Janet Kenny Interview
This is Michael R. Burch,
editor of The HyperTexts, continuing our series of
interviews with contemporary poets. This time I’ll be interviewing
who left New Zealand to pursue a career as an operatic and concert singer in
London, then escaped back "down under" to Sydney, Australia, where she became
active in the anti-nuclear-weapons movement, co-writing Beyond Chernobyl, a book about the nuclear
industry. She now lives by the sea in Queensland, where she
writes poetry and essays, as the real world allows.
MRB: Janet, thanks so much for agreeing to do this interview. I’d
like to begin by sharing your poem "Du" with our readers.
A wisp of old woman,
curved like a scythe,
tottered to me as she
fussed her shopping,
her walking stick hooked
on her chopstick wrist.
She spoke to me then
in a dried leaf voice.
in that busy street,
swept by rude gales
from passing trucks.
I leaned closer to hear:
Mein eyes not gut.
time for bus, ven comes it?
“Which bus do you want?”
She smiled, shook her head
then sang to herself
—and somebody else,
in—not German. Yiddish?
She leaned towards me,
her tiny claw reached
to stroke my face.
Du she said.
MRB: Randall Jarrell said that a poet is someone who, in a lifetime of
standing outside in thunderstorms, manages to get hit by lightning five or six
times. I believe you may have been struck by highly providential lightning with "Du." Can you tell our readers how that happened?
JK: I was waiting for a bus in the main road of a Sydney suburb. The bus stop
was situated in an exposed and windy spot which emphasised the grit and fumes
from the heavy traffic. The stop served a great many different bus routes. Some
of the buses were expresses and only let passengers alight but didn't accept new
passengers. It was noisy and confusing and the numbers which identified the
various bus routes were complicated and hard to observe. Behind the bus stop
there was a small shopping alley which led to a parking lot and a large shopping
complex. Out of this alley there tottered the tiny, frail figure of an
incredibly old woman. Her face was at once refined and child-like. She
approached me and spoke so softly that her words were drowned out by the
traffic. I leaned over and managed to hear her broken English. She seemed sure
that I would be able to assist her. She seemed to think that she knew me. She
clutched my sleeve as I tried to ascertain her destination. She looked at me
with love, as if seeing someone from her youth. She stroked my cheek and called
me by the intimate form of address, twice. I had an impression that she had
forgotten where she was. I had an extremely urgent appointment and had to catch
my bus when it finally appeared. I asked another woman to assist her and said
goodbye to the old woman who gazed after me as I climbed into the bus.
She was a relic from another age and place. My conscience troubled me greatly
when I left her standing there. She had an air of tranquility which made her
seem oblivious to her situation. Perhaps it's because I don't know what happened
to her that I needed to write that poem. I had just, as an exercise, translated
Natalia Ginzburg's story of her Jewish family during Fascism, "Lessico
Famigliare," and my gentle Italian Jewish teacher, from the same Torino ambience
as Ginzburg, was a younger version of this little woman. My imagination was
stirred by her vulnerability. She seemed a symbol of all the displaced people
who must survive in alien lands.
MRB: Janet, thanks for your very interesting account of how "Du" came to be
written. It's been one of my favorite poems since the first time I read it, and
I believe it captures a good deal of the mystery and emotion of that chance
encounter. Your answer leads to my second question: As an editor and publisher
of Holocaust and Nakba poetry, I find compassion for such vulnerability moving
me and compelling me to action. Auden famously said that poetry makes nothing
happen, but I disagree. I believe the poems of William Blake about the plight of
child chimneysweeps touched readers and helped bring about social change in the
form of child labor laws. I believe the poems of Walt Whitman helped encourage
Americans to be more open-minded and tolerant. I think the graphic war poems of
Wilfred Owen helped create our modern anti-war movements. When I listen to the
songs of people like Bob Dylan, John Lennon and Joni Mitchell, I can detect the
continuing influences of poets like Blake, Whitman and Owen. So my question is this: Would
you tend to side with poets who believe in "art for art's sake" or
more with poets who see poetry as a vehicle for progress? Or would you say that
both viewpoints are equally valid, and perhaps everything in between?
JK: The truth is that I am a poet who believes in "art for art's sake" but I
am also a human. Beethoven was above all a composer who responded sublimely to
form but he also cared deeply for humanity and justice. He at no time distorted
his sublime vision to express his political ideals but instead he associated
those ideals with his innermost aspirations. At first he dedicated his "Eroica"
symphony to Napoleon, whom he believed to be transforming Europe, but then he
removed that dedication when he realised the tyrannical nature of Napoleon. But
the symphony remains the same. It glows with the same aspirational ardor and
uplifts the listener.
Some of the most aspirational poetry inspires the reader to care more for the
fragile beauty of life without actually mentioning a specific cause. This flows
through naturally to a protective and ethical view of life in general.
