Christopher Kennedy on Defining Prose Poetry and Working-Class Stories
Peter Mishler Talks to the Author of The Strange God Who Makes Us
For this installment in a series of interviews with contemporary poets, contributing editor Peter Mishler corresponded with Christopher Kennedy. Christopher Kennedy is the author of six collections of poetry, including four from BOA Editions: The Strange God Who Makes Us, which will be published in May 2024; Clues from the Animal Kingdom (2018); Ennui Prophet (2011); and Encouragement for a Man Falling to His Death (2007), which won the Isabella Gardner Poetry Award from BOA. He is also co-translator of Light & Heavy Things: Selected Poems of Zeeshan Sahil (2013), published by BOA as part of the Lannan Translation Selections Series.
He has received fellowships and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and the Constance Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts. Kennedy is professor of English in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Syracuse University. The Strange God Who Makes Us is available for preorder now.
Peter Misher: I would like to start with the question I ask everyone in this series. What’s the strangest thing you know to be true about the art of poetry?
Christopher Kennedy: There’s a lot that’s strange, starting with why anyone feels compelled to write a poem given its marginalized status in the culture-at-large, but I’m going to say the confounding fact that it’s impossible for a reader to tell the difference between a poem I worked on for half an hour and a poem I struggled with for years. Sometimes I think it’s a byproduct of writing prose poems and doing what I can to make the poems seem reader friendly, even if I’m doing something relatively complex. Maybe the effect ends up being that everything looks like it took me half an hour to write.
Also, I’m speculating here because for all I know some readers can discern between them. In fact, I’m sure this is pure projection on my part. I should start labeling poems with a timestamp to show how long it took to write them. On the other hand, that could be embarrassing. “Two years, it took years, for this?”
PM: A few of the poems in your forthcoming collection The Strange God Who Makes Us were originally published some years ago. Could you talk a little bit about your decision to collect them in this latest book? I’m thinking in particular about “Occlusion in Long Rain,” as well as the title poem. I wondered if these earlier poems appeared to “fit” as you collected work for a new book.
CK: Both of those poems were in a manuscript that evolved from my thesis in graduate school. They were originally in verse, and the manuscript was a semi-finalist or finalist for the Yale Younger Poets Prize four years in a row. But then I was no longer Younger and ineligible to submit to the contest. James Dickey, the judge those four years, sent me a very nice letter encouraging me to submit again and to keep writing for him, for Yale, for poetry. He also asked for a copy of the manuscript, since he had to return the one he had to Yale. I sent him a copy with a note thanking him for his encouragement and letting him know I was no longer eligible for the Yale Prize and did he know of a publisher that might be interested in the book.
He died shortly after that, and I decided to shelve that manuscript. I had been revising it for years and was tired of looking at the poems, and in retrospect I feel as though I had become stagnant writing toward what I’d already written and not going forward as a poet. So, I started writing prose poems exclusively that represented a very different aesthetic from the “Yale Manuscript” which was liberating and set me on a different path.Everything I write has a verse version and a prose version at the very least, but more often there are several versions in both formats, until I find the right prose version.
The poems in the new book from that earlier manuscript fit the new book for a few reasons. One, they were originally written in verse as were almost all the poems in the new book. In fact, all the poems in the section about my mother were written as double sonnets originally, the last line of the first sonnet being the first line of the second. Two, tonally they seemed right, and they didn’t lose anything when converted to prose (poems). If anything, they seemed well-suited to the change.
PM: In your years of writing prose poems, do you have any observations about this form that you’d be willing to share? I’m curious if there are aspects of writing prose poems that you’ve discarded along the way, and, equally, if there are facets of this form that you are continuing to understand, perhaps differently than before?
CK: If I remember correctly, I started writing prose poems when I realized I was obsessing over things like line breaks and stanza breaks at the expense of the content in my poems. I decided to focus on writing more freely in early drafts and then imposing formal restrictions on what I’d written. That led to me writing prose that I turned into verse, and eventually I started turning the verse back into prose. Everything I write has a verse version and a prose version at the very least, but more often there are several versions in both formats, until I find the right prose version.
PM: To what degree do you think of yourself as a prose poet almost exclusively? Your response makes me think that you’ve made a kind of procedural commitment to it, and I wonder what keeps you coming back to this approach.
CK: The past few years, I worked on a short novel. It didn’t start out as a novel, and it may not be one, but it’s a longer prose piece in short chapters. In some ways, it felt like a logical conclusion to go there. It’s finished to the extent that it feels done to me, though I’m sure I’ll make changes once I get some distance, but writing that long form prose piece made me appreciate how much, when I’m writing prose poems, I think about all the things I would think about if I were writing verse.
