Featured Writer: JL Kato

Interview by-Natalie Solmer

JL Kato is a retired newspaper copy editor. His poetry collection, Shadows Set in Concrete, was selected as a Best Book of Indiana in 2011. A longtime ambassador of the literary arts, he was chosen as 2022 Literary Champion by the Indiana Authors Awards.

JL and I conversed over email earlier this month:

NSCongratulations on receiving the 2022 Indiana Authors Literary Champion award! This award was well deserved. Ever since I moved to Indianapolis in 2004 and started to get involved in the poetry community, I noticed your contributions in a multitude of places. You were a moderator of the Indiana Writers Center Poetry Salon, you have worked as an editor of the literary journal Flying Island and organizer for readings, including being a past president of Etheridge Knight, Inc. and Brick Street Poetry, and you still attend and support poetry readings throughout our community. What does receiving this award mean for you?

JLK- The award was a shock to me because I never expected it. It’s not something one applies for, and it never entered my mind that what I was doing deserved recognition. Oh sure, I have a vague memory of someone mentioning that I would be nominated for the award, but at the time I didn’t think I was doing anything that deserved statewide recognition. Besides, I believed the award was for organizations that had funding to do the things they wanted to do.  And then the pandemic hit and shut down most activities. I forgot all about the award.

I started to do all the poetry things you mentioned—and more—because I wanted to learn from creative people and be among them. When I started volunteering, I had no idea what literary arts organizers did or how they operated. When I began asking prominent poets to give readings at local libraries and events, I didn’t know enough to be afraid to ask. I just did it, and surprisingly, most accepted my invitation. Even though I aligned myself with organizations, I was always operated outside those organizations and tried to bring different poetry communities together.

I would like to think receiving the Literary Champion Award reflects well on all the literary arts organizations and individuals who participated in events and who discovered and collaborated with one another. I thank the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Awards and Indiana Humanities for validating the accomplishments of these individuals and organizations.

NS- All of the contributions you have made take time and work—time and attention away from your own writing. I struggle with this conflict myself, especially as an editor, which is a notoriously stressful (volunteer!) position. I started The Indianapolis Review in order to give back to the poetry community instead of just taking and only focusing on publishing my own work; however, one does get burnt out! How have you handled the stress of editing a journal, organizing events, etc. while being a parent, writing, working, etc.?

JLK- When I took a creative writing course in high school, the teacher took me aside to praise my work. She said if I wanted to develop my talent, I would need leisure time. Leisure time? I had all the time in the world. Time for college, a stressful (but satisfying) job, a marriage, and four contentious teenage daughters in a house with one bathroom. I did not understand what leisure time meant until my children left home, and instead of driving my kids to soccer, softball, swimming, and marching band practices, I had time to write. Besides being an empty nester, my employer laid me off, which added more leisure time to my schedule.

So I began churning out wretched poetry. I realized I didn’t know what I was doing, so I attended open mics to learn how to breathe life into my spoken poems. I edited my poems based on audience reactions. To improve my writing, I knew I had to seek poets who were more talented than me. That’s when I discovered the Writers Center Poetry Salon, which at the time was run by Richard Pflum. Regular attendees at the time were Steve Roberts, Rohana McCormack, and Gaar Scott. With this group I learned the value of receiving and giving criticism.

To keep track of all the events I wanted to attend, I created a personal calendar, which I soon shared with the community. By maintaining a schedule of poetry events, I tapped into communities of poets and organization in central Indiana. Communities, not community, for it was evident not much overlap existed among the groups. So I began to visit the various communities. The first was Etheridge Knight Inc., dedicated to an annual festival in memory of Etheridge Knight, one of the first local poets whom I learned to admire. I met the founder, Eunice Knight-Bowens, who was Etheridge’s sister. I volunteered to run its monthly open mic series, with co-host Jody Rust. Well, you know, if you insist on helping a nonprofit group, sooner or later you’ll be drafted into a leadership position, which is what happened to me. Working on the annual festival led to encounters with Terrance Hayes, Amira Baraka, Mari Evans, the Affrilachian Poets, and several other writers.

I also founded a monthly poetry series in 2004 at the Education Center of Tipton. After a year, the series ended because of poor local attendance. More poets from Indianapolis than Tipton attended. But those dismal gatherings inspired local resident Barry Harris to create the Tipton Poetry Journal, which is still in circulation.

At this point, my efforts began to resemble work, and my writing output suffered. But the tradeoff was learning the craft from experts. At the time, I was still organizing independent events.

Meanwhile, my wife, Mary, took an interest in quilt-making. Both our interests took us away from each other. To remedy that situation, we came up with a joint project that combined poetry and quilts. Poetry in Free Motion paired a poet with an art quilter who took turns inspiring each other. One year, the poet would be prompted by what a quilter did, and the next year, the quilter would create fabric art inspired by a poem.

