An Interview With Kenneth Koch
by David Kennedy
Recorded in Huddersfield, England, Thursday 5th August 1993

[Interviewer's Note: The following interview was recorded late on a hot August afternoon in the lounge-cum-bar of a commercial traveller's hotel in Huddersfield. As a result both interviewer and subject had to compete with early evening drinkers chilling out at the end of the working day and with the television news and sports reports. Kenneth Koch was unfailingly helpful and courteous throughout despite being clearly exhausted after along car journey from Ipswich where he had opened the exhibition 'Kenne th Koch: Collaborations with Artists' curated by latter-day New York poet Paul Violi. Kenneth Koch was also in England to promote his book of short stories Hotel Lambosa (Coffee House Press). The interview was recorded and transcribed by David Kennedy and then corrected and edited by Kenneth Koch.]

David Kennedy: I wanted to start by asking you to tell me something about your background - do you come from a literary or artistic family?

Kenneth Koch: Well, I was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. My family was not nationally known as being a literary family, though my mother and my mother's side of the family in general were interested in literature. My mother actually gave talks about books ever y now and then but...And one of my great uncles wrote a novel or two but I don't know of any very literary members of the family...

David Kennedy: Was literature a very early interest of yours or something you came to later?

Kenneth Koch: There was a form of literature that I was interested in immediately, nursery rhymes and children's stories. The first poem I remember writing was when I was five years old. I don't know if I wrote it down - I don't know if I was able to writ e then but I was five years old so perhaps I was able to write it out a little bit. It was a poem about something that was not true. I don't know where I got the idea for it. It rhymed and everything. As I remember it was: I have a little pony / I ride hi m up and down. / I ride him in the country / I ride him in the town. I didn't have a pony, I didn't want a pony really so it must have come, been inspired by some poems I'd read. And I showed it to my mother and she threw her arms around me and kissed me and said "O, that's wonderful!" I suppose this was a positive experience but actually...And then I was sort of a class poet when I was a little boy in school and when there was a holiday I would sometimes be asked to write a poem.

I remember that my uncle Leo and my grandfather both encouraged me in writing. My poetry changed when I was fifteen years old. One of my uncles, Leo, had written poetry when he was a young man and he took me down to the family business and he opened a saf e and showed me some poems he'd written when he was nineteen and he also gave me a book of the collected poems of Shelley. And I still have that book and I remembered always this picture of Shelley at the front of the book with an open collar and wild hai r and a wild look in his eye. I read those poems as well as I was able and started writing poems that I thought were Shelley-like. In fact, they merely had some of the lofty attitude and some of the nineteenth century language - they weren't really [Laugh ing] very much like Shelley. And, er, I discovered modern poetry I think quite late, when I was seventeen, through an anthology, a Louis Untermeyer anthology. Of course, I was crazy about modern poetry as soon as I discovered it. Then I had a very sympath etic, intelligent teacher when I was a junior in high school - I don't know what the equivalent is here [UK] but I was seventeen years old - who encouraged me, who liked the poems I was writing influenced by modern poetry. I was also at that time when I w as sixteen or seventeen, I was reading a trilogy by John Dos Passos, U.S.A. It was a very famous book at the time. I was particularly inspired by the stream-of-consciousness sections. I was...I didn't know that he'd gotten this technique from Joyce and I suppose when one's a young writer it doesn't matter if one knows those things. I was excited by just saying anything that came into my head without thinking about it. And I wrote some rather shocking, crazy things but I found a kind of music that I liked that sounded more like my own voice than the rather stilted sonnets I'd written in my Shelley period. And my high school teacher, whose name was Katherine Lappa, encouraged me to write free, crazy things and that's the story of my early poetry.

David Kennedy: Do you remember when you first wrote a poem when you thought 'That's it! I've really got something, I've made something that's really my own'? Did that happen fairly early or much later?

