Music Like Dirt
For as long as I can remember, perhaps before, I have been infatuated with these pecan trees. Mistaken their knots and wounds for eyes, ears, which, in this country, is becoming easy. Their roots will never abandon us. I'm enamored of the centipede, how its long fingers weave together like a favored grandparent's: ready to cushion our first falls, shield us from the emptiness of our futures. And I admire the squeaky black mole, passionately burrowing beneath the grass, devouring termites & maggots and other malignancies never brought to light. Is there life without the swoop and dive of the gull, its feathers glowing brilliant and white in the noonday sun? Without the reliable waves frothing clean on the shore? Let me stay here forever. Let the black sand and dogwood blooms sustain me. Let the night rest lightly upon my face, the cool scent of dew parting my parched lips. I understand why the robin does not leave for winter, its head dutifully cocked to the ground--listening. I am in love with the family cemetery. The green grass weaving an afghan of warmth for those grown thin with age. The live oak holds sentry--its roots reaching out, binding us tightly together. And I am not afraid when new monuments sprout from the soil. No matter the names, I am happy, overjoyed even. I can claim the calm and peace of the handcrafted bass or fiddle--the knowledge of my own distinct sound and range--my undisputed moment in this song.
Sure they can measure the speed of sound, light, just as sure as they'll know the split of Alinghi each time she rounds another orange buoy. And yes, the captain will tell us he could sense her desire for victory as they sped down the stretch, but what is the measure of that? I, lonely here among the linen and deck shoes, would like to know; just how fast does desire travel? Are my innermost secrets racing across space & time to finally determine if it will be you who ascends these steps to wait in line for martinis, place your wager? If you were to appear, I think I'd refuse to trim the main sail, jettison my desire for polite conversation, tack toward backstreet brawl. Without you, I'm unanchored, drifting down alleys, beneath the docks, where I'm followed by merchant marines, the perfume of smelt and brine--almost beautiful if there were moonlight. I'm weak and I've created a world so fragile that the boy with the biggest heart has fallen through the hull of my boat to the cold, salty sea where, if he could, he would take it all into his mouth leaving me soft sand to walk on, somewhere firm to set my feet, which is crazy, I know, but so is desire and what we do with it. And today, alone, I desire nothing more than warm seas and gentle winds to fill my sails carry me towards the horizon that is you.
The Known World
How often I feel all I could say has been written already or you've heard it from folks with enlivening accents or whiter teeth than mine--so why should I say anything at all? Sometimes though, I try to remind myself how that small white boat alone on the smooth blue bay is somehow more meaningful than the untamed meadow of umbrellas & bikinis kissing the edge of the water; or else, I think to remember how the chef, his kitchen twitching with fish, freshly ground cardamom, cumin, and coriander, still reaches for a finger of salt before releasing his steaming tureens to the table; and that should be enough--except that I know someone else who's craved your scent, your voice, your mouth before me--and done so beautifully.
-from New River Breakdown, selected by Guest Editor, Mark J. Brewin
BIO: Terry L. Kennedy is the author of the poetry collections New River Breakdown (Unicorn Press 2013) and Until the Clouds Shatter the Light that Plates Our Lives (Jeanne Duval Editions 2011). His work appears in a variety of literary journals and magazines including Border Crossings, Cave Wall, from the Fishouse, Southern Review, and Waccamaw. He currently serves as the Associate Director of the Graduate Program in Creative Writing at UNC Greensboro and is Editor of the online journal storySouth.
An Interview with Terry Kennedy by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum & Aaron Bauer
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum & Aaron Bauer: The first few questions I have for you are about your choice to write prose poems. What attracted you to this form? What does a poet gain by giving up line breaks? What’s lost?
Terry Kennedy: None of the poems in New River Breakdown were initially conceived as prose poems. It wasn’t until I started thinking about the book as a whole—how the poems worked together, who I imagined the audience to be—that I turned to prose poem structure.
Although I read lots of poetry, most of my friends and family do not. There are many reasons for this, of course, but I often find that readers who shy away from poetry do so because of bad early experiences. Maybe a high school teacher made it appear that there was a “secret key” to understanding a poem. Or their college lit professor marked them off for “misinterpreting” a piece. Now, when they see a poem, they immediately think of it as something they can’t understand; that poetry is something for academic study, not for enjoyment.
For me, the prose poem form is a small step towards easing this trepidation. It goes from margin to margin like a story. Readers understand stories. They are comfortable with stories. This, I feel, is one of the greatest gifts of the form.
I wanted New River Breakdown to appeal to an audience that generally doesn’t view themselves as readers of poetry and so I re- or rather, de-lineated the poems in order to push towards that.
AMK & AB: Short pieces of literature seem to be growing in popularity in the fiction and nonfiction worlds. What do you think are the defining factors of prose poetry that makes it distinct from other genres like lyric essays and flash fiction?
