Psychedelic Wanderings: Interview with Kevin K. Casey

Editor’s note: This interview was originally published in May 2015 by The Mimeograph.

Kevin K. Casey works as a freelance writer and editor. He has published a series of children’s books on theFourPeaceFrontCov martial arts and a series on multicultural topics. His short fiction has appeared in Amarillo Bay. Four-Peace (Lamar University Press, 2015) is his first novel. Kevin has recently been featured in the New Writer Spotlight series of Small Press News.

The Mimeograph: Versions of your bio state that you’ve worked as a marketing writer. Is that your main line of business?

Kevin K. Casey: Sometimes. Or rather it’s most of the time when I’m working as more of a writer than editor. And when I work as an editor, then I might cross into any area, from technical to financial to marketing.

The Mimeograph: Did you always intend to become a writer?

Kevin K. Casey: I’m not sure anymore. I think I started out with a notion that I wanted to be a writer because I had some mistaken idea about what a writer did for a living, but when I got out of college I discovered that the only companies hiring writers wanted technical manual writers or advertising writers and such. Nobody was paying for poets and novelists, and I didn’t have any training or interest in real journalism. So what else was there to do? I mean, most people that study lit either teach or do something unrelated to what they studied in school. I didn’t want to teach, but I wanted to make use my studies so I transformed from a term paper writer to a technical writer. After a few years of tech writing, I got some opportunities in marketing. For a lot of years I complained about my line of work, maybe because I thought that was fashionable, but the truth is that I like what I do, and I’m lucky.

The Mimeograph: You’ve published nonfiction and short fiction, but Four-Peace is your first novel, correct?

Kevin K. Casey: Yes, it’s my first novel. I wanted to write one for a long time, but . . . well, you know, life and stuff got in the way.

The Mimeograph: You started professional writing in the mid-1990s, and twenty years later you wrote a novel. Did the desire to write one develop along the way?

Kevin K. Casey: I always thought I wanted to be a novelist. I mean, I thought I wanted to be a literary fiction writer, but the problem was that I didn’t have any stories to tell, or rather I didn’t have any stories I needed to tell. Sadly, it was all superficial posturing. I liked the idea of being a writer, but I put very little effort into improving the craft of fiction writing. Instead I picked up a lot of the stereotypical bad habits of writers—when in fact none of the actual fiction writers I knew and admired lived in such a deplorable way. After I shed most of those bad habits and became content with my day job, then the desire to tell a particular story came about. And then after another couple of years, I had a big manuscript. That’s more or less how that, the novel, happened.

The Mimeograph: The cover states that the novel is based on Edward FitzGerald’s translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. What can you tell us about that influence?

Kevin K. Casey: I’ve always loved that poem. I encountered it way, way back in the last century in an undergraduate college class, and immediately I could relate to the speaker. Everyone can, probably, and that’s why it was so popular back in its day and for a long time after. I don’t know if many people read it today, but they should. I’ve never read anything else that so vividly illustrates the human condition and our doubts and fears about mortality. And it’s stuck with me all these years. With some things—songs, movies, other poems—I really like them for a time, but then the feeling of “that’s the greatest ever” wears off, and then it’s just something I like. But with the Rubaiyat I seem to continue liking it, maybe even more so. I guess everyone can relate to the speaker in the poem, and I kind of feel like he’s me when I read it. When I was that young brash undergraduate, I was the speaker when he’s being most belligerent or irreverent. These days I guess I’m more like the speaker in the latter parts of the poem that have more of a feeling of acceptance.

The Mimeograph: And so you decided to base your novel on the poem?

Kevin K. Casey: Well, yeah, kind of. I always thought it would be cool to have a modern day version of the Rubaiyat. After all, FitzGerald’s version came 800 or so years after Omar Khayyam’s original work. And as a lot of scholars have noted, FitzGerald took so many liberties with the original that it ought to be called more of a version or adaptation than a translation. He’d translate the same quatrain in multiple ways and include all versions and do stuff like that. But I like to think he was more interested in bringing the flavor of the original to his 19th century audience than rendering an exact and dry translation. For a long time, I thought it would be great to somehow bring the poem into the modern day. Turns out I don’t have the talent of FitzGerald, so rather than try to adapt his work I just juxtaposed his quatrains with my prose.

The Mimeograph: The novel has been described as a Texas novel, but the cover states that the story is set in California. Do you consider it to be a Texas novel?