I am not very knowledgeable about popular music but when I was younger I was
deeply moved by Bob Dylan's "The Times they are A-Changin'" and "Blowin' in the
Wind" and I believe that is because they are powerful poems and songs and would
have moved me anyway. The first requirement is that a poem must be powerful in
its own right. Eric Bogle's "The Band Played Waltzing Matilda" reduces me to
tears every time that I hear it and I think that most Australians would share
that experience. It is as powerful a cry against war's futility as Benjamin
Britten's mighty "War Requiem," which is set to the poems of Wilfred Owen.
MRB: Janet, I agree with you that a poem must be "powerful" in its own right,
if by "powerful" we mean something like "stirring" and "able to move readers."
Songs like "The Band Played Waltzing Matilda" and "Blowin' in the Wind" might
support my case if enough people heeded them rather than jingoist war hymns. It
seems to me that poets like Blake, Whitman and Owen and singer-songwriters like
Dylan, Lennon and Mitchell are moved by compassion in ways that men like
Napoleon and Hitler are not. This leads to my next question: It seems obvious to
me that many wonderful poems have been written out of empathy and compassion.
And yet when I visit online poetry forums and hear what mature/established poets
sometimes say to younger/beginning poets, I am often shocked by the lack of
empathy I hear in their critiques. What are your thoughts about this?
JK: When I first participated in poetry forums I was entirely absorbed in the
discovery of form and technique. Although I had been deeply engaged by the poems
which were the inspiration of song in all of its forms and was a seasoned
performer who had written poetry for most of my life, I had never taken my own
incidental poems seriously. I was surprised to discover that many musical forms
were related to poetic forms. My encounters with young poets with MFAs were
confusing. I admired them for their curiosity and industry but rather deplored
their forensic investigations of something that required more experience of life
than their brief spans had as yet allowed. I did not envy their lost innocence.
I do think that they were asked to judge before they had time to digest what
they were asked to judge. I did envy their total immersion.
One day in London, years ago, when I was practicing a song in the hearing of
a musical old friend from my native country he said: "Why don't you just ignore
all these bloody singing teachers and sing the way you used to sing in New
Zealand? You were better then." He was right in many ways. How could I explain
to him that I had needed to immerse myself in the orthodoxies of my art in order
to measure my worth against established international standards? And yet I knew
that I had lost something valuable. Perhaps a spontaneity and freshness and even
the verve and impetus that came from not knowing what should have inhibited me?
Young artists are driven by fearless curiosity and daring. The discovery of form
is like the discovery of sex. It's better if mother has left the room.
I have seen so many promising novice poets lose their individuality in poetry
forums where even their choice of topic was derided. The most difficult thing
for a critic is to resist the desire to take over a poem and redirect it. In
poetry as in drawing, sureness of touch is essential. That sureness comes from
confidence. There is such a world of difference between poems which are
presentable and inoffensive and poems which arrest readers’ attention because
they contain something indefinably disturbing and alive. Often, the
irregularities, whether of diction or attitude, are the first qualities to be
discarded by helpful critics and young poets, eager to please, are often
compliant. And sometimes a poem which is deliberately simple in its language and
meter, is criticised for those very things which are its essence. In other
words, poems are often accused of not being the opposite of what they are. This
is an easy way for a critic to seem knowledgeable and perceptive and is very
hard for a poet to resist. Bullies often prevail in forums when their
overbearing manner is presented as expertise. They seem to want to "correct" the
poet, as if they knew the secret of perfection.
That's only the negative side of forum life. Because poets will be poets
despite the disapproval of some critics, poets feed on the sympathetic responses
of other poets. Poets quickly discover poets whose criticism is genuinely useful
and who help them to achieve their personal goals. There is no better reader of
a poem than an empathetic poet. Faults are shed rapidly when the aim is to
please a respected reader of one's work. By sympathetic I don't mean uncritical.
If the poet realises that the critic understands the intention of the poem, the
poet will have the incentive to maximise the positive aspects of the poem and
discard the distracting elements.
MRB: Janet, I largely agree with what you just said. I think people who offer
critiques in workshop environments should have empathy and always try to be
helpful. Far too often it seems the person offering the critique is more
interested in showing off and stroking his/her own ego, than in being genuinely
helpful. Another problem I see is established poets parroting highly dubious
dogma to beginning poets, as if it were gospel truth. I find it disturbing that
poets with MFAs seem to not only believe, but evangelize, sheer nonsense. Here
is a short list of irrational things I have heard being parroted recently:
"Fear abstractions!"/"No ideas but in things!" (If this is true, we should
immediately junk Homer, all the great ballads, "Beowulf," "Canterbury Tales," "Paradise Lost," the soliloquies
of Hamlet, and most of Shakespeare's sonnets.)
"Don't use the word 'love' in a poem."
"Don't mention the South in a poem, because of racism." (As if all the land
north of the Mason-Dixon line wasn't wrested from Native Americans by white
I could go on and on, but I don't want to bore our readers to tears, or
death. My next question is this: Do you think there is a tendency for poets to place
the Muse in straitjackets, by subscribing to irrational literary dogma? If so,
what would you consider a better approach?