I know prose poems seem like a different beast, but I no longer see the difference. I’m working on a new manuscript, and the poems in it are as verse-like as anything I’ve ever written. There’s a great deal of rhyme, attention to meter, etc. Maybe subconsciously I moved from the novel to more verse-like prose poems as a reaction to having been so focused on elements of fiction. I drove myself crazy with plot issues and characterization problems, and maybe it was a relief to focus on the things I love in poetry, even if they might be a bit hidden at times in my work.
PM: Let’s go back in time a bit to another question I ask everyone in this series. Is there a feeling or fleeting memory from childhood that in some way presages that you would become an artist and write poetry, as an adult?
CK: My father died when I was seven, and one of my older relatives, a cousin on my father’s side, John “Bozo” Corbett, and his wife, Gladys, used to visit my mother and me often. John was an incredible storyteller, still the best I’ve ever heard. He would drop Gladys off and go to the causeway at Otisco Lake to fish and stop by the Amber Inn for a few beers afterward. When he got back to the house, Gladys would prod him, and if he was feeling it, he would tell stories of borderline and not so borderline criminal behavior I’d heard many times, and I was thoroughly enthralled every time.
Occasionally, John would stop by with things for me to read, magazines mainly, sometimes ones my mother wasn’t happy about, and after he left, I would have to sift through the trash to find them and squirrel them away somewhere safe. But one time he brought me a copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, the Edward FitzGerald translation. I read those quatrains incessantly, even though I didn’t understand them, and I became fascinated by the effect the poem had on me. It was visceral, as if my body were absorbing the language, and I wouldn’t have been able to tell you anything about what the poems meant to me, not in any way that would have made sense at least.
Not long after I read the book, my sister came home from college for a short visit. I have a clear memory of being in our kitchen and me telling her I was going to be a poet. She did a good job containing her laughter, but I could tell she was skeptical. I insisted that it was true, and she asked me if I had written any poems. I hadn’t, but in what was to become my modus operandi later in life any time I was asked if I had work to submit, I said yes.
She asked me to recite one for her, so I called her bluff and started my “poem” by saying “In this day and age” and then looking out the kitchen window. Seeing a car drive up the street, I finished the line with “people drive cars up the street” and repeated the refrain, “In this day and age,” followed by whatever was in my line of sight. My sister was hysterical by the end of my impromptu performance, and her reaction, ironically (any reaction is a good reaction?), made me think there might be something to this poetry thing.
It was several years before I wrote a poem, but that moment seemed to foretell a fate that would have seemed as ridiculous to anyone who knew my background as it had to my sister.
PM: When you started to write poems, to what extent did that performative, knowing, funny, kind of impertinent and disaffected “recitation” for your sister get into those early poems?
CK: When I first started writing poems, I would never have thought to be funny, to use humor in any way. I was writing “serious poems” about “serious things.” The first prose poem I wrote was in graduate school, and I never showed it to anyone initially. It was comic and it was in prose. I assumed everyone would hate it. I eventually showed it to Ken Victor, another poet in my cohort, and he said he thought it was the best thing he’d seen of mine.
That confused me at first, but it made me reexamine the poem, and I started to see that it might be a new way to approach my work. It was a serious poem, but I’d found a way to express myself that allowed me to use one of my strengths. Humor is my family’s way of dealing with or deflecting grief and sadness, so it came naturally to me once I allowed myself to embrace it.
Still, it was several years before I committed to writing prose poems that were comic/absurdist, and my first book, Nietzsche’s Horse, was the result. I had discovered Russell Edson’s poems in an anthology and became fascinated by them. I’d also read Carolyn Forche’s “The Colonel” and Zbigniew Herbert’s prose poems and eventually Daniil Kharms’ work.The new book is more of a throwback to the “serious” poems I was writing years ago (though not exclusively), another reason why the two poems you asked about earlier felt right for the manuscript.
The new book is more of a throwback to the “serious” poems I was writing years ago (though not exclusively), another reason why the two poems you asked about earlier felt right for the manuscript.
PM: What do you think necessitated this shift to seriousness? Seriousness, to me, seems to accompany “about-ness,” though something more comic or absurd is, of course, not about nothing. I wonder if you’d be willing to consider that binary. Is there a difference that jumps out to you between the serious and the comic?
