My conversation with Luke Kennard had something of a third participant. We were sitting in a pub referred to most commonly as ‘The Parrot Bar’ on account of the African grey caged by the window. The parrot’s contribution to this interview has not been recorded below seeing as it consisted of little more than squawks and harmonic chirpings that sounded eerily familiar to the various notification tones of the iPhone. I mention this because the idea of a parrot pretending to be a phone seems to have a Kennardian sensibility. Kennard is a writer who blends surreal, incongruent imagery with minutely observed satire and social comment. His most recent book, The Transition, is a novel set in a near future which makes us painfully aware of the absurdities of our own time. It is equal parts dystopian thriller and suburban sit-com. Kennard is also the author of five books of poetry and one novella, all of which display the same surprising imagination and commitment to humour as a serious literary mode. Reading Kennard’s poetry, you are confronted with men who have sex with ghosts, literate centipedes with dubious politics, murderers and weirdos; but more than that you get a sense of a writer injecting some fun and true, unpretentious strangeness into the often rather stuffy world of poetry without losing sight of its very serious capabilities.
Your most recent book is your first novel, but not the first work of fiction that you’ve written. Did you always write fiction while you were writing poems, or did the fiction come later?
Yeah, it was always at the same time. From the age of seven or eight I was trying to write, fiction mostly, and I didn’t really write much poetry. My mum had a Collected Poems of e.e. cummings and that was one of the first books of poetry that I really loved when I was young. But I didn’t write much poetry until I was at university. I wrote terrible lyrics for a band that I was in when I was fifteen or sixteen. I mean humiliatingly bad. I wasn’t that aware of contemporary poetry. I grew up in a light industrial town in rural Somerset where there wasn’t much poetry going on, or if there was it would be at Glastonbury and it would be quite basic spoken word about crystals and things like that. I didn’t take the initiative to get involved in poetry until I started studying English and I had a tutor who was a poet called Andy Brown who got me reading the New York School, which I really enjoyed. I remember reading John Ashbery, Barbara Guest, and Frank O’Hara really excited me. I thought, this is something I’d like to be able to do.
What was it about the New York School that was so exciting to you?
It just seemed so completely convincing. Actually, before that I read the Bloodaxe The New Poetry anthology and there were some writers in that who stood out to me for similar reasons to why the New York School appealed to me. It had John Ash, the Manchester poet who spent some time in New York working with Ashbery and they had Frank Kuppner, the Scottish Informationist poet. There’s a bit in Kuppner’s A Bad Day for the Sung Dynasty where somebody finds a manuscript and you can’t read all of it so there’s a stanza that’s just ‘something, something, something, something, something…’. I guess it was their playfulness. It didn’t make me laugh out loud but it just delighted me in some way. There was something of their sense of humour, their sense of life, their sense of what it is actually interesting to say. I don’t think it’s anything that I’ve been able to capture; what I do is quite different to the writing that influenced me, but there’s a sort of joy and sort of lightness to those poems which I really love. I was really into a band called Pavement as well, and I think their lyrics were quite influenced by the New York School. To me it felt like the poetry equivalent to some of the American bands that I like, they seem to have a similar process: slightly collage-y but using collage to create a certain mood.
While we’re talking about influence, do you ever get influenced across genres? Are there any poets who you think have influenced your fiction or any fiction writers whose influence has shown up in your poetry?