Kenneth Koch: I think I started writing poems I liked more when I was seventeen or eighteen. I wrote poem when I was just eighteen, maybe on my birthday, called 'For My Eighteenth Birthday' or 'Poem For My Birthday' and it was influenced by French surreal ism in so far as I understood it. I understood it mainly from a surrealist magazine called View. It was edited by Charles Henry Ford and André Breton had something to do with it too. Some of the French surrealists at the beginning of the war had come over to New York and they brought out this magazine. It was a big, glossy magazine full of surrealist things and I wrote this poem when I was eighteen beginning, I can only remember part of, "At eighteen I walk on the surface of things, I tread in my stocking feet in houses of soft love..." [Laughs] and other sort of surrealist lines. So I liked that poem and I liked a poem I wrote I think when I was seventeen called 'Schoolyard in April'. That one was actually published in Poetry magazine in Chicago. And the n when I was eighteen years old I had to go in the Army - it was World War Two - and I didn't write very much at first but when I was actually in combat in the Philippines I managed to write a few poems. Again I wrote a birthday poem I remember which was also published in Poetry magazine, it was 'Poem For My Twentieth Birthday', and I wrote some other poems. It was reassuring to be able to write poems while I was in this terrible war.

David Kennedy: Like a reminder of home, perhaps?

Kenneth Koch: Well, it was an escape from where I was, in any case. [Laughing]

David Kennedy: Changing direction, you've written in a wide variety of styles - is there an essential Kenneth Koch?

Kenneth Koch: For whom would there be this Kenneth Koch?

David Kennedy: For you and for the reader.

Kenneth Koch: Well, I certainly have the feeling that I'm the same person even though I've changed a great deal. I can't speak for the reader. Picasso said once when being interviewed that one should not be one's own connoisseur. As I look over my work, I mean every time I look over my early work, I see yes I could do that then and then I could do that and that...That may be the hardest thing for a writer, at least for a poet, to tell what the identity of his work is. It's very hard to know what one reall y looks like or how one moves because one poses in front of the mirror and, erm,...I mean, it's really a question for you and others to answer if there's an essential Kenneth Koch. Of course I think there is...

David Kennedy: I was interested to know what you thought because certainly critics over here [in the UK] have just said "Kenneth Koch the comic poet" and that's really as far as it's gone.

Kenneth Koch: I've had trouble with criticism, I guess. It's hard to know what role criticism plays in either encouraging poets or in getting other people to read them.

David Kennedy: Have you ever found it helpful yourself?

Kenneth Koch: Well, it's enormously cheering to get a good review by someone who seems to understand your work. I remember being enormously cheered when a friend would say something intelligent about my work. I'm trying to think if there's any written cri ticism that has made a difference to the way I wrote but I don't think so. Some people who write about poetry seem to have had trouble with my poetry because it is sometimes comic. I don't think the nature of my poetry is satirical or even ironic, I think it's essentially lyrical but again I don't know if it's my position to say what my poetry is like. The comic element is just something that it seems to me enables me to be lyrical in the same way - not to compare myself qualitatively to these great write rs - but in the same way that it enables Byron to write his best poetry and certainly Aristophanes and certain others too. Ariosto is very very funny...

David Kennedy: Changing direction again, the so-called New York School has been enormously influential on recent generations of young British poets and I wanted to ask you a couple of questions about that. Looking back at the Fifties, how much do you thin k that the poetry that you and Ashbery and O'Hara and Schuyler wrote then was a reaction against the climate of the Cold War?

Kenneth Koch: If it was a reaction, I didn't know it at the time. I think we all influenced each other and we were also influenced by certain other poets. I think the influences on us were not mainly political or of the decade or of the political situatio n but of other writers. I think there was a kind of originality about what we wrote. We didn't seem to have any sort of poetic father figures. There was no-one whom we worshipped and said 'yes, he is our leader'...[Pause] I can only speak for myself. Actu ally, in that catalogue I gave you [Kenneth Koch: Collaborations with Artists] there's a poem which has not been in a book yet called 'Time Zone' which is all about - it's about a ten page poem - all about my friendships and collaborations and excitements with other poets and painters in the Fifties and early Sixties. As I recollect, our political involvement, certainly mine, I would say it was mainly indifference. I became involved in politics really in 1968. I was a professor at Columbia when the studen ts rebelled about the Vietnam War when they took over some university buildings and one had to take sides either with the students or with the administration. I took sides with the students. And after that I marched in parades and even went to jail briefl y for one night in the cause of peace in Vietnam. But I was...and I wrote a rather long poem called 'The Pleasures of Peace' though truly it seems to me that - I don't know whether this is just true for me - but I certainly think it's worth making an effo rt to write about certain important things as I made an effort to write about the war. I wrote hundred of pages of that poem but all the parts that were directly about the war didn't seem to me good enough as art and it ended up being a poem which rather than about the war was about the peace the peace movement and the pleasure, excitement and joy of being with many other people who were in favour of peace and so on.