CK: I think “about-ness” is a good way to describe the difference. Even though the poems aren’t necessarily about particular events, though some are, there’s a more concrete aspect to them than say an absurdist or metaphor-driven poem that is more conceptual or philosophical. There’s also the obvious, which is that many of the poems are about memory, which lends itself to that “about-ness.” Also, I was writing very consciously about climate change at times, and the effect of what’s happening environmentally to our psyches, or at least my psyche.
On the other hand, my more comic poems are also serious, but humor is a kind of mask that allows me to approach subject matter I might avoid or write about in a way that could be overly sentimental or hackneyed. Ideally, the humor draws a reader in, and the emotional undertone sneaks up on them. I’m a sucker for those types of poems. Think Russell Edson and James Tate, for example.
But the new book has less of that approach, especially the poems about my mother’s Alzheimer’s. I felt obligated to be as straightforward as possible with those poems. Since the experience was already absurd, it didn’t need any embellishment, and I didn’t want to disguise the speaker’s state of mind with any aesthetic choices that would obscure meaning.
PM: Your response recalls a poem in your new collection where you’re thinking of Russell Edson in the supermarket. It’s an elegy that echoes Allen Ginsberg seeing Whitman in the supermarket, although Edson isn’t there in your poem. It made me think of this poem as a sort of nod to going it alone without the absurd. Do you think that your approach with your new book felt like “going it alone” in some new way?
CK: It’s a poem that pays homage, as does Ginsberg’s, and it references something that happened when Russell gave a reading at Syracuse. He was supposed to read the previous semester, but because of some comical travel issues, he and his wife, Frances, ended up in Pittsburgh, which could be a Russell Edson poem. When he finally did make it to Syracuse, I picked him up at the airport and took him to the hotel. At the hotel, the woman working at the desk asked him how many room keys he would like, and he said, “200.”
The rest is imagined, but your question has me thinking that for some reason when I started putting the manuscript together, I knew it would end the first section, and it does feel a bit like saying good-bye to Russell and his influence. I can’t say I had an awareness of moving in a different direction, but the more I wrote, the more I could see I was writing about events rather than ideas and concerned not so much about accuracy as in emotional truth, if that makes sense.
Maybe the best way to answer is to say I was ready to see if I could write poems that were closer to the bone and didn’t rely on humor and abstraction as much.
PM: Is there something that you are willing to lose or say goodbye to when you begin to put a poem into prose form? I’d love to know what you think is gained or what feels satisfying about the transformation that occurs? I was wondering if you would talk about this in relation to the heart of the book, the second section, your beautiful Memory Unit poems?
CK: Well, to follow up on a previous answer, I was willing to say good-bye to a certain amount of artifice in the poems about my mother. The experience of being in the nursing home with her, trying to figure out how best to communicate with her, always at some emotional and psychological expense, was so overwhelming, that when I tried to write about the experience, I wanted the straightest line between what happened and what I could write to represent it as possible.
I mentioned before that those poems had been double sonnets, but that was after they were written as prose poems. I wanted to see if imposing the form would improve them, and I ended up sending those poems to the NEA that year and received a fellowship, so they must have been okay. But when it came down to it, I felt the prose poem format was closer to the actual experience I had. I don’t usually write quite so autobiographically, but there was no sense in trying to fool myself or anyone else, so I went with the straight-line approach.
PM: Because you’ve written prose poems prolifically, I’m curious how you think of the sentence as a unit within a poem. Maybe a sentence as opposed to a line is how you might measure the music of a poem? What I love about this new book and your work in general is that there is a moment-to-moment presence that I can feel in each sentence, a precision or care, even if the poem is propelling me through it to “find out what happens.” Is there anything that resonates for you when I say this?
CK: Those are great observations that require some explanation. I definitely think in terms of sentence, but only after having fashioned lines that work as verse that can be converted to sentences. Punctuation, syntax, and margin setting play a role. I always use a hard right margin and revise within that rectangular shape. Sometimes the lines/sentences dictate that I need to change the margin, but just as often the margin forces me to cut or add to the line, mostly cut. It makes for a cleaner, tauter sentence. It also allows for enjambment. Essentially, all the poems are verse disguised as prose.
That may be what you’re sensing when you said, “I can feel in each sentence—a precision or care—even if the poem is propelling me through because it is narrative.” That’s a very perceptive reading of what I’m trying to do.
PM: When you revisit the Memory Unit poems now in book form, what effect do they have on you? Do you have a different sense of why you wrote them after getting some distance from them?
