An interview with Kevin Holden, author of Pink Noise

Pink Noise is a deciduous forest of miracles 15 years in the making. Even now, holding the book in my hands to write this introduction, I find it still changing, mutating, shimmering, queering, and propagating. I had the honor of interviewing Kevin Holden about the process behind this journey, where we delve into realms magical, vegetal, mineral, and angelic. During the interview, Kevin writes:

“it isn’t only a process of writing a book start to finish, but also a matter of drawing from different regions of work and feeling out how these variegated pieces can come together into a unified, harmonious, overarching entity. I hope that they do.”

They do, Kevin, they really do. Take a look at the rest of the interview below, and be sure to read it alongside your copy of Pink Noise which can be purchased here.

—Ryan Cook, Nightboat intern

Ry Cook: One thing I love about Pink Noise is the sprawling and multilayered quality of the verse—I could read the same poem over and over again for days and find a new layer to sit with. What was the editing process like for a work like this? Did it go through many iterations?  

Kevin Holden: That’s very kind of you to say. I do think the work is quite layered, in individual poems and across the book, and that is a big part of the music and mechanics that are going on, so to speak. There are a lot of intentional echoes and repetitions, recuring images in orbit and a sort of thematic circuitry. The forms are pretty varied and departing and returning.

As to the editing process, yes, it went through many iterations. The work in Pink Noise spans about 15 years. The most recent poetry in the book was finished around the time the final manuscript was due, so about a year before its publication. The oldest work in the book began around 2007. In fact, the most chronologically distant (as it were) writing in Pink Noise is farther away than that in any of the seven books and chapbooks I’ve published. I’m using this metaphor of distance in time because, even though that work began back then, it has changed and recombined itself and has enfolded with the more recent work and now feels very “present,” almost spatially.

To say more about revision and editing, these happened a lot, especially in the long poems like “Parhelion” and “Glinting.” A lot of time was spent figuring out and feeling which sections should go where, when and how they should interact. In the “Polytopes” section, there are 20 short poems; I wrote 120 of them and then sifted through and chose the 20 I felt were the strongest and fit together best.

Lastly, the order is, for me at least, one of the hardest things to see, hear, decide. I want there to be rhythmic, conceptual, tonal flows from one poem to the next, whether they be one or 20 pages in length. I need those transitions to feel right, and they and the overall placements are very important to the higher-order architecture of the book as a whole.

A final infrastructural point is that I have just written a lot, in different directions over time, and so it isn’t only a process of writing a book start to finish, but also a matter of drawing from different regions of work and feeling out how these variegated pieces can come together into a unified, harmonious, overarching entity. I hope that they do.

Ry Cook: There are multiple moments of ecopoetic lyric that shimmer like the gems mentioned in the “Parhelion” section—do you consider yourself an ecopoet, and how did you fall so in love with trees?

Kevin Holden: That’s quite beautiful. I’m not sure I’d consider myself an ecopoet per se, but the ecological is very central in the poetry. In terms of something like ecopoetics as a genre, what interests me most is something like the nonhuman. I believe there are regions or dimensions of being to which we, as humans, don’t have access.Í This is an almost mystical thought, and there are many versions of it, in the constellation or lineage of Kleist, Rilke, and Celan, for example. There are things truly, radically beyond us, and yet, at the same time, I think poetry is able, through its nonparaphraseable form, to open a relation to those things, however fleetingly. These realms would be animal and, well, vegetal, but also mineral and angelic and… And I think poetry’s relation to these dimensions or domains is ontological, but also ethical. And there maybe we approach something like ecopoetics. This is all very abstract and brief, I know.

I do also simply love trees, forests, and plants, which populate Pink Noise. So I guess there is something “personal” and emotional there. Biographically, I spent my childhood playing and wandering in the woods. My father’s family is from rural Maine, and I spent a lot of time there. My parents divorced when I was very young, and there were two main types of trees, conifers with my dad and deciduous trees with my mom. I’ve also been involved in a fair amount of ecological activism, mostly in the Midwest and in Appalachia. Mountaintop removal, fracking, industrial farming, deforestation.