Still, burnout reached a critical point just as the pandemic lockdown started. I withdrew from Brick Street Poetry, suspended the Poetry Salon (which I took over after Richard Pflum’s death), and resigned as poetry editor of Flying Island. Because of health and family concerns, I have not been able to resume any of these activities but manage to work from home being one of the judges for the annual prison poetry contest of the Indiana Woman’s Press Club of Indiana and as a judge for the Scholastic Writing Awards.

Bee costume for youth poetry workshop

NS- Besides supporting the writing of others, you have also managed to produce beautiful work of your own. Your book, Shadows Set in Concrete, which chronicles your experiences as an immigrant, won the poetry prize for Best Books of Indiana in 2011. You talk about this book and your writing process in a wonderful interview with former Indiana poet laureate, George Kalamaras in 2015. You spoke of how your writing process takes time—the poem comes to you, you write it down and then put it into the “bone pile” to let it ferment. I love the imagery in this and can relate—it often takes years for me to work out a poem and where it needs to go. You also spoke about how your writing has been changing and becoming more image based and less narrative. I would love to hear about what you are currently working on and how your writing process has continued to evolve. 

JLK- I’m not a credentialed creative writer. I rely on instinct. As such, I am capable of not realizing what I don’t know and that I can embarrass myself, which is why it takes me a long time to write. I like to workshop. I take other people’s comments to heart, even if I don’t believe it’s an enlightened comment. Even if the workshop criticism is unfair, it’s no different than the random reader who picks up a book in a store, flips through a few pages, and dismisses the work. I take that as a challenge. How can I hold someone’s interest? How can I convince a reader to invest the time it takes to perceive what the poem is trying to say?

My current poetry relies less on narrative and more on imagery and lyricism. Much of it is based on dreams. I have the unhealthy habit of waking up after two to four hours of deep sleep, remembering the dreams. One such recurring dream (a nightmare, really) was the inspiration for “The Cutting Room,” which The Indianapolis Review published in 2020. It lay at the top of my bone pile heap for several years. Each image, some repetitive, represented a repressed memory of sexual abuse I suffered as a young child. After years of rearranging the images (literally cutting and pasting), and juxtaposing scenes to elicit different responses, it finally fell into place. The strange thing is that after declaring the poem finished, I never had that dream again.

One of my current projects involves collecting humorous clickbait headlines to construct a poem. For example:

Are UFOs just future humans watching us?

Michigan priest who temporarily died

claims he went to hell and saw demons

enslaving humans, torturing them

with Rihanna music.

If your cat vomits do this

NS- You worked as a newspaper copyeditor for 31 years and have said that you came to poetry later in life. What advice can you give to poets who are just starting out, especially those who may not be following the traditional track of pursuing an MFA at a young age?

JLK- The first poems you write will be terrible. That is understandable. Keep writing.

Don’t be in a rush to publish a book. Concentrate on your craft.

Read and support other poets. After all, you would want them to do the same for you.

Share your work at open mics or critique groups.

Learn to accept criticism, even comments that seem unfair. Learning to discern whether that criticism is useful or unwarranted will help you evaluate other poets’ work. As you improve, remember to revise your expectations.

Seek a mentor, or at least someone willing to read your poems objectively. Find someone whose writing you admire. This person should not be a close relative or friend, who will lie to avoid offending you.

Retain your sense of humor. If writing becomes too stressful, stop. Nap. Eat. Enjoy what you like. Then dive back in when you’re ready.

NS- What do you see or hope the future of poetry in Indiana looks like? We are a state that gets a bad reputation (for some very real reasons), and Hoosiers are often overlooked in the poetic and artistic landscape. Another motive for me in starting The Indianapolis Review is to let the world know that we do have poets in Indiana! Do you have any thoughts or wisdom to share about the direction poetry in Indiana is taking or where we should be going? 

JLK- Poets in Indiana tend to overlook or ignore other poets in the state. What frustrates me is not the lack of quality poets, but the lack of awareness of those poets. I’ve talked to several spoken word poets who dismiss poets from academia, and academia poets who haven’t heard of Alyssa Gaines, the Indianapolis poet who was the 2022 National Youth Poet Laureate. I still argue with traditionalists who insist poetry must rhyme. And how many Hoosiers can’t name an Indiana poet other than James Whitcomb Riley?  How many know what a poet laureate is, and who the current Indiana laureate is?

When I visit schools, one of the things I ask students is how many of them heard or recited a poem today? Then I ask them to name the last song they heard or sang. And who do you think wrote the lyrics? I hope they become aware how poets are so vital to their lives.

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