February 4, 2019KR BlogNewsletter

The Rigorous Fluidity of Keith S. Wilson

Keith S. WilsonMaybe the best way to talk about Keith S. Wilson’s multi-faceted inventiveness would be to create an alternative-reality game in which a poet-hero propels himself through galaxies that he spins out as he goes, from surprise to surprise.

Linguistically arresting, visually alluring, at once fanciful and serious, elusive, pensive, and direct, a game, yes, that would be perfect. The trouble is, to pull it off, you’d have to be Keith S. Wilson.

Wilson, who is spending the academic year in Gambier, Ohio, as the Kenyon Review Fellow in poetry, is in fact an ingenious game designer. And that open-to-all-possibilities sensibility figures in his poetry, whether he’s writing about racial identity and social injustice or about love in terms of outer space. Wilson is hard to pin down. He has a quiet nerdy side and a socially committed outspoken side. Above all he’s a determined, and strikingly methodical, experimenter.

For a sense of his work, see “Fieldnotes” and “Heliocentric,” both of which appear in his forthcoming collection, Fieldnotes on Ordinary Love (Copper Canyon Press, May 2019).

Wilson describes the collection as lyric poetry in a “more traditional” mode, but “traditional” is a relative term for someone so drawn to “associative” writing and ambiguity. He’s rigorous in his pursuit of fluidity: he writes a poem a day, “like journal entries,” he says, and uses two computer programs (one of which he created) to file the poems and tag those that most intrigue him, with the idea that he’ll return later to draw on various lines or phrases.

The final poems, then, are in a sense hybrids, combining passages that first resided in earlier pieces. This helps them resist fixedness. “I try to treat each poem, stanza, and line as a totally individual point of meaning; this allows them to ‘mean’ as if I were a stranger.

“My early drafts are all in lowercase,” he adds, “so that I don’t lock in meaning, relationships, connections of one line to another. I’m interested in the idea that many of the things we believe or say carry layers of meaning that might all be simultaneously true.”

The approach has brought him a good deal of success. (Check out his website at keithswilson.com/) Wilson, who turned thirty-five in December, has published widely in journals, including Poetry, Prairie Schooner, Triquarterly Review, and Passages North. He also writes “lyric essays,” which have appeared most notably in the Kenyon Review, for which he has blogged since 2017. Awards, fellowships, and residencies fill two pages in his resume. Among the listings: Bread Loaf, the MacDowell Colony, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.

The KR Fellowships, initiated in 2012, are designed to support extraordinary writers in the early stages of their careers. At Kenyon, Wilson has taught one (multi-genre) course each semester, and with Misha Rai—the Fellow in Prose—he will curate a project bringing new voices to KROnline. (Stay tuned: the project launches next month.)

But he’s devoting a good deal of his time this year to exploring new associative poetic forms in which visual elements—layout, typography, graphics—play an integral role. In Wilson’s office, the walls are lined with neatly tacked-up examples of these intriguing entities, which he creates using the powerful layout program InDesign and which far transcend what’s usually called “concrete poetry.”

One example would be “uncanny emmett till,” which originally appeared online in Connotation Press.com.

“I’ve never seen anything like what he’s doing,” says Andrew Grace, KR’s acting poetry editor and a member of Kenyon’s English faculty. “In every piece, there’s a visual element mixed with the poetry, surrounding it or interacting with it. Maybe it takes someone who can design video games to write these kinds of poems, where the graphic element is inextricable from the whole piece.”

“I always loved making things,” says Wilson, recalling a boyhood in which he fashioned his own board games. The son of a white mother who worked in restaurants and retail, and a black father who served in the Air Force, Wilson grew up in Torrance, California, near Los Angeles, and northern Kentucky, outside Cincinnati. Books were a given: “I loved reading, and my parents were very supportive. If I wanted a book, the answer was always yes.”

He and his brother also loved video games, a passion he can trace to their father’s purchase of the original Nintendo system and a growing fascination with the game Final Fantasy. “I obsessed over that game and all of the sequels. I was immersed in narrative games, which involved a lot of reading.” He grins. “I learned a lot of vocabulary from video games. I can remember learning the word ‘semantic.’”

