Poetry Spotlight: Keith Leonard

STS front coverContributor Keith Leonard’s  Still the Shore is a beautiful square chapbook from Portland’s Yes Yes Books.  The poems breathe  Martha’s Vineyard, the childhood home of Leonard, who conjures up a vivid and skewed insider’s world of barnacles, lobster pots, harbor lights, fog, and island moons. Even the acts of adolescence become sharp and cinematic, such as in “A Brief History of Patience,” where

“Boys rode their boats like bulls. Were bucked

and washed ashore with half the throttle fast beneath

the foam white knuckles of their fists . . . .”

This is not, however, a mere collection of childhood memories or a coming of age collection.These are musical poems of exposed nails and rope ladders, a world where we see “Foster Williams fluttering/like a coal-mine canary/into the fat, catch-penny glow/ of the dead.”  In each of these taut poems,  the chapbook earns its keep, giving us a sample of the work of a poet whose first book is worth anticipation.

A recipient of an Academy of American Poets prize, Keith Leonard’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Best New Poets 2009, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Journal, Mid-American Review, Washington Square Review, and elsewhere. Leonard has kindly answered a few questions for us about the chapbook.

Bio Photo

1. How did you find your way to Yes Yes Books?

I submitted to their annual Vinyl 45 chapbook contest, and I didn’t win the contest, but the editors asked if they could publish the manuscript. I was more than happy to say yes, and the experience has been a great one.

2. Still, the Shore is a book very much located in place. Can you talk about the role of your childhood home, Martha’s Vineyard, in this book? How has moving to the Midwest affected the sense of place that is so evident in these poems?

Martha’s Vineyard is an amazing, but complicated, island where my family has hailed from for generations. My father works as a postmaster and my mother is the high school nurse, so by the very nature of their occupations my family has been deeply seeped in the local community there. The chapbook is essentially about the communal grief when such a tight-knit community experiences loss–loss of fishermen to the sea, loss of its right to visit land due to privatization, and so on. Because of rising real estate costs in the late 80s, my generation is the first generation unable to live on the island into adulthood. I guess that’s a loss of homeland that permeates the poems too.

Living in the Midwest has given me the space probably necessary to see Martha’s Vineyard clearly—or at least a little more objectively.

3. Can you tell us a little about the history of  “We Made the Sea a Woman,” which first appeared in Memorious, and which is one of our 2013 Pushcart Prize nominees?

Absolutely. And thanks again for the nomination. A number of the poems in the chapbook deal with the disappearance of fishermen at sea, which happened a few times while I was growing up. After, to cope with such a mysterious loss, I would hear people give the sea human feelings (The ocean’s angry today) and often a female gender (She’s fickle). Historically, it’s been that way. But it’s interesting and telling that that language still exists today. It’s interesting who gets blamed when there’s no one to blame—that it’s an almost innate reaction to create the villain even when no villain exists.

 4. A total of three of your poems were published in Memorious as finalists for the 3rd Annual Art Song. It didn’t surprise me that our guest composer was drawn to these poems, which are so rich in their own music, particularly “A Lexicon to Fill a Rain Gauge.” Would you share with us something about the making of this poem?

This poem started in the language. I used to work on a farm, and there’s a rough type of music to that work—a shovel scraping dirt, a hammer on a nail, etc. The language in that poem is trying to mirror the relationship that one has to have with the physical dirt in farming. There’s a lot of hard consonants and the syntax is fragmented. There’s a lot of dissonant sounds that go into producing something fruitful.

5. If we asked you to talk about your “poetic lineage,” who are a few poets who would make it on to your family tree?

I grew up in New England, so I’m obligated to say Frost. But I read Yusef Komunyakka to be reminded what an image can do, Larry Levis to be reminded where a poem can go, Marie Howe to be reminded that poems should make a reader feel, and Gerald Stern to be reminded that a poem doesn’t have to be so damn sad all the time.

6. What are you working on now?

I just finished up a first book manuscript called The Kingdom Disappearing which contains the poems of the chapbook and I’ve started sending that out to contests. But I also just recently got hitched to the poet Jennifer Luebbers, so as a celebration of that, I’m spending the next year writing odes.

For original poetry, fiction, art song, interviews, and art, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org. To be reminded of new issues  of the magazine or blog articles like this, follow us on Twitter or like us Facebook.

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