Beatrice Speaks to Kerry Shawn Keys
Kerry in Ouchy, Lausanne. In the background, Lake Geneva (Lac Leman) and the Alps.

Beatrice Speaks to Kerry Shawn Keys

Beatrice interviews Kerry Shawn Keys who she recently met in Switzerland.

By Beatrice Lamwaka
more from author >>
First published: September 14, 2009

Kerry Shawn Keys' roots are in the Appalachian Mountains. He lives in Vilnius, where he taught translation theory and creative composition as a Fulbright lecturer at Vilnius University. He has dozens of books to his credit, including translations from Portuguese and Lithuanian, and his own poems informed by rural America and Europe, and Brazil and India where he lived for considerable time. His work ranges from theatre-dance pieces to flamenco songs to meditations on the Tao Te Ching, and is often lyrical with intense ontological concerns. Of late, he has been writing prose wonderscripts, and monologues for the stage. A children's book, The Land of People, received a Lithuanian laureate in 2008 for artwork he co-authored. He often performs with the free jazz percussionist and sound-constellation artist, Vladimir Tarasov - Prior Records released their CD in 2006. His most recent books are Broken Circle (2005), The Burning Mirror (2008) and Book of Beasts (2009). 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 received a Translation Laureate Award from the Lithuanian Writers Union in 2003. He was a Senior Fulbright Research grantee for African-Brazilian studies, and is a member of the Lithuanian Writers Union and PEN. Selected poems have appeared in Czech and Lithuanian.

Vladimir Tarasov Quartet, "Nada" ft Kerry Shawn Keys

Kerry was a writer in residence at Le Chateau de Lavigny Writers' residency in Switzerland where I was also a resident for three weeks from end of August to early September. Le Chateau de Lavigny International Writers' Residence was founded by the late Jane Rowohlt in memory of her husband, the German publisher, Heinrich Maria Ledig-Rowohlt. Her wish was to bequeath their home, the Château de Lavigny, for a writers' residence offering and fostering "a spirit of international community and creativity."

Kerry with Beatrice and Antoaneta Nikolova, Bulgaria at Le Chateau de Lavigny
Kerry with Beatrice and Antoaneta Nikolova, Bulgaria at Le Chateau de Lavigny.

Beatrice: With over forty books, why do you continue to write? Is there something you feel you haven't written about?
I write because I always have the urge to write, the Muse asking me to dance. Now we dance less rhythmically, and so I am writing more prose and pieces for the stage. Writing for me is like breathing - I continue pumping blood into brain and pen, heart and cock. Yes, I like to swirl the first drafts of poems handwritten in circling script, the tapping beat I keep with my feet. I don't write "about" but the "about" writes through me, and I listen kerr-fully.

Do you feel that as a writer you owe your readers something to tell them?
No. I never write for readers other than the Gods, and how could I owe the Gods anything when they laugh at all that is human, and it is their tales that I tell... the tale of the sun, the tale of the moon, the tale of Death, Love, and Emptiness.

How long have you been writing?
I guess since grade school. But the first poem that I remember writing was at the age of eight in school - it was about Time and a clock. My mother saved it and that is probably why I remember it, though I couldn't quote it. When did I start to write lots of poems? About the age of 12, and I never stopped. As Emily Dickinson indicated, I think Time is chasing me, making me fly, though Time stays still.

You taught translation theory and creative composition at Vilnius University, has this made you a better writer?
No. It took up too much of my energy... though the one year I spent preparing to teach Translation Theory was fruitful and interesting. I read lots of theoretical work I might not have otherwise read so late in life. And I believe it may have influenced my translating, loosened me up a bit, opened some options I hadn't explored.

You have lived in the US, Brazil, India, and Lithuania. Has this influenced your writing or performance in anyway?
Considerably. The U.S because my roots are there, the Pierian Springs of my youth and my language. India because I read deeply in non-Western philosophy and religion, and saw a different mind-set in action in the flesh, something quite fatalistic and at the same time peaceful and accepting. I was not much of a "linear" thinker before going to India, but I certainly wasn't afterwards. Cause and effect were permanently crippled and Eternity overtook Infinity. As for Brazil, it did not influence my writing except through specific content. It did influence my way of Being - I relaxed even more, and I got in touch more with my own African-cultural roots out of increased curiosity and also because I was exposed day in and day out to the Orishas and the ocean, and the shared rhythms of my youth in my inner-city childhood. I think living there also made me more limber when I danced out my poems with the Muse. It is more difficult to assess Lithuania since I live there now - but my writing became more absurd and dark, and I've turned more to the theatre because I've experienced such wonderful theatre in Vilnius, and have become interested in crafting some myself. At the same time, having children in Lithuania, has brought back a tenderness into some of my writing that I had repressed (in my writing) for good reasons - the risk of sentimentality was too great because I am by nature sentimental. And it does not make for strong writing. Now I am writing children's books and poems, and this is because I have children in my life and they influence my daily routine and thinking - but this would have happened in the Gulu land of Uganda if I had chosen to live there, and so is not bound to the particularities of the Baltics.

