Kevin Shaw was born and raised in London, ON, where he recently completed a Ph.D. in Canadian literature at Western.
His poems and essays have appeared in CV2, Grain, The Fiddlehead, The New Quarterly, and The Malahat Review. He received Arc Poetry Magazine's 2015 Poem of the Year award and the Grand Prize in the 2016 PRISM international Poetry Contest. His debut collection, Smaller Hours, was published in September 2017.
You can learn more about Kevin Shaw here: www.kevshaw.com
The New Quarterly - "Lend Me Your Ears: A Border Crossing in Three Acts"
Gooselane Press - Smaller Hours
Turing’s Time Machine *
The ticker tapes have run out,
swallowing ones and zeroes,
while from a perfect and pink aporia
dangles the hell’s end of a cigarette
that hisses goodbye, goodbye dear,
goodbye to all that in an ink blot.
I’m crossing old circuits,
secret and serendipitous, but to the naked
eye, merely a site to hack a beery slash
in the navy hours. Supposed utopia
forsaken, the flip side
of a fast one — a fist, or life.
The graffiti curates obscenity
in water closets. The toes tap
epistles in a whore’s code.
The living history of silence
is counted in the vibratory instants
between chapel bells.
I’m held under suspension
bridges, or I’m standing aside-eyed
at love, hovering around the urinals,
attuned to the signals: those fleeting gazes gone
to the eye-white narcissi of the neon.
Then, in a flash, I see men safe
in the palm of my hand,
and all our causeways come undone.
In the bar, we text our muscled
apparitions while our want is numbered:
one more for the night, and then we swallow
Describe, if you would, the space in which you sit to write at this moment.
Right now I'm sitting at my dining room table with a large mug of coffee. I get up pretty early to (try to) write or read before work, as I'm definitely more a morning person than a night owl. After work is for indulging my other passions: cooking and Netflix.
The final words of the opening stanza in “Turing’s Time Machine” are ‘ink blot.' Is this a reference to Rorschach tests? If so, how do they relate to Turing?
I guess it's both an allusion to Turing's experience of being "treated" medically (by chemical castration) after his gross indecency conviction, and also the longer, more complicated history of viewing homosexuality as a mental illness, and the anxiety and anger that can still come from being queer in a straight world.
As “Turing’s Time Machine” doesn’t seem to accord to any regular metrical structure, I wonder if you’d take a look at one or two line breaks in the poem and offer a word about why they were made there.
In an earlier version of this poem, the sestet structure of the stanzas was there but the final line, "the zero hour," was a final one-line stanza. Here's an example of where the editing process was helpful in considering form and structure. I think the original work, but there's something oddly satisfying about the symmetry, and it better reflects (I think, anyway) the computing that gets discussed in the poem.
Dr. Madeline Bassnett: I love the way your poems interlace images of time, history and sex, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to think about Eldon House quite the same after reading “After Hours at Eldon House”! Can you talk more about the relationship between these concepts? My initial feeling is that the historical functions almost as a place of safety for these scenes of (once forbidden) love. Am I on the right track?
Yes, absolutely. I started thinking a lot about how you "do" queer history when much of it is erased or silent. The desire to reclaim that past gets mixed up with erotic desire in the present. History, and its personae, made the perfect cover to express these feelings. They also allowed me, I hope, to move beyond the merely confessional. At the same time, thinking about history has given me a more critical eye toward gay eroticism in art and writing. For example, the figure of the sailor and the soldier (like the redcoats in the Eldon House poem) are both gay icons but also icons of empire and colonialism. I was interested in teasing out the complexities of that double bind.
Dr. Bassnett: While I’m on the topic of sex, I’d like to ask you about the process of writing about sex and desire. Sex and desire are hard to put into words, and there’s been lots of bad words written about these topics. But your poems are remarkable in their explicit allusiveness; they’re raunchy and subtle at the same time. How do you manage this delicate balance?
"Raunchy and subtle" is the best compliment! I think LGBTQ people learn quickly to both conceal and reveal their identities and desires, often simultaneously, depending on the situation. While I'm all for laying it bare in queer writing, writing about sex in a coded or allusive way is a bit of an homage not only to the lived history, but to the writers who came before and developed a rich tradition of metaphor and slang. I should also mention that at the same time I was finishing this book I was finishing a dissertation on self-censorship, poetics, and LGBTQ writing in Canada, so there was definitely some cross-pollination between the two!
As Dr. Bassnett remarks with regard to your poems, you’re ‘explicitly allusive’ throughout “Lend Me Your Ears: A Border Crossing in Three Acts”, which (brilliant) piece entwines your recollection of a border crossing into the States with your boyfriend with the circumstance of your coming out, your discovery of literature, and a few parallel moments from the life of Oscar Wilde.
