Ken Meisel is a poet and psychotherapist from the Detroit area. He is a 2012 Kresge Arts Literary Fellow, Pushcart Prize nominee, Swan Duckling chapbook contest winner, and author of six poetry collections: The Drunken Sweetheart at My Door (FutureCycle Press: 2015), Scrap Metal Mantra Poems (Main Street Rag: 2013), Beautiful Rust (Bottom Dog Press: 2009), Just Listening (Pure Heart Press: 2007), Before Exiting (Pure Heart Press: 2006) and Sometimes the Wind (March Street Press: 2002). His work in over 80 national magazines including Cream City Review, Rattle, Ruminate, Midwest Gothic, Concho River Review, San Pedro River Review, Boxcar Review, Birdfeast, Muddy River Poetry Review, Pirene’s Fountain, Lake Effect, Third Wednesday and Bryant Literary Review.
Geosi Gyasi: Let’s begin this way: You’re a poet and psychotherapist from Detroit. Who is a psychotherapist, if I may ask?
Ken Meisel: A psychotherapist is a person licensed to provide psychotherapy services to individuals, group, couples, and families. I am a licensed Social Worker in the State of Michigan . Much of my work involves providing counseling services to individuals and couples.
Geosi Gyasi: How do you reconcile your work as a poet and psychotherapist?
Ken Meisel: The discipline of providing psychotherapy and writing poetry feels very interwoven and connected to me. They are related in so far as I function as witness in both arenas. In other words, I am present as a witness and a co-creator of unfolding experience, both inside my therapeutic work with people, and within the enterprise of my literary creation of art.
Geosi Gyasi: How long have you been living in Detroit?
Ken Meisel: I was born in Detroit and lived within the boundaries the city until 1986. Since then, I have lived just outside the city. Much of my early poetry served to commemorate my experiences of living in Detroit , in the after -math of the 1967 riots.
Geosi Gyasi: Can you tell us about the literary culture in Detroit?
Ken Meisel: The literary culture of Detroit, at this time, is rich and varied. There is an active poetry slam scene here, and the literary written and spoken word scene continues to be a powerful one. Much of the literary figures in Detroit – myself included – have written poetry that laments, memorializes, celebrates and uplifts the city. Much of the literary culture here serves to tell the story of Detroit – of its great musical legacy, its auto industry, its factory life, its racial tension and unrest and its emergent racial harmonization. Detroit ’s literary style can be gritty, incantatory, and lyrical. It pushes, protests, and grieves at once. It’s born of a kind of strained and saturated anguish and pride, woven together.
Geosi Gyasi: Can you tell us about your roots as Irish?
Ken Meisel: I am Irish-American. My mother’s people come from Catholic Northern Ireland. I was raised with an Americanized sense of being Irish, ie, I was raised Irish-Catholic. My sense of being Irish is organized around Irish humor, Irish music, and Irish literature. Beyond that, I don’t tether too much to cultural heritage.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you earn a great deal from writing?
Ken Meisel: God no. My main income comes from my day job as a psychotherapist. I don’t expect to earn much money from the sales of my books. In fact, I’ve primarily donated the proceeds of my book sales to chosen charity organizations.
Geosi Gyasi: Why do you decide to donate proceeds from your book sales to charities?
Ken Meisel: I donate proceeds of book sales to charities because, by doing so, I serve the greater good of using my art to benefit causes outside of myself. After completing each book, I decide which charity the book’s theme seems to be speaking to. For example, in 2010 I donated the proceeds of my book,Beautiful Rust (a book of elegies about Detroit ) to an organization here in Detroit called The Inside/Out Literary Arts Project. This wonderful organization helps inner city children write. The book Beautiful Rust was a collection of poems addressing the anguish of Detroit . So it felt very natural to me to use the proceeds of that book to benefit kids learning to write, inside the city of Detroit . I decided to start donating proceeds of book sales to charities because I felt a greater purity as a literary artist in doing so. This model benefits three entities in one: It benefits me, the artist, it benefits the buyer, and it provides financial resources to the chosen charity. And it keeps me generous of heart, as an artist. I’m donating the proceeds of my new book, The Drunken Sweetheart at My Door, to an organization here in the state of Michigan called First Step. This organization assists women who are breaking free of domestic abuse and violence. With this new book, I wanted to offer resources to women. The influence of women – the unique power and wisdom of their inner voice of conscience – has become a recent passion of mine.
