An Interview with Robert Frede Kenter of Icefloe Press

Please describe your latest book, what about your book will intrigue the readers the most, what is the theme, mood?


Robert: My last book was Audacity of Form (2019). It was published by Ice Floe Press. It emerged out of late-night conversations with New-Orleans based photographer Julia Skop, who was the main caregiver for her sister, a well-known New Orleans dancer, Sara, then dying of cancer. The poem(s) and prose pieces, with a pastiche of Julia’s photos, and drawings by Toronto-based artist (and Ice Floe Press logo designer, Cathy Daley), evolved through 32 transformations. It was published in the summer of 2019 and is composed of two intersecting suites that deal with illness, love, friendship, family history, travel, grief, New Orleans, performance and music, working class economics, the Katrina Flood, and other elements. The book is designed as a series of set pieces and is an amalgam of poetic fragments/narratives.
Currently, I’m continuing work on a multi-sectional, (likely) multi-volume exploration of family histories which will deal with various sides of my family (whether it be Bobby, the carnival-circus performer, junkie, and cousin from Detroit, or reflective landscapes examining my European-Jewish ancestors, the relations between my parents & what I call “Mayhem” poems, dealing with my father etc.). The work is a multitude of voices and image-dense narratives, what a colleague of mine has described as, “a chorus of radical Jewish consciousness and layered imaginings, alternative versions of a Diaspora culture.”

What frame of mind & ideas lead to you writing your current book?


Robert: The work emerges out of narrative and out of fragments. It’s a searching landscape of violence, beauty, and expansiveness of dislocation and alienation, the amplified noise of displacement and its distortions. The historical journey of exile and Diaspora, intimate and intricate in interiority, was persistent growing up in a family where a swirling intensity of mental and physical abuse and illness and marginalization and isolation melded to rich vagaries of attenuated storytelling. Breathless is the search for naming. In geographic wandering, displacements contextualize and make sense of the mournful & the ineffable.

How old were you when you first became serious about your writing Do you feel your work is always adapting?


Robert: Seriously, I have a little flipbook I wrote when I was age 6. It was a story, Horses on Venus, that turned into a wild classroom recess improvisational game with my other outlier pals 😊. When I was about 12 to13-years-old, I was blown away by Allen Ginsberg. I went to see him perform at a local university, and around the same time, I saw an early Leonard Cohen concert, half music, half poetry reading. I used to read at local cafes & hung out with theatre-workers, Vietnam draft-dodgers in the little industrial city where I grew up. In early poems, I wrote odes to the polluted red sky of a town whose economic heart was immersed in the manufacture of steel. I wrote eco-poems about a love affair with a backyard tree, then mourned its death. I’ve always listened and gathered up what’s around me, and my work always changes. Some of the earliest pieces I’ve written, I’m just sending out now.
David, you published a couple of them in the beautiful Avalanches tribute to Leonard Cohen. One of them is “Song of a Healer.” I try different things, and right now feels like a very invigorating time in the world(s) of poetry. I’m very happy and feel grounded, blessed to be part of new emerging communities exploring poetics with an emphasis on discourses of radical change, rooted in vision and emotion. It is another reason I re-animated Ice Floe Press which had an iteration in the early 1990s when I got together a crew to put out Women Writing: An Anthology, a chapbook of NYC-based women poets involved in a curated reading series that included Kimiko Hahn, Cheryl Clarke, Pamela Sneed, Cheryl Boyce Taylor, and many others. We had a great packed launch in NYC at the Nuyorican Poet’s Café. In those early days I also published a book of stories by working-class NYC-based writer Ernie Brill, and a prose poem by then-emerging Canadian poet, Margaret Christakos.
Now, Ice Floe Press Managing Editor Moira J. Saucer and I are publishing amazing poets with world-wide platforms – from Nigeria, Ghana, USA, Canada, UK, Syria, Europe, on and on. I’ve found that the poetry communities on Twitter are rich, vibrant, and totally engaged, and many are carving out expressive spaces, joyful, celebratory, confrontational and aesthetically expansive. These new scenes are doing a great job of breaking down some of the old hierarchies, inducing a carnivalesque energy of DIY that is very exciting, despite the many dire things going on in the world from proto/fascism to the Anthropocene. All of it, of course, being interrelated.

What authors, poets, musicians have helped shape your work, or who do you find yourself being drawn to the most?


