user_mobilelogo

The fountain of Kerry Shawn Keys’ poetry is in the Appalachian Mountains, urban America, India, and Lithuania, but the roots go worldwide. From 1998 to 2000, he taught translation theory and creative composition as a Fulbright Associate Professor at Vilnius University. He has dozens of books to his credit. His work ranges from under-mountain vagrant-pastoral and urban-salvage to theatre-dance pieces to flamenco to children’s books to meditations on the Tao Te Ching to a polyphonic epic poem, composed from his South India journals. He has performed and recorded with the free jazz percussionist and sound-constellation artist, Vladimir Tarasov (CD-Prior Records), and now quarterbacks the jazz Nada Quartet. Recent books are Night Flight (poems), 2012; Pienas (prose tales and plays), 2013; Sich einen Fluss verschaffen, bilingual English/German poems, tr by Ron Winkler, Hochroth Verlag, 2017;  New Poetry from China, 1917-2017, co-transl. with Ming Di, 2018; Black Ice, May, 2020 Black Spruce Press; Shoelaces for Chagall ( bilingual English/German selection of love poems, Bübül Verlag, autumn, 2020). Keys received the Robert H. Winner Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America in 1992, and in 2005 a National Endowment For The Arts Literature Fellowship. He was a Senior Fulbright Research grantee for African-Brazilian studies, and is a member of the Lithuanian Writers Union and PEN. He received a Translation Laureate Award from the Lithuanian Writers Union in 2003. He authored a bi-monthly column, Letter From Vilnius: Eastern/Central Europe and Excursions Elsewhere for Poetry International, San Diego State University. He also translates from Portuguese. He is the Republic of Užupis’ World Poetry Ambassador, and Chevalier of the Order of the Silver Garlic Bullet of the Republic of Užupis.

vr banner19

reflections on belonging

a palmers chronicle right bw

Graphic Novels

Kerry Shawn Keys reading at the home of Eric Leach and Sam Bantam Witt. Poet Gerald Stern in the background. Iowa City, USA, 1993.

Interview by Markas Aurelijus Piesinas

 

 

Kerry Shawn Keys, born in 1946 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, USA, is an American poet and translator who moved to Vilnius after spending many years between the continents of both Americas, Asia, and Europe. He has more than forty books of poetry to his name and some twenty translated titles under his belt. He was a Fulbright scholar in Brazil and has taught at Vilnius University and the Vilnius Pedagogical University under the Fulbright aegis. He also wears strange earrings, binds his hair into slender pigtails, and is the only real person I’ve seen to look good wearing a bandana around their head.

Kerry kindly repaid my interest in his life and work by inviting me to visit him at his home in Vilnius’s old town. With a lively strut, Kerry walked me up to the very top floor of the building and offered me a tour of his attic, where he usually spends his time working.

We then sat down on Kerry’s balcony and shared a beer as he asked me whether I would come to this year’s Poetic Druskininkai Fall festival. I told him I couldn’t because I had injured my knee and was scheduled for meniscus surgery. Kerry remarked that he, too, had a torn meniscus (it is a common injury, after all), but strangely enough, he said it was the reason that brought him to Lithuania. I wasn’t sure whether he was joking or not.

 

Really?

That’s the reason I’m here, in Lithuania – yeah, a torn meniscus. It was not necessarily why I’m in Lithuania, but it’s why I left America. I had lived in a cabin in the mountains in Pennsylvania for a long time, and that was my base for twenty years, in Appalachia. I was felling a tree with a saw – 

 

By yourself?

Yeah, yeah. I mean, I had done it with my dad since I was little. I wasn’t particularly good. I’m not mechanical, but I did it for so many years that I kind of was able to fell a tree. The tree fell. It was no problem, but when I put the saw down and turned, it was in the autumn, damp with a lot of leaves on the ground, and I just somehow slipped and fell in a strange way. Fortunately, there was a friend staying with me, a poet named John Burns, and he got me to a clinic over the mountain. They took some X-rays and told me it was a torn meniscus. It went on the official records. In America, we don’t have national healthcare – and all my life I’ve lived trying not to work other than writing poetry or doing part-time jobs. I was living in the cabin, my income was low, I couldn’t afford a plan, and so I wasn’t covered. I knew someone that worked for a major healthcare company. I told her the situation and she said, “Okay, we’re gonna get you on this cheap plan. It’ll cover you, but you can’t declare anything right away or it’ll be suspicious. That [the meniscus injury] will be off the record books in a year, and then you wait another few months and declare it.” Basically, it was a year and a half, and I had real trouble walking. I was probably about fifty, and I started thinking that I had to get out of the States.