When I was researching Cain, I read quite a lot of fiction, Hermann Hesse’s novel Demian, a Jose Saramago novel just called Cain. It’s not as good as Blindness (I think Blindness is a work of genius). His Cain book is a little bit simplistic, a little like an angry religious novel where Cain is actually really good, and has been misunderstood. It works as a kind of energetic angry exercise but it’s not that interesting. I’m trying to think of the novelists that really appealed to me when I started to write poetry. There was an American literature module that I took at university and I got quite into William Faulkner, not so much for the Southern Gothic atmosphere, but for the technique and the way the stories were so hidden, so latent. I think that had an influence on my poetry rather than on my approach to fiction. I don’t write fiction in that way at all; I think I’m quite straightforward in my approach, quite linear. But I think that work, and reading around Woolf and Joyce, and some of that… I think particularly with a project like the anagrams and something like Finnegans Wake… I remember having to give a presentation on it in a first-year literature seminar, because I couldn’t stop running my mouth off about Finnegans Wake, like one of those quite annoying members of a seminar group who’s always talking. And I was talking about Finnegans Wake and my tutor said, ‘Right well, since you’ve read Finnegans Wake, Kennard, you can give a fifteen-minute talk on it next week.’ And actually, I hadn’t ever read Finnegans Wake. I’d read a paragraph about it and was basing all my mouthing off on that. So I had to spend a week in the library with Finnegans Wake, and with A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, which is as beautiful and strange a book as Finnegans Wake is. It is complete esoteric nonsense; it doesn’t really unlock the novel at all, it just gives you way more information that you could possibly need. It’s a way in, but it’s a way in to a labyrinth, it’s its own little maze. Thankfully, I only had to give a ten or fifteen-minute talk on it so it didn’t have to be a life-changing piece of criticism. But just engaging with that work seriously, so I could say something about it, and having to read a book that intensely, I think that came back when I was writing the anagram sequence in Cain, as well as the French Oulipo stuff: ways of generating ideas. I was feeling kind of bored in my voice and in my way of writing. I wanted something that was going to push in a different direction.
Whenever you start writing something, do you know in advance if it’s going to be a poem or a story or the beginning of a novel, or do you just start writing and decide after some of it’s done?
I don’t know whether it’s going to go anywhere, whether it’s actually going to develop into something. But I do recycle a lot and I go back through things that I’ve scrapped. Sometimes things from years ago, like a decade ago. And I’ll just go through my files and often I can’t even remember having started something. I can feel my lack of patience and my boredom as I’m writing, kind of. Sometimes it feels quite a promising set-up and a good idea, and then I just kind of screw it up by either becoming too self-referential or it just goes wrong. It’s a promising idea but I can feel myself veering off the road. But actually, if I take out the two paragraphs at the end where I ruined it then maybe there’s something there. So I do that. I feel like between poetry and prose, if this doesn’t sound pretentious, I use different parts of my brain. So even with something like short fiction and prose poetry, which ostensibly are fairly similar, in my mind there is a distinction and I feel very different when I’m working on poetry and prose-poetry.
You’re known for writing a lot more prose poetry than most contemporary poets. Why do think that’s a form that has been attractive to you?
I remember when I first encountered a prose poem. Someone gave me an anthology that was trying to be a history of the form. It had some Baudelaire and some things that Baudelaire had translated as well. Baudelaire used the form as a sort of rebellion, a sort of hissy fit against the alexandrine. Some of his prose poems are just a little paragraph, and some are thirty pages long and have dialogue in them and are formatted like a short story. It’s impossible to say why they’re poems except for the fact that Baudelaire says they are. So it starts with a kind of nonsensical origin point. But it really appealed to me in the same way that flash fiction appealed to me. But I find the terms around extremely short fiction to be slightly twee; I don’t like the term flash fiction. I think just write short stories whatever length you want, it’s fine. Like Richard Brautigan’s one page stories in Revenge of the Lawn, they’re beautiful and they’re clearly stories, they’re not prose poems. I feel like a prose poem has to have less narrative drive. It can be just completely tangential or it can be like an abstract expressionist painting with language. But at the same time some of them are quite discursive and anecdotal. It incorporates non-poetic forms. Anne Carson’s essays within her poetry collections always strike me as a form of prose poetry. It’s a kind of container into which you can put non-poetic things and treat it as a poem.
I know you’ve cited Carson as an influence before––when did you start reading her work and what do you think you’ve taken from her?
