Stride Magazine -

  Questions for David Kennedy

I always find it interesting how my preconceptions are so often shattered. I confess  I had David Kennedy down simply as one of the editors of The New Poetry, a book I along with many other writers have always found curiously titled and notable mostly for the absence of the new within its pages. I had assumed that David Kennedy would be stuck in the curious timewarp of The New Poetry era, probably writing grim realist narrative poems.

How wrong I was! Last year I got my hands on a copy of Kennedy’s Cornell: A Circuition Around His Circumambulation, a quirky mix of prose poetry, fragmentary essay and concrete poetry; and also The Fiery Chariot, an even stranger pamphlet exploring the world of alien abduction, with the mix this time including calligraphic work, illustrations, letters and poems. But it was the copy of The President of Earth, a New and Selected Poems [£8.95, Salt Publishing] that really showed me how utterly wrong I’d been. Here were intelligent, accessible but syntactically slippery and quirkily written, poems I was sorry to have previously missed. Section 2 [of 3 sections in the book] especially intrigued me, and I read and re-read them before emailing David Kennedy about how he’d written that particular set of poems. After an initial email conversation I asked him if he’d be prepared to undertake answering some questions for Stride, a kind of email interview. The questions were sent to him early in October and the final answers emailed back in November.

Rupert Loydell: The President of Earth is subtitled ‘new and selected poems’ but it  doesn’t read like a ‘traditional’ selected, where the poet chooses 2 or 3 poems from early books, and then wodges from later books – it’s much more organized as a book in its own right. 

David Kennedy: The book certainly does reflect a concern with shape and coherence. The ‘new and selected’ merely reflects the fact that the poems date from the period 1987 to 2001. If I’d put in all the poems I’d ever written that I still thought were any good, the book would be very different. I didn’t want to end up with a book that would have been akin to an album of snapshots. I wanted something that would be more interesting for the reader. And when I started to choose work, I realised that although plenty of the early poems still ‘stood up’ they weren’t really anything to do with me as either a poet or a person now. I do think that your relationship to poems – your own and others – is a renewable journey to somewhere that changes as and because you do. Once I’d started to reject and select poems in that way, then other themes seemed to emerge. One of those themes is the future. Anyone my age – early 40s – will have grown up with ideas that by the year 2000 we’d all be living in domes, traveling by monorail and not working because robots would be doing all that for us. Clearly, that hasn’t happened – everyone seems to be working harder and longer than ever before and the government’s talking about raising the retirement age to seventy. So I’m interested in exploring the lack of fit between what we were promised and what we’ve actually got, and particularly the way we still want to believe that the promise has come true. The title poem talks about that when the speaker says “This is the future I read about in school”. ‘Remembering The Future’, which is a kind of oblique elegy for my father, engages not only with the past’s ideas of the future but also with the way that, particularly in England, ideas of the future and the past are inextricably linked.

You've stated recently that despite using processes such as collage, you still wish your poems to be clear to the reader, particularly in the way they use language. Is this to do with style and vocabulary or are you still concerned with some kind of "message"? The first part of your New & Selected Poems, The President of Earth – which are perhaps earlier poems? – might suggest this is the case. Indeed, some of the poems in the first part of the book are more ‘ordinary’ as poems, with a punchline/epiphanic ending.

You’re referring to the email exchange that preceded this interview. I think what I said was that I wanted to use plain language; but I meant that in the sense of unadorned not transparent. About half the poems in Part 1 date from the early to mid-1990s when I was interested in using poetry to think through cultural, social and political questions. I’m certainly not interested in messages but I am interested in responding to ideas, to things that are happening culturally, politically, etc; and I do want my readers to think. The poems in Part 1 are also a reaction against ‘I’m a poet – dig my lifestyle, feel my pain’ anecdote poetry – e.g. here’s poem about our new house/new baby/last holiday/recent tragedy. I’m actually quite revolted by the ease with which a lot of poets write about their own lives and I also think it’s a kind of substitute thinking in the sense that they’re using apparently intimate facts about themselves to manipulate readers into feeling and thinking. I don’t want my poetry to be a ready meal quick fix of carbohydrates made tasty with too much salt and sugar. That’s why the poems about my late father – the three part ‘Father and Son’ and ‘Remembering The Future’ – are quite oblique when compared with a lot of poems by sons about fathers. Or rather, I was more interested in exploring what it means to write poems of mourning and remembrance as opposed to just ‘doing’ mourning and remembrance while being true to my own experience within that. When I was sitting by father’s hospital bed as he lay dying, I did think that the blankets looked like all that peculiar matted stuff you used to see on the nose cones of space capsules; and when I was writing the poem many years later it occurred to me that death is a little like going off into space, into a cold void. But I didn’t feel any need to say ‘Ooo look, it’s just like...’ I want to leave some work for the reader to do. It’s what excites me as reader as well as being connected to my belief that the most important work in poetry generally is done by readers anyway.

