I did a reading with Erik Kennedy recently, and because I always prefer to read poetry than to listen to it (lol come 2 my next reading please), I thought I’d buy his chapbook so I’d have a better idea of his style and work. This collection, Twenty-Six Factitions, is published by Cold Hub Press and contains 26 (obvs) pieces of prose poetry. All of the texts are gently constrained by the following rules: they must all contain a statistic, they must all contain a proper noun and they must all, even if subtly, be about mortality slash death. None of the pieces is longer than maybe about 200 words, they all comfortably sit in the middle of the chapbook page. The paper is thick, the font pleasing, it’s a nicely produced object and several of the topics in discussion interest me.
There’s a lot about architecture, particularly ecumenical structures, about the passage of time and about bodily injury and pain. That, I suppose, is mortality, innit?
The sections and pieces that resonated most strongly with me included the first line of the first poem, ‘Preface’, which goes like this: “Imagine a school of poetry about almost nothing and you have most poetry.” This statement is something I agree with, and my own forthcoming poetry collection opens with a similarly anti-poetic comment. To criticise poetry seems to be something that occurs often outside of poetic circles, but rarely within them. Many people who don’t read poetry don’t read it for the very simple reason that they find it po-faced, self-important and arrogant, which poetry itself rarely does anything to destigmatise. If poets don’t criticise poetry as a construct (rather than criticising poets or individual poems), then that leaves the space for criticism available to others, to people who criticise without the internal affection. It’s like how no matter how much you shit on your parents [when a teenager], you kick the fuck off if someone else does. You can insult what you love, but nothing is without fault and if the people who love poetry refuse to criticise it, then that inevitable critique comes from a less than loving place. “Don’t say anything bad about poetry” is a bit like you and your siblings refusing to talk about an alcoholic parent. If YOU’RE not gonna do something about it, no one else fucking is, and everyone who doesn’t love them isn’t going to not notice the stench of booze and body odour, are they?
Kennedy returns to this critique of poetry in a later piece, ‘The Symbiosis Variations’, which ends with the description of a “legendary creature: a poet who’ll say she likes your work if you say you don’t like hers.”
I’m not certain how to read the gendering of this sentence – is Kennedy (as a man) going around criticising women’s poetry, or is he merely using a gendered pro-noun as if a non-gendered one? I will [generously] presume it is the latter, as this “silent or praise” response is definitely something I have already encountered during my brief time spent as an active poet. There is the mutual positivity thing going on, this lack of criticism, and I think Kennedy’s repeated reference to it in this collection shows it is something he is aware of, too. To say that a poem is unsuccessful can be said without malice, but similarly there is the risk of discomfort, and – I think with poetry particularly – there is the very quick leap to “oh you didn’t get it” if someone didn’t like a piece of work.
“Poetry is something that is meant to be difficult”, many people seem to believe, and I’m not certain that that is either a helpful, an accurate or a remotely justifiable aim. People feel uncomfortable – and I myself am guilty of it – if they do not like a poem. “I didn’t understand it” is somehow more acceptable and more accepted than “I didn’t like it”. But why not “I didn’t like it because I didn’t understand it.” If something is obtuse, why do we blame the reader? Why does a poet get to sneer at people who don’t have the energies to be invested in a comprehension of their work? Why would I – or anyone – work to understand some language when there was little to be gained from it? I don’t believe that magic eye pictures are art, just as I don’t think poems are art that need to be studied to be read, like fucking Finnegans Wake.
I liked Kennedy’s “factitions” because they are playful, and because they question – directly in their language but also more conceptually with their conceits – the invalidity of poetry’s self-importance. There are some fun phrases in here, some witty language, and though I enjoyed how accessible and confrontational some of these poems were, I am more into writing that is about emotionality and physicality, rather than language and form etc.. I like Kennedy’s attitude, but his subject matters are a little too dry for me, a little too male. I think I have written on this blog before about only ever having “loved” poetry by women (with the exception of the Beats), and as much as I hate the generalisation I’m making that presumes a definitive relationship between style and gender, this collection again bears that feeling out. I don’t want to know what or how a person thinks, I want to know what or how a person feels.
Here are some of my favourite lines from 26 Factitions:
from the days of the last men in knee-breeches to the days of the last dogs in space
from ‘Australia’s Oldest Man, d. 1961’
burned books are more forbidden than forgotten, in the same way that the grey painting-over of graffiti shocks the sensibilities more than graffiti ever does.
By some reckonings, 40% of all poems are love poems, and every one contains the word ‘I’.
from ‘The New Love Poetry Will Eat the Old Love Poetry’
So, yes, to conclude, 26 Factitions is an enjoyable chapbook, but in terms of its themes it is less exciting to me than it is when considered in its idealogical stance. Nice, no regrets, innit!