Keaton King is a 21 year old poet and writer living in Portland, OR. He recently left Southern Oregon University, where he studied creative writing. His first printed collection of poetry, The White Nudie Suit (The Gram Parsons Poems), was released just this last month, published entirely on his own. We met for coffee in Ashland, OR to discuss his new project and the state of contemporary poetry.
I’ve been here for three years, and I’m just bored. I’ve seen the sights. Lithia is only pretty the first twenty times you go. I’m ready to live life actually and not just be a student.
It feels limiting?
Yeah, it does. After a point; it wasn’t at first… That long of the same thing––I go to writing class, I go home and write, and I go back to writing class, and I go home and write again…
You told me earlier that you don’t know many other writers here. Is it the school? The area?
I mean, I know there’s writers here. There’s writers in the Rogue Valley, there’s great writers that are part of the writing program. There’s not not many events for writers to meet each other. There’s the BFA readings at Caldera… That’s really it. Besides meeting people in classes, that’s the only place I meet other writers.
When did you get into writing?
I started writing my junior year of high school. I’d wanted to write for a long time, but I didn’t start, because I wanted a computer. I thought if I wrote poems in a journal, my parents would read it. So I waited until I got a computer, where I could lock it, and that was my junior year. The day I got my computer, I wrote my first poem.
What was your first poem?
It’s still on my computer; I read it like a year ago! It’s not very good! Nothing special.
Who most inspires your work?
My first book of poetry I got was Emily Dickinson, and that was my first [discovery that] words can be pretty, and I can actually feel an emotion reading this. Then I bought Howl by Allen Ginsberg, and I got super into the Beats my senior year of high school. I would say Lawrence Ferlinghetti is probably my biggest influence. Recently, I’ve gotten into more modern writers. I’m obsessed with a poet named Ariana Reines who lives in New York. She scares me; I think she could probably kick my ass, but she’s an awesome writer.
What themes do you include in your writing?
I take a lot from my life, a lot from experience. Normally––every party I go to––the next day I’ll write a poem about some conversation. I lie a lot in my poetry; I’ll take a conversation, I’ll start writing the poem [thinking], “It’d be better if they said this.”
Something like an idealized conversation?
A lot of my poems just happen. I’ll sit down and write a poem in five minutes; it’ll be two pages of a poem. [It’s often] very quick. I’ll have the idea for the poem one line after the other, and I’ll read it when I’m done like, “That’s not true, and that’s not true, but great poem!”
Do you think of them more as exaggerations?
Yeah, or I think it’s more skewed, like skewed reality.
Let’s talk about your new book, The White Nudie Suit (The Gram Parsons Poems). It’s your first publication, right?
Well I’ve been published in Main Squeeze, SOU’s literary magazine. I have one poem that was published in that, but this is my first collection of poems.
Could you remind me who Gram Parsons is again?
Gram Parsons was a musician in the ‘70s who was obsessed with country music and drugs. He was super rich, because he was a trust fund baby, and he rode on that until he died.
What spurred your interest in writing about him?
His whole life was like a novel. He was raised by these rich farmers who were alcoholics and swingers in Georgia and had a huge mansion. He got to do whatever he wanted. He moved out to LA and met all the big musicians of the time. [He] was very sad and died young.
Do you feel you relate to those experiences?
When I started writing these poems, it was all off of study. I knew aspects of his life. I wrote like 40 poems, and by the end I realized I was writing it from my perspective, like I was taking on [the life of] Gram Parsons. It was kinda scary. If I live up to his life, I’ve got six years left, and life’s gonna get really bad. Hopefully I don’t.
So are you taking more of a negative or positive approach?
It’s a romantic view of him, but based in reality. He’s a romantic figure, [which] I tried to avoid in my writing to not make him god-like and to make him a normal man who was struggling with things, who was an addict, and [who tried] to fill a void in himself.
What might be relatable for readers? Do you think it is?
I think there are pieces that are. He felt very confined (I think) throughout his life, [which] is relevant [for] people today, feeling confined with our society. His whole life was trying to escape that feeling, and I don’t think he ever did.
How does it feel to finally have a tangible publication of your own?
It’s great! Now I can give it to people, and [they] can have a thing that I made. [It’s] all me. I wrote everything in it, I designed the whole thing… I’m glad I did self-publish it, because it’s made by my loving hands.
Have people read much of your work before this?
I share my work with anybody that wants to read it, [but] I’m not online really. I’m hoping this is the start of people reading my work more. I’m hoping this is the motivation I need to put my work out there.
How would you describe yourself as a writer?