JK: Freedom is the first requisite for any sort of art. All artistic
traditions are weighed down by foolish beliefs. "Blue and green should never be
seen." "Never use consecutive fifths." "Avoid clichés." "Avoid archaisms."
As another friend once said of chain-store clothes: "It's all in the art of
Abstractions can be great mood setters. It's not the abstraction that may be
wrong but its application. I believe that all rules are there to be broken. Who
made the rules anyway?
If the word "love" is never to be used in poetry then we must say farewell to
a large portion of our literary heritage. Love is the most desired human
emotion. It drives all of our actions, one way or another. Could Burns have
avoided the word "love"?:
Oh my luve is like a red, red rose,
That's newly sprung in June:
Oh my luve is like the melodie,
That's sweetly play'd in tune.
As fair art thou, my bonie lass,
So deep in luve am I;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a' the seas gang dry.
Till a' the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi' the sun;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o' life shall run.
And fare thee weel, my only luve!
And fare thee weel a while!
And I will come again, my luve,
Tho' it were ten thousand mile!
Should Elizabeth Barrett Browning have repressed this sonnet?
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day's
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
I am not American. I assume that the dictum regarding the South was uttered
by someone from the North. That is emblematic of the shallowness of orthodox
inhibitions. Human history is built on exploitation of one kind or another.
Exploitation is the seed bed of our greatest human dramas and the inheritance
which shaped our present sensibilities. Not to mention it would be tantamount to
We all have our own prejudices. My prejudice as an Australian is against
would-be Banjo Pattersons, but every now and then I am forced to admit that some
of them have virtues.
The entire vocabulary is available for the right poet. The abused "cliché" is
just a composite word which became familiar because it lacked a substitute. A
"cliché" will be understood. If the "cliché" is what a poem needs at a given
point then a poet should use that "cliché." It is part of our wardrobe of words
and phrases and these are tools for a poet.
Those who want to define the faults, weaknesses and strengths of a poem must
first look at the whole poem before fastening on details. Good critics always do
this. Mediocre critics are too busy going for the jugular to notice the nature
of the beast they are killing.
MRB: Janet, I think "green grass" and "blue eyes" are good, unostentatious
ways of describing grass and eyes, so I feel free to use such "clichés" in my
own poems. "Mediocre critics are too busy going for the jugular to notice
the nature of the beast they are killing" sounds like something I might have
said myself. Unnecessary cruelty seems like the province of narrow minds and
lesser hearts to me. I believe accomplished writers can afford to be empathetic,
generous and helpful, so perhaps going for the jugular indicates a lack of
self-confidence on the part of the attacker. Now here’s my next question. As we
prepared for this interview, I learned to my surprise that you had been banned
from an online poetry forum called Eratosphere for speaking ironically about
some of the critiques you saw. Can you tell me how that happened?
JK: I was banned for making a joke. A recently-arrived poet whom I liked asked what the
difference between Metrics and the Deep End was. I said that Metrics was where you
posted poems for comments from other poets and the Deep End was where you went
for S&M. This was thought to be denigrating the Deep End.
MRB: I had a similar experience and was banned from Eratosphere for writing
ironically about certain Deep End critiques on my own website. It seems we both have negative impressions
of certain aspects of the forum, but good impressions of many of the poets. So please
tell our readers a little bit about your experience there and about the poets
who made lasting impressions on you.
JK: My problem with Eratosphere is that I came from life experiences which were too dissimilar
from those of the other participants. I was not conditioned to work in a
"college" environment. I had no concept of such a poetry environment. I
incorrectly perceived Eratosphere as a meeting place for those who had passed
the undergraduate stage and were already serious working poets. I became
confused by the authoritarian aspect of the forum. Every now and then the
moderator would appear like the witch in The Wizard of Oz and upset everybody,
then we would all return to our natural relationships. Alas, one day I made one
joke too many and was out on my nose. Now I grieve for my friends in Eratosphere
as I press my face to the glass.
However, I discovered wonderful poets there. I had a brief acquaintance with
the brilliant poems of
Robert Mezey, who was leaving at the same time that I was
MRB: I think Robert Mezey is one of the very best contemporary poets we
have. I especially admire his poem "The Lovemaker" and his "after Borges"
sonnets. If he doesn't make the major anthologies and so become a poet who is
read by future generations, it will be a crime, in my opinion.
JK: Rhina Espaillat especially shines among my discoveries. She has that
aristocratic simplicity common to many of the greatest poets and writers. Her
depth seems as effortless as her phrasing.
MRB: Rhina Espaillat is an accomplished poet who goes about doing good deeds
for poetry and other poets. I have long admired her poem "Miscarried,"
which I wish I’d written myself. But most of her poems that I have read to date I
have found to be both well-crafted. and moving.
Perhaps even more importantly, I think she proves that good poets can afford to
be nice people.
although much younger than I am, makes me feel like an
uneducated child. She surely will be remembered long after her writing life is
finished. Form and content are one in her poems.
