Erik Kennedy and I have an interesting history. We both studied at Rutgers University, we were both writers in New Brunswick, and we both edited rival literary magazines. I edited Objet d’Art, an alternative literary arts magazine, with Melissa Wyse and Claire Henderson. And Erik edited The Anthologist, the oldest and perhaps most lauded literary magazine at Rutgers.
Erik Kennedy’s poems have appeared in (or are forthcoming in) places like Ladowich, Ohio Edit, and Prelude in the US, 3:AM Magazine, Oxford Poetry, and Poems in Which in the UK, and Landfall and Sport in New Zealand. He is the Poetry Editor for Queen Mob’s Teahouse.
In this interview, Erik and I focus on how New Jersey with its diversity of literary voices and aesthetics becomes an equally viable elsewhere for communities of creative writers and artists. We examine our formative years as young writers in New Jersey, our shared history of editing rival literary magazines in New Brunswick, and what it’s like to be American writers writing in English in the emerging and transformative literary scenes of Christchurch and Munich, respectively. Given the conversation’s local and international scope, the interview offers a playful challenge to the NYC vs. MFA model.
The Rumpus: So what was the New Brunswick writing scene like in the early 2000s, and how did it form you as a poet?
Erik Kennedy: It sounds so shockingly long ago to me because I started at the university in 1999. I found New Brunswick to be very nurturing. I’ll be interested to see what you make of the New Jersey creative writing “scene” during this conversation. I would describe New Jersey poets as being formed by two forces: the inward pull exerted by the two big universities (I’m amazed to see very fine young poets like Adam Fitzgerald and Alex Dimitrov teaching at Rutgers now) and the outward pull of New York City surely subject the New Jersey literary world to pressures unfelt anywhere else.
Rumpus: I remember that Objet d’Art organized a trip to the Dodge Poetry Festival in the fall of 2002, and we met Robert Hass, Billy Collins, Rita Dove, and Robert Pinsky there. We got to talking about the New Jersey poetry scene with Pinsky at the festival. We gave him a copy of Objet d’Art, billing it as the radical alternative to The Anthologist. Pinsky was delighted to receive it. He had been a contributor to The Anthologist and he remembered the magazine, its mystique, and the literary scene of New Brunswick quite well. In a weird way, the gentlemen’s club vibe of The Anthologist was a catalyst for our rebellion. We launched Objet d’Art in the fall of 2001, right after the 9/11 attacks. We wanted the magazine to be radical and alternative and experimental.
Kennedy: I had the unique privilege of being editor of The Anthologist for two years rather than just one. I think we were a little obsessed with the history of the magazine. It said “since 1927” on all the covers and posters and whatnot, and I think it might have held us back a little bit. Maybe we should have smashed shit up like you did. In fact, I don’t know if I did a particularly good job as editor at all, largely because I didn’t listen to people as much as I ought to have. Which I think, mind you, is something that I’m trying to be conscious of and bring into my editing at Queen Mob’s Teahouse now. I have learned—as if I’m running a poetry restaurant—that the reader is always right, and even if she isn’t, you damned well tell her that she is.
Rumpus: Absolutely. The New York–New Jersey metropolitan area is often jokingly referred to as “New Amsterdam.” That is, Jersey and the City are seen as having a radical, Calvinist, open-trade, and open-door vibe. A shadow of Dutch egalitarianism falls over New York and New Jersey. Both places are often seen as being very commercial and capital-focused, but the culture of Jersey and the City seems to be constantly renewed and reevaluated by an influx of people, classes, and narratives bumping into one another. It’s where the old and new, the familiar and the foreign, the seventh-generation American and the recent immigrant are forced to meet because people literally have to share the same sidewalk. And the very proximity of bodies being forced to occupy the same space creates an exciting kind of tension and dialogue between voices and values colliding into one another. So what do you think encapsulates a particularly New Jersey aesthetic?
Kennedy: I’m going to attempt the most New Jersey analogy I can devise. Maybe it’s like the Wildwoods, which, for people who don’t know, are a collection of seaside resort towns just north of Cape May, at the southern tip of the state. So there’s Wildwood proper, which is full of energy, youth, piss and vinegar, a magnet for revelers and revulsion; it can be invigorating, but, let’s face it, it’s also disgusting. And there’s Wildwood Crest, which is sort of family-oriented and sleepy and faintly pious (it’s a dry town and there are no rides or horrible game booths); you’re safe there, but are you really alive? And then there’s North Wildwood, which I don’t think anyone knows or cares all that much about; this represents the baseline, the semi-normal starting condition. These are the New Jersey id, superego, and ego that dwell deep within every native of the Garden State and, in their conflicting ways, inevitably energize such a person’s writing. Fair enough?
