Feeding the Poetic Demon with Douglas Kearney

Writing Prompts for a poetic showdown inspired by Kearney’s ‘ Sho’


            If crossing Dionysian boundaries is true poetry, then no one makes the poetry demon swoon like Douglas Kearney does. Kearney is a star-studded poet, performer, and librettist. Accolades include a Whiting Award and fellowships from Cave Canem and the Rauschenberg Foundation. Kearney has published six collections, including Buck Studies (Fence Books, 2016), Someone Took They Tongues (Subito, 2016), and Mess and Mess and (Noemi Press 2015). His latest poetry collection, Sho (Wave Books, April 2021), provides a kaleidoscope of splintered selves and voices. In Sho, the speakers of Kearney’s poems are at once the antagonistic tricksters who enchant you (“I aspire to be a CVS: Lord”) and at once the documenters of historical and current wrongs (“Black wench! Clipped finches’/ shrill in brass lattice.”) 

            Of the collection, Wave Books writes: “eschewing performative typography, Douglas Kearney’s Sho aims to hit crooked licks with straight-seeming sticks. Navigating the complex penetrability of language, these poems are sonic in their espousal of Black vernacular strategies, while examining histories and current events through the lyric, brand new dances, and other performances. Both dazzling and devastating, Sho is a genius work of literary precision, wordplay, farce, and critical irony. In his ‘stove-like imagination,’ Kearney has concocted poems that destabilize the spectacle, leaving looky-loos with an important uncertainty about the intersection between violence and entertainment.”

            Rather than try to boil down Kearney’s irresistible Leo shine, let’s join the fun with four prompts inspired by Sho that could serve as a catapult for your own poems:

Prompt #1: Make poems sing!

            At Columbia’s The Wild I: An Exploration of Water and Poetry symposium in March 2020, just a week before New York City’s shutdown, Douglas Kearney breathed life into the oral and performative aspects of song with a precursor to the poem “Fire” in Sho. In Kearney’s manically energetic performance, poetry turns the “magic word ‘Jesus’ into ‘Baby’ in one’s open, singing mouth.” Kearney performs this transmutation by paying attention to how the same word on the page (“O”) can be heard entirely differently when sung: “O” is “orphic” and the “chaste solo vowel” while “Oh” is “howling” and “carnal” when sung. Before the podium and then on the raised podium floor, Kearney tells us that to sing is to water something  “with thirst,” is a “means to understand devotion.” 

            A year later, in February 2021, Kearney brought that same devotion to poetry in his Black History Month celebratory reading at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College. From both readings, I understood that Sho was not meant to live on the page. Instead, Sho, as Kearney explains it, holds notations of a much richer oral performance, rooted in,making references to, and transmuting the African-American musical and poetic tradition. Thus, the “boogie man” in Langston Hughes’ “Montage of a Dream Deferred” becomes “oogie/ in your jeebie” in the poem “Close” while the spiritual “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen” is literally broken in half, as “Nobody/ knows the trouble. Rig/ full o’ Deus” in the eponymous poem “Sho.” Much as the sprechstimme, or singing speech, of Albert Giraud’s Pierrot lunaire, Sho is a score that involves improvisation. 

            In the Colorado Springs video, for instance, Kearney leans into the microphone, whispering “Buck,” the first poem in Sho: “Seems some want some body bodied into street sweet meat.” He whispers with purposely sham devotion as he “sexily” reads “I aspire to be a CVS”. This, in turn, is tied to Fred Moten’s In the Break, which theorizes African-American poetry as defying Wittgenstein’s theory of projection. That is, in the translation from the page to the performance of poetry, something more is added. That add-on, as in “Oh Jesus / love me” is reminiscent of  the intensity of John Dunne’s Holy Sonnets, which is nearly impossible to imitate. What we call the voice of the poet, the charisma of a politician, the timbre of the singer’s voice, or the genius of a performance, feeds the poetic demon like no other.

            The Prompt

            Consider the different ways of enunciating a given word. For instance, when reading along with Douglas Kearney’s oral performance of “Fire” in The Wild I: An Exploration of Water and Poetry symposium, the textual intensity of the “O[h] O[h] O[h]” in “Fire” (a different poem with the same name in Sho) plays with the contrast between the “orphic, chaste, and solo” “O” and the howling and carnal “Oh” paired with “multipartite genital” “h.”

