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Shape your destiny: Keegan Lester

Keegan Lester, an alumnus of the Department of English at West Virginia University, talks about what he’s been up to since graduating in 2009 with a B.A. in English Literature and Creative Writing, as well as his book, “this shouldn’t be beautiful but it was & it’s all i had so i drew it,” which won the 2016 Slope Editions Book Prize.
keegan lesterBriefly, describe your career path.

Unaware of the idea that people could even become poets, my career started with writing letters to my grandmother at age seven. Some of the letters I wrote her had poems in them. One of those poems is still hanging on her wall today. I continued writing poetry in various forms from then on.

Per a suggestion during an undergraduate composition course, by my professor Renee Nicholson, I started taking creative writing courses. That was the first time I’d ever considered writers as contemporary living beings and was enthralled by the prospect of documenting life and being surrounded by people doing that as well. 
lester bookProgressing through poetry and non-fiction courses at West Virginia University, I coordinated a few undergraduate readings, was a submission reader for our undergraduate literary journal “Calliope” and later in my senior year was chosen to be the editor-in-chief. I was fortunate enough to be encouraged by my professors and by the Virginia Butts Sturm visiting writer Bill Olsen to pursue an MFA in writing, which is how I ended up at Columbia University. Working at the WVU writing center and the West Virginia Young Writers’ Holiday were experiences that helped me realize I wanted to teach.

A few years after my MFA, I co-founded a literary journal with Renee, moved back to Morgantown, wrote a book, worked for the WVU Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and taught poetry and nonfiction classes in Morgantown.  Over the last three years, I’ve been touring as much as I can, which is unusual for poets but has helped build the foundation for my audience.    

With anything in life, there is a great deal of work in order to get proficient at a craft. After that, there’s a whole other kind of learning, which is about landscape and how one fits into the landscape that allows them to use that craft. My book winning this prize was not an end or beginning point in my career, but more a single point of a trajectory that I’ve been working toward and must continue to work past. I’m now at the stage in my career, because of this book, where I’m applying for professor positions and fellowships, and feeling very grateful to be here.

Describe your poetry collection, “this shouldn’t be beautiful but it was, & it’s all i had so i drew it.”

My collection of poetry is about trying to not overlook the joy in life that’s right in front of us and being grateful for the small everyday mundane happenings that we so often take for granted. It’s comprised mostly of untitled odes, which is a kind of lyric poem that celebrates a specific subject. Much of the book is about what we’re not supposed to write about in poetry. There are references to football and tacos, the rapper Nelly, my family, my grandmother, my mother painting hummingbirds, some high art, some low art and the idea of ghosts being not the things of another world that come after us at night, but ourselves and what happens when we let our own fears haunt us and inform our decision making.

What are you passionate about in your work?

I’m passionate about West Virginia, underdogs and all people that don’t get a fair shake. I’ve been blessed with tons of opportunity and privilege, and my writing has now become the vehicle through which I get to use that privilege to build platforms to share with people that don’t have the same opportunities. My passion is finding ways to ensure people have control over their narrative so that it doesn't get told for them. Teaching creative writing is more than just teaching one to write well, it’s instilling confidence, critical thinking, building upon one’s creativity and self-determination, but most importantly enabling a person to tell their story. I’m interested in the voice of the greater America outside of New York City. There was a term floating around Fly-Over State, during the election, alluding that entire states of people or regions of people were supposed to have a singular voice or singular story or identity. I know that’s not true. I’m passionate about those people. I want to know their stories.   

Where is your career headed?

My hope is to be teaching at a college soon. I’m interested in the work that poets like Eduardo Corral at NC State and Gregory Pardlo at Rutgers are doing through their MFA programs, which is establishing sustainable and organic means to empower people that historically have been on the fringes when it comes to the literary world, to make sure those people are at the forefront of the next generation of writers. To make the kind of impact we want to see in the world, it starts with recruiting, mentorship and building confidence.

No art should not be limited to a single vantage point and should not belong to a single class or race or sexual or gender identity. Hopefully, my career will be headed toward teaching in a program where I can help recruit and develop the next generation of landscape changing poets too.

How has your Eberly College experience helped shape your success?

I would not have even considered writing poetry in a contemporary or literary sense if I had not taken a class with Ethel Morgan Smith. She played a recording of Nikki Giovanni reading the poem “Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea (We’re Going to Mars)” one day and it was right there in that classroom that I knew I wanted to be a poet.  

Mary Ann Samyn taught me the foundation and the tools I needed to write poetry, and I wouldn’t be here without her. Jim Harms has always been kind and accessible enough to answer any questions I’ve ever had about publishing and poetry business in the years after graduating.  

Tim Adams, while having never taught me how to write, was one of the first people that encouraged me to apply to grad school, encouraged me to shoot for a place like Columbia, an institution I would have never dreamed of going to. Pat Conner was always around during my time in school and after to offer helpful advice with regards to anything and everything.  