Rumpus: Fair enough. So who were some of the New Jersey writers you were inspired by?
Kennedy: I’m a long, long way from my Ginsberg days, aesthetically and socially, but God I loved him when I was a teenager. I admired his scholarship as much as his unhinged voice, even though I’m pretty sure he was wrong about a lot of things I thought he was right about, and right about a lot of things I thought he was wrong about. Some years after he died, in 1997, I started meeting people in New York who had real I-knew-Allen-Ginsberg anecdotes. And even though my love for Ginsberg had become a sort of warm regard, I realized that these stories left me in awe. Something was obviously implanted in me that will never leave me. Another writing experience that was important to me was… well, there used to be a summer program called the Governor’s School of the Arts for high school juniors. Every year, ten people in a few different disciplines (that is, ten writers, ten dancers, ten actors, ten musicians, etc.) got a month-long paid-up residency at TCNJ. When I was there, the writing program was run by a poet named Lois Marie Harrod, who isn’t as known as she should be, and Denise Duhamel was one of the faculty. For a high school poet, this was amazing. I saw Denise at the Best American Poetry launch in 2013 and thanked her for teaching me all those years ago, and even though I’m sure that I was a dim memory she was very gracious. It sounds dippy probably, but I think that program did as much to make me a poet as any set of authors I could name did.
Rumpus: After Rutgers, did you go straight to Princeton?
Kennedy: I did. I went straight after. Did you go straight to grad school, too, or did you do a stretch in the real world?
Rumpus: I went straight after. I did an MFA in Creative Writing. But I went to Seattle. During my MFA, I thought the aesthetic difference between New York and New Jersy and the Pacific Northwest was immense. The Jersey aesthetic imbibed the aura of New Amsterdam. There’s a diversity of voices in Jersey, and people tend to be a little bit more gritty in terms of their writing style. So in New Brunswick, I remember that other than The Anthologist and Objet d’Art writers, there were also, for example, the Verbal Mayhem poets, who are still hugely popular at Rutgers. Some of the writers from that group became part of the Nuyorican Café scene and others became the Mayhem Poets in New York City. In New Jersey, slam was kind of popular but so were other forms of spoken word, performance, and political poetry. And in the mid-2000s, the poetry scene in the Pacific Northwest was very interesting. In contrast to what I was used to, I found the poetry in Seattle to be incredibly meditative, nature-focused, and lyrical. And so when I started my MFA program, I thought the writing coming out of the East Coast was slightly more edgy and risky than that of Seattle.
Kennedy: Well, one observation that I can make in response to that is this: the power of one individual to shape a scene like what Rutgers had shouldn’t be discounted. Because I’m pretty sure the reason why—and I’m not sure if this is a hundred percent fair—but the connection between Rutgers and the Nuyorican Poets Café was almost exclusively because of Miguel Algarín, who now is a Professor Emeritus at Rutgers. He is a person who has had a spectacularly successful career and he drew a huge number of people into that aesthetic. These people might have experimented and gone in completely different directions if he hadn’t been there. So it’s not necessarily that there was a ferment of people longing to do performance poetry. But you get a critical mass around one person and that’s the effect.
When it comes to a university, that’s important. Because obviously professors, despite the best efforts of administrators, are still authority figures to kids who are, after all, still teenagers when they show up. So to have someone attract people to poetry in any form is tremendous.
I never took any creative writing classes as an undergraduate, so I took a workshop in my first year as a grad student. It was a toss-up between Yusef Komunyakaa and Paul Muldoon, and I took Yusef’s class. Yusef was an accommodating sort of chap. He provided an incredibly nurturing environment in his workshop but I would have benefited more from criticism at that stage. (I would probably benefit from more criticism now, too, but let’s not get carried away.)
Princeton had an environment that was very different from anything I had encountered before, because I wasn’t born in a golfwear boutique. You know, one of my close friends there was on a first-name basis with Joyce Carol Oates. It was literally, at breakfast or dinner, “Joyce this” and “Joyce that.” But I don’t recall being intimidated by the literary culture there. I liked it quite frankly. But I realized that it’s not actually usual that everyone has access to people who are in the TLS every week. It’s probably important to say that Princeton is in but not really of New Jersey, at least it never seemed like it was to me. It’s like that great old Ford Madox Ford title: New York Is Not America.
