The Conditions Are Always Impossible
Aug 24, 2017
21 Min read time
Lily Blacksell talks to Luke Kennard about poetry, fiction, and the writing process.
Poet, critic, novelist, and senior lecturer Luke Kennard has achieved so much as a writer (an Eric Gregory Award, places on the Forward Prize and Dylan Thomas Prize shortlists, inclusion in the Poetry Society’s series of Next Generation Poets, the title of Canal Laureate, a stint on Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime), yet he lets himself get away with so little. When some might give themselves a pat on the back, Kennard insults himself a bit in the shaving mirror and carries on. Luckily for his students at the University of Birmingham, he proceeds to his next class. Luckily for his readers, he proceeds to his keyboard. He is the author of seven poetry collections, including the widely acclaimed Cain (Penned in the Margins, 2016), A Lost Expression (Salt, 2012), The Necropolis Boat (Holdfire, 2012), Planet-Shaped Horse (Nine Arches, 2011), and The Migraine Hotel (Salt, 2009) as well as the novella Holophin, published by Penned in the Margins in 2012. The Transition, available now from Fourth Estate and to be published in the U.S. by Farrar, Straus and Giroux early next year, is his first novel.
Set in a near-future Britain in which the housing crisis has become even more pressing, The Transition follows Karl and Genevieve Temperley, a couple who are placed into an adulthood-training scheme after Karl (a thirtysomething “middle-class underachiever”) is found guilty of fraud. Less a cautionary tale than a love story, laugh-out-loud funny at times, and devastating for the most part, the novel tears along at a pace and, toward the end, announces, “Isn’t the real lesson here that we’re not very nice and we don’t give a shit about each other?” The good news, and goodness knows we all need some, is that a conversation with Luke Kennard (very nice, very considerate) left me feeling as though that’s not the real lesson at all.
- Lily Blacksell
Lily Blacksell: The speaker in Cain’s “Self Portrait at Primary School” recounts being “so obliging I let the weirdest, smelliest kid pick on me / because I thought it might make him feel better.” In a new poem, “Self-Defense,” published here, you write: “once, / when we tried to describe each other in one word, / I got obliging and concerned.” I recently learned that “oblige” and “religion” share as a root the Latin verb ligare, meaning “to bind.” Is there anything to be said about that connection? Does the sense of obligation or obligingness that recurs in your work imply an investment in poetry’s, or the poet’s, social role?
Luke Kennard: Much more being obliging than obligation, I think. When I said yes to the Canal Laureate role [an appointment made by The Poetry Society and Canal & River Trust], it wasn’t because I love canals (and I told them this, I told them I don’t especially even like canals), it was because they were paying me and because I was interested in people; I knew that as long as I was talking to people I’d find enough enthusiasm for the project. I don’t think the social value of poetry is ever much on my mind, but the people I’ve met through poetry, from my first year students to established geniuses like Denise Riley. . . . I’m grateful that my life even contains these people. I’m interested in social stuff more generally, I suppose it’s kind of an obsession in my work.
A poem isn’t about you, in the end. I find fiction a lot more exposing.
There’s sometimes a misconception that politeness is disingenuous, that it’s just a manner or a put-on. . . because it’s an effort, maybe? As if the fact that you have to put effort into being kind and aware. . . as if the effort negates it? Well, it doesn’t. It’s probably the most important work we do as human beings. If you’re remotely well-calibrated, you have a keen sense of what people want or need from you and you want to give them that. And, in myself, I’m quite interested in how that can be as much of a vice as a virtue, because at its extreme (and I am extremely obliging) it can be a sort of relinquishing of my own responsibility. And that’s the bind, if you like. I’m fascinated by our obligations to one another, spiritually, socially. And probably the thing I struggle with most (as a teacher, as a writer, as a parent and so on) is what St Paul called “speaking the truth in love,” because that’s hard, and it’s not telling someone what they want to hear and, basically, it’s a greater form of love than I’m capable of, or than comes naturally to me. I’d probably make a good prison chaplain. You killed how many people? Ah, well, I’ve wanted to kill at least twice that amount. Do you want to play dominoes?
