Wednesday, July 29, 2020

With Luck, We All Become Persons of a Certain Age: an interview with Leatha Kendrick

Leatha Kendrick lives and works in Kentucky. She is the author of five volumes of poetry, the most recent one, And Luckier (Accents Publishing, 2020). She co-edited Crossing Troublesome, Twenty-Five Years of the Appalachian Writers Workshop and wrote the script for A Lasting Thing for the World—The Photography of Doris Ulmann, a documentary film. Her poems, essays and fiction appear widely in journals and anthologies including What Comes Down to Us – Twenty-Five Contemporary Kentucky Poets; The Kentucky Anthology—Two Hundred Years of Writing in the Bluegrass State; Listen Here: Women Writing in AppalachiaI to I: Life Writing by Kentucky Feminists, and others.

She leads workshops in poetry, life writing, and writing to heal at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning in Lexington, KY, as well as at workshops and conferences in Kentucky and elsewhere. She is at work on a novel that centers on sisters, small town life, relinquishment and adoption.

Review and Interview by Melva Sue Priddy

Leatha Kendrick guest taught in a few of my creative writing and English class rooms some 15 years or more ago. Engaging and organized, my students and I learned from having her in my high school classes. I also rubbed elbows with Leatha at The Hindman Appalachian Writers Workshop, KY, and The Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, Lexington, KY. We have a mutual friend, Ann Olson (, who sent me a copy of Leatha’s new book upon its release during these months of the coronavirus pandemic. It has been an uplifting, inspiring and engaging read for this isolating time. I was reading Elizabeth Berg’s novel The Pull of the Moon as I read Leatha’s And Luckier. Somehow they worked with and informed each other—but that could just be me and my luck.

Leatha’s readers, mature and young, will enjoy reading these 45 poems, divided evenly between “I. Home Fires,” “II. Broken, Various, Inscrutable,” and “III. Unasked-for Singing.” Her writing has honed deeper into the human condition with each new book, and, ever personal and real, she holds your hand as a friend who walks with you as you read. You might think I am exaggerating; well, not by much. Leatha caught my hand with her second poem, “Next World” and we walked from there.

            Tell an unborn child
            there is dancing here,
            a blaze of scarlet leaves
            at autumn, seas that whisper
            to the sand, vermillion rose-
            gold skies at evening,
            I dance, he’ll say. His legs,
            flexed, test a wall.
            I hear the ocean pulse,
            drift in warm waters,
            gaze on ruby skies
            bright and filtered.
            Sleep, dream. I know
            that other world—
            how it must be.

            Tell him galaxies, wind,
            houses, lightning,
            lover’s fingers, dinner’s
            warm steams rising,
            a flower. Yes, yes,
            he’ll say. I know.

Reading on, Leatha doesn’t gloss over the difficulties in life. In another poem, “How to Go On,” one line reads: “So much suffering. We cannot uncause it.” In her briefest poem, “Eviction,” she writes: “Most of what / I lost I took / from myself.” If that isn’t everyone’s truth! Her range of themes move through birth and death, order and chaos, finding and making home, joy and difficulties, and aging. General and very specific. And she conveys so much wisdom. Her skill with words is modest and fluent. And her poems are informed by what is going on in this world and what she has experienced in her lifetime. “Out the Door,” a sonnet, “stands / between us and the world”:

            It’s getting out the door that stands
            between us and the world. I know. Open
            the damn thing and step through. Broken
            promises are all that hold us. Plans
            we made and then ignored. The mess in the house
            we’re afraid will survive us. The quiet hours
            we thought to have. Access to the powers
            we felt as children, near in us, now lost
            to lack of faith. The only thing that changes
            is the heart. There’s the door. The dream
            kept the faith you dropped. Time arranges
            more second chances than they tell us. Clean
            breaks, old reservations waiting to be
            taken up.

The following interview was conducted via email.

MSP – The first poem in your collection that I fell in love with is your second poem, “Next World”. Tell me about that poem.

