Trevor Ketner’s newest release, The Wild Hunt Divinations: A Grimoire, is a wildly creative endeavor of 154 sonnets anagrammed from Shakespeare’s sonnets, transmuting the Elizabethan canon with its focus on queerness, transness, and kink. Ketner blends the blissful fever of desire with the sensuality of nature, demonstrating the kinky and queer latency of these sonnets and speaking to what queerness was, is, and is becoming. Over email, I spoke with Ketner about The Wild Hunt Divinations, the accord between the sexual and the natural, their current projects, and queer joy and jazz.
Trevor Ketner is the author of the poetry collection The Wild Hunt Divinations: A Grimoire (Wesleyan University Press, 2023) and [WHITE] (University of Georgia Press, 2021). Their poetry, reviews, and essays have been published in print and online by Poetry Magazine, the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day, New England Review, Lambda Literary, Poets & Writers, Boston Review, Library Journal, and more. They have been awarded fellowships from Lambda Literary, Poets House, and the Poetry Project. Ketner lives in Manhattan with their husband.
Anna Logan (AL): In your 2022 piece written for Poets & Writers, you say of your unique approach to writing that it was and is “my truly desperate attempt to find some way (any way) back into writing—some way to say something when it felt impossible.” Can you describe a little bit how you utilized anagramming and the works of Shakespeare to return to writing with The Wild Hunt Divinations?
Trevor Ketner (TK): When I was teaching, I often told my students that of all artists, writers might have the hardest time getting a new piece started because we must literally create our medium before we can start to craft it. Where a potter can begin shaping after simply cutting the clay they need from the hunk they keep hidden away in some cabinet in their studio, writers have to make the clay first and only then they can start shaping. Draft one is making the clay; revision afterward is when you truly engage with the tools and techniques of your craft. In the midst of the pandemic, quarantined in our small, crumbling apartment in New York after an early and highly symptomatic case of Covid that deeply impacted my cognitive abilities, I found myself completely unable to make the clay I needed. Being in one small space meant there were precious few inputs to spark creativity, and, in truth, even when that creativity did briefly catch, I didn’t have the faculties to keep the fire going. But I knew that if I wanted to continue writing at all, finding a way to do it in that moment, the most difficult moment for my writing to that point, was essential.
I knew I didn’t want to write Covid poems. There were already so many in the world (and more to come, I was sure), and quite frankly what I needed was something that created a realm of possibility on the other side of my recovery and of quarantine. So I looked to an external source. I wanted to source my clay from elsewhere, if you will, to jumpstart the creative process with which I was struggling. Because I was starting with some other material, I wanted a lot of it and I wanted the work to be established enough that I wouldn’t impact its legacy in any real way by my manipulation, which meant writing from living writers was out.
At the time, thanks to feeling so socially suspended in quarantine, I also wanted to better understand my relationship as a queer person to sex and kink, not because I needed an outlet for pent-up sexual energy, but because I came to realize I really didn’t know what my relationship to my sexuality was. I had been mimicking a sort of script I’d inherited from the queer folks around me to act as if I was a hypersexual, kink-oriented person, but I realized I had more questions about my relationship to sex and kink than answers. Eventually, the context of this drive for personal understanding regarding sex and desire and the need for a large reservoir of writing from some dead person got me to Shakespeare’s sonnets.
Before I started the project, I saw the sonnets as sort of the embodiment of cis-straight romance (as they are so often characterized in pop culture) and I felt energized about trying to queer that in some way. What I came to learn as I researched (which I pretty much always end up doing as part of my writing process at this point) is that, according to some scholars, the sonnets are already queer. The narrative arc of the sonnets follows a strange love triangle involving two men, the older speaker and his younger beloved in which the speaker initially means to encourage the young man to get married and have children as a way to preserve the younger man’s beauty. The sonnets then become something of an ode to this beautiful man, eventually slowly devolving into a long list of erotically charged jealousies at the introduction of a “dark woman” whom both the speaker and beloved seem to desire. I mean it’s incredibly bisexual and highly theatrical. It was interesting to me that this subtext was totally missing from my education on the sonnets and transformed my own project from reinvention to something of a reiteration in order to make the subtext into text.
With this context in mind, I realized I wanted to use the language of the sonnets as literal material to show the queer potential of each line down to the marrow, to a genetic sort of level. I had to sort of hack an online anagramming tool used for solving word jumbles, but after a month or so finally got the hang of the tool and found myself able to write, or, as I came to think of it “divine” a sonnet every couple of days. Having a specific process and a set goal to finish all 154 sonnets created a direction for my writing that, if I followed it, seemed like it could lead me out of the claustrophobia of that time. And it did.
AL: How has writing within self-determined anagrammatic parameters and with the work of another poet influenced your understanding of writing itself and the queer, desire/kink-centric focus of this work?
TK: Between my first book and The Wild Hunt Divinations I have come to see writing as a collaborative effort. My first book was a collaboration between myself and visual artist Robert Rauschenberg, who shares the center of that book with me like a binary star. His work was made using found objects and combining them into unified pieces. I think I likely took that method to heart in a lot of ways and see my writing as collaboratively created between me and the world, with “the world” meaning of course my own experience and what is in front of me, but also everything along the causal chain that created the conditions for the experiences I’ve had and continue to have. That means history, biography, legacies of creative and spiritual icons. This runs the gamut from reflecting on the legacy of the oppression my family must have perpetrated in the U.S. having been here for hundreds of years to remembering that time I bought my favorite coffee mug from a shed in Vermont for 25 cents. We like to hierarchize the causes that resulted in our coming into being, but the fact is we are, in this moment, the culmination of everything that came before, big or small, and that’s not only a major responsibility, it’s also an exciting source of possibility — how will we break the trend of negative causal conditions and how will we continue and enhance the trend of positive causal conditions?
In that way, writing ends up being a kind of tracing for me. Tracing backward, forward, to the sides. I am not terribly concerned with originality because I think the idea of originality is sort of bogus. Nothing you make or do or think actually purely starts with you. . .ever. This is something that is perhaps easier to understand in looking at the relationship between the work of an artist you find original and their biography. Almost any great artist can outline in detail what the influences were that led them to creating the work you might see as totally original.
This is something I think musicians sometimes understand better than poets. I played jazz for many years growing up and I think I inherited a lot of my ideas around form from learning to play within the 12-bar blues structure and the ways one can satisfy and circumvent and undermine the expectations of those listening to you by knowing the rules and where you can break them. Once when I got too fixated on playing within the “right” key my teacher proceeded to solo across the same chord progression using entirely chromatic phrases. When she was done, she said, “There are no wrong notes.”
Jazz musicians are also masters at citation and acknowledgment of the history of their craft within the practice of it, something that has become increasingly important to my work as a poet. Quoting other musicians or standards in jazz improvisation is seen as a mark of artistry. Quoting from those who came before you and those around you now shows you’ve done the work to know not only where you are and who you’re with but also how you got there and who made it possible for you to be there in the first place. And more than being able to talk about those influences off-stage, which is also important, the ability to seamlessly integrate these influences into your actual performance shows a deep commitment to your craft. So I do something similar with my own writing which borrows not only structure but language from writers and thinkers I admire.
But to get back to something that might more directly answer your question, I think queer people are constantly forced to take a given form or shape or structure and adapt it to fit the shape and size of their joy, an expansive and shifting shape the structures most of us live in were not built to accommodate. Every day, we inherit the forms in which we live and operate and we make decisions about how we are going to operate within those forms and systems. Poetry is no different. Whether it’s the series of poems focused on the major arcana of the tarot in my first book, the literal material and accepted structure of sonnets in The Wild Hunt Divinations, or the fractured and extended version of the renga in which I’m currently working, I am always interested in working within a defined field; when you have apparent boundaries, you are truly liberated to find the most creative ways to fill the space between them.
AL: The confluence of paganist, lyrical imagery and animalistic, rich, lewd sexuality from Shakespeare’s decidedly tamer subject matter is a unique way of blurring temporal concepts of sexuality. Your language bridges the present and the past with a medieval queer, kink-driven sexuality that we know little about, especially in the context of Shakespeare’s sonnets. What is your personal perspective on this queer, imaginative reworking of Shakespeare’s works – do you see it as resistance, a collaboration, a separate creation, or perhaps something else?
TK: I outlined in the previous question a lot of my thoughts on collaboration so for this one I might focus a bit more on the idea of whether or not I think the sexuality or eroticism I demonstrate in the book really exists as separate from Shakespeare’s sonnets. I mean the thing is Shakespeare’s work, especially his plays, can be pretty lewd. He loved a dick joke and innuendo, so I don’t know that my work is so far from his in tone, especially his tone within the context of Elizabethan England. It’s important to remember that Shakespeare’s work, again especially the plays, was meant to appeal to broad audiences and wasn’t necessarily meant to have the overly elevated aura we might associate with his work now. So, I’d say I definitely don’t see this as a resistance to Shakespeare himself, though it could be, in some ways, a form of resistance to the straight-washing of the sonnets as they became part of the Western canon.
But honestly, I wrote this project mostly because I was having fun doing it. I can easily rationalize and theorize now that it’s complete, but I kept writing these poems because I found the process engaging and liked the poems that were coming out of it. Maybe that has to do with some sort of subconscious pull related to an overall project of resistance or collaboration or something, but I’ll admit it wasn’t my aim at the outset or as I wrote. My aim was simply to write.
I’ll just end by saying I think that it’s important to note that any creative act is an act separate from any other act that came before it even if they share a source. It’s a bit like how any given staging of a Shakespearean play is different from any other staging even though the words will be, more or less, the same. This is true in large-scale intentional ways like changing the setting or era. But it is also true simply by nature of having different actors playing the same role even in an “identical” staging. I see a reader’s role in my work as at least as active as that of an actor in the staging of a play. What a reader brings to the book when they read is as much a part of creating or identifying the project of the book as whatever I, or any artist taking on this kind of project, intended. These poems were meant to be their own thing that could be enriched when seen in conversation with a reader’s understanding of Shakespeare’s sonnets. However, I didn’t want the enjoyment of or engagement with these poems or their queer language to require a reader to have deep knowledge of Shakespeare’s work.
