Douglas Kearney Reads at the Athenaeum

On September 27, community members gathered at the Athenaeum for an artist talk with Douglas Kearney. A poet, performer, and librettist, Kearney performed works from across his career, including from his latest book, Sho, published by Wave Books in 2021. Kearney is an accomplished artist, recently winning the 2022 Griffin Poetry Prize, but he spent the reading focusing less on himself as an individual and more on the ways in which his art can create dialogues. He urged audience members to reconsider how they view themselves and their positions within society.

Kearney’s community focus was readily apparent with the first piece he performed, “Smooooooooooooooth Operator.” He wrote this poem as a response to Kameelah Janan Rasheed’s visual art presentation of the same title, currently on display at the Athenaeum. Through body movement and voice inflections during this performance, Kearney reflected and transformed Rasheed’s images and words. The exhibition emphasized artificial intelligence and machine learning, questioning what words mean when they are part of a computer’s code. Kearney’s ability to use his body and manipulate language invited the audience to appreciate the exhibition’s art and his own poems in new ways informed by the artificial intelligence context.

Kearney dedicated the last few minutes to questions, and people were eager to better understand his methods. One audience member asked about the improvisation that defines many of his performances. He explained that improvisation gives his audience insight into how he approaches crafting his poems, and it also keeps the readings engaging for him. He said there is no reason for his audience to be moved if he himself is not gaining a new perspective or transforming his preconceptions of his work. After the reading concluded, many audience members stayed to have Kearney sign their books, and others took the opportunity to mingle and discuss their thoughts about the event.

—Maggie Carlton