Kevin K. Casey: Oh absolutely. First, it’s by a Texan author, and despite living much of my life outside Texas there’s just some things that stick with us natives of the Lone Star State. So there’s that. And then there’s the story itself. The protagonist is Texan, a sort of estranged self-exiled Texan but a Texan nonetheless. And while the present or real-time setting of the novel takes place in California, everything going on in the main character’s head is in Texas. So there’s always that comparison of Texas and California going on. So, yeah, it’s most definitely a Texas novel. That may have helped some in Lamar University Press’s decision to publish it.

The Mimeograph: Will the release of the novel affect what you call your day job?

Kevin K. Casey: No, not in the least. Those worlds are completely separate.

The Mimeograph: Are you currently working on another creative project, or do you have one planned in the near future?

Kevin K. Casey: No to both questions. I’ll almost surely write fiction in some form again, but right now I just don’t have the urge. There’s a lot that goes into the production of a novel that I didn’t know about when I started. The writing part was familiar, and that was also the most fun or rewarding part. I’d go to sleep at night thinking about the characters and wake the next morning still thinking about them. As soon as I could catch a break from my day job, I’d be back at the novel again. But it was the part that came after completing a first draft that I didn’t know about. First you have to find someone—better if you can get more than one person—to read the draft. Then you have to be ready to receive feedback you might not like. And you might have to make changes to the draft, even to the structure of the story. Even after all that, all you have is a manuscript. So you have to find someone to publish it, and that process can be disheartening. Some of the writers I know personally and admire have told me that they have been turned down before, but that doesn’t make it feel any better when you receive feedback from a prospective publisher that says something like “it just doesn’t meet our needs at this time.” But fortunately these days with the rise of indie publishing and self-publishing a writer has a lot more options for getting work into print. In the end, I was very, very lucky to get accepted by a small university press that puts out some of the finest books around. I try not to think of the company of writers I’m in with Lamar University Press. There are poet laureates and accomplished novelists. Thinking that my book is right alongside theirs is intimidating, overwhelming.

The Mimeograph: You mentioned self-publishing. Did you consider self-publishing your novel?

Kevin K. Casey: No, but I wouldn’t hesitate to do so if ever again I write another novel. As I said, I got very, very lucky with Lamar University Press. But as for self-publishing, it’s my opinion that it still carries a stigma that is no longer applicable in today’s digital age. These days, if writers know how to typeset a book and submit it to a service like Lightning Source and do a few other things, they can have a book that will look every bit as good as any from an established press. And if they don’t know how to typeset, they can pay to have that done. Of course, printing is only one small part of publishing a book. Maybe the hardest part is distribution and promotion. But with online retailers, particularly Amazon, that really levels the field. I see a lot of similarities between indie publishing and what is going on with the music industry. We’ve all heard of musical artists who got discovered after posting a YouTube video of their work. As for writers, it’s possible be your own publisher. Of course, that requires a tremendous amount of work, especially the promotion part. I don’t currently have the guts or the material to try something like that, but I applaud anyone who has that kind of courage and drive. Oh, and that’s to say nothing of e-books. E-books have really changed things, maybe even as much as the advent of mp3s changed the way music is distributed and shared.

The Mimeograph: So you view self-publishing as a viable fall-back for new writers who have difficulty finding publishers?

Kevin K. Casey: Well, yes, but I wouldn’t want to say it like that. Saying it that way makes it sound like self-publishing is inferior, and it’s not. I’d rather say that all writers have the choice to self-publish, and there are both drawbacks and rewards that come with that choice.

The Mimeograph: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

kevinkcaseyKevin K. Casey: If I’ve learned anything, it’s that I ought not give advice. But to answer the question, there are some things. First, there are the things that all aspiring writers have heard until they’re sick: read, read, read, and write, write, write. Also, it helps tremendously to have a network of fellow writers that can give feedback. Some people do this by taking creative writing courses or even enrolling in an MFA program. In my experience, a person doesn’t have to go to those lengths, but they are certainly helpful if one has the opportunity. There are plenty of ways to hook up with fellow writers for free, especially online. Probably the best way to ensure there will be writers available to offer feedback on a manuscript is to give before receiving. In other words, volunteer to read some other folks’ stuff and offer feedback before asking them to read your stuff. As for advice on writing, I guess if I could go back in time and give myself some advice I’d say concentrate more on what constitutes a good story or good story telling rather than getting so wrapped up in gimmicky manipulation of words. If I’d have spent more time thinking about stories and less time trying to dazzle the world with gimmicks in syntax and other devices, maybe I’d have more to show for it. Once a writer has a story that he or she can care about, then that’s the first step in developing a story that can interest others. Once the story is the focus, then the way to tell it will develop over time. Anyone can play around with words in a clever way, but if that’s all you do then you end up with a whole lot of nothing.