            How might a particular block of these same words (like “O[h] O[h] O[h]”) be envisioned as a melodic leitmotif (a piece of a melody that is instantly recognizable)? What mood(s) does this leitmotif evoke in you? Using the same example, the bellow of O[h] in “Fire” as one sings of the troubles one’s seen is vastly different from the soaring ecstasy in giving thanks.

            How might you tell a story with that leitmotif? Might you like to write the lark and plunge that is 2020 and 2021, when the world was locked down because of the COVID-19 pandemic? How might the leitmotif “water with thirst” some emotion that is trapped in you because of the pandemic? Turn that tension into a poem. 
Prompt #2 Writing your own Sho

            Terrence Hayes’ golden shovel, Thyemba Jess’ syncopated stars, and Indigo Waller’s sho are all new poetic forms created from other poems and poetic forms (“We real cool” by Gwedolyn Brooks, the sonnet, or the sestina). It’s interesting to think of forms and their respective reinventions as a means to capture the breath and rhythms of a culture’s speech, especially within the  Black American artistic tradition, which often creates new forms out of preexisting forms.

            But what is a sho?  A sho is a 72 line-poem. Each line consists of five syllables. (“Sho” begins “Some need some Body.”) Like the sestina, it follows a pattern of repeating the end words. Unlike a sestina, where the initial end words of the first stanza works through the remaining five six-line stanzas, a sho starts with twelve lines (which I’ll call a “sho group”). The “sho group” can be thought of as 4 three-line stanzas (the “sho trio”) or 2 sho trios (the “sho supersection”) which are then shuffled in the same way in each sho trio combination. 

            The form is as follows, where each numeral designates a sho group, and the letters represent the end-words that are repeated: 

            1 ABC DEF GHI JKL
            2 BAC EDF HGI KLJ
            3 CBA FED IHG LKJ
            4 ACB DFE GIH JLK
            5 BCA EFD HIG KLJ
            6 CAB FDE IGH LJK

            Kearney chose to make one of those end-words, “sho,” resulting in startling made-up words like “Fa Sho” or “Sho/ gwine fix dis mess.” 

            The Prompt

            WRITE your own sho. You may choose to “write about performance and what happens when we are to perform from someone,” which is how Kearney describes “Sho” in his Colorado Springs reading. You may also choose to keep one of your end-words “sho.” For each “sho trio” choose one word and then free-associate two other words. Choose a “quintessentially American” poem and try to clapback to it for the final stanza. (Kearney chose Williams Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow.)

            ALTERNATIVELY, look to your favorite poem or poetic form. Is there a way to create a new form by paying attention to the end words, end rhyme, or rhythm of the piece?

Prompt #3 Sacred Words

            “… Say the sacred words” is the penultimate poem of Sho. While not explicitly political, these poems too are contextualized within Sho. If we began Sho with a “heart full of mouthwash, haircare products, and miscellaneous cheap electronics,” ending with the heavy sense of D.E. Dubois’ “The Problem” (of the color line, “when your whole skin is your mouth”). Right before the ending, “… Say the sacred words” takes the rhetorical question of Amiri Baracka’s “Ka ‘Ba”: “We need magic now we need the spells, to raise up return, destroy, and create. What will be the sacred words????” and answers it with the enunciation of the names of Kearney’s “my [de]lights”: kaa-LĒ-lə (Khalilah) and ē-LĪ-jə (Elijah), and ni-KŌL (Nicole McJamerson Kearney). The eight line poem is a prayer as well as a love song, tied together by the second-person imperative (“Break,” “Wait,” “and then go.”) 

            The Prompt

            Has a poem ever befuddled you? Or has something seemed to you to be “not quite right”?  Try answering the question–rhetorical or not–asked by the poem, beginning with the enunciation of what you believe the answer might be. Use the second-person point of view, and tie it with the senses. Include color, the temperature, and a flower or herb.
Prompt #4: A Montage of Our Own

            In his Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center reading, Kearney presented his collage poems in progress and the way visual art can help a reader see what is textural (and hence tangible) in poetry. Just as “sampling” in hip hop takes bits and pieces from another recording and transforms the recording into a new song, a collage poem takes bits and pieces from different words and the way in which they exist on the page as illustrations for centuries to create a brand new art piece that forces people who are not close listeners or lookers to pause and listen.