Anyway, in poetry, you can work on knots like that and just leave them as, like, even worse knots. Bunches of headphones and necklaces. A poem isn’t about you, in the end. You use yourself the way a psychoanalyst uses themselves with their clients; it’s to a purpose. You’re not trying to get approval for being yourself. Shudder. I find fiction a lot more exposing. Tens of thousands of words of character and situation and dialogue and, essentially, judgment—your judgment. It’s horrible.
LB: Which brings us to your first novel, The Transition! How long was it in the pipeline for? Are you able to write poetry and prose simultaneously, or do you focus on one at a time?
LK: The reality of trying to finish a novel, once you have a draft with potential (and you’ve rewritten it a lot yourself and there are still bits you’re really not happy with) is a regular schedule of notes and revisions from your agent/editor. And if you’re halfway sane you’re just damn grateful for those. So you have these intense weeks of working on the manuscript to implement their suggestions (or at least the ones you agree with—it’s a very collaborative process) and then you send it back and they take upwards of three months to read your rewrite and decide what they want you to do with it next.
That went on for about three years with The Transition. So I wrote [the poems in] Cain during those two- to three-month periods when I couldn’t work on the novel. That worked really well for me, even if it ended up meaning that I had two books published a little too close to one another, which has been tiring. Before The Transition I worked on two other novels for about seven years with the same incredibly patient agent. Awful novels, complete failures. Scrapping them was more a relief than a disappointment—I feel like I learned a huge amount from getting it catastrophically wrong a couple of times.
LB: How do you feel about distraction? I’m thinking about distractions within your work (Karl’s daydreams-as-coping-mechanisms, Stu and Janna’s GET THINGS DONE poster), but also in your work habits. I remember you saying The Harbour Beyond the Movie sprung up as a title because you had the TV on in the background whilst writing. I used to have a post-it above my desk that said something like GET THINGS DONE, but it fell down. I read on Twitter that the best writing tip is: "dick around online til you get hungry for lunch." How far do you agree?
LK: I think it’s kind of awful what we do to ourselves. I know a couple of mountaineers and I never hear them complaining about distraction—they just climb all the time. But I suppose they probably daydream a lot while they’re climbing. I’m very easily distracted: I can waste hours reading an argument about a subject I have little interest in on a complete stranger’s Twitter feed. And failing that, my day job is always on hand to provide distraction (someone needs to write a paper on receiving work emails triggering the same false-pleasure response as social network notifications) because a lot of the tasks involved are finite and I’d rather get the quick endorphin hit of dealing with a course transfer or grading a paper than I would work towards the slower release of actually achieving something I really want to do, because I’m an idiot. As a lecturer you get on average a hundred emails a day whether it’s term-time or summer. When you’re not teaching, you’re marking 500,000 words and trying to write lectures for the next semester and fulfilling your several admin/management duties and supervising postgrad projects. But, and this is probably the kicker, as a lecturer in the UK you have to publish a certain amount every five to six years or you might get fired. So pure fear of not being able to provide for my family and the fact that I’m good for literally nothing else. . . that’s a great motivator when I have three clear hours between my kids falling asleep and me being too tired to type.
‘If prose is a house, poetry is a man on fire running quite fast through it.’
LB: Speaking of being awful to ourselves, let’s talk about bingeing and self-sabotage! There is excess in your work: Karl goes on an almighty bender, for example. In the poem “Binge” you describe watching “so many episodes of something in a row / we get bedsores.” Did anyone even use “binge” as a verb ten years ago?
LK: In the past, I think it was just a word I heard associated with eating disorders (being at school in the early ’90s, this was something that was clearly happening but wasn’t being talked about very much) and problem drinking and we’ve kind of broadened it to our consumption of popular culture, right? I suppose the issue is, we’re either trying to silence something or cover something with noise. I can’t go to sleep any more unless I have one headphone in and six cued-up episodes of podcasts running. That’s partly from the first year of my son’s life when he just wouldn’t sleep at all unless he was lying on my chest, and partly it reminds me of me and my sisters falling asleep listening to books on tape as a child. I once fell asleep listening to the Charles Manson episodes of You Must Remember This and had the nastiest dreams I’ve ever had. I joke that it’s because I can’t stand my own mind. Which isn’t really a joke. I guess if we’re ultimately searching for the peace that surpasses all understanding we’re going about it all wrong.
LB: She’s a thorny example, but Doris Lessing once said “No one can write with a child around. It’s no good. You just get cross.” (She went on to write five novels, two collections of short stories, a memoir and a number of plays in her first decade in London with her son Peter.) Whether through distraction or inspiration, crossness or joy, how have your children influenced your writing?
