Faye Rapoport DesPres

Writers in the Trenches: Becky Kennedy on the Lyrical Force of Poetry

Becky Kennedy

Becky Kennedy is an astonishing human being. Those are the first words that came to my mind when I began to form the words for this introduction. Kennedy is an accomplished academic who earned her A.B. in English at Radcliffe College and her Ph.D. in linguistics at Harvard University. She has published articles in theoretical and applied linguistics — her research areas include language structure, language acquisition, literacy, dyslexia, and hyperlexia — and creative work in many magazines and literary journals. Kennedy is the author of two chapbooks of poetry published by Finishing Line Press and Presa Press, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared on Verse Daily.

Yet these are only a few of the reasons I find Kennedy astonishing. To me, it is her quiet, steely devotion to her family, her colleagues, and her students that defies easy description. I was lucky to cut my teeth as a college professor with the help of her guidance and support.  She is smart, perceptive, and friendly, but beneath her patient exterior lies a dynamic spirit that does not suffer fools gladly.

Kennedy lives with her family in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. In this interview, as in her poetry, she makes every word count. Grab a cup of tea or a glass of wine, sit back, and enjoy a few thoughts from this wonderful poet.

FRD: When did you start writing poetry, and how did you know that poetry was the right genre for you?

BK: After I completed my doctorate in linguistics, I focused on scholarly writing in theoretical and applied linguistics.  As an undergraduate at Harvard, however, I had taken a couple of fiction workshops; as a graduate student at Harvard, I enrolled in Seamus Heaney’s poetry workshop.  My personal writing focus gradually shifted toward creative writing; the poetry form became more appealing when my children were growing up and when I was carrying, for many years, a heavy teaching load.

FRD: You had a long, distinguished career in academia and retired recently from the position of Humanities Chair at Lasell College. How did you pursue your private writing life while teaching?

BK: My first commitment has always been to my family; my commitments to my students and my colleagues have been very important, too.  I therefore pursued my private writing life during interim or provisional periods: vacations and semester breaks.

FRD: How has your educational background in linguistics affected your creative writing? Has it been an advantage in any way?

BK: Because I’m very interested in language – its structures, shapes, and applications – and in the transaction between linguistic and nonlinguistic expression, I’m as interested in language form as I am in its content.  Depth of water can be measured with a sounding line; lyrical content is plumbed as we sound the depths of experience and feeling.  Sound – sounding – in poetic language lies, therefore, in both sound device and content.  The lyrical force in poetry has its source both in content soundings and in sound forms.

Available from Finishing Line Press

FRD: Your first chapbook, Last Place (Finishing Line Press, 2012) feels deeply personal. Although poetry provides a screen between the writer and the speaker, do you consider all — or some — of your work autobiographical?

BK: Yes, I work from personal experience in my poems; the filters of language, device, and form help me to access hard places and permit me to explore them.

FRD: Many writers spend a lot of time developing a “platform” or brand/name for themselves in their attempts to succeed in today’s world of intense literary competition. I have known you for years, but you have rarely spoken about your success as a published poet. I don’t think you even have a website. Has it been a conscious decision to pursue your writing and publication in a private way?

BK: No, I don’t have a website.  My literary competition is with myself – and with other temporal demands in my life.  I have a profound interest, however, in polishing my craft, and I assess my private advance via public measure: publications in literary forums.

FRD: You are an extraordinary teacher; I can say this because I taught students who had you for other classes, and they all spoke so highly of you. Now that you are retired from college teaching, is there a single nugget of advice or inspiration that sums up the encouragement you gave to young writers?

BK: I love teaching, and I love my students.  I’ve had the privilege of observing the unfolding of powerful, original voices; it’s important that a writer trust and own that personal vocal quality.  Equally important is patience in writing:  A writer can benefit immensely from judicious attention to reader feedback and from persistent attention to the revisiting, rewriting, revising, and editing processes.  Crucial, too, is broad, deep, and close reading of literature.

FRD: Where can readers get your new chapbook?

BK: Readers can order my chapbook from Presa Press; I’ve attached the announcement.

FRD: Readers, don’t miss Beginning AgainIn addition to using the information on the form to the left, you can order it online at this link: http://presapress.com/books/beginning-again