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Erik Kennedy Q&A

Let’s start with your poem ‘You Can’t Teach Creative Writing’, which ends by advising that a hopeful writer should just move to Dubrovnik. If you had to pick one, what do you think is better, theoretically, for a young writer’s writing – a six-month writing workshop, or a six-month overseas trip?

I should start by saying that I’m not entirely qualified to answer this question, as I have neither been to Croatia nor done a creative writing degree. I only ever did one semester-long workshop at university, with Yusef Komunyakaa at Princeton, and most of my travel has been in the UK. So I am a sham. But even con-men and poets tell the truth sometimes.

That poem dredges up some of the MFA vs NYC angst of a few years ago. The semi-serious argument that I make in it is that there’s so much to be learned almost anywhere if you really get amongst it that it’s an open question if it really makes sense to apply to writing programmes, especially if you’re going to take on vitality-sapping debt to acquire a dubious credential and not even get to practise writing in hexameter. (You can take on no debt at all and do entire seminars on meter if you do a PhD in English, but that has its own issues.) But I would much rather praise travel than throw ignorant shade at American-style MFAs. I just think you’re a lot more likely to profit in the long term from having people shouting at you in a foreign language or falling into a waist-deep puddle in Sutherland than trying to compile your first manuscript in a hurry.

(Also, this question assumes that the young writer enjoys significant privilege. Not everyone has spare time, money, and/or freedom from family or caring responsibilities. Luckily for the world, creativity doesn’t need a seminar room or a plane ticket.)

The Table of Contents of this book is a lovely thing in itself – your titles are like a bunch of jostling characters. ‘How a New Zealand Sunrise Is Different from Other Sunrises’, ‘The School of Naps’, ‘Get a Pet with a Longer Lifespan Than Humans Have’, ‘What Customer Feedback Forms Filled Out by Your Friends Say About You’ . . . What makes a good poem title?

I have always loved TOC pages and indexes and lists of fictional books in other books and that game where you come up with wacky/terrible/amazing band names (Algal Bloomsday, the Pankhursts, Above the Treeline, the Sisterhood Method). Basically, I love the potential there is in just a few precious words before any of that annoying stuff like context or semantics creeps in. So, for me, a title is a one-line poem. It’s a bonus if the actual poem below it is any good! I also like it if there’s a tension between what the title promises and what the poem delivers. So a decent rule of thumb would be something like: complex title ≥ simple poem, simple title ≥ complex poem. If the title precedes the poem, as it often does for me, it’s an opportunity for some free play. Consider the following: ‘How I Got the Charges Dropped’, ‘Ezra Thursday’, ‘A Man Barks into a Wall’, ‘A Continental Breakfast in Chester-le-Street’, ‘Publick Institutions’, ‘Buying Wasp Poison’, ‘Another Inadequate Love Poem’, ‘Six Chinchillas’. Wouldn’t they all just work?

In poems where you’re using (or bending) poetic form, like ‘An Abandoned Farm Near Lockhart, New South Wales’, or ‘Mailing in a Form Because There’s No Online Form’, I sometimes get a sense of triumph and jubilation at the end, like you’ve conquered the form – you’ve made it work! Am I imagining this? Is it a thrill to write a formally difficult poem?

Oh God yes, there’s nothing like conquering a form. Every time I complete a poem that obeys rules I feel like Edmund Hillary: ‘We knocked the bastard off.’ Or Raymond Queneau, who described the members of Oulipo as ‘rats who build the labyrinth from which they will try to escape’. I’m a bit like that, but more dedicated to making sense.

I’m glad you brought up ‘Mailing in a Form Because There’s No Online Form’! It loosely follows the structure Louis MacNeice used in his marvellous poem ‘The National Gallery’. (Just wanted to give MacNeice a shout-out. He is so good.) There are six then eight then ten main stresses in the three lines of each stanza. (It’s 5–8–10 in the MacNeice.) Why bother doing something like this? Well, I’m one of those writers who, given a blank piece of paper, soils himself in fear. (I suspect that this is why I am a poet and not a novelist.) But if you draw a little box on the paper and then tell me I have to write a poem that fits perfectly within the box and is about a box, then I’m in business. For me, forms are great enablers; I have nothing to gain but my chains.

