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Planet Shaped Poet – An exclusive conversation with Luke Kennard
Luke Kennard, award nominated poet, University of Birmingham Creative Writing Professor and general worrier about all things in life, instantly puts one at ease with his naturally chatty charm
Luke Kennard, award nominated poet, University of Birmingham Creative Writing Professor and general worrier about all things in life, instantly puts one at ease with his naturally chatty charm. He is cleary an honest and grounded man of the arts.
Is there anything you are working on currently?
I have a pamphlet coming out next Thursday [now last Thursday], which is a narrative sequence of poetry called Planet-Shaped Horse.
It's about a man who is in a halfway house between a psychiatric unit and being allowed to go back into ordinary life again. It's from his perspective so the reality of it is slightly fractured through his state of mind. It is also about some of the things I've been talking about, calling yourself a writer and expecting people to be interested automatically.
The best writers are people who always doubt that they are writing something of worth. The moment you stop questioning you start becoming conceited and you start relying on the old patterns of poems you have written in the past, instead of trying to change what you're doing or find out what you were trying to do all along.
You were shortlisted for the Forward Poetry Prize and in fact were the youngest poet to ever be nominated for the prize. What was that like?
It was better to be shortlisted than to have won it, apart from the fact I didn't get any money, which was a shame. But it was better because I think if you win something like that, particularly if you're young, it becomes kind of a novelty.
People don't really like young writers. They almost take pleasure in seeing you have early success and then failing miserably; they would have really loved it if I had won it then died of a drug overdose. I was always aware when there were profiles of me in the papers that the overriding feeling that people were going to get was 'Who the hell is he? Why aren't I in the paper? I want to kill him!'
Obviously it's quite hard to become well known and well received. How can you go about developing a readership and making a living?
It's hard to make any sort of money out of it. I know people from both sides of poetry, from the performance/slam scene and the more traditional page-based world. I know people who just about manage to make a living; they have to be incredibly proactive and they have to chase every gig.
If you have a good reputation you'll be booked for things and probably get paid between £100 and £300 a performance, but if it's your sole income and you don't know where or when the next gig's going to be... I've never had the guts to just strike out on my own; I've always quite liked having a steady income to pay the rent.
Is it achievable for a poet to write in their own purely original style and not be obviously influenced by other poets?
What you write is the only thing you're capable of writing. If you have any integrity to your talent then you're really your own influence. Influence in your writing should be worn subtly. It really annoys me when there's this bluntness of reference.
It feels like the writer's saying 'I couldn't possibly aspire to write something that's great' and therefore have to attribute everything to somebody else.
Is there anyone you have been reading in particular recently that you would recommend?
Caroline Bird. When you see her read, she's memorised the work and throws herself into the performance of it. But it's very deep, interesting, complex work and when you read it you react to more than just the humour.
You can react just to it by laughing at the strange juxtaposition or the joke but you can also read into it and there is anger there and political engagement, without saying 'this is what you have to think about this situation'. You have to have an awareness of the responsibility of a being a poet instead of assuming you have automatic right to tell people what to think.
If you had to choose three dead poets to work alongside who would they be?
I've been reading a lot of Ted Hughes recently so I think he would definitely be there. His work is very strange and amusing; Crow – the most emo collection of poetry ever written – is enormously inventive and witty whilst exploring utterly, horrendously bleak things through the medium of this Crow character who pops up in every poem.
I think Barbara Guest is still alive, but she's one of my favourite poets, so, when she dies... T.S.Eliot would be someone I'd really like to chain smoke with for an hour. I guess it would a disaster to invite Plath to the same party as Hughes.
Frank O'Hara would be a lot of fun. I think he would have a good argument with Eliot about what poetry is. He was very spontaneous and would turn up at readings having written something on the train on the way there and that offended people.
What side do you think you sway towards? In terms of your style and what you like to discuss in your poems?
I like the ambition and dedication of the very closely written 'agonising' school, but I also really enjoy the lighter, fun, spontaneous side.
I don't use traditional form that much; quite a lot of my poetry is in prose. I think the trouble with strict form is that you end up compromising everything you wanted to say just to meet the rhyme and get the meter in, as if that was the point rather than, say, the absolute urgency and brilliance of the imaginitive quandaries you're trying to untangle. It's nice to be challenged by form sometimes, though.
How would you describe your poetry?
Like an honest interior cataloguing of thoughts with a flash of absurdity and elements of surrealism thrown in. Ultimately it's heartfelt, however violent or weird it is on the surface, there's a certain amount of sentimentality in it.
This is what it is like to have a life, this is what it is like to have doubts; in many ways it's a step backwards. A friend-of-a-friend once said reading my poetry was like the Matrix, standing very high and looking down on the world and everyone in it as if it was a grid of numbers, which she meant as a backhanded compliment. I think it's an attempt to see your own self. And to describe it honestly.
By Rosie McKaig and Sam Langtree
To read more about Luke Kennard's 'Planet-Shaped Horse' go to http://www.redbrickonline.co.uk/arts-culture/luke-kennard’s-‘planet-shaped-horse’/?preview=true&preview_id=15796&preview_nonce=4f92885da3