Poetry Interview with Robert Kiely

Robert Kiely


Interview conducted by Sharron Green.

Taster Session: Poetic Compaction (Getting Started with Short Poetry)

Robert Kiely is the author of simmering of a declarative void (2020) and Incomparable Poetry, an essay on the financial crisis of 2007-8 and Irish literature (2020).

Robert is currently Poet in Residence at the University of Surrey where he runs poetry workshops for Literature and Creative Writing students along with any others wishing to attend.

I caught up with Robert ahead of the festival to ask him about his experience of the past year, his recent publications and plans for after lockdown. We also discussed the Taster Session which is guaranteed to produce interesting results.

Q: How has lockdown been for you? Has it helped or hindered your writing?  

My writing hasn’t been helped or hindered by lockdown. Writing has always been something which has had to fit around other things – typically between paid work and job applications. My writing has to be what I can get away with in between all the other demands and impositions and curveballs of life. COVID-19 was a big one though.  

Q: What have you enjoyed about being Poet in Residence at the University of Surrey?  

The best thing has been running workshops for whoever wants to attend. I run about 6 or 7 per academic year and they’re completely open to all. It has been wonderful to be able to devise a set of workshops with no external constraints, no expectations, and no assessments. Universities tend to be a space of assessment, not study – this tendency has amped up since the rise in tuition fees, though it has been there as long as any barriers to entry, or even grades, existed. The despotism of the bell curve. In these workshops, before you show up you know there’s no particular outcome, you know you’re not going to get tested on what we chat about. So, for me and I hope for attendees, they offer this shared space to ruminate more slowly. I’ve run workshops on science fiction, mysticism, incarceration, and mathematics. Running them has been really inspiring and has led to new publications – in 2019 I ran a workshop on satire, and some of the notes from that have become an essay which is coming out soon in Cambridge Literary Review. It grew out of that workshop. It is also great to have a space in which I can convey, maybe spread, love for the work of poets like Sean Bonney, Will Alexander, Wendy Trevino, Lisa Jarnot, and Peter Manson, among others.  

Q: What are your plans for after that comes to an end? 

I’m putting together another book, a meditation on science fiction and writing and how life is currently organized. I used to say it was a satire on Elon Musk. But I’ve been also thinking about how certain kinds of critique or satire can bolster certain figures. So maybe it’s best to say it is an attempt to unthink Elon Musk. The advertisable “goal” of getting to Mars is inseparable from, even complimentary to, the continued destruction of this planet. Once I’ve put this meditation together, I’m looking forward to continuing to work on a closet drama about injections.

Q: You have recently published Incomparable Poetry and simmering of a declarative void – could you tell us a bit about them? 

Incomparable Poetry is a work of literary criticism available for free download online through punctum books. It’s about Irish literature, primarily poetry, and how economic prosperity and decline have affected that writing, as well as what that writing has to say in response to recent economic history in Ireland.  It’s a contribution to a larger conversation about writing and the economic crisis of 2007-8, and could be read productively alongside work by Alaric Hall, Danny Hayward, or Katy Shaw, among others. simmering of a declarative void is a work of poetry, it’s a mix of odd translations, meditations on work and the state, explorations of our capacity for understanding and ignorance through poetry.

Q: The overall theme of the festival this year is short and long – do you have a preference in terms of poetry? 

I don’t really have a preference, and to a certain extent I’d like to unpick “long” and “short” as labels. I mean, short poems can often be incredibly compact – a short poem might rely on, or generate, miles of scholarship. Equally, long poems can waffle, they can feel very distended or aerated or dispersed, you know what I mean? This shouldn’t have any qualitative valence, but frequently it does. I think waffling is really important, and I think conciseness can collapse into an unthinking glibness. But moving on from that, most of the time I find it difficult to differentiate “long” and “short” as a reader and writer. I’m tempted to say that my unit of composition is the poem, and I find most poems to be poem-length as a reader? But of course it is also true that some poems just are longer and some just are shorter. And I’ve been trying to write short poems, and it takes a much longer time. I’ve been trying lately to write simpler, clearer things in order to get to know what we think. It takes a while, but it feels important to try.  

Q: Can you tell us a bit about the Poetry Taster session on Saturday 24th? 

I’ll be showing some techniques that I hope attendees will find generative, and they’ll come away with a short poem which I hope they’re happy with. When I say in the workshop description that “Like the world of miniatures, short poems are a space where fine details and miniscule blunders scream”, this scream is in echo and homage to Etheridge Knight, who has this haiku – the standard short poetic form, right? – which goes:

In the August grass

Struck by the last rays of sun

The cracked teacup screams

When I was asked to do this workshop, I thought of this poem, which has haunted me for what feels like a year. So, I had to nod to it in my description of what we’ll be doing. That “screams” feels like a surprise, even if “Struck” secretly prepares us for it. It’s a Lucretian swerve of a kind. Everything precipitates from it. Anyway, those swerves are worth thinking about when we write.

Q: Thinking ahead to when things hopefully return to normal – what are you most looking forward to doing? 

I’m looking forward to being able to visit Ireland and Scotland to see friends and family.  

Q: And is there anything you think you’ll miss about lockdown? 

Not a thing. There are reasons, primarily budgetary, that I’d like to continue to avoid any daily commute for work. But I’ll be glad when lockdown is over.  

Thank-you Robert, I am very much looking forward to introducing the session with a few words about my affinity with short poetry and also sharing in the creative journey with everyone else.

Robert is a thoughtful and fascinating poet and I know from experience that his workshops transport your mind and then your words to previously unexpected and tantalising places.

Sharron Green is a poet and Creative Writing MA student at the University of Surrey who enrolled after last year’s New Writers Festival. She can be found @rhymes_n_roses on Instagram and at https://rhymesnroses.com . Her booklet of pandemic poems Viral Odes is available from Amazon and Lulu.

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