Robert Frede Kenter is a writer and visual artist. His poetry has been published widely including ARC, New Quarterly, Grain, Prairie Fire, Paragraph, Going Down Swinging (Melbourne), Burning House Press, Cough, Antigonish Review etc. His book of poems Audacity of Form with images by Julia Skop, Cathy Daley and RFK is currently available from Ice Floe Press (2019). Robert’s theatre writings and performance have been staged at Buddies in Bad Times, The Theatre Centre, Theatre for A New City (NYC), Intersection (San Francisco), A Space and other venues. He was a member of the poetry bands, Broken Legs (Ohio/NYC), and Palimpsest and the Slip Singers with Bruce Burron and Janice Williamson. His work is in anthologies from Gutter Press, Mosaic Press, The Playwright’s Union of Canada. He has exhibited art and photography in NYC, Toronto. He tweets at @frede_kenter
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first “book” was an embed in a journal, Writ, that came out of the University of Toronto, published by Roger Greenwald. It was written when I was living in NYC. It’s publication was a gracious shock, and an indication to me I should continue writing. But shortly after I became very ill with a virus (and ensuing complications of a post-viral kind including fibromyalgia). Post sickness my energy level was so low that for a long time I couldn’t write and took up painting. This book is the landscape after the floodwaters recede, and, although it’s a long-time coming, it’s sedimentary and archaeological, reflecting where I was pulled during the exile; it contains many voices – voices of ancestors, friends, family, voices of echoes of a past that is inside me and around – ghosts – who came seeping out of the darkness to keep me afloat, and now follow me around wherever I go.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Allen Ginsberg comes to mind, I read his poems and went to see him perform with his harmonium – and that was it. I was like 13 and I was swooning. I think I fell in love with the syntax and the shape and form of line in a way that was much harder for me to find in a lot of fiction. Also – my brother and I used to sit in his room in our family home in Hamilton acting out entire Shakespeare plays, we would take turns playing one character against another – I think I was about 12 at the time. So that’s the time frame. I write fiction, non-fiction, and always consider – for me -- which is key. Poetry. I think in terms of hybrids and connectivity, juxtaposition and abject disjuncture, ruptures and experiments. I like very short poems and I love long-poems.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I am surrounded by work-in-process; it’s a decades-long unravelling and putting together. Hard drives, notebooks, file cabinets, visual prompts. These days I fill notebooks pleasing to the eye, they are the colour of butcher paper, I often cover every surface in ALL CAPS. I write quickly, images and patterns and fragments of voices, (mine/conduits) -story flows continuously (especially lately) like an insistent voice-whirl spigot. Then, I sculpt tirelessly, usually it takes numerous drafts before I am seeing something, experiencing the exactness of what I am intending. I think in abstract images, I try to hone and shape them, clothing on the bone, so to speak, apparel accoutrements, flowers in buttonholes in various stages of langour and decay and that sharp riot of pure beauty just before you fall over, dust off, get back up again.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I work rhythmically, see-saw between discrete short form and extended form. I have different ‘thematic’ templates – family poems, father poems, mother poems, travel poems, love poems – I put them together into manuscripts; I take them apart and juxtapose them in other contexts – building and unravelling context. I think through fragments – juxtapositions, associations, ruminations, physical memory embodied in musculature. The pieces all refer to one another but have bookends, fit in covers, wake up inside suites, wave across the room at each other.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love doing readings – I need to do more of them. I go out to readings. I’m interested in how readings can be performative, how the line on the page can be translated into spoken form, as if the line would become a vision moving through the body of the listener.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
My concerns are intuitive. I think of it as a theory of listening. Gathering.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Hopefully we entertain one another. There is a ritual, liturgical, incantatory humour to the unravelling and putting together of the world. We are witnesses and participants. It’s like in education – I think its more important to explore ‘student-centred’ possibilities than it is to have the teacher-as-authority. So – writers pose questions, dig in the mud, come back, hold up shiny filthy magic, and maybe we enjoy what we do, enjoy what we see, hear, read. I think its celebratory and disruptive – both.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I like a lot of feedback from friends. I like knowing there is someone who is going to read the work and reflect some elements of it back to me. If I work with an editor, they are generally sympathetic to what I am attempting to do, but might shout at me with a whisper. I work as an editor myself, so I am always editing – I sometimes need someone to tell me to stop editing and even roll the drafts back a bit, as I might be left sometimes with only termite dust. But dust and sand are also very interesting. And can be quite clever when glued back together.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Never give up.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to plays to essays)? What do you see as the appeal?