I had been in Berkeley, and by this time I knew some of Miłosz’s work, and I went to this place called the Bell Tower. I know that he had talked about the Bell Tower on the university campus. I was inspired and I wrote a poem dealing with the bell tower and Miłosz. I was on a job there and I had some free time, so on my way back I stopped in Iowa, where the international writing program is, to meet poet Sam Witt. There was a reception at the Hemingway Farm, where I met Eugenijus Ališanka. He was part of the writing program and had stayed at Iowa University, but they were having a kind of a dinner thing at the Hemingway Farm. He was on his way to meet Miłosz to do some interviews or just talk to him, and I said, “That’s funny, I just wrote this poem.” It was handwritten. I pulled it out and read it to him. “You should come to Poezijos pavasaris sometime,” he said. I told him I was to be in Europe in ’96 (this must have been in ’95) because I had a bilingual book coming out in the Czech Republic and they wanted me to do some readings in different places, and then I had a reading in Finland and so forth. He said, “Oh, well, if you’re going from there to Finland…” and told me about the dates, so I came. I went to Prague, Warsaw, Zagreb, and Vilnius – a city that I liked a lot, compared to all the others. With my leg and my health, I knew I wanted to go to a city where I could just keep on exercising a little bit and just walk to where I wanted to go.

Kerry Shawn Keys interview 03From left to right: Kerry Keys, Kornelijus Platelis, and Gerardo Beltrán. Lithuania, 1996.

On the way to Vilnius for that festival, I stopped in Warsaw to visit Mexican poet Gerardo Beltrán and the Polish translator and poet Leszek Engelking. Kornelijus Platelis happened to be there giving a reading, I think at the Warsaw PEN Center. I had just met Gerardo (Zorro) and said I was on my way to Vilnius, so we came here together by bus in ’96. I liked it here, so I decided that I would figure out how to move here. I applied for a Fulbright scholarship and got it. And back then a Fulbright allowed you to move your household belongings by ship. Well, I had an oak cabin built with friends, and I didn’t have much, but I had a lot of paintings, books, and stones, and some chairs and a lot of tools.

 

What happened to the cabin?

I had to sell it to buy this place. I couldn’t keep it anyway. It was one of the most beautiful places that I’ve ever been in – a very secluded, peaceful valley in the Appalachian mountains. Ten acres – and cheap since it was all near a dirt road when I bought it. But there was no industry nearby, so the county had no tax base, and when they paved the road they started raising the property taxes. With my income, I figured I wouldn’t be able to stay there longer.

Kerry Shawn Keys interview 04Five-year-old Kerry Shawn Keys as the bridegroom in a Tom Thumb wedding in 1952.Were you a rural kid?

No. I spent a lot of time hunting and fishing because my dad and his stone mason uncles were all rural. It was sort of like here, where a lot of the people go to a village in the summer. It was the same situation, except we had a hunting cabin and we didn’t have a really livable place, so we hunted out of that and spent a lot of time there.

My father had dropped out of school to work and worked on big construction sites from when he was 13. From mixing asbestos powder, he later died from lung cancer. In the ’50s, he became a salesman, so we were like a lower-middle class, blue-collar family –  no problem with income or food. I played a lot of sports, but I wasn’t well-read particularly.

 

So what made you pursue a degree in literature?

Well, in school we had to write poems – you know, from third grade or something. I always just liked it. I can say that my parents didn’t think it was something funny or anything – which of course a lot of poets’ parents do, and they still become poets – but I didn’t have to rebel in that sense. Growing up, my dad knew three or four long poems by heart because it was part of a culture that he liked, and he would sometimes recite them to me. We both liked Henry David Thoreau because he was a kind of recluse, and a fisherman. My mother always wrote poetry, but she would write for the office party or about friends and literally this stuff you might see on a birthday card – but she wrote hundreds and hundreds, all the time. And my grandmother was very smart. When I visited her house, they had a bunch of traditional American, not particularly great poetry, but anthologies of stuff that I would read. So I was around it.

