FORWARD PRIZES: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
LUKE KENNARD: I always liked Milan Kundera’s poet in Life is Elsewhere – just this insufferable child who writes poetry and gets too much encouragement for it so he carries on being an insufferable child who writes poetry for the rest of his life.
FP: Please talk about your development as a writer of poetry. Tell us when you first felt you were a poet and how it went from there.
LK: I worked in a second hand bookshop and read the Ashbery / Raworth / Harwood Penguin Modern Poets anthology at an impressionable age. I wrote terrible lyrics for a band. I think it was at university in the late nineties taking a module on poetic form, specifically the week on the prose poem and reading Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen for the first time. I worked in a temp job at Somerset County Council for a few years, writing poems in the evenings. My first collection came out in 2005 from a small press called Stride.
FP: What does being shortlisted for the Forward Prizes mean for you?
LK: I got shortlisted for my second collection in 2007, so it feels kind of extraordinary to be here again fourteen years later, as a… former child star. It means a lot. You try to balance your ego against a sense of community. It’s still really lovely when something you’ve written makes an impact on someone else.
FP: Please tell us something about the creation of your shortlisted collection, from first words to final book. Does it mark a departure or change from your earlier work? Which poems in this collection are most important to you?
LK: I wrote the opening piece ‘Sonnet 66’ at a party. Then I got hooked on writing reactions to all 154, generally just reading the original a few times and getting some thoughts down. Then it turned into this strange, dreamlike narrative set at the same house party. I’ve written plenty of prose poems before but I suppose this was the most sustained sequence. Sometimes one of them would be satisfying and I’d just post in on Twitter with the sonnet number. It was about a year before I thought it might actually make a book if I could see the idea through, so then I abandoned the projects I’d been doing and started working on it more intensely. ‘Sonnet 6’ is probably one of my favourites for how it responds to the original: “Ten times thyself were happier than thou art, / If ten of thine ten times refigured thee.”
FP: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
LK: In the States I think Mark Leidner is extraordinary – just this pitch-perfect tone between tragedy and comedy, wild invention and scarily real because of it. Caroline Bird’s work does that for me too. There’ve been some amazing books in the last couple of years. Reading Holly Pester’s Comic Timing felt like having my brain re-wired to something capable of thinking new thoughts. I loved Will Harris’s RENDANG and Rachel Long’s My Darling From the Lions. Too many more to mention here.
FP: What is next for you as a poet?
LK: I’m working on a follow-up to Cain called Jonah. It’s about half done. Needs a good year’s work and a lot more background reading.
FP: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
LK: Find the poetry that you love, ignore the stuff that leaves you cold – be ruthlessly selective and be guided by the work that you love, the stuff that makes you more yourself. I guess also (if this doesn’t sound disingenuous coming from my position) just ignore any idea of a hierarchy. Whatever it’s flaws, it’s still an organic scene and good work can come out of a photocopier, an assignment, an open mic night in a basement, a prestigious publisher or an old printing press in an attic – don’t differentiate.