Lives Become Hashtags: An Interview with Vernon Keeve III
By Rochelle Spencer
About Vernon Keeve III
Vernon Keeve III’s home in Emeryville, California, reveals the intersections of nature and technology. A well-tended herb garden surrounds the outside of the house, while the interior–decorated with prints from graphic novels and equipped with a high-tech, voice-operated light and security system–showcases his love of the futuristic.
Keeve is the founder and curator of the Hydra Reading Series, a monthly speculative fiction reading series, and he’s a leader in the Afrofuturist movement, an aesthetic and social justice movement focusing on technology and the environment. Keeve describes Afrofuturism as a movement that is invested in the “possibilities offered for people of color, including their dreams and aspirations for the future.”
“Let’s proleterrify Oakland. Let’s put a rose garden in every neighborhood,” Keeve writes, and as a reader, you soon realize Keeve belongs to many communities: the Oakland community, the black community, the queer community, the Southern migrant community, and the ecopoetry community.
Keeve received the Zora Neale Hurston Award from Naropa University and is a contributing writer to Black Girl Dangerous. He earned his MFA from the California College of the Arts and a MA in teaching from Bard College. He teaches at the College of Alameda, and his first poetry collection, Southern Migrant Mixtape, was published by Nomadic Press this spring.
Rochelle Spencer: As a black Southern poet, how does nature inform your work?
Vernon Keeve: Nature was one of the first things taken from us. We were placed in nature, and we were forced to work in nature. And trees were places where we were hung. So, for black people, the relationship of sign to signifier is different. You don’t look at tree and see “arbor”; you hear Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit.”
Rochelle Spencer: Is that why, in your poems, nature and brutality seem to intersect?
Vernon Keeve: I was always aware of what my race meant in nature. Black people can’t approach nature in the same way white people do. When I lived in Virginia, the western part of the state is great for camping but it’s also very conservative, and being black and openly queer, I knew I had to look as straight as possible, and I couldn’t look “too black” or “too black and wealthy” or “too black and educated”—because this is where white people go camping.
But, at the same time, nature is in me, and I actually remember a lot of my life through nature. I remember mowing grass and the smell of grass and going camping with my friends. I remember hanging out past curfew, in nature. There is a saying in the South, “you smell like the outside,” and there’s this innocence where you actually get to be outside and experience nature freely.
I used to go outside in my yard and pick honeysuckle. I was 16 or 17 before I noticed the “neighborhood watch sign.” We were the first black family to move into our neighborhood and right after we moved there, they put a “neighborhood watch sign” up next to our house.
The South was a strange place, and I was so complacent, even though it treated me poorly. My town was a little more liberal than other places in the South—a sort of a bubble—and so I became complacent in the first place to hearing people call me “a nigger” or “a faggot.”
I’m going back for the first time in a year. These rural places still have a lot of closed mindsets, and I’m a little nervous, anxious, about going back for a visit. But this election has shown us that there is no bubble where we can feel comfortable—it’s time for us not to be complacent.
Rochelle Spencer: Your poetry includes some Southern historical figures and signs that would be familiar to some people (Nat Turner, General Lee, the confederate flag) and others of more recent history (Martese Johnson, a University of Virginia student who was brutally arrested) who may be less familiar. What is the role of history in your work? How does it deepen your discussion of the new American South?
Vernon Keeve: As a black queer man, I didn’t have the space not to include history in the text. I’m very pro-black; my blackness was my first marginalization. It’s always important to speak history into our work as black people. I got my MFA in fiction and have always written historical fiction with ties to the supernatural. With Martese, I went to the University of Virginia and had several incidents of having my car windows busted. It was a violent place for me, aggressive with racial divisions. The racism was allowed, and it was a racially divided campus each semester. The collection references BET (Black Eating Time) and BST (Black Study Time)—the expressions we had for when all black people went to the cafeteria or to the library together—because if you went somewhere alone in that school, you never knew what could get said to you. The racism, homophobia, and xenophobia made it a hostile place.
Rochelle Spencer: How does the act of writing respond to the racism and discrimination you’ve faced?
Vernon Keeve: Writing has been a place where I could explore my thoughts about all that was happening around me. It was the only safe space I had.
Rochelle Spencer: Your work references history but it also contains a lot of postmodern elements, including footnotes, diary-like entries, hip-hop references, and hashtags.
Vernon Keeve: This genre that I wrote in, Chance the Rapper could call this a mixtape because it’s my emotions and feelings jumbled up in a way that I couldn’t format linearly. I like to use footnotes when I want you to know exactly what I was thinking, instead of your inferring it. And I like hashtags because at the moment I was working on the collection, I was seeing a lot of lives become hashtags. I’m tired of seeing lives become hashtags but it’s become a kind of immortalization.
Everyone is using technology that gives them access to other people’s lives, but also numbs the truth by translating our lives into 1s and 0s, the binary code. So my poems include an analyzation of hashtags and the way we want to remember ourselves. Are we all becoming numbers or are black lives looked at as if they are data?
Rochelle Spencer: What’s next for Vernon Keeve?
Vernon Keeve: I’m actually working on fiction now. I’m writing a speculative fiction novel that focuses on a settlement founded by ex-slaves.
Rochelle Spencer is co-editor of All about Skin: Short Fiction by Women of Color (University of Wisconsin Press, 2014). Her work appears in the African American Review, Mosaic, Calyx, Callaloo, the Carbon Culture Review, the LA Review, Poets and Writers, and other publications. She is co-director of the AfroSurreal Writers Workshop and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
Header photo of shadows against wall by LoggaWiggler, courtesy Pixabay.