L Mag fiction issue contributor and poet Kevin A. González earned an MFA in poetry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers Workshop, and has published work in Playboy, the Virginia Quarterly Review, Best New American Voices 2007 and 2009, and Best American Non-Required Reading 2007. Earlier this spring, González’s first collection of poetry, Cultural Studies, was published by Carnegie Mellon University Press. He recently sat down to answer a few questions about the book and to nix the idea of poet as “speaker.”
The L: The L: The first work of yours that I read was a short story, but you actually began your writing career as a poet. Do you conceive of yourself as primarily a fiction writer or as a poet, or is that not really a distinction you think about or that matters?
KG: It’s not really something I think about all that much. Then again, while I started writing poetry in middle school, I didn’t really start writing fiction until I was doing an MFA in poetry at the University of Wisconsin. As part of the degree requirements there, I had to take some electives, so I decided to try my hand at fiction. Then, after writing a couple of stories, at the suggestion of one of my teachers, I decided to apply to the fiction program at Iowa. I’ve been mostly working on a novel for the last couple of years, so — although I still occasionally write a poem here and there, and plan on working on another poetry book once I finish the novel — I guess you could say I’m mostly a fiction writer these days.
The L: 10 of the 20 poems in the first section of the book have the word “cultural” in their title. There’s “Cultural Shock,” “Cultural Sellout,” and “Cultural Strumpet,” to name a few. Can you talk a bit about what writing, titling and ordering the poems in the collection was like? Had you conceived of the book as a broader cultural project — a collection of poems specifically addressing the concept of culture — or was that a thematic element that became apparent following the writing of the individual poems?
KG: At the time when I was working on the book, I was feeling somewhat resistant towards labels and categories in literature, especially as it applies to writers of ethnic and/or racial minority backgrounds. Sometimes it seems as if even when a black poet is not writing about race, or a Latino poet is not writing about his ethnicity, in both cases they’re still going to be categorized as a black poet and a Latino poet, respectively. So it was frustrating to think that no matter what style I wrote in, or what subject matter I wrote about, my work would always be easily categorized because of my background. Then again, I’m well aware that many of these labels don’t come from readers themselves, but rather from sources like the publishing industry or even academia itself. So, partly, I was trying to address some of those issues head-on in this book — which is to say that the “Cultural” titles are meant to convey a sense of irony. That said, the first one of the “Cultural” poems I wrote was “Cultural Stud,” and when I wrote it, I didn’t think it would be part of a longer series of poems. But the next time I sat down to write, I found myself returning to a similar voice, rhythm and point-of-view, so the rest of the poems took off from there. In other words, the thematic element became apparent after I’d written a few of the poems.
The L: Some pieces in the collection are deadly serious, even somber, while many others are sardonic or downright funny. I’ve revisited the collection a few times now, and the more I read it, the more I notice that tonal range. I’m interested to know how you conceive of the book. Would you call it a melancholic book? A humorous one?
KG: Well, first off, thank you for the nice words. I’ve always been fascinated by writers who can achieve major tonal shifts within a short span, all the while making it seem effortless — poets like Dean Young and Terrance Hayes, fiction writers like Lorrie Moore and Barthelme and Carver, all of whom can go from funny to heartbreaking in a matter of seconds. So, yeah, I was trying to achieve a broad tonal range in the book, and often within the individual poems themselves, which is why some of them are on the longer side. Hopefully, in the end, the book can be seen as both humorous and melancholic. At least that was the intention.
The L: Now that the book has been published and is out in the world, do you think of it any differently? Is there anything you would change about the work at this point if you could?
KG: You know, not really. The truth is that I finished writing the first draft of the book a long time ago; I turned it in as my MFA thesis at Wisconsin, and that was roughly four years ago. Afterwards, I let it sit for about two years before revising it a little and trying to get it published, so I was pretty much at peace with the final product by the time it came out. That said, there are still some lines here and there that make me cringe a little bit when I read them, but there’s no chance in hell I’ll tell you what they are.
