The Ofi Press Magazine

International Poetry and Literature from Mexico City

Interview: Erik Kennedy

Erik Kennedy is an American poet with one of the best websites ever seen by The Ofi Press. You can find out more about him here.

Interview carried out by email by Jack Little in January 2013.

Published in The Ofi Press, Issue 27.


1.How do poetry, video and music interplay with each other in your work?


Do they interplay? My common attraction in all three media is to short forms: lyric, sketch, and song. (I have never made a video. The only visual work I’ve done has been doodles.) There is something about work in short forms that makes me believe that I can press it into service in my own verses. And that is always the aim. The same goes for bits of trivia, etymologies, and, these days, tweets. They just feel so pick-up-able, and, in the same way that it’s easier to steal a necklace than a dress, the temptation is to take it, say ‘Why not?’ and maybe try it on later. Or not.


I’m not advocating (or not advocating) theft here. It’s really just a process of personal cultural accretion that sounds modernistic, but, for me, is more like keeping a commonplace book. In many ways, it is more like eating than stealing.


I think many people fantasise about deploying a picture or a passage of music in their written work, and some claim to do it, but I don’t believe it. And it’s rarely useful to hear that someone was listening to the new My Bloody Valentine whilst writing. I’m ignoring an enormous body of criticism here. What I mean is that it is difficult to transmit to a reader the experience of being a listener or a viewer of another artwork. Yet I always have a record on and I choose my wallpaper carefully.


The only direct visual/verbal intersection in my œuvre is my Famous Artists with Drinks series of drawings. Each is a portrait of a well-known ‘creative’ expressing himself through thirst. All of them are, to some extent, jokes. Private caption contests, almost. Maybe that’s the answer that I’ve been unable to give so far: that the interplay is in the incongruity, in comedy.


2. Where does poetry come from? Outside, within or somewhere quite indefinite?


I cannot imagine anyone not saying within. That is the whole point of rigorous literary training: to let you know that you know how to create things. That said, it is amazing how even the slightest interruption of my routine is liable to feel like a poetic opportunity. I don’t know how people with exciting lives cope.


The danger, of course, is that one will start to experience life exactly as a series of poetic opportunities. Where does it end? For example, Michael Donaghy (via Don Paterson) recounts: ‘I stood before my father’s corpse and thought / If I can’t get a poem out of this . . .’ That really speaks for itself.


I say ‘danger’ because it sounds unpleasant and surreal to me, but I can’t be sure. Here I may be wrong, or in denial. But I’m happy enough inventing, and that is what I mostly do.


Another way of putting it is to say that my life in letters draws from letters more than life.


3. Is literary criticism valid/useful/necessary?


I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but popular criticism—that is, reviews (say, Peter Riley’s in the Fortnightly Review) and shorter form writing (here I commend blogs like David Lehman’s Best American Poetry and Magma’s blog)—is generally more entertaining than poetry itself. This is certainly not new, and is exactly what one might expect of criticism of a ‘difficult’ art form. It can seem a bit gossipy.


But who doesn’t like gossip? And who would deny that gossip can also accomplish real work? Even Poetry magazine agrees with me. Under Christian Wiman’s editorship, slowly but surely, miscellaneous prose writing has really flourished. There is nothing like having a continuing conversation, regardless of its quality. That is how relationships are built.


Surely even this interview is a moment of literary criticism, right?


Right or wrong, I distinguish the foregoing examples from the ‘serious criticism’ of scholarly journals and university presses. This may be because of my background. (I was an English Ph.D. student before I was whatever it is I am now.) It may just be how I’m inclined. This work is useful and necessary, too, but I also feel that it is more like—to borrow a term that Matthew Zapruder once used about poetry itself—‘mortal work.’ To address the question directly, it is all valid, but usefulness will vary, and I don’t always trust what I read on the tin.


4. I was told not to use Wikipedia at school by the teacher because ‘you can't trust it.’ Why contribute to the Wikipedia project?


There are two reasons not to use Wikipedia: 1) trivial concerns about bias, and 2) awareness that it does not rank very highly in the hierarchy of exclusive places whence comes wisdom. I am fully aware that it is more awe-inspiring to say that you read something in an old issue of Transactions of the British Mycological Society. But does that matter? Trust Wikipedia implicitly. Any decent article is sourced up to its eyeballs.


I myself am a (minor) Wikipedian because I have areas of competency in which I can contribute, and because I like reading the thing. A book you can edit is an editor’s dream. And if something is wrong, it’s probably not your fault! That is a great feeling.


Also, and I’m aware that I sound like a shill, one of the best ways to learn is to write articles.


5. Are you a decadent man?


Only in the normal ways, which means that I am not.


6. What does the future hold for Erik Kennedy?


I have to take it one submission at a time. I vaguely understand that a chapbook is the next career step, but I’m not too concerned with a career. (That, so far, is what distinguishes my career.) Also, I need to come up with more and better ideas.


7. What does tea mean for the future of British society?


In many ways, it’s a better moment for the British tea-drinker than any since Tetley popularised the tea bag in the 1950s. (I am not happy that they did that.) Leaf tea is finally ascendant again, and there are some great, dedicated importers. Henrietta Lovell and JING come to mind. You can buy Hawaiian-grown tea (yes, Hawaiian) at Harrods. Jammie Dodgers come in toffee and chocolate now. And people are drinking more herbal infusions than they have in, I don’t know, millennia, probably.


Every so often, one reads alarming survey results that show that young people increasingly prefer all sorts of drinks to a cup of tea, but you know what? You won’t be young forever, young people. Have a favourite mug ready to be on the safe side.