John Keene - the 13 stories range in length and style, from the brief and pastoral to the sprawling and collagelike, but they share two overarching concerns: a willingness to experiment with language and a tactile sense of history

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John Keene, Counternarratives, New Directions, 2015.

Conjuring slavery and witchcraft, and with bewitching powers all its own, Counternarratives continually spins history―and storytelling―on its head
Ranging from the 17th century to our current moment, and crossing multiple continents, Counternarratives' stories and novellas draw upon memoirs, newspaper accounts, detective stories, interrogation transcripts, and speculative fiction to create new and strange perspectives on our past and present. “An Outtake” chronicles an escaped slave’s take on liberty and the American Revolution;"The Strange History of Our Lady of the Sorrows" presents a bizarre series of events that unfold in a nineteenth-century Kentucky convent; "The Aeronauts" soars between bustling Philadelphia, still-rustic Washington, and the theater of the U.S. Civil War; “Rivers,” presents a free Jim meeting up decades later with his former raftmate Huckleberry Finn; and in "Acrobatique," the subject of a famous Edgar Degas painting talks back.

Counternarratives is an extraordinary work of literature. John Keene is a dense, intricate, and magnificent writer.  Christine Smallwood 

Only a few, John Keene among them, in our age, authentically test the physics of fiction as both provocation and mastery. Continuing what reads like the story collection as freedom project, in Counternarratives, Keene opens swaths of history for readers to more than imagine but to manifest and live in the passionate language of conjure and ritual. - Major Jackson

Keene finds inspiration in newspaper clippings, memoirs, and history, and anchors them in the eternal, universal, and mystical. -  Vanity Fair

In Counternarratives, John Keene undertakes a kind of literary counterarchaeology, a series of fictions that challenge our notion of what constitutes "real" or "accurate" history. His writing is at turns playful and erudite, lyric and coldly diagnostic, but always completely absorbing. Counternarratives could easily be compared to Borges or Bolano, Calvino or Kiš, but at the same time it is a deeply American, resolutely contemporary book, that asks us to reconsider our own perspectives on the past―and the future. - Jess Row

The stories in this collection use daring, sometimes-fragmented structures to examine bleak moments in American history—and help trace the effects of those moments to the present day.
Keene divides his book into three sections, “Counternarratives,” “Encounternarratives,” and “Counternarrative”; the 13 stories range in length and style, from the brief and pastoral to the sprawling and collagelike, but they share two overarching concerns: a willingness to experiment with language and a tactile sense of history. The longest is “Gloss on a History of Roman Catholics in the Early American Republic, 1790-1825; Or The Strange History of Our Lady of the Sorrows”—several of the stories have titles that suggest academia—which begins in a fairly dry, historical vein. Over the course of the novella, however, the narrative becomes fractured, shifting from third person to first person and back and incorporating dialogue and found documents. It’s dizzying at times, but the story's handling of religious life and the era’s horrific racism becomes fuller as a result. “The Aeronauts,” which begins in 1861, is more straightforwardly told but finds a similar tension between its protagonist's scientific pursuits and hot air ballooning and the societal strife that surrounds him. Over the course of the book, the stories slowly advance toward the present day, and Keene uses different techniques throughout. At one point, in “Cold,” a character is told, “you have four or five different polyrhythms running concurrently, no man can play this.” It reads like a metafictional nod to Keene’s own experimental tendencies.
These stories can be challenging, but at their best, they can be revelatory, and they sometimes end on haunting notes.  - Kirkus Reviews