The L: The collection is just packed with beautiful, memorable lines. The poem “1999” for instance contains an observation that I’ll remember for a very long time: “If there were an antonym for suicide/ we could all choose when to be born.” Another piece, “How to Win a Poetry Contest” begins this way: “Don’t use ampersands/ & don’t drop your professor’s name./ Do exactly as Terrence Hayes taught you:/ be a courteous poet.” During the writing process, do you recognize those spot-on lines as they happen, or do you find yourself honing lines as you revise?
KG: Once again, thanks for the nice words. For me, the process varies a lot. Some of these poems took years to write, and some took a few hours. I wrote the first poem in the book (“Flat American Waltz”) in a matter of minutes, while I was waiting for a bus in Pittsburgh, but that’s probably the only time I’ve ever written a poem I liked in such a brief span of time. Then again, that’s also a pretty short poem. In terms of individual lines, I’ll admit that, for this book, I cannibalized quite a bit from older poems. At some point, when I was doing my MFA in poetry, I went through all the poems I’d written as an undergrad and took individual lines or images I liked, which I then recycled in some of these poems. Hopefully this won’t dissuade anyone from buying the book, but there actually are a couple of lines in here that date as far back as my high school days. That said, I usually do tend to recognize it as it happens — that is, when I write a line or an image I like. Often, one of the hardest things about recycling lines was finding the correct placement for them, in order to make them fit smoothly within a specific poem. There were times when I had lines I really liked, but I couldn’t find places to fit them in without making them seem forced. So I just didn’t use them. In any case, most of them were jokes about your mom.
The L: “Cultural Studies” is written in two sections, the larger of the two being “Cultural Studies” and a shorter section right at the end of the collection entitled “Notes.” Perhaps because the title of the entire collection is “Cultural Studies” (a term that rings of academe), I found myself reading the “Notes” section of the book as a sort of way of understanding the rest of the book, which I’d just read. How do you conceive of those final five poems in the collection functioning? Were they intended to color the rest of the collection, or am I off in left field with that reading?
KG: You’re not off in left field at all. Those final poems are meant to serve as references or additions to some of the preceding poems in the book. The first of those five poems, for instance, is an address to the Second Person Point-of-View, which is what most of the poems in the first section are written in, and is meant to serve as a sort of transition between the two sections. The other four poems make allusions to poems that appear earlier in the book. So yeah, they’re intended to work as references to the poems in the first section, while at the same time providing a sense of closure to the book as a whole.
The L: While each poem has a distinct tone, there are commonalities and threads of narrative that weave their way through the collection. As such, the reader may necessarily draw parallels between the speaker of one poem and those that come later in the book. Is it fair to make the assertion that the speaker of many of these poem is the same? That is, did you conceive of the collection as a series of poems that aren’t just closely related in their content, but that are, in fact, from the same speaker’s perspective?
KG: Yeah, I think it’s fair to make that assertion. Once I’d written a few of the “Cultural” poems, I began to conceive of this as a book-length project, rather than a collection of individual poems that aren’t related to one another. And I think it’s also fair to assume that it’s the same speaker throughout the entire collection. What I don’t think that anyone should ever assume, however, is that the speaker of the poem is the author himself. This seems to happen often with poetry, and I find it somewhat bothersome because poetry is not non-fiction. As far as I’m concerned, my poetry should be taken to be as fictional as fiction itself, and the speaker in my poems should be regarded as a character, much like any first-person narrator in fiction. In fact, going back to your second question, the idea of “poet” as “speaker” is also something I’ve always felt some resistance towards, which is one of several reasons why so much of this book is written in Second Person.
The L: As I mentioned, you write both fiction and poetry. Are their major differences in your approach to writing fiction and poetry? Do you tend to focus on one genre (or project) at a time? Are you writing any poetry now or focusing on fiction for the time being?
KG: It’s definitely a different approach, which is why it’s difficult for me to freely go back and forth between the two genres. Part of the reason for that is that I like to focus entirely on the project on which I’m working at the time. Currently, I’m working on a novel, and while I don’t have a specific writing routine or a set schedule, I like to work on it every day, even if only for a little while. Look for it on the shelves in 2019, if there’s still such a thing as bookshelves then.