James Merrill House Poet Keith Wilson Shares a Poem — to Read on March 28 in Stonington

James Merrill House Writer-in Residence, Poet Keith S. Wilson (Courtesy of Keith Wilson)


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Keith S. Wilson’s recently released book, Fieldnotes on Ordinary Love, is a kind of “catalog” of his questions about science and love.  

“It’s sort of a metaphor for a kind of obsession with wonder that I have,” Wilson said. “In many ways, that’s what drives science — wondering what’s the universe made out of… how does energy work… all these different really huge questions. And I think the humanities have the same kinds of questions about people and emotions and truth.” 

Wilson is a poet, editor and game designer. He is a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship as well as fellowships and grants from Bread Loaf, Kenyon College, Tin House, and MacDowell among others. He serves as assistant poetry editor for “Four Way Review” and digital media editor at Obsidian Journal. 

For the month of March, Wilson is the James Merrill House Writer-in-Residence in Stonington. He is scheduled to read from his work at the Stonington Free Library on March 28 at 5 p.m. 

Race and identity are integral to Wilson’s work. He is an Affrilachian poet, a term he said his first poetry teacher, Frank X Walker, coined to describe black people living in Appalachia and for the black poets from there. 

“I’m black. My dad is black. My mom is white. And the way that I look, people can’t immediately tell that I’m black. I have to tell people,” he said. “I write a lot about perception, which is a huge part of identity. The push and pull between self-perception, what I believe I am, and assigned identity… what people perceive you to be and decide that you are,” he explained.

Wilson said that when he was young he started drawing levels for the Nintendo game, Super Mario, on paper and in high school taught himself Photoshop and other tools for role playing games like Final Fantasy. The leap to designing video games came with a class at University of Chicago in new media where he met computer programmers and video game designers who were looking for writers to tell their stories. 

“They needed someone who could write  a story and they knew I was a person who was very familiar with video games and could write, which is not always a combination that exists everywhere,” he said. 

Poetry and video games often feel at odds with one another, Wilson said.

“There may be more than one way to interpret a poem, but there is only one way to read it usually, with some exceptions. You start at the top left and read left to right until you get to the bottom and that’s how the poet intends it,” he said. “But in a video game there are all these different choices and you’re really open to that in a way that’s very different than most people write poetry.”

Wilson developed a fascination with technology from his father, who was an electrical engineer with the Air Force. He also grew up with family members who were voracious readers.

“My dad was a reader, but he also really, really loved science and technology and so we always had a computer in our house and that greatly influenced both the kinds of things I wrote and certainly my ability to write,” Wilson said. “I always had something to type on so I was always sort of typing up ideas,” he said. “My aunt read Edgar Allen Poe and Rudyard Kipling to my brother and I and my grandma had more books than anyone I would know for many, many, many years. She read like a book a day so I loved her library.” 

He said he’s always enjoyed video games that tell stories with plenty of text.

‘I remember learning the word semantic from a video game when I was, like, in the second or third grade, running to the dictionary to look that word up to figure out what was happening,” he laughed. “One of my favorite games of all time is Baldur’s Gate and the word count is the same as War and Peace, so I was reading a lot of writing in the video games I was playing.” 

Humans are sort of “story-receiving beings” and poetry can function as a story-telling medium, said Wilson.

“My poems are sort of story-telling in the way that a series of photographs are. If you look at a photo album or someone’s vacation photos  or an actual exhibit in a museum, you can see a story in an individual photo or a number of them,” he said. “I think that we tend toward caring about stories both when we’re creating things and when we’re receiving them and if someone is not giving us a story we’re inventing one out of what they’re giving us.”

He hasn’t yet made a video game that is a poem or vice versa, but he said the next generation will bridge that gap and take it to a new level.

“People who are really young have access to platforms and media that immediately respond to their choices in a way that no other generation ever has. And that’s across the board from ordering something from Amazon to having a cell phone and immediately being able to look up a video or playing games that respond to their choices — I think that is going to inform everything they do and I think it changes the kinds of stories that they’re interested in and stories that they’re able to tell.” 

Wilson said he writes every day, whether journaling or freewriting without a particular subject or goal in mind. When he rereads his work later, he said he finds trends that help him figure out his focus, sometimes by collaging fragments of lines and ideas together. 

“It ends up becoming a collection of my obsessions,” he said. “I’ll notice a lot of these are about living in Kentucky or about romantic love, and I mix and match them and see how they contrast and interact with one another.”

Wilson said that the James Merrill House provides an inspiring environment for a writer.

“It is wild to be literally living in his apartment, to see the books that he owned, to see his awards on the wall,” he said. “There’s a tremendous amount of history here and the landscape is beautiful here. I can work for long hours and then go on a walk along the shore or visit one of the local businesses. It’s a process of renewed psychic energy that happens that allows me to tackle more difficult subjects.” 

Many of his poems include imagery of outer space, which is a metaphor he uses for all love in its many forms, romantic, familial love, friendship. 

“In science, you can spend your entire life studying a subject and realize at the end that you know not that much more than you did when you began. The topic is so vast that you only know a fraction of what there is to know,” he said. “There’s something scary, but also inspiring that as humans we can spend all this time with a person and really care about them, but if we had 100 more years we’d find even more to learn and love.”

Wilson: “An aubade is a term that describes a love song between two lovers separating at sunrise. This a poem about that separation–of waking up in the morning to one’s lover being gone–and living through the sleep-addled images of having spent years with that love: doing chores, dreaming, and sleeping.”

Aubade to Collapsed Star

You bankrupt the sun, underwater
statue. Dark galaxy of faults, our bed

a garden of the littlest sighs
of our waking. Our room, abstract.

Our body heat in space, the condensation
as the light makes heaven of it. We’re early,

curved and signatory, the sheets
paler than the sky and made

immaterial. My hands confused
for want of your hands

or waist. Rolling, what claims
we make of earth, what is inferred and isn’t

sure, what the undersides of the leaves
of the forest floor are called. Your breath.

My limbs and yours. All of space
cannot be space. Arousing

patches in the grass. A mouse,
I never said to you. Invasion of clover, black

pollen of your hair. Only yesterday
I said I love. The opposite of stars.

The moon’s clear effects
on the sea. In sleep, no body

is the lead. I am dreaming imaginary
numbers of fruit flies, mercury and birdsong,

and the trash collector, and the water glittering
beige in the street. Of the Milky Way as portrayed

by the swirl of your waves. I ought to have married you
against the ifs of this world, out of flux

with all the dishes and the dust
on the books, and your late

mornings, each movement
I have missed like this, and I, accustomed

to the wall when I awake,
the exodus of your laugh, mascara.

Due to the coronavirus outbreak, Wilson’s reading will live-stream
Wilson’s book is available here