Ken Arkind on what it meant to give his TED talk, “My Name is a Poem,” and what it means to be a professional poet.
Interview conducted and condensed by Aaron Aslin
Q. When you posted your talk on your Facebook you said this was a very personal talk for you. What did this talk mean to you?
A. A very pivotal event in my life that dictated a lot of what I have gone on to do was my father’s passing when I was a young man. One of the things I would like to emphasize a lot with my students, is that if you are writing it and it makes you nervous or scared to write, it is probably the right thing to be writing. I found the more I started exploring that idea of synesthesia and poetry, the more I found myself finally delving into those places where I didn’t write. I am the kind of poet who doesn’t get extremely personal, at least not in a lot of the poems I am known for, as far as performance and stuff. I figured, if I am going to give that advice to a lot of the young people I work with, I should take it myself.
So I had to go back, actually, to a moment when I was 21. It was when I returned to Steamboat Springs, Colorado to go see my father’s grave and ended up having a kind of a breakdown, honestly, because I hadn’t communicated a thought about him that way in a long time and there were a lot of issues I hadn’t dealt with and a lot of anger. The poem leads up to that moment where I do finally find myself trying to have a conversation with him and for all the things that after his death I would not have answers for directly.
The specific kind of synesthesia I reference is called ordinal linguistic personification. It’s the act of applying personality to ordered systems. When you do that, it gives you an option or a space to be able to have a conversation with something that could otherwise not speak back and could otherwise not have a personality or a life. But when you give it one, you can navigate it. I found myself doing that a lot as a child, partially because of my father’s death and partially being an only child. For the most part, you know, I didn’t know my brothers. It gave me a space to find something to belong to or to find a way to talk to the world. So, yeah, the piece gave me an opportunity to have that conversation with my father that I have been waiting to have. It was good. It felt good.
Q. What was going through your mind before going onstage and presenting this talk?
A. I think I was trying to be as clear as possible. Some people that are performance poets are very well-rehearsed and they’re kind of actors — not necessarily actors, but they use that same kind of technique. I very much come from a space where I’m just good at being honest in front of people. I am not a great performer, but I am really good at being myself and actually being a little bit more open when I am in front of an audience than when I am one on one with people. I am not sure why that is, but it is just my way of approaching the craft. So I think the last thing I want to be doing is really writing a poem and knowing how I am going to be emotionally attaching it. I don’t want to do a full rehearsal, I just want to make sure the words are settled somewhere in my body so then, when it’s time for them to be said, they are said the right way. So I was honestly trying to be as clear as possible. The nervousness goes away at that moment. Some people talk about being scared before you go onstage, and you are, you always are. After thousands of shows, I am still nervous, but the moment beforehand is usually the calmest moment because I am just trying to build space in my body for what it needs to do at that point.
Q. In your talk you count to 10. What literary device was this and why did you structure your talk like this?
A. The entire piece, in a sense, each number, is ordinal linguistic personification. For instance, I finish number four when I finish talking about giving numbers personality and then I get to say I always felt like a five. Then I get to say five for the next stanza. It’s very important to do that to me as a writer. There are a lot of other writers who used numbers like that. It was very important for there to be ten stanzas because each one of the stanzas or sections has a personality of its own: four is very clinical and explains things, five is a kind of setup for what I am getting to talk about so it’s like shifting change for being number five and ten is the actual poem of the entire piece. That last stanza actually eats itself. It was funny to write it because when you write things, you don’t realize the way your brain is working ‘till afterwards. You just go with it. I know, working with editors, I have been a nightmare because of it, but it is very important to have the ten stanzas. There is a reason for it because then it becomes complete. I mentioned the idea of never feeling as though I am complete until I get forgiveness at the end. That’s me completing my journey and I become a ten.
Q. At what point in your life did you assume the identity of poet, or at what point did that identity assume you and you knew it had?
A. I feel other people had started calling me a poet before I called myself one. But I think the moment that I decided, ‘That’s what I wanted to do with the rest of my life’ was when –and I say this in one of my TED talks– there was a teacher named Jared Parson. He was my creative writing teacher my junior year of high school. I was failing every class but his. At parent-teacher conferences, he told this to my mother, that I was the best student in his class. She said, ‘Well, that’s good because he wants to be a writer’ and Jared said, ‘No, he doesn’t want to be a writer, he is a writer.’ When she told me that, it kind of cemented everything for me. I think a lot of people go through identity crises and wonder, “I am doing the right thing and is this where I am supposed to be?” I think I was able to skip all that because I kind of knew from a very young age that I wanted to do something like that and it’s something that I always participated in. It’s interesting to find yourself in a position where you are working to become something and when somebody already tells you that you are that thing–although you may not be as good as you can be, but you already are that thing–then it changes your perspective. From that moment on, I wasn’t going to do anything else with my life. I think anything else that comes along with it, whether I am writing fiction or if I am writing poetry, or if I am performing it or if I am teaching it, all are aspects of what that means to be an artist. I think participating in the craft in every way, shape and form is important. That is an interesting thing, too, because I find myself wanting to teach more and I have made my living primarily off of performing and touring around, reading my poems and selling copies of them, whether audio or written.
I find myself wanting more and more to teach these days. I think some people view that–especially in America, you view that as a way of giving up, as in ‘those who can, do; and those who can’t teach,’ and I don’t think that is true at all. I think that in order for you to be something, you should be able to teach it and want to teach it, especially when it comes to literary arts. Every great poet should be a teacher, in my opinion. Maybe they are not, but I think you can. I have enjoyed my time doing that recently so I am going to pursue that a bit more.
Q. Where can people take classes from you?
A. If they want me to come out, send me an email and I will come out, email@example.com. They can visit my youth program if they are from Colorado. They can visit the website, which is www.minordisturbrance.org. I have also been regularly teaching at this joint called West Career Academy. I just want to do a shout-out to the WCA kids because they deserve it.
Q. Do you have a favorite poet or several poets that you look up to and respect?
A. Yes. Philip Levine. David Blair was the guy that made me want to do performance poetry. He was from Detroit and passed away two years ago. He is a very amazing poet just because the guy had the most amazing voice in the world. He was a folk singer, too, and won many awards for that. He was a good singer. He taught me that I could do performance poetry because he was just sort of a regular kind of dude who was good at being honest. And then Sharon Olds and Susie Q. Smith!
Q. What other TEDxOC talk in 2013 resonated with you and why?
A. Kary, the Nobel Prize winner, because he didn’t give a shit. It was perfect because he told a story that encapsulates what he does, why he is fascinated by things, which was what the whole talk was about. He has earned his right to go over time, which he did profusely! I could only hope that when I am his age that I am cognizant and still as fascinated by everything as he is. Obviously, the world wants to hear what that man has to say but I think the fact th0at he didn’t go off about some intense theory or why he got the Nobel prize, but that he simply told a story about what it means to be a child and to wonder about things, it proves he still sits around wondering about things the same way. And I think that is so important to us. If you stop looking at the world as being full of personality and character –and if chairs stopped talking to me– then there is something wrong. I feel like that man has held onto that and damn pretense and damn the rules and damn time limits and damn any of those things. He did exactly what he was supposed to do.