For some time, among a small group of practitioners of what may be termed—loosely, with reservations—prose fiction, there has been a sense that the dilemmas incumbent upon the contemporary writer transcend the capacities of unalloyed imagination. This instinct animates the works of writers as apparently distinct as Édouard Levé, Marie Calloway, and W. G. Sebald. What may once have been a formalist repugnance, a longing to distinguish one’s art and sensations from the humdrum mechanics of accepted form, as epitomized in Valéry’s well-known refusal of novel-writing for his abhorrence of composing such a sentence as The Marquise went out at five o’ clock, has more recently hardened into an ethical conviction, often grounded, as in the case of Sebald, in rigorous historical research, that there is something tawdry and overweening in the impulse to approach the disasters of history, whether remote or contemporary, with historical recreations of the Sophie’s Choice stamp.
This conviction bespeaks the widening of a cleavage in narrative writing: to the one side lie the defenders of the bourgeois novel, those who believe, as Jonathan Franzen asserts, that there is a deep, unmet need for stories; to the other, those who suspect, some overtly, others more tentatively, that the innocence or guilt of stories cannot be divorced from their social and political context, and that the status accorded to creative imagination within the economy of cultural exchange does not automatically exempt it from moral scrutiny.
At issue here is a disagreement concerning the sources of written art: the proper origin of the wonder and foreboding from which artistic creation proceeds. Are they in some measure subservient to the demands of history or the present, or is the artist justified to consider himself sui generis? Might inspiration be inseparable from a kind of attunement to one’s past, so that the claim of an aboriginal imagination is no more than a smug pose? Is the rejection of any beholdenness always already deviant with respect to art’s proper vocation? 
Questions of this kind hum in the background of Counternarratives, John Keene’s new collection of stories and novellas, recently published by New Directions. Counternarratives extends an intuition already present in his first book, Annotations, that the themes the author strives to bring beneath his purview might best be approached obliquely. The tales in Keene’s newest work range from the chronicle of an insurgent slave in seventeenth-century Brazil to a dreamlike recollection of a passion-filled evening between Langston Hughes and the Mexican poet Xavier Villaurrutia. No two stories are formally alike: “Gloss On the History of Roman Catholics in the Early American Republic, 1790–1825; Or the Strange History of Our Lady of the Sorrows” combines philosophical lucubrations with straightforward history and excerpts from the journal of a slave, while “Acrobatique” opens and closes with a vertical line of prose, meant to symbolize the rope from which the famed black acrobat Miss La La hung suspended, a leather bit between her teeth. What unites them all is a meticulous attention to the weight and sound of words, a sensibility more poetic than prosaic, and a measured, deliberate meditation on the texture of black lives in history, taken not in the sense of grand narrative, but of what persists in the gaps, awaiting resurrection through art.
Keene’s Counternarratives offers a corrective to boilerplate that would forbid art from entering into the political. Its very title suggests that not only that the story has been told wrong, not only that it is not enough to tell other stories to be placed in their appropriate box (African-American, Post-Colonial) and thereby neutralized before being passed on to readers as ersatz probity while the real economic and political conditions that perpetuate injustice grind on unaffected; but rather that, for literature to continue to fulfill its vocation, the record has to be set straight. The political is not imposed on these tales from above; instead, a full account of the character’ life histories cannot be given without recourse to the political. Even their names are imbued with relations of power: In “A Letter on the Trials of the Counterreformation in New Lisbon,” an insurgent slave rebukes a Portuguese friar who addresses him by his Christian name, João Baptista:
They may baptize me a thousand times in that faith, with water or oil, no matter. The one who died was named João Baptista dos Anjos, by his own hand, and they imposed his name on me as a penalty because he took his life, though that is another matter. I would nevertheless ask that you call me Burunbana, as that is my name.
Freedom from a political conception of life is seen not as the natural condition of life, but as an effect of intimacy with power, of belonging to the victorious side of history. Yet this programmatic enterprise is anything but vehement: Keene is not out to teach lessons, but to evince, by the poignancy of the anecdotes he shares and his formal and linguistic ingenuity, the grandeur and sorrow of voices from the past whose experience continues to inform the present.
The axis of these tales is not so much slavery as the constitution of the black subject as an entity especially suited to subservience and degradation, fit for exclusion from the fields of speculation and experience proper to its white counterparts. In “Cold,” the brilliant composer Bob Cole, tormented by a success won at the expense of his own people’s dignity, drowns himself in a river in the Catskills; in “Persons and Places,” W.E.B. Du Bois walks past his tutor, George Santayana, yearning for a moment of recognition of common humanity from a man who would reserve not a single word for the author of The Souls of Black Folk in his celebrated autobiography; and in “The Aeronauts,” one of the volume’s most delicate and affecting stories, a gifted waiter at Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences, pondering the lengths to which his prodigious memory might take him, recalls his father’s admonition: “[W]hat sort of life you think there is for us if our heads stay too far up in them clouds?”
For many readers, the centerpiece of Counternarratives will be “Rivers,” a first-person testimony by Miss Watson’s Jim, the escaped slave from Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, concerning the fate of his erstwhile companions. In a chance meeting on a St. Louis street, where the emancipated Jim is now a tavern owner, Tom Sawyer chides the narrator for his failure to step aside when he sees two “gentlemen” approaching. Jim’s eyes glaze over as Tom boasts of his two years at university, his employment at a law office arranged by Judge Thatcher, and his thought of moving to New Orleans upon his admission to the bar. Readers of Twain may recollect that his greatest novel opens with Tom trying to convince Huck to tie Jim up as a joke; and the increasing surliness of Tom’s comments insinuate the ease with which the petty cruelties of youthful pranks may later grade into the overt violence by which racial hegemony is maintained and defended. Huck remains reticent and slightly sullen throughout: after a brief account of his dustups in Kansas, he says, “But I don’t think old Jim wants to be bothered with hearing about any of that.” An outcast, the son of the town drunk, he has not forgotten his decision to go to Hell, if need be, in order to rescue his friend from slave-catchers. Later, while Tom presumably whiles away the war in safety, Huck and Jim meet once more on the field of battle.
Throughout the book, Keene plays with the possibilities of his title: Counternarratives serves as the heading for the first group of stories, Encounternarratives the second. The final section, Counternarrative, implies a more conceptual approach—the opposition to narrative, or the narrative that exists solely by opposition. It consists of a single story, Lions. In a conversation between a dictator and his muffled victim, the easy continuity between ideology and demagoguery and the inexhaustible lure of corruption come to life in a cell that could equally lie in Zimbabwe, in Uganda, or in Equatorial Guinea. The two figures speak of their youthful idealism, their yen for Fanon and Amilcar Cabral; of the depraved luxury of power and rapine; of boyhood love incompatible with the struggle for dominance; of what might have been, had Africa been untouched by Western hands. With relish, the dictator’s recollections turn on the moment when he surpassed the man slumping in the chair before him and took hold of the reins of terror:
If I wanted your entire ancestral village to lie prone before me as I enteredthem one by one, if I wanted to raze the entire village and rape all the crushed anddismembered and burnt bodies, if I wanted to destroy every vestige of everysingle soul that spoke the same language as you and rape their ghosts, rape yourancestors who were my ancestors, if I want to rape the vestigial mothers andfathers of us all, if I wanted to rape the last embers of your existence and memoryand then what wasn’t even left after that, I would have done so. I can write thestory of reality however I see fit. At any time.
In a 1958 interview with the Paris Review, Alfred Chester, prodding Ralph Ellison about the scope of “the Negro writer,” baits him with the statement, “Then you consider your novel a purely literary work as opposed to one in the tradition of social protest.” Ellison responds that complaints about the protest novel should not be leveled against the genre as such, but rather against the ineptitude of individual examples of it. In any art that deals with human life, considerations of justice will prove inseparable from those of beauty and truth: in any aesthetic object justly rendered, these virtues will be present, and their absence is always traceable to some error in judgment, a false exaggeration of the sort common to clichés or a failure to attend on some fundamental property. Counternarratives is political fiction in the best sense of the term, with its heedfulness to the lived interstices in history and the horizons of human feeling weighed down by the ballast of oppression. - Adrian Nathan West

