An Interview With Poet Claudia Keelan

Tod Marshall

Claudia Keelan was born in 1959 in Anaheim, California. She is the author of three books of poetry, Refinery (Cleveland State University (1994), The Secularist (University of Georgia, 1997), and Utopic (Alice James, 2000). A graduate of the University of Iowa Writers Workshop, Keelan directs the MFA program at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.

The following is an excerpt from an interview with Keelan which will appear in Range of the Possible: Conversations with Contemporary Poets by Tod Marshall, forthcoming from Eastern Washington University Press in May.

Tod Marshall: You're a teacher. Describe how this profession, from teaching in Boston to teaching in the South to teaching at UNLV to teaching at Iowa, has affected your poetry.

Claudia Keelan: My life has always been nomadic. In fact, I've now lived in Las Vegas (of all places!) for, technically, six years, though last year I was teaching in Iowa. I suppose that my sense of place and people is very influenced by that fact. There is always the next place; there are always others...This makes me happy and when I'm happiest I experience my life and project as a classless one and the citizens of my city and the students in my classroom as the Demos who I love and am of.

TM: Tell me about living in Las Vegas. I'd love to hear your take on that city.

CK: The longer I live in Las Vegas, the less I understand it. As you know, my husband Donald Revell lives part of the week in Salt Lake City, part of the week here, so our family spends a fair amount of time shuttling between Sodom and Zion...Salt Lake does a very good job of keeping out all the "freedoms" available 24 hours in Vegas: gambling, sex, all night gun ranges, and for the kids, roller coaster rides through the New York City skyline...So all that is at the edge of our lives at all times, and when we're in Salt Lake City, the angel Moroni over every temple lets us know he's watching, which somehow fails to comfort me every time. Las Vegas is continually in the process of re-making itself, which makes, on one hand, a city where a Blackjack dealer can afford a house with a swimming pool, and on the other, a 100-year-old American city with no solid infrastructure. The schools don't open on time, though they build many each year; the dust from construction is so thick that everyone is developing respiratory problems. The U.S. government is in the process of sending the entire country's nuclear waste to be buried at Yucca Mountain, a military base 40 miles west of Las Vegas. And out my window, the desert is still there, barely, and a few herds of wild horses still roam nearby. I don't know. Perhaps one really does write one's life...Utopia means "no place" and ecstasy means "to be placed outside." There's a lot to be done here and there are no rules of order already in place. I like the present in such wilderness.

TM: What role do you envision for the poet given our government's recent action in response to terrorist attacks on the United States-what looks to be a period of fear and violence?

CK: Obviously, everyone is off balance at the moment. Gertrude Stein was right, as usual, in "Composition as Explanation," that war demands attention to the present and so instructs an immediacy usually relegated to the margins of our free time. I'm teaching a Gender and Literature course right now based on Whitman's concept of the body electric. We'd just read "Song of Myself" when the first plant hit the Trade Center and the message of inclusiveness there, the insistence of self being other-it was the only word for the moment and continues to be, I believe, no matter what polarity you describe: man-woman, citizen-nation, nation-world. Any definition that does not take the Whole into consideration is an incomplete one. Radical freedom is the only whole measure-that's what I hope to teach, to reach.

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