Songs from the Edge of a Cliff: A Conversation with Christopher Kennedy

Of Christopher Kennedy’s fifth full-length collection of poetry, Clues From the Animal Kingdom, George Saunders writes, “Kennedy has a deep understanding of American longing . . . and is able to make from that loss a wonderful victory.” Indeed. These poems are songs from the edge of a cliff, gorgeous and dangerous, and tilting toward eternity. The collection is one of those timely ones, too, as it reminds us, in these dark times, that darkness does indeed have value, that there are messages for us inside it, and even beauty to be found there if we allow our eyes to adjust. We were lucky enough to chat with Christopher about his poems and his process. —Ashley Farmer and Ryan Ridge

Juked Editors: Could you speak to the genesis of this book? With which poem or poems did it begin? When did you know you were working on a specific project?

Christopher Kennedy: I had two manuscripts. One was called Small Hope Factory; the other was called Love Poems for People Who Hate Themselves. I began to notice the presence of animals in both manuscripts, and I decided to combine the best poems from the two, and once I began to see the connections between poems, I wrote the title poem as a kind of exercise to see if I could tap into what I was really writing about. I found a site online that listed weird facts about animals (the italicized lines in the poem) and wrote toward those facts to see what would happen. It wasn’t until I got to the lines about talking to myself that I realized the poem was about me and not about the person I thought I was writing it about, a friend who had just died under mysterious circumstances, and that opened up the whole book to me. The animals became weighted with more significance, the ones in the title poem and in the other poems as well, and I began to see the book as a kind of poetry/fiction/memoir hybrid.

JE: We love the role of the natural world within this project—particularly the animal world in all its forms: majestic (the hummingbird, the crow), wild (feral animals, creatures from Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights), the familiar (fly, dog), the most captive (a zoo, the state fair goldfish in a bowl). How did the examination of the animal world emerge? What does the animal kingdom allow you to explore?

CK: Hummingbirds and crows freak me out in very different ways. When I see hummingbirds, they seem frantic, and I wonder if it’s really hard for them to beat their wings that fast, and it’s just assumed it’s easy because it’s what they do. Like maybe they’re nature’s speed freaks, secretly sucking down some weird nectar that tweaks them out, and they only have a certain amount of time to get their work done before they pass out. Crows are so intelligent and emotive I’m in awe of them. I once had a crow hit my windshield when I was driving, and it got tangled up in my windshield wipers, and it looked at me like “what the hell did you do to me?” It shook me up. I wanted to explain that I didn’t mean to hurt it, but all I could do was drive on.

As much as I love animals, I also fear them, and in the imagination of someone like Bosch there are human/animal hybrids that represent all sorts of disturbing behaviors. The sound of a wild animal moving though the long grasses of a field at night in “Postulate” seemed like a way to describe how I was feeling much of the time, always expecting to be attacked, and it was happening in my sleep on a nightly basis. I would wake up from a dream of being mauled by a bear or a tiger and my heart would be pounding out of my chest from the adrenaline rush. As it turns out, I was sleeping on a piece of particle board that was coated in formaldehyde, which I’m highly allergic to, and I have severe sleep apnea. So, my subconscious was waking me up with these dreams because I had stopped breathing, and I was exposed to an allergen that was very harmful to me. This happened at least three or four times a night for months. It wasn’t a lot of fun.

Dogs and flies are domestic. I loved my dog when I was kid, but I didn’t know how to take care of her, and neither did my mother, so she became wild and vicious, and I had to keep her in my room or she would bite anyone she came in contact with. If she got out of the house, she would literally pull children off their bicycles and bite the hell out of them. I had to put her down because of it. Broke my heart. Flies (and mosquitoes) seem designed to make you aware of their presence and that’s about it. They’re purpose is to make you angry. They ruin everything. Like that guy you know who no one likes who just shows up to things, except you can’t hit the guy with a fly swatter.

Okay, so the zoo poem and the goldfish poem were kicking around for a long time. The zoo in Syracuse used to be one of the country’s worst. I worked at the park where the zoo is located one summer, and it was depressing as hell to see the animals in their cages. There were two bears in a very small enclosure, and interestingly, they were named, years before by their caretaker, after my two oldest brothers, Tim and Tom. As a result, I had affection for them beyond what I would normally have for two random bears in a zoo, and when I started writing poems, I always tried to write about that relationship. I finally understood in one of those eureka moments that I saw the zoo as a metaphor for my family, all these lonely creatures, isolated from one another, and no one telling them that they were loved. That may seem harsh. There was love in my family, but it wasn’t expressed. You had to intuit it. Sometimes that works; sometimes it doesn’t.

