After having read a few titles by R. Keith, and having followed his work online and occasionally catching it in journals… I decided it would be a good idea to do an interview. It turns out it was a good idea, though my skills evidently need sharpening. Thank you for enduring me, Robert.
R. Keith is a persona that works with visuals, texts, poetics, fiction, and exophonic writing. He is the author of four collections of poetry, and five chapbooks. His collection of Visual poetry Chicken Scratch was published in 2017 (eyeameye books) Forthcoming is his 1st novella in 2018.
This interview was conducted on October 15th, 2017.
SA: Sacha Archer
RK: R. Keith
SA: Okay. Let’s do it.
RK: Hit me.
SA: First of all, it is certainly normal to have a pseudonym on Facebook, but I’ve noticed you’ve changed yours a number of times since we connected—plus, correct me if I’m wrong–you recently legally changed your name?
RK: Yep. I was born Robert Keith Swereda. I just dropped my dad’s last name, he wasn’t a part of my life. I wanted to change it for ages, I thought it’d be a lot of paper work that I wouldn’t understand so I never got around to it until last year. The process was actually quite easy, just time consuming and I had to visit several different places to get documents, notary, signatures, etc. because I was born in Alberta and live in BC now. I published a few books under my birth name. I thought it’d be difficult to start publishing all over again with a different name, but I had no trouble. I publish as R. Keith now.
SA: I can certainly relate to having a last name connected to a person who—one’s not connected to. I’m curious if you see any connection between this concern with naming in relation to your writing.
RK: It’s like carrying something around that doesn’t actually belong to you. I found out after that a person can legally have just 1 name (like Prince, the musician) I should have done that instead. But imagine the grief trying to travel and your passport has just one name…
Not sure what you are asking? Changing my name didn’t really affect my writing or publishing.
SA: Okay, fair enough. I recently read your chapbook, Phon Phon, published by The Blasted Tree. I find it a very difficult text, and I love it for its extreme difficultly. How do you imagine the reader engaging with it? Do you consider it readable?
RK: I imagine the reader trying for the 1st page then taking it to a used book store to trade for store credit because they couldn’t understand and got frustrated. I learned Brazilian Portuguese and speak Canadian English. The text comes from a phrase book I found at a Value Village. For British English Speakers to learn European Portuguese. … There are differences in both phonetics. Think of the way a British person would say “shower” the -er sounds like “ah” … and European Portuguese is so different to Brazilian, some Brazilian movies are subtitled in Portugal. Brazil uses different words, like Xicara is Cup, in Portugal it’s Taça. … in Portugal and Rio de Janeiro, they say S like sh, outside of Rio it’s like the S in English. …so using the phonetic examples of both the languages is a double Brain Fart for me to read.
SA: Let’s make clear what’s happening in the chapbook. On the first page it says, “Exophony is the practice of writing in a language that is not one’s mother tongue. Phonetics is the study and classification of speech sounds. This collection of poems was constructed from phonetic examples of British English into European Portuguese.” So, in theory, the reader should be able to sound out the text and find themselves speaking English, yes? With what you’ve just said in mind, of course.
RK: Hmm… If they keep in mind the British and Euro Portuguese sounds. The 1st piece, 3rd line “er vosh” would sound like -a vOH-sh. (a voz, the voice). “noo mer ser per ter ree er” is Numa Sapateria (in the shoe store).
SA: So is the reader articulating English or European Portuguese? I’m still not clear on that.
RK: The Euro Portuguese sounds. I’d be interested to hear someone who had no clue about either to try to read this out loud, though.
SA: You’re not making this easy. That doesn’t clarify it. Is the reader articulating Euro Portuguese sounds which combine to give English words/phrases?
RK: The phrase book was for British to learn EP phrases.
SA: O.K. Now that I’ve revealed myself as a complete knucklehead… would you agree that this is a book of poetic noise?
RK: Probably all my writing is noise, poetic or not. I enjoy work that gives me WTF moments. And looking at languages and trying to figure out any meaning. If there is any. Another example is the piece Language Arts, in Chicken Scratch.
SA: Yes! I wanted to bring that up in relation to Phon Phon. There is a strange sense in Language Arts of a conscious angle of naivety and play which makes the piece possible. You looked at characters from different languages such as Chinese, Korean and Arabic and wrote the images you saw in the characters. Your work is often visual. Do you see Phon Phon as visual also?