A lot of your poems are funny, but many are also moving and unsettling. Something that comes up quite a bit, in a philosophical way, is decay and erosion. ‘How long would I actually have to live / to have the wind and sea erode me?’ you ask in ‘Uninstall Your News Apps and Join a Hiking Club’. Were you thinking a lot about mortality during the writing of this collection? Or was it unconscious?

The good thing about writing lots of work that deals with mortality is that when you die it will be easy for people to find apposite poems to post in your memory on Twitter. Anyway, what other subject is there?

I’m not sure I write particularly well about death. Bless you for implying that I do! I can think of recent books of poems that cover mortality better than my own work does, for example, Danielle Pafunda’s The Dead Girls Speak in Unison and Emily Berry’s Stranger, Baby. But it seems important that I keep trying. Also, there are two other deaths that I think show up a lot in my work: 1) the death of working class or even the middle class (we could call this the death of equality) and 2) the death of the earth. I used to try to write mostly positive poems on the theory that there is enough misery in poetry already, but it turns out that, no, there is not actually enough misery in poetry yet.

You’re an active submitter of your work to literary journals, and a great many of the poems in this book have appeared in journals in the States and elsewhere. And you’re the poetry editor for Queen Mob’s Teahouse. A basic question, but why is it a good idea for a poet to submit their work widely? Is it ever a good idea to hold something back?

Until you submit your poems widely, you’ll never appreciate just how many people in the literary world have an interest in ignoring your work. That’s a joke, of course, but the converse of this joke is also true: until you send your poems all over the place, you’ll never know how many people might respond to them – might genuinely like your work. I am in the poetry game not just for the big money it invariably brings to its disciples, but because I want my work to be read. And maybe, like an internet-age Elizabethan sonneteer, I hold out a faint hope that my poems will buy me immortality. Other people write poems for other reasons, and I appreciate that. What I really don’t understand is the writer who wants to get his or her work out there but only in quite a limited way. I see some poets who are quite successful in New Zealand who seem to barely consider sending their work to journals elsewhere in the Anglosphere, and I think, ‘But you should. People should be reading you!’ Alas.

There are only two situations where I would generally urge caution to would-be submitters. 1) Don’t send out garbage just for the sake of sending something – anything – out. This is to save yourself embarrassment, because if you do this enough, eventually you’ll have the third worst poem you’ve ever written published somewhere where people will actually see it, and your parents will be ashamed of you and will phone you up and tell you that it’s not too late to do that dentistry degree. I guarantee that this will happen. 2) Don’t send work to venues that are laughably bad fits. This is to save editors time. (Note to men: don’t submit to journals that are spaces for women and non-binary writers. Some of you will anyway, but have you considered . . . not? Note to women: I am not the only editor to notice this, but men submit way more than women do, even when they have, to put it politely, less reason to be confident about their work.)

James Brown recently wrote a poem where he takes you to task for one of your similes. The simile is ‘Here, the cicadas sing like Christian women’s choirs / in a disused cotton mill’ (from ‘Letter from the Estuary’). James’s poem pulls apart the simile and inspects it from every angle, and eventually comes to accept it. It must’ve been strange to read his response poem, but I like it because a lot of your poems are responding to or bouncing off other poems, too, so they have a lovely ‘talky’ quality. What I want to know is, will you write a response poem to James’s response poem?

I do think I’m probably a slightly more allusive poet than most, apart from acknowledged masters like Ian Duhig or Michael Robbins. Sometimes I allude in a ludicrously old-school way, like when I write in the poem ‘Georgics’ that the animals around the manger of Jesus were singing a song called ‘What Version of Pastoral Is This?’ (a riff on William Empson’s New Critical classic Some Versions of Pastoral). You have to be pretty confident that you’re not going to look like a plonker when you do this stuff, and sometimes you do anyway, so it’s a dangerous game. But it’s a safer way of getting a thrill than surfing on the tops of trains or smoking synthetic cannabinoids, so it’s ultimately sensible.

And, since you ask, I do actually have a response to James Brown’s poem (which I loved!). It’s a triple clerihew:

    James Brown
    took Erik Kennedy down.
    And people wondered: what is Erik Kennedy’s

    At this point Erik
    did something mesmeric:
    he replied in verse
    that was even worse.

    It remains to be seen if James
    the momentum
    or if Erik prevents him.

There's No Place Like the Internet in Springtime is being launched in Christchurch at Scorpio Books on Wednesday 29 August, 5.30pm. All welcome!