LuAnn Keener-Mikenas won the 2013 Library of Virginia Poetry Award for Homeland (Louisiana Literature Press, 2012). Her first collection Color Documentary (Calyx Books 1994) won in manuscript a 1990 Virginia Prize.
Her work has appeared in journals such as Poetry, Shenandoah, Quarterly West, Chelsea, New Orleans Review, Louisiana Literature as well as in anthologies including Entering the Real World (Virginia Center for Creative Arts 40th Anniversary Anthology); Southern Poetry Review (Guy Owen prize winners); The Mind’s Eye (textbook); A Fierce Brightness: Twenty-five Years of Women’s Poetry; Buck and Wing: Southern Poetry at 2000; Worlds in Our Words: Contemporary American Women Writers; and The First Yes: Poems About Communication.
Other honors include the Writers at Work Prize for Poetry from Quarterly West, Chelsea’s 1st Place Award for Poetry, the Mary Roberts Rinehart Award for Poetry, as well as the Americas Review Prize for Poetry. Keener-Mikenas is also the recipient of a MacDowell Colony fellowship and many fellowships at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.
“Icarus Swims” from Color Documentary inspired an art song: “A Revisitation of Myth” by New York composer Joelle Wallach. Her poetry has been increasingly concerned with the environmental crisis and the remaking and spiritualization of our relationship with the natural world. After completing an MFA in creative writing from the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville in 1986, she taught English at Virginia Tech for several years before making a career change.
A licensed clinical social worker since 2000, she has worked intensively with emotionally disturbed children in residential treatment. Currently she is a therapist in private practice, a member of the counseling staff at Randolph College, and a resource social worker for Centra Hospice. She lives in Virginia with her husband, a professional musician.
all photos and art by LuAnn Keener-Mikenas unless otherwise noted
Interview by Collin Kelley, A Modern Confessional:
Five Questions for LuAnn Keener-Mikenas
1. The poems in Homeland filled me with a sense of wonder, but also left me with a disquieting sense of dread. The killing and extinction of animals and civilizations shouldn’t make for such easy reading, but these poems are filled with a terrible beauty. Tell us about the evolution of this collection.
First of all, I have to be honest and say that this collection is long overdue. I didn’t write these poems in the last five years. Homeland is my second collection, and my third is almost complete. I’m reassured by remembering my teacher, James Whitehead at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, who in his lesson on quality v. quantity used to point to Phillip Larkin and say, “One book every ten years. Don’t worry.”
Homeland was about half finished when I changed careers in l995-96, from being an English instructor to working in mental health, after getting an additional graduate degree. For the first time since my 20’s, I completely stopped submitting work, but I kept changing out poems, adding new work and reshaping the manuscript over the next ten years. When I started submitting again in 2007, the book was a finalist in a few contests every year until it was picked up by Louisiana Literature Press. I’m embarrassed by that long delay, but this is “A Modern Confessional” after all!
But to talk about the roots of the book, I have to go way back. I grew up very sheltered in a tiny farming town in rural Texas, graduated high school in a class of eight. We were intimately connected to nature, and from earliest memory I was one with the enchanted landscape of the outdoors. I was a born naturalist, and discovering Emily Dickenson and Blake’s burning Tyger in my third grade English book just blew me open. I started writing poems, and this closely coincided with the disappearance of my beloved grandmother into the wilderness of Alzheimers. She had been the holy mountain at the center of my world. Suddenly the hearth went cold, and I was driven more deeply into my own imaginative wilderness. Before (what we used to call) Junior High, my teachers were letting me forage in the storeroom for old, out of adoption textbooks that had excerpts from Emerson, a lot of Whitman and Dickenson. I was reading all the poetry I could find, and let me tell you, it wasn’t easy to find in rural Texas in the ‘60s.
My parents were hard-working, good people without college educations, and my father had a poet’s appreciation for the natural world, conversing with bobwhites, enthralled by the design on a turtle’s under-shell. And of course, the culture was woven with an ethical fiber we didn’t call Christian, though we were Methodists. Our town was as riddled with darkness as any in Mark Twain, but we were a family of idealists. And this was another, populist Democratic Texas, not yet hijacked by mass-marketed Fundamentalism and billionaire politicians. So Dickenson and Blake and company were speaking our language. I hark back to that experience because it is the emotional core of my work and the home chord of the first two sections of the book, the wildlife and Westward Movement poems.
