The Rumpus Poetry Book Club Chat with Kevin Simmonds
The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Kevin Simmonds about his new collection, The Monster I Am Today: Leontyne Price and a Life in Verse (TriQuarterly Books, July 2021), creating hybrid forms, FBI reports on Black artists, Black Southern respectability, and more.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here. Upcoming poets include Kaveh Akbar, Carly Ingram, Derrick Austin, Amanda Moore, Cynthia Dewi Oka, Matthew Olzmann, Jennifer Huang, and more!
This Rumpus Poetry Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Julie Brooks Barbour: Kevin, I’d love to ask a question about the form of the book.
Rebecca Sanders: Maybe you can point us to a podcast or somewhere where we can hear you talk and sing! I’d welcome that.
Julie Brooks Barbour: One of the many things I love about the collection is the use of hybrid form in it. There are places in the first section, which continue throughout the book, where the speaker breaks into song. Then later, the use of reports, which I found fascinating. Could you talk a little about your use of form in the book?
Kevin Simmonds: The book began as poems. I shared them with a writer friend in San Francisco, who was really delighted to read and react to them. This same writer had been encouraging me to write about the voice because he’d been compelled by how my training as a singer leads me, quite casually, to assess and offer “diagnoses” about people’s speaking voices. I’d always taken my ear for that for granted. While thinking about Price’s influence on me, I realized that her sound bent my ear when I was very young, around twelve years old. Her sound became the default—and what an extraordinary default. My expectations of vocal sound are inextricable from her.
This meant I had to create some prose to explain the context. Also, [my writer friend] kept saying that, while the poems were compelling, he wanted more about me and my relationship to her. His urging helped me create the form.
Brian S: What do you mean by “diagnoses” of speaking voices?
Kevin Simmonds: Whenever I hear anyone speak, I listen more to how they sound than to what they say.
Rebecca Sanders: Oh that’s hella interesting… it’s like how one acts is more important than their words…
Emily Francis: So, the prose/memoir parts came second?
Kevin Simmonds: The book began as poems and then the prose came. The prose helped me create new poems and refine others.
Gayle Sheller: Reading the book in that form gave me a larger sense of you, as if I’d been listening to you at a poetry reading.
Kevin Simmonds: Here’s another interesting tidbit that helped clarify form for me:
Because this was my first time writing something like this, I wanted to think through what it means to have forms harmonizing. The brilliant Canadian writer Dionne Brand says “poetry interrogates the reader, the reader interrogates prose.” An editor that had expressed some interest in The Monster I Am Today told me that the poetry “wasn’t additive.” Imagine that.
This editor edits prose. Remember, prose comes from the Latin “prosa” or “straightforward, direct.” If poetry interrogates the reader, it’s anything but straightforward. It meanders, contradicts itself, questions, resists certitude. Poetry requires more—more attention, more uncertainty, more patience. Gendering is tricky, but I consider poetry to have a feminine constitution.
The prose in the book was painful to write, not emotionally, but technically.
I encounter life as a poet, so I express, not explain. I did a fair amount of explaining in the book, which is gratifying to see now because I’d never translated some of these ideas, opinions, and memories from their abstractions inside my head.
The poems were a joy to create, revisit, and revise. They allow me to explore Price in ways that only poetry can. My subject is a singer. Seems to me that singing about her, singing to her, singing as her has more promise to harmonize, find her vibration, her frequency, while also troubling and complicating them. Prose editorializes, and I always want to keep that to a minimum.
Julie Brooks Barbour: All of the forms are wonderfully braided and speak to each other throughout!
Kevin Simmonds: !!! What an encouragement to hear that.
Brian S: I also think prose has a tendency to want to explain, which poetry resists, and I can see why maybe you’d be wary of that as well.
Kevin Simmonds: Yes, yes.
Emily Francis: “Harmonize” is a great word for this way the forms work. It feels like such a complete narrative (narratives?).
Julie Brooks Barbour: I definitely felt that the poems were interrogating both the experience of the speaker and Price. I can imagine that it must have been very emotional to write, as it was emotional for me as a reader.
Rebecca Sanders: I so appreciate all the context in the FBI reports and allusions/references to Callas and Battle; I found myself googling like crazy for enrichment. I’ve never been so thoroughly satisfied or wanted to Google search something this way. Delicious breadcrumbs to savor. How did you get that idea to weave in those stories?
Brian S: For what it’s worth, I think the writer who told you that there needed to be more you in the collection gave you some really solid advice.