MRB: When Poetry uses one of her poems regularly in its marketing, it seems
safe to say that Alicia Stallings has definitely arrived. My favorite poem of hers so far is "The
Ghost Ship," a poem I requested her permission to publish. She was the
first poet with a recognizable name published by The HyperTexts, and
she continues to be one of my personal favorites.
JK: Tim Murphy caught my attention even before I was aware of Eratosphere. I
disagree with Tim about almost everything, and yet I respond to the
pitch-perfect clarity of his diction and the beauty of his images and the
child-like honesty and humour of his narrative.
MRB: I don’t know Tim Murphy all that well, but I remember admiring his poems
"Cross-lashed" and "Prayer for Sobriety." He strikes me as
an interesting confessional poet, which I mean in a positive way. (However, when he writes about gutting animals
and feeding their hearts to his dogs, I must confess that I blanch and he starts
to lose me.)
JK: Rose Kelleher shapes her poems with precision and dash and she often uses
these qualities to confront compassion and pain. She excels at satire but the
lost ones haunt her poems and linger with the reader. Her outstanding gifts were recognised when she was awarded the Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize.
MRB: I have long admired Rose Kelleher’s "I Have a Crush on the Devil" and
other poems of hers. I’m glad to hear that she won the Anthony Hecht Poetry
Prize because I think she deserves it. If I was asked to
name up-and-coming poets to
keep an eye on, my short list would include her and
Greg Alan Brownderville.
JK: Margaret Griffiths, whom I knew as 'Maz' or 'Grasshopper,' was the most
genuinely helpful and supportive friend I had on Eratosphere. She was an extraordinarily fine poet with a vast
range of voices.
MRB: Alas, in this case I must profess my near-total ignorance. I only remember reading
one poem by Margaret Griffiths, "Gut Reaction," but it struck me as a good and
JK: Aaron Poochigian makes fireworks from language and drama. His sympathetic
grotesques often remind me of Fellini. His published translations of Sappho,
Aeschylus, Aratus and other classics are widely admired.
MRB: Aaron Poochigian is another poet that I don’t know all that well at
present, but I do
admire his translations of Sappho that I’ve been able to find and read online.
JK: Jehanne Dubrow, like Alicia Stallings will last beyond her lifetime. She is
deeply engaged in real tragedy, which her controlled, beautiful writing
amplifies. Her work is inclusive and humane.
MRB: I especially like Jehanne Dubrow’s "Iron Curtain." I also like "Before
the Deployment" with those great closing lines: "and then the quick surprise of
waking, alone / except for the citrus ghost of his cologne."
JK: Michael Cantor is the kid who wants to be tough, and indeed he is. His
poems are polished and calculated and often very funny. Michael will not let us
see him cry. He will not use words like 'beauty' or 'love' but both are there in
MRB: If there's a contemporary poet I’m philosophically opposed to (to the
point of grinding my teeth), it’s probably Michael Cantor. Why avoid the best
words in the English language, when Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, Keats, Shelley,
Yeats and Frost
didn’t? But I do like Cantor’s poem "Two Tales from the East" nonetheless.
believe some poets write well despite their literary theories and aesthetics, not because of
JK: David Mason's poetry is clean and direct and passionate. His great
narrative skills are most powerful when he focuses on the outsider who stands
against the establishment. A strong feeling for the earth and our connection
with it underlies much of his writing.
MRB: I like David Mason’s moving storytelling in poems like "The Lost House"
and "Fathers and Sons."
JK: Quincy Lehr's writing seems like a new poetic way of doing what prose
readers have always loved. He writes page-turners which combine intellectual
references, original and eccentric rhymes, surging meter, and interesting characterisations and narrative plots. On top of that add history and philosophy
and you have someone who has broken the mould. Or rediscovered the moulds of
Pushkin and Byron. A sort of more entertaining and readable Nabokov. If he were
a painter he could be summed up as a painter of figures in a landscape.
MRB: Well, I have always found Nabokov at his best both entertaining and
readable, if a bit eclectic in his use of the lexicon. It’s hard to imagine a book more entertaining (in a
disturbing way) than Lolita. But I do agree that Quincy Lehr is a
talented penner of original and eccentric rhymes. My favorite poem of his that
I’ve read to date is "Thou Art Weighed in the Balances." I also like the humor,
irreverence and verve of his Dr. Whup-Ass's Bitch-Ass Poetry Round-Up poetry
forum, which seems to allow free speech and encourage spirited debate between
JK: Catherine Chandler's introspective poetry combines classical grace with
close emotional response to people and landscapes. She sometimes reminds me of
MRB: No sooner had I professed my disdain for contemporary "flower poems"
than Catherine Chandler’s excellent "Cinquefoil" challenged my
critical faculties. I also like
her poignant storytelling in "Tommy."
JK: Wendy Videlock's deceptively pretty poems hide irony and even tragedy in
their slender forms, and they often leave a smile that is noticed only after
MRB: I think "deceptively simple" is probably correct. Robert Frost could break our
hearts with a deceptively simple poem like "Nothing Gold Can Stay." I think
Wendy Videlock may be up to something similar with poems like "Hawk" and "To
Hell with Spring."