Robert: Oh, there are so many. Music encompasses a universe of possibility, joyful to write to. Whether its Texas-swing, ‘free-jazz’, atonal, orchestral, garage, field recordings, Northern Soul, Tex-Mex, African High-Life, No-Wave, etc. I like textured, complicated, beautifully realized, immersive music. Through listening – and at some points, involvement in music-based projects — I access the wonders of lyric, voice, breath, and sound, both recorded and live, soundscapes spark new ways of feeling and understanding; the embodied, kinesthetic, the numinous. In the musical pantheon, my go-tos include John Cale, Velvet Underground, Monk, Ornette Coleman, Count Basie, Louis Jordan, Nina Simone, the Ellington Orchestra, Biber, O.V. Wright, Sun Ra, Louis Jordan, Chopin, Coltrane, Dylan, Willie Nelson, Johhny Cash, the Carter Family, Nono, Billie Holiday, The Roots, The Animals, William Parker, John Cage, Brotzmann, Lighting Hopkins, Mark Lanegan, etc. (I could go on and on and on.)
With regards to writers, again, I don’t know where to begin: whether poets, novelists, essayists, hybrid creators, I like being immersed in highly textured writing. In our lifetime of the modern, post-modern, the apocalyptic, I contemplate the works of Celan, Brecht, Anne Waldman, Ngugi, Bulgakov, Virginia Woolf, Erin Moure, Adonis, Kamu Braithwaite, Don Mee Choi, Phil Hall, Amos Tutuola, Whitman, Olson, Burroughs, Genet, Nicole Brossard and Fred Wah, for starters. Again, I could go on and on.

What other activities do you enjoy doing creatively, or recreationally, outside of being a writer, and do you find any of these outside activities merge into your mind and become parts of a poem?


Robert: There are a range of activities that all seem to be part of a circular returning. Art making, reading, exploring visual art, taking photos. I’m all about gathering, listening, and weaving, the haunted, joyful, the juxtapositions and hybrids. And, when I can, I like to run. It depends on my energy at any given time in the cycle of living with ME/FM.

Tell us a little about your process with writing. Is it more a controlled or a spontaneous/freewriting style?


Robert: I often write in the middle of the night, i.e. two hours uninterrupted by hand on notebook paper. The images develop in narrative and associational patterns. From this process, I’ll engage in a long revision period until the piece(s) acquire voice and story and approximate a kind of musical-notational score. I return to older work, revisit, rewrite, incorporate, scatter, and coalesce. The work is performative – it comes out of body-physicality-and-memory.

Are there any other people/environments/hometowns/vacations that have influenced your writing?


Robert: Wow –I have always been ‘a traveler’. My goal though is not endless ‘movement’ from place to place, but focused and extended time in a locale of choice or circumstance, whether NYC, London U.K., Berlin, Los Angeles, Toronto, Montreal, Missoula, Montana, etc. The idea is also to ‘do’ something else there (work on a project, take some sort of ‘undetectable ‘job’ (ha that sounds like a radioactive half-life) that enables me to survive. There have been actual ‘travel’ writings as well, long cross-continental bus odysseys that are also generative.
People I’ve known and know, participate in the realization of my inner world and the parallels between the creative, the actual and the transformational. I engaged in the kind of ‘transformational’ world idea in my studies in theatre, esp., in the experiences I had studying with the Talking Band and the Wooster Group in NYC, many lifetimes ago. My sense of urgency, that poetry emerges out of witness and coalesces around community, prepares me for the silent and engaged relationship I have with performance. The shape and dynamics of the page and my inspired connection to my ancestors are all intersecting aspects that propel me, always grounded in a physicality, whether of possibility or pain, of rest and meditation. My visual art also feeds into my working process: whether it is drawing, photo-based digital work, VISPO, or painting, at some point, they all ricochet and are centrifugal to each another.
And somehow, I hope, we bring that informed sensibility to our work at Ice Floe Press.

What is the most rewarding part of the writing process, and in turn the most frustrating part of the writing process?


