Saturday, 2 January 2010

Poetry: Recommendations from 2009 (5 of 6) Luke Kennard 'The Migraine Hotel'

'The Migraine Hotel' by Luke Kennard

If I said this was my least favourite collection by Luke Kennard, I'd be paying it a compliment - it's still among my favourite poetry books of the last few years, and if we've become accustomed to his wit, his schtick, his tricks and the friendly licks he gives to friends, it doesn't mean we like them any the less.

For those who've not been keeping up with the Kennard career - having produced three books in five years, he has now graduated from inspired amateur to careerist upstart status, with awards and plaudits being thrown at his feet, which are a long way from his head, which is no doubt now very big.

It has to be big to contain all those characters he keeps on coming up with. 'The Solex Brothers' introduced us to the Solex brothers themselves, twin giants prone to public folly and private fine living. Then came the wolf, an ego of a hound who spends most of his waking hours urging his writer friend to write about him. He also dons more costumes than Mr Ben. (The wolf appears in even more hilarious, if ethnically confused guise, in the volume I am here recommending to you.)

By now, you may be thinking that's all very well, but what the hell has all this got to do with poetry. If you read 'The Solex Brothers' your question might have remained unanswered. Kennard describes his pieces as prose poems, but if they have antecedents in the world of prose poetry, I can't name them. They are closer to surreal sketches than Ponge and Baudelaire, but neither would exponents of 'flash fiction' recognise them as being such, although they possibly meet the definitions employed by editors in that field. A friend recently asked me why a particular piece of writing was a poem. I have resorted to saying because the poet calls it a poem as no other definition seems to contain all the forms contemporary poets employ. But for pieces like these, I've coined the term 'miniatures', as in pocket-sized nips of whisky or thumb-sized portraits., and suggest you do the same so that meme virus can spread.

Comic characters have appeared - and reappeared - in poetry before. Gordon Wardman's Hank character featured in every poem of two collections ('A Bit of Highcountry Hank', 'The Newfoundland Cantos') but was born out of his earlier novels, with 'scene' being as descriptive of the setting on the page as 'poem' and dialogue driving the language, the author's voice becoming another character in the drama. It is more difficult to imagine Kennard's cast of irregulars surviving a transition to longer prose form, but then much of Luke's earlier work was in the theatre with Pegabovine, and while I've not seen any of their productions, there is a footlights aspect to this trilogy that no doubt comes out on the stage when he is behind the script.

'The Harbour Beyond the Movie' sailed to media attention in 2007, being shortlisted for the Forward Prize when its author was barely out of nappies. Sometimes it's the taking part that counts, but this second volume came closer to more traditional definitions of poetry on occasions, some piece being arranged as verse, several staking claims to sonnet status. Try 'Chorus' if you're looking for somewhere to start, then if your head hasn't fallen off, try 'The Murderer' - he'll slit your throat laughing.

Which brings us to 'The Migraine Hotel' - sadly relegated to paperback status by Salt's financial difficulties - how we loved those hardcovers. It begins with 'My Friend' which may well be a transcription of Kennard's answering machine message - those of us who do our anti-social-networking on de-facebook have been taking notes. Many of the new pieces are longer and denser and need more work to get into than previously; having already been introduced to Wolf, his sequences are easiest to handle on first reading, now complete with poems within poems and footnotes. The sparser poems that follow offer the space Luke's writing needs to get into. The rondeaux 'Men Made of Words' proves to formalist doubters that if Kennard wanted to write like them he could; most of the time, he doesn't. Some of the longer prose pieces are slipperier than a skip full of eels but deserve close examination so take my advice, jump right in.

Oh, and Mr Kennard, if you're reading this - googling yourself again, been alerted by a blog cruising friend - and happen to be due in Exeter any forthcoming first Sunday, get in touch - we'd love to have you on the show. We could have a 'being tall' contest live on air - which I'd win but at least you'd get second place because Rachel would lose even standing on a chair - and you can reminisce about your performance apprenticeship in the Black Box.

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