Poems in a Box—An Interview with Poet Adele Kenny

Diane Lockward

Adele Kenny is the author of several collections of poetry, most recently Lightness, A Thirst, or Nothing at All and What Matters which received the 2012 International Book Award for Poetry. Her poems have been published in such journals as Lips, Paterson Literary Review, Adanna, Ithaca Lit, and Ragazine.

Kenny is the recipient of two poetry fellowships from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, the first place Merit Book and Henderson Awards, a Merton Poetry of the Sacred Award, and Kean University’s Distinguished Alumni Award. She has twice been a featured reader at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival.
A former creative writing professor, Kenny is the founding director of the Carriage House Poetry Series and the poetry editor of Tiferet Journal
Diane Lockward: Prior to A Lightness, A Thirst, or Nothing At All, you had written mostly in free verse. This new book, however, features prose poems. What impelled you to try a new form?
Adele Kenny: Every time I complete a book of poems, I feel a kind of panic. What am I going to write now? What if I never write again? Silly? Absolutely, but I really do feel that way.
Somewhere in the middle of the panic after completing What Matters, I came across a copy of Charles Simic’s Pulitzer Prize-winning prose poem collection, The World Doesn’t End, and I was startled by what he did with the prose poem form. I made a point of reading other prose poems, some that I liked and some that I found ridiculous. I began to experiment with the form and found myself in a comfort zone that I hadn’t expected.
Not long after, Donna Baier Stein, publisher of Tiferet Journal, asked me to do an interview with Charles Simic. Discussing prose poems with him upped my interest. For the next couple of years, I wrote more than I typically do, all prose poems. Some were disasters that didn’t get past the trash bin, but others made a unique kind of sense.
DL: What do you see as the similarities and differences between the two forms?
AK: As a former ballet dancer and teacher, I’ve always been aware that poetry uses space just as dance does, so I was very conscious of the prose poem’s use of space and how different it is from other forms of poetry. Prose poems aren’t bound or defined by lineation in the way that free verse and formal poems are; instead, they use justified margins and have the distinctive box shape. But they do employ all the techniques and tricks that lined poems use.
The idea of a prose poem is decidedly contradictory. Poetry can’t be prose and prose can’t be poetry … but … when the two are combined, they form a new genre. It’s an interesting idea—a duality—shared qualities but wonderfully “other” at the same time.
DL: When you give a public reading of prose poems, is your reading altered by the form?

AK: I wanted the poems in Lightness to be densely compressed with a kind of force or pressure on content and sound, almost as if the words push against the justified margins and reverberate inside those margins when they’re read. In public readings, I pause for punctuation and between stanzas. I also pause when content, idea, or meaning take a breath. 

DL: How hard was it to give up “the line”?
AK: My poems fight with me all the time, but working with lines wasn’t a wrestle I had with the poems in Lightness. I was more concerned with combining complete sentences and deliberate fragments, using the language of dreams, and giving a nod to the surreal. I was acutely conscious of keeping the poems rooted in imagery and metaphor and of creating layers of language in which what appears to be abstraction isn’t.
I was also focused on the importance of surprise for the reader and for myself—if a poem doesn’t surprise me, if it doesn’t say more than I planned for it to say, it doesn’t make the final cut. There was a lot more on my mind than lines, and not having to think about them freed me to work unhindered by their demands and constraints. Line breaks? Nope, I didn’t miss them at all.
DL: All of the poems in this collection use the full width of the page. I’ve seen prose poems elsewhere that keep the box shape but do not go margin to margin and may even vary the width of the box from poem to poem. I’ve heard some prose poem poets argue that the line still matters to them. What’s your position on this?
AK: If you give up the line, give it up completely! When I’ve sent poems from the collection to individual journals, I’ve always noted that the margins aren’t (pardon the cliché) “written in stone.” As long as the margins are fully justified and the poems maintain a box/rectangle shape, I’m good with that. When my publisher sent the manuscript for Lightness to his designer, it was understood that she would attend to the aesthetics of how the poems appear but that the number of words in each line didn’t matter as long as the margins were justified.
DL: Do you see this book as a departure from, or a continuation of, What Matters?
AK: Lightness definitely continues the journey begun in What Matters and takes it to another (I hope higher) level. What Matters tracks a spiritual journey that began with a diagnosis of breast cancer back in 1998. It’s not about the illness, but, rather, about the conditions of survival, not only my own but anyone’s. We’re all survivors of one thing or another (grief, fear, illness, the loss of loved ones). The individual details may be different, but we’re all survivors, and we’re not alone.
Lightness picks up that thread and moves it forward into other spiritual awarenesses. I love this Aldous Huxley quote, which speaks to what Lightness is about: “The spiritual journey does not consist in arriving at a new destination where a person gains what he did not have, or becomes what he is not. It consists in the dissipation of one’s own ignorance concerning one’s self and life, and the gradual growth of that understanding which begins the spiritual awakening.”
DL: Some of the poems, for example, “The Silence After” and “Oh, Leonardo,” are broken into stanzas. Or do you call those divisions “paragraphs”? Is there a difference?