Geosi Gyasi: Tell us how you came to write, “Beautiful Rust”?
Ken Meisel: Beautiful Rust came about because I became obsessed with the notion of Detroit being identified in the popular press as a dying city. I started writing the poems for the book in 2002, and I completed the book just as the stock markets crashed in the USA in 2008, and the auto industry, here in Detroit, tanked. The book celebrates and laments Detroit . It posits the idea that as Detroit dies, ie, as some of its old identity factors give way to their futility and to their timeline limitation, so then will it be reborn different. Said very differently – Detroit ’s overall ethos feels very masculine to me. The city was created as a grand production hub – and in so becoming that, the city poorly identified how to protect itself from emerging obsolescence. The main product it made – automobiles – became the very product that transported people, specifically the wealthy, to leave it; to abandon it. Detroit’s sordid racial history, its internecine turmoil and racial conflict, its failure to develop a competent protection plan for itself and its general ignorance toward protecting its beauty – ie, to develop a counter-balance of feminine preservation of history and harmony – became one of the central themes, or motifs of the book. I titled the book, Beautiful Rust, because, frankly, I’ve also fallen in love with Detroit ’s ruins. They are a true marvel to me. They are a beautiful ruin, and that’s because so much of Detroit ’s identity, following the riots of 1967 and the white flight from the city, is an identity of ruin. Detroit , as an idea, juxtaposes grandeur and ruin. The idea remains compelling to me.
Geosi Gyasi: What influenced your current book, “The Drunken Sweetheart at My Door”?
Ken Meisel: After Beautiful Rust, and after a small chapbook entitled Scrap Metal Mantra Poems (also poems with Detroit as subject matter) were published, I shifted focus entirely toward poems about love.The Drunken Sweetheart at My Door is a book of poems that celebrate the power of mature adult love. I became preoccupied with the way that love, as a movement of attention, shapes, alters and changes the individual forever. Many of the poems in the book articulate this idea, whether they are poems about my own happy marriage, or poems about the various pitfalls and glory of love. Many of the poems in the book articulate the idea that the central movement of love is a rhythm of devotion, and inside that rhythm, the love pilgrim enacts a creative servitude to the greater good, whether that be to art, or to birth, or toward a proper living and dying. The book’s title comes from a Rumi poem that showcases the notion that the Drunken Sweetheart come to visit is both the invitational blessing and the challenging ordeal at once; true love involves both. A visitation from the Drunken Sweetheart is a privilege and a life-changing event, and it’s not for the weak of heart. It’s not a trifling event. The poems in this new book are all testimonials to the challenge and the blessing of love. I’m sure that the conceiving and writing of this book – following my two books about Detroit – came because I, too, needed to harvest what I’d discovered in the prior two books about Detroit, ie, that the devotional current that compels love was a worthy subject matter for me. It required a whole new book: a book of tender poems about the power of love.
Geosi Gyasi: Where do you often sit to write?
Ken Meisel: I write at a computer, in a little office in my home. The office has pictures all of those I love hung on the walls, and three large bookshelves of poetry, resource material, and literary criticism. I rarely attempt to write outside of this domain.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you write on a computer or in a notebook?
Ken Meisel: I used to write in a notebook, but in 1996 I switched entirely to the computer. I find that writing at the computer is more effective for me, because I can hear ideas coming to me and the pace of writing is faster. Sometimes my poems come best when they come fast. And the method of writing on the computer assists quick pace, immediacy of organization, and active revision much more efficiently.
Geosi Gyasi: Could you give us a brief synopsis into your book, “Beautiful Rust”?