CK: Once I finished writing all of them, I never thought I would publish the Memory Unit poems. I’m sure it’s because they didn’t seem like something I would write, so they threw me. Having some distance from them helped me see how necessary they were to write. I’ve written many poems about my father. His absence being the catalyst. I’d only written one other poem about my mother before I wrote the Memory Unit poems. I felt compelled to honor her and to try to unpack the experience of interacting with her as her memory faded.I’d only written one other poem about my mother before I wrote the Memory Unit poems. I felt compelled to honor her and to try to unpack the experience of interacting with her as her memory faded.
We had a complicated relationship for most of my life, and the last few years of her life things became very straightforward. I had to take on more of a parental role with her, and I was determined to be a better parent to her than I was a son. We loved each other, but I resented her dependence on me, and she resented my desire to have as normal a life as possible given the circumstances. That tension was a significant barrier.
Also, my mother worked, and I was on my own a lot at a young age. Being so estranged from each other was a distance that was hard to overcome. One gift of my mother’s last years is that I was able to tell her things I might never have told her, things a son should be able to say to his mother, as simple as “I love you.”
PM: What was the experience like for you of arranging this collection with the Memory Unit poems as the centerpiece. How do you see the relationship between the Memory Unit section and the two parts that flank it?
CK: I remember how unsure I was about grouping them together in a section of their own. That uncertainty seems strange to me now, since there’s a discernible narrative to the section that would have been lost or at least harder to follow had I separated them. There’s also a narrative thread of sorts in the entire book, since the first section contains poems based on events from when I was younger, the poems in the Memory Unit section are from a decade or so ago, and the poems in the third section are based on more recent events and often concerned with climate change with the last poem, “The Coda,” consolidating past and present.
Ultimately, the Memory Unit poems feel like the emotional center of the book, so it made sense to place them in the middle, and it made sense chronologically, as well, which made the decision an easy one.
PM: After you mentioned the story about John and Gladys earlier in our conversation, I realized that John is also featured in a Memory Unit poem, which articulates what you loved about him – his storytelling. I also notice your desire in these poems to record your experience with your mother more closely. And then there’s the appearance of figures from Greek myths and epics. It almost seems like you’re honoring that “storytelling” part of you.
Is there a tension for you personally about working back and forth between a part of you that is in a mode to “record” versus a part that is less straightforwardly “knowing?” While we’ve both heard of poets beginning with a block of text and shaping it into verse, your process does strike me as very unique. What comes to mind for you as you’re reading my thoughts here?
CK: Working-class Irish storytelling and Greek myths and legends are foundational for me. John Corbett was the best of the bunch, but I was around many great storytellers, and when I was nine, during a blackout in the Northeastern United States, my mother and I were without heat or electricity, and we drove to her co-worker’s house because they had a fireplace.
Upon arriving, I noticed a book on a table in the entranceway. It had a picture of a man holding a sword and a severed head. I must have been staring at it, because my mother’s friend asked me if I wanted to look at the book. I took it with me to the living room and lay down in front of the fireplace all night, reading Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. That picture of Perseus with Medusa’s serpent-coiffed head in his hand was my gateway to a world that I couldn’t get enough of.
When we were leaving, the woman said the book belonged to her daughter, but I could have it, and she would buy her daughter another copy. I still have the book.
The first poem of The Strange God Who Makes Us refers to when I asked my mother to buy me the first edition of a cheap encyclopedia I saw in a grocery store. There was a picture of Achilles in his chariot, dragging Hector’s body around Troy, and I knew the story from Hamilton’s book. The two incidents began a lifelong love affair with those myths and legends.
Coincidentally, John and Gladys’s oldest son, Chuck, an amazing character in his own right, left home at fifteen, lied about his age, and joined the Navy. He didn’t run away. He announced at the dinner table one night that he was going to New York City to join the Navy to see the world, and John left the house and came back with a suitcase. Allegedly, he gave Chuck the suitcase and told him, “Go see everything I didn’t get to see.”
Chuck ended up in Europe, where he went AWOL and set out to Majorca to find his literary hero, Robert Graves. He found out where Graves lived with Laura Riding and knocked on the door. A man answered. Chuck said, “Are you Robert Graves?” The man said, “Yes.” Chuck said, “I love you.” Graves said, “Then you must come in.”
He lived with Graves and Riding for a while, and the story goes that Chuck transcribed the manuscript of The White Goddess for Graves while he stayed with them. It might be apocryphal, since the book wasn’t published until about ten years later, but I choose to believe it. It occurs to me that Graves has a translation of the Rubaiyat. Lots of odd coincidences the more I think about it.
