‘For a long time I’ve been wanting to write something about John Keene‘s Annotations, which I think is one of the most remarkable books about St. Louis, though I’ve never met anyone else who has read it. (I might have called this post “The Best St. Louis Novel You’ve Never Heard Of.”) Published quietly in 1995 by New Directions, its understated title and gray-scale cover guaranteed its obscurity, arriving already a cult object that would be discovered only by a few. I am not sure if this is what Keene intended, but the humility of the title, as well as the slinky, elliptical methods of the writing, suggest that he might not have minded. It’s a work that falls halfway between poetry and prose, and does not go out of the way to explain itself. It has the feel of something private, something written out of necessity, a book one eavesdrops on as much as reads.
‘As the title suggests, the book sometimes has the feel of marginalia or endnotes to a main narrative that is missing. That could be frustrating to some readers, but it also is one of the special pleasures for a St. Louisan, recognizing the local references that are dropped into the narrative like incantations: Homer G. Phillips, Chatillon-DeMenil, Natural Bridge. These names, dropped seemingly at random into unrelated paragraphs, begin to build an associative logic, and show how cities and memory are inextricably linked (as Calvino also realized).
‘Though hardly a straightforward one, Annotations is also a vivid coming-of-age story that speaks of a sensitive, artistic, black boyhood in North St. Louis and later the western suburbs (Keene attended the St. Louis Priory School in Creve Coeur). It deploys a narrative voice that can dwell in luminous specificities:
Many backyards wore a chain-link garter that stretched out to the alleyway, and so whenever the rudipoots shattered their wine or soda bottles into smithereens of glass, it always fell to us to sweep them up. Now-or-Laters. Snoopy, the second in a cavalcade of pets, would parade regally about the screened-in porch. Daddy soaked then bathed him in a pan of gasoline to strip his coat of mange, so that when we spoke of him at all, it was as “under quarantine.” Children often see with a clarity that adults ignore.
‘This may give some sense of the way Annotations can move in and out of abstraction. It is childhood observed with crystal precision, but also great distance. The signifiers of childhood — Penrose Park, Chain of Rocks — become a kind of code that is still vivid and evocative but not fully legible, either to the narrator or the reader.
‘Annotations runs a slim 85 pages, including notes — these notes contain some of the most fascinating material in the book. “Rudipoots,” in case you were wondering, is defined here as “a colloquialism akin to ‘ghettoheads,’ meaning an ignorant or foolish person.” We also learn, for example, the meaning of Treemonisha: “A 1905 opera by Scott Joplin, written while he was resident in Sedalia, MO, and not premiered until 1972, in Atlanta, GA. The theme of the opera is the salvation of the black race through education, and Treemonisha, a young woman, is the protagonist.”
‘I don’t want to give away too many more of Keene’s Easter eggs, but this appendix beautifully unravels the culturally mongrel roots of St. Louis, which Keene describes as “a Creole core.” (Elsewhere, Keene wonderfully describes his own family as the result of “vibrant miscegenation.”) There’s a deep historical mind at work here, running from French-speaking slaves to the protests at Jefferson Bank, and the city’s ugly racial tension is not glossed over. Cops that could be relatives of today’s say “stop and don’t move”; a white cashier mouths a racial slur, thinking the narrator is out of earshot. He’s not. Still, Keene is attuned to what is best about the city, its rich, pungent multicultural soil.
‘It has been twenty years since Annotations came out. I’ve already read it twice and am probably just beginning to unlock its mysteries.’ — eplundgren
John Keene @ PennSound
John Keene: Upending the Archive
John Keene @ goodreads
John Keene Remembers Toni Morrison’s ‘Brilliance, Breadth, Acuity, Nuance, Grace and Force’
Paean (For Samuel R. Delany)
John Keene: Elements of Literary Style
“Like Currents in a River”: A Conversation with Speculative Fiction Writer John Keene
The Review: Counternarratives by John Keene
Podcast: Episode 64: John Keene (Translation Series, Ep. 2)
Looking for Langston, Du Bois, and Miss La La: An Interview with Author John Keene
COUNTERING THE NARRATIVE
Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’ Reveals the Limits of the Liberal Imagination
A Reading by John R. Keene – Kelly Writers House Fellows Program
John Keene, Writer
Readings In Contemporary Poetry – Sarah Arvio and John Keene
from The Creative Independent
You’re often exploring material that’s distant from where you are, geographically, historically, and culturally. Is that distance something you’re thinking about as you’re writing? Or do you just absorb whatever you can and then let it come out in the writing as it will?