Robert: I have had a few periods in my ‘writing’ life where I simply was unable to write, or I didn’t know what I was writing, where it was going, or why. I guess those are periods of dormancy and transition. That’s not true these days so much. Ever since I was hit by a streetcar in Toronto, in 2014, I’ve been on a more steady roll of focused ongoing production, whether my own personal work, or working to re-centre Ice Floe Press and help create a space for a new generative community, an international family of artists who I hope find an engaging, interactive, non-alienating locale that is inspiring, a proximal zone for sharing and promoting work. You know, speaking of this accident-catalyst, my ‘ancestors’ pulled me ‘back’ from the brink of another world, and the TTC Red-Rocket streetcar formed a new metallic opacity of tautness in my thinking. I was KO’D, but got back up, this on top of a long era of social dormancy due to acquiring ME in the 1990s. After the onset of ME, I spent long stretches in isolation. Illness chiseled away at the foundation of my identity for many years fractured by more than a decade living in a kind of vicarious relationship to the world. Submerged, the external became largely about basic survival. When you are ‘down’, the system kicks you hard. I developed a deeper internal compass.
Even more than before I became ill, marginal, expressive, celebratory voices are the fountain I draw strength and inspiration from. Voices, elegant in expression of pain, rebellion, trauma and struggle most move me. I’m drawn to art positioned outside of the ‘ableist hetero mainstream,’ work where the creator(s) had to travel somewhere very deep, and remerge as witness and documentor. Both in a realist sense, or through expanded imagining and iteration, in the possibilities of fable.

How has this past year impacted you emotionally, how has it impacted you creatively if it all?

Robert: In the beginning of the 90s, my life was completely transformed by ‘a virus’ that was subsequently diagnosed as ME. I spent about a year (solid) in bed with high fevers which left me with a huge deficit of energy and a need to re-investigate what it means to be alive, from learning how to walk again to figuring out ways to make money in the Saturnine Depths of poverty’s marginalization. This year, 2020, with all its pain and variegated ruptures, I think I’ve managed vaguely well. Sometimes I feel like I’ve been in some advanced guard of the despairing and the ache for change that being sick exposes us to: the sedimentary process of sinking into the hopeless grind of capital and its insidious priorities etches into our deepest sensibilities and instinct.
We have been overwhelmed and sucker-punched by the terrifying last four years of dictator-mania, and what it means. Also, the swirling pain, world-wide, of the Pandemic has added new layers of trauma that oddly creates a whole new kind of shared experience (though the inequalities of economic division have been made even more evident as a main complexity/complicity of COVID).
I’m proud of what Moira and I, along with our team of co-editors, Adedayo Agarau, Jakky Bankong-Obi, Ankh Spice, Elisabeth Horan, and newest addition, Khashayar Mohammadi (Kramer) have been able to achieve inside the framed confines of 2020.
Moira and I went full steam ahead with our international year-long Geographies project, followed by the ongoing Dispatches from a Pandemic series, and finally, our triumphant collaborative Mother/Service/Voice project. We invited Jenny Mitchell, a phenomenal UK poet, who in her incisive body of work explores the Middle-Passage, British-Imperialism, the impact of slavery, indenture and institutionalized racism on contemporary UK life (with beautiful and brutal lyricism) to create a prompt for the series. It was our first open-call project with over 75 participating writers and artists.
When I think about it, I’m really pinching myself to realize that we have done so many rich and nuanced projects and attracted worlds of talent whose visionary works tie so sensitively and boldly into what is actually going on in the world(s) we share. I say all this with deep humility and awe, like we have somehow been a conduit for energies that pass through spaces of intention.
So, everyone reading, here’s a plug! Check out http://www.icefloepress.net for some kickass, overwhelmingly fierce, subtle, delicate, experiential, experimental and ruminative works of sensitivity and courage. We have published over 140+ writers and artists from around the globe. We have gathered a convergence of voices who have responded, magnanimously and polyphonically, to our various prompts, and we, at Ice Floe Press, under their formidable wings, have enabled the song, the roll out of daily and weekly anthology projects for the past year and a half or more. I think we are and have been building a reader-writer & art community. I live in wonder and gratitude.