The goldfish turned human heart was inspired by a friend of mine from high school. She has had two heart transplants, and I used to see her at the fair every year the way you do with old friends in Syracuse. This was before the transplants. She moved away, and I didn’t see her for years, and then we connected on Facebook, and that’s when I found out how amazing her life had been since I’d last seen her. The poem doesn’t reference her specifically, but it was definitely inspired by her, and the idea that somehow something as ubiquitous and, let’s face it, disposable as a goldfish could mutate into a heart that could save someone’s life took shape when I thought of my friend and the state fair.

I guess to answer the more general question, the animal kingdom allowed me to write about myself at a safer distance. I think of it a little like how you can get away with things in an animated TV show (The Simpsons, BoJack Horseman) that you might shy away from if there were only actual human beings saying and doing things.

JE: Music is something else that plays an important role in your work. In this book in particular, “The dead live in the grooves of old 45’s, waiting to become music . . . ” (“Scuola Metafisica") and “Voices of the dead singing love songs from fifty years ago” (“Mourning, Not Rending”). The Basement Tapes, Terry Melcher, and death metal sunsets show up. What’s the relationship to you between poetry and music?

CK: I definitely came to poetry through music. Music saved my life when I was teenager. I had an old transistor radio that I slept with every night and listened to the local AM stations back when they played all types of music. I could hear The Beatles and Stones, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Simon and Garfunkel, The 1910 Fruit Gum Company, Todd Rundgren, Neil Young, The Box Tops, etc. There was great music and crap music, and all of it seemed magical and beautiful to me. It was my lifeline as a kid who was anxious and depressed and didn’t know enough to say anything about it. I just thought it was how people were, frightened or incapable of getting out of bed. Music soothed me and motivated me. When I first started writing, I was writing song lyrics, not poems. They morphed into poems when I realized that I didn’t sing, play an instrument, or have any intention of finding a way to add music to the mix. I’ve since learned to play guitar, but it’s a little late to start a band.

Now I listen to music just as religiously, maybe fanatically, especially when I’m writing. I tend to listen to a lot of one particular artist, trying to absorb what I can from them. I was on leave from Syracuse University last semester, and I spent much of my time watching PJ Harvey concerts and interviews on YouTube. I find her extraordinary. I had to stop reading the comments, though, because every time I read something like “she’s one of the best female artists” or “I liked her better when her hair was longer” I would get so angry that it was affecting my mood. She’s a great artist. Period. Watching her concerts and seeing how she develops from year to year as a songwriter and live performer was fascinating, and her very proper demeanor in the interviews was in such contrast to her various personas as a performer that it was striking and made me love her that much more.

JE: Speaking of music, we wanted to ask you about musicality in poetry. Do you look for music in language? In the rhythm or cadence of a line? Where does your ear go when you read or write poetry?

CK: I write prose poems. If I weren’t obsessing over the qualities you mentioned in your questions, I would be writing something else. Prose, I guess, though there are many prose writers I admire whose work is as lyrical and musical as any poet’s. I do think of how music functions in language when I’m writing, and the movement of each line is as important to me as it would be in verse. My ear is important when I’m writing or reading. Voice is the most important element of any writing to me. If I can’t hear the music that is specific to that writer’s voice, then I lose interest, no matter how compelling the content may be.

JE: Could you share a bit about the forms these poems take and how you decide to write in verse as opposed to prose? How do you know the shape a poem should take?

CK: To me, all the poems in CFTAK are prose poems. I know some of them look as if they’re in verse, but that’s mostly because sometimes the page won’t accommodate the line I have in my head, or I deliberately isolated a line to draw attention to it. I tend to set a justified right margin and write within the parameters set by it. I often write subsequent drafts, switching between verse and justified prose (I like that phrase), and editing accordingly—line breaks, stanza breaks, etc. in the verse versions and syntactical shifts, punctuation changes, etc. in the prose, until I have taut lines and interesting (to me at least) syntactical inversions in the final draft. Take the title poem, for example. The short, indented lines are extensions of the line before them, but there just wasn’t enough room on the page for what I wanted from the lines. Given that limitation, I did what I could to make the short lines work on their own, so that a reader could read only the short lines and still find something of interest in the poem.

JE: There’s a haunting elegy to Denis Johnson in the book. What did his work mean to you?