At Northern Kentucky University, he started out as a computer science major, hated it, and switched to English. Covering a poetry reading for the school newspaper, he discovered Frank X. Walker, a professor and writer who had coined the term “Affrilachia” to convey the multicultural richness of the thirteen-state Appalachian region. In 1991, Walker had co-founded the Affrilachian Poets, a loose writing collective whose members defy “the persistent stereotype of a racially homogenized region,” as the group’s website puts it.

Walker would become Wilson’s mentor, and the group a key influence, in part because it helped the young poet articulate concerns embedded in his own racial identity—the ways he connects to African American culture and sees racial injustice, for example, and his experience as a biracial person who encounters the often hostile need of others to categorize him. Wilson has written: “Folks have asked me ‘what are you?’ . . . so many times that ‘my mom is white and my dad is black’ has felt like my government name.” And he recently wrote a powerful personal essay in elle.com inspired by the controversy over the behavior of students from Covington, Kentucky, during an encounter with a Native American activist in Washington, DC.

When Wilson graduated from college in 2008, Walker invited him to join an Affrilachian Poets reading tour. “I was a very young poet who had never done anything like this, and I felt like a rock star.” He remains a proud member of the group.

Other influences include Cave Canem, a Brooklyn, New York-based literary nonprofit dedicated to promoting African American poetry. Since 2010, Wilson has received seven Cave Canem scholarships, enabling him to participate in a variety of programs.

“Cave Canem immersed me in the black arts community. I met people I now consider close family.” It was through Cave Canem that he was able to work with Claudia Rankine, whose Don’t Let Me Be Lonely “changed my life, and my sense of what writing could be.” Rankine’s work opened Wilson’s eyes to the possibilities of associative writing. “She leaves things unsaid, and allows for many things to be true.” (Rankine has won acclaim, more recently, for Citizen: An American Lyric.)

Wilson also mentions, as inspirations and kindred spirits, Douglas Kearney, Phillip B. Williams, Anthony Cody, Eloisa Amezcua, and Anuradha Bhowmik.

Wilson discovered game design during graduate school at Chicago State University, where he earned his MFA in 2013. As part of an enrichment program allowing minority students to take courses at the University of Chicago, he plunged into a course called “Transmedia Games”—and into the world of alternate-reality, narrative based games incorporating text, video, audio, and even social media and websites.

The experience led to a stint with the Game Changer Chicago Design Lab, which runs game-design workshops for high school students from underserved schools, stressing critical thinking skills as well as social and emotional health. He went on to work as a game designer and instructor at the Field Museum in Chicago, where the educational projects turned out to be perfect challenges for someone with a wide-open imagination, a nerdy sensibility, and solid digital skills.

A game called Earth to Mars, for example, entails an app—which Wilson developed with a team of high school students—in which visitors to the museum’s Plant Hall become botanists in a future where overpopulation has forced Earthlings to terraform Mars. Scavenger-hunt challenges, a choice-driven narrative, and audio recordings encourage students to explore the museum exhibits, learning about plant diversity as they choose which species to load into a Mars-bound rocket.

Wilson is particularly proud of a game that he helped create, as lead designer, for the Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. The assignment was to develop a pastime that would allow children on the cardiac floor to have fun, interact, and temporarily escape the realities of illness. It had to be a game that could be played and enjoyed by younger children and teenagers alike. It had to be playable during hospital stays ranging from a week to over a year. It had to use disposable media (to avoid germs). And it couldn’t involve conflict that might deepen fears (including the fear of death). The result was Once Upon A Tail, in which the children devise new animals, and tell stories about them, in response to specific challenges (like: design an animal that can race across the Sahara Desert). The game was introduced in the hospital in the fall of 2018, after Wilson arrived at Kenyon.

Like many young writers, Wilson has had to support himself over the years with his share of non-literary jobs—maybe more than his share. At various times, he has unloaded trucks at Walmart, delivered groceries, transcribed medical interviews, and written copy for a financial firm. He’s worked in an air conditioning factory, an Amazon warehouse, and the meat department of a Kroger supermarket.

Those days appear to be over. But they suggest the resilience and versatility through which Wilson has forged a remarkable, ever-evolving career. For the time being, he is happily immersed in writing and teaching at Kenyon. With the spring, he’ll celebrate the publication of Fieldnotes on Ordinary Love. And then, well, who knows? Another galaxy awaits its creation.