Lewis Kenny is done with poetry. For good
In April, Irish poetry superstar Lewis Kenny quit spoken word. He speaks candidly to Adam Lawler about his decision, the tragedy of making a career out of your passion, and the future of the Intervarsity Slam… as well as his own future in men’s knitwear.
It’s a special kind of gut punch, when the scene loses one of its guiding hands. It enters in an indiscriminate stab and twists viscerally, pricking a bit more every time you remember yet another vital structure, built with care by someone who was committed to moving the scene forward, now abandoned.
Lewis Kenny has built a lot of structures. A vastly truncated list of his many achievements in his time on the spoken word scene include founding the Intervarsity Slam and OutStraight, making several radio and TV appearances, writing advertising campaigns, and sharing a stage with Hozier. For a while it looked like he couldn’t be stopped, and as one of the only Irish poets to carve an actual career path out of spoken word poetry, no one wanted him to, either. It was fascinating, wondering where he could go next, because it was all to play for; no one in Ireland had really done it before, and if they did, they rarely achieved the kind of success that Kenny has in a relatively short time. For a scene borne of — and still living in — basements and frustrating obscurity, he was a beacon.
He wrote his official resignation from the poetry scene on Facebook, quoted Humans of New York and posted it on April Fool’s Day. The post was the shrug of a lad brushing off his friends’ questions about his messy break-up; short, sullen, pregnant with subtext but signalling explicitly that he just wanted it to be over. You’d be forgiven for thinking he was joking.
BND reached out to Kenny for answers, and if there’s one thing we learned from what he said (and he said quite a lot), it’s that he’s dead serious, and he isn’t changing his mind anytime soon. The images he sent to accompany this interview were so hilariously anti-self-promo that you just have to respect it, so it should be assumed that it’s very official. Lewis Kenny is quitting poetry. It’s natural to have questions when a key player in the scene drops off like this; why? What’s next? What about what you’re leaving behind? We hope to answer these questions and, as are the conditions under which he does his best work, just let the man speak.
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Hi Lewis. How are you? What kind of headspace are you in?
Yeah good, bit up and down at the minute. Making some big changes in my life's direction at the moment so just adjusting to it, I suppose.
Can you tell us about your decision to quit poetry? What led to it, your thought process leading to your announcement?
I think it had been something that was coming for a while. I don't really have the energy for it anymore. Spoken word for me has become really safe, comfortable. Only things I write are what other people ask me to do. Fuck that like. Suppose I just want a new challenge and a change of identity.
I started going to poetry nights when I was 18, crammed into art studios and basements, drinking cans with people of all walks of life. Pettycash, Words in the Warehouse, Monday Night Echo, Slam Sunday were the regular nights. They were raw, blending age, race, gender in a melting pot. It was the counterculture I fell in love with. Reciting poems at 3am on the steps of Powerscourt, madouahdebracket, howling at moons and chewing the jaws off ourselves till the sun came up. It was purpose and joy in a life that was previously lacking for me. I'd found my tribe.
I think as the years went by, and the popularity of spoken word rose, there was a sense about the community that a living was actually possible from this, including myself. I got really swept up in it. I started looking at what my own brand was, what I can and can’t write about, how will this hit home with an audience, etc. I started looking at other poets as rivals, any success they had made me feel bitter and resentful, and worthless. I hated this feeling. For the last two years I've been getting some fairly big commission nixers. One of these was for the Dublin Chamber of Commerce where I was asked to add a line that "Dublin is great for business". I remember that as a turning point for me, where I was like "what the fuck am I doing?"
Outwardly I presented myself as proud, and told myself that this doesn't detract from my own work, but in all honesty, I haven't been writing at all. It's not enjoyable for me anymore. It's gotten to a point where I can't even read or watch poetry videos anymore without feeling horrible. It's a hard thing to do the thing you love as a job. I did it and it destroyed poetry for me.
