In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—W. Todd Kaneko
There’s a sweetness of presence in your poem “Horsepower” as well as a complexity in a singular moment which I found intriguing. You take us on a journey through the simple observation of a cluster of horses by the side of the road. Could you speak to the inspiration and the process of creating this poem?
I have been passing those horses on my way to work for years. They graze in their meadow in fall and spring and stand around under their blankets in the winter. It’s a quiet, lonely commute, particularly now that my wife and I drive separately in case we get called to pick up one of our kids early from school or daycare. But also, I worry about my kids a lot, particularly during the pandemic and particularly when I am stuck in the car driving to work. I would love to be able to say to my son, hey look at the horses like he’s in the back seat and everything is normal, but of course, he’s not and nothing is normal and that’s where the poem started.
Your other poem in Volume 24, “First Person Shooter” is filled with references to our dysfunctional nation. It includes references to immigrant children separated from their parents at our southern border while the speaker in the poem rests comfortably in his home playing armageddon-like video games, one ear listening for his sleeping son. This juxtaposition between real tragedy and imaginary, as well as the need of a father to protect his child is visceral, creating a discomfort in the reader. What are your thoughts about how poetry can speak to societal problems, and can poetry, and art in general, work toward societal change?
I’m hesitant to say that poetry or art actually works toward societal change—that makes it sound like writing poems is equivalent to the labor that activists do to effect change in the world. But I do think that if you are a human being who is capable of empathy, you can’t go through the world and not notice the many fronts on which people are failed by the societies they live in. And for a lot of poets, particularly those who belong to populations that have been failed by the social structures to which they are bound, these things naturally find their way into the poems. How can they not?
On the other hand, poetry is meant to activate a reader, emotionally at least, and I suppose it’s possible for that emotional activation to spur a reader or viewer into action. I think that art can work toward societal change, but I think there’s a huge difference between making poetry or art that speaks to societal problems, and being out in the world, boots on the ground, to make things happen. Both are important in their own ways, but conflating the two is dangerous, I think.
Your poetry collection “This Is How the Bone Sings” explores the painful history and trauma caused by Minidoka, a Japanese concentration camp constructed in Idaho during World War II. I couldn’t help but notice the connection between that time period and the one today where immigrants are housed on our southern border, referenced in your poem “First Person Shooter.” Am I correct in assuming that these stories are personal? What does it say about us as a nation when we continue to repeat these atrocities against vulnerable populations? Is there a way to break these cycles?
Yes, those stories are personal—my father and his parents were incarcerated in Idaho during World War II, and it’s something I think about every day, especially now that they all have passed. My grandmother once said that if the United States were to put citizens in concentration camps again, she would protest on the front lines. In fact, there have been a number of Japanese American camp survivors who have worked as activists against the camps on our southern border.
Is there a way to break these cycles? I don’t know—I don’t really have those kinds of answers in me. I reckon probably not because the cycle of dehumanization and oppression is so ingrained into our country’s history and present, and maybe our future too. I do think that refusing to let people forget that the atrocities of the present day are connected to the atrocities of the past is important. I am currently raising a six-year-old and a pair of twins who will be two soon, and as much as I would like to follow my grandmother’s sense of duty towards those who are incarcerated, childcare pretty much kicks my ass every day. My wife and I try to make sure our kids know their family history with the hope that understanding where they come from encourages them to grow up into conscientious adults who live conscientious lives. That’s the extent of what I can manage, for now.
I noticed that you reference pop culture in your poetry, from Slash of Guns N’ Roses to the wrestler Andre the Giant. How does pop culture shape your work and what can you advise to artists interested in exploring pop culture references in their work?
I know a lot of writers struggle with this kind of thing on the one hand because we get pop culture trained out of us for the sake of trying to stand the test of time over being timely in the moment. On the other hand, it’s because pop culture is supposedly lowbrow and readers aren’t going to get all the references. But I think that poetry is best when it’s about the world we live in, the experiences and culture that surrounds us every day: the songs on the radio, the TV shows we watch, the covers of those magazines staring us down at the grocery checkout. It’s where we live most immediately, and yet, we often assign adjectives to the word culture so we can categorize and dismiss: high culture, low culture, pop culture, foreign culture: it’s all just culture worthy of writing about, for me. Sure maybe a reader doesn’t know anything about Black Panther, but looking at what’s playing at the movies or on Netflix, it’s ridiculous to pretend that super heroes aren’t a thing, you know? And it’s okay if some people don’t get the references because every poem doesn’t have to be for every person. And if you are still seeing pop culture in your poem as a reference and not the world, maybe the poem hasn’t fully embraced its subject matter. So this is my take on pop culture in poetry—I just write about the things that are in front of me because I think it’s worth writing about.
You collaborated with Amorak Huey for a few large projects, including the poetry book “Slash / Slash” as well as the craft book “Poetry: A Writers’ Guide and Anthology.” How did your collaboration originate, and what is it like to work on a book with another writer?
Amorak and I are in a writing group together, we teach in the same department (our offices are across the hall from one another), and his house is probably only about a mile away from mine. We both wrote a couple of Guns N’ Roses poems separately, so it made sense when he texted me to say that we should just write some Guns N’ Roses poems together and we ended up coming up with Slash / Slash. We had already collaborated on the textbook, which was a different kind of writing, so we already knew some of the basic parameters for our collaboration: relinquishing sole ownership of the poems we write, putting aside our egos where they interfere with the work, and having fun with poetry.
But like I said, I know Amorak and his work pretty well, and he knows me—so we had built up a lot of trust between us. It was easy for me to give him a draft of a poem to work on and it was fun to receive a draft of his, knowing I had permission to do whatever I wanted with it. There is a challenge on the TV show called Top Chef where one chef starts cooking and then a second chef has to come in half way through, identify what the first chef’s plan was and finish the dish. That was pretty much what our collaboration was like—you get a draft and can see what the poem is trying to do, what the poet was trying to do, and then you get to go in and try to make the whole thing work. Sometimes I served up some heaps of terrible poetry and he gave them back to me looking like real poems. It was like magic. And super fun. Everyone should try collaborating on writing poems. Maybe with your best poetry friend. Or with Amorak, if he’s available.
What are some projects that you are working on now, or planning for the future?
I have lots of plans but like I said, childcare is a problem for us these days. I have more projects than I can possibly work on at the moment. I have been playing with this sequence of prose poems about the video game Fallout 4 (the game I was playing when I wrote “First Person Shooter”), but then recently I decided that maybe they are really flash essays about America, contemporary and historical and hypothetical—or maybe it’s a long essay that is made up of short flash essays about gaming through post-apocalypse America—I’m not sure what it is yet, but this is the project that currently has my attention, partly because I’m interested to see where these pieces will take me, and partly because I just want to play and think about video games right now.
TODD KANEKO is the author of the poetry books This is How the Bone Sings (Black Lawrence Press 2020) and The Dead Wrestler Elegies (New Michigan Press 2021). He is co-author with Amorak Huey of Poetry: A Writers’ Guide and Anthology (Bloomsbury Academic 2018), and Slash / Slash, winner of the 2020 Diode Editions Chapbook Prize. A Kundiman Fellow, he teaches at Grand Valley State University and lives with his family in Grand Rapids, Michigan.