            To Kearney, one of the most frustrating things about being deemed avant-garde is that the brand-newness in “tomorrow shit” today really stems from, and crosses over from, the old religious and secular Black American tradition. As Fred Moten writes in In the Break, Amiri Baracka’s poetry moves from “visual to spatial metaphorics,” from “question to assertion,” from “line to line,” from “sight to sound.” The idea of “montage” or “collage” of an English-language vernaculars that are true to the speech rhythms of the day-to-day are further extended by Douglas in his collage poems, which moves from the spatial back to the visual, the sound back to the sight. Thinking of the thesis of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s “Kafka: Towards a Minor Literature” in connection with Sho, it is interesting how they view the ultimate dilemma of Faust as not Faust’s guilt but his frustration at his inability to transcend through creation. The daemonic energy to innovate and create a new “territory… shifting borderlines and escape routes” with a “minor” language positions itself against the standardized major English. In this way, Faust as well as the speakers of Sho plays at our discomfort in crossing boundaries and playing the devil, as in when the speaker of “Property Values” extols #DrugStoreExcellence in lieu of #BlackExcellence as the White POTUS did. While “Sho” does not itself include any collage portraits, it pays careful attention to the way in which lines and stanzas appear across the page, and the way in which form can help contain and convey content.

            The Prompt

            Sketch a word collage with the words: “lustrous,” “skin,” “Saran” and “pink” from the poem “The Post-” in Sho. What might you sketch each word so it looks like the thing or the quality of the thing that it names? Would the words be bold, narrow, or italicized? How do the four words connect together? Does it connect with how you conceive of your own skin and the color pink?

            Add words that you associate with the four words. For instance, you might note that Saran, unlike skin, does not generate itself, and is artificial. Saran is translucent, unlike pink. It is not lustrous but is associated with leftover food sent to the fridge after dinner. How do you depict these words on the page? Might it overlap?

            Next head to Google Books and search for the words that you sketched. Do any of the illustrations or book covers of books from the 18th Century, 19th Century, 20th Century or 21st Century jive or vibe well with your sketch? How might your sketch be bolstered by the aesthetics and graphics of a different worldview? For instance, Saran ® Premium Plastic Wrap is also the name of a district in Bihar, India. 

            Fine Tune your sketch by adding color with crayon, markers, or construction paper and glue. 

            In the spirit of community, I have written a poetic response to Prompt #1. 
after Property Values

I don’t wanna be the killjoy, instead
I wanna be a piano inna my heart–

I wanna be played by their hands,
Forever drumming along!

Yes, M’am thank you inna my heart, 
for dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s.

Yes M’am thank you for giving me a place to sit 
at the table where I’ll belong!

I once raised my fist up high but now 
All I wanna be is a piano inna my heart–

That way, I can be the keys
As they call me on demand to be!

No, you donna feel bad for me,
After all it’s just bodies on overflow

I haven’t forgotten yet
The law that defines me!

If a poem is a plum fruit, and my jest is a broken record,
Then my laughter is all that’s left in mine body,

Too many, too many,
there’s too many of us, so they say!

Instead of singing with my throat torn,
I wanna be inna my heart the piano 

So I can thump with weight of my body
which is as always fair game.

I took the leitmotif “inna my heart” and grafted it as a leitmotif of the spiritual (“I’m a rollin’”) to play with the idea of the self as an instrument, which is in turn based on anti-Asian attitudes and draws upon John Yau’s “Chinese Villanelle.” 
Thank you so much for reading! I hope you’ll gain inspiration from the prompts and try writing your own poems! When you are done, SHARE the poems you create with Columbia Journal on Twitter @ColumbiaJournal
Sho is available for purchase from Wave Books.

About the Author

Tiffany Troy is the assistant online translator at Columbia Journal. She is grateful to Brittany Nguyen and Camille Jacobson for their editorial insights, Professor Thom Donovan for his teachings on the daemonic aesthetics and politics of the African-American lyric, and Professor Dorothea Lasky for the title and all that it represents.

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