The trajectory of history, we’re told, is that of a projectile hurtling through space. It is meant only to keep moving—ideally forward—and the guardians of history have been able to idealize their accumulations of time into an abstraction—namely, progress—by way of a deadeye aim backing up their threat: “Your money and your life.” In this way, histories, in all their extravagances and contradictions, become History.
With black and brown bodies being murdered daily from Cleveland to Cincinnati, Baltimore to Oakland—the riotous specter of Ferguson looming always—by an assortment of systemic forces shrugging off protest when they are not stamping it out, the stories of these lives, or ones like them, are the stuff of histories untold by History. This is, of course, nothing new to 2015, no matter the number and volume of white people (like myself) now paying attention. History is nothing if not resourceful.
This is the context of John Keene’s ambitious collection of stories and novellas, Counternarratives. Though many of these were published elsewhere, together they read very much like the multi-genre, patchwork novels of Alexander Kluge—or perhaps more grandly still, László Krasznahorkai’s recent Seiobo There Below, a work bound not by plotted coherence but by a conceptual aesthetic thriving on difference. This is to say, while Counternarratives makes no claim to being a “novel of short stories,” its epic sweep and conceptual unity bear the marks. Indeed, one might speculate further that this “story collection” lives up to its title and effectively challenges—like Kluge and Krasznahorkai (among others)—the commonplace sense of how a novel should look and what it should do.
I don’t want to make too much of this theory, however; I fear I would just be trading in more abstraction, in the process smiling too brightly on the assembling of yet another bullseye for Progress. That Keene arranges his stories chronologically, from colonial discovery to forms of conquest to fallouts of rule, makes all the more striking his defiance of History’s narrative mastery, particularly its strict control over black bodies and lives. In Keene’s stories, these lives that matter, desire justice, consider revenge, lament, and love, do so because they queer the course of History.
Throughout Counternarratives, Keene deploys a number of styles and experiments, such as two narratives inhabiting the same page (by way of separate columns) and the heavy use of ellipses to punctuate the breathless movements—not always forward—of desire. Three stories, one from each of the collection’s three sections, highlight in various ways what is at stake in these stylistic experiments.
The most ambitious of the three is also the best, “Gloss on a History of Roman Catholics in the Early American Republic, 1790–1825, or the Strange History of our Lady of Sorrows.” Beginning near the final days of French rule in Haiti, “Gloss” tells of a young house slave named Carmel. She is mute, communicating mostly through frenzied drawings depicting violent scenes and dread, drawings that prove prophetic when Haiti explodes in revolution. In the chaos, her French owners are killed, save for the teenage daughter to whom she attends, and they both are sent to a Catholic monastery in western Kentucky. Up to this point, Keene’s narration has been rather conventional. At the monastery, however, as Carmel begins to thrive intellectually and grows into written language, the conventions break down. We begin tracking her evolution through journal entries, from pidgin English to full command, and in the process Carmel is no longer merely acted upon—by her owners or her visions. She is given (or perhaps it is better to say she seizes) not only a voice but the agency finally to act (retributively) on that voice. The denouement recalls the earlier explosion of revolution in Haiti, and it is exhilarating.
Indeed, Keene has developed a fine art and eye for decisive conclusions. In the collection’s second section—“Encounternarratives”—his stories take a speculative, fanciful turn into cultural and recorded history. He imagines a meeting wherein Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer meet with a (now-freed) Jim, some twenty years after Mark Twain’s story, and mere weeks before the Civil War; another meeting occurs between Degas and his acrobat Miss La La. As in “Gloss,” in each it is a black character—formerly but a body at the disposal and viewing of others—that is the most articulate, and which also has the final say.
Keene, however, is aware that not all final statements are necessarily triumphant. In perhaps the most subtly powerful story of the collection, “Cold,” we inhabit the tortured mind of Bob Cole on his final day of life. At the turn of the 20th­ century, Cole was one of the preeminent and most influential black composers in America, but in “Cold” he is haunted by the cost of performing a clichéd version of blackness for a white audience. A success in terms most measurable, namely money, Cole’s musical consciousness is assaulted by a modernist, defiant dissonance, which Keene reflects in an increasingly frayed first-person narration. Cole’s final act unfolds as the author pulls the remaining thread in a single, 1.5-page sentence that never so much ends as becomes silent: “the nightmare track as your mind turns back into the blackness you count backwards joining our song no coon no more nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen nobody but Jesus if you get there before I do tell all ‘a my friends I’m coming until the music breaks into a screaming silence that if you could describe it in a word would be no word or note or sound at all but fleetingly, freeingly cold . . .”
In the final story, “The Lions,” Keene pushes this sort of cautionary ambivalence even further. With a stylistic nod toward Samuel Beckett, he stages a conversation in what begins as, the eyes having not yet adjusted, pitch dark (though it is likely to remain so for one of the characters, with suggestions that he has been blinded). A revolution has occurred. The black bodies that have inhabited the previous stories have finally had their say—they have asserted themselves—and in the course of rising against their oppressors, so have their own leaders risen against them . . . and against one another. In “The Lions,” one such leader, a former ally who has usurped the power of his predecessor, imprisoning and crippling him, meets with him for what we imagine to be the final time. The logic of silencing one’s enemies, we find, is not necessarily exclusive to the oppressor, and it is perhaps but one of colonization’s more insidiously contagious germs.
Counternarratives, in short, is no simple tableau of triumphalism. It is a call to arms of sorts, perfectly in tune with the “Black Lives Matters” declaration we see playing out daily in our cities. But it is also one that is conspicuously absent the attendant chant heard recently in Cleveland, which echoed Kendrick Lamar’s lyric, “We gonna be alright.” Keene, it seems, sees no reason to be so confident that this is so. Queering the script, defying the imperative to be silent, however, does not require confidence or a vision of what progress means. It is, rather, in all its uncertainty and risk, the most basic stuff of—the very matter of—life. It is also the crowning achievement of one of the year’s very best books.  - Brad Johnson

