Poet, critic, novelist and lecturer, Luke Kennard has an array of impressive awards. 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 point, the youngest ever poet to 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. His recent collection, Cain, was shortlisted for the International Dylan Thomas Prize in 2017. He was The Poetry Society’s Canal Laureate from 2016 -17 and is the judge of the New Poets Prize for 2020, organised by The Poetry Business.
In an interview with Lily Blacksell, he describes himself as having “always gravitated to work which is suspicious of itself.” Head of the Film and Creative Writing Department at Birmingham University, his research interests include the prose poem, Absurdist and Surrealist techniques in contemporary poetry, transatlantic influence and publishing trends in contemporary British poetry.
You hold a BA (Hons) in English Lit, MA in Creative Writing and a PhD in English and Creative Writing. How important are qualifications and can a writer succeed without them in 2020?
Anyone who writes needs time, encouragement and criticism, maybe some kind of community, and an MA is definitely a shortcut right into that, so it’s very useful. But there are a thousand different ways of creating that community for yourself. In and of themselves, qualifications are meaningless for a writer – they’re vital if you want to go into academia, but if you want to write you just need to put back an hour or so a day/night and get on with it.
I think it breaks both ways, though, and people can get a little angry and defensive about qualifications, as if people with qualifications are going around saying it’s a necessity. I’ve not actually met anyone who thinks that, among writers, editors or publishers. An agent or editor you’re approaching doesn’t read your CV, they just read your work and decide if they want to take it on.
But it’s more like Art as a discipline – we don’t really question painters and artists for listing their qualifications and where they studied after their names listed next to their paintings and take a vague interest in it (ah, she studied at St Martin’s, etc.) – we just accept that. And I hope we also accept and respect people who haven’t been able to (or have chosen not to) study and just evolved their own practice (autodidactically doing more or less what they’d have done on a degree anyway) and just look at the work.
For me it was really a way to buy time, if that makes sense. I took out a bank loan to do the MA, and after that I took a temporary admin job at the local council and wrote at night. With the PhD it was a case of waiting until I had some things published and a good enough project to stand a chance of getting funding for the fees, because without that I couldn’t have done it. I think my plan-B was just to keep on working in admin and writing at night.
You write poetry, criticism and you have written for radio and for the stage—Of these, which are you most passionate about and why?
Poetry I still actually enjoy writing – for better or worse I feel like I know what I’m doing there, and I just enter an almost trance-like state where certain phrases just come to life in front of me. Fiction is a grind. I throw away 75% of what I write. My attitude to plotting is that of a lab rat; I just throw myself down every dead end until eventually I emerge from the maze through brute, idiotic persistence. It’s an unedifying experience. I find writing for the stage a real pleasure – at university I used to write for a group of drama students who did a script-in-hand performance of new work every fortnight in the basement of a pub; this was a joyful and motivating experience and probably very formative. Both the thrill of hearing your words being given life by someone else and the shame of those words sometimes feeling inadequate or falling flat in performance. I think you learn a huge amount about writing and about your best and worst habits doing something like that.
You won the Eric Gregory Award in 2005 for The Solex Brothers and The Harbour Beyond The Movie was shortlisted for the 2007 Forward Prize for Best Collection (making you the youngest ever nominee for the award). How important is this recognition and do major awards change you as a writer? In what way?
I think if I’d won the Forward Prize in 2007 that would have actually been very bad for me. We spend a lot of our time in low-level jealousy and resentment and assuming that everyone else has got it right and we’re failing in some way, so it doesn’t always occur to us that getting what we think we want might be sort of ruinous. I think it would have been a lot of pressure and exposure, a lot of awful photoshoots, hundreds of total strangers hating me; I don’t think I’d have been up to the challenge, I think I’d have gone crazy or, at the very least, it would have messed up my writing for a very long time.
I think of Barry MacSweeney in this context – a wonderful poet, who had some early success and his first collection was published by a big press in 1968 and sold 11,000 copies (pretty much unheard of for poetry or even most literary fiction), which also meant he was ground up in the publicity machine, routinely pilloried in the newspapers, and according to his contemporaries it took him half his life to recover from it. Eventually he started his own press and turned increasingly to experimental small press stuff, but that brush with mainstream ‘success’ just strikes me as completely corrosive, to the soul, to the art. His Selected Poems (1965-2000) is an amazing book, though.
At the same time I know it’s unlikely I’d have got very far with my writing without that shortlisting – it’s that lucky break which gives you a lot of other opportunities. Even if you’re aware all the while that there’s so much work which never gets much official recognition. There’s no way of engineering it because you don’t know who the judges of any given competition are going to be in any given year (and really would you want to engineer it if that were even possible?) So you just have to do your thing, write things which are absolutely true to the way you want to write and maybe it will coalesce in your favour, maybe it won’t. I’ve had a few shortlistings and ceremonies with canapés over the last fifteen years: it gives a boost to your confidence, gives you a certain amount of publicity, but it’s actually a bit of an unpleasant experience on several levels, and I wouldn’t mind if I never had a brush with that whole world again.