As a young adult in more urban environments, and distanced from nature by the constraints of work and responsibility, I fell in love with nature shows on TV, and was amazed (and for a long time embarrassed and worried) that I got some good poems this way. Theodore Roszak’s The Voice of the Earth, incidentally, defines our modern estrangement from nature as a kind of actual psychosis. More recently we have labeled “nature deficit disorder” in the psychiatric lingo, but Roszak was articulating this in the early ‘90s. The roots of this awareness trace back, through the Deep Ecology movement of the ’70s, all the way to Emerson and Thoreau and their cohearts. In the last twenty years or so the genre of nature writing has bloomed to full acceptance in MFA programs--yet the devastation proceeds apace. So for the writer, the tension just continues to build. Another strong personal influence for me has been the work of Wendell Berry, a long soulful lament for the disappearance of world in which people understood themselves in relation to the land, and lived that connection daily. We can’t all be homesteading farmers, but I see Homeland as wooing readers back toward resonance with our primal roots, our identity as creatures in a landscape, which we desperately need to ground and heal ourselves.
But to return to your question, the ”disquieting dread” and “terrible beauty” also have to do with the contemporary world crises we’ve lived through in the last hundred years. The Cuban missile Crisis was the first black cloud in my childhood. I remember the political cartoons in the local paper showing big fat missiles, and my father and grandfather tense and talking on and on about it. I would break out in a cold sweat and have to leave the room, feeling sick in the pit of my stomach. I think it was my brother, ten years older and self-appointed to enrich my education, who explained to me exactly what atomic war meant. The feelings of dread only grew as I got older. In the 80’s when The Day After movie came out, I still just had to leave the room. But then something changed. Call it maturity, or faith, I don’t know, but I just stopped fearing. In the last twenty years I have been increasingly drawn to philosophical and spiritual ideals of a lost order, an ancient symmetry and sacred alignment that could one day be regained. Today, there’s a sort of organic belief system that has evolved over the course of my life, and I’m wildly optimistic. I’m a passionate reader of scholarship on ancient mysticism and high civilizations that aren‘t yet in the textbooks. And I find it very hard to feel at home in contemporary culture. When I was teaching essay writing I used to tell my students that everything is connected to everything--in an attempt to get them excited and thinking organically. That didn’t work very well, but it’s truer than ever for me as time goes on. The beauty and the pathos, the terrible and the sublime, are intimately wedded, and this brings us as close to the mystery as we can get.
Incidentally, I came up with the title Homeland before that word was co-opted by the Bush administration, and I decided to stick with it. It points not just to the American landscape but to the natural world itself as our true spiritual homeland-- and to the inner landscape that opens when we are in that resonance. I am a Taoist at heart. This is not to say that I’m there all the time. I’m sure my life is as frenetic and disjointed as anyone’s these days.
2. I believe it takes delicate skill to make an ekphrastic poem work since the reader often has never seen the art it’s based upon, but the poems here about the Westward movement of European settlers in America leap off the page. Talk about the challenges of writing ekphrastic poetry and how you use it in Homeland.
Again, I must confess that I didn’t know the word “ekphrastic” until sometime early in the new millenium, after these poems were written. I stumbled on the method. There are a few such poems in my first collection, Color Documentary, which in manuscript won a Virginia Prize in 1990. Growing up in an artistically impoverished culture, art was always important to me, a window on another world. In my thirties I made a conscious decision to turn away from writing personal poems for a while, and turned more and more exclusively toward nature and art for inspiration. It was eerie and exhilarating, feeling a painting just speak to me. In that first collection there’s one based on Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights,” one on Van Eyck’s “Arnolfini Wedding Portrait,” and my favorite one on Leonardo’s “Adoration of the Magi.” These just happened. Then in the early ‘90s at Virginia Center for Creative Arts, I met the painter Miriam Beerman, who was then doing these huge works on the Holocaust, both abstract and impressionistic, in luminous oil pastels. She was in her ‘70s and very successful, and we made a strong connection. She showed me an earlier series she had done on wildlife, and loaned me a book by a French wildlife photographer. Poems just fell out of it, and I began to look everywhere for wildlife photography that really spoke to me. I lined my baby son’s room with wildlife posters. It was mystifying the powerful and intimate connection I felt with the animals in these photographs, as if I were in their presence. And I was reading about New Physics and string theory, etc., which was basically saying that everything is connected to everything. It was a very mystical experience.
So after the wildlife series, I was looking for more of this experience. I turned to paintings of the American West, because the exhibit that toured the country in the ‘90s caught my attention and I got hold of the book. I was enthralled by the tension between what those painters had seen--a wilderness of a scale and grandeur we can’t even imagine today--and what they had painted, the story they wanted to tell, what they had left out or idealized. It’s that post-modern/New Physics question, what’s “really there” and what’s perceived/recorded/portrayed. I found myself getting inside of the ironies, and they were an endless hall of mirrors, because we’ve made a disaster of things and brought ourselves to the very brink of total breakdown. And the roots of it all are there, in that original search and desire and vision. You can’t help but be in love with this beautiful, awful drama that is going on on Planet Earth.
Need I say, with apology, that I’m a lyric poet, and don’t bother asking that tribe a logical question. Lots of smiley emoticons here.