Ken Meisel: Beautiful Rust is a book that laments, elegizes and celebrates the city of Detroit . The book’s main theme is that Detroit’s legacy of grandeur and success, and its subsequent decline into ruin and spectacle, functions to promulgate an ongoing, if entertaining narrative about Detroit as a city in extremis: Detroit is a city of extreme pathos, racism and poverty, and it is juxtaposed in the popular (and oh so very true) socio-cultural narrative as a place of world-famous automotive design innovation and artistic beauty. Its history of music, literature and art are renowned. The book suggests that Detroit – as a living space and as an idea – has been over-masculine in its general ethos and identify, and, as a consequence, it has failed to achieve a civil harmony, a sense of historical preservation of its monuments, a continuity of production success and, above all, it has failed to provide a steady, reliable kindness to its citizenry. The book envisions Detroit as a woman, struggling under the duress of abuse, social unrest, neighborhood neglect, unethical socio-political policies and racial tension. The poems in the book carry the idea that inside Detroit ’s dying embers there are the ready-to-sprout seeds of a new renaissance identity – one that is more balanced and feminine in its cultural ethos. At heart, Beautiful Rust is a hard-hitting valentine to the city that I was born in.
Geosi Gyasi: Whom do you regard as the best living author writing in English today?
Ken Meisel: Wow. Super hard to commit to just one. I’ll confess that I deeply enjoy reading Cormac McCarthy.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you write for a specific audience?
Ken Meisel: My work is written for adults interested in contemplation. My work isn’t entertainment. My work is aimed at those interested in hearing and feeling how we are flooded by beauty, loss, transcendence, love, death, birth and tenderness.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have a personal favorite among all the books you’ve written?
Ken Meisel: I can’t really say that I do. Each book is different. Each new book seems inevitable and in the service of the one that follows it.
Geosi Gyasi: What are your main subject areas as a writer?
Ken Meisel: I’m preoccupied with the cycles of apotheosis and ruin. Love – as it expresses itself in devotional attention – is a main subject for me. Loss – as a human experience – is also a compelling idea for me. And lately, I am preoccupied with how – in the face of adversity and/or bewildering experience – we can become filled with awe, purpose and transcendence.
Geosi Gyasi: What are your personal thoughts about the future of poetry?
Ken Meisel: Poetry will always last. And that is because the human voice – which is the instrument by which we convey the universal within the personal and vice versa – is unconquerable. Human beings need to write their passions down on paper. Human beings need to speak inside a verbalized eloquence. So I do believe in the future potency and the tenacious will power of poetry. Poetry is oratory elegance inside the dance of a verbalized, written lyric. Our brains are configured to engage in it. Poetry, by the way, is not entertainment. Poetry is not meant to simply entertain. Poetry is for those interested in contemplation. It reaches those whose hearts and minds are already attuned to listen to it. To that end, I doubt that there will ever be any novelty shows like American Idol that showcase America ’s best new poet. Poetry is dead serious. It’s not for the trite of heart. It’s the heart with the arrow already shot straight through it. Those who write serious poetry already know this fact. I’ll stand on that.
Geosi Gyasi: Is it true that poets or writers have a defined way of life?
Ken Meisel: Well, no matter what, a poet or writer will define a life that answers the questions why do I write in the first place, and how will I continue to write? I think that the answer to these questions forms the particular style of life for the poet or writer. That life will be defined in terms of a devotional stance toward surrendering to art-for-art’s sake. I’ve never known a writer to avoid the eye of this needle. All writers apprentice to the greater crucible of creation and art. Those who succeed never lose sight of this one necessary truth. The style of life that follows such an act of devotion is one that fulfills this promissory note of dedication. One can fail or thrive on the narrow gymnast beam that this kind of devotional life-choice determines and demands.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you know who reads your works?
Ken Meisel: Folks touched by the tenderness that I seem to convey inside poems about love and/or loss seem to go for my books. My poems, whether they are funny, or tragic, or sad, or incantatory, all unfold from tenderness toward my subject. The people that buy and read my books express an attraction to that quality in my work.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you see yourself writing more books?
Ken Meisel: I’ll write as long as my heart feels. My job is to protect my heart from cynicism, boredom, judgment, and repetition. If I can manage that, I’m quite confident that I’ll produce more books.
Geosi Gyasi: What would you like to be remembered for as a writer?
Ken Meisel: I’d like to be known as a writer that, above all, showed tenderness and respect for everyone or everything that he wrote about. Respect and tenderness lifts us up from the banal and the mediocre, and we are energized into a consciousness of compassion and kindness. Truth, love and confrontational candor work best from this interior core. So I’d like to be known for this quality in my own literary work and inside my legacy as a poet. All of my favorite poems evolve and unfold from this one deep core.