Rumpus: Now that you’re in Christchurch, what’s it like to be an Anglophone writer abroad? How are your experiences in New Zealand different from your formative experiences in New Jersey, and from your experience with American writing communities and presses?
Kennedy: I always suspected that I would live in the UK or a Commonwealth country. My father’s family is all Scottish, so I grew up feeling more interested in the English language as it’s used and meant in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, etc. (I was and am interested in the Scots language, too, but that’s a subject for another time.) Some of that is upbringing and some of that is a choice. I often refer to the concept of an “idiolect” to describe my pack-rattishly assembled lexicon.
And being in New Zealand these days is sort of a special case, lexically and poetically. Because obviously there’s a split tradition in this country—that is to say, far more people are writing in English than in Māori, but for the last forty years or so, there’s been a very conscious effort to come to terms with how the country has come to be as it is. So, for example, the term for New Zealanders of European extraction is “Pākehā,” and that’s a Māori term that everyone uses, not just Māori. So New Zealand is officially, legally bicultural, but increasingly the debate is actually on other terms—about not biculturalism but multiculturalism.
And I’m not saying that it’s a particularly searching, exhaustive way of looking at poetry here, but there is acknowledgement of the complex make-up of the nation and people do write about it and genuinely talk about it. But at the same time, coexisting with that, there is this strain of poetry that has a potent but genteel mid-nineties British aroma to it. And while that’s not the most exciting thing necessarily, there is strong work in that vein. So I find a number of things to interest me in the poetry scene here.
Additionally, I take traditional form very seriously. Whether I’m adhering to it or violating it, it’s something that I genuinely think about. Like literally counting stresses, not just waving my hand and talking about “flow.” The idea of writing what I want without constraining myself in serious ways is not something I can handle. And there’s a lot more poetry being written here that resembles, for good or bad, the sort of strait-jacketed British poetry of Don Paterson or Glyn Maxwell than there is (or will be for the foreseeable future) in America. I feel that it’s possible that I’ve been read more sympathetically here than I have been in the US. I should mention by name some poets here whose work I admire or who have been especially encouraging: James Norcliffe, Kerrin P. Sharpe, Ashleigh Young, Doc Drumheller… I could go on.
Rumpus: Just to draw a parallel. I’ve been living in Munich, Germany, for the last few years. And there’s a lot of expats here. There are, of course, New Zealanders and Brits here, but also many Americans who’ve settled into Munich. And there is a kind of English-language creative writing scene that’s being developed in Munich, not necessarily at the universities, but at bookstores, theaters, cabarets, and at literary hotspots like the Amerikahaus, Munich Readery, Literaturhaus, and so on. And a lot of people are writing in English in Germany, which is kind of surprising. Of course, some of these writers are Anglophone and come from the US and the UK, but a lot of Germans are writing creatively in English, many for the first time, as are recent immigrants from Greece, Italy, and Egypt. This I find intriguing. I encourage my students to write in their native languages. And some of my creative writing students in Munich are drafting novels in French or writing poetry in German for my classes, but many of these European or international writers are intentionally writing in English. I wonder if it’s because of the global dominance of the English-language literary market.
Kennedy: It depends what people are writing. Because if they’re writing poetry, “market” is probably the wrong word for what their poems are going to find. No-one strikes it rich writing poems in Basque, but no one’s striking it rich writing poems in English, either. I’d guess that for your writers in Munich it’s about participating in a large conversation. Or perhaps there is the hope that English, through its accessibility, will allow their words to spark political action, for the same reason that protesters in Istanbul or Athens write signs in English.
Getting back to New Zealand, another thing that’s going on here is that there are a hell of a lot more Americans down here than apparently there were even ten years ago, especially within the writing scene. Eleanor Catton, the New Zealander who won the Booker Prize two years ago, lives in Auckland, and her husband is Steven Toussaint, who is an American poet. His work draws a lot more from Black Mountain than anything else. That’s something that not a lot of New Zealand-born poets would have been particularly interested in before. This is not to say that Toussaint is precisely my kind of poet, but what he’s doing is definitely something that wasn’t always in the air in this country.
Rumpus: Do you feel there’s a conversation between your formative stage of being a writer in New Jersey to writing in a new community abroad now?
Kennedy: This will sound glib, but here goes. The condition of a writer born in New Jersey is to be a sort of émigré. You’ll often see, on book jackets, bios that say, “Grew up in New Jersey and now lives in X.” You don’t often see bios that say “Grew up in North Carolina and now lives in New Jersey.” It’s just not what people do.