LK: I actually have a scrap of paper stuck to my wall with “The conditions are always impossible” (D. Lessing) written on it. I mean, I’m not delusional; it’s worth thinking of Wittgenstein writing his thesis in the trenches. Or basically any writer who isn’t male, middle-class and white over the centuries who’s had to contend with more than I can imagine. I love being a father, but yeah, there’s a whole lot of crossness.
I’m working on a novel at the moment which is at least partly about being a parent—a lot of unfinished sentences and derailed dialogue. You kind of laugh when you hear a couple talking about having children to bring them closer together when the truth is it’s quite likely that you and your partner are going to be completely insane for a few years. Total lack of sleep, stress, terrifying levels of love and joy, underlying mental health issues which suddenly become fairly urgent and potentially debilitating. It tests every virtue you assumed you had. Time becomes this limited resource that you squabble over, you talk almost exclusively at cross-purposes. You learn a lot about yourself and almost all of it is bad news. You realise you’re hardwired to avoid even minimal discomfort/inconvenience and resent any impingement on that venal drive. The love you feel for these tiny helpless creatures you’re completely responsible for is massive and intoxicatingly wonderful, but that gets tested too, you know? It’s unconditional, but you have to fight yourself for it sometimes. It’s a wonder that any relationship survives.
This is all with the caveat that there’s still much more pressure on the mother than there is on the father in that setup. As the father you can still slip into this position of Oh, look at me choosing to make these sacrifices that I and everyone else assumes my partner will make by default. At the same time, if I felt like writing was actually taking away time I should be spending with my children, I’d just drop it. Fuck writing. I mean everyone needs down-time, but ultimately if I’d rather watch TV during the off-hours, if weeks are going by and I’m putting the kids to bed and just watching TV and drinking a bottle of wine (both of which are activities I love), then spending the days ignoring them so I can write stuff that might not even be any good, then I’m not a writer or even much of a human being. I suppose. Sorry—I always sound angry in interviews, and I’m not really. They’re five and two years old, so they’re also beautifully imaginative and we improvise a lot of stories together when they’re not beating the shit out of me.
LB: In Charles Whalley’s review of Cain, he says your (particularly earlier) poetry is “continually suspicious of its own ability to speak plainly.” The poem “The Sunken Diner” in A Lost Expression is a prime example, finishing with “No, wait. That’s not what I mean.” Plain-speaking is not always expected of poets—why do you think you pick yourself up on it?
LK: It’s that bit in “Prufrock”—“That is not it at all, / That is not what I meant, at all.” I’m obsessed with those lines. And W. S. Graham’s “What Is the Language Using Us For?”: “Certain experiences seem to not / Want to go into language maybe / Because of shame or the reader’s shame.” I think I’ve always gravitated to work which is suspicious of itself, which foregrounds that. I sought a theme and sought for it in vain. It’s maybe insecurity, but it’s also central. You’re trying to communicate, you’re aware that a lot of what we say is inadequate. . . you hope the reader stays with you as you wander off-piste, trying to find a better way of saying it. In the novel I’m trying to write at the moment, the protagonist has this phobia of figures of speech and anything that feels like a shortcut or a euphemism. Like the opposite of Emma Bovary. She’s having an affair and even the language surrounding that seems to gloss over or. . . fail to describe—“cheating on” someone, etc. Her father was a stand-up comedian so she also hates jokes.
LB: To go back to Twitter, when there was all that #piggate business [a hashtag referring to the unsubstantiated rumor that former Prime Minister David Cameron placed “a private part of his anatomy” in a dead pig’s mouth as part of an Oxford dining club initiation ceremony], Charlie Brooker tweeted “Shit. Turns out Black Mirror is a documentary series.” The Transition, of course, sails pretty close to the wind of here and now. It’s also true that our reliance on personal devices has redoubled since the 2012 publication of Holophin [Kennard’s sci-fi novella about concerning a mass-produced cybernetic cure-all gadget]. As a writer, how does it feel to be involved in thinking the unthinkable, imagining the unimaginable and then watching it unfold in society?