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A Rotating Equipment Poet: Interview With John Milkereit

Editor’s note: This interview was originally published in March 2015 by The Mimeograph.

John Milkereit is from Chicago and works as a rotating equipment engineer for a contracting firm in Houston, Texas. His poems have appeared in various literary journals, such as Big River Poetry Review and San Pedro River Review. His latest book, A Rotating Equipment Engineer Is Never Finished (Ink Brush Press, 2015) has already meet with much praise. John has also been featured as the first writer in the New Writer Spotlight of Small Press News.

The Mimeograph: Your individual poems have appeared in a variety of publications, but A Rotating Equipment Engineer Is Never Finished is your first book-length collection, and many of these selections first appeared elsewhere. At what point did you get the idea to gather the poems in a single book?

John Milkereit: When I starting running out of copies of my chapbooks in 2013 and I knew I couldn’t reprint them. Coming to terms with that was when I knew I had to get a book together. A poet is always writing for the book.

The Mimeograph: The title is one unexpected for a collection of poetry, and the first poem, “Rotating Equipment Engineer,” states “what he does is mystery.” So what is a rotating equipment engineer?

John Milkereit: A rotating equipment engineer specializes in specifics pumps, motors, and compressors thatMilkereitFrontFinal-900 typically go in a chemical plant, refinery, power plant, or any industrial plant or offshore oil platform. The engineer also makes requisition packages for vendors to bid, and then he evaluates the bids and makes recommendations to clients. He also reviews drawings and other vendor data.

The Mimeograph: Sounds like you’ve had to answer that one before. Engineers aren’t stereotypically a poetic lot. Do you find your day job at odds with your poetic sensibilities, or do you find the two compliment each other?

John Milkereit: There is a rich language to be accessed in the world of engineering that I haven’t fully tapped into. There are also wonderful stories about co-workers that I wouldn’t have gotten without working for an engineering firm. Trying to write a poem about engineering is tricky and often at odds with the world outside of engineering because if you don’t have the right balance in the writing (between engineering/non-engineering language), then no one knows what you’re writing about. There needs to be a certain amount of accessibility in the poem for the reader to get what you’re saying. Most of the time, I keep these worlds separate but they could compliment each other under the right circumstances. Very often I have a hunch something from work would be great material for poetry, but I never know until well into the writing process and review.

The Mimeograph: In a 2012 interview with the Friendswood Public Library, you mentioned being a part of a group of poets. And in the acknowledgements of your book you mention several poetry societies. Can you tell us a little about those groups and their value to your writing?

John Milkereit: Two of those groups formed after taking two classes at Inprint. Each class wanted to meet after the scheduled classes ended and we carried forth the ideas and methods from our instructors. A friend formed the third group, but the idea of workshopping poems is the same in all three groups. Workshopping poems has been critical in making my poems better as long as I continue to be receptive to listening and taking constructive criticism. My poems are never perfect after the first draft—I never kid myself about that. Critiquing other poems and receiving critique is the gateway into the world of revision, which is probably the most creative act but also can be the most difficult task for me. All of these groups have some poets better than me, which has been very beneficial. If I’m the best poet, that’s not going to help me very much.

The Mimeograph: Since that 2012 interview, you’ve enrolled in an MFA program. Can you tell us something about how the MFA program has helped your poetry?

John Milkereit: The MFA program has certainly widened my horizon into what other poets are publishing, which in turn widens the possibilities for my own writing. Many of my poems today move beyond the speaker as someone like myself and become projected onto other speakers. My ego or self is more removed. My first-year mentor said by the time I’m done with the program that I won’t recognize my own writing. Many people think a typical MFA program forces you to change your writing in some way that’s different but not better because the student is under constant due dates. That could be true, but I don’t think that’s true in my case. I still choose what I write, and I never have to write a certain way. It’s the process of reading the books I’m assigned (and sometimes that’s collaborative) and seeing what I’m interested in. It’s also my reaction to the classes I’m choosing to take during the residency component of the program.

The Mimeograph: What tips can you give aspiring poets who want to improve their craft?

