Feature Poet: Lawrence Kessenich

Soul-Lit Interview with Lawrence Kessenich,
Author, Before Whose Glory
, by Rob Schadt

Lawrence Kessenich won the 2010 Strokestown International Poetry Prize. He has been published in Atlanta Review, Poetry Ireland Review, and many other magazines. His chapbook Strange News was published by Pudding House Publications in 2008. Another chapbook was shortlisted for the St. Lawrence Book Award and Spire Press Chapbook Contest. His poem “Underground Jesus” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2012.

Blue Yonder, Meditating With a Dog Named Vasana, and Walking Home From Work from the book Before Whose Glory by Lawrence Kessenich, Futurecycle Press, 2013

Who are your biggest influences?

Anne Sexton is at the top of the list. Her blend of spiritual questioning, surprising images, and often humor have charmed me since the first time I read her. Tony Hoagland is another huge favorite, for his honesty, simplicity and, again humor. Jane Kenyon is my new favorite. Her work has recently been very inspirational for me. I love the understated but powerful quality of her poetry. Note that these are all "accessible" poets. Though I have a certain kind of distant admiration for "language poets," their work just doesn't speak to me. I don't like poetry that doesn't give me a way into the heart of the person who wrote it.

What advice do you have for emerging poets?
Don't compare yourself to the published poets you love while you're still developing--it will kill your confidence. Just draw inspiration from them. You're not there yet--and neither were they when they first started writing. Published work is a culmination of a lot of years of practice. One of the wisest sayings I've heard about creating art of any kind is: "Mediocrity is a starting place." I've got folders full of mediocre poetry that will (I hope) never see the light of day. Writing those poems was a necessary step along the way--heck, I still write mediocre poems; I'm pretty sure all poets do, no matter how good their best work.

Which are your favorite literary journals?
I don't read as many of them as I should--it's hard to keep up and also read, or do, anything else. But some of them that come to mind, and that publish the kind of accessible poetry I like, are: Sewanee Review, Tiferet, Cortland Review, Atlanta Review, Ibbetson Street, New Ohio Review and Laurel Review.

What most inspires you?
Spiritual questions are at the top of the list. Why are we here? Why does this or that happen? What is important in life? Sensual experience is also big--the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures that convey the pleasure (or pain) of existence. I'm inspired by relationships between people, too--people I know and don't know--whether they be family relationships, casual encounters, or intense interactions around a particular event. Perhaps the biggest inspiration for me when it comes to any human situation is asking one of these two questions about it: "Why?"--about things that have actually happened--or "What if?"--about things I imagine happening.

What cultures or traditions have shaped your poetry?
I was raised Roman Catholic, so the sensual splendor of the Catholic mass--candles, incense, bells, music, singing, and so on--definitely shaped my consciousness. I long ago rejected the hierarchical culture of the Catholic Church, but the ritual, the liturgical calendar tied to the different parts of the year, the sense of the sacred have all stuck with me. I have to say that the handful of hallucinogenic drug experiences I had in college also changed my consciousness, helped me experience the world more immediately as part of myself. Then I discovered Eastern philosophy and began meditating at twenty-one, and that deepened my sense of connection to life, without the need for drugs. I also have a big, close family that loves to celebrate one another and life, and that consciousness is very much a part of me.

How do you structure your writing life?
My writing life is pretty unstructured now. When I used to write novels, I would get up early nearly every day and put in an hour to an hour-and-a-half, but I've never been able to write poetry that way. When I get an idea, I either sit down and start writing immediately, or, if I can't do that, I make a note or write down the title or first line that has come to me and go back to it when I can. I do write down possible subjects for poems when they occur to me, and lately I've gotten better at just sitting down with that list and starting to write a poem based on one of those topics, so perhaps I'm becoming more disciplined.

I also have productive and fallow periods. After a fallow period in the late spring and through most of the summer, I'm suddenly writing poems one after another here in the late summer. I have no idea why. But, over the years, I have come to accept the fallow periods as part of the rhythm of my writing life, rather than fearing that I wasn't really a writer when I wasn't writing. For me, it's different from the practical business writing I do to make a living; that I can just sit down and work on every day.

How would you define “spiritual poetry”? Can you name poems/poets you find spiritual?
In the broadest sense, most poetry is spiritual, because it takes human existence--needs, desires, feelings, conflicts, struggles, pain--seriously. In a narrower sense, spiritual poetry is the kind that conveys some sense of the transcendent, of there being more to life than just the nuts and bolts of daily existence. It recognizes something bigger than our individual selves--not God necessarily, but at least a powerful communal human experience that can take us outside of our selfish concerns, or at least ties those concerns into the larger concerns of our species, the natural world, the planet, the solar system, the universe.

As to poets I find spiritual, I've already mentioned Anne Sexton and Jane Kenyon, and, to some extent, I'd include Tony Hoagland as well, though he might dispute that. Others who come to mind immediately are: Jack Gilbert, Mary Oliver, Naomi Shihab Nye, Marie Howe, Franz Wright, Adele Kenny and Robert Cording. And, of course, most Western poets from a hundred years ago or more were religious, so most of them wrote at least some overtly spiritual poetry.