The Poetry Extension’s founder and curator, Natalya Anderson, interviews our ‘Poet of the Month’ for July, Luke Kennard.
Luke Kennard is an English poet and senior lecturer at the University of Birmingham. He won an Eric Gregory Award in 2005 for his first collection, The Solex Brothers. His second collection, The Harbour Beyond The Movie, was shortlisted for the 2007 Forward Prize for Best Collection, making him, at that time, the youngest poet to ever be nominated. In 2014 he was named as one of the Poetry Book Society’s Next Generation Poets. His debut novel, The Transition, was published by Fourth Estate in March 2017. The novel was a BBC Radio 4 Book at Bedtime. Luke is currently working on his second novel, as well as a new collection of poetry.
Natalya: Hello, Luke. Greetings from Toronto.
Luke: Hi Natalya. Always a pleasure is one of those phrases that sounds disingenuous, but the other day someone I’ve only met a handful of times said it to me with a note of genuine surprise and I was like: that’s how you make something like that sound sincere, as if it’s just occurred to you that the last few times you’ve seen someone have been, in some small way, pleasurable, like a decent cup of coffee. (I’m aware that this anecdote is kind of off-brand, but I feel massively awkward most of the time and I never forget a compliment however small). Because otherwise, if you don’t frown and deliver it that way it just sounds like affable English nonsense, like our entire relationship is built on distancing irony. You have to be so careful, right? Like the way you have to try to express something in a poem. But yeah, it’s always a pleasure.
Natalya: Our entire relationship is based on distance-irony. Is that the same thing? Should we inform readers that we are prone to Skyping each other whilst drinking?
Luke: It’s a real lifeline. Maybe the most meaningful collaboration I’ve ever been part of.
Natalya: I remember many moons ago you talked to me about having allies in the literary world, because it can be a tough world, and then I told you some stories about my past life with the professional ballet world, and then you said writers seem like puppy dogs by comparison. But I’m still glad to know you. I feel like even though you’re too tall to be graceful, you could catch a ballet-bullet or a literary-bullet for the artists you believe in. (Not the people who just ask you to do things for them, which is every human that comes in contact with you.)
Luke: Did I say that? Yuck. That sounds like I was planning some kind of coup. I mean I must have said that because I remember the ballet stories, and they were hair-raising. To make Past Luke clear: you don’t need allies as in ‘people who can pull strings for you behind the scenes’ – that’s… the exact opposite of what you need. But sure, you absolutely need people who like and believe in your work and ask you difficult questions about it and sometimes edit the hell out of it. People you know you could call weeping in the middle of the night to tell them that you hate writing and everything about it and you’ve lost any sense of purpose or meaning in your life. Allies, yeah.
Natalya: Now that we’ve alienated everybody, let’s talk about poetry. When did you start writing poetry? What interested you about it?
Luke: What do people usually say to this? Is there some way of not just reiterating the same two or three origin stories? Somewhere between I didn’t even know what poetry was, but my typewriter had a broken carriage-return key that activated at random so everything I wrote came out with line-breaks and, Well I come from a long line of minor poets, so… When I was 16, I wrote lyrics for my friend’s band and we played in his garage, down the road from a dog and cat food factory called Dalgetty’s (imagine me saying this in an accent other than my own, like one I’ve put on to sound authentic). Sometimes it would flood with bleach and tiny meat particles so we couldn’t practice for a week. We were terrible. It was great. I mean all of this is true, but what does it matter? When I was… 9, I think, I tried to plagiarise one of T. S. Eliot’s poems from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats – I changed some of the details in ‘The Rum Tum Tigger’ but it was very close to the original – and my mum totally called me out on it. I played innocent for about half an hour – like T. S. Wholiot? – and eventually said I might have potentially written it as a sort of tribute. To Eliot. And the Rum Tum Tigger. She said, ‘Good. I’m proud of you for admitting that.’ She has no memory of this whatsoever. She was probably around the age I am now, which makes me feel weird.
