fb-pixel Skip to main content

National Book Award-winning poet John Keene intentionally seeks out challenges in his reading

John Keene won the National Book Award for his collection “Punks: New & Selected Poems.”Handout

It may be more than a month since John Keene won the National Book Award for his collection “Punks: New & Selected Poems,” but the poet still can’t quite believe it. “It’s still sinking in,” he says. Keene is also a novelist and translator. His books include the experimental novel “Annotations,” the story collection “Counternarratives,” and the poetry collection “Seismosis.” He is the head of the Department of African American and African Studies at Rutgers University-Newark.

BOOKS: What have you been reading?

KEENE: I’ve been on sabbatical this semester, which has given me a chance to read some things I’ve been wanting to for a while. I’d been wanting to reread Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’s “The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois.” I read it when it first came out in 2021, but I wanted to reread because it’s such a huge and compelling book. It’s 800 pages, but easy to fall into.

BOOKS: Are you partial to long books?


KEENE: When I was younger I took them as a challenge, like a mountain to be scaled. I still like them, but like everyone with a smart phone I find it more challenging to get into really big books. Still, I push myself to do it. There is a real importance to sustained reading, when you are deep in a text and experience the virtual density of the world it’s creating.

BOOKS: What was your last best read that wasn’t a reread?

KEENE: Oh my God, there have been so many. One of the best ones was “Meet Us by the Roaring Sea” by Akil Kumarasamy, which has a text within the text that has to be decoded. Another was Alice Elliott Dark’s “Fellowship Point,” which is a more traditional novel about two octogenarian friends who are battling over a plot of land in Maine. Both books show what is possible in a work of fiction.


BOOKS: Do you make a point of reading books in translation?

KEENE: I try to mix it up. I read “The Employees,” by the Danish writer Olga Ravn, earlier this year and still can’t get it out of my head. It’s this very haunting book that uses the simplest means, a series of reports of what happens when the humans and humanoids on a spaceship visit a planet and collect some unusual life forms. I also love “After” by the Indian poet Vivek Narayanan. The collection explores the relationship between contemporary English language poetry and the epic Sanskrit poem “Ramayana.” It plays with the concept of the epic.

BOOKS: What’s the balance of fiction to poetry that you read?

KEENE: It’s about half and half. I love to read slowly, and when I’m teaching that can be a challenge. I can do that with poetry, so I make a point of reading it when I’m juggling a lot of work.

BOOKS: What are you reading for poetry currently?

KEENE: Gabrielle Octavia Rucker’s fantastic little collection, “Dereliction,” which I’ve read before. I’ve also been liking Rio Cortez’s “Golden Ax” and Jenny Xie’s “The Rupture Tense.” All three poets are grappling with pressing social and political topics but they do it in very different and interesting ways.


BOOKS: What are you reading for fiction?

KEENE: Sarah Thankam Mathews’s “All This Could Be Different,” a National Book Award finalist. It’s about a young woman who gets a job in Milwaukee and what happens to her. It’s an interesting book about the world we live in now. I try to read books by authors who are from a different generation than me.

BOOKS: When did you become a serious reader?

KEENE: In junior high and high school. I had this problem in high school and in college: I was supposed to be studying for chemistry or something, and I’d be reading a book of poetry. In college I went to the library to prepare for an exam. There I came across A.B. Yehoshua’s “A Late Divorce,” a kind of Faulknerian novel broken up into chapters where each family member tells their version of the story. I couldn’t put it down. I knew I should study but I couldn’t.

BOOKS: How did you do on that exam?

KEENE: I think I passed, just barely. But I became familiar with Yehoshua’s work so I’m glad I read that novel.