David Kennedy: And, of course, there's the line where you say "To my contemporaries I'll leave the horrors of war"...

Kenneth Koch: Well, it's not that I was indifferent ot the horrors of war because that's what inspired the poem to a large extent but I couldn't write about them. Also, some of my contemporaries, it seemed to me, were perhaps profiting in that rather path etic way that poets profit from things because we practice an art in which there's no money [Laughing] by pretending to, I don't know, pretending to care more about certain things than they were able to write about effectively. I mean, I don't know what o ther people were feeling, I just know what I was able to write about.

I don't know if you read my poem 'Seasons on Earth' which is the last one in the Selected Poems and which is a poem about looking back on having written 'Ko' and 'The Duplications', two long poems I wrote. And [Leafs through book] I talk about the Fifties here, about when I was living with my wife in Little Villino in Florence when we were first married in the early Fifties and I say

It was the time, it was the nineteen fifties,
When Eisenhower was President, I think,
And the Cold war, like Samson Agonistes,
Went roughly on, and we were at the brink.
No time for Whitsuntides or Corpus Christis -
Dread drafted all with its atomic clink.
The Waste Land gave the time's most accurate data,
It seemed, and Eliot was the Great Dictator
Of literature. One hardly dared to wink
Or fool around in any way in poems,
And critics poured out awful jereboams
To irony, ambiguity, and tension -
And other things I do not wish to mention. 

All this fell sideways past our Florence windows - That it, it had not much attention paid to it. Dry, stultifying words, they were horrendous, Inspiring in the breast a jolly hatred - And then new lines arose, like snakes to Hindus, That for depressed spelled out exhilarated.

I think that what I say there is that I simply was ignoring the fact that The Waste Land indeed made it seem to many poets that one had to be depressed - not that The Waste Land is a bad poem, it's a wonderful poem - that one had to feel despair, that one had to think that the modern world was terrible. I was quite happy there in Florence in the Fifties when I wrote my poem 'Ko' and it wasn't consciously a reaction against the time. It came from having read Don Juan about three years beforehand and having conceived the idea that someday I wanted to write a poem like that. I suppose it was partly a reaction against what seemed to me the deadness and narrowness, the stultifying narrowness of the poetry that was being published in all the quarterlies which I wrote about in a poem called 'Fresh Air'. It seemed to me that life was, I mean here I was in my twenties and life seemed to me so exciting and full of girls and gardens and steamships and drinks and tennis games and countries and cathedrals...I mean, it seemed absurd to be writing these drabs, depressed little poems. I knew there were things like death and poverty and injustice but they weren't everything...


David Kennedy: In your poem 'Some General Instructions' you say "The days of irony are here, irony and deception. But do not harden your heart." It seems to me that could be read as a political statement.

Kenneth Koch: That instructional poem like my other instructional poems 'The Art of Poetry' and 'The Art of Love' contains things that I think are true. It's also somewhat comic and somewhat ironic. Obviously, it would be a very pompous and preten tious thing to say "the days of irony are here, irony and deception" and say it in such a way that the reader was obliged to sit there and say "o yes" like "the time of the tiger is upon us". It doesn't seem appropriate to me to write in a way that bullie s the reader in that way. Certainly, it seems true enough that there's a good deal of irony in the world and it seemed true at the time I wrote the poem there was a good deal of deception also. I mean, if you live in a world full of politicians and advert ising there's obviously a lot of deception. But I'm urging the reader in a somewhat over-simple way that despite the fact that he lives in such a time not to be hardened and spoiled by it. You're looking for political statements in my work...Well, it seem s to me when I look in or wherever I look when I write that politics is there the way men and women are there, the way the Atlantic Ocean is there. Sometimes I've written about politics specifically, I mean about politics as it's understood on television and in newspapers, as in 'The Pleasures of Peace'...I think political views can be deduced if one wishes to deduce from a statement such as the one you've just quoted in my poem or a religious view could be deduced from it or an aesthetic view but...But I don't think I just look at the desk and the dictionary. As for political poetry, as it's usually defined, it seems there's very little good political poetry. It seems to require the conjunction of the, maybe the twenties or thirties of a genius and some great cataclysmic political event; for example, like the conjunction of the Russian Revolution and the 22nd year of Vladimir Mayakovsky so that he could write 'A Cloud in Trousers'. But good political poetry's very rare and it seems to me very hard to wri te because if you write...essentially if you write a political poem that would be useful to any political group, you're using other people's ideas, you're using ideas that already exist and who wants to do that? I mean, as charming as old people are, one doesn't want to have a 75-year-old baby. One wants to make something new. So if you make something new, I mean a really good poem, a good political poem, a great political poem like Yeats's 'Easter 1916', I don't think any party would want to use that poe m because he says "maybe they were all crazy, maybe it was useless". Or is it in 'September 1913' he says it? I think in both he both of those poems Yeats obviously comes out strongly on one side but he says "you know, it might have been the wrong thing to do, they might have been crazy". And no political party would want that.


