Route 7 Review
Issue # 2015
Stanfield: Could you speak a little bit about your writing process? Are you the type of poet who waits for inspiration to strike and write spontaneously, or is your process more drawn out?
Keneko: I’m not the kind of writer who waits for inspiration. To be frank, I don’t know many writers who do believe in waiting for the Muse. My process is one of daily exercise and practice starting with a blank page. Sometimes I’m striking out for parts unknown without a destination or road map, and sometimes I start with research to help find a subject. When I’m writing, I’m working every day just generating material, hoping for something to happen, for something I can work into a poem. I generally spend a lot of time on that first draft, working and reworking, going through what is probably several versions of a poem over the course of a couple of days—then after some time away from the first draft, I’ll go through several revision processes, cutting and adding and resculpting. It’s not a glamorous process. Every day is a work day when you are a writer, and I try to show up ready to go every day that I can.
I read that this collection was initially written by doing a poem a day? Did other poems take longer to write, or was each poem written in a day? Did you feel that this added something to the process, or that it is something that can be reflected in the collection? And how long did it take you to complete the project?
Every April, I exchange poems with some friends in observance of National Poetry Month—that’s thirty poems in thirty days, and the daily exchange is in place so no one can just crank out a haiku right before bedtime. Sometimes, I’ll impose the thirty poems rule on myself in order to make myself generate new poems—most of the poems in The Dead Wrestler Elegies were drafted in one of these thirty poem periods, which are generally pretty fruitful for me in terms of drafting new work.
But although those periods allow me to write a lot of poems, there is still the revision process that takes each poem through a number of different shapes and configurations before I’m done working on it. I can write a poem in a day, but it’s generally going to take me a few more passes through it before it’s ready for someone else to read it. Some of the poems, like the elegies for Ravishing Rick Rude and Gene Kiniski, took me a day or two to finish, but others like the poems for Andre the Giant and Randy Savage had me working and reworking for weeks.
All in all, I worked on the book for about two years or so, writing and revising, and then another six months to illustrate it. I’m not sure how I would describe the daily work on writing poems as something that is reflected in the final product of the book. I was totally immersed in watching and researching pro-wrestling during that period, and was also able to spend my time elbows-deep in poetry for extended periods of time. I guess the most concrete thing you can see in the book in terms of the daily practice is the fact that the book exists at all.
The book is illustrated with very interesting and eye-popping graphics: men and women in outlines, all you really see are the lines of their muscles and most of the time I think of these drawings, essentially, as masks that the reader can put on, or someone else can wear. I am wondering what you feel including these graphics in the work added to the dialogue in terms of exploring some of the book's themes?
I hope that the illustrations convey the camp of pro wrestling in a way that is respectful of the wrestlers the poems are about, but more than that, I see The Dead Wrestler Elegies as being a multi-modal experience. It’s a book of elegies for dead professional wrestlers, some of which the reader might not know, so I hope that the illustrations create another doorway into the book, one that allows further entry into the poems than if all they had was the text alone. If a person doesn’t know who Mad Dog Sawyer or Luna Vachon is, there is a visual representation to help connect with the poem’s content. The drawings help to anchor the reader in the reality of professional wrestling while the poems present the dramatic stories about the speaker’s broken family. In this sense, I look at the illustrations as more than accompanying visual aids—they are a vital part of how the reader experiences the book.
I think you are also right about the bodies as “masks” the reader can try on—that’s how sports work, right? We watch a basketball game and identify with Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan in ways that might be positive or negative, but the elation an audience expresses when a player scores is in great part due to that identification of viewers with players. It’s how audiences experience pro-wrestling too, and also how readers experience any piece of writing where the world is filtered through the perspective of a character or a speaker in a poem.
You paint an interesting picture of masculinity in the collection. You juxtapose really exaggerated images of masculinity with ones of failure, could you talk a little bit about this theme in the work?
Professional wrestling is steeped in those old masculine codes of aggression and violence and power. We see this in how the wrestlers appear in the ring, usually clothed in ways that highlight their muscles or bellies or whatever parts of their anatomies we are supposed to notice, as well as in the hyper-aggressive ways they speak. They bluster and pose under the lights before performing amazing athletic feats and awesome acts of violence, and the audience goes crazy.
But as you say, these are exaggerations of the image of masculinity that exists in our culture. I’m not interested in writing about how anyone should cry over the plight of men in this respect, but I am interested in how men too easily get caught up in all those stereotypes about virility, physicality and power dynamics, which complicate how we view ourselves and how we interact with the world. Men can’t live up to those images of what we are supposed to be as sons or fathers or husbands, so ultimately, our options are to fail at being men or accepting other versions of masculinity as viable options.
