Morgan Kenney, Founder of the Petra Kenney Poetry Competition
Jendi Reiter conducted this exclusive email interview with Morgan Kenney, founder and judge of the Petra Kenney Poetry Competition, a major British poetry prize. After a career in educational publishing, Kenney in retirement pursued his dream of creative writing, becoming a published poet, writing coach and columnist for Britain's popular poetry magazine Poetry Now. Readers email their poems to him and he selects a few each issue for detailed critique in the magazine. (This column was the inspiration for our popular “Critique Corner” feature in the Winning Writers free newsletter.) In 1995, Kenney established the Petra Kenney Poetry Competition in honor of his late wife. It has since become one of Britain's leading competitions. Two guest poets judge the competition each year with Mr. Kenney.
Q: What tips a poetry contest entry from “good” to “great” in your mind? What are some common ways that poems fall short?
A: Winning poems are laced with exciting images that open the imagination to many interpretations of human experience. Images that eject the reader out of dulled ruts. They force the reader to stop and consider…to feel anew…to suspect new understanding. Images arise from imaginative and fresh use of language, combinations of words one would never expect, comparisons that shock the routine. Images above all select the winning poems.
Poems that immediately join the reject pile:
—are overwritten. Are weakened by words that add nothing to the poetic bang of a poem. In poetry every word must contribute something, or it is deleted. Ruthlessly.
—end with lines that explain what the poem has already said. Poets feel insecure. They are not sure they have got the main thrust across so they add a few lines at the end to explain to the dull reader what it has been all about. Cut, cut, cut.
—are written by poets who insist on using rhyme before they have mastered the skill. Rhyme is treacherous. Unless you have the skill of having words that rhyme fall into a natural position in lineation, then you should avoid rhymed verse. When the readers can guess the rhyming word that is going to end the next line, then you are an inefficient poet.
—contain lines that do not read well, that stumble awkwardly, that force the reader to change step for no reason. At times, for effect, poets throw a hurdle at the reader because they want to disrupt the flow. This is admired; the clumsy provokes poetic groans.
Nature provides beauty and therefore stimulates poetic expression for many people, but inner conflicts of man, social conflicts of man are so unsettling that they too find expression and win prizes. A poem, no matter what the stimulation, wins because it uses language in such magical combinations that it floats above reality and coats understanding with new sensitivity, new color, new intensity. It is the magician of language who wins.
It is interesting that in the Petra Kenney Poetry Competition, judged by predominantly British poets, young established Canadian poets have carried away many of the top prizes. This would suggest that there are no favored national themes.
Q: As a columnist for Poetry Now, you must read submissions by hundreds of poets, often at an early stage of their development, who want advice about improving their writing. Many beginning poets seem unfamiliar with developments in contemporary poetry, modeling themselves instead on Romantic verse and inspirational fare. What books would you suggest for them to start learning about modern techniques, in an accessible way?
A: Beginning poets can learn of the nature of modern poetry by reading well-established small-press magazines. They provide an insight into the style and voice of modern poetry.
The most important skill to develop is the talent to use language imaginatively, freshly, creatively…to create exciting images. Trying to begin to write poetry by writing rhyming poetry is usually fatal. It cripples natural expression; it stifles pulsing images; it ends up trite.
Emotion is a common stimulus to write poetry, and yet words fail to capture feeling. Poems that try to describe the actual emotional state of the poet become embarrassing confessions. The magic of poetry disappears under overstatements. Poems that hit the reader in the emotional gut are those that bounce the feelings off some inanimate object that represents the relationship or expresses the philosophic idea about society.
Q: On a related note, do you have any thoughts about how poetry education could be improved? How can we overcome public perceptions of contemporary poetry as intimidating or distant from real life?
A: Poetry is an acquired taste. It is not a natural form of expression. To enjoy poetry you need training in recognizing poetic skills, poetic techniques, poetic effects…you need training.
There are three stages in assimilating and appreciating a poem.
First you read the poem through and get the feel of the intent of the poet. The aroma of the poem. Then you read slowly, line by line, stopping to discover how the poet has achieved certain effects: Was it an image? Was it alliteration? Was it rhythm? Was it contrasting vowel sounds—short / long; contrasting pitch? Was it contrasting consonants—soft / hard? Was it internal rhyme?
And of course there will be pauses to decipher meaning; occasions when the poet has moved beyond expected sensation and tries to move into a different dimension to taste experience in a different way. This is demanding because we may never have ventured into this dimension. Our nerve centers are not prepared. We must push against the blocking doors of our habitual interpretation of life and force our sensors into new atmospheres.
The third reading now allows you to read the poem at a new level. Appreciation of technique is now a integral part of the enjoyment of the pure poetic experience.