Here is a look at literature that spins history and storytelling. Beginning in the 17th century and coming up to the present, we go all over the world and see novellas and stories that draw upon memoirs, newspaper accounts, detective stories, interrogation transcripts, and speculative fiction to “create new and strange perspectives on our past and present”. In “Rivers,” a free Jim meets up decades later with his former friend Huckleberry Finn; “An Outtake” chronicles an escaped slave’s fate in the American Revolution; “On Brazil, or Dénouement” burrows deep into slavery and sorcery in early colonial South America; and in “Blues” the great poets Langston Hughes and Xavier Villaurrutia meet in Depression-era New York and share more than secrets. Keene gives us new looks at old stories and it is amazing. I suppose you might call this revisionist literature and it is thought provoking and haunting. This is not the kind of writing that us easily explained but once you get into it, you will understand what it is all about. - Amos Lassen
John Keene brings philosophical concerns and an impressive range of historical detail to the short fiction of Counternarratives.
Your historical fictions range from the plausible to the magical. What makes them “counternarratives”?
I see these stories unfolding like a mixtape of alternative narratives of the United States, the Americas, the black Atlantic and diaspora, and modernity. They represent the outtakes, the glosses, the buried, and often queer forgotten tales that traditional accounts of our past have downplayed or omitted, while also countering the official narratives written by the powerful. This makes them “counternarratives.” I think of their range from the plausible to the magical through the lens of competing rationalities. The stories ask, where do one group’s or person’s perspectives intersect or clash with another’s? How do the stories we tell (or avoid telling) ourselves, individually and as societies, influence what we know and believe to be true?

Can you speak about your innovative formatting, such as when you have Du Bois and Santayana narrate side by side in “Persons and Places”?

Most of the formatting ideas arose as I conceptualized the stories. With “Persons and Places,” I imagined the student Du Bois and teacher Santayana passing each other on a Cambridge street. Given the era’s social norms, they do not speak, but each is already aware of the other, so the two columns embody this recognition through proximity, but without connecting.
One of the strongest pieces in the collection is the outstanding “Gloss, or The Strange History of Our Lady of the Sorrows.” Can you take us through the process of writing it?
I love all these stories, but [that one] is my favorite as well. It’s also the longest and the most formally complex. The process of writing [it] posed huge challenges. I conceived the narrative’s general shape first, and then had to work through how to tell it. Key for me was figuring out how to convey the growth of the main character, Carmel, from voicelessness at the story’s beginning to her first-person narration at its end, which parallels her journey from bondage to her control of her destiny.
You end the collection with “The Lions,” a brutal take on fear and fearlessness. Is this a commentary on the accumulated trauma of black experience covered in the preceding stories?
That is such an insightful reading of “The Lions.” The fictions in Counternarratives explore many variations on the themes of flight and fugitivity, and this final story, a cautionary tale, is a commentary on the effects of the accumulated traumas of racism, colonialism, imperialism, capitalism, and the many other local and global oppressive systems that affect the black characters in the preceding stories, though freedom remains on their horizons. “The Lions” is also a dramatization of the struggle these revolutionaries are still waging on their home turf over the loss of their ideals, their dreams, their senses of self, and the greater good. They have acquired wealth and power, but in the process they also have acquired the means to destroy themselves and others. - Yulia Greyman   

