On October 17th, Seattle Arts and Lectures hosted Richard Kenney in the Broadway Performance Hall. Kenney is a notable poet and University of Washington Professor of English. For the SAL event, he read from his recently published fifth book of poetry Terminator. This is Kenney’s first book in over a decade. His previous works reaped positive praise for his deft use of language and ranging subject matter, from evolution, science, and politics to poems about his dog and family. Echoing Ezra Pound‘s rapid fire imagery and W.B. Yeats use of meter, Kenney often pays homage to his artistic influences in his poems. James Merrill describes this style in the foreword to his first work, The Evolution of the Flightless Bird, “The poetic wheels just spin and spin, getting nowhere fast. But Kenney – it’s what one likes best about him – nearly always has an end in view, a story to tell.”
The Terminator is the line perpendicular to the equator, and the book is cleanly divided between light and dark, with the Terminator in the dead center. With meter ranging from abstract to strict sonnet form, Terminator also features epigraphs in the form of haikus, or as Kenney calls them, “hermit crabs.”
The event itself was intimate, clearly made up of colleagues, past and present students, and friends. People sitting around me were discussing Kenney’s early works, their first introductions to his books, and how their own writing has been influenced. This is clearly an artist who has made a mark as an instructor, mentor, and poet. Seattle singer songwriter Ben Mish opened with a new song, “Tortilla Moon”, inspired by the poem “Love Arrived” from the first, lighter half of the book. Rebecca Hoogs, Associate Director of Seattle Arts and Lectures and a former student of Kenney, introduced him by describing his poetry like stonewall building: “Each word as large as a harking stone.”
In his opening, Kenney said that the struggle in putting together a book of poems is complex and nuanced, “How do you mix the sugars and the vinegars; that’s The Terminator.” Kenney read a number of poems, intermixed with brief stories and his “hermit crabs,” from both the light and dark side of the book. The Terminator itself is “A meteor, both destroying and creating.” On each side of the Terminator are five chapters, which reflect each other in their themes of divination, science, and change. As he moved through the sections and shifts in tone Kenney stated “I write in verse or meter, or verse and meter; that’s the only apology we get for the corollary insincerity that is this work.”
Following the reading, Kenney sat down with fellow poet and former Seattleite Cody Walker to take audience questions. When asked about his own influences, and the way he has come to influence others, Kenney said “Most people write poetry before they have a clue what it is,” noting that he washed out of hard science just in time to fall in love with Yeats. When asked about his political poetry, Kenney said, “Satire is the military wing of poetry”; that unlike flowery verse about love and loss, satire seeks to strike quickly. There wasn’t time for many questions, closing with the question; “After all your time writing and inspiring others to write, what is your favorite kind of open-faced sandwich and why?”
“An Edinborough, which is a beer with a scotch.”
Poetry can be hard to judge, because it is so personal. Those unfamiliar with his work may benefit from reading his earlier long format books, as the tendency to build constructive devices shows as early as Kenney’s second work , The Orrery. This is the poetry of one that has had a lifetime to tailor their words, with avalanching broken, shifting meter and rolling, dense words. Because the event was so intimate, with so many of the audience questions clearly based on personal interaction, there was an inaccessibility in some of the answers. However, this event still maintains a well-rounded mixture of poetry and conversation. Terminator is available in hardcover now, and based on the little I have heard of it, I highly recommend it; this is a poet who can cleanly create reflections over the course of a long work.