The characters in The Dead Wrestler Elegies are all caught up in these kinds of dynamics. The father has trouble moving on after his wife leaves and can’t figure out how to relate to his son. The son himself is trying to figure out what it means to be a man in the face of his father’s recent death. Even the mother, in her own way, is caught up in gender stereotypes, and ultimately she decides to leave. For me, this false binary of what it means to be a man or a woman is one of the hearts of The Dead Wrestler Elegies, and I hope that the way it uses pro wrestling to talk about it makes sense to those who don’t watch pro wrestling.
What do you feel discussing each different wrestling persona brings to the dialogue? You have some really misogynistic characters, but then you also have some characters like Paul Bearer and Chief Wahoo McDaniel, these poems discussing deeper emotional themes. Did you use these personas more as an objective correlative or did the persona dictate the writing and the persona's influence inspire the more personal/deeper themes in the poems?
If there is any misogyny in the book, I think it’s because of the way that professional wrestling has not been particularly welcoming to women, historically. I think it’s the result of wrestling being a sport that fetishizes the human body for a mostly male audience. Traditionally, female wrestlers have been relegated to being sideshow performers more for the viewers to objectify than legitimate competitors for a main event. But this really just mirrors attitudes towards women in the rest of our culture—in order to explore masculinity, you have to look at femininity and masculine views on it. Poems like “June Byers Knows What a Woman Wants” and “Judy Grable Makes a Living” kind of explore this, although there is lots more to explore on that front.
When I’m writing poems, I’m not thinking about objective correlatives or any of that kind of stuff. If the reader thinks the objective correlative is at work, that’s great, but when I’m writing, all I am trying to do is create a reality that stays true to itself in ways that are compelling and surprising. The many different wrestlers in the book offer a multiplicity of voices that play variations on the theme or conversation, but I wasn’t thinking as much about that as much as I was just trying to write poems about each performer in a way that honors the public figure and gives the reader some kind of experience with them. The themes have to arise organically out of the poem for me.
That being said, yeah—you’re right on there. When you look at the poems with that academic lens, there is that symbolic language happening, but I also hope that the poems as a whole have created their own system of meaning for readers through combining wrestling terminologies with the more familiar tropes.
An Interview with W. Todd Kaneko
Conducted by Brett Stanfield
NEW HUNTING GROUNDS FOR WAHOO MCDANIEL
W. Todd Kaneko
from The Dead Wrestler Elegies
first published in Revolution House
A man can take care of himself
after death. All he needs are his hands
and a new animal to hunt. The sky
sleeps tonight, its voluminous body
consuming what remains: a stone hatchet,
an eagle feather—that leather
strap that once lashed a man
to Chief Wahoo McDaniel, wrist to wrist
with hammer fists and tomahawk
chops, old animals drunk on the scent
of fresh blood and cigar smoke.
We are tethered to ancient things
on the brink, beasts with teeth
yearning for bare chests. We tie
those knots like foxes chew
at their limbs before vanishing.
A man can circle a beast in his arms
and squeeze until it gives in to sleep.
He can wrap legs around his quarry,
an Indian deathlock on the whole animal
kingdom. Now, the antelope gather
drowsy in Spring meadows, rivers churn
thick with salmon and trout.
A man doesn’t need his old things
to take care of himself. Let the wolves
take anything left on the prairie.
Let the sky take care of the rest.
W. Todd Kaneko is not cool enough to be a rock star, not tall enough to be a professional wrestler and not virtuous enough to be a super hero. He is the author of The Dead Wrestler Elegies (Curbside Splendor, 2014). His poems, essays and stories can be seen in Bellingham Review, Los Angeles Review, Boxcar Poetry Review, Barrelhouse, The Collagist, [PANK], Paper Darts, Menacing Hedge, Blackbird, The Huffington Post, Song of the Owashtanong: Grand Rapids Poetry in the 21st Century, 99 Poems for the 99 Percent, Bring the Noise: The Best Pop Culture Essays from Barrelhouse Magazine and many other journals and anthologies.
He holds degrees from Arizona State University (MFA, Creative Writing) and the University of Washington (BA, English). A recipient of fellowships from Kundiman and the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, his work has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize. He is currently an Associate Editor for DMQ Review and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Writing at Grand Valley State University. Originally from Seattle, he now lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with the writer Caitlin Horrocks.
Write to him at todd [dot] kaneko [at] gmail [dot] com, or visit his website.