Keene spoke with The Lambda Literary Review about his new book, hidden histories, merging fiction with reality, and why writing against official narratives is queer.
What was the genesis of the idea for writing the works collected in Counternarratives?
Before I begin, I want to thank you for the invitation to field questions about my new book. I love to read history books, and years ago, when I came across the late historian Lorenzo Johnston Greene’s The Negro in Colonial New England, I could not stop thinking about the hidden histories his book and similar books revealed. I had spent about ten years in Boston and was living between New Jersey and graduate school in New York City then, and I knew there had been slavery in the North, though I only had a vague sense of how extensive it was and how it functioned. But I began to think about how slavery connected with other aspects of American and African-American history, down to our present day, and my imagination took over. Writing hidden stories into being and writing against official narratives became my guiding principles. I wrote the first story, “An Outtake from the Ideological Origins of the American Revolution,” and then thought I might write others linked to it, though my initial conceptualization was somewhat different from the book that emerged. It took me a while to complete, in part because I lost whole drafts of several of the stories about ten years ago, without having saved or printed them out, but having rewritten most of what I lost, I’m happy with what resulted.
Why do the stories vary from one to another in terms of style and form?
One lesson that I learned a while back from the great writer Sarah Schulman was that each work should and must find its own voice and form. While there are commonalities of language, tone and so forth, each of the stories in Counternarratives is doing something different, so each takes a distinct form, often directly informed by the subject matter. That is why there is a double-columned story, one with text boxes, another in the form of a letter, and so forth. As a result, I think of the collection as a literary and archival mixtape.
Can form itself be queer?
The answer, I think, is yes. If form pushes against and destabilizes usual norms and conventions, then it would be queer, no? The stories in Counternarratives trouble contemporary narrative conventions in American fiction, in part through an emphasis on storytelling in itself; through a play with structure, genre and voice; and through the queerness of the characters themselves. Nevertheless, the stories all are—at another level, I trust—accessible and readable.
How much research went into the stories in Counternarratives? Did you come across any surprises?
With all of the stories, my approach was to do a little background reading and then write, letting my imagination guide me. After several drafts, I would check things through research, in an effort not to get things grossly wrong. In fiction, you always have the defense that you can do what you like, but I wanted to avoid obvious mistakes. I came across many surprises; one, for example, informs my story “Blues,” about Langston Hughes and Xavier Villaurrutia. After I had written a few drafts of the story, in an old issue of one of the New York African-American papers from that era, I found an overt, campy reference to a queer-friendly Harlem restaurant. I made sure to use that spot in the story. There were many little moments like this.
How do you manage the mix the real and historical with fiction and the imagination? What ways did you use to avoid overwhelming the narratives with historical detail?
I wrestle with these questions. In terms of the former, I think about how reality functions for different cultures and how permeable realism is. Superstition under one perspective is spirituality under another. Merging the real, historical and fiction also has a venerable history; writers like John Edgar Wideman, Samuel R. Delany, E.L. Doctorow and Ishmael Reed, among many others, of course, did this long before me. (Also, so much of our entertainment nowadays, and even our news, is mediated by scripted and semi-fictional reality, for good or ill.) With regard to your second question, I aimed for each story to be about the characters. Their perspectives shape everything in the text, which makes it much easier to deal with the historical material. But it is tricky, since a lack of historical detail creates a material thinness that also can be problematic. I tend toward observant characters, many of them (proto-) artists or intellectuals, so they do notice things, perhaps more than the average person, and much of that appears in the stories.
Why did you feature 20th-century queer writers Langston Hughes and Mário de Andrade in two of the stories—and why include sex scenes? 
Hughes and Andrade are heroes of mine. Towering modernist figures in their respective countries, both were of African descent, both displayed multiple talents, and both are now widely though not uncontroversially understood to have been gay, so I wanted to offer glimpses at moments in each man’s life, particularly beyond their youth. In the case of both, a public narrative arose that elided their queerness. With Hughes, we saw this with the furor, sparked in part by the Hughes estate, around Isaac Julien’s 1988 film Looking for Langston, and later in Hughes’ biographer Arnold Rampersad’s suggestion that Hughes was “asexual.” In Brazil, with Andrade’s life, a similar storyline that downplays his queerness has developed. There are so many clues in each man’s work, as well as in their biographies, letters, etc. Also, as scholar Robert F. Reid-Pharr has suggested in Hughes’ case (and this could be the same for Andrade), and as the CUNY Lost and Found Series of pamphlets exemplify, there are still archival troves that have yet to be examined. I should add that in both cases, their poems provoked me to write about them, and for both, I also wanted to make the sex(uality) a reality.
Fiction writers sometimes speak of their characters “getting away from them” and behaving in their own way rather than how their authors had intended when first plotting out a story. Did this happen to you here?
This happened on multiple occasions. In the story “A Letter on the Trials of the Counterreformation in New Lisbon,” I had a vague sense of how the story would unfold, but the voice of the narrator (whose identity I cannot reveal) and the actions of the enslaved person João Baptista kept heading to places I had not expected. I followed both to where they led me, and the result is, I think, pretty interesting! With “The Aeronauts,” at least two or three times, little Theodore’s—Red’s—actions, and those of his cousin, were not what I originally had in my head. When Red goes back to visit the encampment where he had stayed in northern Washington D.C., I was surprised—and I was writing the story!
On the flip side of this, in using historical characters—or someone like “Jim” from Huckleberry Finn, a fictional character so well known as to seem “real”—did you feel any constraints introducing them into your stories?
It was a bit daunting to take on “Jim” from Mark Twain’s novels, though I also wondered why no one had done so before. (Or maybe someone has.) I remember having to read Huck Finn as a high school freshman, and in addition to my consternation whenever the N-word appeared (which meant my white classmates could say it with impunity), I can recall my fascination with Jim. His spirituality, his humor, his forbearance, and that hairy chest! With the exception of the river trip, his life trajectory would have been that of some of my ancestors in Missouri, so in part, opening up his story was a way back into theirs. Also, one of the premises of Huck Finn is a bit shocking and absurd, when you think about it, as Jane Smiley has pointed, in that taking an enslaved person deeper into Confederate territory would be the worst thing to do, so I resolved to address that creatively. Thus, it occurs in two different stories: the Jim story “Rivers” and “The Aeronauts,” though with a different and vital rationale in both cases. - Reginald Harris           

