Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Poets in Profile: Michael Kenyon

Share |
Poets in Profile: Michael Kenyon

This fall, poet Michael Kenyon has published his fourth book with Brick Books, Astatine. The title refers to a radioactive element with a second-long half-life, but in the collection, Astatine becomes a character, a mercurial Italian girl whose inconstancy takes its cue from the fleeting nature of her namesake. She haunts the poems' narrator, questioning and comforting, taunting and enlightening. The narrator is forced to confront the brief nature of life, and in doing so, to explore its incandescent joys.

Michael speaks to Open Book today as part of our Poets in Profile series. He tells us about rewriting T. S. Eliot, a heartbreaking octopus and the ego's small supper in poetry.

Brick Books has created a recording of Michael reading from Astatine, where you can get a taste of the collection in the poet's own voice — be sure to check it out here!

Open Book:

Can you describe an experience that you believe contributed to your becoming a poet?

Michael Kenyon:

A complex of circumstances. A boy, off from the others, hiking on the windy Yorkshire moors, singing sections from Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. A boy praying in the public school toilet that he would just get through the day. A teen sailing on the Queen Elizabeth past the Statue of Liberty at 5 a.m. on a May day. A young man sitting at a table, surrounded by books, in the suburban High School library, just outside Vancouver.

OB:

What is the first poem you remember being affected by?

MK:

“The Lake Isle of Innisfree” by William Butler Yeats. “I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree, / And a small cabin build there…” The only poem I have ever memorized. I was about ten. My gut still aches with those lines.

OB:

What one poem — from any time period — do you wish you had been the one to write?

MK:

T.S. Eliot’s "Four Quartets". And in fact I did write it. Or my version of it. My long poem Ottawa (Leaf Press, 2012) is an homage to the poem. My poem borrows from all the aspects of Eliot’s that I have loved.

OB:

What has been your most unlikely source of inspiration?

MK:

Perhaps The Undersea Gardens, a tourist spot in the Victoria Harbour, just below the Wax Museum (now both gone). I worked a year or two there as a diver/entertainer. I would bring out samples while listening to the voice of the commentator (girl in a sea-themed leotard) from an underwater speaker. “Wolf eel, sea feather, anemone, sea star, sturgeon — and the star of the show…” — an increasingly enfeebled octopus. The sturgeon and the octopus broke my heart, still do.

OB:

What do you do when a poem is not working?

MK:

I have pages and pages of notes and bits of poems. They all return when I whistle, line up and wait to be chosen for the next project.

OB:

What was the last book of poetry that really knocked your socks off?

MK:

It’s a terrible thing, but I can’t remember. I keep going back to Rilke, Tao Chien, Tu Fu, Shakespeare, Eliot. At this point in my life, I work so much with words (editing, writing) that there’s not much time for reading new work.

OB:

What is the best thing about being a poet….and what is the worst?

MK:

Writing is a river parallel to the consensus river that I am floating along. I can be there with an easy flip and roll. And poetry is the pebbly weedy bottom where everything is mysterious and in flux. I love being there more than anything.

The worst is obvious. There is no money in it, and not enough scraps of recognition for the poor ego to make a small supper of.


Michael Kenyon’s work has been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize, the SmithBooks/Books in Canada First Novel Award, the Baxter Hathaway Prize in fiction, The Malahat Review’s Novella Prize, Prism international’s fiction contest, the Journey Prize, the National and the Western Magazine Award. His novel The Beautiful Children won the 2010 Relit Award.

Check out all the Poets in Profile interviews in our archives.

Related item from our archives

Related reads

JF Robitaille: Minor Dedications

Dundurn

Open Book App Ad