David Kennedy: Let's change tack again. Could you say a little about non-literary influences on your work?

Kenneth Koch: O Lord, that's hard. That's very hard. That's like, erm, a bit like asking I think - I may be exaggerating - like I play tennis lot - like asking for non-tennis influences on my tennis game. Have I been influenced by a footballer or a baseba ll player...probably not! I love painting and music, of course. I don't know nearly as much about them as I know about poetry. I've certainly been influenced by fiction. I was overwhelmed by War and Peace when I read it and I didn't read it until I was in my late twenties and that was one of the main inspirations for my long poem 'When The Sun Tries To Go On' which does not resemble War and Peace in any way except in the fact that I tried to put everything into it, which seemed to me one thing I found ins piring about Tolstoy. Let's see...I feel close to certain painters. I've always been friends, that is since I went to New York when I was about twenty three or so, I've been friends with painters, especially Larry Rivers and Jane Freilicher and I've done a lot of collaborations...I suppose's really hard to tell...I mean, certainly the brightness, the dash, the excitement, the sort of self-confidence of the hand on the canvas - all that was exciting. It's hard to say how it influenced my poetry. I would say that the certain ambience that John [Ashbery] and Frank [O'Hara] and I were in - Jimmy [Schuyler] came along a bit later - with seeing each other all the time and being envious of each other or emulous of each other and inspiring each other an d collaborating on poems which we did a good deal.

David Kennedy: It's the same sort of thing, isn't it, that you talk about in 'Fate' where you're remembering particular occasions and you can't quite remember who was there or where it was but it's the feeling you're remembering... Kenneth Koch: Yeah, but that wasn't about artistic collaboration though - this is more about the excitement of it all, doing what seemed to us the new work. The painters sort of created...John, Frank and I were about the only poets in this bunch...there w as Barbara Guest at certain times and Jimmy [Schuyler] came a bit later...all the other poets seemed to us - we didn't know everybody, we didn't know what was going on out on the West Coast at the time - most of the other poets seemed sort of like neat li ttle fellows who were writing academic poems as I say in 'Fresh Air', poets with their eyes on "the myth, the missus and the mid-terms". Writing about the failure of their marriage and their promotions at the university...quatrains. Well, I like quatrains but I didn't like their poems. The painters gave us a sort of ambience. They were nice, lively guys who got exercise in the daytime, painted in big light studios and they felt good at night and they would sometimes actually sell paintings. They gave part ies and it was as much a social thing as anything. It's really hard to talk, I find, about influence from one art to another - at least, I find it hard. But I was certainly encouraged by the example of, from rather early on, the example of Picasso and Max Ernst and other painters who had the courage to do something stunning, strong, starkly dramatic and beautiful that didn't necessarily make any sense. All that certainly went in my head and my heart but how that comes out on the page is hard to tell. And also I liked John Cage's music. I liked it for its craziness, the use of silence, the boldness - anything to get me away from writing about...I don't know what academic poets write about. I talk about it in 'Fresh Air', whatever they were writing about... I mean, there are excesses all over the place. People are always saying what are the different schools of American poetry. Maybe there are three or four really good poets in a generation. I took a course at Harvard with Delmore Schwartz, a writing course, and there were about thirty of us and he said "How many of you expect to be great writers?" and we all raised our hands. And he said "You do know that in age in which there are more than three or four great writers is known as a renaissance?" [Laughing] I think if taking all these positions like Formalism or L=A-N=G=U=A=G=E poetry or whatever, if it helps somebody, one of these rare beings who's a really good poet - I wouldn't say there are only three or four in a generation, that's be rather strict - bu t if it helps someone to write good poetry that's fine. I don't really see vast movements full of wonderful poets all over the place.

