The Disappointment Artist
Luke Kennard interviewed by Max Liu.
“Disappointment is central to the writers’ life,” says Luke Kennard, which might sound like an odd statement from somebody who has, at the age of 28, published three acclaimed collections of poetry and an excellent new chap-book. According to one-time mentor and fellow poet Andy Brown, Kennard is ‘driven by a mature intelligence’ so perhaps this, as well as his growing reputation, gives him a wise perspective.
“I see my work as an act of communication,” he continues. “It’s incredibly rewarding when someone gets it and painful when someone doesn’t. But imagining that you deserve a sensitive and dedicated audience, wanting the approval of strangers: that’s kind of a mental illness. I’d be doing this, whether anyone was paying attention or not. I’m very, very, very lucky and I’m aware of that.”
He subverts negative impulses – self-doubt, competitiveness, spite – and there’s a striking moment in the chap-book, Planet-Shaped Horse, when a character admits that he ‘can’t stand to hear anybody else complimented. Even for something in which I have no interest.’
“Part of the heavily telegraphed insecurity in my work is to do with disappointment. However many people warn you that the writers’ life is not what you think it is, that you’ll be lucky if you sell more than a hundred, that, for instance, you should enjoy your first book being published most of all, because your friends and family are going to get pretty sick of you thinking you’re a writer by the third or fourth… However many people warn you, there’s still an insane part of you which thinks, I’m going to get reviewed everywhere. This book is going to sell tens of thousands of copies. It’s going to change everything. The reality is that not only does the world not care, the microscopic section of the world that’s supposed to care doesn’t care either. At most they feel irritated and jealous that there’s another asshole peddling the same thing they are.”
What about awards? After winning an Eric Gregory in 2005, the same year as his debut The Solex Brothers came out, he became, in 2007, the youngest ever Forward Prize nominee with his second book The Harbour Beyond the Movie.
“That was probably the most psychologically damaging thing that could have happened to me: it’s opened up a lifetime of delusion and self-importance, which I suppose I was partly trying to exorcise in Planet-Shaped Horse.”
A warm, effusive interviewee, Kennard’s work is hilarious, his live performances extraordinary. The first time I saw him read, at the Latitude Festival two years ago, he wowed a mid-afternoon audience with emphatic renditions of ‘My Friend, The Murderer, Spade’, which had people who’d probably never read him rolling on the floor in hysterics. He strikes me as a deeply moral writer in the spirit of David Foster Wallace who, I’m told, is an influence; do the moral choices that he poses to characters and readers reflect his formal decisions?
“Someone who reads only the most straightforward confessional poetry often misses the moral dimensions in my work. To me it’s very obvious. Any kind of satire, particularly absurdist satire, involves an element of lamentation. Absurdism is not nihilism, it deliberately mocks particular codes and stratifications. That in itself is a formal game. It’s like the way that, in ‘The Orators’, Auden takes outdated prayer books and casts them in his own style. Some times he uses traditional poetic forms, such as sestina, but in the same way he also uses a radio guide.”
Like Auden, Kennard draws inspiration from across the cultural spectrum. America looms.
“Reading the New York School at the age of 16 was the first thing that made me even vaguely interested in poetry. I couldn’t believe they hadn’t had more of an influence in this country. (I subsequently discovered Lee Harwood, Mark Ford, John Ash, John Hartley Williams). This is a sweeping statement, but I think America has a sustainable literary culture whereas we’re committing cultural suicide. And it’s because they’re comfortable with combining high and low; Playboy, Esquire, Harpers, publishes literary fiction. Same goes for music. I don’t know what I would have done in my teenage years without Pavement, Yo La Tengo, Smog, Palace Brothers. Partly it’s the scale of the place, so an extraordinary and quite difficult poet like Ben Lerner can get a high-profile book award and get a decent audience across fifty states. They’ve evolved beyond the ghastly star-making mentality we’ve always had in this country. A band can have a career, make a living wage, have a dedicated fan-base and never have to deal with 90 percent of the celebrity bullshit, so, quelle fucking surprise, they have an interesting and varied creative life in which they create an interesting and varied body of work instead of drowning in their own hubris.”
Maybe he’ll end up in America but for now Kennard teaches creative writing at Birmingham University, a position he took up after completing his PhD at Exeter. Does it perturb him that his subject frequently comes in for criticism, often from those who have never actually seen what goes on in a seminar?
“There’s a lot of bullshit talked about creative writing and I do have an over-sensitivity to it, especially when it comes from those who haven’t been through that system. The idea that we all just sit around patting each other on the back and never reading is nonsense. An undergraduate who wants to write should do a degree in English with a couple of modules in writing. An MA is an opportunity to keep reading and find out where you fit in. Ninety-nine percent of seminars I attended as a student and now run produce ideas and new work via the study of existing stuff – jealousy as motivator – and give students the confidence to go away and continue a project. It’s a great thing. Nobody makes these criticisms about the study of Fine Art or Film.”
