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May We Present… Kevin Kantor’s Please Come Off-Book

May We Present… Kevin Kantor’s Please Come Off-Book

Author: Willem Finn Harling

March 23, 2021

Welcome to May We Present…, a column from Lambda Literary that highlights authors with recent or forthcoming publications. Please welcome to the stage Kevin Kantor and their debut poetry collection, Please Come Off-Book, published on March 23rd by Button Poetry. Please Come Off-Book tackles numerous vital themes through a queering of the theatrical canon, while confronting the structures that be and envisioning a future that disrupts them.

Unapologetically bold and affecting, Please Come Off-Book is an example of the thrilling work interdisciplinary artists can produce. Through clever and thought-provoking poetics, Kantor has managed to simultaneously write a love-letter and a searing review.

Below, Kevin Kantor discusses what makes spoken word so engaging, reveals which of their senses they’re most inspired by, and offers a message for creatives who haven’t been feeling very creative during the pandemic. 

When did you realize you had to create Please Come Off-Book?

Please Come Off-Book

The year after I got my undergraduate degree in acting, I spent about nine months bouncing all around the country reading poems, mostly at colleges and universities and slam and spoken word venues. And after nine months of booking my own readings and travel–one week I had readings in Bellingham, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Baton Rouge, in that order because an experienced tour manager I was not–I was already missing theatre. There’s a phrase often touted by theatre practitioners under the guise of self-care and preservation, “If you can do anything else, do that.” What they really mean is, “By choosing this career path you are cosigning to a system that will continually disregard you and pit you against the very peers you will be asked to collaborate with due to a scarcity model imposed by a country that doesn’t value its artists… you cool with that?”

Anyway, I missed theatre. I was accepted into the apprenticeship program at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, home of the Humana Festival of New American Plays, as I’ve always had a passion for developing new work. I was the first non-cis acting apprentice in the company’s 40-or-so year history and my experiences there, and the work I’ve done in regional theatre that I can trace back to that apprenticeship, are largely the nucleus for Please Come Off-Book.

What did you discover about theater and acting through the lens of poetry?

Inversely, there’s something I took from training as an actor when writing Please Come Off-Book. There’s this playwriting principle and a question often asked when rehearsing a play regarding urgency. Ostensibly, the lives of characters exist beyond the limits of when we see them on stage, so the question becomes, “Why this moment? Why this day? Why this particular 90 minutes of these characters’ lives?” I think much of the collection is born of that sense of urgency, a need for a witness to these particular moments, whether that need is catalyzed by tenderness, trauma, joy, or transformation.

The poems in Please Come Off-Book come in a variety of poetic forms. What do you consider to be the relationship between a poem and its shape? How do your poems take shape?

I have always been inspired by playwrights who experiment with the page when writing dialogue. What meaning does empty space or a line break or words overlapping carry, not only visually on the page, but also when those words are coming out of someone’s mouth? Poetry, even on the page, is both a visual and aural medium, and so I’m also inspired by visual art, by scenic design. The stage and the page, they’re both canvasses. World-building within a liminal space is a facet that ties all of those mediums together, so I enjoy playing with invented form, setting the stage. For example, a longer poem made up of short, quiet couplets — those are the lights coming up on a very slow fade.

In this collection, you blend activism with the personal and trauma with humor. Recognizing the capaciousness of poetry, what advice would you give to someone interested in trying their hand at poetry?

I do believe, whatever medium may speak to someone, that we all have a great capacity for storytelling. The advice I offer, gifted to me by one of my mentors, Ken Arkind, and repeated in one of the poems in the Please Come Off-Book, is this: “Art is not good or bad. It is honest or it is not honest.” And only we can be true evaluators of how honest we are being in our art. Tell me a story as only you can.

As someone who does spoken word, what do you think spoken word offers that reading or writing poetry does not?