Natalya: You are the oldest of four children from a family that kind of grew up in the middle of nowhere off the side of the motorway. What was it like growing up in your family? Was poetry or writing an escape of any kind?
Luke: From when I was about 5 years old my dad worked as a translator, from home, in the unconverted attic. He worked, I reckon, about 14 hours a day. The sound of typing is still one of the most relaxing, centring sounds for me (also hairdryers, but that’s different. I think my mother dried her hair a lot when she was pregnant with me). My mum was very outgoing and sociable, so the house was usually full of friends from church or that’s something I remember, anyway. Maybe it wasn’t so frequent. A lot of the time, with my sisters and baby brother, we amused ourselves with long-running fantasies that had very complicated plot-arcs. I did a lot of voices. I mean looking back… to me that was very much real and they were probably more like… Oh my god, Luke’s having a six way conversation between two bears, two rabbits, a Happy Meal Sonic the Hedgehog and a Guinness toucan; if we humour him long enough maybe he’ll let us have our toys back. I wrote, with embarrassing levels of sincerity and intent, from the age of 8. So, I should be better at it than I am. I wrote comic books and long overambitious sci-fi (these would get up to about 20,000 words before I admitted I didn’t know how to end them and started another one). I made giant inscrutable boardgames and forced my sisters to play them; and the games just got increasingly opaque. Like there’d be squares and dice and illustrations but you could barely see them because the whole thing was covered in tiny writing. Essentially this was something going on in my head which I assumed would be apparent/obvious to others. And it’s not, is it? It never is. So, my writing since then has been an attempt at bridging that? I don’t know. And I wrote terrible poems and lyrics. I spent most of my evenings doing that. But I think I also had this interest in collage and in juxtaposing phrases to produce unexpected meanings, you know? I’d do that a lot. The first thing I had published was a letter to a computer magazine where I’d made a poem out of the subtitles in their reviews. So, when I eventually read poets like Ashbery it felt… familiar and joyful, I guess, like you can get really interesting and beautiful results out of this. I mean I was miserable at school, so home already felt like a sanctuary, right? So, writing felt like an escape and also something that secretly defined you. I mean me. Took about 8 sessions of therapy to be like, oh yeah, my father used to sit in the attic typing and I’m trying to mirror that.
Natalya: How or why does the current political climate in the UK and beyond influence your writing? While many people focus on the surrealism in your poetry, they often miss other layers in your work.
Luke: There’s this scene in The Sopranos which I think about quite a lot. Tony and the other goons are hanging out in their bar and the barman (who’s this big, giant friendly guy, like someone who was probably really mean about two decades ago and now he’s kind of a sweetheart insofar as his limited circumstances allow that; you know, he’s the ideal American barman) is cleaning glasses and politely joining in with the conversation, and the talk turns to either climate change or terrorism (I think it’s terrorism – I can’t be bothered to find the scene, but it was probably around 2002) and things are getting quite heated, and the barman says, off-hand, ‘I can’t even think about it.’ Tony says, ‘What?’ and the barman says, again, ‘Ah, I can’t even think about it.’ And Tony Soprano jumps the bar and just beats the shit out of him.
Which I suppose is to say: Do I want to read your climate change poem? No. I can’t even think about it.
It’s always weird, the reactions you get to something which is obviously very personal, whatever your technique. And “personal” means sadness and irritation and vanity and doubt. Those are my four great themes. Every now and then that resonates with someone and I feel overwhelming gratitude. Because… is that the only reason I’m doing it? Gah. I think the shame and ambivalence I feel about writing generally (and I mean genuine ambivalence, like I mean I feel as though it’s the single thing I’m on this planet to do and I also detest it and myself for doing it with a furious intensity and I drink myself sick after readings) is completely central to the way I write.
Natalya: Speaking of other messages and layers in your writing, do you remember when I stalked and emailed you 100 years ago and asked you if your entire first three collections were just a slow depiction of The Stations of the Cross?