JK: I am impressed by Jennifer
Reeser's exquisite translations from Russian. I listened to some recordings in Russian of the
poems she had translated into English and she seemed to have caught the elusive
music and the meaning. Almost impossible to achieve. Her own work deals with
grief and sensuality. Why am I not surprised to learn that she comes from
MRB: Louisiana, grief and sensuality do seem to go hand-in-hand. I admire
poems of Jennifer Reeser’s like "Sapphics For Celebrity" and "Miscarriage."
She has the ability to grab my attention and convey
emotion, and those are two very important aspects of the art of poetry. While
technique and craftsmanship are important, it's even
more important to be interesting and evocative. I think Jennifer Reeser is one
of the more interesting and evocative poets I've published, and her technique
and craftsmanship are good to boot.
JK: John Whitworth was someone I had read in that awful Australian journal
"Quadrant," which I bought occasionally because the poetry editor is the great
Les Murray. Les is absolutely right to publish as much of John Whitworth as he
can lay his hands on. John Whitworth is a poetry fountain, a cascade, a one man
Tivoli. Forget about reforming the world with sermons. John reforms the world
with laughter and delight. He is our Mozart, and like Mozart he encompasses
darkness as well as light. He shows us that humour is up there with love and
MRB: I had a rather strenuous disagreement with John Whitworth about the theoretical "inferiority"
of free verse to formal verse in a recent interview I did with
him, but I do admire his best poems. I’m not sure that I’d compare him to Mozart. I
might compare him to Kipling and Poe: a sort of madcap musical Merlin. I
mean that in a good way, and I especially like poems of his like "The Examiners"
and "Them There Out There In Here Right Now," in which he exposes the
foibles of modern paranoiacs. Millions of people like Kipling, Poe and Gilbert &
Sullivan. I don't doubt that large numbers of people would like Whitworth's poems, if
they chanced to read them. I suspect that his real grievance is not with
excellent free verse poets like Whitman and Pound, but with a poetry
establishment that makes it difficult for readers to connect with his most
JK: Ann Drysdale is a compulsively truthful and funny poet who shares many
virtues with John Whitworth. Her combination of elegance and bloody-mindedness
is always musical and thoughtful. She is a great discovery. Never read her in a
bus. Your laughter will attract unfavourable attention from the other
MRB: I would go beyond that, and say that Ann Drysdale is one of our very
best contemporary poets. She writes extraordinarily well in a variety of styles
and modes. I love her poem "Friday" for its ironic tenderness. I also love her
raillery against hypocritical religion in "Word Made Flesh." I believe she
making quite a name for herself.
JK: Tom Kerrigan is a sneaky poet. On first sighting his apparently simple
forms may fool one into expecting less, until his expressive powers reach the
brain. His legal experience and his natural humanity and irony, ensure that his
poems hit the heart and mind like ancient songs. Some of his lusty tales have a
Boccaccio-like air. He is a poet to remember.
MRB: I have long admired Tom Kerrigan’s work. He writes well in a variety of styles and can be quite
"engaging" when the subject is sex. Like some of the better Irish
poets, he also excels at storytelling and pathos.
JK: I definitely must mention the late Alan Sullivan whose austere approach
to poetry was softened by his graceful ear for phrasing and meter. His stern
spirit was the inspiration behind Eratosphere's Deep End forum intended for
advanced critique. He himself wrote later on that the standard of metrical
contributions had greatly improved since the Deep End was created and he was no
longer convinced that such a forum was still needed. He left behind some
haunting sonnets, a celebrated translation of Beowulf which he wrote with his
literary partner Tim Murphy, and a beautiful translation of The Psalms written
in partnership with Seree Cohen Zohar.
MRB: Of course I know Alan Sullivan by name and reputation, but unfortunately
my knowledge of his poetry is only cursory. "So much to read and so little time!"
remains a convenient-but-nonetheless-true excuse.
JK: I must also mention the funny and clever Robert Schechter and the
infinitely inventive and gifted Chris O'Carroll. There are many other
interesting poets whom I met on Eratosphere:
David Anthony, whose kind-hearted
sonnets evoke a gentler world;
Maryann Corbett whose
deeply felt poetry just keeps getting better and
better in so many ways; Julie Stoner whose thoughtful poems reveal a deep
intuition; Mary Meriam with her highly individual response to language;
Stevens, whose editorial work rarely allows us to read his own beautiful (the
word applies) poems; Rick Mullin, whose fine painting and poetry enrich each
other; Mark Allinson (gone from Eratosphere), whose scholarship, imagination and
visceral feeling for words make him potentially one of the most interesting
poets of all; R. Nemo Hill, whose eclectic poems often have a transcendental quality; Terese Coe, whose
original view of the world can surprise us with poems
we didn't anticipate;
Stephen Scaer's delicately balanced poems; Lance Levens's sympathetic poems; Frank Fosen's subtly wise poems;
drolly human poems; Bill Lantry's rich-textured poems; Philip Quinlan who is a
late arrival with an extraordinary gift for image and mood and form; Christine Allinson, whose work has an impetuous, Schubertian quality. There are many more
and may they continue to appear.