LK: [Laughing]. Yeah, ugh, the Black Mirror comparisons got tired pretty quickly. Is that really the only sci-fi/alternative-reality thing people can think of? Just because it’s current? But I get the need for shorthand. I never intended to write two prose things in a row which roughly fit into the speculative fiction genre, although growing up I was crazy about science fiction and had to be weaned off it and onto literary fiction more generally via Iain Banks/Iain M. Banks. I was worried, during the lengthy rewrites, because I started writing it in 2012. . . Bit by bit, all of the exaggerated predictive stuff was coming true, like the girl in Austria who sued her parents for putting her photos on Facebook from the day she was born. But that’s fine—it just means you have to try harder to find an original angle. And eventually you stop and think, this is enough. And the technology is very secondary in The Transition (as opposed to Holophin, which is entirely about the repercussions of augmenting our own memories and perceptions). The first draft of The Transition was set [in the] present day, so it was a later decision to pitch it forwards, force a few things to a more palpable crisis point.
I think the stuff about housing in The Transition is a reality for most British people in their 30s and younger, but it can be hard for people who bought a home before house prices went insane to understand. The number of people who just casually ask you, “Oh, you’re moderately successful and you have a family—why are you renting?” Well, because we don’t have £35,000 (plus thousands in stamp duty, fees, etc.); it would take us over a decade to save that amount, by which point it wouldn’t be enough anyway, and in any case banks lend you four times your salary, and even a three-bed terrace in a city much cheaper than London is the best part of half a million now, and even if those impossible things came together, my entire salary would go on servicing the mortgage every month. So what would we eat? We’d be back on the credit cards until the home got repossessed.
I did an event with the journalist Dawn Foster, who correctly pointed out that the very idea of home ownership is kind of a middle-class fantasy anyway. It probably speaks to my privilege that I hadn’t really considered that. But I think the vast majority of the population are in between the fraction who are very rich and the fraction who have to rely on social housing and benefits. If the system isn’t working for 85 percent of us, it’s kind of silly, isn’t it?
If the system isn’t working for 85 percent of us, it’s kind of silly, isn’t it?
LB: Joe Dunthorne describes The Transition as “A fresh, funny and gripping vision of the near future that rings frighteningly true.” I agree, but I’m going to ask a tired old question about truth in writing. Did you hope The Transition would ring true? Or that the poems in Cain would ring any falser because the ‘Luke Kennard’ in the collection is facing an emotional and marital breakdown, whereas the Luke Kennard of this interview is not? Is it less about true/false, and more about just ringing?
LK: I think, again, in Cain, some of the pain is just real and some of it is hypothetical, but it’s a real attempt to think through. You reach this point—maybe every relationship goes through this—where you think, I can’t go on, we can’t go on. But the alternative, the escape, is a lot worse. Maybe this sounds crass, but there’s an extent to which divorce is jumping from a burning building. If there’s the slightest chance you could put out the fire or learn to live with the building being slightly on fire, you’re obligated to do that and you have more than your own feelings on the matter to consider. You’re always trying to ring true in your writing, always, and three quarters of the time you just don’t, so you have to throw a lot away. Or learn to live with the fact that your novels and poems and stories are always going to be slightly on fire and that it’s your job to try to convince the reader to spend some time in them anyway.
LB: That reminds me of an Anne Carson quote: “If prose is a house, poetry is a man on fire running quite fast through it.” I also can’t help but think of the quote in Holophin: “The first novel is so often autobiographical, and it is best to say ‘No comment’ when you are asked which bits are true.”
LK: I think you borrow as many bits of your life as fit into the project, so some of it is going to be directly autobiographical and a lot of it is going to be purely created. Perhaps there’s a tension. . . and the gag in Holophin, which is narrated by a sentient glittery dolphin sticker, is a very self-conscious joke about that critical tendency to assume a writer is always writing from experience. There was a recent article about first novels in the current moment being “selfie” literature. High-definition selfie, like Knausgård. And you’re constantly asking yourself if it’s worth it: How many people am I going to push into traffic for the sake of my art? How many confidences am I willing to betray?