It’s probably a little bit of the second. Characters, for me, are usually the way in. So, for example, [the story “A Letter on the Trials of the Counterreformation in New Lisbon”], one of the fundamental components of that story is that I don’t want the reader to know [who the narrator is]. You don’t find out until the very end.
So there what sustained me was the excitement of inhabiting that character, inhabiting that voice. And I think so often that has been the case for me, particularly with this collection, but in other things I’ve done, too. Just getting into character. When writing or reading, of course, you enter that character’s head, you enter that virtual space, and it’s spellbinding. That’s the other thing I wanted to do, particularly with that story.
Sometimes it’s language, sometimes it’s setting, sometimes it’s atmosphere. But to have those moments where the story itself almost casts a spell and pulls you in so fully that you could feel it physically.
I always tell my students about this experience, and this has happened a number of times, but one of the ones I think of most vividly, and I taught the book a few years ago, was Cormac McCarthy’s, The Road. The father goes down those stairs, and the little boy is at the top of the stairs, and the father looks down and it’s dark. And McCarthy: elaborate prose, right? It’s interesting when you read that moment, because he pulls that impulse to overdo the prose, he pulls it back and you get something a little bit clearer, but sort of strange and disorienting.
The power that fiction possesses to create those experiences, I feel like so often, writers sacrifice that because they want to be efficient, or they want to just tell the story, or whatever reason, they want to entertain in other kinds of ways. But, I’m interested in how fiction can do [what McCarthy did in that moment]. So that was one of the things that I tried to do in various ways, successfully or unsuccessfully, in Counternarratives, too. To get you so fully into that moment and that character that it’s writing from the inside out. I just wanted to point to that.
You’re also a translator, and when you talk about occupying someone else’s position, it almost sounds like the work translators do.
It is a challenge but I also see it in certain ways being akin to being a fiction writer. If you’re doing anything where you’re getting into any kind of character that’s even somewhat different from yourself—really truly stepping outside yourself into that character—that is what translation requires. So there’s a sense in which, even if the translation itself doesn’t work, that process of writing fiction, and particularly writing fiction that’s not transparently about oneself, is a certain kind of training. That doesn’t mean, again, that the translation’s gonna work. But it does mean that on a certain level, you become that other person in that moment and you think from the inside out.
One of my teachers once said the text in the original language stays the same, but we always need updated translations. And we’re always getting new translations of old texts. Why is that?
Because I think, with each new translation, you bring a different perspective to it. Often, of course, what happens with new translations is they re-situate the work for a new context. I think of a writer that’s so beloved and has been translated by different people in so many different ways, like Rainer Rilke. Two people whose translations of Rilke I think are really great are William Gass and Steven Mitchell. I believe Gass’s precedes Mitchell’s. You know, William Gass was an extraordinary writer in English. But he was also a profoundly philosophical writer. And he, of course, spoke German. He had training in German. So his translations have a certain kind of philosophical sensibility, like he’s capturing something in Rilke, I think, that most translators probably wouldn’t.
With Steven Mitchell, you have a translator who has an extraordinary ear [and] an extraordinary eye and his desire is to give you a Rilke that, on the one hand is as approximate as possible, but also doesn’t lose any of Rilke’s strangeness. If you go back and forth between those two translations, and of course, many lesser translations, you really start to get a sense, if you don’t speak German, of what Rilke might be like. And that, I think, can be really great.
But at times updated translations can just be terrible. If you’re translating the work of a poet, particularly a poet who is also an extraordinary prose writer, you want to retain that poetry, so you want to err on the side of the lyrical that might not be as exact, as opposed to the exact that is not so lyrical, because [otherwise] you lose what is essential to that writer.