The seminar as forum for support and criticism reminds me of the role that friendships plays in Kennard’s work. His most celebrated character is The Wolf, a nemesis figure whose pomposity amuses readers and antagonises the narrator. There are other relationships like this – his third collection, The Migraine Hotel, opens with the acerbic ‘My Friend’ – but what marks these relationships beyond their irreverence is durability; characters provoke each other but they stick around and, as we get older, that might be what matters.
“Your friendship group can become almost as important as your family and that’s connected to an idea fostered by the Beat Generation. But I’ve been filling in my blanks on Dostoevsky; perhaps it’s pretentious to talk about a great writer as an influence but I love the Brothers Karamazov and Notes from Underground offers a very interesting way of presenting a character. The Underground Man is up and down, completely deluded, and sees himself as this important, misunderstood figure. He talks about what a disgusting person he is then uses that as an excuse to behave in a disgusting way. There’s a universality about that in the sense that we all labour under the delusion that we are undiscovered geniuses and undiscovered murders – we live with this duality all the time.”
I find myself making binary connections; there’s profound decency about his poems but they’re also merciless in the exposure of characters’ weaknesses. Does the relationship between those two things reflect the one between the absurd and the ‘real’?
“I think that’s accurate: one of the tenets of absurdism is its unnecessary cruelty, the humour often arises from that. But arbitrary misfortune and disaster are pretty much mainstays of real life as well; ‘I knew we had been lucky to avoid disaster so far’ is one of the more sincere, straightforward lines in Migraine Hotel. That mercilessness and cruelty is part of all of us, as is the decency – and all satire is a very necessary propaganda for decency, but without the cruelty it would become pious and tedious, I think. I’m talking about it as if it’s a conscious decision, which it isn’t. I also want my narrators to have a sense of their own ridiculousness. The bit in Planet-Shaped Horse where the consultant berates him for even expressing an opinion about being alive – that’s kind of a note to self.”
A couple of nights before our meeting, I watched Kennard perform at the London Word Festival where he expanded a riff on the democratisation of culture, something he broadly supports, with reasonable qualifications.
“With the internet, we’re conditioned to believe that our opinion matters, and told that to prefer reading the London Review of Books to some dickhead’s Amazon review is elitist. Well, it’s not elitism to choose to eat a sandwich instead of a piece of balsa wood. I mean, for the love of God, when are newspapers going to remove the anonymous Comments function? Do these people not have families and acquaintances to share their opinion with? I think you pretty much forfeit your right to having hands when you comment after a newspaper story.”
The same night, he read ‘Wolf Shibboleth’, a long, overtly-political piece which looses his nemesis on the coalition. What is the role of politics in his poetry?
“I use a vaguely surreal aesthetic but it’s massively personal and inherently political. ‘Wolf Shibboleth’ came about through an accident of middle-class self-loathing. I have big problems with this government but I’m aware that I have the same accent as half of them, and that accent is pretty much what you get judged on by people who don’t know you. It began as a self-exploratory piece and went on to look at how this ludicrous wall has suddenly come down in higher education. It comes from being lower-middle class, despite having an accent which may sound to some like the voice of entitlement. I have a massive chip on my shoulder about that, so I thought, why not explore that and pretend I have a sense of humour about it instead? This also goes back to my uneasiness with the fact that writers are often entitled, some times enormously, and that’s a bad thing. There’s a danger in thinking that, because you have created something and presented it to the world, you’re more important than you really are.”
He’s currently finishing his first novel, an enticing prospect because it’s impossible to predict what it will be like. Then there will be another poetry collection; he wants to “move forward, not change for the sake of it but move in a new direction, not be static.” I connect this to the concept of relevance, which crops up in a couple of poems – ‘Grapefruit’ where the narrator poses the tantalising question, ‘And how are we to live with irrelevance?’ and ‘Planet-Shaped Horse’ where somebody wonders, ‘What if your life turned out to be irrelevant?’ Is that the fate we’re all trying to escape?
“Yes. Nobody wants to fade into obscurity and there’s something at once noble and pathetic about that. Many great writers who I admire have vanished for whatever reason so that’s a fear artists have, that you might spend your whole life putting everything into something that suddenly doesn’t exist. It can be hard to justify writing because there are many people who might regard it as a waste of time, you might as well be playing World of Warcraft as far as they’re concerned. Irrelevance is a bogeyman of a word.”
Murderers, wolves, bogeymen; Luke Kennard will keep them from the door for a while yet. His sensitivity to the best and worst selves they represent, and his ability to write out of and beyond both, is a reason why he’s becoming one of the most relevant poets around. Readers will not be disappointed.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Max Liu is a writer and journalist. He lives in North London where he is at work on a novel and a collection of autobiographical essays.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, May 18th, 2011.