3. The poem “Fear” in the Love Stories section of the collection might be my favorite. The juxtaposition of Ellen Ripley from the Alien films and Anne Frank in the concentration camp and how we can face death and still find hope should not work in any conceivable way, but it does. The Love Stories section seems to spin away from the rest of the collection, but then slowly you weave in the themes that have come before. Talk a little about the “Fear” poem and how you organized this collection.
Fear has been a big theme in my life. I’m still figuring out the layers of it in myself. I have a whole unpublished memoir/psychological exploration of the question of fear versus faith--not religious faith, but the mindset of consciously continuing to put one foot in front of the other in spite of fear, and the magic that can ensue. My first time on a ski slope, coming round a curve and not having enough control, I was sure I was going to go over the bluff. And in desperation I did exactly what the instructor had said, Just look in the direction you want to go. I was scared to death, but I stopped trying to control the situation with muscles, and my body just glided to the inside of the curve. Athletes know this formula, but for me it was an epiphany.
Fear of relationship, fear of intimacy, those are common contemporary themes. I’m interested in the core magic that moves us out of the place of fear into salvatory action--the things we do that rescue us from paralysis and psychological death. The pain of fear, the pain of paralysis--these fuel leaps for me. The leap into trying to put words on the page, the subsequent, serendipitous leaps the higher self makes to images that speak to the pain. I’m very drawn to an archetype of the ancient feminine that nothing can repress or defeat. I believe great movies these days are, among other things, expressions of the archetypes that are moving in us and moving us toward greater self-realization and evolution as a species. In the movies you can see the archetypal battles being played out, the choices being offered. Why do so many people need to watch horror movies? Why did we need “Star Wars” enough to turn it into a giga-blockbuster? What is going on with us? My answer in short is that the story of any life is much bigger than most individuals imagine. And, if we can step out of cynicism just for a moment, the contemplation of acts of incredible heroism enlarges the soul. The world today, a stew of strife and horror, is jeweled thick with heroic acts; they bloom wherever tragedy and cateclysm break out. The press is still not sufficiently interested in this, but September 11th brought it home to us. The story Anne Frank left us rises to the level of the mythic, and one wonders how many such stories throughout history were left in the rubble and not found. Heroic acts bloom out of the mundaine lives of ordinary people. This fact alone, for me, is worth everything.
Unifying Homeland was difficult until the Love Stories section crystallized. There’s the cycle of the wildlife poems, the cycle of the Western paintings, and the small group that came out of a separation and divorce. I decided to start with the wildlife poems, to draw the reader into an intimate kinship that is transpersonal. That sets the stage for the more specific exploration of American roots and responsibility. The “Fossils” group takes a step back, onto the inner stage of love, loss, personal destiny. The rest of the poems, I realized, came out of the seeker’s heart, the search for the Beloved, as defined in the eastern mystical sense, not just the lover but the experience of loving, and ultimately of loving the experience, loving the All. And through that love, transforming the world. I do believe “the world can change” into a much, much better place. I’m aware that that’s an almost impossible idea to sell. But what choice do we have?
4. What is your next project?
The collection I am working to finish now is tentatively titled “Seawater”--which is, in fact “the mother of blood”--harking back to a dolphin poem in Color Documentary. I remember tingling with excitement when we learned that fact in 9th grade biology, that blood evolved from seawater. So it’s a higher octave of love stories. The phrase “fugue states” keeps coming to mind as I work on it. Haven’t written that poem yet, but I am often both inspired and stressed by the intensity of feeling and perception and synchronicity and the increasingly complex interconnectedness of my experiences. The struggles I see in clients, I often realize, are also going on in me in a different dimension or degree. Lines I overhear are suddenly magnified as the fragment of insight I’ve been looking for. It’s as if the “soup” of experience is becoming more and more articulate yet increasingly woven together. I’m going to stop now, realizing this sounds like a pretty good description of schizophrenia. I wish this were a recording so you could hear me laugh!
In more practical terms, this collection has poems about childhood and poems about mystical experiences with wildlife. I’ve read a good deal of Ted Andrews and the Native American lore of animal signs, am really fascinated by this. There’s a section called “Woman Overlooking the Ocean” which is a cycle written from 19th Century and older paintings of women. There’s another group about losing both my parents in 2005. Also, I hope to include two poems written about the death in 2003 of Reetika Vazirani, the poet who killed herself and her toddler son. I knew her briefly when we were both in Blacksburg. One of them is a homage and meditation on her second book, World Hotel. The circumstances of her death created a psychic wound among poets. I think people just couldn’t get their minds around it, and I heard some pretty callous-sounding commentary on NPR. Writing the homage was my way of grappling with it, pulling together the roots I could find in her work, understanding to some degree the underlying wound that brought her to that terrible place. These poems weren’t accepted for publication, but years later some very insightful essays were published, two that I know of in Beltway Poetry Quarterly and India Unfinished.
I’m excited about this collection, but it’s not gelled yet. Harder, and better. I hope.