John Keene and Christopher Stackhouse, Seismosis, 1913 Press, 2006.

Featuring line-drawings by Stackhouse and poems-as-essays by Keene—handed back and forth and back, written and rewritten, drawn and redrawn—SEISMOSIS penetrates the common ground between writing/literature and drawing/visual art, creating a revisioned landscape where much of the work is abstract or abstracted or both. The multiform agreements the texts & the drawings make, from a brilliant & decisive center, are revolutionary, antilinear, and highly responsive. SEISMOSIS is a formal experience. The result is a highly sophisticated call-and-response affair. A pioneer occasion, in which two African American artists have collaborated on a book of this nature, weaving a cohesive study of abstraction in both poetry and drawing, 1913's printing of the acclaimed collaboration approaches fine-press quality in mass-produced, perfect-bound, book-as-art-object form—in keeping with 1913's mission of integrating the visual and verbal zones.

... Seismosis is the complete text for the course, replete with illustrations, examples, graphs, exercises, and tests. --from the Foreword by Ed Roberson

Wow. Rarely a book makes such an impact. Keene and Stackhouse heat up the strange place where abstraction becomes as visceral as thoughts or conversations. Anyone interested in artistic collaborations will rarely find one this complete, in the pleasure of ever-forming and dissolving boundaries between gestures. An immediate delight. - Thalia Field
This exquisite collaboration goes beyond a linear mutual appreciation: poet likes artist's work--artist likes poet's work. In Seismosis, Keene & Stackhouse present an interwoven, intersecting conversation between one another and their art forms. We read the poems and see the drawings--we read the drawings and see the poems, as the collaborators make use of space, line, and textural performance in one multimedia framework. Here, two men's boyish charms and haunting playfulness create a three-dimensional canvas out of thinking inscriptions. - Tracie Morris
It's what happens when writing and drawing give each other a hand, a free hand, to shake it up, to go the distance from crossing out to crossing over, from ear to here and back again, fast. A little nerve music for the time being--sampling seismo for the pleisto scene. - David Levi Strauss
For readers interested in contemporary poetry of text and image, Apollinaire’s calligrams offer a point of departure par excellance. In his own words (and we cannot help but agree after engaging with such works as “Coup d’éventail” or “L’Oiseau et le bouquet”) “the relations between the juxtaposed figures” of one of his poems “are as expressive as the words that compose it. And this at least, I think, is a new invention.” The calligrams stand out not only as new inventions foregrounding the role of relation, but as emblems of a turning point—so essential to the poetics of today—in the way we have come to consider language and image. As Johanna Drucker fully explores in The Visible Word, visual poetry of the early twentieth century experiments with typography in a way that, just as Ferdinand de Saussure was showing in the field of linguistics at the same time, deconstructs the word-as-sign, divorcing the signifier from the signified to reveal that the word itself is a visual thing that can be considered and manipulated on its own. John Keene and Christopher Stackhouse’s collaboration, Seismosis, and Shin Yu Pai’s Sightings, books recently published by 1913 Press through the Rozanova Prize, an annual contest that publishes collaborative and/or visual books, are works that, each in its own fashion, extend this tradition of visual poetry born of the breaking of signs into the twenty-first century.
It is fitting for a book named Seismosis after the charting of earthquake rifts and interior vibrations to have, always in its background, this historical break of signifier from signified, an earthquake in the foundation of any discipline concerning itself with signs. Although such rifts in representation are easiest to think of in terms of shifting the way we think of noun and image (the word “tree” does not equal a particular and actual tree; an apple tree in a painting is not, itself, an apple tree, etcetera) the same rifts, of course, apply to the language of abstract concepts. It is upon such abstract concepts as identity, presence, physical space, metaphysics, and process that Keene (text) and Stackhouse’s (drawing) work focuses. Rather than embodying abstract concepts in concrete images, Seismosis hones in on the relationships between signifier and signified, text and image.
One of the principle relationships at work in this project is that between the act of writing and the act of drawing. Seismosis deals with these concepts explicitly in poems such as “Condensation I” and “Condensation II,” both of which are about the process of art-making. Working linearly though the book the reader meets “Condensation I” first, on page 4, and the prose poem reads as an artist’s personal narrative of his relationship to drawing. The poem is enclosed in quotes and begins: “‘ For a long time I was drawing regularly. I’ve drawn since I was small, even before I uttered a word or penned my own name...’” and takes up such topics as his reasons for drawing and the role it has played in his life.
Although the piece maps a straightforward connection between the artist and his creation on the surface, the poem simultaneously complicates the very notion of this relationship. On a surface level this poem is about the process of coming to be an artist—that art is practice and is part of life, a function of an artist’s relationship to the world around him. Considered on the level of the book-as-collaboration, this poem complicates the relationship of text to image, author to artist. If we read this poem as the autobiography of the visual artist, can all of the poems in the book be read as statements of the visual artist voiced by the poet? In addition, the poem, we note, is given to us in quotes. Does this mean that the poem is “written” by someone other than the poet (the visual artist)? Or, does it call to mind the fact that this narrative is a representation of a larger, abstract process—that of becoming an artist—which cannot be represented by such a narrative and, so, must be set off by quote marks, foregrounding the poem as languaged statement? To further complicate all of these questions and turnings, “Condensation II,” which comes to us on page 35, is exactly the same poem, with all of its questions and turnings, except the word “writing” is substituted for the word “drawing.” In this way, drawing is writing and writing is drawing. But such a connection is not one of identity—one of “is”—but one of relationship, of comparing, narrating, questioning, acting.
In addition to addressing questions of relation through content, the style and form of the book’s pieces also investigate relationships of abstract concepts and imagery. Stackhouse’s primarily non-representational drawings are done in pencil or a mixture of pencil and ink (the reproduction of the drawings make it difficult to tell the original media) and are black on white or grayscale. The drawings consist of scribbles and lines and call to mind abstract expressionist movement: the hand of the artist and the pressures on paper of the drawing instrument as it moves in and out of shape create the drawing’s emotion. The work is always aware that it is a drawing, not a drawing pretending to be, for example, an apple tree. In a similar way, Keene’s text unfolds principally absent of the traditional poetic image. In its place are the textures of language and the curves of the mind as the poet formulates and reformulates concept and thought. For example, in “Cut,” a meditation on image and representation, Keene writes:

Unfolding images as wholes, how can I get to them?
vision, image, language
so concrete, descriptive.
[Snipped, holed]
Lines, colors separate out and in conversation with the stringing.
The movement of the hand across paper is mirrored here in typography that uses the page as an open field, the ellipsis as a dividing line, a drawn out pause, and a physical pressure on the poet’s keyboard. The bold italics of the word “cut” places visual emphasis on the word in a manner that echoes the dark, smeared lines of the Stackhouse drawing opposite the poem. In addition to these visual elements, we notice that the poem is about poem-making, about creating the image, gathering its occasion, action, and cadences from the process of writing.
...From the vantage of our still quite new century that manages at the same time to feel already worn, there is very much a sense that we have a duty to look back on the previous century to inspect the evolutions of its wrongs. More than once has the breaking of signs into two (at least) theoretically separable parts been cast in dark shadow, as if it foretold or began the darknesses to come while relegating poets and artists to social irrelevance and incomprehensibility. However, books such as Sightings and Seismosis, born of this tradition of breaking, are evidence that the excitement of creation and the values of collaboration, possibility, and intellectual investigation are as strong at the beginning of this century as they were then. -  Karla Kelsey

cover image for

John Keene, Annotations, New Directions, 1995.
read it at Google Books

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.

Genius—brilliant, polished and of considerable depth.—Ishmael Reed

"Thus his musings, when written down, gradually melded, gathered shape, solidified like a well-mixed mache, and thus, upon rereading them he realized what he had accomplished was the construction of an actual voice. The final dances of youth, dim incandescence." Newcomer Keene has written a dense, lyrically beautiful and highly experimental debut. Composed of short passages open to multiple interpretations, it defies easy description. Annotations could be described as a bildungsroman, as a collection of short recits by unnamed and undetermined narrators, an elegy to the rise and fall of Keene's native St. Louis, a meditation on the African American influence there and much, much more. It may sound daunting, but Keene's masterful prose smoothly transgresses traditional lines of representation and description without ever seeming like an exercise in multi-thematic chaos. Keene's ambitious attempts to convey subtle beauty and complex emotions through obscure allusions occasionally beg for more extensive explanation than that provided by the notes at the end of the text. Still, Annotations is a work that should not be ignored and is worthy of the highest recommendation. It is an experimental work that pinpoints a new direction for literary fiction in the 21st century. - Publishers Weekly

