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Thursday
Mar212013

"The Fly Cannot Know My Heart": An Interview with Erin Keane

Erin Keane is the author of The Gravity Soundtrack and Death-Defying Acts, a novel-in-poems about circus life. She lives in Louisville, Kentucky, working as a public radio arts reporter and critic and writing strange plays about, among other things, opossums and girls.

Her poem "The Living Dead" appears in Issue Forty-One of The Collagist.

Here, Erin Keane talks with interviewer Elizabeth Deanna Morris about zombies, dads, and zombies. 

1. Could you please talk about the genesis of “Living Dead”?

Not all of my poems begin with facts, but this one does. My boyfriend (now husband) and I did go to Pittsburgh for a long weekend, just for fun. He’s a big horror film fan, and he did drive us outside the city to the cemetery where George Romero filmed the opening scene of “Night of the Living Dead.” (I’ve seen that opening scene maybe half a dozen times, though I’ve never managed to watch the whole movie. For me, it’s all in that first scene: the brother and sister visiting their dad’s grave when everything goes horribly wrong.) My father died when I was five. I didn’t go to his funeral (we were living across the country when he died) and here I am, decades later, and I still haven’t visited his grave. There’s some guilt there, definitely. But I suppose I’m afraid of what could happen. Not a zombie attack, you know, but something.  

2. This poem focuses a lot on the image/concept of zombies.  Where do you see this poem fitting in zombie culture, which is very popular right now? More broadly, where do you see zombies’ place in poetry?

Right. Well, there’s a lot of truth to the idea that if you want to know what a culture fears most in a particular time and place, look to their fictional monsters. In a broad cultural sense, zombies represent the fear of unchecked global pandemic alongside the nagging anxiety that everything we work to build in our lives—career, home, family, savings—can be rendered meaningless by one accident that spirals out of control until we are forced back into our primal selves, the self that has to wield an axe without flinching or be left for dead. But yet it’s so appealing, I think, because there is the undeniable fantasy aspect of being allowed—encouraged—to bury something sharp in the skull of a person (who is not really a person anymore, so it’s okay). And then there’s the unnatural aspect of it all, the complete disintegration of the very core of our truth as living beings—that when we die, our bodies stay dead—which can be a way of repudiating some basics of science and faith all in one really gross package.

And man, people love the zombie fantasy. The meme for a while was the “zombie contingency plan” — do you have a plan, where would you go, what would you do? Which strikes me as a way to talk about general disaster contingency as a way to alleviate anxiety without having to actually plan for disasters, because I bet nobody sitting around dreaming up their zombie contingency plan even knows where the batteries to their flashlights are. The sirens go off and we sit around on Twitter and make jokes until the all clear is issued.

All of this is to say, I’m not sure this poem fits tidily into zombie culture. I watch “The Walking Dead” but I only care about the relationships between the survivors and how they live on the edge of constant death and find a way to either remain tender or brutal to one another (both choices fascinate me equally). For me, the zombie father was almost too easy of a metaphor—what’s dead is never dead, to cannibalize a saying from another  cable show. The old man keeps popping up—in my thoughts when I’m on vacation with my boyfriend, touring a zombie movie landmark, for example.

3. I feel like this poem has two pretty distinct turns. The first “they wanted to visit their father's / grave. I confess: I have never visited mine” and the second “What do you do / with a drunken sailor, so earl-aye in the morning? / Take him to Pittsburgh, let him meet / my love.”  Both times, the speaker shifts from a sort of silly, movie-referencing tone to a more serious and person one. How did you balance these two voices in this poem?

I blame the Irish in me. My whole family has a really dark sense of humor and it’s impossible to write like myself and not have it creep in. Growing up, death and gore and trauma (battlefields, hospitals) were just regular dinner table talk in my house, and you can either wilt under the weight of tragedy or you can give it the finger. It’s just second nature to my voice, not something I consciously craft.

4. Have you read anything that’s kept you warm this winter?

What I loved this winter: Carol Rifka Brunt’s “Tell the Wolves I’m Home.” Tears streaming down my face as I finished it, hand to God. I just brought home from Boston Amanda Smeltz’s “Imperial Bender” and Chris Mattingly’s “Scuffletown” and they haven’t left my nightstand. I’ve been entranced by Marcus Wicker’s “Maybe the Saddest Thing” (Flavor Flav is a 21st century muse) and knocked out cold by Frank Bill’s “Donnybrook.” And if you don’t know Jonathan Weinert’s poems, his new chapbook “13 Small Apostrophes” should throw you right into the fire. 

5. What other writing can we look forward to from you?

My next collection of poems comes out in February from Typecast Publishing. “The Living Dead” will make an appearance along with more mixed-up love poems masquerading as elegies and vice versa. I’m also working on a play about Phil Collins. It’s a long story.

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