Luke Kennard is a poet and writer of fiction who was born in Kingston Upon Thames in 1981 and grew up in Luton. He won an Eric Gregory Award from the Society of Authors in 2005 and his first collection of prose poems The Solex Brothers was published later that year by Stride. His second collection The Harbour Beyond the Movie was published by Salt in 2007 and was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection, making him the youngest writer ever to be shortlisted. The Migraine Hotel was published in 2009 and A Lost Expression was released in 2012 alongside Holophin which won the Saboteur Novella award that year. His fiction and poetry criticism has appeared in Poetry London, the Times Literary Supplement and The National. He has a PhD in English from the University of Exeter and lectures at the University of Birmingham. In 2014 he was named one of the Next Generation Poets by the Poetry Book Society in their once per-decade list. His fifth collection of poems, Cain, will be published summer 2016 and his first novel, The Transition, will be published by 4th Estate in 2017.
His poem “additional versions of the enchanted component” appears in the tenth issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about the poem “additional versions of the enchanted component.”
A: I love almost every vice except for the desire for power. I’m greedy for money, I eat and drink too much, I’m half crazy with lust, the only reason I don’t gamble is because I know I’d lose absolutely everything and destroy my family. But power doesn’t interest me at all, except as a means to getting more of all the aforementioned stuff, and seeing as they’re not qualities I’m exactly proud of or want to cultivate, I can’t even appreciate wanting power on that base level. So writing poems from the perspective of a politician looking back on their career is an attempt to locate and understand that impulse within myself (the one I assume I don’t have, which may only be because I’m in a position of privilege which denies its own built-in power). “additional versions” is the second sequence in a long collection of poems from this point of view. I wrote them using a kind of augmented collage technique where you have various contrasting texts around you which you can reach for whenever you’re feeling stuck, and you treat your own lines and observations as another text, giving it no greater status than the cheap novel, the political treatise, the technical poetics magazine and old Peanuts collection open on your desk. So it’s fairly aleatory, but you find your own path through it, you play one off the other and you build a picture through the juxtapositions. I think it’s a technique which comes fairly naturally to everyone – like it’s something you enjoy doing as a child which you maybe forget about. It’s something I did a lot in my first collection in 2005, but I’d sort of wandered away from it until recently.
Q: What made you wander back? And how does this differ from the work you’ve done since your first collection?
A: I wrote my first collection in my dad’s attic. He’s been self-employed as a translator for 30 years and his walls are lined with obscure books and dictionaries. He’s currently studying Sami, the family of indigenous languages spoken in Lapland. For fun. Anyway, point is, whenever I was stuck I’d go and pick a book off the wall and flick through it until a phrase caught my attention, and this would provide the next plot-point, the next image or swerve. And then what I did in three collections since then, from 2006 to 2012 drifted more into surrealism/absurdism without the cut-ups, sometimes even lyric-y, but I hope stranger than that, less fixed. But I have a tendency to lapse into self-parody, to get bored, and I feel a little bored by those collections now, and I wasn’t writing very much at all until I started this long project on poems about Cain, which is being edited now. And I was using the long-form anagram for a big section of that MS (inspired by Gregory Betts, who came and read at the university I teach in in the UK), and I think that’s what got me back into looking at process again. I’ve always admired innovative poetry, even the stuff I struggle with (which is I guess the point), especially the awkward stuff that doesn’t fit easily into a movement, and it’s not as if collage has been “done” and has no more use. I wanted to see how the book selection altered the mood and atmosphere of the poetry, so I set some categories (a book of high-end poetics criticism; a non-fiction book of the geopolitical horror genre; a Peanuts collection; a pre-19th c. fiction text and a 20th/21st c. fiction text) and decided to use this same set of categories (but different texts) for each sequence of five or so poems. But all of the sources are distorted and blended in with my own lines (and the voice of this central character who I wanted to explore), which is where the revision comes in.
Q: I’m curious about you, as a poet, being the child of a translator. Has any of your father’s work, directly or indirectly, influenced the ways in which you see language and writing?
A: My dad is a freelance translator and takes whatever’s going, so he’s only ever worked on a handful of books, and all non-fiction (history, etc.) He’s fluent in a dozen languages but can translate around 30 into English. He’s been doing this for thirty-five years, so long before there were online tools to help with the basics. Sadly I have absolutely none of his talent (or discipline) for languages, although he tried to teach me Italian and French while I was growing up. That said, being surrounded by books, and having volumes of Italian and Russian fiction and poetry in the house were clearly formative for me. And also just that love of language, of the way our cultural differences map onto our words for things and ways of putting things, all those ‘untranslatable’ proverbs and figures of speech – that was always a part of my life, a part of our conversation even when I was a little child. He’s a very kind man and was always encouraging of my writing. When I was a toddler he worked on an old typewriter and whenever he’d upgrade he’d pass the old one on to me. For years he had this type-writer / word processor which saved onto 5 inch floppy discs and had a single strip of green digital display so it could show you about five words at a time, and instead of the hammers it had the letters on a sort of metal golfball and would type up whole documents like an autopiano. Then he upgraded to a much smaller Sharp thing with a blue screen that could display maybe a paragraph at a time and saved onto 3.5 inch discs, and I got that when he got his first PC. So from the age of, say, five, I’d sit up in my room day and night writing long science fiction stories instead of forming any meaningful relationships with my peers.