 

You enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania in 1964, but you took a break before graduating, when you joined the Peace Corps and travelled to India for two years. What was the decision behind that?

I think I was tenth in my class in high school among some four hundred kids or something – I wasn’t a prodigy at all, but I had good grades. But I was really good in tennis. I never had any instruction; I had learned it in a public park for free when I was little and would play all these older guys. So with that and the grades, it was really enough for me to get in, and the Ivy Leagues were just starting to recruit people that weren’t necessarily coming from rich, private prep schools and all, trying to balance it out based on grades and interviews. I remember when we all went down there, my father – who had got his high school diploma when he was 27, and he liked to read, but he was a simple man – during the interview, I could just tell they kind of liked him and thought, “Okay, we’re gonna bring this kid in.”

But I had a horrible time. I didn’t have the high school background. I mean, my high school was pretty mediocre, I wasn’t reading particularly advanced stuff, so the first two years there were extremely difficult for me. I decided I should just grow up and read a lot more, if possible, and maybe combine it with some kind of social work. I mean, I liked school, I just didn’t do well because I had no foundation.

So I thought I would try to get in the Peace Corps. They had these recruitment tables on campus. I just signed up and got in. I was first offered a job in the Philippines, but it was in the city, and I wanted to be in a rural area and do some technical work. I knew a fair amount about gardening. We had training, and I went.

Kerry Shawn Keys interview 05A circle of dancers around Kerry (on a mat). Lambadi Tonda, Telengana, India, 1967. Photo by Kerry Keys. “I was working with what you would call the Indian Gypsies. It was the same people that came into Europe, but in the 14th century they also went to Southern India, where I was. They were laborers and had their own small villages. Sometimes you would go by bike or just walk. It was pretty far. I would just spend the night on a straw mat, and they seldom had guests, so they would like to play music and dance, and then I would just turn on my recorder.”

And how was India?

It was tough. It was tough, the first four months – just to be twenty years old in a burning hot village with no contact, no phone, with one refrigerator in town, getting sick a lot, dysentery, and all kinds of stuff. I had malaria when I was there later, and then I got a thing called filariasis. Maybe you’ve seen exotic photos of people with these big, inflamed limbs? It’s called elephantiasis then, but when it’s in the initial stages, before it spreads to the lymph glands, it’s just in the blood. Typical penicillin or some kind of antibiotic can take care of it if they know you have it. I had a routine check – the Peace Corps had us come every five or six months into the city of Hyderabad to get a medical check-up – and they found I had it in the very initial stages. They gave me antibiotics and I was fine.

When you’re in the Peace Corps, they give you like two hundred books. Every volunteer or every site would get this big trunk of books – it could be anything, philosophy, economics – and as I said, I was not particularly well-read before university, so I read like crazy. I mean, everything. García Lorca, Tagore, Orwell, Nagarjuna, all these people that just happened to be in the stash. So I read, read, read, read. By the time I came back, I was decided on either literature or theater.

 

You majored in English literature with a BA from UPenn and an MA from Indiana University at Bloomington. At that time, you were already writing your own poetry and getting published.

I had written poetry all my life, but just rinky-dink stuff in high school. It was bad – I mean, really, really bad. There was a professor at Penn; I didn’t take his writing class, but he knew me, and before I went there [to India], he said, “I want you to read all of William Butler Yeats that you can and all of Ezra Pound. Because, somehow, you’ve got a good ear, but you’re terrible.”

When I came back from India, after reading all that, I started writing and I think I didn’t write a really successful – a what I consider a mature – poem, until I was graduated out of Penn. But then it came fast. I started writing a lot, and I think I wrote as well then as I do now. It was just a different kind of poetry. And I just read a lot of poetry. Most of my literature courses were British authors, you know, Chaucer, metaphysical poets. I suppose I was reading some Roman and Greek poets, and lots of stuff from Japan and China. And I had a big interest in Latin America.