Luke: I really felt seen for the first time. And yes, totally. That was really something. I know I’ve said this somewhere before, but if you were state educated post, say, 1972 (which 96% of us were so can we stop pretending it makes us remarkable in any way?) you just aren’t exposed to Greek mythology at all. Unless your parents are into it and you’re obliging enough listen to them. And obviously if you study English at university, you’re going to encounter it there and explore it as much as you have the initiative to, but it’s not foundational for you. I’m not saying I found it off-putting how central the gods seemed to be to a lot of poetry, but… I had a churchy upbringing, stopped going at about 15, and converted to the Orthodox Church in my late 20s. The stuff I have to draw on is churchy, you know? So that’s the background mind, mythos, etc. I have to draw on. And it’s weird as hell, so it works.
Natalya: We’ve already spoken about your working through religious ambiguity in poetry. Is that still your bag?
Luke: Yeah, it’s a niche, isn’t it? Gotta have a niche. Like that planet in Barbarella where the rock formations are slowly growing around everyone.
Natalya: What do you think about our generation of writers? I feel like I’m not quite part of the older set of poets who might be stereotyped as writing more about landscape, countrysides and family, but I also don’t feel entirely connected to the younger generation who are very politically minded and direct in their writing about sex, gender inequality, racism, and the basic hell that is our world. Where do you and I belong, as the inbetweeners?
Luke: Things felt ridiculously quiet in the early 2000s. Even the internet felt quiet. So, you maybe felt like you were writing in some isolation but… If you actually look at dates: Clare Pollard’s debut was 1998; Caroline Bird’s debut was 2002… Frances Leviston’s Public Dream was shortlisted for the Eliot in… 2007, right? If you were trying to be an academic about it you could maybe cite the Tall Lighthouse ‘pilot series’ as a significant moment (they published pamphlets by Jay Bernard, Emily Berry… a small indie press who made the right call 20 times in a row). Or you could take the Stop Sharpening Your Knives anthologies, which I think started before that (and at the moment I think you see a similar combination of talent and conviction in Lifeboat press in Belfast). You could choose several points of origin for what is now a pretty huge scene across a lot of different parts of the country. And as long as you’re reading beyond your friend list, you’re honouring that.
I mean also, if things felt quite early 21st c. you also didn’t feel like there was something big going on you were only ever going to be peripheral to – I think we have a collective delusion about that which is exaggerated by PR. There’s so much painfully good stuff being written and published at the moment, so much that it’s hard to keep on top of it. It’s exciting. And even if something doesn’t knock me out personally, I’m kind of reading for my students as well, for what’s going to make them want to write, give them new ideas or new permissions in their own work. The only downside to that is, I suppose, it can get very selective in terms of the books that get a lot of attention or any reviews… So, it’s like… we’re cynical about everything unless it’s coming our way, or to someone we really like, then it’s more, ‘Oh darling, well done, you really deserve this.’ So, what is that? I think collectively we have very mixed feelings about this outdated, irrelevant system of reward. I owe a huge amount to getting a Forward shortlisting in 2007, even if the overwhelming reaction was who the fuck is this guy? There needs to be a kind of poetry equivalent of Pitchfork that reviews five new collections a day and actually aims to give adequate representation to all the different things going on.
I’m technically as old as it’s possible to be and still be a Millennial (June 1981) and you’re technically the youngest, cynical member of Generation X. MilleXials. So, we are kind of in between. But I think most of us are insecure enough to feel peripheral to what’s going on and our entire days can be made or sabotaged by a couple of kind or harsh words. I don’t know if I’m dodging the question here – I guess I just mean I read, when I started, to find the poets whose work resonated with me, opened up possibilities for me, and that’s still what I do now. Whether it has anything in common with the way I write or not. Do I have any place writing about everything you just mentioned? No. Does the world need to hear from another cis, straight (I mean, about a 2 on the Kinsey scale, but whatever) able-bodied white man about how difficult he finds being alive? Also no. But I can write about being a stupid hypocrite who doesn’t deserve to be alive. That’s okay? Right? Natalya?
Natalya: You’re already a very successful poet who belongs, rightfully, at the top of your generation. Technically you’re not part of a group, per se. You’re the OG.