I sometimes feel that I like plants more than people. Do you know the song the drag queen Willow Pill performs as a giant flower where she says, “I hate people?” Well. She also dresses as a beautiful mushroom. There is an emergent thing about queerness and “nature;” Justin Vivian Bond’s Dendrophile, CA Conrad, Cody-Rose Clevidence, others… all very differently. And absolutely: Genet, who is massively important to me. In his work, maybe especially in Funeral Rights, the trees and flowers are animated, almost sentient. And they are infused with love and sex and also infuse them; they transmit the sensuality and feeling of the lovers, as conduits, as surfaces.

Lastly, I love the words, both the things they name and their sounds. For example, “chrysoprase,” a beautiful mineral and word. Incidentally, Hopkins uses it in a passage in the notebooks to describe the vegetal, to try to get at a shade of green in, I think, a bush. I love his extreme attentiveness to the natural, like Ruskin, or Thoreau in the Journals. To get down to the granular layer of things, through that at times almost obsessive precision, repetition, microscoping — Thoreau on frogs for 30 pages — and in Hopkins’s poetry, through the densities, hypermetricality, lexicon, music. So yes, chrysoprase. The vastness of aspen groves. Sounds: onyx and oxalis. Or in math, aleatoric and holomorphic — both the music of the words and the beautiful phenomena they name. And with something like oxalis, that the music is part of its granularity. Trefoil wood sorrel.

Ry Cook: Another aspect I find interesting is your use of space on the page, particularly in the “Parhelion” section—does the space of the page function in your work?

Kevin Holden: Yes, absolutely. It is crucial for me. The space of the page opens up vast possibilities for musical, conceptual, and embodied experience. I think this is perhaps most tangible in “Parhelion,” and probably also in “Riot” and “Grid.” The large gaps can suggest or allow for pauses, temporally and rhythmically, and for pivots in focus, theme, or style. The language and syntax can oscillate rapidly in “Riot,” for example, from registers more “clear” and discursive to others that are fragmented, semantically compacted, grammatically nonnormative… however we want to describe them. The spaces and indentations between the sections can give room for that. In “Parhelion,” there are some pretty huge swings from strange or “experimental” form to almost traditional styles of meter and rhyme.

Also, the page is a visual plane, and its look or feel functions much like a work of visual art. I care very much about those appearances and sensations. But the decisions on what they will be or how they should look are hard to explain. It feels very intuitive, maybe more painterly. All I can say is that, when the spacing is over the whole page, it ultimately needs to feel right, and it’s difficult to say why it does when it does. There are poets who engage the page gorgeously, like Mallarmé, of course, or Charles Olson, Susan Howe, Myung Mi Kim, and their work is deeply important to me.

The last thing I’ll say is that it was a real challenge with Pink Noise to convert the page from the 8.5 x 11 shape on which I’d composed the poems (after first writing them by hand) to what would become the dimensions of the book. And this is where the work of the designer becomes extremely important. In this case, that was Kit Schluter, and he and I worked painstakingly for a long time to get there. We did get there, sitting side-by-side, and it was a beautiful thing to watch his sorcery of readjustment that made that possible.

Ry Cook: Your use of the erotic is particularly amazing because it is sublime, crystalline, and necessary to the poems’ existence. You write: “Once / one of them / while inside me / and arching / whispered, / like a cave of winds, / Ezekiel, / you feel/ like. A cave / of warm glass. / Thank you, / I said, watching / the rain.” How do you think the erotic functions within Pink Noise?

Kevin Holden: Wow, another huge (and great) question. Well, I think sex is very important, and it is very important to me that the work be queer. How could it not be? Honestly, Brian Teare’s blurb for the book probably answers your question as well as I could. I think the queerness and the erotic are as much in the grammar itself as in the actual sex happening in the book. But also, the sexual language charges those moments in the poems. Sometimes they are uncomfortable, sometimes they’re titillating. As readers, we respond to them; our ears, as it were, perk up. And the fluctuations in tonal surface and foci of attention feel necessary to me, that many things are happening and changing at once. And politically, I also want there to be unapologetic and tangible, vivid gayness.

