Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: We love how the lush and relentless imagery in “August Aubade” reflects how the speaker feels. How do you approach and develop imagery in your work?
Ben Kline: Frequently I approach imagery as sensory stimuli for the reader. What will the reader see, hear, smell, taste, feel in a kinetic sense. Perhaps that originates from my start as a high school newspaper reporter/editor. I want the reader to be there, in the poem, in its place, watching over its narrator’s shoulder. This proved especially useful in this poem, because the imagery springs from the speaker’s building emotions and sensations.
I also try to imbue the imagery with relativity. I love a simile or metaphor as much as the next poet, but I like things to be relative to time and space, to the possible instead of the defined. I enjoy an image that can (and does) mean more than one thing within a poem’s universe.
RR: “August Aubade” plays with high school nostalgia in a refreshing way with an underlying sense of sexuality – was this sense of sexuality imparted on characters drawn from your high school experience, or something else?
BK: Something else. I was more interested in August as a feeling, as a place of ending and beginning. As bloom and ripening. That was my personal nostalgia. The high school setting came second, when I realized that school starts in August, ending summer, beginning a new era in young life. From there, I focused on that sensory imagery and working through those concepts. The sexuality came into it naturally as I revised.
An earlier version of this poem used wholly fabricated names and had characters other than the narrator, but I excised them to focus on the poem’s (and the narrator’s) rapid exploration and portrayal of nascent lust. I say lust because I believe the poem captures more than sexuality. It delves into that dangerous excitement. Of bloom and heat and secrets.
Using a nostalgic aubade to lean into this theme felt a little mad early on, but I switched to present tense, limited the “I,” and utilized the long lines to fill the poem’s humid world.
RR: “August Aubade” uses limited capitalization and breathless punctuation. Can you talk about how you approached the form in terms of line and sentence?
BK: I consider “August Aubade” a prose poem, despite its many stanzas of piled-up phrases. (A friend calls it prose-ish.) It originates from a batch of prose poems I wrote in the early stages of my full-length-in-progress, Twang. In all of those poems, I strived to mimic and pay homage to the run-on speaking rhythm of people from my native area, their rush of dropped ings, colloquial diction, non-sequiturs, and abandoned syllables. I wanted to explore how that rush could exist in and move through a poem that was one really, really long sentence. Within that sentence, there are several poetic lines that worry less about lineation and more about story beats, pushing readers along until we catch a breath before the next line. I felt this paired well with the burgeoning lust of the narrator, who feels everything big, immediately and without pause or caution until the very end.
It makes the poem tough for readings, but great fun for the audience.
RR: We understand you’re from Appalachia. How did growing up there shape your writing?
BK: Growing up in Appalachia, on a large working farm busy with hay, corn, timber, cattle and much more, shaped my writing by providing me with a some skills quite useful to writers: self-sufficiency, appreciation for learning and science/logic, dedication, persistence, patience and self-worth. I spent a lot of time alone, wandering through the woods, reading novels and encyclopedias, making my own comics books. As a teen I progressed to writing poems and short stories, usually about forest creatures or what my life would be like once I escaped the valleys between those hills for the valleys between skyscrapers.
However, I did not find my full and true voice as a writer until I accepted my Appalachian nature. Although if you ask me what that nature is, I will offer you some whiskey and tell you a story about the time I tricked two of my cousins into peeing on the electric fence that kept the Hereford bull away from the Holstein heifers.
RR: Are there any particular writers who have influenced your work?
BK: My earliest writer influences were Chris Claremont, Emily Dickinson, Anne Rice, Larry Kramer, T. S. Eliot, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman and Thomas Pynchon. A seemingly strange mix, but I always liked to read something completely different from what I last finished. I remember reading Gravity’s Rainbow around age thirteen, having no clue what it was. I just knew it had melted my brain in the best way I could not have imagined.
Later, I learned a lot from some of the Miami gonzo writers like Carl Hiaasen and James Hall, how they constructed their outrageous plots and characters, from novelists like Milan Kundera, Jeanette Winterson, Salman Rushdie and my favorite living American writer, Percival Everett. My consistent poets of influence (the ones I reread on the regular) would include Langston Hughes, Anne Sexton, Mark Doty, Frank O’Hara, Sharon Olds, John Ashbery, Randall Mann, Khadijah Queen, and Jericho Brown. Mostly because they all accomplish things in their work I still cannot fully absorb.
Ben Kline’s work in Issue 6.1: