John Keene

Edited by Brittney Michelle Edmonds

Sui Generis: On the Genius of John Keene

Brittney Michelle Edmonds

“A Leap into the Void”: A Conversation with John Keene

Brittney Michelle Edmonds

Unembodied Blackness and Social Critique: John Keene’s Annotations

Phillip Brian Harper

The Black Experimental Impulse: Returning to Seismosis

Margo Natalie Crawford

John Keene’s Keywording

Kimberly Quiogue Andrews

Passagens Estranhas: Translating the Obscene with Hilda Hilst and John Keene

Brandon Menke

An Abstract Architecture: John Keene’s Counternarratives

Yogita Goyal

An Escaped Slave and a Good Person

Matt Brim

Mere Horizon: The Form of Desire in John Keene’s Poetics

Tyrone S. Palmer

A Thank You Note

Fred Moten


Those times when I stare
at the blank white screen or page
I may despair that I cannot show
or testify how much I love black
people and want other black people
and all people to love black people. But
it is enough to know deep in my soul
and heart how much I love black people
and to say and urge others to say
publicly that they love black
people which is to say that I have learned
to love myself and to love black people
and to recognize that despite all that
we face in the world from the moment
of our birth to the day we die
that even the black period that will end
this poem is a sign and seal
to me and anyone who cares
that I love black people.

From “Blackness”

John Keene's work is disarmingly personal. Its intimacy extends out from its invitation to think in tandem, to move together through thought propelled by deep and disciplined feeling, to be finally upended and relieved of comfort, complacency, chauvinism. Such work requires a rare, earned capacity for moral courage, untrammeled curiosity, and limitless respect for the inner and outer rhythms of social life. Keene's way is not the well-worn path, his way instead, as contributor Fred Moten writes, a "method of truth against method." Keene's oeuvre is a riotous quiet, restorative and alive; a bustling collective, brightly coherent and gleaming in its loose affinities; an arena of play, bounded so as to make possible a shared, eccentric questing. Several contributors approach these qualities through the register of generosity: in the sweep of Keene's literary and historical engagement, in the tableau of personalities that supply narrative to his writings, in the sidestep of frameworks long ago exhausted by routine and familiar rehearsal, and in his willingness to engage the treacherous deeps of the human interior. What inspires me most in Keene's work is its groundedness, its quiet confidence in the importance of intellectual and cultural work beyond careless or casual or opportune instrumentalization. This introduction, and the essays assembled in this cluster, provide a glimpse of this gifted artist's contributions, ringing out consonantly in celebration of his stunningly refined and protean career.


Annotations (1995) contains many of the stylistic hallmarks that distinguish John Keene's literary output. The slim volume, which numbers only eighty-four pages including notes, is separated into three sections, each with a title page bearing epigraphs. Yoked together by sheer intellectual verve and stretched betwixt tradition, genre, and century, the epigraphs assure readers that there will be something for everyone in what follows. The sections honor these opening promises with a gentle mischief, accessing the universal through spaces where too many have said (and continue to say) it cannot be found: the distinctly Black lifeworlds of Keene's Missouri childhood, the idiosyncratic Blackness of Keene's artistic and intellectual concerns, and the existential and philosophical quandaries that spring from and risk the void beyond the very situation of Western philosophy itself (slavery).1 This "highly elliptical and aphoristic text," as contributor Phillip Brian Harper notes, compels readers to adopt new perceptual and ethical modes that are properly suited to its "incontrovertibly Black" rhetorical and discursive strategies. Harper details Keene's use of repetition and alteration to dramatize the shifting continuities and discontinuities of Black life, especially as it tilts volatilely through postwar American cultural and political landscapes. As an early example of autofiction in the style of an experimental non-fiction künstlerroman, Annotations also relies upon repetition and alteration, and the reader's slow pedagogy through them, to wend through the contours of Keene's visionary mind. Though all his work hums with the faint undercurrent of an artist unraveling himself, Annotations is his most intimate and immediate. Upon re-reading the volume, I remained dazzled by what Keene calls the “deep structures” of his text, but I also noticed what those structures always only partially capture: a world written from and through memory still living within the changing inner life of the author who chooses, documents, and records. Across Keene's work this sensitivity to the chance of feeling to the choice of documentation to the open question of reception, to the changes thought bears across these modes, to the world-making (world-splitting) assumption of difference that is constitutive of Blackness, is brought to bear on the purposes of artmaking itself. Keene puts it this way: "Analysis involves a subtler mode of seeing."2 It's Keene's thoroughgoing commitment to analysis, and his textual efforts to enjoin readers in that practice, that most sign his work.

Seismosis (2003) challenges similarly. A collection of short writings, poems and philosophical musings, alongside abstract line drawings by Christopher Stackhouse, Seismosis is a collaborative work that interrogates artmaking from its inception in the mind to its material formation in the world, tracing the transit between the two modes and the various states of emotion that can accompany such movement. It's a difficult work. Concerned with the wages of abstraction and their purchase on Black life specifically, Keene and Stackhouse painstakingly engage the imposition of representational logics in Black art. Contributor Margo Natalie Crawford notes that the artists' affinity for "feeling free" in the work creates an "open space where blackness can be marked and unmarked." The artists are in practice together, in tradition together, but they do not always heed or answer each other's calls, which are sometimes not one: "The non-call" Crawford writes, "and non-response between the drawings and the words create a meditation on the nonlinear possibilities within lines." Another contributor, Kimberley Quiogue Andrews, approaches their practice from a different layer of abstraction, asking similarly but in a different register what it means to participate in a tradition or practice or culture when one is suspicious of them. Her reading of Seismosis interrogates the work's "sustained engagement with the specialized vocabulary of semiotics," detailing how and where Keene and Stackhouse raise questions about Blackness and art. I read Seismosis, and I'm drawn into intellectual community, into the opportunity to think with absent any imperative of destination or arrival. I read Keene's lines, I look at Stackhouse's line drawings, and I experience a form of non-mimetic recognition, the resourceful play of thought beyond the demand to provide answer to the history of Black subjects in the West.

Keene's translation of Brazilian author Hilda Hilst's Letters to a Seducer (2014) thrills in its errant provocations. More concerned with character than theme or narrative, with behavior than conscience or moral instruction, Letters to a Seducer follows the perverse improprieties of its protagonist Karl, a wealthy listless man, who lusts after his maiden sister through a series of pornographic letters. Keene describes his translation of the text as a kind of providential accident "When I started to read the book, I thought oh my gods, what have I gotten myself into?" that allowed him to find an even deeper connection to an author he already loved. Contributor Brandon Menke writes about the confluence between the two authors, citing Keene's own characterization of Hilst's influence on his work through "imaginative osmosis." Carefully tracing the influence of Hilst on Keene's work and the influence of Keene's work on his translation of Hilst, Menke examines why translation is such a productive and fruitful meeting place for these two artists who at first glance seem unlikely bedfellows. Widely praised for its lexical precision, Keene's translation emphasizes Letters to a Seducer's sensual and intellectual notes. Menke argues that Keene uses a queered concept of quilombo, which recurs across his own work, to "channel [Hilst's] unswerving desire to create the material and intellectual conditions for self-emancipation." When reading the text, the desire for sex or bodily pleasure is immediately felt in the syntax and rhythmic diction of the writing, but it nevertheless runs secondary to the voraciousness of the protagonist's need to communicate floridly, to express and claim and peacock and become through language. Keene's translation is remarkable for its ability to draw out the core obsessions of at least two writers (three if we include protagonist Karl, four if we include Karl's alter-ego) and is a further testament to his broad-ranging interests in literature, the philosophy of making, and the contagions of desire.

Counternarratives (2015) is a work of great beauty. Approaching the Americas in their full plurality, Keene's most celebrated work is also his longest, offering daring creative act after daring creative act in a variety of short prose forms. Each of the stories and vignettes, whatever their subject and range, are patient, interested in the self-interest of the characters whose narratives they carry. Some, like the book's opening story are a whisper, brief and suggestive; others, louder and longer, span continents and generations; most offer portraits of self-determination, circumscribed, foolhardy, optimistic, devilish, resourceful, and luck-borne, by turn. All occur against the backdrop of nations in tumult. Contributor Yogita Goyal describes Counternarratives as an expansion of a popular late twentieth century form, the neo-slave narrative and suggests that the volume "may be said to counter the insurrectionary genre [of the neo-slave narrative] itself."  In her careful hands, Counternarratives shines as a rigorous example of "speculative worldmaking," one indebted to a history of literary traditions from the Americas. Utilizing what she calls "literary ventriloquism," Keene remakes narratives of Blackness and the other by speaking back to the forms that would otherwise conscript Black life. Contributor Matt Brim approaches Counternarratives similarly, emphasizing the relationships Keene aims to establish with his readers as a crucial part of his revisioning and remaking. As he puts it, "Keene gives readers ways to imagine themselves in altered historical relationship." Whenever I read Counternarratives, I'm grateful for representations of Blackness that do not surreptitiously re-center dominance through easy formulas of resistance, excellence, joy, or otherwise, even when and where the narratives tell stories of Black people who are resistant, excellent, joyous, and otherwise. In Counternarratives, the narrative of Black life is never decided beforehand, its characters alive, their worlds in precarious tension with the unthought, their attention focused on the possibility not to overcome and not to triumph, but simply to live. 

GRIND (2016) is a short art-text collaboration between John Keene and photographer Nicholas Muellner. The slim volume contains photographs, mostly selfies of naked men in the style of social media or queer dating apps, alongside found text and original writing by Keene. Keene's words sit opposite Muellner's photographs, and Keene's short texts, spliced with unexpected metaphysical ruminations, communicate in the language of transactional desire, alienated intimacy, and banal profundity. Reading the work plunges readers into the highly specific language of a subculture where the language of sexual knowledge and the desire to be sexually acknowledged is in a decidedly masculine register and mode. I first read the short book in the special collections reading room at my institution. In that highly sanitized space, I was surprised by the explicit photographs but more by the unwitting vulnerability on the page. Beside careful poses and digitally altered photographs were phrases of desire, brief blinking acceptances of need. Here's an example:

small town
rather buff dork
no one
I’m a real cool dude

next door
searching for similar
over 30
till Monday

Personal descriptions read like confessions, personal desires like shame in a lighted room. I found language for many small, intuitive revelations while reading this work: that intimacy cannot be escaped only ignored, repressed, refused; that queer men negotiate and register masculinity in ways that are highly specific and somewhat opaque to those not engaged; that methods of self-presentation always carry within them traces of what we most desire. Mostly, I was grateful for what seems more and more like an increasingly rare literary experience, where I'm invited into a world that is not my own, with rules that I must discern through careful attention, with lessons and insight that nonetheless bang across the particularities of my life.

Punks (2021) is a selection of poems written across the length of multiple years. A recipient of the 2022 National Book Award for Poetry, the volume, like Keene's prose works, stuns in its range. As several contributors note, the volume feels somewhat different than what we might expect from Keene: the poetry is less abstract, more bodied; the intimacy is purposeful, tender; the people, alive and dead, are ordinary and special for it, and the self is wise, claimed and porous. The volume teems with myth, ritual, and sex. The volume remakes Boston in my queer mind's eye, and remakes also the queer haunts we know and knew. Contributor Tyrone Palmer zeroes in on Keene's formal play with desire, seeing in it a "dialectical interplay between 'the dissonance' and 'the blues,' between avant-garde abandon and pure pathos." Palmer celebrates the volume as an "omnibus" work and traces across its many forms, modes, and concerns, a meditation on desire, an explication of desire's formal qualities. When I asked Keene about the role of desire in his work, he had much to say, but he also emphasized that desire, even textual desire, is "about wanting to be with each other. Forms of sociality, forms of being, forms of thinking." However we approach Keene's multitudinous forms, we can be grateful for their invitation.

What an opportunity to celebrate this living artist's life and work. As Moten says, as we all must, "thank you."

Brittney Edmonds (@jussssjokes) is an Assistant Professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Her work has been published in African American ReviewMELUSSouth, and elsewhere. She is currently working on a book manuscript titled, Who’s Laughing Now?: Black Satire and the Evolution of Form, which provides a literary historical account of the substantial outpouring of Black satire after 1968.


  1. Keene's later masterwork Counternarratives opens with this epigraph, alongside others: "The social situation of philosophy is slavery." See John Keene, Counternarratives (New York: New Directions, 2015), 1. []
  2. John Keene, Annotations (New York: New Directions, 1995), 26.[]

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