Interview with Raymond Keen (’63)


“Killing is bad luck/ Without an audience.”–from “Going to Hell”


1. Is Love Poems for Cannibals considered a Collected Poems? In the book, there are named sections with time frames attached—1967 to 1968 or 1974 to 2012. Does the chronology refer to when the poems were written or the timetable of the subject matter or ?

Love Poems for Cannibals is not a “Collected Poems.”  I have other poems, both published and unpublished, that are not in my book.

The time frames that are mentioned after each of the eight sections of Love Poems for Cannibals refer to the period of time in which the poems were written – or at least when fragments of the poems were written.

2. I notice that all of your publications are relatively recent. And you’ve gotten a lot of favorable attention in places like American Poetry Review and Kirkus Reviews, again recently. Is being a poet a kind of second career? Why this now?

Yes, being a poet is actually a kind of second career.  I was a psychology and English major as an undergraduate at Case Western Reserve University (Adelbert College – 1963).  My graduate degree is in clinical psychology, and since 1966 I have always worked as a clinical psychologist, school psychologist, or licensed mental health counselor.  I have been keeping poetic fragments of my writing in notebooks since 1967, beginning with a diary I kept while in Vietnam.  As years went by, I called this writing “SENTENCES and Particles:  A Developmental Obituary.”  Although I had written a few complete poems as early as 1963, I began transforming my notebooks of “poetry fragments” into poetry in 2001-2002.  In all honesty, I am not sure why I began that transformation at that particular time — maybe it was a dawning sense of my mortality, and the desire to leave something beautiful and worthwhile behind.

In July 2005, I had five poems published by The American Poetry Review.  Since 2005, I continued to develop my poetry into a book that I thought might be worthy of publication.  It was only after our retirement in June 2010, when my wife Kemme and I returned from a career overseas (Europe, Japan, Panama, Okinawa, and Turkey) with the Department of Defense Dependents Schools (DoDDS), that I began to submit my poetry to online literary journals on a regular basis.  After meeting with success and encouragement in obtaining publication for some of my poems, I decided to publish Love Poems for Cannibals through CreateSpace.  My book was published in February 2013.

3. What poets/writers/thinkers have influenced you and how?

The two writers that have influenced me the most are Shakespeare and Samuel Beckett.  I was introduced to Shakespeare’s Hamlet in high school, and very intrigued.  So I took two semesters of Shakespeare with Dr. Thomas McFarland at CWRU (1960-1961).  I was introduced to Samuel Beckett by Dr. Albert Cook in comparative literature at CWRU (1962-1963).  Although I consider Shakespeare and Beckett supremely gifted poets, they are generally considered first as dramatists.  Their greatness as playwrights had a major impact in developing my interest in theater.  In terms of my writing, the long-term result has been my writing the play, The Private and Public Life of King Able, which will be published by CreateSpace in early 2014.

For me, both William Shakespeare and Samuel Beckett embody depth of thought, economy of expression, and an often brilliant but bitter wit.  Other fine writers that I have admired, who represent first-class thinkers in the area of the human psyche and human existence, have opened my mind to the mystery of the human self, and the fundamental mystery and beauty of human interactions and what it means to be a human being.  These thinkers include Carl Gustav Jung, Martin Heidegger, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

4. Talk about your play The Private and Public Life of King Able. How does your subject matter lend itself more to drama (in this instance) rather than poetry?

I value poetry as spoken word – language to be read, heard, and enjoyed.  Poetry has this in common with theater.  Drama and poetry are at their best when performed.  One of my poems from Love Poems for Cannibals is taken verbatim from a “radio speech” given by King Able to his “royal subjects” in The Private and Public Life of King Able:  “King Able’s Last Radio Address.”

