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2004 Writers' Forum
Donald Kentop

Don Kentop was born and raised in New York City, graduated from New York University and has a Masters Degree in the teaching of history from Columbia University. Don has returned to writing poetry after many years in business and as a certified chemical dependency counselor. Once a lyricist, and still a member of ASCAP, he is also a stone carver. Don has appeared at the Frye Art Museum with Poets West. Rose Alley Press will publish On Paper Wings, a collection of his work, in the spring of 2004. Don lives in Ballard with his wife Carol.
photo credit: dean wong
Interview with Curator Belle Randall
In this interview, recorded March 4, 2004, Donald and Belle discuss form,influences, music, inspiration, craft, politcs, sound sense, healing, and more.
Listen to this Interview (MP3)
28:00
DK "Parallax"
[reading follows]
BR


Thank you. We’re here today with Donald Kentop, a poet. I like that poem, Donald. That’s formal poetry, we don’t hear that much these days. Is there a name for that form?
DK


You know, as I look at it, it’s rhymed couplets, iambic pentameter, it doesn’t have a particular line length restriction—
BR





That’s interesting… as I teach my students, most formal poems are not in recognizable fixed forms, but in forms invented for the poem. People—seems like in school they always encounter the definitions of fixed form along with learning about meter, and they assume you have to be writing a villanelle or something. Makes it three times harder in a way…
DK


Well, this poem has ten lines, and I wasn’t forced to write four more, so… maybe it’s a little better than if I had stretched it to fourteen.
BR





I liked it. It sounds very good. I like the way some of lines go up over the rhymed sound into the next line, you know. I liked that. When you talk about poetry, I’ve heard you use the phrase "point of view" which I’m used to associating with fiction, but I think you feel that a poet needs to have a strong point of view, or assume a point of view in each poem?
DK





It seems to me that that’s what moves me to write poems: a feeling, a point of view, to say something, to express an emotion. Although I’ve been told that my poems aren’t critical or negative in their approach, I personally feel that lots of them are. They make comments about human behavior that I choose to put down in writing.
BR


Well, I think we’re all sort of oppressed by a sort of social etiquette that would have us be positive all the time which is of course neither possible nor true…
DK







I also think that the person who was speaking to me at that time, was comparing my poetry to a lot of the political rage-filled poems that one hears at local poetry readings. And perhaps compared to those, it isn’t very loud or biting or critical… but I feel they contain a lot of social commentary, a lot of sarcasm, on my part, for which I feel a little guilty, but compared to some things I’ve heard perhaps they would seem a little milder to someone.
BR


But they’re not accusatory, you’re not accusing the reader, you know, "you killed him, you in the gray flannel suit." Do you remember that poem?
DK











No, I don’t remember that poem, but I do remember my gray flannel suits, which I don’t have any more. But, yes, I’ve heard lots and lots of poems like that. Not too long ago I was sitting with someone who read a particularly strong political poem to me and told me that it had been praised, and I asked by who, and they told my who had praised it, and it was someone very active in political circles, and without saying this to the person I thought to myself, ‘Well yes, this poem fulfills that political objective, but as a poem?" And that’s what I’m interested in, I’m interested in poetry more than politics. And I thought as a poem it may have filled someone’s political purpose but it didn’t fulfill the purpose of poetry… at least the way I see it.
BR







Yes I’m glad to hear you say that. I feel that way so often but… people do tend to respond favorably to sentiments they recognize. And I feel maybe that fewer and fewer people seem to care about poetry as poetry. It’s a different kind of experience I think than listening to someone say something you agree with… and that’s one thing I think that’s exciting about these interviews is that one doesn’t hear writers talking quite enough about their aesthetic and their beliefs.
How do you conceive of a poem? I know you revise quite a bit … to what lengths do you revise?
DK


















I’m working on two poems right now. Two sonnets. The first time I’ve written two sequential sonnets. I’d like them of course to stand separately but they are related and it would be better to read the first one before the second one. It’s a family story, about a death of a young man. And… something that happened many years ago, I think about 1920. To an uncle of my wife, before he was ever called uncle by anyone. And, it seemed to be something sad that was in the family and never spoken about, and I felt that feeling and decided to give voice to it in this particular poem. I never knew the person, my wife never knew Uncle Bert, as he is referred to in the family. And yet, by the time I got finished writing that poem, I felt I had known him and missed him. The poem, and perhaps poetry in general takes these wide, diffuse feelings, a death from long ago, and just coalesced it into a point and it was driven home very sharply after the poem was finished. We were both moved by the poem. I grieved the death of someone who was only a name, and did it through the poem—perhaps that’s sentimentality, but it was real, and it’s real in my house.
Grieving


















BR



Well it’s real sentiment. I don’t think it’s sentimental, I’ve seen the poem. How long did you have in mind that that was a possible subject for a poem? You must’ve known the story for many years.
DK