CK: A great deal. I took a class through Syracuse University’s adult extension site when I was first trying to write seriously, and Michael Burkard, whose work I had just discovered in an anthology, was the teacher. It was a summer class, cost $90, and I earned three college credits. It was life changing to say the least. Michael was very encouraging, and one night after class he took me aside and told me I should check out Denis’ collection, The Incognito Lounge, which had recently been published. I bought it at Marshall Square bookstore, one of many now defunct booksellers in Syracuse at the time, and I carried it around with me the way some people carry a bible. I literally slept with it. I still have the copy, signed by Denis, on the bookshelf in my bedroom. It is sacred to me, and the poems in that book gave me the kind of hope that only comes from hearing a voice that is struggling to articulate some essential despair, and for me the effect was transcendent. When I became friends with Denis, I found him to be vulnerable and kind in a way that was startling at first. I miss him.

Aside from the poem dedicated to Denis, there are several poems in the book that are homages to him in some way. I even have a persona poem that I imagine is being spoken by one of his characters.

JE: Johnson started off as a poet and ended up a fictioneer. We only mention it because we were lucky enough to publish one of your short stories in our last print issue. Is there a story collection in works?

CK: I’ve written some short fiction, and I suppose someday I’ll sit down to see what’s there, if anything, in terms of a collection. I should probably write a story or two longer than a page if I want that to happen, though.

JE: How is CFTAK different from your other collections? Was there anything about the process or the time during which you wrote these poems that sets this book apart from past projects for you?

CK: Well, I was depressed to the point of contemplating suicide on a daily basis during the years I wrote the early drafts of most of the poems. A combination of factors—health issues, deaths of friends and family members—contributed to the state of mind I was in, and once I snapped out of it, I spent a great deal of time revising, not for formal reasons, but for changes in tone. It was an unrelentingly dark book, and my task was to make it relent here and there. I think I managed to do that, and my hope is that the book offers some insight into the mindset of someone who is contemplating checking out but who pushes through it toward a more hopeful place.

JE: There’s something so intimate about the first-person perspective and the occasional I/you address. As readers, it feels as though we’re let in on something that wasn’t necessarily meant for us but that we’re grateful to witness. Do you write with a certain reader in mind?

CK: I consider that a great compliment. Many of my favorite writers’ work has that quality, and it’s heartening to think what I’ve written could have that effect on a reader. Because I was in such a bad place when I was writing most of the poems in the book, I didn’t really think about anyone actually reading what I wrote. I was pretty sure if a book came from it, it would be published posthumously. Most of the poems were published in journals, but the idea of all these poems in one place was too much to consider until I ended up with the two manuscripts and pulled out of the depression. I decided if I was going to publish a book with these poems, I was going to be honest about what I went through. I wouldn’t have published the book otherwise. If the poems speak to someone who is going through a similar experience or to someone who knows someone who is, I’ll be happy. As happy as someone with chronic anxiety and depression can be.

JE: The collection contains references to other artists like Michael Burkard, Bai Dao, and Paul Celan, among others. In a book that so beautifully explores loss and grief, these acknowledgments felt especially resonant. Did you find yourself looking at particular writers’ work at this time or reflecting on specific influences?

I found myself reflecting on friendships, lost connections, and literary influences. In some ways, Michael is in all three categories. He’s a dear friend, but because we’re both fairly reclusive, we don’t often see each other, but when we do, it’s usually because we’ve been feeling bad in some way, dealing with it on our own, and then finally reaching out to each other. I knew Bei Dao from his visit to Syracuse several years ago, and we were in touch for a bit afterward. He gave 3rd Bed (which I was just starting with Vincent Standley, M. T. Anderson, and James Wagner) a non-fiction piece for its first issue, and we corresponded occasionally, but eventually lost touch. I often think about him, his exile from China, and what it must have been like for him to make his way across the globe alone, separated from his family and friends for political reasons. It was just me wondering how he’s doing now. Paul Celan is one of my favorite poets, one I can read over and over and not tire of, and I was home alone one Labor Day, reading him, and reflecting on our country’s endless wars and feeling a kinship with him, not least of all because of his death by suicide.

JE: What’s next for you?

CK: If it really is too late to start a band, I’m going to write more prose poems and hopefully have another manuscript in a year or so. I’ve thought about maybe doing a new and selected to get poems from my first two books back in circulation, along with more current work. That’s a discussion I’ll have to have with my editor at BOA Editions, Ltd. Peter, are you reading this?

I also have a bunch of fable-like stories, featuring a character, Cassimer Neubacher, who is terrible but lucky in a way that makes me think of a certain political figure, so I may revisit those and see if there’s a book possibility. They’re certainly relevant. I just don’t know if there’s enough there yet to imagine a book length collection.

JE: Thanks so much for taking time to talk, Chris! Clues from the Animal Kingdom is out now from BOA Editions. Read a poem from the collection in Juked.  

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