To focus on the first part of The President of Earth specifically, it’s called ‘Histories’ and that responds to a number of things. First, the ideas that have been around for a while – which I don’t buy – that we’re somehow at the end of something or have arrived at some kind of final destination. That’s what is being mocked in the title poem as ‘the world’s dream’; and is perhaps causing a little more anxiety in the two part ‘Postmodern Scenes’: ‘I miss the old stories, their creaky plots:/At least you knew where you were in th...’ Second, and more, importantly, the fact that we’re surrounded and bombarded with all sorts of stories that have pre-scripted roles for us. We buy into – maybe we’re actively bought by – some of these stories without even realising it; and because the stories have to work through their various stages, our world changes and we’re changed too. The hardest thing to do, in art and in life, is first to understand that we live inside change and then to step outside change and see it happening, understand its effects. This is one of the things that poetry is uniquely placed to do. It’s partly what I’m getting at in ‘A Walking Lunch’ when the narrator wonders whether he’s a ‘causeless effect’ that perhaps not even ‘a double reading’ can explain. It surprises me that you find some the endings work like punchlines or epiphanies. That rather assumes that the ‘I’ in the poems is the same person as the David Kennedy you’re interviewing – which certainly isn’t the case. Thinking about the poems in those terms makes the apparent epiphanies and punchlines a lot less definite and more open to question.

Part 2, ‘Cities’, is a very lyrical series of poems that clearly relate to each other in some way [lines re-appear from other poems throughout the section; they all have the same shape on the page] and yet resist traditional interpretation as a sequence of poems and indeed, sometimes resist any obvious 'meaning'; yet they are playful and lyrical. Can you tell me about this group of poems?

It interests me that you focus on the lyrical elements. The poems have been called surreal and compared to Adrian Mitchell, which doesn’t really catch what they’re about. I think the lyrical material that is present would probably seem excessive in a more conventional context but seems to work in poems that are generally excessive anyway and constantly swinging from one mood to another. One thing I’ve been trying to think through critically recently is the idea that poetry is concerned with different types of excess. For example, it’s often a form of play-in-language that wouldn’t be permissible in other contexts. Similarly, it’s a place where all sorts of things can be expressed that are otherwise unwanted or culturally homeless. I discuss this in more detail in the essay ‘Reading The Reading: Poetry as Loss, Excess & Speaking With Dead’ in the Words Out Loud volume that Mark Robinson recently edited for you.

The poems in ‘Cities’ are all I wanted to collect from a sequence of 50 16 line ‘free sonnets’ as I like to call them. The poems were written in an intense burst between February and April 1993 and revised a little later that year. I was looking at the original ms. when I was choosing poems for The President of Earth and it surprised me how many seemed to be a case of ‘first thought best thought’ which is usually something I’d distrust if not entirely reject. I started with a set of 20 which were collaged from several old notebooks full of stuff that I’d never found the right home for. What happened during the writing of the first 20 was that I started to use the last line of one poem as the first line of another. After a while, I just carried on free-writing and the collaging started to become using anything that was happening as I was writing. And using the last line of one poem to start the next became more a case of responding the mood of the line or taking it as a signpost. It was as if the poems became like ambient music in that they became atmospheres or environments that seemed able to contain whatever I wanted them to.

Part 3 of The President... is for me a quirky voice play, where a lot of very interesting poetry is almost disguised by the allocation of it to different voices; I wanted to just read some parts of it, to let various sections stand on its own. You call it 'An Entertainment', a strange, slightly antiquated term these days. Can you tell me how the piece was written?