MRB: I have long admired "Warming" and "A Winter Funeral in Fulmer" by David
Gwilym Anthony; his poetry intrigues me ... a very good thing.
I think Maryann Corbett is one of the better contemporary
Formalists, and I always look forward to seeing what she’s up to. She has a
nice, deft touch with meter and imagery.
She is also a keen-eyed observer with equally sharp wits about her; for instance
she describes the sounds of an apartment building as "the goings at all hours
(and, through thin walls, the comings)."
Terese Coe has
produced some wonderful translations and poems of her own making. I
especially like her Ronsard translation, "Chanson." Your
comment about her original worldview made me think of Rhina Espaillat, who said, “She domesticates and humanizes the exotic without robbing it of its
strangeness, just as she reveals the inherent strangeness in everything looked
at closely, however much we persuade ourselves that we already know it
intimately.” That's high praise and I believe Terese Coe deserves it.
I only recently discovered Philip Quinlan (thanks to you!) and he strikes me as a
good poet. His "Learning to Paint Clouds" and "Do Not Go East" are among my
favorite recent discoveries.
I admire Alan Wickes's storytelling in poems like
"Summertime—Edward Hopper" and "Parting Shots." When he
starts telling a story, he knows how to grab my interest from the get-go, and
that's very important. If we're honest, the average poem these days is going to
put most readers to sleep, so the first task of any poet is to spark reader
interest and maintain it. I think Wickes does that in spades, in his best poems.
Paul Stevens is a commendable poet and
an editor I admire. I especially like his poem "The Relics," with its
wonderful opening lines:
Mother to daughter, softly touching, is it?
Sister to sister's delicate embrace?
Friend to friend, companions past corruption?
Brother to brother, face to well-loved face?
I also admire the sound and sense of Mark Allinson's
"Uniform Whiskey Bravo," a poem that makes me feel as if I'm sitting in the
cockpit of a Mustang at an airshow.
R. Nemo Hill is not only eclectic, but
perhaps something of a mystic, if one can still use that term with positive
connotations. He certainly seems like one of the less "corseted" poets writing
formal poetry these days, and I consider that a very good thing.
Unfortunately, I don’t know the other poets you mentioned enough to
comment on their work. Perhaps they’ll submit to The HyperTexts and I will
become more enlightened.
JK: I am sorry that I must stay outside Eratosphere but perhaps it is a
college and we must all eventually go forth and get a job.
MRB: Janet, I must admit that I’m completely mystified that someone as nice,
kind, generous, thoughtful, talented and
considerate as you could have been banned from a poetry forum! Hopefully one day all
poets will agree that freedom of speech and opinion are vastly preferable to censorship. Until that day, it seems better to
"think outside the box," which may mean operating outside the box as well. But in any case, thanks
so much for taking the time to visit with me and our readers, and thanks
especially for writing poems like "Du."
Responses to the Interview
Janet Kenny has been very generous towards me in the
time (a few years now) that I have known her. Indeed, but for her
encouragement, I doubt I should have continued to try to improve as a poet. I
think your interview with Janet nicely highlights her generosity of spirit and
the breadth of her interest in other writers, even tail-enders such as myself.
It was Janet who introduced me to these pages, for which I’m most grateful. "Du" is a surprising and delightfully intimate poem. Thanks to you
Mike, thanks for passing on this extraordinary interview with an equally
extraordinary poet! I will certainly share it with the membership of the Powow
River Poets, who are familiar with many of the poets she comments on, and with
other poet friends. Thanks, also, for providing links to so many of them, as I intend to look up
both those I know and those others whose names are tantalizingly new to me.
You've provided your viewers a wonderful way to learn more about the poetry
world today, and not only in the USA, but "Down Under" and elsewhere!
... Be well, and keep doing the good things you do!—Affectionately, Rhina Espaillat
Nice job. Kudos to both of you.—Jared Carter
Janet Kenny is clearly a wide, generous reader of her contemporaries and, in the best sense of the word, a woman with
a remarkable capacity for enjoyment. As for the brouhaha at the Sphere ... that site was hardly the main
focus of the discussion, nor did either party say anything they—and others,
probably including me at some point or other—haven't said before.—Quincy Lehr
I enjoyed the interview enormously, especially Janet's explanation of how 'Du'
came about. I agree, Mike, it is one of those lightning strike pieces. I also
agree that it's astonishing that Janet is a Sphere persona non grata.
