Love Letter to Milwaukee:
A Conversation with Kavon Cortez Jones
On a mild afternoon in early May, I sat down with poet and performance artist Kavon Cortez Jones to discuss his spoken-word rhapsody, “A Love Letter to Milwaukee.” To hear his hypnotic rendition of the poem (or monologue, as he calls it) click here. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
DS: “Love Letter” has a joyous quality, even when it acknowledges serious problems like racism, gun violence, and segregation. Is that joy part of your philosophy of poetry? Or are you just a happy person?
KCJ: I think in the monologue I always try to balance the bad with the good. I talk about drinking and partying, but then I talk about where I came from—like Black Lives Matter and the shootings—but I always try to be optimistic. I have evolved from my very impoverished, very segregated, dilapidated past, and so I still want to honor that within me but become a better person from what I was.
DS: What role do you think this poem played in your evolution?
KCJ: I’m able to recite it anywhere and people will instantly know all about me and a little bit about Milwaukee, if they haven’t truly experienced it. A lot of people in Milwaukee . . . we stay in our boxes. We don’t go to art galleries, to Drink & Draw sessions, we don’t sit down with people to actually talk. A lot of people don’t sit down with themselves and write, don’t check back in with themselves. And so this love letter, it kind of tells my story but at the same time it tells everyone’s story. When I’m writing something, especially about Milwaukee, I don’t want anyone to be left out. I want the brown folks, the Black people, the White people, I want everyone! And so just by generally putting Milwaukee in the title, anyone can connect with that, even from outside of the city. But in the city, Black kids can connect with it, White kids can connect with it. As I mentioned, all the zip codes, Bronzeville, 53206, the east side, Rochambo, coffee shops . . . people hear those names, it’s like an instant indicator: “I’ve been there! I’ve been to Rochambo! I grew up in 53206 in Bronzeville!” and all the other stuff. Dr. King Elementary. That’s where I came from.
DS: Do you imagine yourself performing a poem as you compose it? Or does that come later?
KCJ: Usually I know when a poem is done. And so already in my head when I’m reading a monologue I’m already picturing the movements—my arms and my legs and my voice—once I get on stage. I just practice over and over until it becomes natural. The words kind of tell me what to do and so [reciting:] “I love you Milwaukee. I love your coffee shops and art galleries . . . / Fuel Cafe where I experienced my coming of age among hipsters and punks/ people-watched, inhaled the rich redolence of coffee./ Var Gallery where I sip Stella's hard cider, compose naked posers/ in a Fibrano sketchbook. Cristina behind the bar dishing out bottles./ I love your narrow corridors, Brady Street, nestled in Rochambo,/ college kids with opened textbooks and laptops. Arabic men at the tea tables/ watching soccer matches from an overhead flat screen./ Long-haired Bohemians in tie-dye”—so I didn’t have to think, because this all came natural, just telling me what to do.
DS: Do you practice your poems periodically in order to retain them, or do they just stay in your memory?
KCJ: I think I have, like five times or so. When I really like a monologue, it’s already there. I just get to moving, I get an audience, I don’t think anymore. I’m just staring at the audience and time is nonexistent because I’ve become so engaged with them. People don’t realize that that monologue is seven minutes. It doesn’t feel that way because I’m keeping the audience . . . intact.
DS: How consciously do you seek out sound patterns, like alliteration and rhyme, in your work?
KCJ: It’s one of those things I do consistently and habitually and so I don’t realize I’m doing it. I just know in that moment what’s effective.
DS: [Quoting from “Love Letter”] Like “window” and “bar below”?
KCJ: Yeah, I didn’t plan it at all. That’s just the way it comes out naturally. I put an emphasis on certain syllables to have a great performance, I guess. It comes off that way once it’s memorized. Again, if I were to read the poem off the paper, it wouldn’t sound like that; I couldn’t enunciate the syllables. But once I have it in my head and I’m comfortable with it, I can do whatever I want with the words.
DS: I’d like to hear more about where your ideas for poems come from. Do you remember where the idea for “Love Letter” came from?
KCJ: I met the poet laureate of Los Angeles, Mr. Luis J. Rodriquez. He’s this Chicano man who grew up in California—one of those people who were in gangs, did drugs, shot at people, was shot at—and now he’s the poet laureate of L.A.! We traded books in Chicago in the Pilsen Park neighborhood, at Chicago’s first or second Poetry Block Party. And I read in his book that he has a love letter to Los Angeles, so I was like, I want to write a love to letter to Milwaukee. So that’s what I did. In my monologue I kind of use his ideas: “A city/ with a bloodshed past. Scars were cut in your back/ Fox, Sauk, Menominee, Potawatomi, Ojibwe tribes once flourished/ the land before European contact. Latinos made the south side home after/ the Polish took a White flight/ Blacks came for a new life out of the South's racial stigma.” And so like in his monologue, his story, he mentions all the different shades of human that live in L.A. and where they came from, so I do that in Milwaukee. Black people came here for jobs, the industry boom. My mom came from Whiteville, Tennessee as a runaway teenager, and so Latinos, the Polish—after the Fair Housing Act, the Polish took a white flight to Greendale or surrounding suburbs. Poles didn’t want to be around Latinos but built up their own culture.
DS: Did you know you were going to write about all this when you started the poem? Or did parts of it come as a surprise?