Few people are trained in the basic techniques of reading poetry. Hence few people read poetry. It is a foreign, unnatural means of expression.
Training can be a part of the school curriculum. The danger lies in the slaughter of the poetic element by the cold dissection of the poem on a morgue slab. The description of a technique must be infused with the excitement of language discovery, the excitement of life, the adventure of discovering something new about life through poetry.
Most libraries have books that discuss the basic poetic techniques mentioned above. Beginning poets will find these helpful.
Q: In the US, university presses and creative-writing graduate school programs have a dominant place in the poetry publishing world. Is it the same in Britain and Canada? What is the typical “career path” for a serious poet there?
A: In Britain and in Canada there are publishers of poetry who are free of any academic influence. They publish the work of well-known and newly discovered poets. To gain recognition, poets first get published in the small-press magazines. When they have a body of poems published in these magazines, they can then approach a publisher and try to win attention.
Q: The conventional wisdom is that there are more writers than readers of poetry. Many amateur poets will probably never be good enough to be published in serious journals. Should they be encouraged to keep writing? For what audience? Without crushing their egos, how would you help them understand where their work fits in the poetry spectrum?
A: It is likely true that more people write “poetry” than read it, especially folk poetry. Folk poetry is folksy; its subject matter is usually “mom and dad, our dog, my pal.” It is very sentimental. In form it has a steady iambic pentameter beat and its rhymes are usually everyday words that have no individuality. It is a form of poetry that finds a happy place in family magazines, in magazines for older folk, in animal magazines. Many people write in this style, often for their own amusement. It is not a style that wins competitions. But then that is not the main purpose for writing poetry.
For beginning poets to find out if they have any real talent they can join a writing group where contributors discuss one another's work, or join a class where their work will be assessed. It is very important to subscribe to well-established magazines for writers in which articles deal with poetic techniques and how to develop them. These magazines also contain news of courses for poets, of conferences and seminars, and of competitions…all events dealing with poetry. [Some of our favorites at Winning Writers include Poets & Writers Magazine, Writer's Digest, and AWP Writer's Chronicle.]
Q: How did you personally become involved in the poetry world?
A: From early years I have been fascinated by language, by words. I can remember pre-teen years asking my parents to arrange elocution lessons for me; I wanted to speak well (I didn't know the word “articulate” then). During my career in education in Canada I produced some 40 educational texts. Over seven million copies were sold across the country. These writing projects consumed all my extra time and energy. I had no time for serious “creative” writing except for a monthly meeting of accomplished friends who met to read their work to one another.
When I retired, I moved to England and began to write short stories and poems. Although I had promising successes with short stories, my focus moved closer and closer to poetry. I began the lonely and bruising experience of the unknown poet of sending out my poems and of watching them homing-pigeon back to my letterbox. And then, and then poems began to be accepted. My poems and my name appeared within poetry publications.
The next development took place because I took over as publisher and editor of a magazine for writers. This magazine specialized in articles to help writers develop techniques within their genre. After two years, I realized I was spending most of my time on business matters rather than on writing, and decided I must pass the magazine on to someone else. I did however remain the poetry editor for the magazine.
The column I developed became one of the most rewarding experiences I have had. Instead of writing theoretical articles about poetry and techniques, I analyzed specific poems and techniques, and discussed what actually happened within a poem to make it successful. In this way readers didn't have to cope with abstract ideas. They could see the technique in action and appreciate its effectiveness…or not. I approached leading poets in Britain asking their permission to discuss one of their poems. Soon I established confidence in the quality of my articles and I received full co-operation from poets. I have written this type of article for each issue of two magazines, and am now also writing a workshop for another magazine. Readers of this column submit poems for analysis. Other readers write in with their reactions to the poems, and to my assessment.
Q: Why did you choose a poetry contest as the way of commemorating your late wife?
A: My wife Petra wrote for pleasure. She had no ambition to be published, and yet she had success with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation short story program. She wrote many articles about life…some with a serious, some with a humorous insight. She also enjoyed writing atmospheric poetry. We had an unusually fulfilled experience together in our marriage which meant that when she died I shriveled in the afterglow. I wanted to make a gesture in recognition of the quality of life I would never have known without her. I decided on a writing competition. It was likely my growing interest in poetry that guided me towards a poetry competition. And it was so apt. Petra was described by friends as “one of nature's ladies.” Grace was natural to her. Flowers could transform her being. Sitting contented in a nook in a cliffside, sea in front, wild flowers around, seagulls lamenting, a book in her hand…what could heaven offer of more value? It just seemed natural that poetry contained the essence of this special appreciation she had of nature. When I established the Petra Kenney Poetry Competition I wanted to achieve a dignified tribute to Petra. I am deeply content that it has become one of the most prestigious poetry competitions in Britain and in Canada.