It was probably during my MA in around 2002. But I came to it all out of order. I think I read Autobiography of Red first and then Men in the Off Hours, both of which I just loved. So I have her on one of my MA modules that I teach at the moment. It’s a module I teach on poetic sequences and experimental form in complete collections. And it’s always the one that goes over best. Some of these are students with no interest in poetry whatsoever and aren’t looking forward to having to study some poetry either, but that book, I feel like it’s sort of a life-changing book for a lot of people; they just adore it. So I think one of the influences from her, and this goes for Men in the Off Hours as well, is just her range of forms. Like the ‘TV Men’ in Men in Off Hours was quite a big influence on Cain, and that decision to make the middle section into a TV show. And that middle section leans quite heavily on Carson’s technique in those poems––it’s a slightly snarky sequence, the ‘TV Men’. It’s these disastrous attempts at adapting classic works with these TV producer idiots, essentially. I think her extraordinary and off-kilter sense of humour which is just completely assured, I think that struck me instantly reading her work––just how exquisite her timing is and how absolutely confident it is. One of my favourite pamphlets of Float is ‘Zeus Bits’. I really love that; I love the nymphs in a milk bottle, things like that, these wonderful swerves of the imagination and things that seem to come out of nowhere and yet have absolute authority. Trust is always quite important for me in poetry and the writers I stay with are the ones that I just feel this absolute sense of, ‘I really love what you’re doing’, and I trust everything you do. And it’s something that I find harder with the more extreme avant-garde side of poetry. It’s not that I think people are disingenuous but I often can’t get enough of a handle on it to find something to trust, to find something to engage with. It doesn’t always have to be humour that engages me but that really helps for me, that really wins me over quite easily, if something makes me laugh. But then, quite often hearing somebody read their work changes my mind about it. Like I’d always really struggled with Keston Sutherland’s work; it’s always been this sort of obelisk on the horizon and I’ve been like, ‘Aw, I don’t know what to make of that at all’. And then I heard him read and just loved it; the absolute assurance of his performance was powerful. It was pretty weird and there were bits of it that seemed to be a dream, and then the dream went back into the real world. The movement was so much more visible. It made me go back to his work and get what was going on there, I suppose. I think whenever something is tricky or difficult, trust really comes into it. And Carson is someone I’ve always found easy to trust and easy to follow, easy to go wherever the work’s leading. Maybe there’s an intellectual generosity to her stuff as well; whenever she mentions an arcane bit of classical studies or philosophy that I’m totally ignorant of, she does so in such a way that allows you into it. Rather than it feeling just like a reference to Heidegger that I don’t understand, she’ll actually talk about how tricky Heidegger is, and you have to think your way to it. Her way of introducing themes, her complexity, is really compelling.
In your novel The Transition there are a few things that would feel familiar to people who have read your earlier books of poetry and I wanted to ask you about some of them. The first one is this way of blending social commentary with something absurd or surreal. How do you think those two things relate to each other?