Well, for me it’s both a joy and a conundrum. I love genre-switching; boundaries are melting. My work, especially recently, is moving more and more to hybrid and convergence – choral poems, multiplicity of chattering voices, incorporating elements that are essayistic, theatrical. I tend to write with a certain broken, ruptured staccato. I am always drawn to the musicality and the specifics of word order and – an almost self-consciousness with regard to the presence of structure. I don’t want the Word to disappear into the background – for me it’s a canvas of forefront and colour, language as texture and musical score, no matter whether I’m writing a review of a book or creating a performance piece.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I like writing. I’m obsessed with writing. A good day is a day when I spend a lot of time writing. I carry a notebook with me. I sleep with a notebook. Writing necessarily wakes me up to come dance at 3 a.m. for a few hours. I like to break routine and I like continuity and an almost ritual process – go somewhere –write in an unusual places (busses, train stations, cafes, the weight room of the gym) and/or this is a notebook day, this is a write and draw day, this is a work on a poem that had its origins on the computer screen moment. I like to find old text books and pull ideas from them, cut them up, draw in them – to get started, I’ll read for a while, talk to friends, post some music and share it w/ colleagues.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I have always had multiple focus – drawing and painting, writing and photo-based art-making. The new book, Audacity of Form , for example, contains my writing as well as a drawing. The work of Cathy Daley, a Toronto-based visual artist, and Julia Skop, a brilliant emotional photographer who lives in New Orleans are central to the book and inspirational to its design.
Why do I mention this – I’ve always been inspired by visual art, theatre, photography, music that contains and pushes against boundaries. Cy Twombly, John Cage, Carolee Schneemann, Nancy Spero, Ida Applebroog; Frank O’ Hara, John Ashbery, Anne Waldman, Nazim Hikmet, Thomas McGrath, Fred Wah, Tyehinba Jess, Adonis; Shostakovich, Northern Soul, free jazz: Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Robert Wilson’s performance pieces, Robert Frank’s photos, Beckett, ambient field recordings -- I could go on and on.
If I can’t write I listen to music or I draw or I work with photos. Sparks fly back and forth inter-disciplinary, or intra-disciplinary. I used to be confused about which form I most preferred to work in – now I see how to juxtapose and combine and ricochet from one to the other.
The other thing I do when I am stalled – is I work out – I wasn’t able to do that for so long – for health reasons -- now I am able to run and I find it very liberating and meditative – I like to run wherever I am, but I love running in Toronto. I make my way down to the lake and follow it west or east and then back up into the texture of neighbourhoods – it is another kind of ‘inspiration’
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Daffodils and lavender.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Yes – well, as above. Visual art, music.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I read a lot – voluminously – I love books. I may not read an entire book. I read for textures, for the specificities of insight and individual voice. Its too wide ranging and numerous to name but I like writing that is investigatory and has formal visual acuity
Recently been reading: Bola Opaleke, Miggy Angel, monthly journals such as Burning House Press (uk), Peter Nadas, Marosa di Giorgio, Aaron Tucker, Ilya Kaminsky, CA Conrad, Sylvia Legris, Filip Marinovich, dionne brand, Kirby, Phil Hall, Tina Chang, Jericho Brown, sam sax, Paul Celan, Mallarme, Etel Adnan, Cesar Vallejo, Terrance Hayes – to name a few.
I also like being part of a community. Who are my friends reading? What are my friends writing? I think its important to not be isolated, to be part of the lifeworld of my peers, both locally and in an expanded sense.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Run a full marathon. Walk the Pacific Coast Highway. Do a reading in Halifax where my mother was born. Go to the Venice Biennale. Spend some time in Paris, France.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
Well – I would have loved to be a ballerina.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I don’t know – I studied acting but I was always writing. As a child I was writing and drawing and playing Chuck Berry and Hank Thomson records over and over and pretending to be travelling. I’d go roll around in meadows and preen in my saddle shoes in rock gardens. I studied with the Wooster Group in NY, and I love the theatre. But to me it’s all ‘writing’. I see ‘writing’ as a kinetic activity set in other modalities that emerges out of my particular time and space and being in the world, this go round.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Film: Godard’s Le livred’image/The Image Book & Lynn Sachs and Lizzie Olesker’s deft hybrid documentary The Washing Society, about laundrymat workers, now touring festivals internationally.
Books: Don Mee Chee’s Hardly War (Wave Books) & Anna F. Garreta’s gender-fluid Oulipo novel, Sphinx.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m working on collaborations with Moira J. Saucer, a poet based in Alabama. We are exploring ghost-memories. I am very interested right now in collaboration – with other poets, with translators, with visual artists. I might do the writing, I might make the art work. & I’m continuing to work on a series of family poems – mostly now I am dealing with ancestors (in terms of family history) and our family’s displacement and loss – mid 20th century Holocaust; the involvement that my refugee-immigrant grandparents had in helping other refugees. I’m exploring different ways to extend upon Audacity of Form, its endless unfolding layers. I’m trying to update from where I was to where I am and where I am going. It’s an endless process of negotiation – like tape wrapped around wire.