KCJ: I kind of knew. I was researching about the Fair Housing marches before, to write a monologue about that, and so I already knew about the Latinos and the Polish. I knew about the Blacks. I knew about the Germans. So this is stuff I already knew. And by just looking at the culture of Milwaukee and by mixing all that . . . because I don’t want anyone to be left out! [Smiling] I didn’t mention Asian people. Maybe in the next poem.
DS: Do you want your poems to be read? Or would something be lost in the translation from live performance to the page?
KCJ: If people know me and they’re able to hear my voice in their head as they’re reading my poems, that’s cool. But I think to hear it live would be much better. To see the theatrics of the voice and everything . . . it’s a much more stimulating, fun experience to actually hear me say it in person.
DS: I notice that you have musical accompaniment in the Soundcloud video. When I heard you read live [at the Earth Poets and Musicians fundraiser for the Urban Ecology Center, April 13, 2018] there was no musical accompaniment, but you created a sort of musicality with your voice. How important is it for there to be a musical dimension to your poems?
KCJ: For me it depends on the audience. I actually use musical accompaniment when the audience is not used to poetry. They don’t have the attention span, so music kind of fills in all the empty spaces, and it doesn’t seem like I’m dragging on by myself. If I were to read this poem off paper I feel like it would take so long, but once I have it in my head I’m able to actually perform it and people stay engaged—the eye contact, the hand gestures. And so musical accompaniment doesn’t always matter. Most of the time I’m performing without music; it might take away from my performance and the words. In the Soundcloud link I think having music is cool, makes it seem like I’m a musician.
DS: It’s very jazzy.
KCJ: Yeah, it seems cooler to have that element.
DS: Can you tell me which two poets have most influenced your sense of what great poetry is?
KCJ: I remember my senior year in high school, I read Larry Levis’s “The Poet at Seventeen.” And I was like Whoa, this is really cool! He talks about riding a stuttering tractor, the Mexicans picking grapes, spiders in the grapevines, and talking to pretty girls and how they walked off laughing, and how the millionaires would sit in their houses and so the land was not theirs. And I remember memorizing this monologue and really connecting with it. So Larry Levis is one of them. Who else? I read Diane Wakoski. She was a woman Beat poet that people don’t really talk about. And there’s [Milwaukee spoken-word poets] Kwabena Nixon and Muhibb Dyer; those two people inspire me. And I say that, but having life experiences is the most inspiration. People who mostly inspire me to write are my friends. All my monologues . . . all the characters in my book are my real friends, life experience that I’ve had here in Milwaukee.
DS: How has the practice of writing enhanced your life?
KCJ: I think I understand myself more. People ask me to perform and do things, and writing keeps my curiosity alive, I think. I’m not in a box, I don’t have a specific style. I write about wherever my curiosity takes me in that moment, everything from autumn to the city to eating fried chicken at Popeye’s, to going walking across the bridge, to Fair Housing marches, to hip-hop, having fun, getting drunk and high with my friends, the essence of cool. I write about everything, no limitations. In one of my monologues I’m working on now—I think I listened to Jimi Hendrix or Bob Dylan—I came up with this metaphor: the monologue is entitled “Kiss the Wolves Goodbye,” and so the wolves are symbolism for all the anxieties and fears that we have. Some of the last lines are: “The wolves run in reverse back into their cold caverns/ Though we kiss them goodbye they’ll come back faster and stronger/ Our blades of ink must be ready to write them out of existence.” So I write away all the wolves, all the anxiety and fears that I have.
DS: Do you work on multiple pieces at once?
KCJ: Yeah, because my brain wants to write about so many different things at once but only one of them survives the carnage of actually getting done. I take my time now. I’ve evolved so much. It takes a very long time because I’m such a perfectionist. I have such a high standard now—which is good. People see me as this high-standard performer and so I always have to keep writing and producing to be on that pedestal. But it takes months, years to finish things. I know when it’s done in that moment, but nothing’s ever truly finished.
DS: Do you think of your poems as needing to be a certain length? Or having a particular structure or dramatic arc? Do you have a signature length and style of poem?
KCJ: When I get to the moment of seven minutes, that’s when I kind of know I’ve captured everything I needed to about that subject. So the poem “A Love Letter to Milwaukee” is seven minutes, and I feel like I captured everything. I wrote a monologue about autumn and felt like I got everything in there. I wrote a monologue about the Fair Housing march; I felt like I got mostly everything in there.
DS: Life in seven minutes.
Kavon Cortez Jones is a Milwaukee homegrown writer, storyteller, biker, and actor. His self-published debut volume, Club Noir, was released on his 22nd birthday and sold over six hundred copies with no book release party or bookstore purchases. Instead, he met with friends and colleagues in coffee shops for a fulfilling in-person exchange. The Essence of Cool, Kavon’s second full-length poetry book, will be released on September 26, 2020, his golden birthday.
David Southward teaches literature, film, and comics in the Honors College at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. His poems have appeared most recently in Measure, Gyroscope Review, Light, The Other Journal, and Verse-Virtual. In 2017 he was awarded the Lorine Niedecker Prize from the Council for Wisconsin Writers and the Muse Prize from the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets. Apocrypha, his sonnet sequence based on the Gospels, will be published by Wipf & Stock later this year.