I think you’re keenly aware of when you’re overstepping the line, even if you don’t fathom the repercussions yet. Which repercussions maybe aren’t going to manifest until much later, and maybe in ways you won’t understand until they do. Like getting away with a lie. You forget it’s yourself you’re damaging, ultimately, because you’re the person you can’t abandon; you’re stuck with yourself and the decisions you’ve made. What’s the cost of what you’re doing? So you have these this boring, pumpkiny ideas like “Oh, careful what you say to them or it might end up in a book!” or “The first novel is usually autobiographical” but then there’s a deeper level where you’re always looking for what you can use and weighing up. . . My wife read The Transition when it was more or less a final draft and said, “Do you feel like this is particularly close to your own life?” and I said, “Not really,” and she said, “Okay.”
LB: When I reread your poem “Dignity,” I saw it ended with “Thanks / anyway”, a phrase I was sure I’d seen before in your work. I lazily googled ‘Thanks anyway Luke Kennard’ and didn’t find the poem I was after, but did find a blog post from 2011 promoting Planet-Shaped Horse, with those grateful-but-disappointed words as its title. Then I realised! ‘Thanks anyway’ ends the poem “Cain Reverses Time,” published last year in Prac Crit! It’s a tremendous moment in the poem. Is the phrase significant? Am I reading too much into it?
LK: Oh wow! I wish I could pretend that was intentional. It’s clearly a motif. Yeah, okay, in the Cain poem it’s a kind of bathos: thanks for the miraculous, nonlinear, impossible opportunity to put things right which ultimately, when faced with the same situation again, I’m not going to take. I think “grateful but disappointed” pretty much sums up my whole poetic. Or the tussle between the two. Anyone serious about writing hates the mock-profundity that can seep into poetry—even into some very popular poetry—but there’s a danger that if you get obsessed with just sending that up. . . . Your work becomes cold and dead and cynical because you were so concerned about avoiding sentimentality. Which is why humour is described as defensive, I think. You were so worried about falling off the cliff that you end up hundreds of miles away from it and never even seeing the view.
LB: In the interview that accompanies “Cain Reverses Time,” you discuss “irredeemability,” saying: “Nothing that we do can actually be undone, or taken back. . . we don’t want it to.” The Transition could come into play here: Karl is offered a second chance through the supposed rehabilitation of The Transition, “a fully holistic approach to getting our lives back on track,” but he never seems to want to, or to know where that track is. Add to this the question of whether he truly did anything wrong, or whether he and his circumstances are a product of his society, and “right” or “wrong” become even harder to grasp.
LK: I love that. I think it has to do with what we think of as success, what we feel that we deserve, the idea that we can commit time and effort to something and be rewarded for it. As soon as you examine it in any depth it feels terribly arbitrary. The person who brags about their six-year old’s achievements is masking some deep-seated insecurity, right? At the same time I’m not trying to. . . I’m not trying to say it’s wrong to succeed. Maybe that’s a very British quality—a shame and squeamishness about certain types of success. Which clearly isn’t felt by people with personalised number plates, but maybe they’re our shadow selves.
There’s a scene in Sartre’s Nausea which really stayed with me, but I’ve not been able to find it since, so maybe I’m misremembering or partially fabricating it. He talks about this cure for adolescent cynicism where an old barrister takes a teenager to a gallery full of portraits of “great men” and the kid is like, “Ugh. Look at all these stupid old gits.” And the guide says, well, yes, maybe, but on the other hand maybe you’re arrogant and callow and stupid and, as a thought experiment, I want you to imagine what it would be like to look at these portraits and feel sincerely and genuinely awed by them, as was the intention. I suppose I wanted to dramatize some of that tension in The Transition, the cynicism which can ultimately lead to absolute apathy and disengagement versus the mentor’s position of a knowing, self-aware adherence to these traditional markers of success (maybe paying lip service to the systematic abuses of that system and ingrained privileges). Why shouldn’t you invent and market a new energy drink? The only reason you’re not doing that is because you have low self-esteem.
I’m also interested in the detachment of business. I could go to the bank tomorrow because I want to set up a business that couriers corneas so I’m going to need £150,000 seed money for motorbikes and cool boxes and I’m also going to need to talk to someone who knows the first fucking thing about corneas and couriering. Like an eye doctor? Can you Google eye doctors for me? And the couriers are going to be earning £16 an hour, but only when they’re on the road and carrying corneas. Okay? Because aside from that they’re essentially “commuting.” Ultimately what’s the point of it all? Earn enough money so that you can opt out of the systems our government is allowing to fail, seems to me. Make money, make money, make money. I’m still loitering in that gallery.
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August 24, 2017
21 Min read time