I knew the story for years. And only in the last few weeks did it kind of bubble up to the surface as a possible subject for a poem. My initial interest in it was the idea of someone healthy, unafraid, falling asleep, sleeping, and dying. And what is—is there any difference between a good restful sleep and death? And I was very intrigued by that idea, and initially tried to do it all in one sonnet, and realized that it was not possible to do, so the first sonnet deals with the circumstances of the death, the second sonnet deals more with this perplexing idea that… he doesn’t even know he’s dead. It’s a foolish thing to say, but it’s that that intrigued me about it.
BR


Why do you think it is that you write formal poetry, rather than free verse, which has been so much the dominant form for the last seventy years or so?
DK










If this were television people would know by looking at me, that’s the first thing, I’m not a young man anymore. I spent a lot of time when I was growing up, reading anthologies. The basic ones, the Romantics in college… stayed up ‘til 2 or 3 in the morning, mooning and pining with the Romantics, with Keats and Shelley, and somehow it became imprinted. And I struggle with it… not to overcome it, but to go beyond it, to use it and not be restricted by it, and it’s a constant factor in my writing that I have to be aware of. But oh, it’s convenient sometimes. I know why they liked words like, o’er and e’er, and when one’s rhyming or writing in meter, they’re very handy.
BR







Well, yeah, but we have our own different contractions and things. But I know it’s a danger to be archaic in one’s diction. But I believe that traditional forms can be made new, and I think that there’re maybe some American things to be done with sonnets, kind of like a jazz musician would play—improvise with a tune. You’re not confessing that you used to be a songwriter and that also must be part of why poetry to you mainly means formal poetry.
DK


Yes, yes… the form of the ballad is very familiar to me. I haven’t written songs in a long time, but I think that’s something that I have to live down…
BR






Oh, I’m very intrigued by it, and maybe have in common with you that I really got into poetry because I love ballads. If I could’ve been a singer, I would’ve been a singer. But, I couldn’t do that, so in my sort of repressed way, I just wrote. And it was mainly folk ballads with me, that was part of my generation too, we loved that music, and so that was the kind of poetry I wrote first.
DK




When I did this in New York, it was in my college years and a couple of years thereafter, with a friend and partner. We were particularly interested in show music. And that dramatic use of music and lyrics really appealed to us, more so than the popular song. We did… I would think, close to 40 songs.
BR Did you write music also, or were you just the lyricist?
DK Just the lyrics.
BR

Do you like Brecht, and the Three Penny Opera? those were things that influence me a lot.
DK Yes, yes.
BR



And so, that all makes it in a way part of performance. I know that you’re a very effective performer. Anybody listening to you now knows that you have a great voice. What do you think about poetry as literature, versus poetry as performance?
DK












When I write, I have very much in mind an audience. Perhaps that comes from some basic need for approval, but it also comes from the time that I was writing lyrics, and trying to sell them, and hearing "Well, that’s very nice, but it’s not commercial," which was the stock answer that publishers would give us there, in the Brill Building… off Broadway or 7th Avenue someplace, near the Times Square Area of New York. "It’s not commercial." So I wrote, trying to be commercial, which may still influence me, in a good and bad way. In a good way, because I care that people understand what I’m doing, I have something to say that requires an audience. The down side of it may be that, one could carry that too far, and risk being trite or trendy. Trying to please too hard.
BR


So, you write for an audience. Do you feel that you write your poems to be performed? I mean… would they be just as well received just being read?
DK




We’ll find out. Because I’m going to be publishing about 37, 38 poems in two or three months with Rose Alley Press, so we’ll find out how they look on the page. That’s an interesting question, Belle. The poems may not stand up on paper as well as they do when I’m reading them myself. We’ll see.
BR








No, I actually think they do. But I was interested in how you felt about that… I think because of the slam poetry scene, and there’s an awful lot of poetry in performance, that seems actually to me more like monologue, than poetry, and that’s certainly not true of yours. But some people seem to feel as if performance is for them publication. And I don’t think you’re one of them, your poems are pretty literary, they’re very musical… we’ve talked about that a little. But, do you hear them as a sound in your head first?
DK





No I don’t think—well, that’s not true… I can think of one instance where a word or… what’s that word, ‘meniscus.’ "The golden meniscus…" was a phrase that I fell in love with, and actually wrote a poem springing from that almost Dylan Thomas type of feeling. "The golden meniscus trembling brightly breaks." I love saying that.
BR

Ah yes. So you kind of recognize that, you’re saying by the sound. Do you have that poem here?
DK

No, I’m sorry I don’t, and I don’t have them committed to memory.
BR


Well, ‘the golden meniscus trembling breaks’ might be plenty. How do you usually get your ideas for poems, I mean, how do you recognize when something’s a poem?
DK













You know, Belle, I don’t know how to answer that. I have experiences in my head. Maybe it comes from story telling, maybe they stick in my head because they strike me as curious or amusing and I tuck them away because I plan to tell someone this story in conversation. It’s a form of showing off, I think. And I tuck these away, these little gags… they’ll come in handy some day. And they include thoughts and ironies and observations about people around me and that become the kit from which I pull a poem, but I just can’t recall them readily. When I write a poem, it frequently is something from that bag that may be old that I’ve forgotten about, but it’s there. A phrase, a little—a story, a joke, that amused me and then caught my imagination in some way, and then I’ll work that into a poem.
BR And so, it’s a way of talking, in a way.
DK











