When I was in Bantry at the literary festival in the summer, I went to a poetry reading by Kathleen Kenny. I was instantly blown away by her humour, her deadpan delivery, but also at how moving much of her work was. Her reading was a festival highlight. I'm delighted to interview her here today.
Kathleen lives and writes in Newcastle upon Tyne. She is currently putting the finishing touches to her first novel and also her fourth full-length poetry collection, due from Red Squirrel Press in 2011. Kathleen’s work takes much of its influence from her Irish/Geordie background. She has given readings of her poetry all over England, Scotland, and Ireland, in venues including libraries, theatres, pubs, clubs, and galleries. She earns her living as a freelance writing tutor, and runs workshops throughout the north east of England.
Here's a flavour of Kathleen's writing:
Another Martyr for Auld Ireland
Another Murder for the Crown
When she comes over this time
Auntie Nellie brings Cousin John:
the young ginger one,
cute though because of the twang.
God love him, she says all the time
and after a while our mam joins in,
is back to talking just like them:
God rest her; Bless us and save us;
Heaven be praised.
For weeks after they go back
she’s at the front window
gazing out over our street
as if it’s Newcastle County Down
not Newcastle upon Tyne,
like an isolated rebel under attack
singing Kevin Barry to keep sane.
A big welcome to Women Rule Writer, Kathleen, I always love to host women writers here.
You use humour to great effect in your poetry though your subject matter is often serious – underage sex, suicide, displacement. Can you talk a little about this marriage of the light and the dark in your work?
I don't know how we get through dark times without humour. For me it's one of life's essentials. I was brought up under the influence of my dad's (Beckettesque) comic perspective:
Q) How many beans make five? A) Two in each hand and one in your mouth.
In the foreword to your collection Sex and Death, you cite the influence of your parents on your writing, both of whom loved to recite poems and Shakespeare. Your mother was Irish and your father was an Irish Geordie. At your reading in Bantry you mentioned your green front door and that it was like Ireland behind it. Did you feel displaced as an English girl in an Irish home in England? What has been the influence of this dual life on your writing?
The duality of living with two cultures is my curiosity's source. I explore this to comprehend my existence. This desire is behind a lot of my work: belonging and not belonging, the drive to understand. Come to think of it, sometimes, as a kid, other kids said things to us about being 'snobby'. I suppose at times we did stand askew from the children in the streets outside, beyond us.
Our family got that 'snobby' thing too - it's to do with being a bit apart, I think, a bit different.
Kathleen, religious imagery features in some of your poems, often in ironic, quirky ways. Is this an influence from childhood? Do you enjoy trying to make sense of all that through poetry?
Before she married, my mother was a nun. Thankfully for me, she didn't stay to take her final vows. Roman Catholicism has always been a colossal feature in my life.
You left school early but went on to gain a degree later. How important was this return to education for your creative ambitions?
I don't know if I could ever have successfully realised any of my creative urges without the benefit of that late education. The insecurities instilled in me could well have proved insurmountable otherwise. I doubt it would have mattered had I been middle class, but coming from Irish peasant stock, and the English working class, it was.
You now teach creative writing. For myself, I find teaching hugely time consuming but I always learn from it and enjoy it. How do you feel about teaching? Does it help your own work at all?
I agree Nuala, time consuming, and energy consuming, often creative energy consuming. But I learn so much from the writing groups I run. And thrill to see people develop their own writing skills, enabled through the craft to tell all the wonderful stories of their lives and imaginations.
I ask this question of all women visitors to this blog, Kathleen: Who are your favourite women writers and why?
Wow! That's quite a question Nuala, it's a bit like being asked what your favourite food is. You might say chips, but eating chips every day would make you sick to the gills. Still, I could eat quite a lot of Sylvia Plath before becoming nauseous. She does dark like no one else, but is full of passion, and luscious inventive language.
Of today's writers, Claire Keegan, is one who stands out for me. I think her short story collection, Antartica, is terrific.
Good stuff - I'm a fan of both Sylvia and Claire too.
Kathleen, thanks a million for taking time to answer my questions. I wish you the best of luck with all your writing.
Thanks for inviting me Nuala, may the road rise up to greet you.
Readers, you can read and buy more of Kathleen's work here.