An interview with X. J. Kennedy

In honor of April, National Poetry Month, poems and poets will take center stage. We spoke to X. J. Kennedy about poetry and its place in his life.

When you first decided to be a poet which poets and writers did you enjoy reading?

I’m not sure at what moment I ever decided to be a poet, if such a decision happened. The earliest poets whose work I knew were Mother Goose and Robert Louis Stevenson. Luckily, I had a mother who liked to read aloud to me. I must have memorized a score of nursery rhymes and most of the Child’s Garden of Verses by age five. But it’s true, I didn’t start fooling around with writing my own stuff till high school, when during a study period in the library I met up with Louis Untermeyer’s fat anthology Modern British and American Poetry. I especially read and cherished the work of E. E. Cummings (doesn’t every youngster?), Yeats, and T. S. Eliot.

If  asked, what words of advice would you give a budding poet?

Some words of advice (said he, stroking his long gray beard): read, read, read, and be in no hurry to publish. It’s essential to read, not merely poets fashionable today, but the best of the past. Not that you have to adhere slavishly to teachers’ recommendations, but you want to read in both British and American literature and see which poets have something to say to  you. And you want to leave your finished poems lying around for a while, till you realize that they aren’t finished at all, but can be improved.

These days, which contemporary poets do you admire and why?

Admirable contemporary poets seem as hard to count as stars in the sky. But offhand, I gravitate to the work of Joshua Mehigan, Dana Gioia, A. E. Stallings, Dick Davis, Charles Martin, Bruce Bennett,  David Mason, Kay Ryan, Timothy Steele, David Yezzi, and many more. These are poets who still keep faith in meter and rhyme, knowing the power that those old devices can lend a poem, and yet they have fresh things to say about the present-day world.

People might not know that your given name is actually Joseph Charles Kennedy. Because you didn’t want to be confused with the other Joseph Kennedy, you added an X to precede Joseph. What else about you might surprise those who know your work well?

What else about me could surprise anybody? Hard to say. Is it surprising that I’ve written textbooks used my more than six million students? And two dozen children’s books, some of them collaborations with wife Dorothy? And a comic  novel that took me fifty years to think about, thirty years to plan, ten years to write, two to rewrite? (It’s called A Hoarse Half-human Cheer, and will be out this year at last.)

You’ve been writing poetry for quite some time. Over the years, has anything changed about your writing habits, subject matter, or style?

Over the years, my writing habits (lazy), subject matter (anything), and style (concise) seem to have changed remarkably little, if at all. I haven’t learned anything, just have striven to stay put.  One difference between the early work and the late is that nowadays I write more poems to a preconceived idea, instead of waiting for a lightning bolt of inspiration. Too bad. I kind of miss those lightning bolts.

Please select a favorite poem from In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus that you’d like us to share. If you’d care to tell us, we’d love to know to know what inspired this poem.

A favorite poem from In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus? Let’s say “A Curse on a Thief.” The theft told about in the poem actually happened to my nephew Paul, an inveterate fly fisherman, who had his tackle box stolen one day at Fox Lake, Wisconsin. Paul is a godly man who doesn’t drink, so I added the detail of the beer; and he’d never curse anybody, so I had to do it for him. The poem was also inspired by the wonderful ranting curses written by medieval Welsh and Scottish and Irish bards. It was claimed that some of those powerful poets could, just with words, peel the skin off the back of an enemy at a hundred yards.

 A Curse on a Thief

Paul Dempster had a handsome tackle box
In which he’d stored up gems for twenty years:
Hooks marvelously sharp, ingenious lures
Jointed to look alive. He went to Fox

Lake, placed it on his dock, went in and poured
Himself a frosty Coors, returned to find
Some craven sneak had stolen in behind
His back and crooked his entire treasure hoard.

Bad cess upon the bastard! May the bass
He catches with Paul Dempster’s pilfered gear
Jump from his creel, make haste for his bare rear,
And, fins outthrust, slide up his underpass.

May each ill-gotten catfish in his pan
Sizzle his lips and peel away the skin.
May every perch his pilfered lines reel in
Oblige him to spend decades on the can.

May he be made to munch a pickerel raw,
Its steely eyes fixed on him as he chews,
Choking on every bite, while metal screws
Inexorably lock his lower jaw,

And having eaten, may he be transformed
Into a bass himself, with gills and scales,
A stupid gasper that a hook impales.
In Hell’s hot griddle may he be well warmed

And served with shots of lava-on-the-rocks
To shrieking imps indifferent to his moans
Who’ll rend his flesh and pick apart his bones,
Poor fish who hooked Paul Dempster’s tackle box.


kennedy_RGBX. J. Kennedy has written poetry, children’s verse, and fiction, as well as textbooks on writing and literature. His most recent collection for JHU Press is In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus. Before becoming a full-time writer, he taught at the University of Michigan, the University of North Carolina–Greensboro, Tufts University, Wellesley College, the University of California–Irvine, and Leeds University. He now lives in Lexington, Massachusetts, with his wife and sometime coauthor, Dorothy M. Kennedy.