Colby Gillette: As I was driving from Oakland to Vegas recently, and especially as I was making my way through the expanse from Barstow to Vegas, I was thinking about how the severity and beauty of such a landscape must shape people. Specifically, I thought about Alice Notley when I saw the sign for Needles and about something you said in one of your Ecstatic Emigre pieces, that the desert is your teacher. I'm wondering how you see the place you live in (and I'm thinking more of Blue Diamond and the undeveloped desert to the west than Vegas and its concrete cut outs, though, I imagine both make their presence felt) informing you and your poetry.
Claudia Keelan: Lately, the desert had been teaching me how to bear indignity. There it is, a desert forever, with no chance of being an ocean again. Developers have done their best to raze the land completely, but native plants still come back. Cezanne had his mountain, and I have somehow inherited this desert. The subtle cycles of change here teach patience, and demand a being-in-time that saves me from any form of nostalgia.
CG: I imagine some of these lessons were put to practice in writing Missing Her. The book is structured by/shot through with loss, which demands patience; you can't speed up mourning; you also can't rush its articulation, especially when loss is taking place on so many levels: personal, public, political, cultural, environmental. In some ways, the poem, “Body of Evidence,” through the story of Pocahontas and all its implications, is a locus for the whole range of loss that the rest of the book develops. I was wondering if there was any motivation for the poem besides the film, if her story holds an importance or resonance that you felt needed to be articulated.
CK: As I think of it now, "Body of Evidence" is an elegy to the American history that was lost by our failure to honor the aboriginal people here. Western civilization has largely discredited the experience of nativeness, even while it makes a cottage industry of the spirit available there. That native condition is also related to the land itself, and the ways in which our relation to the earth has been a documentary of theft and defilement. The American narrative pays lip service to the spirit of the land and the spirit of the people, even though the government has always been very busy creating bureaus that will categorize and still the very essence of that spirit. I've always loved Walt Whitman, but of late, I can't help but feel that his radical democracy is just a humanist version of manifest destiny, and that the equalizing he attempts in "Song of Myself" is just the same kind of categorizing I've just referred to, which by grouping together, ultimately fails to see the true originality, and necessity, of individual Being. Whitman asks "what is grass," and the figure in "Body of Evidence" comes "as grass," and is ultimately the physical activity of becoming, before the separation that must take place and things are delegated to their names. There is something infinitely old and wise, suffering and proud, in the earth, and esp, in places that have been misused. We are all born native (in our nativity), and are almost immediately stripped of origin, the sweetness of origin, as soon as our names go into the Bureau of Vital Statistics. I am not happy with our condition. We should be able to live with our originality intact.
CG: In connection with, or in contrast to, the fact that "western civilization has largely discredited the experience of nativeness," could you say more about the "ethics of negative capability," which you bring up in the Ecstatic Emigre series? Also, though this may be too large a question to bring up in this short of a space, I'm wondering how you stand towards Heidegger's philosophy?
CK: The further I take the ethics of negative capability, the more I see that it involves a course of action, a way of living in relation to the creation, or what we call the world. Keats, obviously, coined that term, and he was opposing it to what he called the egotistical sublime operating in the work of Wordsworth. He spoke of being annihilated by his perception of the others, by the Being of others, so that what he himself was involved in that being-the-others. I don’t know if he ever read religious philosophy, but his concept is found in the concept of the via negative, or the negative way, which proposed a diminishment of self in regard to the others. The work of Simone Weil operates this way, as does the figure of the Bodhisattva, a secular saint, who refuses to enter Nirvana, to attain paradise, but rather to stay in the imperfect here, so that others will see his refusal as a course of action which makes a possible paradise here. I’ve tried to write from that position, most esp. in Utopic, where I was tracking that stance through various texts, King Jr. for one. The capitalist adventurers who came to America wanted to eradicate, or assimilate, the native people who were here into a Christian-European model of civilization, and they wanted to dominate the land in the same way. We live in this continued aftermath, many of the supplanted natives absorbed by casinos across the West for recompense. Heidegger? Dasein? The Holocaust brought everything into question. I’m more drawn to Emmanual Levinas, who came after, and whose investigation of Being supplanted philosophy for ethics. I’m not as interested in what you can know, but what you can do.
Claudia Keelan is the author of six books of poetry including Refinery (Cleveland State University Poetry Prize), The Secularist (University of Georgia Press), Utopic(Alice James Books), and Missing Her from New Issues Press (2009.. In the preface to The Body Electric ,The American Poetry Review’s Best Poetry critic Harold Bloom wrote: “Claudia Keelan, new to me, is very welcome…she is endlessly enigmatic, again almost always what one hopes for in poems.” Of Utopic , the late poet Robert Creeley wrote: ”This profoundly moving book is fact of a consummate skill and the human possibilities it works to realize and to honor. In these poems Claudia Keelan keeps the faith for us all.” Born in California, Keelan has taught in universities in Iowa, Boston, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Colorado. Since 1996, she has been at the University of Nevada, where she is Professor of English and Creative at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and affiliate to the Black Mountain Institute, as well as editor of the literary journal Interim. Her honors include the Jerome Shestack prize from The American Poetry Review, the Beatrice Hawley award from Alice James Books, a Creative Achievement award from UNLV, a Silver Pen award from the Library Board of Nevada, and grants from the Kentucky Foundation for Women and the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation. Under the auspices of Interim, she is partner to www.lyrikline.org, an online poetry archive founded in Berlin, whose mission is to serve poetry through translation.