Map of NC

Map of NC

April 19, 2021

“It Becomes Its Own Living Thing”: An Interview with North Carolina Poet Terry Kennedy

by Emma Bornstein (Social Media Intern) In celebration of National Poetry Month, I had the honor of meeting with North Carolina poet Terry Kennedy. He is the author of a poetry collection, New River Breakdown, which is hailed by poet Kelly Cherry as “an elusive and haunting narrative of loss, love, and recovery.” While Kennedy grew up moving around the country, he has called North Carolina “home” for the last 20 years. More precisely (with his flair for writerly homages): “As Fred Chappell says, I’ve ‘put my roots down in Greensboro.’” Kennedy is the Director of the MFA Writing Program at University of North Carolina-Greensboro, and editor of The Greensboro Review and storySouth. With its sprinklings of writer trivia, humor, and shape-shifting poems, I hope you enjoy this conversation with an enchanting local poet! --- (This interview is edited for length and clarity.)


Emma Bornstein: We like to ask all our author interviewees this question: Why do you think the North Carolina Literary Map is important for authors? 


Terry Kennedy: Outside of its natural archival and teaching purposes, I feel like the NC Literary Map is important as a record of North Carolina’s changing landscape and culture.  If you dig into the work of Doris Betts, Fred Chappell, Jacki Shelton Green, Randall Kenyan, Jill McCorkle, Reynolds Price . . . you’re not only reading great literature, you’re learning about the landscape, how places and things looked, what people ate, how they talked. These things get lost over time. But with the Map, they are, in many ways, still living. 


Bornstein: If you could pick any poet to eat dinner with, dead or alive, who would it be?


Kennedy: Since we’re talking about the Lit Map, I would say I’d love to have another dinner with Robert Watson. Bob was a great storyteller. And not just stories about the other interesting poets and writers he met and hung around with. He and his wife, the painter Betty Watson, traveled all over the world. His baby doctor was William Carlos Williams. One time, some of the kids from the Manson family brought him and Betty a plate of homemade cookies. Of course, they didn’t know who they were at the time. They thought they were just these nice hippie kids that lived on the farm down the road.


Bornstein: What does your writing process look like? How long does it take you to write a poem?

Kennedy: I’m a very slow writer. I might work on a poem for 5-10 years before I send it to a literary magazine for consideration. And even then, I would probably tell you that it’s not finished. There are poems in my first book, New River Breakdown, that I’m still editing. But back to the first part of the question: it’s important for me to move between mediums while I’m drafting a poem. I always start by writing longhand in some notebooks my wife makes for me. And then I move to my Uncle’s manual typewriter. It’s a 1950’s Royal Portable. I have several typewriters, but that one is my favorite. And then I’ll move back to longhand again. That switching around forces me to think about the poem in different ways. Interesting things happen subconsciously when you write by hand. And the typewriter forces you to really think about the terminal edge of the page and, by association, the length of the lines in your poems. 


Bornstein: What’s the biggest myth about writing or reading poetry?


Kennedy: For me, the biggest myth about poetry is that it’s hard to understand; that there’s some magic key to unlocking a poem's meaning. Poems are not mysteries to be unlocked. And outside of the completely artificial world of academia, they do not have any more inherent meaning than the redbud tree outside of my office window. An author might have a specific idea or intent when writing a poem, but once it leaves the author's desk and goes out into the world, it becomes its own living thing. And a thing that changes with each person it encounters. When I read a poem, that poem mixes with all of my expectations and experiences and becomes something new. The same thing happens when you read that same poem. Your expectations and experiences change that poem yet again. This is how poems travel through time; why something written by Shakespeare or Emily Dickinson can still be relevant in 2021.


Bornstein: Where do you get your inspiration or ideas for your poems?


Kennedy: The poems in my new manuscript use the natural world as a vehicle for describing the inner world of the speaker. Nothing new there, but, while working on the poems, I did spend a lot of time looking at the landscape. How the light changes as it sifts through the trees across the day. What the grass looks like after a quick summer rain. And also thinking about how the landscape has changed over time. How a hill that has been stripped bare because of construction, fills back in. And along those lines trying to remember what it looked like before. 


Bornstein: What advice do you often give to new writers?


Kennedy: The most important thing for new writers to do is read. Read everything. And read widely. Read The Norton Anthology, read collections of poems (from both the small and micro presses as well as the big houses), read literary journals. It’s important to understand the range of what is being written as well as what has been written. In the very big picture, poetry is a conversation. You can’t be a part of the conversation without knowing what’s being said.

Bornstein: What, in your opinion, makes a good poem?


Kennedy: That’s an easy one. If it physically moves you—you know, you feel something in your stomach—it’s a good poem.

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Terry Kennedy’s book, New River Breakdown, is published and distributed by Unicorn Press. You can also find him on the Map.

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