It’s maybe a way to avoid being preachy, or just sort of complaining in your work. I think the danger for me was always the other extreme, that I would write something that was just absurdist without actually very much to it. And that’s what my tutor on my MA was always warning me against. After The Solex Brothers, I wrote a load more of those seven-chapter prose poem sequences and they were rubbish. I wrote my undergrad dissertation about Raymond Carver and I was into that sort of American dirty realism. I really enjoyed it partly for its sort of absurd isolation but also just what it was working towards, what it was representing. Raymond Carver was very influential in terms of dialogue for me. I liked the repetition, and the fact that it’s actually very stylised but still feels quite authentic, the way his characters talk to each other and talk at cross purposes and talk over each other. We had fortnightly sketch revues in the basement of a pub in Exeter and I would write monologues for some of the drama students. And I’d think, how ridiculous a monologue can I get them to read? Trying to push it further, to make it more contorted and strange and almost stupid at times. The monologue would become a joke against itself. And I know that that’s always been something in my poetry as well; occasionally it is a sort of inversion, or a joke on itself, or a joke on even trying to write poetry. At times that can be painfully self-conscious but at other times I feel like that’s a necessary concession. Unless you’re just going to do awful tub-thumping political poetry you need to be quite self-conscious. You need to question what it is that you’re doing, what do you want to get out of it, what are you trying to give people and does it matter who that person is. I don’t think too much about the reader, but you know that all you can try to do is write something that you would be delighted to read and through that you are sort of writing credibly as well. It sort of falls apart when you’re trying to write for this imaginary general audience. There isn’t really one; it’s a myth that there’s a big audience that you have to reduce your work and your outlook for because otherwise they won’t get it. Well, no, no; it really isn’t that. People respond to idiosyncrasy; people respond to you actually being the writer that you are. And it can take fifty years, but eventually it does work. It’s that thing where you feel you’ve found a kindred spirit. I had that recently with Mary Ruefle. A friend of mine gave me her most recent collection and I was really blown away by that. The way she captures thought and memory in way that feels frighteningly real, a way that feels so much like what’s actually happening inside your head. It’s good to read something that blows you away, that makes you feel like, ‘Oh my god, I want to try to do something like that but I don’t think I ever will.
Another situation that I see recurring in your work is where there are these kinds of relationships that look like they should be caring relationships but end up becoming exercises of power. I’m thinking of Cain and the character Luke Kennard, the murderer and the parole officer, and those two couples in The Transition. Where do these double acts come from?
When there’s an expectation of certain roles, it can often go the opposite way. So the key worker is more morally repugnant than the murderer in his gloating, essentially. With the central couple in The Transition, Karl and Genevieve, he loves her but he’s not particularly sure that she loves him. I think there’s always the suspicion that she has settled for him because, in spite of all of his various flaws, he is reliable in that he’s kind of obsessed with her. I think in any relationship where you are responsible, or caring, or doing a lot of the emotional heavy lifting you can become a bit of a martyr, you can become very aware of the sacrifices you’re making. And if it is a mental health condition you’re trying to support someone through, you can end up making it worse by being hyper-vigilant. I’m interested in the clichés about relationships and the stories that we tell ourselves about our own relationships and other people’s relationships, and how they don’t really bear that much scrutiny quite often when you examine what is actually going on between two people, which is kind of unknowable. I think universally we take our own relationships extremely seriously but we’re usually quite dismissive of other people’s. We know the power somebody else can hold over us, we know the power we hold over somebody else, we know how intense that can be. But we don’t, or I don’t, necessarily ascribe that to other people, which is a failing of compassion, in a way, a failing to understand everybody else’s lives. Sorry, I’m talking myself into knots a little bit here. I think that is a dynamic I’m interested in: what we do to each other, what we get from each other, and why and how we justify that. I feel like in The Transition, it’s ultimately positive. They do love each other, and ultimately they do prioritise each other. There’s something in that, in the sense of obligation that we have to each other. In honouring that, there is some meaning and some dignity. Even if it’s not terribly romantic, it still matters. It’s essentially that love doesn’t make any economic sense. And you see this in self-help advice. It’s like, ‘You might be in a toxic relationship’, and that’s not to belittle actual toxic relationships, but there’s almost this thing like, ‘You’re with someone who’s holding you back therefore you should just drop them, fuck them, whatever, find somebody who really allows you to be yourself’. Well actually we do maybe owe each other a little bit more than that, we do owe each other trying to make something work and not just to say, ‘You’re no good for me’. I feel like sometimes there’s a lack of willingness to actually work. The moment a relationship feels difficult or is challenged, which all relationships are going to be, you’ve got this raft of advice saying maybe they’re just not right for you. There’s no incentive to actually work through things, apart from legally, which is why there’s a bit in the novel where Janna is questioning them on why they even got married and Karl says that there is something to be said for making it extremely inconvenient to leave somebody; it works for both of us in a way, that we can’t walk out without it being quite a complex thing, so you’ve got this bond of inconvenience. And sometimes that is what’s holding you together, you need that.
