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Grappling With Identity In 'Fieldnotes On Ordinary Love'


You might think that someone who loves words and poetry was raised on sonnets and haikus. Poet Keith S. Wilson was inspired by Rudyard Kipling and Edgar Allan Poe, authors that his aunt read to him out loud. But he was also influenced by a different kind of art.

KEITH S WILSON: My whole life I've been playing video games, games that I learned vocabulary from. I learned the word semantic from a game called "Final Fantasy VI." It is in Japan. When you're a kid, all of the differences between high art and low art - they don't matter. They don't - you don't even know about them. All you know is that this thing moves you or intrigues you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Wilson is now a video game designer in Chicago who has just published his first book of poems. It's called "Field Notes On Ordinary Love." Like the games he designs, Wilson's poetry is often about science and space. And in "Field Notes," he also grapples with his own family and how he's perceived by others.

WILSON: My dad is black. My mom is white. And I am very racially ambiguous. People are always asking me where I'm from, what race I am, what am I? Which is, like, the worst way that people sometimes ask it. It's just, like, a constant reminder that while I'm not constantly thinking about, you know, my race or my skin color, for a lot of people, that's the very first thing that they seem to want to know about me before they know my - even my name.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You wrote a while back about the experience of grappling with race in your work. And I loved this line. Quote, "nuance is akin to prayer." What does that mean to you?

WILSON: I think that when you really get to know a person, when you start to love a person, that is after you've learned their nuances. You know, we talk about how important first impressions are. But over time, someone's actual personality comes forward. Love is sort of built from that. It's built from knowing the kinds of things that a person watches on TV, the music that they listen to, you know, what they do when they're bored. It's also true of entire groups of people, that you can't really know any group of people any culture without learning the small details that don't seem to matter at first or that you don't even know about at first. And once you know those those little things, it's much harder to, in my opinion, to be hurtful or hateful.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In this new collection, you write about collapsed stars and dark matter and string theory. So I'm wondering why it's helpful for you to look for life's answers on a cosmic scale.

WILSON: I think that there are probably many different reasons for this one. One of them is that my dad was an electrical engineer. And so I grew up in a household that really honored science.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I love answers like that, by the way...

WILSON: (Laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...That it's about, like - I was expecting something really kind of esoteric. And it's like, nope. My dad was an electrical engineer.


WILSON: Well, that's - whatever your language is, you write in your language. Whatever your language is, you speak in your language. And among many of the other things that I grew up among, I grew up in, like, a household of science. So, you know, one of the things that I write about a lot in this collection is love. And there's something about how grand and magnificent space is but also sort of ultimately unknowable, no matter how much we try. Even if it's in sort of the "Star Trek" future where we're able to actively explore it, it's so much bigger than anything that we'll ever be able to know that I think sort of maps on to love essentially.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I was about to say, you sound like you're a "Star Trek" fan in the best possible way, as one Trekkie to another.

WILSON: (Laughter) Yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You keep on mentioning your father as a huge influence. And you write about him in this collection. I'd like you to read "The Way I Hold My Hands."


(Reading) I can't imagine my father wishing he would rather be anything once upon a time. He was a watermelon growing from a box. His mother died. His father beat the blush out of him and teardrops dripped black from his face into his food. My father's father made him eat his dinner through himself, the Miracle Whip salad spangled like the garden in dew. This isn't a figure of speech. My father ate his blood.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell me about this.

WILSON: It's difficult not to recognize how different his life was from mine, that his father hurt him in ways that I was never hurt. My father wanted to be a different man than his father was, and he succeeded. He was never violent with me. And if I ever have a child, I hope to do the same. But there's - it's just, like, so complicated. It's so difficult to know the way in which we affect others but especially, I suppose, our children.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Keith S. Wilson. His new collection of poetry is called "Field Notes On Ordinary Love." Thank you very much.

WILSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.