What memorable experiences do you have of each country you have lived in? Can I find them in your writing?
You can find them in my writing. Nature in the USA, hunting, fishing, killing, stalking, and planting, growing food, and music, Christ and my closeness to my father. Eros and the Void in India, risk and Hindu Gods and Goddesses, and disease and the necessity of developing a certain coolness of personality in order to survive the sickness and death around me. Possession and dancing and Portuguese belles lettres in Brazil, and becoming a son of Exu-Carangola and Omolu.

You can actually read your poetry in monotone and it will be enjoyed. What motivated you to perform your poetry?
I read in monotone because I am a child of poetry in English from that strange island, and poetry is written and recited in a drone or chant at its core in the oral tradition. It is not dramatic, but resonant and rhymed. I don't see myself as performing my poetry when I am reciting it - I feel I am reading it as it is given to me as I make it. Perhaps, this is performing. I see no reason to "dumb" it down into anemic muttering more fit for print than piping and breathing. I do, however, "perform" my poetry with musicians because that is a joint effort and requires changes in tempo and even at times the deconstruction of the poem into a different text…and that can be both fun and interesting (for me at least).

Your books have been translated into many languages; does that make you feel accomplished as a writer?
No. But it helps me to travel a bit more often and pretend to myself that I am communicating to folks with another language in their lungs.

Would you like to translate someone's work into another language, like for instance into Lithuanian?
I have translated two books from Portuguese into English and many poems. And I think five books from Lithuanian into English. And works from Czech and German into English. All, with some help. Sometimes for money, sometimes for love, and sometimes to just pass the time away.

Are there some writers that have influenced your writing?
Many: Jung; Chuang-Tzu; Dante; the pre-Socratics; Nagarjuna; Homer; many other Classics; dozens of American and English-language poets going back to Chaucer and Shakespeare and Donne right up to Pound and Stevens, Beckett, Joyce, Yeats, Robert Bringhust, Michael Jennings, and countless others. And Latin American (particularly Garcia Lorca and Neruda), and European writers of the 20th Century. I was an omnivorous reader and have read more than a few thousand books I am sure, some over and over, and so the list could go on and on.

Are there some writers that you wish you wrote their stories... because you admire them and would have loved to be them?
James Joyce because I admire his writing, not wishing to have been him for sure.

Why did you decide to become Lithuanian, when you could have stayed in America where there are big publishers and a huge population that could read your work?
I fell in love with a city - Vilnius. And you know what love can do. And Vilnius won't leave me like a woman. I left America for purely pragmatic reasons - America was not going to allow me to read and write much in my older age and would have tormented me for lack of health care and for being a son of the Muse of Poetry. There are no big publishers of poetry. There are always only a few folks that read a writer well, and they are anywhere and everywhere. In this global age, Americans can read me wherever I am. Anyway, I am where I am and I guess what I am.

How do Lithuanian writers treat you?
They treat me very well and like a Hermano.

Most people say writers can write their stories anywhere on earth, why did you decide to go to Le Chateau de Lavigny?
On a whim. And to have 3 weeks away from a melancholic messmate and my daily domestic grind and routine in an ideal and beautiful environment, and much to my surprise I found ideal and beautiful writing companions to break bread with (if this is not being redundant).

What did you work on while there?
I am writing a private book (never to be published) of about 100 poems for my 4-year old twins, Kyva and Myki, and it is based on notebooks I kept about them between the ages of 1 and 1 half to two and a half; I converted two prose wonderscripts into plays for the theatre; I wrote a children's story; a poem; a review of a book of poems by Michael Jennings; translated a bunch of poems from Lithuanian into English; edited some Lithuanian poems that will be published in English in a book in America; did some commercial editing work for income purposes; read a bit; and worked on the framework of a full length play. I also hunted mice and let myself be interviewed.

Would you confidently say that as a writer you benefited from your time at Lavigny?
Yes, because from some inane, inner ethical pressure I felt obligated to spend a lot of hours each day writing, given that that was why I was given this opportunity to be at Lavigny.

Kerry in Olympic Musuem, Lausanne
Kerry in Olympic Musuem, Lausanne.

Would you recommend that other writers should go to a writer's residence?
No, that would be a decision based on personal need or vision.

Do you always have to wait for the muse to write?
No, for poetry I can call the Muse down and she often comes. Or I can enter that trance of my own accord and find her. We are good dancing partners and I even taught her to samba. Long ago she taught me the "foxy-trot" and the "that's all there is" step. For prose, I often jilt her and she doesn't seem to mind since this isn't her field and so no need to be jealous and kick my ass.

Related Articles:

By Beatrice Lamwaka
more from author >>
First published: September 14, 2009

Beatrice Lamwaka
Beatrice Lamwaka is finalist for the PEN/Studzinski Literary Award 2009. She is the author of Anena's Victory, one of Fountain Junior HIV/AIDS Series, a supplementary reader in primary schools in Uganda. Her published short stories have appeared in Gowanus Books, Women's World website, WordWrite-FEMRITE Literary Journal, as well as anthologies such as Words From a Granary, Today You will Understand, Aloud: Illuminating Creative Voices, Michael's Eyes; The War against the Ugandan Child FEMRITE publications. She was one of the pioneers of a British Council writing scheme that links Ugandan writers with established writers in the UK, and she is a member of Uganda Women Writers' Association (FEMRITE). She is currently working on her first novel and a number of short stories.