LK – The poem began with my trying to imagine the world from an embryo’s point of view. Imagining the sky, the “weather,” the sounds, the day/night cycles of it. An embryo late in its gestation might feel pretty certain about what life and the cosmos were all about. And then comes birth! So the poem is a playful, speculative look at the limits of knowledge. The poem is one of the oldest ones in the book, drafted in 2013 and published in 2014. And Luckier came together as a collection over the past decade, and “Next World” survived multiple drafts as the poems began to teach me what this book was going to be about. One of its biggest themes is limits: physical limitations, the limits of what we know and can know, and the limits of our courage and compassion. This poem could have been a first inkling of the book’s themes, if I had known enough to realize it!

MSP – “Reinvention” reads like a very coronavirus poem. When did you write this? Do you agree? What is it about?

LK – I first drafted “Reinvention” in July, 2013. For years I had juggled teaching and writing while commuting between Lexington and eastern Kentucky. As I worked on this poem I was clearing out the house we’d lived in for thirty years and our small place in Lexington as we downsized to the townhouse where we live now. It was another one of those times when I felt that I was never doing enough or being enough, and I wondered what it might feel like to simply stop. The poem is a playful response to my weariness with multitasking and trying to be all things to everyone.

I suppose that in the back of my mind were visions of a post-apocalyptic world in which we’d be forced to start over, though I certainly did not anticipate that we’d be living through a pandemic that would bring so much of daily life to a halt. I remember wondering what it might look like if we chose stillness. Many of us discovered in the silence of the lock-down a chance to reflect on what matters.

As in all utopias, however, human nature itself is the ultimate shaper of outcomes. To the extent that they can, old patterns of thought and being will reassert themselves, and the poem imagines some aspects of this as well.

If many poems in this collection seem fitted to our moment in history, maybe that is because the pandemic forced a recognition of pressures that have been building in our culture. For example, the opening poem of the collection, “Your Fear,” was written in December of 2018—not in response to pandemic fears, but out of my realization that our personal and societal fears are partly created and certainly manipulated by the headlines someone in some media outlet has chosen to present to us on a given day. I am conscious of writing to engage with moments of time in a broader context (on the planet, in our global society) as I age. I have my small sliver of vision about how things are – what do I have to say? what do I have to say?

MSP – Your poems include many questions, more than I’ve ever seen in any one collection. Can you tell me about that?

LK – I had not considered that the book is filled with questions until you pointed it out. Maybe part of that is a function, again, of age! I am acutely aware of all that I do not know and will never know.

Here are some questions from the poems: “What is the new?” “What did I want?” “What do I have to say today?” “What do I know?”

A question opens a door – it makes space for what I might not have considered before. Questions are about wonder – about taking a fresh look, taking a step back and saying, “Hmmm.”

At this point in my life I feel an urgency to look at everything differently, to consider possibilities. And part of recognizing what might be possible is learning to ask the right question—the best question to enlarge understanding. Ultimately, the poems are concerned with discovering what questions are important to ask and accepting never having a single right answer for any of them. And it is about having faith in the midst of the unknowable. As a writer, I want to come at the world with what Keats called “negative capability,” which he characterized as “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”

The questions in my poems point to moments of understanding, but they also admit the limits of what we can know. It’s about trusting not knowing. Facts and reason have a important place in discursive writing, but art helps us inhabit other points of view. I want my poems to be about learning empathy, honoring the mysteries of other ways of being.

MSP – “Poem for a Daughter” appears, scattered in the collection, in three versions, I, II, and III. You chose different forms for each. Tell me about these poems.

LK – The three “Poem(s) for a Daughter” were written separately and over a long period of time. Each had its own title, and I did not think of grouping them until I was well into making this book. As I chose which poems to include I knew that this collection circled issues of identity: who am I? how do I know who I am?

For many years, mothering was central to who I was. I wrote my first poems and essays about mothering. “Mother,” of course, is not a static identity. Each of these poems was born of a moment of transition as I moved from parenting children at home to becoming the mother of young adult and adult daughters.

The poems appear in the order in which they were written – the first one dating from when our daughters were coming home from college, suddenly independent and distanced from me. I had wanted that poem to be a sonnet, but could not get it into fourteen lines of iambic pentameter. I settled for sixteen lines which range from ten to seventeen syllables each. The uneven rhythm mimics my struggle to reach through the changing roles that separated us, though the poem settles toward iambic pentameter in the last five lines.

