Luke Kennard is a poet, academic, and writer. He has published five poetry collections – The Solex Brothers (Salt 2005), The Harbour Beyond The Movie (Salt 2007), The Migraine Hotel (Salt 2009), A Lost Expression (Salt 2012), and Cain (Penned In The Margins 2016).
In 2014 he was named as one of the Next Generation Poets and is currently the appointed Canal Laureate. His novella Holophin was published by Penned in The Margins in 2012 and a full-length novel The Transition is forthcoming from 4th Estate in 2017.
Hi Luke. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Congratulations on the publication of your new collection Cain. Can you tell us a bit more about how it came together and what it was that drew you to Cain as a figure to centre the poems around?
There’s an unfinished Coleridge poem called ‘The Wanderings of Cain’ which takes up the story after Cain’s exiled. Coleridge plotted it but never wrote it in verse. I liked the idea of carrying the story on. I suppose there’s a link to my work, what with Cain being the first murderer and the general focus in my poetry on judgment and inexplicable or extreme behaviour (like ‘The Murderer’ sequence).
As I researched Cain as a figure in literature, theology and popular culture I became aware of this vast archive of material, contradictory interpretations, marginalia a hundred times longer than the original text – just a libraryfull of stuff.
I was writing and researching it at night, once the day’s marking, lesson prep and admin was done, and once the kids were asleep, so I really needed a project if that makes sense. Something I’d established that I could sit down and put a few hours into every night without just staring at a blank piece of paper.
I also knew that if I was going to do another trade book of poetry at all, it had to be something like this, something with a plot. I’m totally done with single author collections of separate poems – I feel like I don’t know how to write that anymore.
I understand a central sequence in the book contains 31 perfect anagrams of the Genesis 4: 9-13 passage of The Bible. This sounds like it must have been a mind-bending Ouilpo exercise. How did you approach the practicalities of the challenge and was the writing of the sequence as difficult as you anticipated?
It’s actually verses 9-12. I accidentally recorded it as 9-13 in the first draft and I failed to correct it in several places the anagrams have been published so far. Duh. Once I realised my mistake I was able to write a new poem comprising thirteen anagrams of verse 13, which Penned are sending out with the first fifty copies of the book. And I guess I’m hoping someone will just put a photo of it on Twitter so it’s not only read by the fifty people who’ve preordered.
The romantic in me wants to claim I have no memory at all of writing the anagrams. The process is actually fairly straightforward because you use a sort of Excel spreadsheet to keep track of the letters used, and then you just need a very big dictionary and a thesaurus. It’s definitely the closest thing to Oulipo/Language Poetry I’ve ever attempted.
I really loved writing it, although I’m still fretting over it meaning anything to anyone who reads it. It probably took about two years in total – I’d drop back into it a few nights a week. The challenge was using up the 41 ‘H’s; quite often I’d get 75% of the way through an anagram, be really happy with how it was going and then realise I still had 23 ‘H’s left and no possible way to use them.
Generally the method was to have some idea of story (what I needed to communicate, however obliquely, with the anagram and its place in the sequence), have a strong opening line, a strong final line, and maybe some decent middle sentence, and then fill in around it.
Crystal Bennes (an art critic who was very supportive during the project) told me when she read the final sequence it feels as though some of the lines were written by a robot and some of them are just shockingly lyrical. She suggested the form for the marginal notes.
You’ve recently taken over from Jo Bell as Canal Laureate and I believe your first commission has already found its way on to various canal locations. What was it that attracted you to the post and how have you found it writing about subjects that you might not otherwise have considered?
They’re wonderful people to work with. Jo Bell is obviously a hard act to follow, and she lives on a narrowboat, so has a natural connection. I think they chose me as a successor to get the perspective of someone outside the various communities who use the space.
My role is to write a blog entry and a poem every month after walking the towpaths in different locations. (I’m loosely using Basho’s form in The Narrow Road to the Deep North, but without haiku). I’ve been doing that since December, but the manners poem was in addition to the usual stuff.
I felt a bit mixed about that as I knew a stenciled, light-hearted poem would make a lot of people angry (in a why are you wasting money on this when et cetera et cetera, as if the same budget is used for arts as for basic infrastructure).
And, as it happened, there were so many angry comments under local newspaper stories about it that we even got contacted by the Daily Mail who eventually decided the story was too boring to run. I think if I was getting an embarrassingly large salary they might have done a “FOR SHAME” piece, which would have been fun and dispiriting in equal measure.
But overall the role is very enjoyable – I’m meeting some interesting people, walking a lot, writing pieces I would never otherwise have written. It’s good to be given a brief sometimes, and to work outside of your usual aesthetic.
I believe you have a novel due out with 4th Estate next year as well. If you can excuse the pun, did you find it a natural transition moving from poetry writing to novel writing and is this debut the first time you’ve turned your hand to the genre?
I’ve always written fiction, from the age of eight when my dad used to give me his old typewriter when he upgraded. I’ve published probably… twelve short stories over the last decade, but I suppose I’m known as a poet, so the narrative has to be ‘poet turns to fiction’, ignoring the fact that I’ve always written fiction, just without much success. And that’s fine.
This is my third attempt at a full-length novel. I wrote two complete disasters before this one. The only thing they had in common with novels is that they were about 100,000 words long. They weren’t well plotted enough to excuse the bad writing and they weren’t lyrically expressed and intriguing enough to excuse the lack of story.
Then I wrote Holophin, which is about 20,000 words (the length of a movie), and that helped me think about plot a little more clearly. It was definitely a necessary step towards writing something longer that actually… hangs together.
What does the rest of the year hold for you? Are there any dates in the poetry diary you are looking forward to?
I’m doing a kind of impromptu reading tour with Cain in a bunch of different cities and at Latitude festival. Looking forward to reading to some new audiences. I have a stack of books I can’t wait to start once I’ve finished marking and it includes Vahni Capildeo and Denise Riley’s new collections, and John Clegg’s Holy Toledo!, which I’ve just started and is a thing of beauty.
Melissa Lee-Houghton and Helen Mort have new collections out, which are on my radar. I’ve just come back from reading in Tbilisi, Georgia, with Steven Fowler’s Enemies Project (which involves collaborating with poets from the country you’re visiting), and I’ve come back with a lot of poets to read who are new to me, and links to follow up.
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
I always feel totally blank when a new book comes out – it just fills my head, even though, by the point of publication, my work on it is long since done. And I didn’t want to just share a poem from Cain, so this is an older, unpublished piece which I’ve dusted down and edited recently.
I have no recollection of the source – I think it’s one of those pieces I wrote in my head while my mind was wandering during a hymn (like Lewis Carroll’s ‘How Doth the Little Crocodile’ but with a disturbingly militaristic undertone).
I am a manque of Constantin’s livery:
I haven’t slept in forty days.
I hear your niece is trading rifles
and the library has a pressure gauge.
I am the redundant Matters Arising;
this is where I was born erased.
I’m a big hairball called Algonquin,
I rewrote half the Marseillaise.
I hammered banners in the army;
I force-fed people to their graves.
I eat beer and lamb with sweet potatoes.
I’ll meet you at your show trial, babes.
I mis-translated your arrival:
that’s why your limo is a hearse.
My LSOs are waving chickens
while I am going through your purse.
Yo soy un hombre del dolor constante.
There is one way to raise a cow.
Is your objection ethical or moral?
Embrace the pleasures of the ground.