The impetus for ‘Gardens’ comes from a number of places. I became very interested in the Renaissance, fascinated by court masques etc. So the subtitle probably comes out of that. In fact, I hope it describes the fact that ‘Gardens’ is serious fun as opposed to just being quirky. I’ve also been doing a lot of reading of and thinking about pastoral recently too, particularly in terms of trying to understand how it’s surviving. Some people argue that pastoral survives in environmental and feminist ecological writing. But it seems to me that one way it’s surviving in poetry is self-reflexively, so that you get a kind of meta-pastoral going on. As I said earlier about mourning and remembrance, not just ‘doing’ a genre but exploring its implications, even its practicalities.

The piece began as a series of notes and lyric fragments and just grew out of that. The ‘call and response’ section which ends it – ‘Garden of rhetoric instruct us’, ‘Garden of retirement entangle us’ – was actually written first with the idea of having a section that explored each type of garden. But I decided this would be overdoing it; and I hope that the three gardens that are explored – ‘Love’s Etcetera’, ‘State’s Mirror’ and ‘Soul’s Ease’ – suggest a way of thinking about other meanings of gardens. The history of gardens and what philosophers and writers have taken them to mean is absolutely fascinating. When you go into it you find that gardens have always been tightly bound up with ideas of nation and nationalism and selfhood. There’s a couple of great books Pluto Press brought out in the 1990s called Gardeners Delight and Bread And Roses by Martin Hoyles. The second one is a survey of gardening books which shows how political ideas got remodeled in horticultural terms. And I was struck by the fact that the image of the garden and gardeners is of individuals working alone and yet there’s all these other voices literally clamouring away in the background. I couldn’t conceive of it not being ‘broken up’ as you call it.

You run a small press called The Cherry On The Top; and you’ve recently begun editing and publishing a magazine about poetry and poetics called The Paper. Can you tell me more about these activities?

The Cherry On The Top Press began for two reasons. First, because I often produce work which I want to get out into the world quickly to people who I think might be interested or pleased to receive it. Second, because I produce a lot of work which falls outside the usual definitions of poetry and which I can’t imagine anyone else wanting to publish in the way I want to publish it. Some of the poems in part 2 of The President of Earth were first published in The Elephant’s Typewriter; but the remainder I published in Cities which was an A3 folded card, a kind of poetry tabloid. The next thing I did after that was Four True Prophecies Of The New State which I guess comes under what people call visual text and was a response to turn of the millennium anxieties as well as to people finding an image of the Virgin Mary in a bag of pork scratchings and to the myths about Princess Diana that are all over the internet. That was first published as a set of four A5 printed cards; and is now in a second edition as four printed A4 sheets in a plastic folder. It includes a gospel based on aspects of the Diana myths; and a cut-up of Nostradamus. After that, I brought out my book on alien abduction, The Fiery Chariot, which is in the style of a seventeenth-century pamphlet and mixes texts and graphics and even has a music hall song in there. The Cornell pamphlet, C: A Circuition Around His Circumambulation, which Alan Halsey published with his West House Books imprint, was originally a handmade artists book published in a limited edition for the 2000 London Artists Book Fair. I’ve recently published a newly-discovered Cold War document, Spook Rota; and the first two instalments of a part-work called Teach Yourself Criticism.

The press doesn’t just function as a personal vehicle. I publish things by other people which don’t seem to fit easily into the usual categories. For example, Stephen Vincent’s A Walk Toward Spicer is a short but highly resonant prose piece which literally retraces Jack Spicer’s regular Sunday walk around the North Beach area of San Francisco; but also manages to say something about his ideas of creation being a process of dictation from outside the self. Later this year, I’ll be publishing A Pocket Dante which is a collaboration between myself and Bill Herbert.

I’ve been thinking about doing a magazine for years but I’ve never been very convinced by the rattle bag approach to poetry magazines because hardly anyone’s work gets shown to its best advantage. There’s got to be a better way of doing things which is why The Paper has themed issues; only publishes invited work in an attempt to get a group of like minds together; and aims to give contributors quick answers and useful feedback during the editorial process. It seems much more interesting and valuable to get a group of people writing on pastoral or performance or lyric because there’s a chance you might tap into things that are circulating in the larger culture. That’s certainly happened with the current issue – no.5 – which is mainly devoted to elegy. And, of course, you find that different contributions play off and inform each other in surprising ways and therefore do something that’s more like our wider experience of reading, writing and thinking.

                                                © David Kennedy and Rupert Loydell 2002