My first earnest interactions with poetry were with spoken word (shoutout to the Denver community, The Mercury Café) and it’s still the format I find most engaging. Not that I believe there’s a particular style, voice, or poetic form intrinsically associated with spoken word. I just want to be read to aloud. Read me your villanelle, your epic, your dirty limerick, your protest. I enjoy witnessing storytellers telling stories. It’s the literal space held, that’s the difference. When I call myself a spoken word poet, the moniker has far less to do with the fact that I perform, that I speak my poems, but rather my dedication to finding and fostering spaces for those stories to live within and be shared. Spoken word challenges the mythos of writer-as-hermit a bit (if that’s your process, no disrespect) and re-centers community.

Which of your senses (touch, sight, smell, taste, etc.) do you take the most inspiration from?

Sight. As an actor and a non-binary person, I am often examining the semiotics of the body on stage, in performance, simply existing. I have a forced acute awareness of what the dominant culture insists are limitations on the stories I can tell while inhabiting a certain gender expression. I find myself often writing in reaction to my presence (as self, as character, what have you) being willfully misinterpreted and assigned a narrative value before I’ve had a chance to speak. For an industry seemingly predicated on imagination, make-believe, play pretend, it’s staggering how often creators operate in service of tired visual archetypes, allowing archaic optics to do the storytelling for them. Obviously, I am inspired by the act of theatre-making, which, as a live performance art, embodies all the senses, but when I put my poems to page I am often thinking about setting a stage, the story I am able to tell by the picture I create, and the people I choose to populate those scenes.

The pandemic has greatly impacted the performing arts. What are some of the most creative and memorable ways you’ve seen performance artists adapt and continue to produce work in the face of the pandemic?

There have been folks who have done some truly stunning work, have rallied, have been innovative and persevered (Jared Mezzocchi, Sarah Gancher’s RUSSIAN TROLL FARM, FAKE FRIEND’s Circle Jerk, Will Wilhelm’s Teacakes and Tarot). But for my part, I am not one of them. I have been sad. I applaud and am in awe of the people who found a way to be generative during the pandemic—and I write to you, adding my voice to the chorus of folks who have said, “Nope. Not me.” I admittedly have had to look away, so I can’t speak to or imagine how some of the folks I mentioned above managed to create during this time, but I believe we can learn a great deal from them about what is possible. Not me. Not now. Just not yet. I’ll get there. Hey reader, if you feel like me — we’ll get there.

Who are some interdisciplinary LGBTQ+ creatives you look up to?

Ten years ago I was in a play by Jen Silverman who, at the time, was an MFA candidate at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop (there’s a poem the collection inspired by that play), and from that time I’ve been an ardent admirer of her work. She has written across genres (her debut novel We Play Ourselves was just released, a collection of short stories, plays of course) and there’s poetry in all of it. All of her plays are poems. And now I’m going to use this space to shoutout trans and gender-expansive playwrights and theatre practitioners. Read them, know them, love them: MJ Kaufman, Basil Kreimendahl, Will Wilhelm, Shualee Cook, Maybe Stewart, Kit Yan, Azure D. Osborne-Lee.

Lastly, what’s the one line from Please Come Off-Book that you just can’t get out of your head?

From ‘ALL THE WORLD’S A STAGE’: what then when even I / cannot afford a ticket / must choose between / the cost of living and / the cost of being seen

I believe my queerness to be inherently anticapitalist and the American theatre is deeply and masochistically entrenched in capitalism, so it stands to reason my queerness is at odds with the American theatre. This year, arts institutions have been forced to innovate in once-thought unimaginable ways to survive. I expect whenever we return to some semblance of in-person programming, that some of that innovative energy turns its attention to rectifying practices that have too long upheld inequity and have barred communities from seeing themselves, having their stories told and celebrated, and have mistreated the artists who have been dedicated to that work from jump.

Willem Finn Harling photo

About: Willem Finn Harling

Willem (he/they) is a student at the University of Chicago studying Gender and Sexuality Studies and Performance Studies.

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