Deflated Ego 2: David Kennedy

Something About The Devil's Bookshop

My most recent collection of poetry The Devil's Bookshop (Salt, 2007) comprises four distinct groups of poems. The book opens with a sequence of elegiac poems that represents some of the fruits of an AHRC Fellowship in Creative and Performing Arts 2004-2007 entitled 'Reviving Elegy: Towards a distinct contemporary language of public and private mourning.' These poems include elegies for the saxophonist Steve Lacy, the psychologist Elisabeth KŸbler-Ross and Ga‘tan Dugas, the man erroneously identified as 'Patient Zero' and accused of spreading AIDs throughout America in the early 1980s. This section of the book also includes a poem in response to the London bombings of July 2005. This opening suite of eight poems is followed by a group of nine poems which try to capture the experience of spending time in a small village in the Auvergne region of France. A shorter group of 'free improvised', more explicitly political poems then leads into the book's final section 'for Cage: Changes/Pages', a sequence in homage to the late com
poser written using his own favoured compositional method the I Ching

The Devil's Bookshop
is the most coherent of my three collections to date and I tried to suggest this coherence in the blurb I wrote for it:

     The relationship between care and neglect and how we
     choose or choose not to apply them is a constant theme
     in The Devil's Bookshop
. It is a relationship that is at the
     heart of moving elegies that rehabilitate Ga‘tan Dugas,
     the man erroneously held responsible for spreading AIDS
     through America in the 1980s, and pay tribute to
     psychologist Elisabeth KŸbler-Ross who fought against
     prevailing medical opinion to give terminal patients a
    voice in their own care.

     Care and neglect are also explored in a sequence about
     life in a marginalized village community; in poems that
     respond to the London bombings of 7/7 and the ensuing
     climate of paranoia and scrutiny; and in more meditative
     observations of light and old stones. The cumulative
     effect is a quiet but persuasive argument that it is by our
     acts of attention that we must be judged.

     The Devil's Bookshop
closes with a sequence in homage to
     John Cage whose work in words, music and performance
     exemplifies the challenges and rewards of paying attention
     to attention itself.

Some three years on, that still seems reasonably accurate and what few reviews there have been have responded generously to my stated interests in attention and care. 
One consequence of those interests is that every poem in the latest book challenged me in every way imaginable and took around 12-18 months to write. The way I describe it to myself is to say that in every poem I was writing at the absolute limits of what I could think in poetry. For example, 'Near Death', the elegy for Elisabeth Kubler-Ross uses a syllabic form to explore her life and work. 'Expressions of Eglise Saint Laurent' is a mesostic, inspired by reading the indispensable John Cage: Composed in America
(edited by Marjorie Perloff and Charles Junkerman) and drafted originally on old sheets of graph paper found in a house we were staying in in France for most of August 2005. Similarly, poems like 'La Spagna' or 'From Brassac-les-Mines to Le Vieil Auzon' use rigorous syllabic and metrical repetitions and carefully stepped and indented layouts. These could only be achieved by finishing one section and then analysing it in detail in order to write the next. Sometimes there were happy accidentsÑreading Ed Dorn's 'A Country Song' gave a form to 'Rue Longue Kitchen Song'Ñbut these were few and far between.
As that might suggest, I think that the poems in The Devil's Bookshop mark a significant change in my attitude to form. In my earlier poetry, form was something I hardly thought about at all. In fact, it was usually the last thing I thought about although thinking about it at the end of the writing process was often the most decisive thing I did to a poem. In contrast, all the poems in The Devil's Bookshop are the result of finding a form and then doggedly sticking with it. It seems to me that you can only explore how light works or how information gets degraded, respond to 7/7 and its aftermath, recreate sensations of rising and falling on an evening in France or rehabilitate Ga‘tan Dugas, by constructing what one reviewer called 'musical and sculptural landscapes'. If you'd like to hear what some of those landscapes sound like then visit my author page at for some live samples. And I hope that what you find there will encourage you to go and browse in The Devil's Bookshop.

                                                                                    Sheffield, March 2009

             © David Kennedy 2009