The Private and Public Life of King Able is character-driven.  I had a vision of an old king, almost beyond time, abandoned in his palace, and utterly clueless about his predicament, as he is being watched throughout the play by anonymous men in masks.  These men are dressed exactly alike, their white coats and masks projecting an insidious and possibly malevolent clinical detachment.  No poem could contain the depth of my vision of such a foolish old king, helpless against the evil/impersonal forces covertly marshalled against him.  The action of the play proceeds ineluctably, as the words of King Able fly up in seeming irrelevance to all that transpires.  King Able, the only actor in the play who speaks, cannot say anything to help or ameliorate his situation. The silent men who watch King Able, move and work efficiently and effectively to get what they want.  So the drama uses language as a counterpoint to meaningful and effective action.  The only character who speaks seems to be caught in his own “fog of language.”  King Able uses language to distract, deny, distort, and obfuscate his real situation, about which he remains clueless.  His language of “self-comfort” is his mortal but unacknowledged enemy, an enemy of the truth.

5. How does a poem begin? Does it grow out of memory or meditation? Does it begin out of a whimsical notion—like Sigmund Freud at the dentist—or from personal concerns about social change? How do you want it to affect your audience? In discussing your work Tucson’s The Range writes, “Keen is well-trained in the art of observation and took it upon himself to subvert the clichés he’d encountered throughout his career.” Is this re-vision of the world (a particular category of world) your purpose (if we are talking purposes)?

Some of my poems do begin on a “whimsical notion.”  “Freud at the Dentist” (one of three poems in the “GREAT MEN SERIES”) is an example:  the notion that the only way we can “digest” greatness is to see it in the most mundane and clichéd way, thus reducing that greatness to mediocrity or even vulgarity.  I think that most of my poems begin with hearing or remembering some beautiful language, or hearing or remembering some awful cliché that serves to cover or obscure some important truth.  I want, by use of intentionally clichéd language, to bring into awareness just how inadequate language is to express the depth of reality, or even a “moment of reality.”  My purpose is not to re-vision the world, but to help see it more clearly, and to help understand that language can be an impediment to seeing clearly.  I want to upset and disrupt the automatic thinking of my audience, to awaken them from their assumed interpretations of the world.

6. Is there something about your time at Case that helped to make this book possible?

Yes, my fine instruction in English at CWRU!  This instruction began as a freshman, with Dr. Murrah.  Through him I was introduced for the first time to the critical analysis of great literary works, both large (novel) and small (a single poem).  As I mentioned in my answer to question 3, my English professors inspired me to love great writing.  The fine intellects of professors Thomas McFarland and Albert Cook, authors in their own right, helped me recognize and understand the nature and importance of great literature.  I still have on my bookshelf the magisterial text, Masters of Modern Drama (editors, Haskell M. Block and Robert G. Shedd), which was the textbook used by Albert Cook for his comparative literature course on drama.  All of the greatest European and American playwrights of the 19th and 20th centuries are represented in this book, to include two of my favorites – Samuel Beckett (Endgame) and Eugène Ionesco (The Bald Soprano).  It was not until many years later that I came to believe that I could produce something worthwhile in my own writing.

Raymond Keen was educated at Case Western Reserve University and the University of Oklahoma.  He spent three years as a Navy clinical psychologist with a year in Vietnam (July 1967 – July 1968).  Since that time he has worked as a school psychologist and licensed mental health counselor in the USA and overseas, until his retirement in 2006.  He is a credentialed school psychologist in the states of California and Washington, and a licensed mental health counselor in the state of Washington.  Raymond lives with his wife Kemme in Sahuarita AZ.  They have two grown children, Anne-Elise and Michael.

Raymond writes, “I was born and raised in Pueblo, Colorado.  Back in my childhood of the ’40s and my adolescence during the ’50s, I believed in human greatness and human virtue.  I had respect for authority, and believed that life was fundamentally fair and could be understood as a rational narrative.  I believed that a human being could, through words, come close to expressing the truth, even if only a momentary fragment of this truth.  I now realize that I may have been overly optimistic.  Human verbal communication characteristically obscures the truth, as it covers the truth with the repetitive cliché.  My poetry attempts to make that insight present and palpable and undeniable.  Although I sometimes may succeed in getting through or beyond the cliché, I make no claims on truth.”