You write about contemporary politics a lot, mostly on your blog. How has that affected the way you think about your writing, given how historically embedded your work is?
I wanted to have this blog I thought was gonna be about art and letters, things that were of interest to me that I wasn’t seeing on a lot of other blogs. Of course, it didn’t take long for me to start periodically talking about politics because, how could you not talk about politics during the Bush years?
I realized even in the posts before that, that weren’t directly about politics, that I was thinking about politics. It struck me, it wasn’t planned, but that Counternarratives is about the past but also about the present. So much that it dramatizes, has direct parallels with today. I write slowly. But when I was younger, one of the things that I struggled with, one of the reasons it took me so long to get Annotations out was, before Annotations, I was actually trying to write about the AIDS crisis. I had some poems that I published and I think maybe a story or two, but it was like, because it was so overwhelming that I felt like I just could not get my… it wasn’t that I couldn’t get my mind around it, I couldn’t get my art around it, particularly in a fictional form, because it was just there. It was pressing and the totality of it. I think now that I’m older, I have a better sense of how to incorporate things, or how to work with things. But, even still, it’s like, you come to realize you don’t always have to write about something directly.
What is your daily practice like? Between your university duties and blogging, how do you get words down for your fiction and poetry?
In the past, before I became chair and acting chair [of African American and African Studies at Rutgers], I had more time to let my mind work through things sometimes in a very straightforward way on the blog. And I try not to edit it. That was another thing I was always aiming for, to write shorter entries.
With my creative work, it’s a little different now, because I find it harder to focus because there’s always something else to think about. So, what I’ve tended to do, is have these periods where, even if it’s just a few sentences a day, to get them down. And then, when I don’t have to think about hiring or something like that, then I can actually immerse myself. That was one of the ways I was able to get Counternarratives done. Because when I shifted from Northwestern to Rutgers, I had a full complement of classes and things, but I would have these down periods, and I would just seize on those to get as much writing done as possible, both during the semester and during the summer. And, as I said, the last few years, it’s been a little bit more difficult. That’s why I don’t even blog as much, because so much mental energy has to go to the daily administrative demands.
I’m always amazed when people are able to write. They say, “I wrote 5,000 words today”, or however many words they wrote. How do you write 10 pages?
I don’t understand it either.
I’m always astonished by it. I think about during NaNoWriMo or National Poetry Month now, people who write a poem a day. I tried to do that where I tried to write a poem a day for a month. And you come to realize that a lot of the poems are really bad. But if you have 30 poems and let’s say 25 are bad and you have five that are even semi-decent and one that’s really good, you have one good poem for a month. There’s something to be said for that.
Some poet just posted the other day, “Oh, my god, I wrote seven full poems last year.” And people were like, “Oh, my god. I can’t believe you wrote that many.” These were not just teachers or administrators. So you come to realize, if you’re gonna have a certain number of poems over a certain number of years, that you do have a collection of poems. And you have poems that you really love. You don’t have to write 70 or 700 poems.
But, it is a challenge. And then with traveling, personal things, stuff like that, it becomes more difficult. I try to carve out little bits of time, and even if it’s just a few sentences, those sentences are the way back into whatever it is that I’m doing. Words, notes, things like this.
Do you find carving out that time puts pressure on you to use it?
It’s a relief. It’s a huge relief. It’s always a joy. It gets to the point sometimes, I don’t know if you ever have this experience, where you’re thinking about something you’re working on and it’s so potent that you wake up thinking about it, or at some point where your mind just goes into idle mode for a few minutes and then you’re just in that other world, and you think, “Oh my god. I have to come back to reality.” So even just thinking about it can be really exciting. Then just writing little things. Like I said, little notes and writing things down, just to keep myself going is key.