“Poem for a Daughter, II” is a villanelle occasioned by our oldest daughter’s pregnancy with her first child. The poem began as a villanelle, though it went through ten years of revisions (our oldest grandson turned 11 in June) to find the truest and most accurate words to express the layers of feeling I was trying to convey. The repetition and variation of the form – and the liberties I took with the refrain – reflect the fact that every pregnancy is both common and one of a kind, endlessly repeated and unique. From the very first draft, the villanelle had be the form for this poem.

“Poem for a Daughter, III” is a fairly new poem, drafted late last summer on a day that brought back the intensity of mothering our first child in a little house on a hillside in eastern Kentucky above the Big Sandy River during the worst winter in decades (1976-77). Again, the poem leans toward a sonnet’s shape and musicality, though it is not quite a double sonnet. Written on an August day that recalled the heat of our first August in that little house next to the church on Cow Creek, the poem speaks to an “all-at-onceness” contained in some moments when time feels as if it’s collapsed. My daughter and her daughter on the phone talking about a smelly mess made by a broken washer brought back those diaper pails of forty years ago, as if they were not gone at all. Were they truly gone? How can everything be both here and not here at the same time?

MSP – You include about ten sonnets in the book, five of what I call “”very free verse poems” (pages 7, 27, 35,39, & 50—you may have a different name?), and two prose poems, and at least one villanelle, one ode and one triolet. Can you say something about how you know when a poem should be a particular form.

LK – As I was saying about the “Poem for a Daughter” villanelle earlier, sometimes a form suggests itself and sustains layers of meaning in a poem. Form, allows me to play with words and step outside my normal phrasing and thought patterns. Far from constricting expression, form is a vehicle for discoveries as I write a poem.

Fixed forms – like the villanelle or triolet, for example – offer a doorway into difficult material sometimes and other times allow a playful stance. “Dream Shop,” the triolet in AL, gave me a way to render a vividly recalled dream – the form’s repeating lines mimicked the stuckness of the dreamer, her self-questioning: How did I end up here?

Content pushing against form creates a fruitful tension that makes a poem more interesting – both to write and to read. Meeting the demands of form forces me to consider more deeply exactly what I mean to say. As Richard Wilbur put it, “The strength of the genie comes of his being confined in a bottle.” Pursuing a form as I write makes each decision conscious: every word and line break, the sound and rhythm of each line, the visual impact of the poem.

The sonnet is my favorite fixed form, a challenging and useful container. Though it seems counterintuitive, the sonnet’s rigid structure has been part of why it has endured: poets through the centuries have wrestled with, adapted, rebelled against, and ultimately made use of the form. It’s just the right length to contain a small argument with the self. Its fourteen iambic lines put a limit on how far you can go. Rhyme complicates and diversifies the conversation with the self, forcing me to find language I would not have used otherwise.

Most of the sonnets I write begin as sonnets, with me letting the form itself guide me into the content of the poem. Reaching for a line-ending takes the poem in unexpected directions and is very satisfying. It’s rare (and difficult) for me to revise a free-verse poem into a form.

Very free verse poems – which may be characterized as “astrophic,” or not written in regular stanzas – make use of white space as well as line breaks and stanza breaks. I love this form for its sense of energy and whimsy, as in e.e. cummings’ poems. I can deploy lines across the field of the page to set up another layer of tensions and juxtapositions. Lines can mimic the way thought moves – white space can say, “On the one hand . . . but also. . .” simply by where words are placed in relationship to each other. May Swenson is an influence on my use of this kind of form, and, more recently, the poems of Aimee Nezhukumatathil.

Prose poems offer a chance to blur genres – to tell a little story yet keep poetry’s strangeness and lyricism. They are (for me) the hardest form to trust. The two prose poems in And Luckier spent years in other forms before I thought to try them as prose poems. Now I try to make it a practice to put poems into un-lineated form to see what happens. Every change of form as I am revising shows me what isn’t in the poem yet – or what needs to come out.

