Five Questions for... LuAnn Keener-Mikenas
I grew up very sheltered in a tiny farming town in rural Texas, graduated high school in a class of eight. We were intimately connected to nature, and from earliest memory I was one with the enchanted landscape of the outdoors. I was a born naturalist, and discovering Emily Dickinson and Blake’s burning Tyger in my third grade English book just blew me open. I started writing poems, and this closely coincided with the disappearance of my beloved grandmother into the wilderness of Alzheimer's. Before junior high, my teachers were letting me forage in the storeroom for old, out of adoption textbooks that had excerpts from Emerson, a lot of Whitman and Dickinson. I was reading all the poetry I could find, and let me tell you, it wasn’t easy to find in rural Texas in the ‘60s. My parents were hard-working, good people without college educations, and my father had a poet’s appreciation for the natural world, conversing with bobwhites, enthralled by the design on a turtle’s under-shell. I see Homeland as wooing readers back toward resonance with our primal roots, our identity as creatures in a landscape, which we desperately need to ground and heal ourselves. But to return to your question, the ”disquieting dread” and “terrible beauty” also have to do with the contemporary world crises we’ve lived through in the last hundred years. The Cuban Missile Crisis was the first black cloud in my childhood. The feelings of dread only grew as I got older. In the ‘80s when The Day After movie came out, I had to leave the room. But then something changed. Call it maturity, or faith, I don’t know, but I just stopped fearing. In the last twenty years I have been increasingly drawn to philosophical and spiritual ideals of a lost order, an ancient symmetry and sacred alignment that could one day be regained. Incidentally, I came up with the title Homeland before that word was co-opted by the Bush administration, and I decided to stick with it. It points not just to the American landscape, but to the natural world itself as our true spiritual homeland – and to the inner landscape that opens when we are in that resonance.
I believe it takes delicate skill to make an ekphrastic poem work since the reader often has never seen the art it’s based upon, but the poems here about the Westward movement of European settlers in America leap off the page. Talk about the challenges of writing ekphrastic poetry and how you use it in Homeland.
In my thirties I made a conscious decision to turn away from writing personal poems for a while, and turned more and more exclusively toward nature and art for inspiration. In the early ‘90s at Virginia Center for Creative Arts, I met the painter Miriam Beerman, who was then doing these huge works on the Holocaust, both abstract and impressionistic, in luminous oil pastels. She was in her seventies and very successful, and we made a strong connection. She showed me an earlier series she had done on wildlife, and loaned me a book by a French wildlife photographer. Poems just fell out of it, and I began to look everywhere for wildlife photography that really spoke to me. So after the wildlife series, I was looking for more of this experience. I turned to paintings of the American West and was enthralled by the tension between what those painters had seen – a wilderness of a scale and grandeur we can’t even imagine today – and what they had painted, the story they wanted to tell, what they had left out or idealized. It’s that post-modern/New Physics question, what’s “really there” and what’s perceived/recorded/portrayed. I found myself getting inside of the ironies, and they were an endless hall of mirrors, because we’ve made a disaster of things and brought ourselves to the very brink of total breakdown. And the roots of it all are there, in that original search and desire and vision. You can’t help but be in love with this beautiful, awful drama that is happening on Earth.
“Fear” in the Love Stories section of the collection might be my favorite. The juxtaposition of Ellen Ripley from the Alien films and Anne Frank in the concentration camp and how we can face death and still find hope should not work in any conceivable way, but it does. The Love Stories section seems to spin away from the rest of the collection, but then slowly you weave in the themes that have come before. Talk a little about the “Fear” poem and how you organized this collection.
Fear of relationship, fear of intimacy, those are common contemporary themes. I’m interested in the core magic that moves us out of the place of fear into salvatory action – the things we do that rescue us from paralysis and psychological death. The pain of fear, the pain of paralysis – these fuel leaps for me. The leap into trying to put words on the page, the subsequent, serendipitous leaps the higher self makes to images that speak to the pain. I’m very drawn to an archetype of the ancient feminine that nothing can repress or defeat. I believe great movies these days are, among other things, expressions of the archetypes that are moving in us and moving us toward greater self-realization and evolution as a species. In the movies you can see the archetypal battles being played out, the choices being offered. Why do so many people need to watch horror movies? Why did we need Star Wars enough to turn it into a giga-blockbuster? What is going on with us? My answer is that the story of any life is much bigger than most individuals imagine. And, if we can step out of cynicism just for a moment, the contemplation of acts of incredible heroism enlarges the soul. The world today, a stew of strife and horror, is jeweled thick with heroic acts; they bloom wherever tragedy and cataclysm break out. The press is still not sufficiently interested in this, but September 11 brought it home to us. The story Anne Frank left us rises to the level of the mythic, and one wonders how many such stories throughout history were left in the rubble and not found. Heroic acts bloom out of the mundane lives of ordinary people. This fact alone, for me, is worth everything. Unifying Homeland was difficult until the Love Stories section crystallized. There’s the cycle of the wildlife poems, the cycle of the Western paintings, and the small group that came out of a separation and divorce. I decided to start with the wildlife poems, to draw the reader into an intimate kinship that is transpersonal. That sets the stage for the more specific exploration of American roots and responsibility. The “Fossils” group takes a step back, onto the inner stage of love, loss, personal destiny. The rest of the poems, I realized, came out of the seeker’s heart, the search for the Beloved, as defined in the eastern mystical sense, not just the lover but the experience of loving, and ultimately of loving the experience, loving the All. And through that love, transforming the world. I do believe “the world can change” into a much, much better place. I’m aware that that’s an almost impossible idea to sell. But what choice do we have?
What is your next project?
The collection I am working to finish now is tentatively titled Seawater – which is, in fact “the mother of blood” – harking back to a dolphin poem in my first collection, Color Documentary. I remember tingling with excitement when we learned that fact in 9th grade biology, that blood evolved from seawater. So it’s a higher octave of love stories. The phrase “fugue states” keeps coming to mind as I work on it. Haven’t written that poem yet, but I am often both inspired and stressed by the intensity of feeling and perception and synchronicity and the increasingly complex interconnectedness of my experiences.
Name three poetry collections you’ve read recently that you would recommend to others. Katherine Soniat’s The Swing Girl and A Raft, a Boat, a Bridge have both come out in the past year. Gyorgyi Voros’s Unwavering came out in 2007, and I have been re-reading it lately. The work of Jessica Garrett moves me very much. Some of her new and uncollected poems led me to Fire Pond, which won the Agha Shahid Ali Prize in 2009.
For more, visit LuAnn's website at this link.