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Writer@Grinnell describes ‘romancing the muse’

Richard Kenney, a MacArthur fellowship recipient and author of four books of poetry, will read selections of his work tonight, Friday, Feb. 5, at 8 p.m. in JRC 101. Kenney is also teaching a short-course on poetry at the College as part of the Writers@Grinnell program. Currently a professor at the University of Washington, Kenney has won a series of awards and been published in magazines such as “The New Yorker.” He took a few minutes before his first class last Friday to sit down with The Scarlet & Black and discuss his writing process and most recent book.

Photo taken by Avery Rowlison

One of the things that I like best about the Writers@Grinnell program is that it brings people who’ve been successful in a profession that a lot of us aspire to—writing. It seems that you’ve had a pretty varied past—was there a moment in your career that you knew you had truly found success?

Most of the variety is in the late Triassic and early Jurassic phase of my life. I went to college and then I didn’t go to graduate school. I knew that I wanted to be a writer then. I went into the bushes and did my best to do that. It was a long time—I wasn’t very good at it. I guess I knew enough about myself in those days to know that I would salute any flag before I would salute my own. I tended to do piece work. I would work as I needed to make money but I didn’t dedicate myself to anything important because if I did something important I might begin to think of myself in those terms…I tried to learn the art myself which meant that it took an awfully long time. I put writing in front of anything else for six years before anyone published anything. So that was a milestone, I got a very long poem was accepted by “Poetry.” That was an alpine flower field. I felt good about that. Beyond that, I lived in the wild, so to speak, until I was forty. I didn’t close up my umbrella and come inside and accept a collar until then, so that was a milestone. The university accepted me under its gothic arch and gave me a home. The books of course—when the books come that feels great, especially the first one. You think, “it’s never going to happen” and then it did and I couldn’t have been more excited about that occasion. [T. S.] Eliot says somewhere that the problem with being a poet is when you’re writing a poem you’re a poet. When the poem stops, it’s not clear that it’s going to start again. You’re sort of an ex-poet until it starts again. It’s not quite a profession in the sense that, if I were a plumber and my joints didn’t leak I could be a plumber in the afternoon even when I wasn’t plumbing. I think that poets wonder, because it’s so collaborative with the muse, what if she stamps her foot and goes away? Maybe I won’t be her poet anymore. There’s a little bit of that, but I don’t really think that way. I just write where I can. Success is not something that I think a poet with any grain of sense should think of terms in. The success is being able to write a poem that pleases you. That happened. That happened three weeks ago, that happened ten years ago. Those are the moments of success. The career of success seems to me really a sham.

Could you tell me a little bit more about your particular writing process? When does the muse come to you? What do you do when she doesn’t?

I’ve been waiting, sitting with my hands in my lap, tapping my feet. When I say the muse, I say it with a smile. We both of us understand me to be making some kind of metaphor. It’s quite interesting, if we ask people, in this house or on the street, what about the muse, they’ll say, “Oh she was a Greek wasn’t she?” And I’ll say, “What about the unconscious mind?” They’ll say, “Oh yes, what about it?” They’ll believe in [the unconscious mind] the way they believe in lampposts. As though it were really there. That’s how our society tends to think about these things. I don’t know that one is a more robust metaphor than the other. I don’t think so far as anything can be said to be literally there which is being described in linguistic terms, which are necessarily metaphorical once you’re past the length of your right arm. It’s hard to say. The great mystery either way is that it seems collaborative. Can you take credit for your good ideas? What did you do to get them? Was it like coal mining? No, they come to you! They come to you, but you have to do the reading. You read and read and then something comes to you. It isn’t as though you’ve managed to squeeze it out of the lemon. There are articulations that can be worked at in that dogged way, but something like inspiration exists, nobody can deny that. That’s the necessary source of some of the motive that you ought to bring to the process. You can’t write poems the way that you can mine coal, just by brute force. There are certain methods for romancing the muse. Some of them work better than others. Don’t drink. Don’t try it in the morning. There is advice that one can give. You know, the idea that you can be a poet and drag a linen sleeve through a little heart’s blood that a goose quill has been dipped in through the left ventricle when the occasion strikes. It doesn’t work like that. This is all a cliché. You go, and you do your best. If you can’t write, you read. Maybe something happens and that’s the way it works. It’s a pretty good deal. Robert Graves says a wonderful thing. “The muse will often give you two stanzas for free and there they are. The problem is that the poem requires four and you have to make the other two by hand.” He says, “you’re task as a poet is to train yourself, learn the art well enough that people can’t tell immediately which ones you wrote and which ones the muse wrote.” That seems quite wonderful to me.

You mentioned reading as an inspiration, and I know that academic subjects come up fairly often in your work, which is something that I think Grinnell students will really appreciate it. Could you tell me about that theme, and any others that you find recurring in your work?