Q: Over the years you’ve done extensive work via the prose poem. What is it about the prose poem that appeals? What is it that you feel the prose poem allows you to do or explore that the more traditional lyric (or, arguably, more straightforward prose) does not?
A: I just really love it as a form. I write fiction and poetry with line-breaks too, so I’m not a purist in the Francis Ponge mould, but I feel like I’m using a completely different part of my brain when I write prose poetry. I like its expansiveness, its freedom. The fact that it can incorporate some heavy linguistic innovation alongside weird parables and fables as well as direct autobiography. There’s a Jennifer L. Knox sequence called ‘Cars’ which I use with my students to get them to look back on their own lives through a particular lens and it introduces them to the form’s possibilities really well. Mairead Byrnes’s Talk Poetry is one of my all time favourite collections. I like the rebellious streak in prose poetry too.
I think it comes down to the fact that in fiction you’re free to do pretty much whatever you like... You kind of expect an intelligent reader who won’t be put off by being challenged. In poetry I often feel like you come up against a certain cultural conservatism... I feel this from sharing work with people and sometimes from what my students like and dislike. People are almost offended by a poem that won’t behave itself formally. And the thing is quite often when you look at poetry by avowed contemporary formalists, it doesn’t even scan! It’s got nothing on the storybooks I read to my sons at night. (You can take Clive James’s recent climate-change-denial poem as a good example of that). So, it’s like, what are they even insisting on here? The only thing I’d fail my students for (i.e. insisting on using a rhyme scheme and doing it horribly)? I think it was the critic Stephen Fredman who said the prose poem is “at war with decorum.”: when the decorum in question is bullshit that’s particularly important.
Q: You mention Knox and Byrne: what other poets have influenced the ways in which you put together a poem, or even a collection?
A: I wasn’t massively interested in poetry until a tutor leant me the first New York School anthology and the selected Ashbery. Before that we had the big Bloodaxe anthologies of contemporary British poetry at school (The New Poetry, 1993) and a lot of it left me fairly cold, except for the Scottish poet Frank Kuppner and an English poet John Ash (who was very influenced by Ashbery and now lives in Istanbul, I think). More recently I’ve got interested in collections with a narrative running through them like Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red. I teach an MA module called Poem as Story – Story as Poem where we look at hybrid works like that. And I suppose that was quite a big influence on me when I was putting together Cain which came out in June.
Q: After more than a half-dozen trade books over the past decade-plus, how do you feel your work has progressed? Where do you see your work headed?
A: I like what I’m writing now. I feel like pursuing the collage thing and maybe working this sequence into a book length collection over the next couple of years. I’ve got a novel coming out next March. If that does okay I suppose I’ll be under some pressure to work on fiction for a while. But, if nothing else, working as a poet gives you a healthy dose of pessimism and realism: the novel could be as big a commercial flop as the poetry. And that has to be beside the point; I think you always have to keep in mind that there are literally millions of other writers who’d like any attention, any readers whatsoever. I got a little despondent around the time of my 4th collection in 2012 because it sold, I’m not exaggerating, a tenth of what my first three collections did individually. I felt like I’d tried to do something a little different and then I thought, but what does that even matter if almost nobody wants to engage with the work? There were various reasons for it sinking without a trace (it was an attractive over-priced hardback and the paperback didn’t come out in time; the publisher, Salt, were in the process of dropping their whole poetry list; some other things). And I probably didn’t do enough to promote it either. I probably have close friends who don’t know about that book. But that’s the mid-career jinx, isn’t it? The people asking you for references, blurbs, advice, etc, outweighs your readership by about two to one. With Cain I guess I thought, well, clearly there’s not a soul who’s going to buy Another Collection of Poems by Luke Kennard so if I’m going to bother bringing out another trade book at all it has to be something different. I mean that sounds very cynical. I was writing the Cain poems anyway, so it was maybe more of a coincidence. And of course the alternative is to do things on a very small scale, bring out gorgeous hand-made books in print runs of 25 and just be happy with what you’re creating.
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
A: That’s such a good way of putting it. I go back to Berryman’s The Dream Songs a lot. The Yale anthology 20th Century French Poetry gets fairly well thumbed. I get a lot of my energy from reading new stuff too. Anne Boyer’s Garments Against Women and David McGimpsey’s Asbestos Heights are currently blowing my face off.