Well, I’m looking at a poem right here in front of us called "Ritchie’s Mother." And in this particular version it’s in a prose form, and it’s based on something that I used to see quite a bit in front of my house in Brooklyn, New York, when I was growing up, and that was, one of the moms would follow their son down the street with a glass of milk… calling after him to drink his milk. Couldn’t imagine anything more humiliating to a young man, in front of his friends and neighbors. And yet it took place. I never forgot that story. I told it from time to time, because it seemed to reveal something about human nature, both Ritchie and his mother, and then one day it came to me, ‘ah… this little slice of life can be a poem.’
BR Why don’t you read that one, I know you’ve got it here.
DK "Ritchie’s Mother."
[reading follows]
DK Survivor’s guilt.
BR




Well… "Parallax" has something to do with guilt too, in childhood, this kind of confused feeling to blame without even having anything to put it in focus. Which is a feeling that I associate with childhood. You speak sometimes about poetry as healing. Is that one of the ways you think of it?
DK












That’s an interesting subject and question. I’ve been at poetry readings where they have been specifically read, and written as part of the healing process. That’s not the motivation for me to write a poem. It might be—there might be a wound there that causes one to explore a particular subject, and I think perhaps healing, or understanding, reconciliation, might be one of the byproducts. I don’t see starting out a poem with the idea of healing something. Not one of my poems, and I certainly don’t want to sit in on someone else’s poetical therapy session. But I do think the process of writing, thinking, reconciling, is healing and can be healing for people, but I would consider it a byproduct. The product itself, to me, are the that poems we’re looking at right now.
BR

Just the made thing, the thing as a kind of object, that it can exist apart from you, is that what—?
DK












Very much. Very much. The idea that I don’t have to craft something because, what comes out of my mouth because it’s sincere—and every human mouth because every human being is intrinsically worth while, which is, perhaps true, carried to that extreme in poetry means that everything we say, everything we declare to be poetry or poetical is poetry. And I just don’t feel that way. I do have a very strong sense of poems as made things. Perhaps the best ones appear the most easily, or less made. Nevertheless, they to me are made things. And I would use the word ‘craft’ involved in it. I think, in many ways, this idea of the intrinsic self-worth of a poetical expression, is very egotistical. And perhaps lazy to my way or thinking.
BR










I’m really with you. I have a strong impulse to make something autonomous that can exist apart from me. And yet, it is true, when I go to open mics, I can see that there is a value in people using this as a form of expression. You hear people at least—as extemporaneous and kinda slipshod craft as might be exhibited— people at least seem to think that poems are places to be candid. And it’s kind of refreshing to hear people relate on that basis. But, you know, for you and I, we think, ‘but that’s not going to last,’ we’re interested in making poems that will—perhaps, it seems presumptious to think so, but, might survive us.
DK












It’s taken me a long time to reconcile this, so that, when I go to a reading I can enjoy it, I can listen, and, the committee in my head, the debate, the internal criticism, is much less than it used to be—it doesn’t mean that I’ve suspended my discernment, it just means that the emotional baggage that goes along with my… curmudgeonliness is more controlled than it used to be, or less troublesome to me. I enjoy going to the readings, and I consider it a good day for me when I go and listen, and leave, having enjoyed myself without feeling a need to analyze too much what I’ve heard. So… yes, and I admire people, and I really appreciate their interest and their love of poetry, for whatever reason they choose to stand up and put forth at a microphone.
BR


Well your own poetry sounds pretty darn good at the microphone, and you told us that you had a book coming out but, you didn’t say what the title was going to be.
DK











You know, I was speaking to David Horowitz from Rose Alley Press who is going to publish it. We have two titles that are fairly close. One is called On Paper Wings. It lends itself to a cover, the certain fragility, the poems, the words are on paper wings, sometimes our lives seem to be suspended very precariously above the earth, and it captures something of the poems in the collection. And the other is Stars at Noon. David likes that one better than Paper Wings because he feels it represents the overall mood of the collection, he feels there’s a lot of spirituality in it, and, Stars at Noon of course we can’t see the stars at noon although we know they’re there, there’s a reality that we may be unaware of—
BR

Does that come from one of your poems? That image of stars at noon?
DK



Yes it does. It comes from a poem called "The Well Digger." It’s the last line of "The Well Digger:" "He returns to his well, there shouldered safe in earth, and looks above to see the stars ablaze at noon." Paraphrased.
BR

And is "Paper Wings," is that a line or an image in one of your poems?
DK Yes. A poem called "Poppies." The last stanza, which reads…
BR

Listen, why don’t you read the whole poem. I want to hear "Poppies."
DK

Alright. Now, "Poppies" has been edited somewhat, but the original poem goes like this:
[reading]
BR

Thank you very much. Donald Kentop. It’s been great talking to you.
DK Thank you.
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