Luke Kennard is an award-winning poet and performer, whose varied list of releases dates back to his 2005 debut collection The Solex Brothers (Redux), and toys with the boundaries of Sci-Fi, Folktale, and poetry itself. Last year he published his debut novel Transition (4th Estate). In anticipation of his performance at the SO: To Speak Small Press Showcase in November, I reviewed his 2016 poetry collection Cain, his sharp and witty exploration of faith, depression and recovery. I spoke to Luke earlier this week about his themes and his constraints, performance, and why small publishers are important.
In reading Cain it can be very easy – since it feels like such a creative centrepiece – to focus almost exclusively on the second volume of the text. I asked Luke to tell me a little about the creative relationship of the two flanking sections. He explained that he “probably could have just done 50 or 60 anagrams and surrounding notes and that would have been a whole book, maybe a tighter one,” but he “really wanted there to be a clear narrative drive to the book.” He explained how the first and third volume of Cain give context to, and clues for the deciphering of the anagrams, which are “essentially a TV show” which Kennard’s fictionalised self and his confidant “become obsessed with and watch, re-watch, study, read and write think-pieces about.” When we spoke about the constraint of the anagram form, Kennard cited “the process-driven stuff from the Oulipo… the New York School and the post-NY stuff, and the British Avant Garde” as sources of inspiration, noting that such “specific constraint forces the language, and that’s just such a pleasure because you’re constantly getting surprised by it, and then when you find some direction or chance upon something you particularly want to say it’s kind of a thrill.”
Faith in response to struggle seems central to Cain thematically. Kennard feels that poetry is the “ideal form” for exploring faith, which can otherwise be “awkward and difficult to talk about, there’s either a metaphysical order of existence or there isn’t, right? The thoughts that go through your head, your inner life, your inner voices: they’re either a meaningless by-product, or they’re actually the centre-stage fuelling our desperation for connection and our search for a totalising system that makes sense of the world, and how we might actually be of some help to the 10,000-80,000 people we encounter in our lives.” Kennard explains that the use of constraint itself is heavily influenced by religion, in that he wanted to “capture and reflect the generations of tribulation Cain is forced to witness” and to “grow something” from the earth that God curses in Genesis 4: 9-12. He draws a parallel with Cain’s journey through suffering and how the information age forces us all to bear witness more than we can possibly deal with. The use of anagrams within the text are apposite, both as reference to ancient religious ciphers and as a symbol of the complexity of contemporary lives lived in a bewildering state of constant online exposure.
Again he gestures toward the age of the internet, stating that “in a time where we’re all forced into curating our personas it feels like a useful act of rebellion to present yourself as fairly shabby,” an attitude both self-deprecating and modest. He continues, “many other poetry publishers would not have taken a chance on Cain, let alone actually engaged with the process and the design in the way that Penned did.” He thanks the publisher’s “editorial rigour” and the time and energy they invested in his work “as opposed to just hitting spell-check.”
In anticipation of his appearance at the Small Press Showcase, I asked what power he feels poetry adopts in performance that may be absent on the page. “Thrilled” to be appearing at SO: To Speak, he sees his work as positioned “halfway between performance and page,” the “fear of performance, that it can go one way or another” is something he loves. Performance allows a “temporary, joyful connection with a group of people,” a thrilling state that flirts with the risk that “you have no idea how it’s going to go until you lock eyes with them [the audience].”