We find phrases like, “We were ordered to pull off for a secondary inspection” before reporting the gross border guard strangely implied that “in order to pass, [you] needed to prove that [you were] gay.” “Yet how could we get our stories straight,” you write, “if we were still in those heady days before we’d set any real boundaries, before we’d made any declarations that made us recognizable to each other in certain terms, never mind the state?”
Towards the end of the piece, you offer a rhetorical question from your early years of reading Shakespeare: “Why couldn’t he just say what he meant without the subterfuge of simile and metaphor?”
I don’t want to crassly put that question to you, but ask that you exfoliate the use of subterfuge or intimation in your writing, whether this functions as a kind of homage to those for whom love was and to an extent is by necessity clandestine, and how innuendo acts like poetic allusion, deepening text and creating community amongst those with the eyes to see them, and for whom, as you write, “sometimes an omission is more legible.”
Considering how much I disliked poetry when I was younger, it's strange I've ended up working in this genre. But I think my dislike had more to do with how it's taught in school than poetry itself. On the other hand, the plus side of being taught poems like they're locked rooms is that they become the obvious place to store secrets, which may be why I started writing them in the first place--all that teen angst. I do see a connection between poetics and disclosure. It's been said before, but working in a set form or in symmetrical stanzas and other constraints can feel like a limit, but it can also make other revelations possible.
If not as an escape room--is that an apt metaphor for how poems are taught in classrooms?--how would you go about teaching or facilitating first exposure to poems?
Love the idea of the poem as escape room! I think as kids (and beyond) we love the sounds of poetry and so any approach that builds on that as a way into meaning seems more useful than a line-by-line takedown. The latter can be useful (I do it myself when writing about poetry) but I'm not sure it wins over many young readers. My dream introduction to poetry would show how poetry is a big tent, from spoken word to lyric to the visual, and that it's OK to embrace misunderstanding, or Keats' "negative capability." Half the time I have no idea what John Ashbery is writing "about" but I still get a lot of pleasure out of his poems. Finally, poetry didn't really click for me until I took Manina Jones' CanLit survey in undergrad at Western and was exposed to a wide range of poems written in this country by living poets. If we can't ever find ourselves in the poems we're taught (across gender, sexual, racialized, and class lines etc.), what would encourage us to read further?
If you claim a particular political tendency or allegiance, how does it inform your work as a poet?
It's probably obvious by now that I'm interested in LGBTQ politics and how that informs my poetry! Anti-censorship work, from my training as a librarian to my research, has been important to me, too. Like for a lot of people, the past year has rocked my relationship to politics in ways I probably can't fully understand at the moment. I am constantly scanning the news and trying not to constantly scan the news at the same time. In my newer writing, I'm interested in exploring the relationship between class and gay culture, but it's too soon to tell how it's going.
I wonder if you’d say a word or two about the book’s cover, and how it relates to the poetry behind it.
The cover and book were beautifully designed by Julie Scriver at Goose Lane (and I should add the whole team there made for an excellent first-time author experience!) A couple of years ago I saw the Margaret Watkins retrospective, Domestic Symphonies, at Museum London. She was a Hamilton-born modernist photographer who traveled and worked all around the world, and then was more or less forgotten until her photographs were discovered after her death. I was really struck by her work, particularly how she played with mirrors and reflections (she took several pictures of people looking in store windows, for example) or otherwise obscured people in the shot. I have a poem in the book that tries to capture some of her photographs in words. The cover photograph is not by Margaret Watkins, but I like to think it might be how she would've shot a gay bar if she had ever walked into one.
Could it be said that Watkins was exploring how a commercial society obscures individual identity? As the new book is perhaps your most significant foray into the overlapping worlds of commerce and art, I wonder if you'd say a few words about that blend, its virtues and pitfalls, in your experience.
I'm no Watkins expert, but I think she had an interesting relationship with commerce having also worked (with innovation) in advertising photography. The shop window photographs are interesting because while the women's faces aren't really visible to us, they are sometimes reflected back in the window. When it comes to poetry, I don't have any commercial expectations! For me, poetry is by necessity apart from making a living. That said, right now I work as a writer in the tech industry where I'm working with language, though in a very different way.
In what ways did the book evolve during the editing process?
I was very fortunate to work with Jeffery Donaldson as my editor. He has an incredible knowledge of poetry and poetics and was really generous in his readings of the poems. The overall structure of the book didn't change much from the manuscript I first submitted, though within sections poems were sometimes re-titled or moved around. Jeffery encouraged me to make my language more precise, and to not get lazy (my word) when it came to following through on the structural choices in a poem, to at least see how that might transform it. While most of the collection was written in the past few years, several poems date back almost a decade to when I first started on them, so working with an editor was really helpful for getting a fresh perspective.