Luke: I just googled what does OG stand for? I think I’ve had a lot more attention than I deserve, and I think I’m completely insignificant. I think I’d rather be nowhere. I know there’s a kind of necessary triumphalism and empowerment around art at the moment – and, to be clear, that’s great, I’m really happy for literally everyone else. But what does anyone want, really? Enough money to keep doing it, so… the necessary measure of success to achieve that; creative fulfilment; the admiration of others. Ugh. I mean look at it clearly and it’s a kind of hell. Basing your sense of meaning and fulfilment on a reaction you’re demanding from other people, depending on that; it’s inevitable and it’s hell and it’s what we’re choosing. Seriously. God help us.
I honestly don’t even want this anymore – I just have no idea what else to do.
There comes a point where the lock’s been tripped and you’re just stuck with what you are. Because the alternative is starting something completely different from scratch and if you’re basically 40 with kids… You’ve made your choice. You’re a writer or you’re a failed writer. You’re a singer or you have a drinking problem. I guess if I won £50,000 on a scratch card I could afford to become a really mediocre dentist? With zero years’ experience. Matter of time before I really messed up someone’s teeth and I just wouldn’t be able to live with myself.
But then the question is always: Does any of this mean anything at all? And poetry’s answer is: Well… kind of… Choose your filter: psychoanalysis, religion, astrology, capital – reinterpret your life through that. Most of us can’t, if we’re basically intelligent and self-questioning, we stay in that moment of hesitation forever. Like maybe that’s true instead; rotate it this way, focus. Nah.
So, poetry gives you just enough to keep you hooked – same as love or substance abuse. Something that’s quite good about poetry, though, if you stick with it for long enough, is that it will break and humiliate you. Actually, that’s not specific, is it? But then you find some way of keeping doing it, because you have to, because it’s one of the only things you care about even though you hate it. And then, in that stupid self-inflicted state, you’ll probably write something quite good, or at least something people will see something in because you feel broken and sick and it’s making you worse and you’re at least able to articulate that. I mean why would that fit in anywhere? Why would anyone even want to spend time with me? Because socially I’m pretty considerate and I’m generous with drinks, but apart from that.
Natalya: Now that everyone’s riveted to our diatribe, tell us about your novel, The Transition. What was that drivel all about, and what’s in store for your follow-up book?
Luke: I don’t know. A 300-page hissy fit about not being able to afford a down payment on a mortgage which didn’t resonate with as many people as publicists might have hoped for. There was a TV adaptation which just tanked at the final stage, and that’s normal, you know? Most things do. I think there comes a point where you’re so used to hedge-betting any potential disappointment that you stop feeling the lows or the highs; and the price of that peace of mind is almost total indifference to yourself. Which isn’t a bad thing, or at least it’s better than active antipathy. My second novel is an absolute disaster right now.
Natalya: What is happening with your up-coming collection of poetry? Are you going to stop making us work so hard to decode your poems and finally write an entire book of love poems?
Luke: I’ve got a pamphlet coming out this summer called mise en abyme but it’s with a small press in Germany and it’s only available via a rare book dealer in New York in an edition of 74 copies. I’m working on a follow-up to Cain called Jonah. I should get quite a lot of that done next year if I can stop drinking. I’m enjoying the research – maybe enjoying is too strong a word – I like that part of it and it’s not dissimilar to Cain: big piles of books, lots of notes. Obviously, I’m not doing anything else with anagrams and the whole thing is still finding its form. I’ve landed in quite a weird place with my attitude to writing: I can plot out my absolute ideal ‘career’ (blech) for the next 20-30 years and I can plot out absolutely everything going to shit and… one doesn’t appeal to me more than the other. Maybe I’m channelling the melting glaciers. Maybe I do want to read your climate change poem.
Natalya: Well, since it’s 10 p.m. in Toronto now, and 3 a.m. in the UK, I’ll let you get some sleep. Just kidding! You go get more vape juice, and I’ll get another glass of baby-diaper-time prosecco since I’m such a lightweight.
Luke: Prosecco doesn’t keep – the spoon in the neck thing is a lie.