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Notes On Everything: An Interview With Luke Kennard
C.D. Rose , June 12th, 2021 08:09

With two books recently published – one poetry, one prose – the prolific Luke Kennard talks to C.D. Rose about house parties, Pavement and why male characters in books are always awful

Luke Kennard’s new poetry collection, Notes on the Sonnets, opens at a house party with a man claiming he can recite all of Shakespeare’s sonnets from memory (except number sixty-six, it turns out.) The books consists of 154 short prose poems, each one a response of some kind to one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, all taking place at the same house party over the course of a night.

Luke Kennard’s new novel, The Answer to Everything, opens with couple Emily and Steven trying to get their small children to sleep, having recently moved to an upcycled eco-estate. They meet their new neighbours, Elliott and Alathea, who also have two young boys. Emily and Elliott strike up an intense text-based relationship.

With a (lengthy) collection of poems and a novel out in the space of a couple of weeks (following ten collections and two novels over the last fifteen years), Kennard is a prolific writer. A few written questions for this interview solicited some five thousand words in response, on subjects including Hegel, Twitter, the Orthodox church, basketball, pubs in rural Somerset, The Fall, and Baudelaire.

“I miss house parties,’ says Kennard, ‘although it’s sort of a nostalgic thing anyway, isn’t it? Where I grew up there were pubs that might serve us but for the most part it was waiting until someone’s parents were away and having a house party. Then if you go to university you have this sweet realisation that you can just have a house party like that every night for three years, and I liked the fact that some of the houses were these grimy digs where nobody bought toilet roll, and then some of them looked like slightly distorted suburban family homes with mildewed conservatories: relics of some prior social aspiration grabbed by by-to-let landlords or someone’s rich parents.

“So house parties now are kind of references back to that time,” he continues. “I suppose one of the key differences is that it’s very cheap – you can turn up with some cans and then it’s a free for all and you can get into an absolute state and pass out on someone’s sofa. Within certain parameters, everyone can behave in ways that would get you thrown out of a pub.’

And how does that relate to Shakespeare’s sonnets?

“It’s precisely in between a public and a private space, you’re at home and you’re out, you’re free, you’re enclosed. And that’s similar in the sonnets: it’s outrageous what the speaker confesses to, gets away with saying, melodramatic declarations, self-inflicted emotional injuries he expects sympathy for. And a party introduces something communal, which is maybe a sly dig at the solipsistic or hermetically-sealed lyric tendency. But the sonnets are already pretty communal – the voice is obsessed with how it’s coming across – like we all are – and sometimes it’s very self-critical and apologetic, but more often it’s quite defiant – fuck you and what you think of me. The original speaker of the sonnets is a drunk guy at a party.”

The Answer to Everything is a more conventional work, though one which also (and like his earlier novel, The Transition) has a Shakespearean structure: two contrasting couples getting entangled in each other’s lives. “If you have two couples you have these vectors – each couple’s own past, their relationship to each other, and the stress-fractures in that, and then the way each individual impacts on the three others – it just gives you a nice amount to play around with, a lot of cards to shuffle into different order.”

Though the novel is ‘normcore’ (to use Kennard’s own description), a strangeness lingers around its edges. The estate where it takes place, neither city nor country, not quite a commune, and failing to be a community is “vaguely more occult-adjacent” he says. “I’d just seen the new Twin Peaks, so naturally I had this child-like enthusiasm for writing something in that zone between the real and the nightmarish.” This isn’t to give a false impression, however - the books are very different and reading them back-to-back is an odd experience. “I feel so different when I’m writing poetry and when I’m writing prose,” says Kennard, who worked on the poems in the long spaces between the various drafts of the novel. “I couldn’t do both at the same time.”

That said, there is one line which is used in both books: “Don’t be sad because it ended. Be sad because it’s going to end, ruin it by being sad and then be sad because it ended.”

The line “started as a tweet,” says Kennard. “I tweeted it and then recycled it twice. It does also point to shared themes, for sure. In terms of the characters they’re both full of longing and self-sabotage, they both point to that… I don’t know if it’s a kind of anhedonia, but that inability to appreciate the good stuff, and often that’s expressed through a distortion of some truism or platitude or received wisdom.”

Both books take potentially mundane elements (the house party, thirty-something couples having thirty-something troubles) and use them to do Big Themes: “both books are about love, fidelity, faith, yearning,” notes Kennard.

Faith, particularly, is a theme Kennard (who is Orthodox himself) deals with continuously. “It’s something I struggle with, quite a bit,” he says. “I really like the discipline of the Orthodox Church. I love the three hours of standing. The trying to concentrate even though it’s almost impossible. I don’t necessarily set out to write about a particular subject, it just comes in, ends up being something the characters or the voice cares about, and then you kind of introduce elements of your own inner life in building theirs.”

How much of you goes into the work? How much of that is really you, and how much is this guy called ‘Luke Kennard’?

“All male characters in fiction are warnings. Watch out for this kind of guy. He’s awful. You use yourself in your writing the way a therapist uses themselves: they’re not really supposed to be there, they’re not supposed to tell you anything about their lives. It’s not really possible. Extraordinary really, to try to remove yourself from that equation. You could write the most honest autobiographical account you could of something that really happened, but it’s still a performance; you’re still choosing exactly how you present yourself to the last full stop. And even saying, ‘I think these people I made up are interesting’ is a weirdly exposing thing.”

The Answer to Everything ends with reveals and reverses; Notes on the Sonnets ends with taxis arriving, the party dwindling, the melancholic sunrise, the hangover yet to kick in, the trip to the 24hr garage, and an odd fantasy about being in a band.

If he could be a band, Kennard would like to be Pavement. ‘I constantly have at least three of Malkmus’s lyrics going round in my head,” he says.

I don’t get Pavement, I tell him.

“It’s the flaws,” he tells me, “and that some of the most transporting convergences of melody and lyrics happen almost accidentally. I think what could come off as an off-putting irony or insincerity is, for me, just absolutely central. The only way you can get to something genuine is via going through that irony.”

And that, that way of getting to something genuine, is the most perfect description of Notes on the Sonnets and The Answer to Everything I could possibly think of.

Notes on the Sonnets by Luke Kennard is published by Penned in the Margins. The Answer to Everything by Luke Kennard is published by 4th Estate