Kevin Simmonds: I’m often asked about how my music influences my writing. I consider poetry music. So it was very difficult to find music in the prose. I’m short-breathed as a composer and figured I could be the same in the prose. Hoping the fragments would adhere over time.
Brian S: Can you talk some about your decision to create those FBI files? I found them fascinating both in their content and also in the way you described them in the end notes. Not official, but fact.
Kevin Simmonds: Rebecca, I really wanted to entice folks to hear these extraordinary singers.
Emily Francis: It was a WHOLE rabbit hole!
Kevin Simmonds: Price, and the rest in my sound constellation: Luther Vandross, Patti LaBelle, Kathleen Battle.
Those FBI files! I’ll try to keep this short because it is another whole rabbit hole.
Brian S: Yeah, I’d never listened to Price before I read this book, but I have now. The others you list there, definitely. And the way I hollered when I read you quote The Meters? Oh my heart.
Kevin Simmonds: Unlike Eartha Kitt and Paul Robeson and all the other artists surveilled and blacklisted, Price never was. She doesn’t have an FBI file. That says something. I mean, classical singers aren’t a terribly pushy group.
Emily Francis: I would not have understood those ovations (or her reaction) in the same way without this book.
Brian S: That’s pretty remarkable, frankly.
Kevin Simmonds: Not very adventurous. There’s also the Black respectability aspect.
Brian S: It’s not like the FBI at the time was exactly shy about starting files on anyone who was Black and prominent.
Kevin Simmonds: Price’s brother is a Brigadier General in the Army. He was her manager. She’s MLK, not X. So those poems interrogate her politics and the State. But, as I say in the notes, all are based on facts. Langston Hughes has a file. Amiri Baraka has a file. Robeson.
Brian S: These are the notes that would have been written had the FBI decided to start a file.
Kevin Simmonds: That’s what I was after. They would’ve been stretching it. But, of course, that’s what they do. I gotta say that I was elated to find the info about her attending Dutchman and talking back to the stage.
Brian S: I kind of wonder which poets publishing now have files on them, because I doubt the FBI has stopped watching.
Kevin Simmonds: “Right on!” Probably sitting there in her mink coat.
Brian S: How long have you been working on this book?
Kevin Simmonds: It all began in early 2018.
Gayle Sheller: There is so much about voice in this collection and I have so much history at seventy-two, listening to and for voice… I would like to know how your attention to voice (sound and timber) influences your poetry beyond the typical issues of rhyme and rhythm… What do you listen for in a poem you’ve written?
Kevin Simmonds: Gayle, that’s a solid question. I listen to all those things: rhythm, duration, timbre, texture. The poem is a score, like a musical score. Its appearance should suggest pacing, acceleration, crescendo. I wonder if that sensibility is apparent in the book.
Price’s voice is pitched higher than anything in the book. Her poems are set highest on the page. The Overture is set lower, crescendos to the Performance, and there’s a decrescendo into the Postlude.
Julie Brooks Barbour: That pacing is definitely evident in the collection
Gayle Sheller: Thank you so much… yes, yes, yes. I love it… and being both a musician and a poet it makes so much emotional sense to me.
Brian S: Holy crap I didn’t realize that physical difference in the book. That’s incredible.
Kevin Simmonds: Whether or not readers are conscious of those visual choices, it makes a difference. I hope!
Gayle Sheller: Yes, I did notice the layout differences…
Kevin Simmonds: She sits high but looks low, lol.
Julie Brooks Barbour: The visual choices in the collection are what I enjoyed so much. The content and form work so well together!
Brian S: It’s going to resonate for me when I revisit the book in the future, and that’ll definitely be happening.
Kevin Simmonds: Diva after all.
I’m glad, Brian. I want to read books that reveal themselves over time. Just like a tiny poem.
Emily Francis: The poems titled in the font, like “Fade” and “Bel Canto”—do they all have the same speaker or different speakers?
Kevin Simmonds: “Fade” is me. I’m curious: is that poem legible? Do you know what’s happening there? It stumped my editor.
Emily Francis: You got a hair cut?
Kevin Simmonds: “Bel Canto” is a disembodied voice, not me necessarily.
I did. Black barbershops have always terrified me.
Emily Francis: Thanks! I wondered if there was a secret key to the poems titled in that font.
Your editor didn’t get you were at the barbershop?!
Kevin Simmonds: No.
Brian S: It seems pretty clear to me that’s where the poem is set.
Kevin Simmonds: For those who don’t know, historically, queerness is laid bare in places like that. It’s a hyper-masculine, shit-talking environment.