When did you first become interested in the character Cain and why?
I think part of it was returning to the murderer sequence. Part of it was thinking about how, apart from having the Usborne guide to Greek and Norse legends growing up, I didn’t really have any background in the classics, in that mythology. In a way this is my equivalent. Sometimes it can sort of irritate me a little bit when poets just reach for the gods instantly as if that’s sort of a shortcut to profundity. I think that’s something that Carson is always so careful to avoid, just writing a poem called ‘Leda and the Swan’ that rehashes that story for little or no reason. My equivalent of that, the thing that was actually part of my upbringing and education is probably the Old Testament. I was brought up very Low Church which has a weird obsession with the stories of the Old Testament. When I started going to the Orthodox Church that I married into (the services follow quite a strict calendar) it really struck me that there’s only one day in the year, Easter Saturday, when they read from the Old Testament at all. Apart from that it’s fairly irrelevant. There’s a gospel reading and an epistle reading for every feast, and they only refer to the Old Testament for its prophecies. Whereas in my Baptist upbringing they were crazy about it. I’m fairly sure that there was barely ever a mention of the New Testament. The focus was so much more on the Old Testament rather than the New one, which is really bizarre. In some ways it’s a friendlier, more progressive church but it’s actually got a more regressive idea of the Trinity. It’s all the stories from Kings and Judges, all the really fucked up stories. It’s hard to justify or interpret why those would be the ones that sermons would be preached on. And if they did refer to the New Testament it would be to parables as if they were things that had actually happened. But it is there, it’s a part of how I was raised. That felt like the kind of mythological material I would reach for if I was trying to do that. It would be completely disingenuous of me to pretend that I knew that much about Greek mythology at all really, except for very surface stuff. But this stuff I do know about, so there’s something there, there’s something to tap into.
The anagram poems in Cain reminded me of some of your earlier poems where you keep a sentence structure and just swap out particular words. What do you think those kinds of strict formal structures allow a poem to do that a freer style of writing would not?
I think it has that effect of forcing your hand, like a traditional form in a way; of getting you to come up with phrases that you wouldn’t otherwise have discovered. It makes writing into something that you can actually surprise yourself with. I used to use that technique of writing a sentence structure and just swapping out the details. I think the master of that would be somebody like Matthew Welton. I would sometimes use those as warm-up exercises. If I had a few hours to write and I just felt blank and angry, I would use that to get things moving. Some of them coalesced into pieces I was quite happy with. It was the same with the anagrams. They were the last thing that was written of the book, and they took about a year I think, including writing up the notes. The anagrams were kind of tortuous but in a way that I sort of felt I needed. I was in between rewrites of the novel. My agent would send me some notes like, ‘Yeah, I want you to change this, this whole part isn’t making sense’. Then I’d address all her changes in about five days. I’d work through them really quickly and not work on anything else, and then she’d take three months to get back to me with the next set of notes, having reread it. Agents are kind of long-suffering: they read the same thing so many times. So I had this blank period where I couldn’t work on the novel and the anagrams filled that time. It gave me something that I was looking forward to going back to every night because it was such a process and it didn’t matter how I was feeling. I could still take the same 351 letters and try to wring something out of them. And there were plenty that just failed, where I’d get two thirds of the way through and all I’d have left would be Hs and I’d just have to scrap it. Eventually you find your methods with something like that, I think. So after about ten I was like, ‘Ok, the way I need to do this is…’ Because you’ve got almost every letter at your disposal at the beginning… that’s the thing at the start, you can say anything at the start. But then the more phrases you put in, the more limited you are with what’s left. So sometimes you have to make a joke out of it, as a way of using up the Hs.
Like listing different kinds of pencils.