John Milkereit: The No.1 thing is reading. Then after that, more reading and to read widely even outside the genre of poetry. We live in a world of social media and a huge amount of distractions that block the creative process, and that affects crafting. I’ve gotten great material after reading short stories, personal essays, and fiction. There are several good craft books on the market now. Paying attention to craft in poetry means paying attention to each line and not as much the sentence. You have to pay attention to each word. How does each word add to the poem? How does the poem sound aloud? Can you remember everything you wrote in the poem after putting it away for a week? If not, what parts can’t you remember and if you can’t remember, then are they important? Things like that in addition to belonging to a community of writers and being in a critique group. If you live in a small town and there are no critique groups, then find one on-line. Go to poetry conferences where you can workshop poems. I don’t think you can improve craft solely by oneself and reading craft books.

The Mimeograph: So being part of a poetry group is crucial?

John Milkereit: If you want to improve your craft, I think it’s essential. If you’re taking your writing seriously, then you want to find one preferably in-person or on-line. I know one very good poet that emails his work to one person in L.A. and another person in Atlanta. But they all first met by going to a poetry conference. They trade poems through email. I’m fortunate enough to live in a big urban area that is strong on the literary arts.

The Mimeograph: Is an MFA program worth the time and expense?

John Milkereit: That’s a highly individual choice and there’s no scorecard one can make that tells someone whether the MFA program is worth it. I wanted an MFA program because I wanted to be a better writer. milkereit lecture 2Obviously, there are other ways to become a better writer. But I thought the answer of one of my classmates was very telling and really resonated with me after I asked him that question. He dropped out of my MFA program, went on to publish a successful book from a well-known publisher in New York, then he returned to finish the MFA program. I thought he would be the best person to ask this question. He said he came back because he wanted to be held accountable for his writing. I was really surprised by that answer but it’s really stuck with me for over a year now. If I’m not being held accountable for my writing, then how am I going to get better as a writer? I think that’s the biggest benefit for me. The program establishes habits I’ll be able to use long after the program is over to hold myself accountable to my writing.

The Mimeograph: Does being a performance poet—as opposed to a poet who writes poetry to be read by the audience—affect your craft?

John Milkereit: Yes, it does affect craft because I pay more attention to where I take a breath in reading aloud. Taking a breath can be the place where a linebreak occurs. Or vice versa, if I have linebreak where I don’t take a breath, then how is that last word on the line functioning? There are other things like placement of commas within the line. Certain word choices I’ve made on the page I realize later don’t sound very good when I’m reading in front of people.

The Mimeograph: Are you always aware that you will be reading the poetry aloud, and does that shape your creative process?

John Milkereit: I’m aware of reading every poem aloud. Some poets don’t care and don’t like reading aloud. I think the oral tradition of poetry is essential not only to entertain but also to provide critical feedback. It’s another way to figure out whether the poem is any good. You can get some sense of that by reading in front of strangers. If the poem is too long, you’ll eventually find out and then that might spark the investigation of what’s boring. If it’s boring to an audience, then it’s probably boring to read it on the page. Yes, there are very good poems that are long, but you wouldn’t read the whole poem to an audience in one reading, right? You would only read sections just as you might read on the page sections and then come back to it later. Reading aloud also can tell you if pausing in certain places you envisioned is working or whether the white space you’ve created on the page is not working. Where you pause and how fast you read can be shaped on the page. Ideally, the reading experience and the audio experience might match with each other. I understand that humans perceive or listen through body movements. Do we actually understand poetry better in a live performance with our eyes closed? I think of the live performance as an opportunity for the poet to help the listener understand better. Some people don’t agree with that. I just see it as an opportunity I would rather embrace than miss.

The Mimeograph: Do you have a lot of performances scheduled?

John Milkereit: I will be in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico the first week of January 2016 and Piccolo Spoleto in Charleston, SC end of May 2016 promoting the new book. I will be in Austin, TX April 10-12, 2015 with one or two readings. Other readings will be set-up soon to promote the new book.

The Mimeograph: For those of us that can’t make it to a live reading, is there any chance the future might offer some recorded performances, like a YouTube video?

John Milkereit: I did a dropcard last year where I recorded sixteen of my best poems in a recording studio. You can download all the poems as MP3s and listen every day of the week once you get the download card from me. Otherwise, one live performance is on YouTube.
Some of the poems I read on YouTube are in the book!