 

And you moved to Brazil in 1974?

Well, I had finished grad school. I was married – my wife was finishing up at Temple, another university. She was up in Philadelphia finishing her degree, and I had to get mine from Indiana, so somehow we were apart for six months. She roomed with a Brazilian woman; at that time, I was thinking of going to Mexico. I wasn’t a hippie, but that was also the time of the hippies and the protests and the Vietnam War, and all that influence was around you. I saw a movie, Black Orpheus, and my wife said: “Maybe we should just go to Brazil?” I said, “It’s okay with me, let’s go to Brazil.”

Kerry Shawn Keys interview 06Kerry Keys in Prainha Beach, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1976.

Was it difficult for you to get a teaching position there?

No. I taught English as a second language at an institute that specialized in teaching it to Brazilians in Rio. It was a great job, good pay, middle-class work. I had a schedule where I taught 10–12 hours a day, Tuesdays and Thursdays. I would teach Tuesday, this exhausting day, then I had Wednesday to recover, teach Thursday, and then I had a Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday for the beach, or samba, or whatever, and then go back to the grind. I did that for two years – it was fantastic.

 

Was there a particular reason you left Brazil?

I had a green card to work there. At that time, the Brazilian government was afraid too much of their money going overseas, so they passed some legislation that if you were going to go overseas – I was considered like a semi-immigrant then because of this card – you had to put a huge deposit down to make sure you were going to come back. It was a particular sum of money in the bank, but it was a crazy sum. That law didn’t last long, but it lasted for a couple of years.

You couldn’t get out without that or without going through, and maybe you’d be lucky if you went through some bureaucratic thing that might take you six months. I was close to my father; I began to think, well, Jesus, what if something happens to my parents and I can’t go? They just would not let you go.

 

Meaning they would not let you leave the country?

No. Not legally.

This was interesting. Robert Bringhurst, who I consider the premier writer now in Canada in all things, and an old friend of mine, was just starting out as a book designer. He says, “You could get out if you were somehow representing Brazil abroad in some cultural way. You could go through the cultural ministry if you were giving some lecture tours on Brazil.” He was in Canada, and he says, “I’m gonna send you some invitations to read here. I have some friends who will also get invitations to read here on Brazilian poetry, ta-da-da, this will be official, stamped.” And he changed his name to a pun: he gave himself the first name “Marshal,” and as his last name he gave “Jesters.” So, Marshal Jesters was what he used. He signed all the papers with “Marshal Jesters,” I got all these papers, I took them to the proper office, and ta-da-da… It took me about two months, and I was out.

Kerry Shawn Keys interview 07Robert Bringhurst (left) and Kerry Keys. Dead Woman’s Hollow, Pennsylvania, USA, 1972.

So he made up a fake identity to get you out of the country?

Yeah, and a couple of other colleagues offered lectures also. That’s how I got out.

 

Once you got back, how long did you stay in the States?

I built my cabin there in Pennsylvania with my wife at the time, and friends – that was finished maybe in ’78 or ’79. And I finally moved and started teaching here in ’98. In the meantime, I had been back to Brazil on a research Fulbright on Orishas and lyrics connected with the rituals, and then I had a job in the States, a contract through the State Department to work with international visitors. There could be, say, fifteen mayors from fifteen cities around the world, or they might be journalists, or teachers of American history. That was a freelance thing – I would go to Washington and travel around the States with a group for a month and do this four times a year, and the rest of the year I’d be back in my cabin. And writing all the time. Ziza (“Dona Flor”) from Bahia, Brazil, and the weaver and musician, Janet Pellam, also lived at the cabin for some years. It was paradise.  Even Gary Snyder came to visit twice.

 

When you moved to Lithuania in the 1990s, how did you pursue literature here?

Because I had met Kornelijus, he took me under his wing. He and Ališanka, they were very kind. Also, Džoja Barysaitė. From the beginning, I have to say, they were really open. When I came here to start the Fulbright, Kornelijus invited me to Druskininkai to stay a week or so with him and to introduce me to [Vytautas] Bložė and [Sigitas] Geda, who were both living there. I can’t remember if I stayed before or after the Poetic Fall, but it was in the autumn.