TK: This is a great question and one I’m still grappling with myself—both as a poet and a teacher. There’s a good deal of gray area here but I feel all three represent a writer’s attempt to reach an audience so we have writers of prose drifting toward the compression and concision of poetry while poets are moving toward the narratology of prose. These are just things I think about as a writer of poetry and a reader of flash and lyric essays.
AMK & AB: With no line breaks for clear demarcation, meter in prose poems can be difficult to identify. These poems all have a certain rhythm to them. What are your thoughts about using meter, pacing, and rhythm in the sans-line break prose poem, and how do you go about it?
TK: I feel that line breaks are just one of the tools a poet can use to create music in a poem. But it is only one. Word choice, syntax, repetition, etc. can all be used to create and control pacing and rhythm in both poetry and prose. Some of the most beautiful language I’ve read is Michael Parker’s novel If You Want to Stay. Many of his long, associative sentences count as poems in their own right for me.
AMK & AB: “Music like Dirt” is also the title of a Pulitzer-nominated chapbook by Frank Bidart. Is there inspiration from Bidart’s book in this poem? Do the titles come from a shared source?
TK: I’m glad you asked about this. There are several poems in the collection that, I would like to think, are in conversation with other great works. I chose that title—“Music Like Dirt”—in hopes that it would lead readers to Bidart. Likewise with “Train Dreams,” which takes its title from the Dennis Johnson novella.
AMK & AB: When nature imagery comes up in these poems, it seems to have a personal significance, such as in “Music Like Dirt”: “Let the black sand and dogwood blooms sustain me.” Why is there an emphasis on the connection with the poet and the non-human world in these poems? What fascinates you so about this link?
TK: As a poet, I’m especially inspired by the landscape around me. In “Music Like Dirt” the land carries the extra weight of family, of heritage. But like many writers, I find that the natural world is a great way to explore our interior landscape, to make sense of the emotional and psychological world.
AMK & AB: To continue on the discussion of the non-human world, it seems like all three of these poems use water references—boats, shorelines, waves—to discuss cleansing or significance in some way. Such as in “Music Like Dirt” where you write: “Without the reliable waves frothing clean on the shore?” or in “The Known World”: “I try to remind myself how that small white boat alone on the smooth blue bay is somehow more meaningful than the untamed meadow of umbrellas & bikinis kissing the edge of the water.” What specifically about water do you find so inspiring? Is your use of water intentional or something that reappears in your work subconsciously?
TK: Wow, that’s a great question and I’m not sure I can do it justice. Water is in constant motion; it’s both absolutely necessary to our survival and, yet, extremely alien. I’m lucky enough to get to spend part of the year at my parent’s cottage on The New River in North Carolina. Despite it’s name, it’s one of the five oldest rivers in the world. So yes, water looms large in both my physical and imaginative worlds.
AMK & AB: “American Woman” straddles the line between hostility and attraction: “If you were to appear, I think I’d refuse to trim the main sail, jettison my desire for polite conversation, tack toward backstreet brawl.” What does this approach to the poem’s topic of desire reveal about our motivations as people?
TK: I feel you pretty much nailed it, Aaron. Passion is that fine line between hostility and attraction. And what a great motivator in our relationships—and not just in a romantic sense. Think about the times you’ve had heated discussions about books, movies, sports teams. There’s a type of disagreement that carries energy and excitement--and it can lead to great and lasting friendships. That sort of tension in life is also a wonderful engine for a poem.
AMK & AB: What do you think is specifically “American” about the “American Woman”? And, more generally speaking, what defines “American” for you?
TK: I get a lot of questions about this poem. For me, the title works as a way of placing the speaker of the poem in a foreign environment. I don’t know that there’s anything especially “American” about her.
AMK & AB: Distance is also a reoccurring theme in these poems, such as the closing lines to “American Woman”: “I desire nothing more than warm seas and gentle winds to fill my sails carry me towards the horizon that is you.” Why do you think this preoccupation with vast spaces keeps coming up in your work? What does it say about human relationships in a digital age?
TK: I was living in Greensboro, NC and my wife was living in New Zealand when I wrote the first drafts of many of these poems and so, naturally, distance was a preoccupation of mine. But your question about what distance means in a digital age is a good one. We emailed and talked on the phone almost daily, but that’s not really the same thing as taking a walk or sitting on a porch swing with someone, is it? While the advent of Facebook, Skype, etc., creates a wider range of connections for us, in the end, for me anyway, it’s facade; the closeness we want is not really there at all.
AMK & AB: Finally, what is your favorite book of poems at the moment? What did you most enjoy about this work?
TK: My favorite book of poems right now is David Roderick’s The Americans. Earlier you asked about what defines “American” for me. I don’t know that I really explore that in my own work, but the poems in David’s book speak to what it means to be American and grow up/live in suburban America. It’s really beautiful.