AK: I call them stanzas, and they do function in much the same way that paragraphs function in prose. None of those breaks was made frivolously—sometimes they’re there to give readers a chance to pause and reflect on the previous stanza, sometimes they indicate a change in tone, sometimes they suggest silence, other times they give the poem a chance to move in an entirely new direction.

DL: I’d like to look more specifically now at some of the poems in the collection. I notice that you’ve freely used parentheses and dashes in a number of the poems. Let’s take a look at “That Should Have Been”:
Insistent the distant rain, and what between us? Was it that morning (the blue of that morning), the symmetry of left and right—one, two, one, two? Or dead leaves—the way they clung to our shoes and walked with us over the patched gravel? No, and no—nor was it the sky (thunder-colored), the tulip tree beating with wings (me lost in my own absence). It wasn’t the way night fell in empty rooms, the way air moved in the space behind you—all the small givens. I said you were right, that should have been enough.
Here you use parentheses three times and dashes four times. Talk to us about the function of both.
AK: In this poem, as well as in others, my use of parentheses and dashes was initially organic—I tend to think and speak in parentheses and dashes and didn’t consider either until after they were written into the poems and I noticed how many there are. That said, it’s always been important to me to create space for my poems to breathe—a sense of “air” within and around them.
After noticing the way parentheses and dashes happened in these poems and how they created air and space, I worked on them more deliberately—the parentheses to buttress both the density and what whispers in the poems, the dashes to suspend or propel movement.
DL: The fusion of story and dream is a dominant motif of this book. A good example occurs in “So Much Life”:
The girl who killed herself, her dog, and son speaks to me. She tells me that this death is only sleep. I’m not sure what she means by this—what other death? I stand above her grave, not knowing if there even is a grave (a place to put her—perhaps just ash, the newspapers didn’t say); but, no, I see her face. Her lips move before the words: So much life, she says, is dead before the body follows. She looks at me through stippled eyes and, reaching up, she trims the moon with pinking shears. Light, unraveled, falls (a perfect circle) around the dog beside her—the dog’s spirit scratches its jaw. I don’t know how she came to be inside my dream or why she haunts me—I barely knew her. From my front porch, I see the house in which she lived—the storm door open. Snow that is ice, that is glass, covers the lawn; the lawn splinters and cracks.
What does the dream element allow you to do that the story alone would not allow? What was your intention in making the fusion?

AK: In this particular poem, as in some of the others, the dream was real and very much a part of the story. To know that a former neighbor killed herself, her son, and her dog was tremendously disturbing, incomprehensible in many ways. The dream element allowed me to use visual imagery from the subconscious with no intention of logical comprehension. The fusion of story and dream stands on what André Breton called “the actual functioning of thought.” Bringing story and dream together produced a measure of emotional/spiritual closure for me. I think of this as a “therapy poem.”

DL: Your critics have often praised your use of imagery. Each time I read “So Much Life” I feel shattered by the detail of the storm door and the closing image of the icy lawn as broken glass. How did you arrive at that telling detail and that stunning image?
AK: Imagery has always been for me the most important part of writing poetry, closely followed by sonic impression. These are the engines that power my poems. If anything, they became even more imperative in the prose poems. “So Much Life” knows how, for months after the tragedy, I found myself looking up the street toward that house. No one lived there anymore, and there was a sense of emptiness about the place that went far beyond the absence of people.
The storm door was open for a long time and ultimately hung from one hinge. There was something so chilling about it that the poem began to take form with the door image—nothing in writing, but a haunting impression that looked for a poem to “speak” it.
The dream and its particular details came one night after I walked up my street and stood outside the house for a long time—it was winter and bitterly cold. When I went home and finally slept, the icy lawn shattered into glass in my dream and then, again, when I wrote the poem.
Today, the house has been sold and renovated; its new door opens to a green lawn; but my poem remembers.
DL: So what’s next for you?
AK: My muse can be fickle and badass; she takes three-martini lunches, vacations in the south of France, and disappears for months at a time with younger men. Sometimes I can coax her home with a bottle of Pinot Noir but not often enough. I’m sure she likes dark chocolate, so I may try that sometime soon. (Big sigh …)
I have no idea what’s next, but I have been working with ekphrasis. In fact, the poem “What You See All Night,” from which Lightness takes its title, is an ekphrastic poem based on the Magritte painting we used for the cover.
Other than a few new poems, there’s no focused idea or plan. Right now, I’m only a little panicky (pass the Pinot, please) and grateful to write anything I can (my delinquent muse notwithstanding).
Website: www.Adelekenny.com, Blog: www.adelekenny.blogspot.com
Diane Lockward is the author of The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop and three poetry books, most recently Temptation by Water. Her previous books are What Feeds Us, which received the 2006 Quentin R. Howard Poetry Prize, and Eve’s Red Dress. Her poems have been included in such journals as Harvard Review, Southern Poetry Review, and Prairie Schooner. Her work has also been featured on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, Gwarlingo, and The Writer’s Almanac.  www.dianelockward.com