Geda made some really positive comments on these two poems of mine that he had seen, that Ališanka had translated. And then Bložė had wanted to translate a lot, so he translated a bunch. Geda was always open and friendly. When Vaga [publishing house] wanted to do a selected poems of Geda, he said he wanted me to translate it to English.

But you know, I never was able to learn languages since I was a kid, no matter how hard I tried. When I came here, I tried earphones, I took private lessons, but I couldn’t learn anything, nothing. But when I translate, I always work closely with the author and someone who is a bilingual scholar or with my Lithuanian wife, the poet Sonata Paliulytė. In that way I did a lot of translations earlier here, and so it was the same way with Geda. You know, Bložė’s translations were always very free, and Geda too; they knew Russian, they knew Polish, they would find these people and do their own thing. I tried not to be free as best I could, but to keep it poetry, because I really didn’t want to change the content.

Kerry Shawn Keys interview 08Issue of Lithuanian newspaper Gyvenimas, December 16, 2000. Front-page story by Milda Kniežaitė on Kerry Keys: “Neighbors Occasionally Call Police on American Poet in Vilnius.”

Aside from the literary community, did you have a hard time socializing with Lithuanians?

It was unusual; everyone was kind of closed for many others but not for me. The only thing that took me a while to understand – and I don’t think it’s as common anymore – when I’d be walking on the street with, say, a Lithuanian I knew very well and they would meet somebody, when they would come up and say hi and start a conversation, you would never get introduced back then. Never, and I mean never, by anybody. And I was trying to figure this thing out because it just seemed unfriendly.

My favorite place in Lithuania then was the old canteen in the Writers’ Union that I would go to three or four times a week, Suokalbis. I was a Suokalbis fanatic. I used to hang out there all the time. Even dancing on the fireplace mantel. You’ve missed that, your generation – it was the best bar in Europe, I would say.

 

In Europe?

I, well… I think in the world, maybe. It was amazing.

I would be there with people, everyone would be talking, and some guy, for instance, would be very interesting to talk to – but when he left the table and I asked the Lithuanian person who I was with, who obviously knew him for a long time, “What does he do?” They said, “I don’t know.” Other people told me that this was a big hangover from the Soviet times – you just didn’t particularly introduce or talk about other people outside the family much. And I think it’s also combined with a semi-Nordic disposition.

Kerry Shawn Keys interview 09Kerry Shawn Keys and his wife, poet Sonata Paliulytė. Vilnius, 2017. Photo by Jonathan Bousfield.

And you can probably see from the way I’m talking now that it wasn’t hard for me to socialize. I’d just go to Suokalbis and dance and stuff. I never kept to the expat community. And even though I didn’t know the language, I just went to all the meetings at the PEN or somewhere else and just sat there. I would sometimes be daydreaming, but I would just sit there, all the time. All the art openings, too – I liked to see the paintings even though I didn’t know what was going on.

 

You are a prolific writer who writes across different genres. When you get inspired for a title, do you attach a genre to it from the start or does that develop as you write?

It develops. My book, Pienas, which was basically prose fables or short fiction, they all came like voices to me. Later, I turned some into plays. I never wrote prose much, except in undergraduate and graduate school. But I did practice speed writing when I was younger. It’s when you just start writing and you aren’t allowed to stop – for half an hour or an hour, you just can’t stop. I used that a lot when I was in my twenties. When I was teaching, I used that a lot with my students just to get them to open up. For them, I would put four or five words on a separate piece of paper that you can see when you write. Sometimes you’re just repeating “the the the the” or “boy boy boy boy” or “stout stout stout stout” and then “stout, he was a stout man, he was big,” you know. I could go on and on, I mean I could talk like this even now. Free association, they call it. So I did that earlier just to loosen up, and when I taught, I told my students to repeat their last word if they get stuck – you can’t stop, some line comes, or you glance at these four words and then go somewhere. “Bird” might be really good, because from “bird” you can go to “wings,” “fly,” “sky…”

A lot of the earlier work in Pienas (Milk) came suddenly, like voices – I just started writing, and a lot of it was a female character talking, rambling on and on. I didn’t know why, but I just let them do what they were going to do. I didn’t feel the control that you have in poetry, because in poetry I was always looking particularly for certain rhymes, form, expression, you know, very self-conscious. With this prose game, I didn’t feel like it mattered professionally, but it turned out very good. I didn’t have that conscious discipline – I’d just be writing – and I like the way it turned out.

