John Keene, an author of fiction, poetry, and criticism as well as a translator, once-prolific blogger, and skilled draftsman, was born in 1965. He grew up in St. Louis and then in Webster Groves, Missouri, a small suburb two miles out. His father was a postal worker and his mother was a medical technologist. They raised Keene and his brother, Jeffrey, in the Black Catholic tradition at a time when the agitational spirit of post–civil rights revolutions was still in the air. Throughout his life, and to varying degrees of proficiency, Keene has studied Latin, French, Sanskrit, ancient Greek, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Japanese, Arabic, Yoruba, and Esperanto. One gets the sense that he has learned languages not just for fun but to use them as tools for a communal project. In his poem “Postcard: The March,” he describes an anti-war protest. “Each speaker wanders off / into mistranslation,” he writes. And then: “Finally a common voice / mounting the stage: justice.”
His publications include Annotations (1995), an aphoristic coming-of-age novel that samples the titles of jazz tunes and the language of advertising; the dense, rewarding Seismosis (2006), with poetry by Keene and artworks by Christopher Stackhouse; a translation of the Brazilian writer Hilda Hilst’s 1991 strange, erotic novel Letters from a Seducer (2014); and Punks: New and Selected Poems (2021). Until recently, Keene was perhaps best known for Counternarratives (2015), a radical, mischievous collection of stories and novellas. Employing a variety of forms (newspaper clipping, letter, journal entry, footnote) and inhabiting a startling range of literary registers, the book centers figures, historical and fictional, who exist in the margins: Burunbana, a seventeenth-century gender-bending visionary enslaved in a monastery in colonial Brazil; Mark Twain’s Jim, decades after the raft; the Black vaudevillian Bob Cole. It was described by the judges who awarded it the inaugural Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses as “a once in a generation achievement for short-form fiction.”
Across his oeuvre, Keene repeatedly returns to certain key ideas: strategy, improvisation, ethics. The goal of his writing is constant play, a play that has no goal but to resist closure—to keep the game going by switching up the rules. For Keene, the “self” is an ensemble of perspectives and histories that are always being redefined. His characters wear disguises and hide under false floors; they adopt new names and glimpse visions of the future in mysterious signs. Many end up alone. His poetry and prose suggest that it is perhaps only when we break from the idea that there is a single authoritative source or model that we can begin to , to develop a system of ethics, to determine how to live our lives.
Soon after graduating from Harvard in 1987, Keene joined the Dark Room Collective, an influential community of Black writers founded in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and in the late nineties he became a fellow of Cave Canem. He taught at Brown, Northwestern, and elsewhere before assuming his current role as chair of the department of Africana Studies at Rutgers University, Newark, where he is also a faculty member. In 2018, he received a fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation.
Keene is an earnest and gentle man, soft-spoken until his mind unearths some exhilarating memory or idea. He met my repeated offers to visit him at his home or to host him for dinner at my Brooklyn apartment with polite diversions. We spoke four times between October 2022 and February 2023, first in a coffee shop in downtown Jersey City, not far from where he lives with his longtime partner, Curtis Allen. Our second meeting was at my office on the Upper West Side. The third, in Lower Manhattan, took place just a few weeks after Punks—earlier versions of which Keene had struggled to get published for nearly a quarter century—won the 2022 National Book Award for Poetry. “Part of the beauty of being under the radar,” he told me, “is that even when you win awards, you’re still not really noticed.”
Our final conversation took place in a heated booth outside Paquita, a tea shop in the West Village. Keene faintly recognized the small storefront. When our server confirmed that it was formerly the site of Walter’s Antique Clock & Watch Repair—a neighborhood staple run by an immigrant from what was then the Soviet Union—Keene nodded. It had been a long time, but he hadn’t forgotten.
I want to talk about your magnum opus, at least in terms of word count. What made you start your blog, J’s Theater?
It was 2005, the era of the blog! I’d started keeping a journal in my early twenties but stopped in 2004—I was running the undergraduate writing program at Northwestern, my father had died, and in the midst of all that my hard drive munched the drafts of four or five of the stories that later ended up in Counternarratives. It was just devastating. I was in despair—I even thought I might give up writing—so I wanted to force myself to write a little something every day. Of course, it turned out it’s hard for me to write just a little when it comes to blog posts …
My original idea was not to touch politics. In my first post I wrote about the poet Jay Wright.
I’m actually reading Wright’s collected poems, Transfigurations, at the moment.
See if you can find some of the original individual volumes—his notes on the poems are themselves works of art. He should be considered one of the greatest living poets in the English language, but he’s kept things so close to the vest that critics don’t know what to do with him.