What's that all about!—Alan Wickes
It is a nice interview, Mike, thanks.—Jennifer Reeser
I have read the interview with Janet Kenny and it is quite good. She has many interesting
comments about poetry in general, and individual poets.—Joe Salemi
Mike, Sadly my post [on Eratosphere] drawing attention to the interview has not survived,
which is a shame for many reasons, the most important of which is that the
interview is a discussion between two experienced poets who between them develop
a comprehensive and judicious survey of a very important region of the landscape
of current poetic composition. I don't agree with every word in the interview
(of course: that would make it rather boring!), but taken as a whole the
interview is judicious and enlightening, and serves to promote and advance the
works of many important contemporary poets, such as Ann Drysdale, John
Whitworth, Rose Kelleher, Alicia Stallings, Timothy Murphy, and many more. If
some parts of the discussion are controversial, then that is all to the good:
debate makes the piece lively and entertaining—qualities often missing from
what might be seen as more "politically correct" discourses. Both participants
in the interview—yourself and Janet Kenny—are poets whose work I have had
the privilege of publishing in my own various literary journals: which is to say
that in my careful editorial judgement you both have important things to say,
and say them engagingly and eloquently in well-crafted verse. My congratulations
to you both on this very fine contribution to the general ongoing conversation
about our common obsession and delight: poetry.—Paul Stevens
If the interview remains suppressed [on Eratosphere], why not use the occasion for a follow-up
interview? Perhaps a good theme for it would be The Soviet Factor in American
Formalism. Indeed in Soviet Russia, only one side was allowed to be heard. If
I'm not mistaken, that's precisely what the Iron Curtain was about: keeping the
Russian people in the dark. Radio Free Europe was, as I recall, an attempt by
the West to penetrate that curtain.—Tom Merrill
I sent e-notes of congrats to both Jennifer Reeser and Rose Kelleher, also a
heads-up and congrats to Eric Bogle—and included the link to your interview
with my e-notes.—Russell Bittner
Thank you for the link to Janet's interview. I admire Janet's work and value her friendship.—Catherine Chandler
Thank you, Mike. I correspond regularly with Janet and I know Ann Drysdale
does too. She wins competitions at the Spectator and the Oldie from time to
time, so she is pretty active on the Eratosphere website. Unless she gets the
magazines sent to Australia which I rather doubt.—John Whitworth
From the little I know of the ban on Janet and yourself it sounds
rather demeaning and it certainly disappointed many of the folks on the list. I
think emotions ran high back when it happened but it seems nowadays people on
the list just reject the banning and continue to speak highly of Janet. Pretty
much all of them. The link was moved to a private section of the sphere but even
there it was a short-lived discussion, mostly dignified folks expressing
opinions of Janet's class and missing her ... I am familiar with petty sectarian
exile like this. It's childish and disgusting and has made me uncomfortable
thinking of it behind the scenes, even if it occurred some time ago. But the vocal
poets, which really is all there is to the sphere, don't seem to travel with the
banning silliness. It's odd they weren't able to override it. If something more
ugly or shameful should arise, I will likely just quit the forum but so far
mostly it's been kind words for The HyperTexts and the interview. The one fellow who
spoke up for the ban was embarrassed by his own position and pretty much
ignored.—Deep Note (an anonymous current member of Eratosphere)
"Folie à deux or folie en masse?"
by Russell Bittner
I recently read Mike's interview of Janet Kenny here at THT and came away
wondering: are the best bound for extinction or merely for expulsion? Please
allow me to explain.
Groucho Marx once famously said something Woody Allen, in our day and time,
gets credit for: "Please accept my resignation. I don't want to belong to any
club that will accept people like me as a member."
Mike and Janet share a certain distinction: they were both once expelled by
Eratosphere.ablemuse.com. I share a more minor distinction: I was expelled by
Gazebo, the founder of which—Jaimes Alsop—died last June 23rd. I'm sorry for his
death. I'm sorrier still that he didn't chime in and put an end to all the
Poetry Websites are, well, poetry Websites (please excuse the tautology). As
does most everything else—except, perhaps, volcanoes, asteroids and
epidemics—they adhere to a certain bell curve.
What does that mean? That if you (1) learn the local jargon or patois of the
Website; and (2) respect the hierarchy, you won't be expelled. Your poetry may
be piss-poor, but that's of only secondary consideration. I've read plenty of
piss-poor poetry at poetry Websites: it didn't go away; nor did the poets.
I've read only one poem by Janet Kenny. Janet could be a bitch-on-wheels in
real life. I don't know. I don't care. In her interview with Mike, she comes
across as a supremely sympathetic person—and quite obviously one who's more than
willing to give credit to her peers.
As regards Michael…God knows, I've had my differences with Mike. And yet, he
runs this Website—which is a forum for other folks' work, even when they might happen to viscerally
disagree with him. 'Nough said.
What can I draw as a tentative conclusion? Only that Websites like
Eratosphere—and maybe even Gazebo—have their own agendas, none of which has
anything to do with quality poetry. Rather, they have to do with toeing the
line…being like "us"…accepting the local jargon, the local patois, the local
standard for poetry.
If this is the extent of your ambition, good luck and Godspeed. If not, consult many of the
classic poets. They may well have written in meter and rhyme, but they had a good reason
for doing so: once upon a time, poetry was defined by meter and rhyme—and was as much beholden to
Euterpe as to Caliope and Erato.
In the meantime, read Janet’s poem “Du.” It’s not formal verse. But does that really matter? It’s
well worth the read.