Rumpus: Junot Díaz has this idea that being a writer in New Jersey means being part of elsewhere, rather than somewhere. And Jack Kerouac makes New Jersey the site of all things hip, alternative, and off in his semi-autobiographical tome On The Road. New Jersey becomes the perfect home, the perfect haunt, and the perfect site of departure for Sal Paradise. Perhaps one thing that Díaz and Kerouac are both trying to do with their writing is to revive this idea of elsewhere as an equally valid and fertile site of creativity.
Historically, many seminal American writers have roots in New Jersey, such as William Carlos Williams, W. S. Merwin, Paul Auster, Anne Waldman, and Allen Ginsberg. But Ginsberg started Howl on the East Coast and finished it in Berkeley. And poets like Amiri Baraka, Patrick Rosal, and R. A. Villanueva have moved in and out of New Jersey. As did Alicia Ostriker, Robert Pinsky, Yusef Komunyakaa, Anselm Berrigan, and Mark Strand. Some writers like John McPhee, Justin Woo, and Joyce Carol Oates do remain in New Jersey but many writers move on, sometimes to equally compelling elsewheres. Douglas Piccinnini is a poet and member of Objet d’Art who returned to the state. And other former Objet d’Art artists such as Reid Bingham became part of the electronic sound experiment scene in New York, and Suman Sridhar became a jazz-pop singer in Mumbai, India. So many of the writers we knew have moved out of New Jersey post-Rutgers.
Perhaps the aesthetic of elsewhere, in which people and writing scenes are constantly being challenged, burnt to the ground, and reborn, can be best summed up by Ginsberg’s take on the best minds of his generation: “who vanished into nowhere Zen New Jersey leaving a trail of ambiguous picture postcards of Atlantic City Hall.”
Kennedy: God, that’s good, Rita. Can I just agree without elaborating?
Rumpus: You may. So what are you working on now, Erik? Can you share a sample?
Kennedy: I’ve been working on a series of prose poems that are all constrained in particular ways. The constraints are these: first, the poem must have a statistic or a figure in it; second, the poem must have a proper-noun place name in it; third, the poem must deal with mortality, if only obliquely; last, the poem must be between about 125 and 175 words. But, notably for me, I don’t have verse constraints: lines and accents are meaningless in these pieces.
The reason that I’m working on this series is that I had a death-scare and I suddenly feel that if I get my fear-of-death writing out of the way early on then the rest of my career, into old age, can be dedicated to other things. If I want. Really, it’s all about the liberty that results from having fulfilled one’s obligations.
Also, I strongly suspect that more people would turn to poetry if any actual information could be found there. People like information. So by offering the take-away of a statistic and a place to think about, I believe that I have a better chance of attracting and entertaining a reader than if I just emote. But then this insight is coming from a person whose favorite book as a child was The Book of Lists, so consider the source.
I am using the working title of Factitions for this series, as I believe this nonce-word suggests “facts,” “factitiousness” (artificiality), and “fictions.”
Australia’s Oldest Man, d. 1961
‘At the time of his 100th birthday James Hull estimated he had attended between 3,500 and 4,000 services at the Molong Methodist Church.’ The fuzzy preciseness of this number shows that it’s hard to quantify faith after the fact. You might as well try to recall how many potatoes you’ve ever eaten. It also shows the dominion of absolute numbers over averages. Even the bigger figure tells us that Hull was in a pew less than once a week. Maybe we think that was normal for his time, maybe we don’t. But it no longer sounds like the achievement of a biblical patriarch. It is what happens if you live from the days of the last men in knee-breeches to the days of the last dogs in space. He didn’t say that church-going got him to 100 (109 in the end), but he didn’t say that anything else did either.
Risk Perspective Scales
Bitterest of ironies, I’m as likely to die reading my death-odds on my phone in a pedestrian crossing as I am to alter my habits. Related: it’s as probable that I’ll hang myself as be hit by a car (a 1 in 40,000 chance next year). The consistently under-rated threat is the self. Circumspection is the first casualty of self-esteem, followed by the will to change. What’s computed in an insurance office in Hartford takes this into account, but statistics are too white and flat to make anyone believe it. The occupational hazard of the writer isn’t being sedentary (which can be fixed with a standing desk) or being lonely (which can be fixed with a birdfeeder). It is advancing to work in chasms and swirlholes where no meanings are.