“It's a hard thing to do the thing you love as a job. I did it and it destroyed poetry for me”
What’s it been like since announcing your decision? The reaction, your feelings about it over the last almost three months?
Yeah it's been grand, I posted up about quitting on April Fool’s Day so that kinda threw everyone off. Personally I'm a bit all over the place at the moment but hoping it'll all settle down by September. Most other poets seemed a bit shocked, say I'm just taking a break and I’ll come back to it. Maybe I will, but I doubt it to be honest.
You mentioned in your post that one of the reasons behind the decision was that you needed a break. Can you paint a picture of what it’s been like to grind away over the past six years?
It's exhausting work to be your own boss; your business is yourself and then that becomes your identity. For the last six years I’ve been "Lewis Kenny Poet". I spent most of my days answering e-mails, making fuck all art, fuck all money and feeling like a failure. Fuck that.
You’re the originator of the Intervarsity Slam. What’s in the future for the Slam? What kind of involvement will you have in it, if any?
Don't know really, if anyone wants to come on board they're more than welcome. I think it needs some fresh faces as it's just been me for the last five years. The slam is a lot of work, a labour of love. I believe it's arguably one of the most important spoken words events, as an All-Ireland competition and as a platform for the country’s future voices, so I think it's crucial that it keeps going. Poetry Ireland were fantastic in supporting, but for it to continue to grow it'll need more funding and sponsorship, something I failed to do, so I think that's the next step, really.
“I spent most of my days answering e-mails, making fuck all art, fuck all money and feeling like a failure. Fuck that.”
Could you see the IV Slam broadening its horizons and collaborating with other bodies like Unislam?
That was the plan originally but it never materialised. The slam runs on a 300 euro budget, a third of which goes on the prize, another on travel and accommodation and the rest on design. Without proper sponsorship and better funding, it's a pipe dream.
You quote a Humans of New York post which touches on authenticity in art, ego, and vulnerability, as well as hinting at a changing scene. How much of yourself do you see in these sentiments?
Yeah, I relate to that a lot. I became a poet instead of somebody who does poetry and that can box you in, that becomes who you are. There's more to me than this, I also do knitting, spinning and weaving. I write plays and do gardening. Once I assumed the identity of poet, it slowly started to suck the joy out of everything I loved about it. Stephen Fry said it best:
“Oscar Wilde said that if you know what you want to be, then you inevitably become it - that is your punishment, but if you never know, then you can be anything. There is a truth to that. We are not nouns, we are verbs. I am not a thing - an actor, a writer - I am a person who does things - I write, I act - and I never know what I am going to do next. I think you can be imprisoned if you think of yourself as a noun.”
What do you see in your future? What do you hope to accomplish?
I wanna be Director of the Abbey, Ireland’s premier landscape gardener, men’s knitwear designer, and be miserable till I die. I have a play called ObSession and would love to do a run of that sometime. I'm gonna cycle round Ireland for a bit, then going back to college on the dole to study Horticulture.
Lastly, what have been some of your favourite moments of your poetry career? Ones that were particularly special, big or small?
I could rattle ye off my artist bio, but I’ll save ye the hassle. I dedicated my entire poetry career trying to build on the community, create opportunities for other artists, create platforms for other artists, creating connections between people. Colm Keegan once told me "A rising tide lifts all boats" so that's what I've always tried do. I once took acid and 5 yokes at a festival and performed a 40 minute set without a hitch. I got to become mates with Emmet Kirwan. I remember when I was only a youngfella staying up on school nights to watch Sarah & Steve; he was my hero. Some of my mates and family can't believe that I know him.
One time I did a script and V.O. commission and got ripped out of it by the Rubberbandits. In a tweet they said "... yer man narrating is hilarious". They didn't mean this in a flattering way. So, I took the tweet and put it in my artist bio. It now reads:
"Yer man is... hilarious" - The Rubberbandits
Was fairly proud of that one now.
Written by Adam Lawler