I usually begin drafting free verse poems in a long unbroken stanza, with the lines finding whatever length seems to suit the rhythm of what I’m hearing in my head. Deciding where to break stanzas and whether open up the lines and use the whole page is part of what is, for me, usually a long process of revision that includes refining the language of the poem and paying attention to sound. Finding the form for a poem is the same thing as finding the poem for me—the form is part of the poem’s content.

MSP – What did you learn about aging in writing And Luckier?

LK – It’s not so much a matter of what I learned as what writing these poems allowed me to articulate that I had not found a way to say before. My poet self loves words for themselves, she plays with language and speculates and riffs on lists and sounds and associations, and in the process, she names what she feels, as in the poem, “Naming It.” Here, the aging woman claims her right to sing, “unasked.”

Writing poems –especially in forms like the sonnet (in “The Warp,” for instance) – leads me to voices I didn’t know I had. In “The Warp” I found images of rust and heat and slivers of light that voiced a wiser and more joyful understanding than I had articulated before. Through those images, I let go of the person I used to be and put away the dream of the person I thought I might become. These surrenders made space for the person who is and allowed me to embrace her in the poem’s last two lines.

Aging is a lesson in confronting limits. Writing these poems I learned that limits are best confronted with humor (if possible) and a big dose of self-compassion. The latter is not always easy to practice. Courage and optimism are also essential. Singing helps – and dancing, too, whenever and however you can. One thing that did surprise me was that many of the poems of aging took me to light-hearted places.

Part of the joy of putting And Luckier together as a collection was the chance it gave me, at 70, to speak back to the circumstances of my life and of the world. The part of me speaking in these poems has made a space for herself and claimed and filled it. When I teach a workshop or write with friends, we are creating and owning space for the kinds of understandings and delights and self-acceptance that making poems can bring us. We are doing it together, and there is joy in that.

MSP – Do you want to say anything about how difficult it is to have a poetry collection come out during the coronavirus pandemic?

LK – What I am most aware of is how many writers I know who had books coming out this spring and summer. Artists of all kinds – particularly ones whose art is performance – have faced challenges getting their work to its audience. Most musicians and writers responded by generously sharing work they would have otherwise been performing live over virtual platforms. We’ve had extraordinary online access to all kinds of art these past months!

Platforms like FaceBook and YouTube and Zoom have allowed us to get our work heard. In one way, it’s been an amazing thing to reach people around the world this way. Despite the potential reach of a virtual event, however, the trade-off is a loss of the energy and spontaneity of an in-person reading, not to mention the serendipitous conversations and connections that happen at live events. Like my other writing friends with new books, I had scheduled readings and local and regional events beginning in April and throughout most of the year. All but a couple of these have been cancelled – and those will be virtual.

It is more important than ever to talk to each other about books that came out during these months of social isolation. Sharing poems on social media and in email and Zoom conversations, writing reviews (even brief ones in social media posts), attending virtual readings, and buying books (from local booksellers if possible) are vital to sustain and support each other. Podcasts, blog posts, and interviews (like this one you are doing – thank you!) keep us aware of new books we can come to love. These days I am more aware of and grateful for the many ways we stay connected as artists.

 *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Leatha Kendrick’s title poem comes in response to a quote from Walt Whitman: All goes onward and outward nothing collapses, / And to die is different from what any one is supposed, and luckier.” This blog is always a a virtual event, and I thank Leatha for working this interview in, around all the everyday events that yank us up and sooth us down, especially during the coronavirus epidemic. I’ll give Leatha the last word, from “There Was a Door”:

     What do I have to say today?
             Only Oh and Oh and Oh
     let me cross my own boundary
              open the door—

Melva Sue Priddy, a native Kentuckian, earned degrees in English/Education from Berea College and The University of Kentucky, before earning an MFA. Her poems witness survivance and growth, bringing to light truths that arise out of felt experience. In addition to poems, she creates gardens, quilts, and some rustic woodwork. Her poetry can be found in ABZ, Accents Publishing’s LexPoMo, Blood Lotus, The Louisville Review, Poet Lore, Motif Anthologies, The Single Hound, and Still.


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