Keene's slim first novel appears to be a disguised autobiographical narrative whose power resides in formidable imagery and the virtuoso use of language. The plot, if there is one, concerns a young black man's coming of age from birth to college years. Along the way while commenting aphoristically, he encounters many characters with unique personal outlooks and participates in gay and straight sexual experiences that he seems to avoid as often as not. But one does not read this book for its story. In fact, it should be read twice: once to get an idea of events and a second time to savor its language and pounding images (e.g., from the first page: "A crueler darkening, as against the assured arrival of dusk"). Keene's artistry makes him a writer to watch. Highly recommended for literary and African American collections. - Harold Augenbraum
Keene debuts in fiction with a dense, intelligent, poetic, highly allusive word-tapestry that takes on subjects low and high, brings up scoopfuls of history, theorizes endlessly--and tells the story of a boy growing up black in St. Louis, beginning with his birth in 1965 and ending as he heads for Harvard. An easy read it isn't, however, as suggested even by the titles of its short, prose-poem-like ``chapters''--``Signs, Scenes, a Psychic Trail of Assignations,'' for example, or ``Permanence or Evanescence, the Process of the Real.'' Yet the book does have an ongoing logic and narrative as an inner-city childhood is followed by a move to the suburbs, and as the nameless boy gradually becomes aware of his sexuality, intellect, and his interest in literature and poetry. Of daily life, there are siblings, the changing seasons, school and parents, a grandfather who grows vegetables, a great-aunt who expects good manners and decorum. The boy himself is called a sissy, is ridiculed for getting good grades, is ``chosen . . . last for any sport requiring aggression,'' and yet he's also the subject of his own grown and golden-tongued biographer, who says of him that ``His heart is a grotto bearing witness to other's kindnesses,'' or who mentions ``The kitchen of his body in which the fires of history were blazing.'' The history blazing inside is the history of region, race, self, and nation, and Keene summons up all, though briefly and always allusively. ``Our generation possesses only a cursory sense of the world that our ancestors braved,'' he declares, ``though the burdens of history bear unmovably upon us.'' As for his own method of pastiche, disjunction, and fleeting detail: ``The effect is essentially novelistic, though its fictiveness remains another matter.'' Tiny, and filled with enormous themes: a tour de force of intelligence, wordsmithing, and passion, with only a few notes slightly flat, and only now and then. - Kirkus Reviews

Reading John Keene’s novel, Annotations, is like staring into the sun. The book fills no more than 75 pages, yet it dazzles the mind with sharp and sudden emissions of light, bursts of heat. As I finished the book and laid it down, I could only hold onto the impression that it left.
Other than an ephemeral, lingering impression, how else can one recreate the complex personality of a life? Memory, after all, is a funny and elusive thing. We tend to think of our lives as a rigid continuum: birth – childhood – adolescence – adulthood. But in Keene’s autobiographical novel, we see memories as seemingly isolated moments, struggling to find their place in the larger context.
Split into sections with titles like “The Territory of History, Whose Unrecorded Story,” and “Signs, Scenes, a Psychic Trail of Assignations,” the book charts the path of memory as a compilation of interruptions. As Keene gives us glimpses into the life of African-Americans in St. Louis, sentences move abruptly from one topic to another. Phrases are scattered throughout, isolated from their neighboring lines like little, undiscovered islands in a wide, unbroken body of water.
If this structure reminds you of poetic structure, you are right. Annotations reads with the rhythm of spoken word, and Keene experiments right on the page: “Maudlin malingerers, lingering madly.” But in disorienting us, he remains playful. “This, as does each of these flares of intellect, takes note of the structural aspects of signification.” And with lines like these, the text is constantly pulsing with movement as rhymes and echoes direct us back to the origin.

John Keene. Photo by Sam Allard / North by Northwestern
But like poetry, the book is clearly devoid of the traditional features of a novel, like character or plot. Don’t pick up this book just because it’s categorized in the Fiction section of your local book store. Keene acts as a tour guide here, leading you on a roundabout visitation of life in St. Louis, but he moves so fast that there isn’t even time for the dust to settle, much less for you to focus on any character.
Keene seems much less interested in profiling individual people than he is in a ruthless excavation of the mind. Annotations, in fact, is a very personal book that dares to unravel the dark world of the subconscious, fearless of bringing unpleasant memories to the surface. “Repression’s effects,” he writes, “assume manifold forms.” To address them, the author uses literature to give them philosophical context; “Literature as a Guide to the Life Lived, a Deliverance,” he titles the concluding section.
And literature, it seems, truly does seem to cast a lovely, bittersweet glow over memory. Keene’s writing is nothing less than stunning: “On the template of the night’s sky they visually traced the constellations, which proved far more difficult to perform at home than they had witnessed at the planetarium. Thus, the worn yet lyric intensity of each evening’s secret offering, what its occurrence might furnish beyond our small and sparsely lit furnace.” But even as I excerpt these tidbits of the text, they fail to do justice to the writing; the value of each phrase lies not only in the phrase itself, but in its loose partnership with every other phrase in the book.
Reading this review, you might wonder at the lack of synopsis. To try my best, I will offer that Annotations is a work that combines childhood-to-adolescent angst within the topics of race and gentrification. But don’t read Annotations for plot; read it instead for the colorful texture of Keene’s prose and its mosaic of ideas and social questions. Read it because it awakens every part of the mind, because it fires up all the senses of the body. Read it to experience a revolutionary movement in the genre of fiction, for if modern literature often dabbles into the style of stream-of-consciousness, then Keene’s Annotations offers a coy invitation into the enigmatic realm of stream-of-subconsciousness. -