David Kennedy: John Ashbery has said that he feels the American scene is very regional in that you go to one part of America and everyone thinks X, Y and Z are the poets and then you go somewhere else and nobody's ever heard of them and they all think A, B and C are the poets.

Kenneth Koch: O, I guess some of that is true. I think John's been travelling a bit more than I have in America lately. I don't know. Sure to some extent that's true, like in the South certain poets are more than they are elsewhere and in the West.

David Kennedy: If we look at how you're perceived, certainly from an English perspective you are always seen as a New York School poet. Do you see yourself in that way or as just another American poet?

Kenneth Koch: O, I don't think of myself in either way really. In the early Fifties and all through the Fifties, I felt very close to the work, particularly, of John and Frank and I think our work had certain things in common which it had less in common a fter that, when we either, like we began to be published, I got married, other people went off. We had sort of another public - we were our entire readership for many years and we were very excited by each other - at least I was excited by what they were doing, I can't speak for them. And I was excited by what my painter friends were doing and they seemed to be interested in our poetry too and that was a wonderful little, fizzy sort of world and even at that time I never thought of myself as a New York po et or as an American poet. The term 'New York School' was, I guess it was invented by John Bernard Myers to describe the painters, on the model of the French, and Donald Allen used 'New York School of poetry' in his anthology The New American Poetry 1945- 1960 and he included under the rubric of the New York School some poets who don't really have much to do with the work of John and Frank and Jimmy and me. I could tell you what I think some of the characteristics of our work were in the Fifties that may h ave distinguished us from other poets. I think we were all influenced or rather we were certainly conscious of and aware of French poetry, sort of the avant garde tradition from Gerard de Nerval up to World War Two. We knew about Mayakovsky and Pasternal and we read Rilke and Lorca and we had all read William Carlos Williams pretty hard and Wallace Stevens and I'm probably doubtless leaving some things out. We were, it seems to me - and I'm hesitant to speak for other people - but if I look back at the po ems of that time, we seemed to be particularly interested in the surface of the language and the excitement that was going on there rather than thinking and finding the precise word for it, rather to let the words find the subject or partly define the sub ject for us. John would certainly say this in a different way and so would Jimmy and Frank if they were here to say it which I wish they were. There was a certain amount of humour in all our work...Maybe you can almost characterise the poetry of the New Y ork School as having as one of its main subjects the fullness and richness of life and the richness of possibility and excitement and happiness. I find that a lot in Frank's work, especially the early work. Whether I understood what was going on in 'Secon d Avenue' or not when I first read it, I felt 'My God! I'd have to have three bodies to live this much!' It's wonderful. It seems everything is so full of possibilities one can hardly take it all in. When I wrote a review of Frank's Collected Poems I call ed it 'More Than The Mind Can Hold' - I sort of stole a line of his, "more than the eye can hold", which is describing a de Kooning painting he had in his apartment which he said is better than music. But it seems to me that his poetry is so rich you can' t, it moves so quickly you can't keep it in your mind all at once. I think he's a great poet, Frank. To get back to the New York School, another thing was we all went to the ballet a lot when George Balanchine was with the New York City Ballet. We would g o two or three times a week some weeks, not all weeks, and we also liked opera. Frank and John particularly knew a great deal about music. The kind of poetry I didn't like, which I guess I didn't like because it didn't move me, it didn't seem exciting but also after a while because it was the kind of poetry that was hogging up all the space in the magazines and books and fellowships and which we weren't getting, was this kind of, it seemed to me, very narrow poetry. Sort of old-fashioned, rhymed usually t hen but about a very narrow range of subject matter, not letting enough in.


