Imaginary Toads: IV – Kenneth Fea (2001)

David Howard, ed.: Complete with Instructions (2001)

IV – A Conversation with Kenneth Fea

I am in a madhouse & quite forget your name and who you are you must excuse me for I have nothing to communicate or tell of & why I am shut up I dont know I have nothing to say so I conclude
yours respectfully John Clare.

Kenneth Fea: on what is not (1999)

A former lecturer in Physics at Canterbury University, Kenneth Fea has published extensively (both poetry and short stories) in periodicals here and abroad. His recent book of poems is entitled:
  • on what is not. Christchurch: Sudden Valley Press, 1999.

What would you say your poetic project was? I realise that that’s a very leading question.

It’s impossible to answer. If I knew, I would stop writing poetry.

You could answer metaphorically.

Well, there’s a sort of Zen element there – by painting a picture in words, to show the emptiness that lies behind appearances. At the same time, enabling the appearances to be seen that much more sharply. That’s tricky too, isn’t it? Do the words express appearances – or perceptions? I feel rather strongly that languages exist for the presentation of perceptions. The language is already giving us this in simple, unpoetic form, if you see what I mean. I’ve dabbled, from time to time, in Language poetry – which is a very stupid term.

I tend to shy away from poems in the first person. If I wanted to sound critical I suppose I’d call it confessional. There are some poets – Francis Ponge, for example – who are very thing oriented, but there aren’t too many New Zealand poets who look at writing in that way. There is some New Zealand poetry, some of the more landscapey, where the actual scene itself has taken over and is the centre of interest. Generally the poet always has to be there, either painting the picture or looking at it.
the pier

hearing another’s tread or
perhaps this other hearing
yours on the boards of the
iron pier that reaches out
across a bright and almost
flat sea under an overcast
sky when you stop it stops
and when you go on it will
follow doubling your steps
an indeterminate period of
time marked by the passage
or regularly spaced wooden
white painted benches each
with an edwardian gas lamp
until at last you an your
(imagined?) unknown arrive
at your destination that’s
to say before you seems to be
only light and you lean
on the gull spattered rail
your gaze gradually pulled
down by the small incoming
waves which after a little
while produce the illusion
of motion of travelling on
but now silently and alone

I feel uncomfortable when poets get keen on researching their origins. It’s an awful lot of emotion to bring under control. I’ve spent quite a bit of time working over childhood memories, and I’ve come to the conclusion that when you really get down to the business of dealing with early memories you just have to abandon the idea that the memory is going to survive.

You make it into a story, with a beginning, middle, and end?

Especially when you’re turning it into poetry. That’s also my problem with confessional and first person writing – it’s probably not true of all of it – but I usually feel that there’s too much energy behind the poem. Not enough has been spent on taking it all apart and putting it together – on construction. When I do violence to my old memories they seem to work very much better as poetry.

I could see that as a Physicist’s view.

There is something in it – the physical scientist taking the whole muddle and mess and setting up experiments from which you can actually get a result, but I don’t think that’s entirely it. A factor as interesting, an aspect I’ve often talked about to students in evening classes, is this whole business of what was the motivation behind a short story or a poem. It usually starts off with something very personal, but then the energy switches over into something quite different, something structural. It’s weird creating art out of sound and light.

So it’s not just versified experience …

I mean, in performance it works all right, because there’s a lot of energy there already, a connection between you and the poet. However, if the author comes upstage and seems to be talking directly to them, the audience puts up a barrier.

Genealogy is even worse than other people’s holiday snaps for sheer boredom.

It’s certainly a very popular business. I suppose it’s a way of giving your culture meaning, trying to fit yourself into a bigger story. One of the first things I found myself thinking when I first came out here was: ‘One good Nor’wester and it’d all blow away: all the human overlay.’ It was really quite extraordinary. Everything here was so recent. Bang. It’d all be gone. Not that I mind. One good wind is fine with me. It’d blow away some of the rubbish.

You’ve been looking at the abyss so long that it’s started looking at you!

