"Destiny's Child, Ludacris and Kearney"

Douglas Kearney performs a collection of his poetry at UB


Douglas Kearney makes poetry pop.

Kearney’s laughter, banter, singing and shouting entertained those who attended his poetry reading Thursday in Capen Hall. The award-winning poet allowed listeners to experience the delight and sorrow he writes about firsthand in a performance of his poetry.

Kearney is a recipient of numerous awards, including the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Fellowship and the Whiting Writers’ Award. He read several of his poems in the Poetry Collection Room on the fourth floor of Capen to students and faculty.

In his most recent collection of poems, entitled “Patter,” Kearney expresses the struggle he and his wife went through trying to have a child, opening with several poems about miscarriage. His performances “Miscarriage: A Magic Trick,” “Miscarriage: A Silent Film” and “Miscarriage: A Bar Joke” spoke of his personal struggles and scars.

Kearney does not limit his artistic vision to only a personal level. He also discussed themes of unjust violence and cruelty.

“A lot of my poetry is working around questions of violence, of course, but mostly cruelty,” Kearney said.

One example of the cruelty Kearney writes about is the treatment of slaves on the Middle Passage.

Despite the heavy topics discussed, Kearney ironically lightens the mood by borrowing lines from other artists to compose his work and including audience participation in his performances.

In one poem he described as “a peppy poem about the Middle Passage,” Kearney uses the musical styling of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, lines from T.S. Eliot and a musical group called Parliament to integrate cultural references into horrific historical violent events.

In another, he incorporates lines from Destiny’s Child, The 69 Boys, Ice Cube and Ludacris songs to force the audience to think about the prevalence of violence in society.

Two lucky audience members were chosen to alter the order of the lines in two of Kearney’s poems according to how they felt it should be read.

Kendall Spaulding*, a junior English major, was one of the students chosen to give Kearney instructions on how he should read his work.

“I found that to be really cool in the fact that one’s own reading can be so different,” Spaulding said. “People hear words and interpret contexts differently. When you give someone else the chance to read your own work, you highlight things others might have overlooked.”

Spaulding said he was given a printed copy of one of Kearney’s poems and was asked to rearrange the stanzas based on his interpretation of the poem.

He said the piece “read very sonically to me so that was my main suggestion, which was to emphasize the sonic value of the poem.”

Kearney is a champion of justness, often writing about numerous forms of historical violence and cruelty toward blacks and women. Many of Kearney’s poems deal with issues and arguments in politics and throughout history.

Kearney explained the background for each poem that he read so his audience was able to understand his intended interpretation.

Laura Sturckler, a junior English and photography major, said having the context of the poetry helped her truly understand Kearney’s poems.

“It helped that he further explained, because I didn’t have the book in front of me to analyze [what he was saying],” Sturckler said.

After the show, Kearney talked about how he chooses the words he uses in his poetry during a Q&A session. He talked about how he is “interested in the sonic level and playing around with how sound can be used to dictate a certain level of the context.”

Sturckler said the reading “showed a lot of how sound does work, which I was interested in because I don’t have much experience with that.”

Kearney knows people often feel captivated by his work, and is confident in his writing.

“I’m famous, and I’m really good at what I do,” Kearney joked.

It’s not often a poet incorporates Ludacris lyrics into a poem.

The way Kearney manipulates his words and phrases to give each poem emotion might be why he has achieved so much success.

“I found the poet’s work to be phenomenal,” Spaulding said. “His attention to sound rhythms in his reading and references to black culture were compelling. His readings were very performative and really worked well with the content. It was hard to not feel every word he said.”

Jordan Oscar contributed reporting to this story

*Full disclosure: Kendall Spaulding occasionally contributes writing to The Spectrum.

email: arts@ubspectrum.com