Randy Keener: The Wild and Wonderful Wordsmith of West Virginia

The first, fabulous time I saw Randy Keener sing I stopped mid-sentence.  It was at an acoustic open-mic night and I didn’t expect to be floored by a man with a beard and a baseball cap, but I was burked by his beautiful blurbs, captivated by his chronicles, solaced by the stories he so unselfishly shared.  To call him a storyteller is selling him short – Randy Keener is a wise, wonderful wordsmith, a prodigious poet, a musical minstrel.  His lyrics should be seen and read in revered reprints, studied by students, esteemed by everyone.

Whether he’s signed up to sing on stage or strumming and belting on a back porch, Randy Keener can captivate a crowd.    He doesn’t just sing songs to be background music while you’re having a beer at a bar – he paints a pleasing picture and beckons you to partake in it.  He sets a scene and summons your soul to see it for yourself.  He takes you on a trek and asks you to trespass with him to times that he is brave enough to tell about.   Randy Keener invites you into his house and always leaves the door unlocked.

In his bio he concludes “I consider both music and language a gift but music is a gift in the sense of gifting and language something achieved in labor. Music is a rapid transit system and a quick escape and initially, for me was non verbal. With slight hyperbole, I hardly said a word until I was forty.”  Lucky for us Mr. Keener opened his mouth, and not only managed to meander through words, but music as well!

Earl has won numerous awards for his poetry, including the 2006 Tallahassee Writers’ Award, the Penumbra Award, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He has published widely and conducts workshops, mostly in the haiku genre, having traveled to Japan as the winner of the Fifth Shiki International Haiku Contest.  Additionally, his work will be appearing in an anthology published by the Ehime Cultural Center in Matsuyama. An internationally known poet, he is gaining attention as a songwriter as well. In 2003 he was a finalist at the NewSong Festival for “A Cowboy Song,” and again at the Oklahoma Songwriters One Voice/One Instrument Contest for “A Tribute to John Lennon.”  He has three CD compilations, The Trinket Box, Ultraviolets, Inter/Mission – and a fourth in the works.

Sara Fincham: How long does it take you to write a song?  Are you a stream of consciousness writer or does a version go through many laborious edits before it feels finished?

Earl Keener:  It varies dramatically from decades to years to months/weeks/days/hours. I rarely give up on a piece/fragment/shard/ of music. A lot of what was written in youth, while immature or incomplete or undisciplined — carries itself forward as a kind of connection/bridge/link to what I am. I enjoy co-writing with my selves, and that link of recollection. It sharpens the sense of personal myth and helps me to weave a tapestry of my warp and woof.

I like the idea of personal myth because I think a tree in the forest is just as valuable or interesting as a tree in the park. Like every consciousness I blink on and off as my creativity gets short-circuited by the necessities of life. But I keep coming back to it because of the charge. It’s a habit that has become a necessity, though the light in the theater, or my eye sight is becoming more unstable/erratic/less predictable.

I am a stream of consciousness writer but I am my personal cartographertoo, and it is easy to be deceived by the pin prick moment, the bubble that mirrors in miniature the whole of creation. The stream of consciousness ought, at some point, if one has lived a number of years, to widen and deepen into a river or trickle into some sort of vegetative dark continent of the soul. Even a puddle mirrors the sky/imminence/transcendence. Why shouldn’t the common man?

Ah, but not everybody values, or even considers such — and maybe that I do (though I am a minor disciple/somewhat failed/somewhat /resignedly determined fellow) is a product of having been, what in larger societal circles would be considered dysfunctional. An undiagnosed, though self-examined, reclusiveness that taught me to value silence as the source of all sound and soundings.  But the short answer to the latter part of your question is, that just as a stream/creek/ changes the shape its bank from year to year, so to, my songs will undergo minor and major renovations contractions/expansions with time. There are years where I disappoint myself, but even the erosions of that year sometimes develop into more effusive/effluvial channels.

SF:  When you write, do you write by poetry guidelines, such as following haiku standards, or do you write more towards songwriting standards, as in every second and fourth line must attempt to rhyme?  And is it hard for you to write outside of poetry – was the transition a struggle at all?

EK:  I don’t think much about that. I always start with a journey that
is a musical passage. The words come later and are much more of a labor
generally, that the swift current of the music. After the music is sounded/composed/more or less I almost always wait for a picture or pictures to come into my head which clue me into what the music is about.

Haiku has helped in facilitating the process because I’ll write several haiku about the picture and then explode the haiku into a lyric. I get weary of the rhyme thing but still generally meet the expectation of a listener’s ear, but I am particularly pleased when I get away with a rhyme that is more consonant or distant than the ear thinks it wants. Early in writing (songs) I often wrote each note as a syllable of a word and then had to figure out what word would fit– not because I was clever–but because this is the only way I could do it. My playing style is strange and at the time …

SF:  At what point did you decide you wanted to share your songs, or was that the goal from the beginning?  I mean to ask did it start out as you were just writing songs for yourself or was it the point to perform?

EK:  An apple tree doesn’t consider the sharing. My favorite part of the Wizard of Oz was the apple tree scene. But, one day, circa 19eighty something I was sittingat home composing something and probably through a (self-diagnosed)
mental breakdown –the outcome of which was to do a 180 degree reversal from
a walk in an enchanted forest and back to the metropolis of civilization
and communicate the findings of my exploration/the narrative of having been
spellbound/the Odyssey/or whatever name I might, at the moment call it—
I realized I wanted some of the stuff to be heard. I valued it as a means of
communication, which also meant that I’d need to learn how to communicate.
After that my lyrics were less excapist, and mumbly things, though empirically,
I think we all know there is a niche and a corner, a peak and a valley a particular
shade and light for everything in the world, the setting that might give it’s ideal
showing.

SF:  What is it about poetry that draws you to it, that makes it something you want to do more than read, that you want to write?

EK:  Poetry/language especially is more than the sum of its parts. Well so is
music–I write as a Darwinian fisherman might fish, to see what’s at the end of the line.  To learn something. Though learning, too is also suspect,( I sometimes think we haunt various cocoonal stages of metaphor in order to skip our way cross time, hoping in each interval for something to cling to as we morph toward the next thing there is to survive. But reading is just as important as writing. One must know the tools of one’s craft. But I read much more than I listen (in the formal/public sense). I make the distinction because I think I am somehow always listening to something inaudibly profound.

SF:  Songs can be very poetic.  That’s what I’m drawn to – I’m drawn more to lyrics as opposed to music, which is why I have pursued you so passionately.  I remember listening to Guns N Roses, which had the attitude and rock rhythm, but with such lovely lyrics and I remember being blown away by that balance of “she’s got eyes of the blues skies as if they thought of rain” blaring from rock riffs.  This is not even a question!  Let me see – my point was your style of writing.  Stylistically you are so personal yet powerful, probably because you’re so personal.  Have you learned anything about yourself?

EK:  I’ve learned to value the mystery. I’ve learned that in remaining fascinated,
I rivet myself to something larger.

SF:  In your bio it said you don’t write because you’re ambitious, but because it’s necessary and natural to you.  When did you begin writing and discover that it was something that served a personal purpose for you?

EK:  At an early age I was left alone a lot. I learned to love aloneness. I learned
to recognize it as the natural condition of humanity, no matter how connected they thinkthey are. The knowledge has helped me in my relationships, and it has helped me to understand why people dash the beauty of their uniqueness in o so many differentways. It helps me to understand the Japanese sense of mono no aware, and of William Carlos Williams — no ideas except in things.  And while I wish I’d been born with more talent, I am pleased that I did not waste the little bit of geni that I had.

Randy Keener

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