David Kennedy: Do you have an ideal reader in mind when you're writing?

Kenneth Koch: I wonder if I ever thought of an ideal reader...I guess when I was in my twenties and in New York and maybe even in my early thirties, I would write for my wife Janice, for Frank, John, Jimmy, maybe even for Jane Freilicher and Larry Rivers; mainly for my poet friends and my wife who was very smart about poetry. It seems to me after a while that these people that I would have in mind a little bit when I wrote - it's not exactly as though I was writing for them but they would be in my mind - that I sort of absorbed what I knew or imagined their response to be so that it's been a long time since I've with any regularity thought of any of them while I was writing. Sometimes I write a line that may echo a line of John's and think "O! There's Joh n!" or Frank, you know. So I think I've sort of absorbed my audience in the sense that when I write it pleases me. I mean, I'm sure these people are there but I'm not aware of them.

David Kennedy: Would you describe yourself as a surrealist?

Kenneth Koch: I was influenced by surrealist poetry and painting as were thousands of other people and it seems to me to have become a part of the way I write but it's not...As I understand the surrealist program, it was programmatically in favour of the unconscious as opposed to the conscious; programmatically in favour of chance, even programmatically in favour of a certain kind of violence and all that dream stuff. All that is interesting to me and it's become an automatic part of what I do but I would never say I was a surrealist. People used to say rather carelessly when they didn't know what to say about what John and Frank and I wrote, they'd say a couple of things: that we were surrealists and that we were influenced by painters. [Laughing] And si nce a number of critics of Frank have mentioned surrealism, I went to some pains to point out in the review I wrote of his Collected Poems that he wasn't at all a surrealist. If you take a poem like 'Sleeping On The Wing', he very clearly talks about gett ing into a dream state, being free of everything, that's wonderful, but he says "the memory of a beloved face in trouble", somebody you love, draws you back to reality and that's what he does in his poetry. He's a poet who has all the richness that the su rrealists found but he uses it for different ends...He doesn't really allow himself to stay transported where the surrealists really hope to find, it seems to me, an elsewhere...

David Kennedy: Can you talk a little about your latest book, Hotel Lambosa?

Kenneth Koch: This is a book of very short stories.I've written fiction before. I wrote a novel called The Red Robins but that's rather - not poetic prose in the ordinary sense - but a rather extravagant kind of writing but Hotel Lambosa is a book of more or less realistic short stories. I had tried to write stories, almost true stories before, but I never had found a way to do it and I think that what sort enabled me to write this book was reading a wonderful book by Kawabata. Have you read him? I strong ly recommend you read The Snow Country and also this wonderful book called Palm Of The Hand Stories which is in print in England. Palm Of The Hand Stories are a selection of very short stories from 1 to 5 pages that he wrote over the course of his life an d suddenly in these very short stories I saw a way that I could write fiction about my own experience and things that I've done and imagined. I was very interested to be writing these stories because I found that, like a certain kind of magnet, writing pr ose picked up details that my poetry had never been able to pick up because my poetry - and one can use an analogy with an automobile perhaps although I don't know if you use the same terms in Britain - tends to have a rather high idle; that is, once I st art writing about something it goes off rather fast [Laughing] and sometimes details which might be interesting such as what the room looked like or what somebody said that was not exactly on the same subject tend to get lost. Not always; sometimes I forc e myself to write precisely about those things but in any case I found that a lot of the parts of my experience I hadn't been able ot write about before, I could write about in this book. I made an effort not to write prose poetry. I wanted to write real stories. I thik it's possible sometimes people read them and say "O yes, they're prose poems" just because they're short. But they're not prose poems. The subject matter of the stories on the surface...there seem to be a number of stories about travel. Ac tually, when I was writing the book, I wrote many more stories than this, but one thing in here I worked on a lot has to do with what Yeats said about writing prose and poetry, that when you finish a poem it clicks shut like the top of a jewel box but pro se is endless. I haven't experienced an awful lot of clicking shut! These stories seem to click shut as much as my poems do but they did take a lot of time but then one gets used to that. What arrangement I had in the book was according to the countries t hey took place in and quite a few of them are about Italy and quite a few about France and I also have travelled in Africa so there are about seven or eight stories about Africa. I've also been to China so there are five or six stories about China and som e about Mexico. I was a little surprised after I'd completed the book to see how many took place in other countries. It's a well known thing that ordinary perceptions can have a strange aspect when one is travelling. Waiting for a bus or walking in the st reet is slightly unlike what it is usually. So one sees things clearly...A number of the stories, though not by any means the majority, are about my late twenties and thirties, the early years of my marriage. [Pause] Some other prose writers I admire a gr eat deal and who certainly influenced my writing here are Leonard Sciascia, the Sicilian writer, who writes beautiful prose. I believe I was influenced by early Hemingway too, particularly the stories in In Our Time with those beautiful short sentences th at don't tell you too much and you have to read the fourth sentence to see what the third one means. Another prose writer who influenced me a lot...I'm thinking of Victor Shklovesky, who's mainly known as a formalist critic. He was a friend of Mayakovsky and Pasternak. I've read three or four of his prose books. One is called Not About Love which is a series of letters he wrote to a woman he loved who did not love and who said "You can write to me so long as you don't write about love." He wrote another b ook called The Third Factory and a wonderful book about Mayakovsky called Mayakovsky And His Circle. His sentences are always surprising. The way they're put together is exciting also. Also, I was influenced by the prose of Boris Pasternak though I had to read it in translation as indeed I had to read Shklovsky. I like particularly Pasternak's prose in his early stories.