You teach at Birmingham University. Do you enjoy teaching or is it a necessary evil?
I do love teaching – it’s a privilege to work with the students I get to work with, but I also often think of Adam Phillips’s essay on manufacturing enthusiasm as a key skill of adulthood. Your job is to act like you love it in order to love it, and you have to shake yourself into that sometimes, on the way to the classroom. That’s probably a familiar feeling for anyone who’s taught. It’s kind of surprising how many people outside of that just write to you with a manuscript or asking for bespoke advice because it’s like… oh mate. I mark and edit over half a million words a term, I have several hundred students I need to write references for; I’m struggling to fit in any of my own writing at all and still be a just-about-adequate father, you know? And I usually have a cold. How many hours do you think are left in the day? But you also don’t want to come off as cold and unhelpful so it can be difficult to protect the time you have.
Some readers find prose poetry difficult to grasp. What advice would you give to help them understand prose poetry?
I think there are various ways… Firstly it’s not characterised by excessive florid description; it can be, but usually it has the same flow as a short piece of prose. But it undermines our expectations of prose fiction in interesting ways; it doesn’t convey information or narrative in the same way; it tries to capture something more intangible, the sort of illumination/frustration/both for which we go to poetry. It’s just a form of poetry that does away with the line break, in the way blank verse does away with rhyme and vers libre does away with meter; it’s just another form in that mould. You can, if you like, see it as a poem-in-one-long-line, where the margins are completely arbitrary and if a book could be printed wide enough, the line wouldn’t break at all. I think it’s also necessary to look at the various points of origin – Turgenev wrote some very good ones (which are sort of little mock-parables, anti-moral tales); Wilde wrote some great fairy-tale / scriptural ones; Baudelaire was the first writer to really call what he was doing ‘prose poetry’, and the Francis Scarfe translations of his prose poems are just wonderful. Baudelaire was partly doing it as a kind of rebellion – he was bored of the alexandrine and other strict forms which dominated French poetry at the end of the 19th century; forms which, for him, had become merely decorative; an excuse for a lack of substantial content, argument, interesting problems and quandaries. I think if you read some work by those three you see some of the possibilities of the prose poem and it can potentially open up some things in your own writing.
Who are your top five contemporary poets? And why?
Oh no – this is where I alienate everyone I know! I mean I do this – in the way that when we used to go through wallets of photos from Boots, we were mostly interested in photos which have us in them; if I read someone’s recommendations I’m always left feeling, what am I, chopped liver? Unless the question was, which contemporary writers most resemble chopped liver? Is it a cop-out to say this changes quite frequently for me? Yes, I suppose that is a cop-out.
Mary Ruefle is quite possibly my favourite poet at the moment – her work manages to be the most infinitely complex and immediately readable thing and she makes me laugh inwardly in some deep recess of the soul. John Ashbery is the poet I go back to most often – for the mystery, the beauty, the strangeness; the way he captures the feeling of thought. Caroline Bird is one of my favourite writers in the UK, and I probably feel spiritually closest to her poetics – that tension and necessity of combining the surreal and the personal, which I think she does incomparably well. Holly Pester is an extraordinary poet, writer and thinker – she’s already done so much in art and performance and radio, and her debut collection is going to be stellar. I think Jack Underwood is amazing; Happiness was a scarily good debut and his new work this year blows me away; I think he’s someone of my generation who has this Auden-like potential: the work is wild and strange and deep, but also could be picked up by someone who isn’t necessarily that into poetry and adored. There are so many more poets I love I could mention. In the spirit of unearned self-congratulation I feel like I should throw in one of my former students, Jenna Clake, whose second collection, Museum of Ice Cream comes out from Bloodaxe next year. Her work is superbly inventive and funny and heart-breaking.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m waiting on the edits for my second novel to come through, which I’ll have the summer to get on with before it’s published some time in 2021. I also have a book called Notes on the Sonnets coming out next Spring, which needs some work. It’s 154 reaction pieces to Shakespeare’s sonnets – some of them I’m happy with and some of them I just need to re-write. The thing I’m most excited about is probably Jonah as a follow-up to Cain. I have a lot of material and poems for this, but I still have a couple of years before I need to turn in something resembling a manuscript, and I love that stage of the process – just writing freely and gathering material until it really takes shape. I have an idea and notes towards my third novel which I’m kind of itching to get on with.
Which question would you most like to ask yourself?
If it was a future self I’d like to know that I was still writing. My current self feels quite vague. I’d ask him something about responsibility and honesty in writing and he’d probably go very quiet and not answer me.