In the Q&A after a reading I gave recently, someone said “as a young, queer woman, you made me feel like I had sex for the first time.” But then she went on to say something like, “I was listening and trying to keep up with the words, but I couldn’t, and I let go, and all these sounds and images and phrases were cascading and circling, and it was totally sensual, energizing, ravishing…” This made me extremely happy, but I don’t recount that here to bolster my own ego, truly. I say it because, though she did refer to the sex itself, what she was really talking about was the sensory experience of the language. That said, I do want there to be moments in the work that are, well, hot.

Ry Cook: The book of Ezekiel, and its respective images, are referenced, and even quoted. The particularly striking moment is on page 68 where you quote the actual text featuring the appearance of the wheels—what about this particular vision resonated with you?

Kevin Holden: This is a big one. As you can probably tell, I’m very interested in and drawn to the angelic. Ezekiel is an astonishing book, as is the mystical literature that surrounds it.

So, mystery and the ineffable. “Parhelion” is probably the most central poem in the book, and that moment and the pages around it are kind of apical. The poem was originally called “Cathedral,” and it is invested in the divine and in order, like that of the angelic hierarchies and large, gothic arches. Symmetries and asymmetries.

The Ezekiel vision is an ascent narrative, and this moment is at its zenith. It feels important to me to have a moment in Pink Noise that is very… high… especially as the angelic is invoked throughout the book — in part to give those invocations context, and in part for the thing itself.

As for what resonates with me, that divine order, the wheels, the sapphire. As you note, there are a lot of gems and minerals in the book, and the idea in his revelation that the throne is of this substance has always fascinated me. As has the fractal image of the wheels within wheels, their infinity, their eyes, and yet also that the ophanim — or galgalim (spheres, wheels, whirlwinds) — are of a discrete number. It is a kind of fluctuating angelic mathematics.

The epigraph to “Parhelion” is from Lichtenberg, where he imagines an angelic sentence as “2 + 2 = 13,” and on the page facing the passage from Ezekiel, there is an integral (∫). The stone and the ophanim demonstrate, among other things, the infinite contained in the finite. There is also the section in the poem that is a kind of miniature erasure of Celan’s “Powers, Dominions,” which are orders of angels; he was very drawn to this same mysticism.

At the same time, there is danger in contemplating these things. Merkabah and hekhalot literature, the texts that deal with the chariot and the throne, are gorgeous, holy, and, at times, frightening. There is a lot of fire; the “structures” can be blinding or too complex to perceive. There is a Talmudic story about a student meditating on the throne, specifically its material. The thought continues to elude him, and then the student suddenly grasps it, the essence, and then he bursts into flame. It’s as a warning against too intensely focusing on these things. The Pardes legend is similar, about the four rabbis who enter the Orchard, where one looked and died and one looked and went mad. The material is important there too; it says, “when you come to the place of pure marble, do not say [it is] water.”

Ry Cook: I want to focus on “Nephilim” as it is one of my favorite poems in this collection. The poem itself brings up eros, angels, large sums of data, and supercomputers—how do you feel that technology, geometry, and math bring out the divine?

Kevin Holden: “Nephilim” is one of my favorite poems, too, or one to which I feel the closest. In a sense, it condenses together many central foci of the book, and I was happy and, in a way, proud that they were able to come together into something so brief. (Which is why, I suppose, I placed it as the first poem in the “Polytopes” section.) So this is an excellent question, and the topic is very important to me.

I think there is a way in which the mathematical and the angelic are parallel or convergent; if they are not the same thing, they are perhaps like two sides of the same coin. I am also interested in something like complexity, intricacy, scale. This is part of what’s at stake in the Augustine epigraph, about “magnitudes of vast size.” And it interests me very much, as I’ve just said above about the “Parhelion” epigraph, that when Lichtenberg tries to imagine a sentence spoken by an angel, he writes “2 + 2 = 13.” This feels right to me, that it is mathematical, perhaps higher-dimensional, and also unknowable.