Scott Crichlow, now chair of the Department of Political Science was one of my favorite teachers and has become a close friend and confidant. He helped shape my vision through discussion of politics, art and film. 

Natalie Sypolt encouraged me and made sure I was aware of every opportunity WVU had to offer. She introduced me to Breece D'J Pancake, which is a West Virginian rite of passage that mentors do when they believe a student is capable of being a writer. She was the first to make me feel like I belonged with the other writers. And of course my friend, mentor and co-editor, Renee Nicholson pushed me into the whole thing and without her, I’d probably have stayed a political science major. 

It took an Eberly College village of people to help me get on to this path and I’m so grateful and indebted to all of these people and the many more I don’t have space here to mention, who've offered advice and their kindness along the way. 

Describe your work at Souvenir Lit.

With the help of my former professor Renee Nicholson, I co-founded a literary journal with the vision to publish writers from Appalachia alongside writers from New York City and around the world. I’m in charge of curating the web aesthetic, maintaining our brand, as well as reading all of the poetry submissions, deciding who gets in and who doesn’t. Every now and then I get to put out a podcast interview, which is fun. At the time we felt like there was such an otherness in the identity of Appalachian writers and artists, that it was hard to find them in the same spaces that one would find other popular New York writers. We saw the need for a platform that sought to bring writers from all over the country together, a platform that we did not see existing at the time. Together, Renee and I built it.    
Describe your forthcoming work.

Currently, I’m working on publishing another finished collection of poetry called “We Both Go Together If One Falls down”. I’ve also been writing essays for a collection called “It Is Thought that Dinosaurs Once Cooed like Doves,” which has nothing to do with dinosaurs, nor doves and I’m also working on a third collection of poetry about California, for my mother.  

What has been the most rewarding experience with writing poetry?

The most rewarding experience is getting to the place where people like your work (or believe in your ability) enough, that you get to mentor others. Watching young writers grow into themselves, and get to the place where they say what they want to say, not what they think is poetic or what they think they should, but what they feel they need to say. That’s the best. That’s my favorite part.  

How are you a game changer? Or, how are you making a positive impact in the world?

For better or worse I’ve bucked against what is supposed to be considered poetry by certain institutions. I’ve been more interested in trying to make poetry accessible, believing that a poem’s intelligence must be greater than the person writing it. The poem must have its own purpose, and not merely serve the gratification of the person writing it. I tour because I want to connect with people.  I want to entertain. I want to move people. But I also want to hear peoples’ stories. I tour places where many people don’t go because those are the places people most need to know someone loves them, and I do.    
 
What is the most interesting thing that’s happened to you since graduating?

The book coming out and traveling the country reading my poetry were aspects that I’ve always wanted and what I’ve worked really hard toward, but most interesting to me is keeping track of certain people I’ve known who’ve gone on to be famous in their fields or famous musicians, filmmakers or writers, as well as keeping track of people who have taken different paths but continue with their vocations in quieter means. Both kinds of people seem pretty similar now, more than I would have thought. 

When I was young I thought there were a finite number of special people that get to do these things that people talk about as dream jobs or vocations, and now I am sure we are all capable of making what we want. We don’t get to control the scale of an audience or commercial success that happens, but the idea of fame or the absence thereof should not keep us from doing what we love, from what we were meant to do with our lives. The act of doing is not only good for ourselves but often touches people we're completely unaware of. Through our own pursuits, we give permission to others to also pursue. 

Your favorite WVU memory?

I probably should say something more important than staying for the entire triple-overtime comeback win that Pat White and Steve Slaton engineered against Louisville, in 2005, so I’ll go with the night President Barack Obama was elected.  Chairlift was playing at 123 Pleasant St., the night of the election.  At the time they were a huge Brooklyn band and were in all the iPod commercials. We knew Obama had won the election before Chairlift started their set, but they stopped in the middle after someone yelled, “He’s gonna make his victory speech.” 

The band gathered around with us at the bottom bar so we could all watch and listen on the television as the newly elected President Obama made his first speech. We were all crying. After that, they went back on and finished their set.  I’ll never forget how joyous everyone felt that night. And I’ll never forget all the people I shared that room with.   

How do you support and participate in the English department and at WVU now?

I try to stay active on as many fronts as I can. I love the University and always have. Some of my support has come through my journal, where I’ve had the fortune to publish a few exceptional MFA students in the program, and help get their name out into the world.  I’ve also read in the Black Bear Reading series and perform each summer on the Travelin’ Appalachian Revue tour. Both entities were created by Howard Parsons and Tyler Grady. The reading series and yearly tour have done a fantastic job in showcasing writers and artists from around the state, often times joining up with the WVU English department to bring in big time featured readers, as well as the work of current MFA students and undergrads. 

I try to help students with questions about their writing and what to do with their future, and field questions about the MFA. I try to introduce people to each other and do my part to help share my platforms with as many West Virginia writers as possible, not to speak for them but to let them speak for themselves.  

Also, two-thirds of my clothing has the Flying WV on it, so I’m usually pretty easy to spot in a room or on the streets of New York City.  

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