People talk about that because I’m interested in science. I’m not a scientist of any stripe at all. I’m just interested. Stephen Jay Gould wrote an epigraph for maybe his first book, “For my father, who took me to see the tyrannosaur when I was five.” I wish somebody took me. I took my sons. My sons for years thought that the little allosaur—no great tyrannosaur like at the field museum at Chicago—but there is an allosaur at the University of Washington. My sons thought that it belonged to me, that I just kept it there because it would take up too much room at the house. That’s just an aside. It seemed to me that science as an overarching cosmogony. It creates the world for us—it gives us the metaphors. In the same sense that we believe in the unconscious mind we believe in the big bang. We laugh at cultures who [don’t believe in science]… Stephen Hawking tells the story that the world sits on a turtle, that’s why it doesn’t fall. What keeps the turtle? There’s a turtle below that. Well, how about below that? It’s turtles all the way down. He carries on in the next breathe that, essentially, it’s particles all the way down. Excuse me, but I don’t see a whole lot of difference. I think we’re trying to use a mind that evolved for other purposes. We’re trying to take it to the rim of the universe and we can be forgiving for using metaphors—that’s all we have. It seems to me, that those are the live metaphors, the ones that are believed in literal terms by our culture. That interests me. I’m rationalizing something that is probably a total fabrication. I’m interested in these things that’s why I read about them. And it seems to me that they are as proper a subject for poetry as anything is. The real subjects for poetry are, of course, love and the ones that are advertised and often apparently spurned by certain kinds of critics these days. But what are you going to write about? You’re going to write about what’s important. You’re going to write about the emotional resonances that govern your life—love and mortality and these kinds of things.

Speaking of mortality, I just read “The Hours of the Day,” a poem which was published in your first book. It mentions Vermont, New Hampshire, and Salem, Massachusetts. Was there something in particular about the New England region that appealed to you? The poem is about mortality and sickness—what was the connection there for you?

The occasion for the poem was that I had crashed a motorcycle and broken my neck. It took a little while to recognize that, the consequences of that. The landscape is one that is my home landscape, my family has owned a piece of land in Vermont for many years and my heart is still stitched to that particular landscape. What do you do in that case when Frost is, what did Irish poets do in the shadow of Yates? I love the landscapes. I think it’s possible to try to take too much from them. There are poets who look to the landscape for imagination, “he’s as lean and spare as the high desert from which he,” this kind of thing. I smile at that, I don’t believe in that. Home is where my family is. That said, those are the mountains I like to look at outside a window.

You recently came out with a new book, “The One-Strand River.” That was after a long break from publishing, 14 years. Was there a particular reason it took so long to publish? And can you tell me a little about the book?

The fourteen years is life obtruded, I’ll say that. A decade seems about the right distance between books to me. The idea that one would write a book and then crank another one and then crank another one [is difficult]. Universities encourage this kind of thing but good heavens! It seems to me that it’s better to go slow and wait. I’ve never written in the academic sphere because by the time I got to the university, I didn’t have to live by its rules exactly in that way. I think slow is good—take your time. The poems are dense, I had very delicate screwdrivers, I took a lot of care with them. The book itself is of interest. I didn’t think I had been writing during that period of time particularly and when I kind of got back and the muse was saying “you know, are you interested, maybe we might get together again.” I thought, ok. I began finding, in fact, I had written things. I found them in nooks and crannies of the computer and sub-files and the backs of envelopes. I began collecting them, an enormous number of them, I had been writing, I just hadn’t realized it. So I stacked them up and they went into various stacks. One stack was flowers and coffins, the kind of standard fare for poetry, one was satires. I was kind of splenetic during that time. That particular presidency was one that infuriated me and it brought out a kind of poetry that I hadn’t written before, which was satire. That is the left hand of poetry, the military wing of poetry, poetry that is designed to do some harm, for good. Satire pure is dangerous, but it shades into light verse, which I also have a great fondness—some of my students and colleagues won’t forgive me. There were another set of poems which were about language, about the nature of metaphors, the kind of things I was beginning to hint about when I talked about the [unconscious mind]. They were really poems of ideas. It was in some ways my way of testing the thought, “is verse still a suitable vehicle for that kind of thinking?” It hasn’t been used in that way all that much. I don’t want to say there are no ideas in poetry, there are a lot. Anyway, the publisher said, we could have three books but let’s not. Let’s put the language books off, they’ll make a book on their own. Let’s push the satires together with the more personal poems, and that’s what I did. The book is in chapters—each chapter has thirteen poems in it. It could be read in a sitting. I think that’s not a bad way to read the book. [The poems] are all very different in tone. They go from pretty earnest poetry about the things that matter the most through these satirical poems about human follies and political follies. It’s like a lot of fiction. It’s kind of a reverse bell curve, it goes down and then comes back up again—maybe it’s a sin wave. It goes up and then down and then normalizes. We can’t help but follow these forms—we don’t make them up.

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