Brian S: Yeah, I’m white and white barbershops are obviously different in some important ways, but the hyper-masculinity is true across the board.
Kevin Simmonds: And my voice left me in those places.
Rebecca Sanders: I think this book might be a gateway piece for folks who want to grow but who can’t face the tomes about systemic racism that are currently in circulation, which are very helpful to those who will read them, but will not be read by people who can’t deal with big books. I know that sounds harsh, but this is such a heavy work in relatively sparse presentation. We learn so much while taking a deep dive into the mind of the writer. Plus, it’s a two for one where we see deep into the heart of a child who had to hide away his identity. This is something I’d like to look into, the slim multiform that packs a wallop.
Emily Francis: How did you approach the research for the book?
Kevin Simmonds: The “sparse presentation,” “the slim multiform that packs a wallop”—that’s what I’m after when I read.
My interests shaped the approach to research.
Emily Francis: You’ve got such great quotes and interviews. Did you end up with more than you thought you’d get?
Kevin Simmonds: I conducted one interview, with the great soprano Grace Bumbry. I read articles, newspapers, re-listened to interviews. And let my curiosity run. And you know how that works.
While searching for one thing, I discovered that Price was considered to voice Carmen Jones, which made me think about Dorothy Dandridge. Then I thought more about other contemporaries like Eartha Kitt. And that bit about Price living in Aaron Burr’s townhouse!
Also… I also thought about Price’s famous saying that goes something like, “always sing on interest, never on the principal.” Her reserves were teeming. You hear that in the sound—what’s withheld. You know there’s more, much more. She could let loose and vanquish everything! The listener feels that danger. She’s threat and protector. Yet she would never let loose. She’s controlled, measured. You see it in her acting, her interviews. The containment. I didn’t want to sprawl in my research. I wanted to remain relatively narrow, which is my personality anyway. I fixate on odd, small details.
I thought about containment, limitations. This is Black Southern respectability too. As I say in the book, Patti LaBelle also bent my ear when I was young. I lived for her sweated-out performances. She gave everything, left blood on the stage in some kind of explosive exegesis. She physicalized scripture, lined it out, exhausted it. She was like prose for us to behold, interrogate, and cheer on. Price is poetry. Her voice interrogates you, takes you to the edge, suspends you. Days later, you still feel her ethereal menace.
Brian S: This book made me want to explore opera which is a genre I have never really had much interest in, honestly. And I get a small sense of what you mean in that description of Price.
Kevin Simmonds: Yes!
One more thing. Curious: Did anyone check out the ovation video?
Emily Francis: YES!
Kevin Simmonds: Great!
Gayle Sheller: Yes, and brought back memories.
Emily Francis: Can’t stop watching it actually.
Kevin Simmonds: !!!
Brian S: Before we let you go, have you started on a new project yet? What does your current work look like?
Kevin Simmonds: Brian, I’m working on a book about my great-great-grandfather, Victor Eugene Macarty. He was a composer, singer, writer, and politician in the first class of Black state legislators during Reconstruction in Louisiana.
Emily Francis: Kevin, poetry or prose? Or, both ☺.
Brian S: Oh wow. That sounds fascinating.
Kevin Simmonds: Black Creole.
I meant a mix in genre.
Rebecca Sanders: Thank you Kevin for being such a boss… I think that is still okay to say. You really owned the form and delivered a great experience.
Charlie Farmer: I have nothing profound to add—just a thanks to you and Rumpus for this selection. It was a (much needed) change of pace from the poetry I’ve been reading lately. The Monster I Am Today moved me and took me to school. I also got a new playlist from it. Thanks!
Brian S: I think the only black politician I learned about in Louisiana history class was PBS Pinchback, and if we spent more than five minutes on him, I’m stunned.
Kevin Simmonds: Thank you Charlie!
Brian S: Thank you Kevin for joining us tonight, and for this amazing book.
Kevin Simmonds: This was a lot of fun! Thank y’all so much!
Brian S: And thank you to everyone who joined in this conversation. You all make these chats so much better.
Julie Brooks Barbour: Thank you so much for the conversation about your book!
Emily Francis: Yes THANK YOU!
Brian S: And, I hope this book gets all the accolades and attention it deserves!
Kevin Simmonds: Thank you!
Elizabeth Shack: Thank you for being here. The book is wonderful!
Emily Francis: I can’t stop talking/thinking about it!
Brian S: Good night, everyone!
Kevin Simmonds: Good night, y’all!
Photograph of Kevin Simmonds by Bob Hsiang.