Discussing her new collection What Matters.
Michael T. Young: Given that your new collection What Matters is focused around surviving cancer and how memory connects with that survival, I wondered if the poems were written independently or with the intention of making a coherent collection. What is the history of its genesis?
Adele Kenny: Before I answer, Michael, here’s a big THANK YOU for the time and attention you’ve given What Matters. So lovely and generous of you!
You asked about the genesis of What Matters … Interestingly, the collection had a title before it became a book. I had been writing the poems independently for about ten years, not thinking of them in terms of anything but individual poems that were difficult but healing to write. Like many images in the poems, the title came to me late one night. I woke up the next morning knowing that What Matters would be the title of my next book. But what book? That day I took a long look at my newer poems (revised, written, and in process), and the title powered the process of writing, tweaking, and selecting. A number of poems didn’t make the cut, and a few of the poems that first appeared in Chosen Ghosts were reworked for What Matters because they were part of a “story” that overlaps from one book to the other (just as life experiences sometimes overlap). What Matters is a book about survival and the fact that we’re all survivors of one thing or another. The details may be different, but we’re all survivors. My goal was to create a collection of poems for the collective heart as well as for the personal.
Michael T. Young: In the poem “Coming and Going” you write “You count/your losses, the wounds that//are yourself.” What relationship do you see between what we suffer and who we are?
Adele Kenny: I’m so glad that you picked up on the relationship aspect in this poem. In my life, the challenges have, in large measure, defined (and continue to define) who I am. I’ve come to believe that a purpose of suffering is discovering a relationship with it and understanding its causal effect on whether or not we become bitter or grateful.
Michael T. Young: The Poem “East Rahway” says “The past falls like water from winter boots.” And the poem “Tending the Graves,” opens with “The snow has melted, the stream remembers/how to be a stream.” These poems suggest how memory is connected to the flow of time. I wondered what you saw as the implications of this connection. How does it affect who we are and how we live? Do you see memory as a kind of redemption from the loss that time imposes?
Adele Kenny: I believe that painful memories (loss, grief, illness, failure) contribute to our survival toolboxes, and we need to carry those memories with us because they strengthen us if we let them. Good memories reassure us with hope. Most importantly, memory is what lasts—our backcloth, a sustainable “place” despite the passage of time—a shining, silvery thing that becomes redemptive and holy.
Michael T. Young: Certain images such as starlight, rain, and shadow reoccur throughout the collection. Was the movement of such elements a conscious symbolism or an unconscious language you recognized while organizing the book? If these are elements you reflected on, what do you see as their significance in the collection?
Adele Kenny: And wings! And light! The recurring images (mostly from nature) surprised me at first. Their presence is organic (not deliberate), definitely the work of a spiritually-charged language that I feel more than hear. Often, they look toward nature’s power and human connections to the natural world. In many cases, those images buttressed the poems in which they appear with a sense of “belonging” to other poems in the collection, of “belonging” to a larger world than the book.
Michael T. Young: In the poem “In Memory Of” you write “In that voice/without margin, the notes I remember most/are high and low.” What role do you see opposites or extremes playing in memory or life in general?
Adele Kenny: We live between extremes much of the time, but extremes of love and loss and grief are what we remember most.
Michael T. Young: In the prologue poem “This Living” you write “It’s not destination, but more what silence is when/you enter it deeply.” Silence and also stillness are present in other poems in the collection. What significance do you believe these qualities have? Are they spiritual, philosophical, something else?
Adele Kenny: Peter Minard (a contemplative Benedictine monk) wrote, “Real Silence begins when a reasonable being withdraws from the noise in order to find peace and order in his inner sanctuary.” The world’s “noises” trouble me and, often, I enter the silence and stillness of my “inner sanctuary” through poetry and prayer. I don’t have a label for it, but my process of writing is similar to my process of prayer.
Michael T. Young: Do you have a favorite poem in the collection? If so, which is it and what makes it significant for you?
Adele Kenny: I’ve always felt close to “East Rahway” (a poem I’ve written and re-written dozens of times over a period of many years). It’s the longest poem I’ve written (75 lines in its current incarnation), and it comes from my first and most essential heart. Second to “East Rahway” is “Somehow the Angel.” That “hardly celestial” angel lives in each of us, the winged part of the human spirit that keeps getting up, the survivor in each of us that remembers how to live. Stephen Dunn wrote, “… the angel is a complicated agent of hope, not because Kenny relies on the reader to accept an easy notion of the angelic, but because she uses the entire poem to create a kind of damaged, ‘hardly celestial’ angel, an angel who could be one of us on a day when our clumsiness trips into generosity.”
Michael T. Young: You are the author of 12 collections of poems. In what ways do you see your art as having changed and evolved over that time?
Adele Kenny: Imagery and sound have always been in the same craft-arc for me—that’s never changed, though I like to think that my command of imagery and sound has become stronger. I really don’t think about what I’m doing when I begin a poem and, most of the time, I have no idea where a poem might go. I don’t plan the poems, I just write. Later, I tighten imagery and work more consciously on sound (ways to make “music” with the words). In recent years, my poems have become deliberately shorter—more focused and compressed. Now (and I don’t recall ever thinking about this in my earlier work), I want my poems to say more than I planned for them to say. I want them to tell me something about myself, something I haven’t learned yet or something I’ve forgotten. I want them to startle and surprise me. I want them to express my astonished love for all created things, for all of life (“this wing, this living”), and I want them (always) to praise God.
Michael T. Young: On your blog, The Music In It, you often provide prompts for poets. Do you find prompts helpful for your own writing? If so, how do they serve you: as regular ways to find new material, as ways to escape writer’s block, just another way of getting started, or something else?
