Responses to American Poetry
The aim of this online space is to host the research work of university students or young scholars as this emerges from larger projects focusing on the American poetry scene. The objective of this initiative is to bring this kind of research activity to the attention of the general public in an attempt to further promote the exchange of ideas with regard to the process of reading, understanding and appreciating poetry writing.
Kenny Fries Aristeidis Kleiotis
A Conversation Between American Queer-Crip Writer Kenny Fries and Aris Kleiotis: Discussing Fries’ Thirty Years of Literary Craft
Introduction to the interview:
My acquaintance with Kenny Fries’ literary caliber first happened in 2018 when the School of English, AUTh, announced an optional course on medical humanities and American literature, which was taught by Adjunct Lecturer, Dr. Vinia Dakari. Prior to this I had already started my personal research on disability’s visibility in contemporary American literature, which also involved exploring a then unknown to me academic field, that of Disability Studies. I can still recall the excitement I was overcome with when I read in the syllabus of Dr. Dakari’s course that we will be dealing with Kenny Fries’ book The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin's Theory (2007). What amazed me then in Fries’ life-narratives is his unapologetic, sincere depiction of his life, the life of a gay man who is also physically disabled. Even before my current research on queer-crip studies and the profoundness this entailed, I was then fraught with a lot of questions most of which can be distilled in the following: where do the identities of homosexuality and disability overlap, coexist and collide? The questions were numerous, the answers countless and aligning them seemed like swimming in an open ocean, where you fathom no shore and no destination. It didn’t take too long before I devoured the pages of The History of My Shoes and before I started researching online anything I could possibly find about the book’s author and the rest of his literary repertoire. Amidst Fries’ versatile writing that ranges from essay writing and prose to poetry, I stumbled upon various poetry publications on queer and/or disability literature volumes such as Looking Queer: Body Image and Identity (1998), which helped me acquire a deeper insight into Fries’ literary production. Fast forward to today, my 2021 MA thesis on queer-crip American literature at the School of English, AUTh, became the stimulus to contact Kenny Fries via e-mail. To my surprise, he replied with unexpected cordiality and openness, which brought the overall endeavor of the interview published here in fruition. In the text below, the interlocutor first names are used in each question-and-answer pair in an attempt to enhance the conversational intimacy of the interview.
Dear Kenny, before we delve deeply in your artistry, your poetry in particular, I would like to know more about your first steps as a poet. How and when did you start writing poetry? Was there a crucial moment in your life that sparked your need to write and express yourself in poetry? But also, how many years have you been writing in general?
I started out writing poetry, at the same time as I was writing for the stage (my graduate degree is in playwriting). I think the crucial time was when I first started writing poems about disability, specifically, about my disability. At that time, the summer of 1989, when I began searching for the words with which to begin speaking about my own experience living with a congenital disability, most of what I found was filled with myths, metaphors, and lies. What I found were stereotypes. What I found where clichés.
I began to take the initial steps of finding the language, unearthing the images, shaping the forms with which I could express an experience I had never read about before, so that my experience as a person with a disability could become meaningful to others. What I remember about that summer of 1989 is wanting to throw all those drafts away, not thinking them as poems. Not having a role model in whose steps I could follow, unsure of my own identity as both a writer and as a person who lives with a disability, I felt like a shadow spirit unable to meld successfully on the page the nondisabled world I lived in with my experience of being disabled in that world.
In the preface of one of your earliest books, Body, Remember: A Memoir (1997), you set out your tripartite identity as Jewish, gay and physically disabled. Has it always been a conscious decision to write through this perspective?
Since I mostly write from my actual experience, and since I’m Jewish, gay, and physically disabled, it wasn’t a matter of it being a conscious decision. That said, what I write about is universal. For example, when Body, Remember was first published, I was asked in a radio interview why someone who wasn’t Jewish, gay, or disabled should read my book. My response: the book is about the relationship between the body and memory. We all have bodies. We all remember.