John Keene Annotations
‘An experimental first novel of poem-like compression, Annotations has a great deal to say about growing up Black in St. Louis. Reminiscent of Jean Toomer’s Cane, the book is in part a meditation on African-American autobiography. Keene explores questions of identity from many angles––from race to social class to sexuality (gay and straight). Employing all manner of textual play and rhythmic and rhetorical maneuvers, he (re)creates his life story as a jazz fugue-in-words.’ — New Directions
p.s. Hey. ** David Ehrenstein, Thank you. And thank you for the excerpt! I’ll come back and read it once I’m post-p.s. and my brain isn’t in a rush. ** _Black_Acrylic, Hi. Yeah, going out for a little walk here after dark when you’re unlikely to see another human but Paris is still lit up like it’s expecting royalty is when you really appreciate the plague’s gravity. I’ll go find out if your ear/brain worm grabs mine. Thank you for it. ** Dominik, Hi, D!! Ha, nice soundtrack pick there. Thanks! Feeling creepy when you laugh is one of life’s best little secrets or something. That made sense in my head before I typed it. My lost Switch has been returned to sender, and I’m searching for other options that won’t break my heart again. Your day sounds perfectly interesting. I did the same except for the working out part unless going up and down the stairs to check the mailbox counts. The Gisele, Zac, me FaceTime meet up was productive, I guess. Gisele is gung-ho to start turning the TV script into a filmable one. I am very, very wary. I basically told her that the only way I will agree to go back to working on the script is if she can all but guarantee that the film’s budget will be low enough that (1) it’s feasible to get funded and (2) that we will have full creative control and won’t face pressure to normalise the project again. Otherwise, I’m done. I just won’t waste any more time and work and creativity on something that could get killed off again. And honestly, after 5 years of working and reworking that script and material, Zac and I both feel really dead tired of it. So, she will go off and see what the possibilities are, and Zac and I will wait and see if she can figure it out. The only other options are killing the project entirely or selling it to ARTE and letting them turn it into whatever the fuck they want without us. Neither of which are good options at all. So I hope Gisele can find a plausible way for us to make it into a film. But I don’t have high hopes at this point. That was pretty much the big event of my yesterday, to show you how nothing much the rest of the hours were, ha ha. I’m going to venture out today for a walk and some shopping, so maybe something cool with happen thusly. Any luck with your day? Love, me. ** Misanthrope, I’m an early to bed, early to wake day owl, which maybe makes the night a kind of mysterious realm for me or something. I haven’t been stopped and sent home by the police yet. They’re being pretty, unusually friendly and understanding, at least in my area of the map. ** Steve Erickson, Good that you sorted the Tumor thing. Your description of New York sounds like Paris du jour, yes. I’m trying to concentrate on the beautiful otherworldliness of it as best I can. Cool that you’re making beats. That’s better than having a Switch to explode with. Well, maybe better anyway. Everyone, Mr. Erickson has reviewed a film — NINA WU — that was supposed to have been released but obviously wasn’t, so you can read about a film you can’t see, at least not for quite a while, which is kind of a poetic prospect, no? Go here. The words ‘Neon Demon’ will keep me forever far away from that film, so that’s good to know. ** Jeff J, Thank you so much, Jeff. I really appreciate that. Yeah, I was trying to mess around with the super-limiting blog format to see if I could make something that would have a more atmospheric and, I don’t know, context-transcending effect than the place would seem to be capable of housing, and I ended up there. I’m very happy it had an inordinate effect on you. That’s very interesting and rewarding to hear. Thank you a lot for letting me know. Maybe I’ll retry ‘Orlando’. You’ve made me curious. I laid out the results of the TV/film conversation up above to Dominick if you’re interested. I hope Gisele can come up with a feasible possibility for the film prospect because every other option is very depressing. I’m sending you a big wad of my muse-meets-concentration abilities today as I don’t think I’ll be needing mine for the next 24 hours. Did you write? ** Sypha, Ha ha, that could have been a nice ending. Well, nice isn’t the word. Weird, good weird. Revisiting one’s old school is such a heady thing, isn’t it? It’s amazingly haunting. I haven’t seen your full description on Facebook yet, but I’ll go find it. Thank you! ** Okay. I’m hoping to draw your attention to John Keene’s really terrific first novel today. Know it? Well, now you can if you don’t. See you tomorrow.