Celebrating our 2020 Ockham Poets: A Q&A with Anne Kennedy

Anne Kennedy is a fiction writer, poet, and screenplay editor. Her latest book is Moth Hour (AUP), short-listed in the 2020 Ockham Book Awards. The novel, The Ice Shelf (VUP), appeared in 2018. Awards and residencies include the NZ Post Book Award for Poetry, the Montana Book Award for Poetry, the University of Iowa International Writers' Program, and the IIML Writers' Residency.

1) How do you think social media has changed the way people read, watch, listen to and/or discuss poetry?

Social media and poetry? It’s complicated, and I’m on the fence. On one hand, poetry can be promoted in ways it never was before, which has made all kinds of poetry more popular. (Back in the day, you had to leave the house to organize anything.) Also, the power of certain kinds of cultural gatekeepers has been reduced or at least sidestepped, and it seems that easier access to poetry and poetics has run alongside greater diversity. So this is brilliant.

On the other hand, social media poses a danger to discussion around poetry, in that it can be trivialized or simply swallowed by myriad photos of poems beside glasses of pinot noir. It’s no accident that the rise of social media has gone hand in hand with the evaporation of outlets for in-depth book reviews which I think has had a devastating effect of the exchange of ideas. But this is the case with social media per se – the sheer volume of it affects deep thinking (I am personally shallower than I was 10 years ago). We probably don’t even know the extent of that yet.

But then, quite often, small poetic moments happen on social media, like someone’s new thought or sound bite.

What to do? I tinker with social media but can’t commit to it, nor can I leave because then I don’t know what’s going on with my cohort, and it turns out that’s quite important for most of us. I think we’re all, social media included, a work in progress.

2) Has the COVID-19 lockdown had an impact on the way you work – and what you’re writing?

Like many people, I’m in a bit of a netherworld. Suddenly anything from before March 2020 has no relevance. And, as events have unfolded, the future is now further away - which is all quite terrifying. I’ve been moved by many writings, mostly journalism, about Covid and lockdown, and I admire people who can process things so quickly. I tend to like distance and overview and layers of connections in poetry. At the moment, I feel like my bearings are wobbly, but maybe (being hopeful here) that’s a useful state for poetry in the long run.

Overall, we’re lucky here. During Covid, I’ve read Behrouz Boochani’s achingly beautiful No Friend but the Mountains, the memoir of a refugee who spent six years in a lockdown imposed by the state. It’s profound on every level. That’s a real lockdown, and a true poetic response.

3) How would you describe your kaupapa as a poet?

My immediate reaction to that good question is, I can’t say, and would perhaps need to write a poem about it, because that’s how poems function for me – saying something you can’t express any other way. But I’ll give it a go.

I think I write poetry to join in a massive conversation in an aesthetic way. I was a latecomer to writing poetry, although I read quite a lot. But it was reading about poetry that made me want to join in - a bit like making a cake not just because you’ve eaten cake, but because you’ve seen the recipe, and maybe even watched someone make one. So I’m hugely influenced by who I read, and who I read about, and I have a real sense of inheriting form and style (My book Moth Hour is sort of about that). Sometimes I’m moved to tears reading poetry and poetics because it’s a kind of reaching out for the unreachable.

For me, poetry comes partly from the body, like playing an instrument – it’s breathy and rhythmic, it has pitch and a sense of space. So words and meaning in poetry are attached to the physical world, not just the brain. I love that idea and practise, and those connections are what drive me. Of course, I’m not the only person to think that - there’s Charles Olson, for instance.

In terms of what I want to say, I’m grounded in feminist and post-colonial concerns, and in the idea of bearing witness to a life, which has been one of the great feminist strands of poetry - that our existence on all levels is worth writing about.

4) How does your shortlisted book reflect, redefine or depart from the concerns and subjects of your previous work?

I’d never written about death before, and I’ve never wittingly done homages to other writers. Moth Hour is made of both these things.

5) What contemporary poets are you reading right now? Poetry collections on your bedside table?

Cool for You, by Eileen Myles (an autobiographical novel by a poet).

Filthy Sucre, by Nod Ghosh (flash fiction, but I think it counts as poetry).

Madness, Rack, and Honey, by Mary Ruefle (late to the party but it’s fantastic).

Postscripts, by J.C. Sturm (a gem, and a good read for our times).

6) What role do you see for celebrations of poetry like Phantom Billstickers National Poetry Day?

National Poetry Day should replace Queens Birthday as a public holiday. I’m serious. It has actual relevance, and would have a focus. In some countries, poetry has a universal audience. We could have that too.

Like all literary festivals, National Poetry Day is hugely important for bringing people together and making space to think and talk about writing, whether in person or online.