Queer-Disability studies critics and academic theorists such as Robert McRuer and Carrie Sandahl view the 1990s as a defining moment for the spawn of a generation of queer-crip artists in the literary and wider artistic proscenium. As an emerging writer in the 1990s did you feel part of this wave of new artists?
At that time, I was considered to be a gay writer. As the decades went on, it seemed I was looked at more as a disabled writer. I’ve never changed, nor has the content of my work. This pigeon-holing of writers is more a of matter of marketing it seems, especially in the U.S. I guess the monikers are useful to readers who want to find work that relates to their own identities. But it also separates writers, usually writers who have historically been marginalized, from finding readers who might not share the way in which they’ve been marketed.
When you started writing and publishing your work were there already pioneering queer-crip writers to look up to?
I had to find them. And remember this was before there were smart phones and the Internet. The most important queer-crip writer I looked up to was Adrienne Rich. I noticed that in her Contradications: Tracking Poems (1986), she writes:
The problem, unstated till now, is how
to live in a damaged body in a world where pain is meant to be gagged
uncured ungrieved over. The problem is
to connect, without hysteria, the pain
of any one’s body with the pain of the body’s world
At the time, I thought these poems only metaphorically alluded to a physical disability. But attending a Rich reading in the Bay Area, I noticed the presence of her plain Lucite cane. I learned that Rich, was, in fact, disabled due to severe arthritis. Rich’s words from Diving into the Wreck, in which she writes about “a book of myths in which our names do not appear,” began to take on larger meanings for me.
In Staring Back: The Disability Experience from the Inside Out (1997), the anthology of US disabled writers writing about disability, which I edited, I included Rich’s work, placing her work in the context of disability, “outing” her as disabled, so to say, as this was the first time her work was placed in the context of disability. I proudly added Rich to my canon of disabled writers, which led to a nourishing acquaintance and correspondence, during which I became a role model vis a vis disability for the elder Rich
When you started writing and publishing your work was it culturally and socially challenging to present to the public your queer-crip identity on paper?
It was more challenging to put down on paper than it was to be public about it. I’ve rarely had difficulty with my queer-crip identity in public.
Do you think one’s identity (cultural and social background) can affect or restrict one’s self-expression? If yes, how does this resonate with you?
I think the first issue is one of self-censorship. Remember, I almost threw away my first poems about disability, as I mentioned earlier. Then, the issue becomes whether the “gatekeepers”— the editors, the publishers—and once work is published reviewers and critics, can easily marginalize, or simply ignore, one’s work.
Have you ever felt constricted from touching upon specific social, cultural and political issues? Does it make your self-expression “uncomfortable”?
You know my work well. I’m known for tackling challenging social, cultural, and political issues. It doesn’t make me uncomfortable. Something I said a long time ago on a panel comes to mind. When someone asked about how one writes about “uncomfortable” or difficult parts of one’s life, my answer was that those things already happened and you survived, so writing about it can’t be as difficult as living through it. You’ve already survived, so you’ll survive writing about it.
A corollary to this is what I always urge my writing students to do, to write what makes you feel uncomfortable. That’s when you know you’re writing about what you need to write about.
What do you feel are the greatest or most tenacious barriers to creating and promoting art as a queer-crip artist in general but for you, specifically, as well?
This, I think, is more of a barrier created by the culture, rather than the writing itself. In one way, finding one’s core readership is easier today because of the Internet and social media. On the other hand, promoting one’s work, whether as a queer-crip artist or any artist, is more difficult because media has become more fragmented, and for writers many venues of promotion, and here I’m thinking a lot of reviews, simply no longer exist.
But, why don’t we focus more on your poetry now, right? Throughout your career you have devoted yourself to developing a distinct world with your poetry aside from your prose writing. However, both your prose and poetry share the common quality of life-writing. Why does life-writing hold such an anchor spot in your writing?
Because I’ve never been good at plot! My life provides the narrative I need to write what I want to write. Even when I write travel articles, the plot is given by where I go, what I do, etc. So, in this way, I guess I’ve turned a weakness into a strength.
How have you incorporated life-writing into your poetry considering that poetry is conventionally less wordy than prose?
