Marilène Phipps-Kettlewell spoke with us about the forthcoming publication of Jack Kerouac: Collected Poems, which she edited for The Library of America.
LOA: Is it strange that a Haitian-born woman artist and writer should feel such an affinity with a working class French Canadian male poet from Lowell, Mass?
Phipps-Kettlewell: Gender is overrated. And, if allowed, will create obstacles between people, as will culture, class, and generations. That Kerouac showed up male in this world, and I showed up female, is significant only in terms of our own individual journey and its prescribed challenges, but not in our relating to each other. What connects us in this world is Soul.
That being said, I share many aspects of the self with Kerouac: I am French, through my mother; I went to Catholic school, and spent my adolescence in a French boarding school; I also immersed myself, during my early adulthood, in Eastern philosophy and practices—I profoundly understand The Scripture of the Golden Eternity and Some of the Dharma; I am now an American, and I too partake in the “permissible dream” that America remains; I am a poet as well—I share with Kerouac, as with most poets, a peculiar, raw sensibility and experience of the real world that we take great pains to translate and articulate.
In true poetry, a poet undresses, removes these layers that are superficial boundaries between people, exposes this Soul, and allows it to move. Soul needs silence. When someone sits down to read, there happens a kind of undressing of that person as well—the armors and masks we wear are no longer useful here—the aloneness of the reader roams well through the silence of Soul, as it does through gender, culture, class, and age.
LOA: Why do you think Kerouac’s poems still speak to us?
Phipps-Kettlewell: I heard the late Peter Gomes say in a sermon that the Incarnation proved a success when Christ cried out from the cross, “Father, why have you abandoned me!”—Christ felt then fully what it is like to be born human.
Kerouac’s poems still speak to us because he did undress for us, in order to reach this element of Soul that we all share, this universal experience of being alive, the human abandonment—the rage, the fear, the pain; the desire to partake of more of the goodness we encounter all too rarely, and which we could distribute much more selflessly, if it weren’t for the rage, the fear, the pain . . . we recognize it all in Kerouac’s poems, we empathize with him while being moved.
LOA: When and how did you first encounter Kerouac’s poems?
Phipps-Kettlewell: Having grown up first in the Haitian, and then in the French school system up to the Baccalauréat, I met Kerouac late “on the road,” casually at first.
Flannery O’Connor wrote, “I write to discover what I know.” In my maturity as a writer, I am startled by that same revelation all the time. However, I now have come to realize that this was true on school benches as well—exam time: you sit in a bare, hard classroom filled with students inwardly feeling terribly anxious, but all looking confident as they are handed essay questions—you must pick only one. But while you write, it all comes tumbling down. Now, I picked Kerouac . . . or did Kerouac pick me?
LOA: Do you have a favorite piece in the collection?
Phipps-Kettlewell: Hard question—it’s like having to choose a favorite psalm in the Bible—so much depends on the mood or the needs of the day. As do the psalms, Kerouac’s poems possess the excess, the outrage, the lyrical flights, the extreme tenderness and profound understanding of the human ability to drown within oneself, and yet to thrill all the same.
There are so many beautiful poems! How to choose only one? And even within a poem, a wholly successful one or not, there may be just one immortal line that somehow drives a dagger through your heart. I have managed to insert many of my favorite dagger-lines in the introduction for the book, one of them being a sober gift: “Believe in the holy contour of life.”
But if I had to choose, let’s say in Mexico City Blues alone, I might pick the 30th Chorus, or the 235th, the 14th, 100th, 84th, 89th, 55th, 196th, 53rd, 42nd, 105th, 128th, 171st, 216th, 227th, 228th, or the 229th. For my personal selection, I’ll take Emily Dickinson’s counsel any day, when she said, “if I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”
LOA: What new things did you discover about Kerouac and his poems while working on this book?
Phipps-Kettlewell: Besides rediscovering, marveling anew, at the sheer beauty and originality of Kerouac’s poetic genius, what I discovered while working on this book, and what will remain with me, is a friend.