Rappahannock Review Contributor Spotlight: Interview with Kemuel DeMoville
Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: “Lani Moo” and “Hale’iwa Hot Day / Blood Black Stone” have this realistic and grotesque aspect to them, something that is fairly unusual in poetry. What inspired you to bring these unique ideas and subjects into your poetry?
Kemuel DeMoville: For these pieces I wanted to play with the ideas of Hawai’i as an idealized paradise. Hawai’i is an amazing place, and there is so much beauty there, but often the postcard advertising and imagery gives the impression that there is nothing else. It creates the impression of Hawai’i as an idealized paradise, and ignores the real issues that the people and the place struggle with. Just like anywhere, beauty often can be found alongside the grotesque – and if you only focus on one particular aspect of something then you’re not being true to the place or the moment you’re writing about. With all of the tourist advertising that is out there, just the location of the works alone create a certain image and a certain expectation in the mind of the reader. I wanted to counteract those images that appear in the mind whenever someone even mentions Hawai’i. It wasn’t so much about subverting the tourist images and ideas, but more about offering a counter narrative – something that is rooted in the world and that provides a kind of imagistic balance for the reader.
RR: We love how these poems break the expectation of natural beauty, especially in the often idealized and sentimentalized setting of Hawaii. How much in them is based on real events and how much is simply influenced by the general coarseness of the world we live in?
KD: As you mentioned, both of these poems specifically deal with Hawai’i, a place where I lived for sixteen years – I met my wife there, my first son was born there. Living in places like Hawai’i, or Aotearoa New Zealand, or California you come to really notice the artificiality in the way they are all represented. All of them are major tourist draws, and the common image of these places is specifically crafted as a way to sell an idea of what paradise is. That’s not to say that these places aren’t beautiful. I’ve been lucky to grow up and live in all three, and lucky have the connection to them that I do. But nothing you see in magazine ads really conveys the place as it is – it’s far more dynamic, and humbling, and welcoming, and dangerous than the glossy version of “tropical paradise.” I’ve known a lot of people from the mainland who move to Hawai’i because they want it to be something it’s not, and then they move back a few months later because they can’t accept Hawai’i for what it is. It’s an amazing place to live, but you can’t expect it to be some idealized paradise because that’s an idea meant to sell hotel rooms and “booze cruise” tickets. So for me, the poems are a reflection of that juxtaposition. There is an amazing amount of beauty in Hawai’i, but that it’s still a real place where people live and work and struggle every day.
Both of the poems are based on actual events. With “Lani Moo” I was driving my parents around the island, we were doing the typical circle island tour, and when we came around a corner there was a cow standing in the ocean. I grew up in southern California, out in the Inland Empire where there are a ton of dairies and cows, but it’s a very dry area. So for me seeing a cow standing in this tropical setting was really jarring. We only saw the cow for a moment before going around another curve in the road, but it was one of those moments you have in life that just strikes you as being off kilter and wonderful in its honesty.
“Hale’iwa Hot Day / Blood Black Stone” is about me reflecting on a time when my wife and I took our kids to the area around Hale’iwa Beach Park where you can always see a ton of green sea turtles. Most people just go into Hale’iwa town for a shave ice or something, but if you go to the beach park and wander through a clutch of trees at the far end, you’ll come to a little grotto that is great for snorkeling and seeing turtles. While we were walking to the wooded area, there was a sea turtle right near the parking lot and my kids were super excited to see it (because even when you see sea turtles every weekend it’s still amazing). They asked if I could take a picture of them – and while I was taking the picture my wife leaned over to me and said that the turtle was dead. Again, it was just a moment that was jarring. Here we were taking a picture of a sea turtle that was dead – but my kids didn’t know and it didn’t diminish their joy at seeing the turtle. While the poem takes a more objective eye (and puts a tourist family in the action as well), there is still a pretty big nugget of truth that surrounds the piece.
(I’ve attached a copy of the photo to this email – just because)
RR: There is a directness in the voice that draws us in. What is your process as you write? Do you complete a draft all at once? How much do you revise?
KD: Usually I’ll write the piece all at once (if possible) to get all of the ideas on the page and keep a consistent energy in the writing. Then I’ll let it sit for a few days, or a few weeks, until I’m far enough removed from the piece to look at it critically. Then I’ll start to shape it a bit more, make sure the ideas and the images are clear, that sort of thing. The amount of revising usually depends on the work. I’ve had some pieces where I just change a word or two, and other pieces that I add or delete whole sections. If I have to do extensive rewriting, then I’ll work on it, then let it sit, and start the process over. For me the first draft is all about capturing the rhythms and the energy in the work, then the revising is where the piece starts to find its final shape.
RR: We understand you are a playwright as well as a poet. Is there any overlap in how you approach these genres? Do you find you can you express yourself differently in poetry than in playwriting?
KD: I think that there is definitely some overlap. Usually my plays take longer to write and I have to hold them longer in my head. Poetry I often write in the “white heat” of inspiration, then go back and rewrite and shape them a bit more directly. I think there are always similar ideas and themes that come out of my writing. I often like to work with the intersection between the mythic and the mundane. I think that transition from the everyday world into myth is interesting – it’s a kind of liminal space that allows for exploring the way that our own personal mythologies develop. Things like learning about your grandparents first date, or the time your dad got drunk in high school – those “backyard myths” that we all have and carry with us in the world. I enjoy finding small moments, or out of place imagery, and giving it a kind of significance, and then immediately undercutting the significance. I like working with the false starts – as if there was something significant that is just out of reach. It’s like a car struggling to turn over after it has sat for too long, the “click click click” as you’re sitting there wondering if something will start or if you’ll be stuck. It’s a moment where you’re at a crossroads, the anticipation of possible potential (if that makes sense).
In terms of expression, for me my poetry is immediately personal. When I write a play I’m crafting a number of different characters and situations and motivations that are removed from me in some way. To be true to the individual characters in the play, you have to allow them and their personalities to dictate the choices being made in the work – and you have to do that for every character. So while my plays still have elements of my personality, and my life experiences, and all of the other baggage that I carry on my back and that makes me who I am, they are not as immediately personal. My plays are populated with characters who are not me, and who have lived lives that are not mine, and have viewpoints and ideas that I sometimes disagree with, but for the play to be honest you have to allow that disconnect between you and the characters you create. With my poetry, the voice you hear is mine. My poems have a direct connection to who I am, what I’m feeling, and how I’ve experienced the world.
RR: Are there writers who have been particularly influential for you?
KD: With poetry I’ve always liked the work of B.H. Fairchild, Adrian Matejka, Sudesh Mishra, Mark Yakich, and Margarita Engle. Those are the poets whose work I return to again and again. I really enjoy the way they all work with story and language.
Kemuel DeMoville’s work appears in Issue 5.2 here.