Adele Kenny: I’d been writing prompts for years to use in workshops, and they were always well received, so when I thought about blogging (and knew that I didn’t want to do an “about me” blog), I decided to offer a prompt each week for other poets to work with. There are times for all of us when “gift” isn’t enough, when the muse heads for an airport and disappears, and we need a jumpstart. That’s how I see prompts—jumpstarts for those times when gift and talent don’t carry us—you know, when the battery goes a little dead and we hook up the jumper cables to get things going.
Michael T. Young: Are there any prose works that have noticeably influenced your work as a poet stylistically? What are they? Can you say in what way you feel this work or works influenced your poetry?
Adele Kenny: A prose work that has influenced my thinking about poetry (and my thinking in general), is Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation—chapter fourteen (“Integrity”) in particular. The chapter begins, “Many poets are not poets for the same reason that many religious men are not saints: they never succeed in being themselves.” There’s an important suggestion here about developing our own styles. But to answer your question about stylistic influences, I can’t think of a prose work that has specifically influenced my poetry style. Poets and their poems—that’s another angle! I’ve been influenced by many poets, though I try not to be. I’m especially drawn (again and again and again) to T. S. Eliot, and I’ve just written a poem in the style of e.e. cummings for the fun of it (a large grin here).
Michael T. Young: What are you working on now? Do you have another overarching subject set for your next collection?
Adele Kenny: I’m working on some new poems but without a theme or specific direction. The joy for me lies in the process of writing as much as in the finished poems. Right now, I’m not thinking of a book (but I won’t say “no” if one begins to appear).
Michael T. Young: What do you like to do that has nothing to do with poetry or writing?
Adele Kenny: My mom taught me how to read and write when I was four and sick in bed with what was diagnosed as “polio fever.” It was a tough summer for both of us, but somehow or other my mom (not a trained teacher) figured out ways to teach me to read and write using poetry and St. John’s Gospel. So, poetry, as something I do, goes way back, and even when I’m not actively writing, there’s always a word or an image or a line in process. That said, I love genealogical research (I’ve traced my English ancestors back to the time of Elizabeth I), book collecting, gardening, forests, antiques, and for the past thirty-five years I’ve raised Yorkshire Terriers—Dylan, Yeats, Bijou, and now my new little guy, Chaucer.
Michael T. Young: Thank you, Adele. Let’s close with one of your poems, your favorite from the collection.
The past is a foreign country,
they do things differently there.
— L.P. Hartley
All it takes is something familiar: the shape of a
hand or a stranger’s eyes in the sudden light of
a theater when the movie ends. Then, something
deep in memory’s birthwood calls me back.
The past is my first language, a speakable grace.
On summer nights in East Rahway, our fathers
sat on front porches in worn t-shirts, their
calloused hands wrapped around beer cans as
the last stars took their places like nail-heads
on a dark and holy board. Inside, our mothers
sang as they washed the dinner dishes, and we
went to sleep with the easy grace of children.
All of our grandmothers spoke with accents,
rolled their stockings down to their ankles like
nylon UFOs, and people shouted at them when
they spoke, enunciating carefully, as if our
grandmothers weren’t only foreign but deaf.
Different from the beginning, we were the city’s
middle children, never as though as the kids from
the projects, and only half as cool as the kids who
lived behind the high school on the other side
of town. Cut off from the rest of Rahway, we
lived between Route 1 and Linden Airport, in
a place where sleep was rubbed out of night to
the sound of trucks stumbling over potholes
and propjets taking off on runway number three.
Safe in our own society, we lived a little religion
of unlikely saints whose blood offering were
elbows and knees that scraped like autumn
leaves on the sidewalks. In East Rahway, hardly
anyone died or went away. Those were the days
before we knew what dead meant. But when
Mr. Malone, who lived in the corner house,
did it, the bagpipes wailed and skirled for
three days in his living room, a hundred octaves
higher than all the blades of grass we ever
held between our thumbs and blew against—
a different kind of party. There were no soccer
games, no little league, no one drove us anywhere.
We walked to the corner store and hiked down
lower Road to Merck’s Creek, the mosquitoed
water stained even then by chemicals we couldn’t
name; but, oh, the bright and oily rings that spread
above the stones we skipped like shivering circles
of mercury. There were forests then, across the
street, and deep. We were wood nymphs and
druids, foreign legionnaires led by my cousin
Eddie. Soldiers of whatever fortune was, we
followed into the hymned and scrawling weeds—
the underbrush belled by our footsteps, trees
tuned to prodigal birds. We were Arthur and
Guinevere, Merlin, Morgan, all the knights, and
one Rapunzel who lost her hair in a bubble gum
accident. We did things differently, then, believed
in summer’s synonymous sun, December’s
piebald light, white-maned and glistening, the
moon above us, cloud-ribbed in semi-silhouette.
The past falls like water from winter boots.
Merck’s Creek, darker, dirtier with new pollution,
moves more slowly. The streets, once so wide
and willing, are smaller. And the forest is gone,
the initials we carved lost with fallen trees,
the green spirits laid to rest beneath a block of
factories. But, still, if you cross Route 1 on
a night overworked with summer stars, and
stand on the corner of Scott and Barnett, you
will find our fathers there. Kents and Winstons
burn, beer cans shine in the baritone heat. Our
mothers and grandmothers sing, ghostly soloists,
eggshell voices—reedy, thin. And we are there,
lips pressed smugly on chocolate cigarettes; our
pockets ring with Pez candies. Listen! A child’s
voice calls Excalibur into the night, those old bones
still in the road—skull and neck, a few vertebrae
that we tossed like dice to tell our future.
Find more of Adele's books and poetry, and other information about her at her blog and website:
Adele Kenny’s blog, The Music In It: http://adelekenny.blogspot.com/
Adele Kenny’s website: http://www.adelekenny.com/