RK: You could say that Phon Phon is a collage of texts. I cut text out of the phrase book and reordered them to resemble poetry
SA: Only resemble? At what point does the semblance become the thing itself?
RK: idk, I just work here. Since I work with poems, text, and also visuals, I wanted to create pieces you could look at, or into, but still appear to be stanzas, so it could be labeled as poetry. And create a bit of familiarity in all the WTFness.
SA: Once the reader becomes exhausted from reading through Phon Phon (I read through it a number of times which, frankly, hurt, in the best of ways) the visual collage aspect is something to be with—especially when viewed on The Blasted Tree website where there is the colour of the original.
Now, in your opinion, what is the state of vispo today? Do you think it’s going anywhere, or has it reached a logical conclusion?
RK: South America, namely Argentina and Brazil have a ton of fantastic visual poets. Just through Facebook I’ve gotten exposed to tons of great vispoets from around the world. If there were a conclusion to be had, would it even be logical? For myself, the state of vispo is lively, I’m still relatively new, and discovering the community. And learning by creating.
I can see some people thinking of it as just Bad art. A certain magazine lost its government funding after putting out a vispo issue some years ago.
SA: Wow. Do you recall which magazine?
RK: Hahaha, Filling Station. It happened just before I joined when I lived in Calgary. I think it was 2010 or 2011.
SA: The Canadian government will legalize weed, but won’t put up with vispo! No surprise there, really.
Who are some contemporary visual poets you would recommend?
RK: Luc Fierens, Gustav Morin, Pascal Verjil, Sam Roxas-Chua, Bruno Neiva.
SA: Awesome. I also love Sam and Mr. Morin. Sam Roxas-Chua often posts exposés of his work on Facebook accompanied by music. As you said much of your work is noise, and I’ve seen more than a few pictures of you with new guitars, how does music effect your work? Or, what music influences your work? How does your own playing effect your work?
RK: It’s another creative tool. I’ve wanted to record my poetry over top of my music, though I hate the sound of my voice, and I get this Ben Stein mono-tone drone when I read out loud. That’s why I don’t really preform at many readings. …I usually have some music playing at home, and if I’m trying to write I’ll have earphones in to mask any other noise so I can concentrate.
My 1st book re:verbs had some pieces that were inspired by Leo Brouwer’s music. His solo guitar compositions have this crooked angual sound, I wanted to visualize this with text. I used the titles of some of Brouwer’s pieces as stating points for the poems.
SA: I don’t know him. I’ll check him out. How about Derek Bailey?
How would you describe the music you create?
RK: Lately I’m into improvising, using loops. I’ll piddle around on the fretboard until I find something I like, loop it, piddle around more over top. Maybe start on bass, loop it, then switch to lapsteel or guitar. I bought a Spanish Lute and a fretless bass recently, trying to figure out what to do with those.
Derek Bailey is the shit! I love the —play guitar like you don’t know how— vibe.
SA: Right? I would love to hear some of your music. If it’s anything like your poetry it would be worth the time. Any recording being done, even casually?
RK: https://soundcloud.com/user-330756086/sets. I have 3 soundcloud pages. I used to post on youtube ages ago.
SA: Great! I look forward to checking it out. I heard you have a novella coming out soon. What’s that about?
RK: Ugh… it takes place is rural Alberta. Influenced by some events real, imagined, totally fake, or maybe what I wanted to happen. It’s pretty much What’s Eating Gilbert Grape with a sad ending.
SA: I just downloaded that to watch with my wife, Rui. She grew up in China and hasn’t seen any of the Western classics. Gilbert Grape is a classic now, yes?
What’s next for you in poetry? Any idea? Anything in the works?
RK: I’m looking for a home for an MS of poetry, another of some aphorisms, epigrams and more exophonic writing. Talking to a small press about another collection of vispo. I started another project in the summer and got to 40 pages and I’m letting it marinate for a bit before I add at least 20 more pages.
SA: A title we should look out for?
RK: Wild Rose Country is the novela title. Airy Nothings is the poetry MS. Some Little Pricks, is the epigrams, aphorisms & exophonic texts.
SA: Something(s) to look forward to! Thanks a lot for taking the time for this interview. It’s been a blast.
Phon Phon can be purchased or viewed here.
Chicken Scratch can be purchased here.