I discovered that a lot of my poetry seemed to be saying more or less the same thing in the same words. I think it’s not really probably the best way for me to work, obsessive repetition of themes, phrases, and images and whatever …

Many writers find it necessary to make a mythology of what they’re doing and where they are. Are you one of those?

Well, I am interested in how people mythologise themselves. Stendhal said that he was discovering himself as he wrote.

He also called the novelist a mirror dawdling down a lane, which I guess means that the poet isn’t a mirror.

Maybe he should be: a mirror looking into a mirror. I love mirrors – marvellous things! – labyrinths, mazes … I have a poem somewhere about a candle reflected in a mirror, or rather, two mirrors reflecting many reflections of it: a candle in a hall of mirrors is a universe …

It is interesting to wonder whether there is a Christchurch poetry, whether there’s something in common. One thing Christchurch hasn’t really got is a guru, with disciples.

There is a creative writing course.

Of course, Rob Jackaman’s, but I don’t think he’s got a group of disciples who follow him – he isn’t evangelical in that way. Of course, it just happens sometimes. I’ve done a few evening classes on writing myself: not poetry, short fiction. I don’t really honestly think you can teach writing, though you can teach some aspects of it. If there’s somebody who’s really any good the best thing is to go through the whole suffering process, and become more and more honest with yourself.

I remember once someone saying about one of David Gregory’s poems: ‘Well, it could just as easily have ended there.’ David replied with a little verse that ended, ‘Yes, but I didn’t have the courage to kick away the chair.’

If somebody else does it for you, you never did have the courage.

However well you’ve succeeded in having an original idea, or image, or intention; to whatever degree made a unit, a thing, another self; that’s the most difficult thing: actually destroying the memories. You’ll never get them back.

As the writer you always have a certain knowledge of the thing you want to convey. You put it down on paper, then you cut more and more out. It’s marvellous to start hacking bits out, but while you’re happily cutting off bits that you yourself don’t need, the reader still might. Very often when I’ve finally typed something up in a reasonable form, I think ‘No.’ I’ve had the experience of seeing how much better it can be if I wait.

Of course, being in print doesn’t make it final.

No, but it’s in a sense once it’s been submitted and accepted, you’re more reluctant to tamper with it. I’ve got to the point now where I don’t care if it’s nearly right, if it’s ninety percent there. That ten percent is important. It can spoil all the rest.

I have quite an allergy to thing like adjectives and adverbs. I don’t mind being called a formalist and a minimalist. The nice thing about French is that, by and large, you can start off with a noun, then the adjectives flow in the way your perceptions would follow. Whereas, in English, you start off with a whole series of adjectives.

We keep ourselves in suspense.

I use the French forms quite unashamedly (I hope I don’t overdo it): a noun followed by one or two adjectives – as in Claude Simon’s prose.

Do you use the article?

Sometimes. Sometimes not. I rather like the second person: the ‘you’ – especially in a poem that contains only you.

Avoiding the I is nice. The third person is very objectifying. Also it can look rather affected calling what is obviously really ‘I,’ ‘he.’

Michel Butor wrote that very early novel of his, La Modification, entirely in the second person. It’s in all three tenses, but you can feel that he was working awfully hard to keep it going. I was very intrigued by all those nouveau roman experiments in the sixties: Robert Pinget, Alain Robbe-Grillet. Later on I felt I could make use of some of the techniques I discovered there, in my poetry, my prose poetry. I do quite a bit of translation, mainly from French. Even apparently quite straightforward prose is so difficult to translate. Occasionally you can achieve the same field of images, but even if readers see the double meanings, they still really have to go back and verify it.

I went through a phase of putting parentheses inside parentheses. You had to be very careful to check that the right number was closed at the end.

Otherwise you’d find that the rest of your life was in parenthesis …


Complete with Instructions. Edited by David Howard. ISBN 0-473-07646-2 (Christchurch: Firebrand, 2001): 41-43.

[1992 wds]

Complete with Instructions (2001)

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