And if you can possibly avoid the temptation, avoid joining poetry
Websites. At best, they will, vampire-like, suck away your time like blood. At worst, they’ll destroy
your ambition to become a poet—and turn you into a retail clerk.
Eratosphere's own public admissions of censorship ...
Janet Kenny has been banned and discussion stopped. Do not discuss.—Peter
This and other threads discussing banned members
publicly violate Eratosphere
guidelines. Quote: "The staff will not announce suspensions and banishments
publicly partly to salvage some dignity for the ejected member, and partly to
mitigate any disruption of Eratosphere’s focus and that of the predominant
members with no interest in the matter—members who would rather be writing or
critiquing in spite of the worst rule-breaking antics of the banished member ... Alex Pepple (eight-star
What Pepple said above, despite his eight stars, is patently false, because
many Eratosphere poets not only had an "interest in the matter," but cared
deeply about what happened to Janet Kenny. At least one moderator resigned over
what happened. I was informed by an insider that other poets went on a general strike, which seems to have been
short-lived. Here's what one member of Eratosphere said about the banning:
Janet Kenny has been banned ... And it stinks to high heaven. Frankly, the
events that led up to the banning were not only exceedingly minor, but Janet
wasn't even really in the wrong. She isn't a troll. She isn't malicious. She's
been a long-time contributor here who has been a mainstay of this site. The ban
is vindictive and unjustified, and the powers that be not only should have known
that we would find out, but really should have guessed that this wouldn't go
over well. Rescind the ban now!
The hubris of Pepple's "salvage some dignity" is palpable. Eratosphere did not
confer any dignity on me when I became a member, nor did I need to "salvage" any
"dignity" when I was banned for speaking my mind truthfully. What Pepple deems
"rule breaking antics" are in some cases just mature poets pointing out the
immaturity, cruelty, irrationality and lack of courtesy of some of the
"critiques" posted by senior members of the group, including those of certain
moderators. He can pretend to hold the high ground, but what he said above is
effectively, "Shut up and don't dare discuss anything publicly that we tell you
not to discuss." I was banned after speaking on my own website. What sort of
literary Gestapo punishes poets for speaking their minds on their own websites?
Here's what other poets have said online about Eratosphere's
heavy-handed attempts to curtail free speech:
The Never-again-to-be-mentioned-forever-banned-henceforth-from-that-place are
Since the start of the year I've been a member of Eratosphere, where the
rules are so excruciatingly stringent that it's hard to break myself away from
it ... Since I've sided with members who are currently
banned, my PM rights have been revoked.—IJR
... Janet Kenny on Eratosphere – who has been posting there eight years and
fell victim to real unfairness by the ego-mad mods for no reason other than
being an eloquent artist. She lives in the outback of Australia and is an opera
singer and poet who has sung with the best in the world: a real, genuine artist.
She is not a big name, but all on Eratosphere think she is great and can’t work
out why she got banned, but as these chat gaffes are based on fear, hence no one
taking it to the max.—DS
I have just recently taken a little jaunt through the hallowed halls of
Eratosphere ... Strangely
enough, I never received a single constructive comment about the posted poem,
[only] plenty of vague insinuations about my lack of poetic ability, all this on
a site which suggests it promotes metric verse, and I thought I had posted a
pretty bog standard example of iambic tetrameter ... I am in no way
blaming the two moderators I encountered ... they seemed well
meant and obviously had the integrity of the site at heart. They suggested that
I should move on, a move that I of course resisted; they then locked my poem
from further comment. I was at this point I suspect, starting to become too
popular (intriguing to those with a morbid interest in the mutilation of one's
character) and was attracting an embarrassing amount of comment ... I would not like anyone
to think that I have a bias towards the site, far from it; I think that it's
commendable that such a site attempts to promote a form of metrical poetry ... The first thing that one becomes aware
of, in acquiring the dubious benefit of
that hard-earned and coveted membership of Eratosphere's elite band of aspiring
poets, is the long and seemingly endless lists of does and don'ts ... Any reference to traditional
poetic modes of address are distinctly frowned upon, as are any words not
considered in the current vogue; how they know all this without themselves being
master linguists, is something I have yet to ascertain ... However, that does
not stop one questioning the implied authority ... I would however like to say that there are some excellent poets on
Eratosphere. One such poet is John Whitworth, a bit of a lad whose looks belies
his age and who was apparently brought up in the relatively easy and stable
years after WWII in Auld Reekie, of all places. He is, I believe, though we never
spoke to each other that I can recall, a moderator on Eratosphere. However,
it was with some delight that I discovered that John does write some exceedingly
good poetry, with a style that is hard to qualify, and which I think may be due at
some stage to receive the ultimate accolade of the Whitworth style of poetry. It
is this style of poetry, which gives one a feeling that not all is lost in the
ranks of British poetry. Despite the advice that I was earnestly implored to consider, which was to
read lots of American contemporary poetry, I think after due consideration, I
would be inclined to ignore that advice, and admit to being quite happy to
acquaint myself further with the poetry of John Whitworth.—comments online by a poet who calls himself "Mor"