To answer the other part of the question, it might be as simple as having more confidence that the stories are worth telling or inherently interesting and don’t require more than attention to detail. As far as my process goes, I’m of the belief that prose poems need to honor poetry as much as they do prose, so I suppose that belief informs the poems to the degree that it’s noticeable, maybe? I hope not in an intrusive way, but I want the poems to sing while they’re telling the story.
PM: I have to wonder if there are musicians or songwriters that have inspired you or given you permission in some way as a poet to explore certain ideas, tones, feelings, approaches, or ways of being?
CK: The first songwriter who made me want to write poems is Neil Young. His albums, After the Goldrush and Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere were instrumental in getting me to jot things down when I was in high school. We didn’t have a stereo, but my friend David had one, and I spent pretty much every day after school my junior year at his house, listening to music, and he had those two albums. Young’s voice has such a melancholy quality to it, and I was a grief-stricken sixteen-year-old.
That was the beginning of a long love affair with bands and songwriters over the years. You could add Marvin Gaye, Ray Davies, Paul Westerberg, Curtis Mayfield, Brian Eno, Joni Mitchell, Mark Eitzel, Aimee Mann, Sly Stone, Pete Townshend, PJ Harvey, Robert Pollard, Alex G, etc.
PM: It’s interesting that you’ve named Neil Young here as an important early influence. Listening to After the Goldrush over the past couple of months that we’ve been corresponding, it’s easy to see the similarities between his approach to songwriting and your approach in this book. On the Young album, there are some very cryptic songs, and yet they strike this chord in me even though I’m not sure what they’re about, like “Tell Me Why.” Are there artists that have been influential for you because they provide both an expository directness and mystery at once?
CK: The two books that had the biggest influence on me when I decided to get serious about writing are Denis Johnson’s The Incognito Lounge and Michael Burkard’s Ruby for Grief. I was in my mid-twenties and enrolled in a poetry workshop I’d seen advertised in the local paper. The class was offered through Syracuse University’s adult extension site, University College. It turned out the teacher was Michael Burkard, whose work I’d seen in a poetry anthology and been very drawn to. Michael told me I should get a copy of Denis’s book, which I did, and Michael’s Ruby for Grief had just been published, so I picked that up as well.Over time, however, I began to realize both were writing autobiographical poems that were on face value documenting experiences in their lives. Their delivery was the difference.
At first, Denis’s work was more accessible, while Michael’s was harder to grasp. Over time, however, I began to realize both were writing autobiographical poems that were on face value documenting experiences in their lives. Their delivery was the difference. Denis’s poems were more available at the surface level, but I began to understand how the music of those poems made them transcendent, mysterious if you will, whereas I began to understand that Michael’s work was, underneath the mysterious presentation, very straightforward.
For example, Michael has a poem in one of his books where he refers to “blueberry money.” It’s a poem set during summer in Nova Scotia where a relative lived. At some point, either because Michael told me or because it finally clicked, I can’t remember which, I knew it referred to money earned from selling blueberries. Once I knew, it seemed obvious, but before it had seemed fairytale-like.
Michael has this innate ability to make the most ordinary thing feel otherworldly, whereas Denis could describe having a drink in a bar in such a way that it became a treatise on loneliness and alienation, the world both beautiful and terrifying. Those influences are always with me, even if how they manifest is different and, hopefully, original to my sensibility.
As far as other art forms, a de Chirico painting has the qualities I’m thinking of, or Klee’s, whose work I know because I looked him up after reading a poem of Michael’s years ago. I can recognize buildings or animals or other objects in those paintings, but they take on a dreamlike quality and a significance they would never have if rendered by a lesser artist.
Music-wise, what you’re referring to in “Tell My Why” is a good example of a song that is both straightforward, musically, and lyrically, that has cryptic elements, like the chorus, that take it to another level. Young’s guitar playing is similar. He’s strumming and playing individual notes simultaneously. It looks easy, but it’s quite difficult to replicate. At least it is for me.
I was carrying around a lot of unexpressed grief as a teenager, and songs, Young’s in particular, that seemed to express some type of loss or other deep emotion, were cathartic for me. I didn’t need to know what the lyrics meant. I knew how they felt when sung in Young’s unorthodox sounding voice. He seemed to be singing from a place that had less to do with popular music and more to do with keening. Early in his career, when he was first recording with Buffalo Springfield, the record execs wouldn’t let him sing his songs at first. They couldn’t hear what I was feeling, I guess.
The Strange God Who Makes Us by Christopher Kennedy is available via BOA Editions.