AL: You utilize italics throughout The Wild Hunt Divinations, which does work to establish a rhythm and emphasize certain phrases, pronouns, and descriptive words. Can you tell a bit about why you chose to use italics in specific words throughout the collection?
TK: This is something an early mentor, Rebecca Lindenberg, pointed out to me once. I’d never really thought of my use of italics as being particularly unique but it seems like folks really grab hold of it which is cool!
The most boring use I have for italics is as a quote which only happens a couple of times in this book, both times quoting Jos Charles, I think. It can also indicate or imply dialogue.
The more interesting part (to me at least and what I think you’re pointing out here) is when I use italics to sort of set apart a word as a word. Often I do this before a colon and then follow with what, to my mind, is a kind of definition or exploration of the possibility of the word. I suppose, in part, I use the italics to indicate the abstract nature of the word itself, to pull it out of the material flow of language for a moment to look at it. In that way, it’s something of a spotlight and a pedestal, I guess. I’ve written this way for a long time without thinking about it much, so it is intriguing and a bit challenging to sort of outline what feels like a natural outgrowth of language and how I use it. It’s a bit like asking why someone walks the way they do or phrases something differently than you when having a casual conversation. If they think about it, they can get to a point where maybe they‘ll pinpoint one of the causes or influences. But when they’re walking they’re just walking. And when they’re talking they’re just talking. I guess I aspire to work that feels like that for me. Can what I’m writing just come out the way I’d say it? And while it might be difficult to believe (though maybe less so after reading this interview) a lot of the syntactical gestures and turns in The Wild Hunt Divinations felt incredibly natural to me to write and feel natural to me on the rare occasion when I read them aloud for an audience.
AL: You spoke a lot about the hope and success of the parameter-based and anagrammatic approach of writing, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Do you see this approach as being helpful in future projects and in your own life, concerning its previous professional and personal effectiveness?
TK: Oh, absolutely. I mentioned my current project which is a thousand-verse dokugin (or solo/lonely voice) renga that I write according to a daily writing practice. I only allow myself to write a single stanza (so either a couplet or tercet as the two alternate in a renga form) each day. I then break these stanzas across the page into five columns where each subset stanza still holds together as an image or syntactical gesture. Each page contains five stanzas so I end up with this five-by-five grid of smaller stanzas that can be read a near-infinite number of ways. It’s been really intriguing finding the relationship between the physicality of the grids and the content of the verses which focus on my day-to-day life, spiritual practice, and what I’m reading. It’s like if you distilled a journal until it became abstract and imagist. I recently passed the halfway point of 500 individual stanzas. Forcing myself to write so slowly (after the feverish, sometimes literally so, process of writing The Wild Hunt Divinations) is interesting in the context of a renga which, traditionally, was something of a party game and seen as an activity that yielded a commemorative poem encapsulating a specific gathering. Renga in Japanese have a sophisticated and complex set of rules that I’ll admit I’m not following in my own work, but I do try to use a regular syllabic pattern (a bit looser than the traditional interpretation of renga in English that follows a strict 5-7-5 7-7 syllabic count, which I instead thin out counting only stressed syllables), incorporate natural and seasonal imagery, and maintain the practice of turning each stanza hard enough that while it makes sense with the stanza before it or after it, it doesn’t make sense with the stanzas before the stanza before it or the stanzas after the one after it. The poems are capturing time in a really open way that I am loving and the experience of later wandering through the grids, even as the person writing them, is incredibly satisfying and often very surprising.
And I guess that’s the quality I look for in my work: surprise. And maybe one can see that in looking at my first two books and this description of my current project. I want to be surprised by my own work. Rauschenberg gave me a model for this actually. In 1964, after becoming the first American artist and, at the time, the youngest (and certainly still one of the youngest) to receive the Golden Lion, the highest honor at the Venice Biennale, for a series of screen-print paintings, Rauschenberg made a call to New York and instructed his studio assistant to destroy all the screens used to make the paintings. He did this because he hated the idea of repeating himself, and, I assume, the temptation to repeat work that was so highly lauded might have seemed too appealing. It was a fear worth having given how these prints were made at almost the same exact time as Warhol’s arguably more famous screenprints which Warhol would go on to repeat for the next 25 years. I aspire to the kind of radical refusal to repeat myself in my work that Rauschenberg embodied. I want to surprise myself with my own work. If my own work bores me then there’s very little hope that a reader will find it any more interesting than I do.
Anna Logan is a student at Wesleyan University pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree in English and Sociology. She is an intern with Wesleyan University Press and a poetry editor at The Lavender, Wesleyan’s student-run literary and arts magazine.