I mean, what style to you generally go for, or are you making something up of your own?
My poetry is based in Beat-like fluidity. I’ve researched the Beats extensively, and I’ve recently been into modern writers, so I’ve been able to morph those two together [into] a hybrid of Beat and modern abstract poetry.
Do you find modernist poetry is more attractive to you?
All of my poems are just fun. They’re fun for me to write. If I write in a Beat style, I have to think about how the words are working together, and the sound, and how it moves… With an abstract poem, it’s fun to think about how a cactus relates to a fig; like, it doesn’t, but it’s fun to put that on paper. I think a lot of writers feel confined, and the Beats were trying to step out of that, but I think every movement in writing and in art is trying to step out of that mold. Artists don’t seem to like to settle.
Where do you see poetry heading these days?
I think future poetry is computer language or mechanical language. It’s been done before, but I think it [will] keep going in that direction.
Where do you think it should go?
In the ‘90s, poets started focusing more on fucking with it; like, their wasn’t meaning in it anymore. There’s meaning in all writing, but that wasn’t the purpose. It was to make some weird image out of words and to make the reader [not] know what [the writing] means, [even though] it looks cool, and it sounds cool. I hope that meaning is brought back into it. Train-of-consciousness has kind of taken over; it doesn’t seem to me that writers are sitting with their work as much anymore. Maybe post-writing, like while they’re editing they’ll sit with it, but it seems like most writers are writing their poems in two minutes, and it’s about them sitting on the city bus going to an art gallery. There’s very little substance.
What constitutes substance?
When you care. If some guy is riding BART to [San Francisco] MoMA… Great. I don’t really care. Like, a lot of people [ride] BART to get to SFMoMA. Reading that in a poem is like, “Alright, yeah, you did that, that’s neat.”
Do you feel poetry and its realm of literature has deteriorated at all?
Oh yeah. I’m trying to do something a bit different [than mainstream poetry], but I think I’m able to, because I sit in my room reading all day. I’m picking up things from the poets and writers that I’m reading, not from conversation. I’m not trying to mimic modern writers; I’m taking old and new writers and blending all of it together. I write and think about writing constantly, so a lot of it has ended up being my own ideas, because that’s all I think about.
Is there an advantage or disadvantage to not being quite as well-known?
I’m lucky that I can be motivated, but [being a writer] is a very lonely existence. It’s difficult to tell yourself [to] sit down and write for an hour or make [a] book. Who knows if anybody is gonna read it? Who knows if anybody is gonna care? The White Nudie Suit took me months, and ultimately no one may read it, and nobody may care…
Why should people care?
Poetry is juicy! I don’t eat meat, but imagine just imagine eating a juicy, world-class steak; that is like every poem. A nice juicy piece of seitan. We’re a very fast world; everything is quick, and poetry is one of few things that make you stop. It’s hard to read a poem and just flip to the next page. People need to re-learn how to sit with something again. Everything is like Facebook, where you’re just scrolling, you read a status, then it’s on to the next one, and nothing really matters about it.
Is it important to utilize social media for poetry nowadays or to stay away from it?
It seems like all art is moving into this online realm, where a lot of artists are working specifically with Instagram and Twitter. A lot of modern poets are way too active on Facebook, Twitter, and that kind of stuff, but it is important to pay attention. Our current form of speech is how people talk to each other online. It’s ridiculous if you just ignore that as a writer. We don’t talk like Henry James anymore.
With people reading on Kindles and iPads these days, do you there’s still value in printed media?
That’s why all my money goes to books! There’s something about a physical… Anything. It’s easy to pass something online and just on a screen, but [with] a book it becomes real.
Should we hold onto these older methods rather than give them up completely?
I think so. I know that Kindles and stuff like that have taken a huge toll on the publishing world. It is harder to get published now, because publishers aren’t wanting to print. It’s getting difficult to print anything. I mean, online I could publish anything, but that’s the problem. If you pick up The White Nudie Suit, and you read my name, you know I’m a writer, but if you’re scrolling through Tumblr, you could come upon some poem written by some depressed high schooler who has never read a poem other than in class. [The internet] is more washed-out. Anybody can do it, anybody can publish a poem that they wrote online. If I publish one of my poems that I’ve really honed in and really crafted, it holds the same value as if my brother wrote a poem, [and] he hasn’t read a book in ten years. Online has taken the value out of writing in general.
Where do you see yourself heading next?
I wanna start doing readings. Readings, and then making a blog to put my writing on. I think it is important to exist online, even though online has taken a lot of value out of it. It’s important to have both.