Much of the math in the book is spatial, topological, and that feels important to me. To grasp or feel spaces, many kinds of them, whether they be a parking lot behind a chain-link fence at night, or a wide field covered in snow, or a four-dimensional object. The image on the cover of my book Solar is a two-dimensional (of course) representation of an example of the latter, the 120-cell. I find both the shape itself and its many possible representations to be very beautiful.

And so, vis-à-vis complexity, that shape, the four-dimensional analogue of the dodecahedron, with all its faces, edges, and vertices, seems to link with things like the angelic, or aspen groves, or vast data centers, or… Maybe. The cover of Pink Noise is a perspectival study of a chalice by Uccello, which, as Edgar Garcia notes in his text about Pink Noise, “is filled with discrete infinities.”

What interests me more generally about mathematics and science in relation to poetry is that they are, as it were, axes along which one can grasp/see/experience/feel reality. Or, they are means of approaching it, almost-entering into it, into something other or hard to grasp or “beyond” us. I don’t know if any entrance is possible, but perhaps they are lines along which one might approach that asymptotically.

So, I think that jamming or braiding these registers and phenomena together is trying (consciously or unconsciously) to touch that. And it is important to me that several registers are combining at once, and they balance or off-set or harmonize with each other. So, for example, in the poem “Grid,” the music and the sex and the grief are also shot through with and changed by this mathematics.

I think that mathematics, music, and poetry, by way of their unique complexities and harmonies, feel (at times) both charged with the divine and also to be lines through or along which the divine, nonhuman, higher, or other might be glimpsed or encountered.

Ry Cook: The poems in Pink Noise are so finely tuned. Can you talk a little bit more about how you utilize form and prosodic effects? Is there a particular poem in there you would want us to scan? And who are some of your prosodic mothers?

Kevin Holden: The rhythms and music are deep parts of all of it. The work is at times very sonically dense. I’ve already mentioned Hopkins. Susan Briante, the contest judge who selected my book Birch, started off her blurb, “In the lineage of Gerard Manley Hopkins,” and that thrilled me. I think a lot of rhythm comes in the compressions, the unusual words, elisions of syntax and punctuation, and definitely the line breaks. The poem “Grid” might be a good example. It speeds up and slows down, there are these circling repetitions, “no it is—” or “or if a—,” a lot of dactyls, and those blocks are very energized, with heapings up or accretions of sound and speed, like waves. And there is a lot of intensity and emotion in those rhythms and images.

The vocabulary is part of it. The lexica and music of writers (all very different) including Hopkins, Celan, Scalapino, Dickinson, Vallejo, Albiach, Prynne, and Zukofsky excite me, as do the manifold ways in which these poets interlace or interject uncommon words into bending affective fields. They each reveal things about density and strangeness, about arcing toward or opening relation to the nonhuman, about musicality and near-idiolectic language that move and resonate with me. And affectively, for me, “Grid” is a very emotional poem, as would be, say, “Chrysoprase,” and it feels right that the spaces and sciences are there folding or vibrating with (and quieting or loudening, depending), in their rather different ways, the lover and loss and roses or the electric grid and Wendy’s and thunder.

One last thing about the more “eccentric” or less familiar forms and lexica. Celan said something extraordinary in an interview with Hugo Huppert, where he was responding to the idea (if not the charge) that his work was abstract, hermetic, obscure, a secret language — an idea he very much did not like. He said (in Pierre Joris’s translation):

“As for my alleged encodings, I’d rather say: polysemy without mask, thus corresponding exactly to my sense of the intersection of ideas, the overlapping of relations. You are aware of the phenomenon of interference, the effect of waves of the same frequency coming together … I try to reproduce cuttings from the spectral analysis of things, to show them in several aspects and permeations at once … I see my alleged abstractness and actual ambiguity as moments of realism.”

This is beautiful, and I would say that I feel very much this way. I see my writing to be (or hope it to be) like cross-sections of reality, or reaching at how things actually “are.” Maybe there is something Cubist here. I think the prosodic effects that you note are part of this, as is the density, the compression and loosening. The intersection and interaction of diverse vocabularies, music, emotion, and imagery generate their own rhythms of thought, sensation, and feeling. I want these rhythms to touch and show reality, and also to make their own.