Distillation and compression is paramount to my writing, in both process and result. I think I learned this from writing poetry, which I wrote before I turned to writing prose. Whether in poetry or in prose, I only use as much as is organic and necessary. This is probably why my creative nonfiction books are not very long. Also, I tend to create chapters or sections of books from smaller chunks, which is something I did when I was writing plays, as well.
How does your creative process of writing poetry differ from prose writing?
I don’t think it does. But if it does, length is a consideration. In prose writing, I focus more on the narrative arc, whereas in poetry perhaps the focus is more on the emotional arc. All in all it is just putting one word after another on the page and seeing where that takes me.
Throughout the decades you have been writing, you have released three main poetry collections including Anesthesia (1996), Desert Walking (2000) and In the Gardens of Japan (2017). How much have your writing process and your approach to poetry writing changed through the years?
I’ve written less and less poetry over the years. That’s the major difference. In my earlier work, like Anesthesia, I noticed I was writing in couplets. Earlier, I read how Louise Glück used poem sequences to get away from writing very short poems, so I started to build poem sequences such as “The Healing Notebooks” and “Beauty and Variations.” Eventually, I started to break out of writing in couplets by trying out some received forms. My next book, Desert Walking, includes sestinas, villanelles, a pantoum, and even a terza rima. I returned to the poetry sequence for In the Gardens of Japan. By this time, I was living in and writing about Japan, which I think furthered the distillation and compression in my work, and I had returned, in this sequence, to writing in couplets. My exposure to Japanese culture certainly affected my prose, as well. My sentences became shorter and, as someone recently remarked, the way I took in information as if there was only a present, no past or future, was from what I learned from Japanese culture. I wrote a sequence of three haiku, which were published in The New York Times, of all places, and finishing the third haiku took thirteen years!
How do you decide to express yourself through poetry instead of prose? In other words, what is the distinct quality of poetry that drives you to express yourself through it?
I moved to creative nonfiction when I felt I couldn’t hold the social, historical and political material I wanted to write about. Since then, I haven’t written much poetry. Recently, with my audio-text “Disability Can Save Your Life” (2020), I found a way to include the social, cultural, and political. But I ask myself if this text is a poem or is it some form of lyrical essay.
From Anesthesia to Desert Walking to In the Gardens of Japan how do your Jewish, gay and disability identities imbricate with each other and inform your poetry writing?
I think the work in Anesthesia is most directly related to my identities. On the surface, the poems of Desert Walking might not seem to be about disability, but many of the Desert Walking poems deal with change, and if there’s one lesson learned from the disability experience it is that life is change. This is even more so beneath the surface of the garden poems. The Japanese gardens I write about seem to hold within them an entire world.
Throughout your poetic caliber you touch upon various themes that are inextricably linked with your overlapping identities of disability and homosexuality. Themes such as the medical and social implications of your physical disability blend with themes of gay love and camaraderie in a complex yet nuanced manner. Such topics though are also very present to your prose writing. How do you decide to articulate and explore them through poetry aside from prose?
In this case, poetry came first. I don’t know if I would have been able to write about this in prose, at least in the way I do, without having done so first in poetry. I think, and write, associatively. Even the talks I give are built associatively. In this way, I can move from one thing to the next rather fluidly, and without explanation. The juxtaposition becomes, in its way, the structure. In my case, my disability deals with my body, as does my sexuality. So, these two aspects of my life often come together because both are rooted in my body. Not as simple as it sounds but my work is very rooted in my body.
Your writing, including your poetry, usually winks to the readers and invites them to explore with great detail moments of gay love, sexual energy and eroticism. How important has it been to you to portray such scenes in your writing in general and your poetry in particular?
I think this relates to what I just said. Disability is not usually connected to sexual energy and eroticism. By connecting this in my work I counteract common stereotypically views of disability. It is very important to see disabled people as sexual because we are.
Up until this day, despite the upsurge of movements of body positivity, the gay community continues to idolize hypermasculinity as the main source of sexiness and attraction. On the contrary, the male, physically disabled body is usually dismissed as “weak,” “unattractive” and “unworthy of love”. How has this stereotype affected you in real life and how have you tackled it in your poetry thus far?
Is it only the gay community that idolizes hypermasculinity? I think what is most predominant in gay male culture is the projection of the “ideal” body. Since nobody has an actually “ideal” body, the whole idea of an “ideal” body is one of fantasy, and ultimately one of projection, oppression, and control. Society is built to strive for an unattainable ideal, which distracts from what actually matters to our individual thriving, and what we need to do to ensure the survival of the planet.
More on the content of your poetry, quite often themes of pain, loss and healing co-exist with each other in equilibrium. Where do these themes derive from and why are you inspired to write about them in poetry?
I think this relates to what I said earlier about my work being rooted in the body. The basic fact we all share of having bodies is we are mortal. Mortality connotates loss. Pain might get a bad rap. Not that is a good thing to experience pain. But pain is also a signal that tells us something is wrong that needs to be investigated. Honestly, even though I’ve used "healing" sometimes in my work, I’m not sure what healing actually means. I think this can be because “healing” has been co-opted by New Age practices, and has become very generalized. Yes, a wound heals, as do other parts of our body. What besides that does “healing” actually mean? It seems to be an idea for closure, but even after the body heals, there are still scars, both physical and psychological, which, perhaps, never disappear.
Considering that your writing is quite personal and autobiographical, do you believe in the therapeutic quality of life-writing? If yes, how does this resonate within your writing and your poetry in particular?
Overall, no. And there is a danger here because art about disability has historically been looked at as therapy rather than art. That’s not to say that writing about personal material can’t provide some insight or a sense of control of events experienced as totally out of one’s control. But I think the goal is to create the most resonant art possible. The therapeutic benefits, or the reverse, are collateral.
Over the course of the three decades you have been writing, you have explored various literary genres. What are other themes you aspire to discuss and touch upon?
If I knew that I probably wouldn’t write! It often takes me a long time to discover what a particular piece I’m writing is about. For example, it took well over twenty drafts to figure out what In the Province of the Gods (2017) was actually about.
How do you feel visibility of queer-crip existence has changed in the previous three decades in literature, and in poetry specifically?
I think the visibility on an individual basis has changed. I encounter more queer-crips now than decades ago. But that could be because of social media and the Internet. I still don’t see many accurate depictions of crips in literature, and even less of queer-crips. Yes, there are surely those in North America such as Eli Clare, Leah Piepzna-Samarsinha, Travis Chi Wing Lau, Syrus Marcus Ware, and others, but though we might know about these important writers, how many outside of the disability/queer nexus know about us? I’m reminded of something queer writer Sarah Schulman has talked about. When she goes to events such as a high school reunion the queer people ask her what’s she writing; the straight people ask her what she’s been doing all these years.
How do you feel your art-making has contributed to that?
I hope my work has given some visibility to queer-crip existence and experience. But I also know that all it takes is one big movie like Me Without You to set us back. I guess, as far as disability is concerned, we’ll know we’ve reached a point of critical mass when there is enough work to pass the Fries Test measuring at least to the percentage of the population that is disabled, which is estimated at 20-25%.
Would you hope that your art practice will be recorded in history? What aspects of your artistry should you wish to be preserved?
Of course. With this in mind I sold my literary archive up until 2013 to the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. I think about what Louise Glück said in a speech, which I believe, if I remember correctly, she once gave at the Guggenheim Museum. She said, and I paraphrase, that she writes for people who are not even born yet.
Fries, Kenny. Anesthesia. Advocado Press, 1996.
---. Body, Remember: A Memoir. E. P. Dutton, 1997.
---. Desert Walking. Advocado Press, 2000.
---. In the Gardens of Japan. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2017.
---. In the Province of the Gods. U of Wisconsin P, 2017.
---. Staring Back: The Disability Experience from the Inside Out. Plume, 1997.
---. The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin's Theory. Da Capo Press, 2007.
Author Bio: Kenny Fries
Interviewer Bio: Aris Kleiotis
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