  1. Please give us any promotional info for your work, social media, blogs, publishing company info, etc that you’d like to shout out.
    Robert: Well, as I say, we are thrilled and in awe at the gathering of voices that we have conducted, like electricity, to a ground swell of intersecting, joyful convergence. Ice Floe Press feels like a total blessing, a confluence of generosity of writers and chance elements. Again, to anyone reading thru this, please do come check us out our website.
    In addition to our on-line projects, we have recently published books by Nigerian-Canadian poet, Bola Opaleke (Skeleton of a Ruined Song); a full-length vol. of poetry, Boy, Bestiary, a ferocious extraordinary text by U.K. author, artist, musician and publisher of Burning House Press, Miggy Angel. Boy is a complex book about growing up in the estates of South London and ensuing gentrification. My own hybrid volume, Audacity of Form includes my writings and photo-works by Julia Skop, with digital paintings by Canadian artist, Cathy Daley. Upcoming volumes planned for 2021-2022 include: a full-length book of brilliant, edgy, poetic lyricism by Moira J. Saucer; a new chapbook of love and break-up poems from Welsh queer poet, David Hanlon; a hybrid of poems and drawings by Toronto poet and Floodlight publisher, Sam Strathman. A full-length book of VISPO and accompanying texts by Boston-based writer-artist Whiskey Radish is in the queue. Hand Book (Manual) will be a compendium of interviews, film script, misc. texts, art, letters, poems, theory and other surprises by the wondrous writing/directing duo of Lynne Sachs & Lizzie Olesker, exploring the making of and book project re-iteration of a film, Washing Society, about laundry-workers, that toured worldwide in 2019; also, Kushal Poddar’s ‘complete’ Lockdown Diaries in the form of an E-book (our first) is forthcoming. Jaclyn Piudik, NYC-Toronto experimental poet’s new chapbook, poems of mirrors and embodiment and many other projects are currently in development.
    Also, check out Adedayo Agarau’s New International Voices series of new works (essays, CNF), and Kramer’s anything goes column on experimental poetics reviews and Islamic poetics, called Subterranean Chatter. We have a bunch of other projects in development from a new web-series to a new e-book series, an Ice Floe Press reading series, TBA, and sundry. We think it’s gonna be awesome.
  2. How you come up with the themes, and all the artwork that goes into it?
    Robert: Themes for our projects emerge from us as individuals and collaborators. Moira and I talk a lot to generate the writing prompts and decide on future book projects. Then we meet as a team to talk over possibilities. This whole working process we have developed began with an invitation to be Guest Editors for the month of July, 2019 at Burning House Press (UK). Eli, Moira and I were deeply honored to be asked to put together a theme, which became Secrets and Lies. BHP is a creative, inspirational ‘monster’ of a site, now in a semi-hiatus, which has archived all of the work by writers, artists and curated projects. A publisher of edgy, innovative, queer and anti-oppressive experimental/political writing and art, BHP has been a catalyst for many creatives for at least a couple of years, if not aeons. It’s worth visiting the site, and I expect it will likely emerge in a new iteration any time soon, under the mentorship of its founder, Miggy Angel.
    Thinking more about Ice Floe, when it comes to the art component, the creation of banners, Moira and I talk over visual possibilities and both contribute work. I have an enormous library of generative images that I have made over the years and continue to create. They are the ‘working’ material for manipulation and are largely thematic, atmospheric, non-programmatic. We intuitively select relational art to accompany the curated texts, whether a digitally altered photo, a painting or a VISPO. I believe, between myself and Moira, we have embarked on a once-in-a-lifetime partnership, a form of cross-pollinating of collaboration and energy magic that is so rare, and that I know is a blessing. It is a dream from which I hope to never awaken. 😊
    At times, we also ask contributors to provide us with their own images, and there will definitely be further iterations as we move forward into 2021. I also like to ask visual artists whose work I admire such as Cathy Daley or UK photo-artist, Robynne Limoges, and most recently, German photographer Vera Schmittberger to contribute and participate with their own energies and visual templates.
    Toronto-based poet Jaclyn Piudik is currently putting together a project on “Bodies” for the online blog for Spring, 2021. Montana based triple-threat MS Evans is also working on a project for the blog. We finalize prompts and choose whom to invite and when to open for submissions in a gentle, collaborative way that I hope provides a sanctuary, a welcoming engagement of energies in a competitive literary/art field. We are interested in moving beyond hierarchies and aim not just for ‘publishing’ for its own sake, but in choosing projects and interrogating them with breadth and interactivity and encouraging writing-as-a-gathering space rather than a zone of stress, competition, and alienation. I think this is why we attract such intense, hard-hitting and personal work, and it is what makes Ice Floe Press, hopefully, a project of merit that shall continue into the future.
    The magic that is indeterminate, underground, and symphonic in its scope, concerns, and international contexts feels like a gift to continue to nourish and nurture. To conclude, though I now live in Toronto and Moira is living in Alabama, the focus for Ice Floe Press is international, and collaborative. That’s the mandate.

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https://icefloepress.net (e version) Twitter: @icefloeP @frede_kenter