Kenyatta JP Garcia is proof that an online persona can be an art form. Scroll through their Timeline, and you'll find an artist engaging with the social environment in unexpected ways – all wit, riff, and fascinating.
I've been thinking a lot about the distance between who we are and what we present online, so I took the opportunity to pick Kenyatta's mind about it. How does social media come into play in their work? Where does their cat Mr. Whiskers show up? What does it all add up to?
And Kenyatta never disappoints.
Before we take off, a little about Kenyatta JP Garcia: they are the author of numerous poetry collections, including Slow Living (West Vine Press, 2016), Playing Dead (Altpoetics Press, 2015), What Do the Evergreens Know of Pining (Scintilla Conscire Press, 2014), ROBOT (Scintilla Conscire Press, 2013), and This Sentimental Education (Scintilla Conscire Press, 2012). Their work has been featured in Brooklyn Rail, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, GlitterMob, and Dirty Chai. They grew up in Brooklyn, New York, but currently reside in Albany, New York, where they received a degree in linguistics, studied several living and dead languages, and made money as a cook for a dozen years. These days, they spend their nights putting boxes on shelves for money and their mornings writing poetry and reading lots of comic books. Additionally, they are a judge for the Goodreads Poetry Competition.
So Mr. Whiskers may not be your cat, per se, but as you said, he’s a cat you’ve earned. How has having him in your orbit shifted your understanding of animals? How has it impacted your day-to-day life?
I don't know if I'll ever understand animals. I don't know if I need to or if I'm supposed to. All I know is Mr. Whiskers likes his space/s and I give those to him. I'm submissive. If he sits down first then that's his chair. I'll find somewhere else to relax. On a day-to-day basis, I have to think about his feeding times and cleaning up after him. After years of living alone as a bit of a barfly, it's a new thing to roll in drunk and immediately feed the cat because I know I'll be asleep till noon and he's going to be hungry way before then. Essentially I orbit around him he doesn't orbit around me. He's in charge, which is good because I mostly trust his instincts.
You noted that you don’t write poems about Mr. Whiskers, but he slinks into your writing in other ways. Let’s talk about pets as social media fodder. It seems like everything they do is at once goofy and profound.
A cat is in so many ways both a real living being and a metaphor for so much more. For me, I like to joke about us both being part black and part white and thus having to explain privilege to him. He does things that are uppity. He has a real sense of entitlement and I use that in some of my posts, but in poetry I think it might undermine my more serious thoughts about society to compare life as black/mixed person to life as a cat. I'm pretty sure it wouldn't go over very well.
"I don't know if I'll ever understand animals. I don't know if I need to or if I'm supposed to."
Speaking of social media, in your Voices of Bettering American Poetry interview with VIDA, you said, “Social media has allowed me to write about certain topics I would never write about in a poem and in a way I never would in poetry.” Can you give some examples of those topics that you wouldn’t write poems about?
My social media presence adheres to my three G's of humor, which are not Dan Savage's (good, giving, and game). I'm all about goofy, geeky, and gothy. If I have a fourth G, it's gender. So, on social media, I can make up silly portmanteau about comic book / sci-fi characters and I can be silly in my sappiness / sentimentality. Also, I can deal with grief without worrying over style.
For example, Prince's death and the death of all those folks at Pulse pulled a lot out of me. I just wanted to "talk" – I didn't want to edit and revise. I just needed to let feelings flow, whereas my poetry doesn't utilize feelings as much as it does observation and sensation along with my personal notions of rhythm. I'm free on Facebook to a certain extent to be spontaneous, but admittedly, there are times when I spend a long time trying to figure out a good joke.
And a follow-up: does social media impact your poetry writing process at all? Like, do you ever scroll through Facebook or Twitter and get an idea for a first line or a voice you want to explore on the page?
Oh, all the time. If I'm stuck, I'm sure somebody will help me out. I look for interesting words to spark lines or read articles for ideas. Also, social media is sadly sometimes my first source for the horrors of this world and I need to know what's going on and respond. A poem is a conversation. First Facebook talks then I talk back.
"A poem is a conversation. First Facebook talks then I talk back."
How much distance is there between Kenyatta the poet I know and love on social media and Kenyatta in real life?
Well, I know on Facebook I might seem cool, suave, and silky smooth as a pat of unsalted sweet cream butter but IRL I'm really just a Blatinerd or Puerto Geekan. I listen to goth and twee music a lot and read comics. Then I go out drinking and work that into conversations along with basketball.
I can flicker between a very reserved and aloof JP and an absolute whirlwind of words in Keny. I feel like Jekyll and Hyde IRL sometimes. I'm balancing two parts of the self that I need / enjoy, which maybe doesn't come through in social media.
Also, IRL I'm not that funny or interesting, even if I'm working hard to keep my friends / audience (fraudience) entertained. I can make the everyday excruciatingly banal, as Claes Oldenburg sort of said. I have odd focuses for discussions. I'm one of those "Did you see that, oh I guess not" sort of people. I have inside jokes with my selves.
True or false: if you know the poems, you know the poet.
True enough. I give enough for you to know me. I'm as daydreamy and disjointed as my work is.
So many of your lines pass what I call the “tattoo test” – lines I would happily ink on my skin. An example from “But More With”:
It’s a world of closed doors. I know because I shut them.
What makes a perfect line, do you think?
A perfect line feels like the rest of the poem was just practice. Like the rest of the poem were appetizers and dessert. A perfect line lives on its own. It speaks a stanza. It is a room to reside in. Breton wrote something sort of like, "the winged octopuses no more shall guide this ship whose sails are made hour by hour by the light" in Le Mort Rose. That's perfect or how I perfectly misremembered it.
"A perfect line feels like the rest of the poem was just practice."
What projects are you working on right now? And is Mr. Whiskers helping or just strutting across your keyboard?
I'm working on Introception of the Retrocosm. I'm trying to write another book length poem – that's my true love. Oh, the epic makes me... Anyway, I'm dealing with deep reflection, my heir to deep song and deep image, and what Whiskers does is disrupt my sucralose sensibilities and forces me to refocus on depth. And he shakes his head at my neologisms. He reminds me of simplicity. I mean, when he's not editing my work, he's managing my roommate's band Hill Haints. He's a cat of many talents and insights.
Is he a remedy for loneliness?
Yeah, sometimes. When I get home from work at 8 a.m., I have nobody to hang out with, but he'll sit on my lap and listen to me talk. I think he's starting to like listening to the Field Mice and Belle and Sebastian, and Swamp Thing is growing on him. Meanwhile, I know the importance of catnip and an open window with a good view. Sometimes when I'm away from home for too long, I do miss him.
A metaphor or simile for Mr. Whiskers?
I call him Cat Turner for his uncanny ability to escape. He loves running away but he always comes back. He likes the idea of freedom but also knows the importance of having a place to eat and crap in a box. Also, he looks timid and never scratches anybody, yet he has lured birds into the apartment and killed them, so there's that too. It's not much of a metaphor, but it needed to be written. He's a cat who can take care of himself but doesn't really want to.