Monday, January 19, 2015

Interview with X.J and Dorothy Kennedy with Doug Holder


Interview with X.J and Dorothy Kennedy
With Doug Holder

***** Introduction from his website.

 X. J. Kennedy  was born in Dover, N. J., on August 21, 1929, shortly before the crash of the stock market. Irked by the hardship of having the name of Joseph Kennedy, he stuck the X on and has been stuck with it ever since.

Kennedy grew up in Dover, went to Seton Hall (B.Sc. ’50) and Columbia (M.A., ’51), then spent four years in the Navy as an enlisted journalist, serving aboard destroyers. He studied at the Sorbonne in 1955-56, then devoted the next six years to failing to complete a Ph.D. at the University of Michigan. But he did meet Dorothy, his wife, and a noted children's literature author there.

He has taught English at Michigan, at the Woman’s College of the U. of North Carolina (now UNC Greensboro), and from 1963 through 1978 at Tufts, with visiting sojourns at Wellesley, U. of California Irvine, and the U. of Leeds. In 1978, he became a free-lance writer.

Recognitions include the Lamont Award of the Academy of American Poets (for his first book, Nude Descending a Staircase in 1961), the Los Angeles Book Award for poetry (for Cross Ties: Selected Poems, 1985), the Aiken-Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry (given by the University of the South and The Sewanee Review), Guggenheim and National Arts Council fellowships.  In spring 2009 the Poetry Society of America gave him the Robert Frost Medal for lifetime service to poetry.

I had the pleasure to speak to X.J. and Dorothy Kennedy on my Somerville Community Access TV show  Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer.

Doug Holder: X.J.-- you asked if you could introduce your wife—please do. 

X.J. Kennedy:  Both Dorothy and I dropped out of PhD programs at Michigan, but she got further along than I did. She has been a writer in her own right and a collaborator with me for many years. She has written a number of children’s’ books including: “Thought I’d Take My Rat to School.” This was the first anthology of poems about school for children. She created a whole genre of imitators. (Laugh). We have both worked on a book of children’s poems titled: “Knock on a Star.” This has been in print for 32 years. We revised it around the turn of the new century. Dorothy has written text books—she is partly responsible for the “Bedford Reader,” that has been read by more than 2 million students.

DH: Dorothy, tell me about your work together on “Knock on a Star?”

DK: Both Joe and I had the idea that children might want to know how poems are put together. So we illustrated the book, and we mentioned ways that forms can be recognized and used in the conception of a poem.

DH: X.J.—you were born right after the Crash of 1929. Do you think this influenced your work in any way?

XJ: I would be pressed to figure out how.

DH: Why did you drop out of the PhD program at the University of Michigan?

XJ: I had a tough job getting a topic approved for a dissertation. I wanted to write about Emily Dickinson. By this time I had a book of poems out. I looked at all the poets who were making it through without a PhD—teaching college as a writer. I decided I would try this.

DH: How do you view the academic life?

XJ: I have nothing against it. It has fed me and the family. People talk about academic poetry. Well—I never have been sure there is such a thing. These days, with all these MFA programs, there is a danger of a certain sameness. There is still enough variety that I don’t see a problem. Nobody agrees what poetry is. Free Verse predominates of course.  I have always been an old grouch, with my rhyming, etc… I have tried to write free verse but I got scared, and I wanted my security blanket of rhyme scheme back.

DH: Would you advise a young poet to get his or her MFA?

XJ: It won’t get you a job. It might help you eventually teach Creative Writing—if you have written something that anyone notices. The workshops that these programs provide, gives a young writer an audience. The writers are put in with people who are reading his or her work with more patience and sympathy than is usually the case.

DH:  You are known for your light verse. But as you know comedy and tragedy are closely aligned. But your poems aren’t just for yucks. When you write a poem do you have in mind darker themes?

X.J.:  When I am writing a poem I don’t have a theme in mind. I am just trying to get some words down. Some poems shape up to nothing but a yuck. But others go deeper –I like that kind.

DH: You exhibit a ribald sense of humor in your work.   Has anyone influenced you—your family—other poets?

XJ: Well, I guess it was my father. He was sort of the family poet. Families had poet laureates back then. They were expected to produce poems for anniversaries, weddings, etc… He did not have much schooling, but he did memorize poem he read in school. He could recite pages of Whittier’s “Snow Bound”—and many others. I guess all of this made a dent on me.

DH:  We all have had a love affair with the Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Harvard Square. They are now publishing your book: “Fits of Concision: Collected Poems of Six or Fewer Lines.”

XJ: Ifeanyi Menkiti, the owner of the Grolier started the poetry press. I am one of the authors in their “Established Poets Series.” I have been writing for over 60 years—so I guess I am established. Tino Villanueva is another poet in the series; he authored “So Spoke Penelope.” I am happy to see the Grolier branching out to publishing. I am happy to find a publisher for such an odd book as this.

DH: Certainly a poet with your reputation wouldn’t have a hard time finding a publisher?

XJ: Many publishers would look at epigrams as vile bugs. But I have always liked the form. The book has Haiku, short lyrics, epitaphs. It is a challenge to write a poem tersely. I love the challenge.

DH: You have a novel coming out, right?

XJ: The book is titled: “A Hoarse -Half  human Cheer.” It was based on a Catholic college I went to that became under control of the Mafia. The college was being used as a front for a war surplus operation. I have only written novels for children—so this is a first.

DH: I noticed a poem you wrote dedicated to Allen Ginsberg.  Were you two friends? Did you know him well?

XJ: I can’t say I knew him well. We exchanged postcards, and I saw him at some social gatherings. I always felt a kinship to him though. We both grew up in industrial New Jersey, and we both had fathers who were poets. Ginsberg’s father, Louis, was a mediocre poet most of the time. He sent out a lot of poems—and he was very persistent. Out of every 100 poems or so he would have a good one. When I was an editor at the Paris Review we published a poem of his.
 But Allen Ginsberg and I both had Lionell Trilling as teacher, and we both loved William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience.”  We had some things in common.

DH: Well since you are a strong proponent of meter and rhyme—do you agree with Robert Frost’s statement that writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net?

XJ:  Well—that is a nasty remark—but there is some truth to it. But I do admire people who can write in free verse. There is a small reactionary movement that is now radical who still adheres to rhyme, and I am part of it.

Impassive, to a tuba chord,
Faces like blurry Photostats,
Enter the class of ’34
In wheelchairs, coned with paper hats.
Discreet, between the first Scotch punch
And the last tot of buttered rum,
President Till works over each,
Fomenting his new stadium.
Fire in his eyes, the class tycoon,
Four hog-hairs bristling from his chin,
Into his neighbor’s Sonotone
Confides his plan to corner tin.
His waitress with a piercing squeal
Wrestles a buttock from his grip.
Dropping the napkins a good deal,
She titters, puddling ox-tail soup.
Now all, cranked high, shrill voices raise
To quaver strains of purple hills
In Alma Mater’s book of days.
Some dim sub-dean picks up the bills,
One last car door slam breaks a whine
Solicitous of someone’s health,
And softly through the mezzanine
The night revives with punctual stealth.

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