David Kennedy: Do you know his short novel The Last Summer? That's a beautiful book.

Kenneth Koch: O yes, that's wonderful. I also admire very much the prose of the American writer James Salter. One of his books is called Light Years and there's a wonderful book about a love affair in France called A Sport And A Pastime and a book of shor t stories called Dusk. Actually, I think I read him mainly after I'd completed the stories. Writers I like include, in earlier generations, William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens. There's an American poet named John Wheelwright I like very much. Of c ourse, I like Byron enormously; I'm crazy about Don Juan. And of course Keats and Shelley and I suppose everyone that everyone likes. I think my poetry was very influenced - it seems almost dumb to say it - but it was very influenced by Shakespeare. Very early on I read his plays...and, I don't know, I started speaking in blank verse at a rather early age. [Laughing] But then, I'm a writer who likes to be influenced...Beyond that, my projects at the moment are I have a new book of poems [One Train], and I 'm going to do a new Selected too, either at the end of next year or after that. It takes a long time to publish a book...

David Kennedy: There's so little of your work available in England...

Kenneth Koch: I'd love for you to do something about it. I'd like my Selected Poems to come out in paperback. I'd like these stories to be published but I don't know quite how to go about it. There's not much money for anyone in this kind of writing. Ther e's no way to make money as a poet. You can't own a poem. You can't dressed up and go to a poem. There'a nothing to do with it. [Laughing]

David Kennedy: [Laughing] That's probably a good place to stop.

Kenneth Koch, thank you very much.

Original transcription and amendments (c) David Kennedy and Kenneth Koch, 1993.

About David Kennedy I was born in Leicester, England in 1959 and read English and European Literature at the University of Warwick. I currently live in Sheffield where I work as a senior manager in manufacturing industry and study in the Graduate School a t Sheffield University where I am pursuing doctoral research on ideas of community in the poetry of Douglas Dunn, Tony Harrison and Seamus Heaney. I am a poet, editor and critic, and a regular reviewer for such journals as Poetry Review and P.N.Review.

I am a co-editor of The New Poetry (Bloodaxe Books, 1993), the bestselling anthology of contemporary British and Irish poetry which is used widely in schools and universities in the United Kingdom and Europe. My book of critical essays New Relations: The Refashioning of British Poetry 1980-1994 (Seren) was published in 1996 as was my first collection of poetry The Elephant's Typewriter (Scratch).

My critical interests include postmodernism, masculinities and the locaton of value in late twentieth century culture. My own poetry seeks to combine postmodernism playfulness with native British realism and is heavily influenced by the New York School. I would love to hear from people with similar interests. I am particularly interested in working collaboratively, particularly with artists from other disciplines. You can write to me at 29 Vickers Road, Firth Park, Sheffield S5 6UY, England or you can fax me on (44) 114 2441202 or you can e-mail me at



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Last modified: Wednesday, 18-Jul-2007 16:27:06 EDT