Yes, listing pencils, a lot of sighing and laughing and snoring and things like that. So seeing as it’s quite open at the start, what I need is a good opening sentence and that’s when the actual plot, such as it is, started to sneak in. I need an overall structure, some sense of it being a story unfolding. So I need a good first sentence and a good last sentence and then I just need to get from A to B. It’s a little bit like a sort of cheap parlour trick. Of course the effect is that the last sentence in each of the anagram pieces appears to be the last thing that you’ve written but of course it isn’t. And that’s the slight of hand that I realised was necessary, because otherwise the last sentence was always going to be the shittest one because it would be all the leftover letters. I just really, really loved the whole process and got quite obsessed with it and read I lot about the history of the anagram form in Jewish and Arabic poetry from that early Hebrew epoch; and lots of weird esoteric stuff about angels, the parts of Jewish mythology that aren’t parts of Christian mythology, like Metatron and things like that; and these various obscure things that had never been a part of my understanding of faith, that I found quite exciting to read about and build into it and hint at. Trying to build some mystery into it, build some sense of something else going on, that may or may actually be going on. But you gradually get to weave in all these references. There’s a richness there that I guess I really liked. So it never really felt like a drag even though it was frustrating at times. It was a way of getting me wanting to write again. Before Cain, I’d been feeling sort of jaded about poetry, certainly about my own poetry. I wasn’t really sure if I was going to write another book. I knew that it needed to be something different to the fourth book, which is I think the least good thing that I’ve published. I like some of the individual poems in there but I don’t think it hangs together as a collection at all. It got me thinking why is that, why am I not particularly happy with it, why do I not necessarily want anyone to buy it? And it’s because there’s no governing principle; there’s nothing that ties these poems together, it’s just like a selection of B-sides. So I was desperate to do something that wasn’t like that, that was the opposite. It came out at about the same time as Grief is the Thing with Feathers, which does a similar thing although it’s more of a hybrid novel-stroke-poetry collection, which I like as well. You just have to find ways of keeping yourself interested, I suppose, in your own work. I’m back in that position again where I’ve got a manuscript’s worth of poems and absolutely no desire to make them into a manuscript. So I feel that the next thing that I do has to be a similar sort of project to Cain, it has to be a … Well, I’ve no idea what it’s going to be at the moment, I think I just need to leave it a few years.
Todd Swift has said about you that, ‘Among poets under thirty-five or so he is almost revered and often imitated.’ First of all, do you think that’s correct? And how does it feel whenever you read poems by a younger poet and you can detect that that poet has read your work and it has had an effect on them?
It’s weird. It’s really touching, that kind of thing. But also, you feel sort of hyper-aware of not wanting to feel that way if it’s not the case. You know, it could just be that they’ve had similar influences to you, like James Tate, Russell Edson, that sort of thing. A few years ago, the editor of an indie press I know said something like, ‘We’re getting sent a lot of bad Kennard from sixteen-year-old boys’. I don’t know if that’s correct but it’s really sweet. If you feel as though you’ve given some kind of permission in the same way that the poets who influenced me did, then that’s an absolutely lovely thing. It’s a strange feeling and I think it doesn’t really feel real to me; it doesn’t feel like it can actually be the case even if it is, even if people tell me that it is. But I feel as though all that I did was take influence perhaps a bit more from American poets than from British poets, which certainly some British poets were already doing. I think it’s just a lot of things about that particular time, that year when The Harbour Beyond the Movie came out. If it hadn’t been shortlisted for the Forward Prize, then it would have sunk without a trace. So there’s lots of things that happened which are just good luck. And then people cite you as an influence and then you think, ‘Oh but that’s maybe just bogus’. It’s not that I was doing anything particularly new. In a way it’s like the best feeling in the world, to feel like you’ve allowed somebody to do their own work. The only time it feels uncomfortable is when it feels like it’s just a sort of a misunderstood homage, like when people think that you’re just doing a certain thing so they’ll do something that’s just kind of wacky and surreal in a slightly reductive way. I feel like that’s where you need to find your own way. There are thousands and thousands of absurdist writers you could look at but it’s about finding what you’re using that for, finding that underlying sense of something else.
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