Kevin Simmonds
What I’m Reading
I’m reading four collections simultaneously: the new poetry duo from Marvin K. White, Our Name Be Witness and Status, both published by RedBone Press; The Dictator’s Guide to Good Housekeeping, a chapbook by Valerie Wallace and published by Dancing Girl Press; and the self-published collection Fuckin’ Poetry: Haiku for the Bipolar by Roland Frye. Marvelous collections—all of them!
Poetry I Turn to For Inspiration
Mercy by Lucille Clifton has everything in it. Everything.
I started writing 16 years ago, shortly after college. I happened to be teaching music at a middle school in Prince George’s County, Maryland, right outside of D.C. I know this sounds cliché, but during summer vacation I got pretty down about my life and direction, and I turned to poetry. It was gratifying to create something without needing anyone’s approval or objective assessment, and poetry, like my music performance and composition, was yet another way to express myself. I’ve said time and time again that I’m not very good at explaining things but I’m fairly talented at expressing things. And though I began publishing shortly thereafter, I wrote in isolation, sharing my poetry with very few people until some years later, when I became a fellow with Cave Canem. I continue to write for the same fundamental reasons: I can do it by myself without depending on anything from anyone. It’s like breathing; in one form or another it’s just essential for me to do it.
I am now a poet. It’s as simple as that, really. The inclination to do it is in me. My face, my attention, my soul—all of those things are turned to it.
Everything. History, historical figures, people in my neighborhood, music, dance, visual art, poetry, Japan—I live there off and on so it’s really inspirational for me. More specifically, I’m from New Orleans and come from a musical family. My mother played Motown records and jazz all the time. I’ve been a singer all my life and as much as I try to get away from phrasing and lyricism, I can’t; I just can’t. All of that is in my work. My cousin Mitchell was also a huge inspiration. He was a dancer. He danced for years with the Dance Theatre of Harlem, so dance also inspires me immensely. The choreography of people like Agnes de Mille, Ulysses Dove, Alvin Ailey, Sankai Juku (a Japanese Butoh dance ensemble), the list really goes on and on.
Favorite Line of Poetry—Ever
The final stanza (and it’s one long line) of Richard Ronan’s “Beach Walk”
It is difficult to tell ourselves that we live as we live;
we need these sun-stretched days that harbor
us while we drift over our own evidence,
learning we are grateful, awe-filled, knowing we’ve been touched
by a finger of the wet wind and halted,
breathing with its whistle in the shell-like place
of our having lived together.
I draw inspiration from a lot of people. I suppose the two people who are no longer with us whom I’ve drawn quite a bit of inspiration from are Lucille Clifton and Richard Ronan. Lucille’s work challenges me in so many different ways. Her craft and her call to what I consider a higher, more conscientious morality really influence and inspire me. Her work is work that I keep on the bookcase next to my bed because it’s essential; it’s almost like a sacred text for me. Richard Ronan, was, like me, was very influenced by Japanese culture. He was a master teacher of ikebana—the art of flower arranging. He was originally from the East Coast but spent most of his adult life in San Francisco and ended up dying tragically, as many others did, of AIDS in the ’80s. He was also a queer poet and I got to know his work right as I began to take poetry seriously and his subject matter, his attention to precision, and his musical lyricism—all of those things really spoke to me. Also his artful and widely beautiful way of talking about the erotic, especially the queer erotic, meant a lot to me.
One poet who inspires me—and who is still with us—is in fact the very person who introduced me to Richard Ronan: the poet and teacher Jan Vanstavern. She and her husband, Joe, who’s a sculptor, lived in the Bay area for many years before moving to northern Oregon. I met Jan when I was just beginning to take writing seriously. I happened to take a poetry course about the body—how poets consider the body—and she brought in copies of Ronan’s seminal work, A Radiance Like Wind or Water, because she’s very close with his publisher. Through her teaching and her poetry, I began to connect more with who I was as a poet. She was actually the first person to say, “Kevin you’re a poet.” She was incredibly influential on how I conceived poetry, especially as a gay man. And she nurtured me by carefully reading and commenting on my work and suggesting other poets I should read. I can’t stress enough how affirming it was that she knew so much about queer poets and saw me as a young poet coming into that community. She taught me that poets and teachers could appreciate a wide spectrum of poetic expression, oftentimes very unlike their own poetry. And her work, most recently her chapbook The Long Birth, is absolutely phenomenal. I believe it’s one of the most complete works I’ve ever read. I don’t know how else to say it—it’s a chapbook, it’s only 28 pages, but it chronicles her going to China with her husband and adopting a child. It is epic in scope; like Clifton, it’s intensely personal but universally recognizable and that’s an accomplishment, a huge accomplishment.