 

It seems to me that a lot of your work deals with things like mythology, beasts, and the primal forces of nature. Where does that come from?

Well, who knows, really, where some of it comes from. But I think it comes from my childhood, when I was spending a lot of time in the forest on my own. Even in the city, where I lived, by chance there was a gigantic field outside my back door. There were snakes, rabbits, turtles, flying squirrels. Even when I was three, my mom gave me great liberty to go out into the field and just sit there. And when I went deer hunting with my father – we would go to one place before the sun came up, no matter how cold it was, and you’d be there all day, say, from seven in the morning to maybe four. Standing, sitting, standing, sitting, whatever – you’re just there by yourself. We went fishing a lot, same thing. We fished all the time, but we weren’t great at it, so we would just sit.

 

Do you have any place closer to nature in Lithuania?

Yeah, and it was so fantastic to find it because I really wanted something here. Sonata and I managed to get this small log cabin on a property near Labanoras, in a little village called Šnieriškės. Our twins go mushrooming there, swim in the lake. I fish a little bit. We have a garden, an orchard. I do a lot of mushrooming, and I do a lot of reading and writing. And that’s how I wrote that text that I sent you, the 270-page…

Seasons at the Patch.

Yeah! I’ve been writing it for three years.

 

Seasons at the Patch is a work that is primarily inspired by your time spent in Lithuanian nature, at that specific village. And it is dedicated to Kristijonas Donelaitis?

I read Donelaitis in English two or three times – it’s fun because he has a lot of comical characters in there. Mine is embellished because I have people visiting me – Martin Heidegger came and we talked about the Black Forest and Celan. Li Po comes sometimes, Hanshan, and we get drunk on moonshine with my friend Sergej Jeriomenko. Omar Khayyam and Chorizo and Ko come a lot because they like currant and apple wine. So some of that stuff is in there – about forty or fifty poems of these characters that I bring into it. The rest is often – I hate to use that word, but – mystical? The stuff that’s coming through when you’re in the water and you’re feeling the water, you know? So I’m trying to get at that feeling. And there’s a lot about animals and bugs and plants. Of course, it is not the old-time nature poetry, which many got disgusted with. Mine is not really like that. It’s often ontological or comical and satiric.

Kerry Shawn Keys interview 10From left to right: jazz musician Vladimir Tarasov, Kerry Keys, poets Craig Czury and Jane Todd Cooper. Vilnius, 2002. Photo by Džoja Barysaitė.

This sounds uppity, but the major works in Lithuanian like that were only done in earlier times by Donelaitis, and then Jonas Mekas’s There Is No Ithaca was the other one. I think he wrote it in Germany, when he thought that he was never going to be able to go home. But that’s all rural, pastoral, agricultural. And then I don’t know anybody else. No one’s going to accept me as a foreigner doing this, but I say, okay, now you have three!

No one’s going to take me seriously, but I’m serious about it.

We both laughed about it, but I found joy in the fact that Mr. Keys is writing his magnum opus on the experience of Lithuania’s nature in a village that, as of the 2011 Lithuanian census, has a population of ten. Kerry told me there were three. I had always imagined veteran writers to be dead-set specific on what literature means to them or how they approach it, but Kerry Keys seems to operate on exceptions rather than rules. Kerry Shawn Keys’s latest poetry books are Black Ice, published by Black Spruce Press in 2020, and Shoelaces for Chagall, Selected Love Poems in German and English, by Bübül Verlag, Berlin. His artistic and unusual webpage is http://greg-ory.org/kerrykeys.html. Keys is also a frequent contributor to Vilnius Review with his essay series called A Palmer’s Chronicle.

 

 

 

 

 

e-max.it: your social media marketing partner

Sponsors

Friends

logo lrsThe Lithuanian Culture Institutelogo lim