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My Geppetto: Nathan Jones on Kenneth Koch

by Nick Holloway

A series of interviews exploring the influences of some of our favourite artists and clever clogses... who is your Geppetto?

For this first in the series, we'll hear from Mercy Creative Director, Nathan Jones, who starts his role as Bluecoat Poet in Residence this month.

What artist / human / thing(s) are you most influenced by?

Kenneth Koch (portrait, by Alex Katz, above). Poet of the New York School.

What is it about him that you find intriguing?

His being! The way he carries his voice on the page. He is a beautiful, neurotic, incredulous, romantic curio of a man. Like a Woody Allen of poetry.

When I started to read his poems, I was struck by how easy he makes it seem. He starts with this kind of surrealist thing, but then as he gets older he gets much more discursive, and it's really like you have him in the room there with you, giving you advice and opening his heart to you and opining on life. Over his lifetime he achieves everything I could hope to achieve with poetry – a purity of voice, a bare and beautiful honesty, a disarming humour, surprisingly athletic vocabulary, an explosive poetic potential and above all, a simple, open humanity. As he puts it...

...Remember your obligation is to write,

And, in writing, to be serious without being asinine, particular

Without being picky, feminine without being effeminate,

Masculine without being brutish,

human while keeping all the animal graces

You had inside the womb, and beast-like without being inhuman.

Let your language be delectable always, and fresh and true.

Don't be conceited. Let your compassion guide you

And your excitement. And always bring your endeavours to their end.

(from 'The Art of Poetry')

I find it a little like meditation, or hanging out with an old friend, reading Kenneth while I mull a subject over.

If you were to pick the most important work by this person, what would it be?

I would say the book 'The Art of Love'. This is when his voice is at it's most confident and experimental. He is an older man talking to his younger self – and us - about the ways in which he has approached poetry and life. I count 'The Circus' as an huge influence. Even if just for its unabashed 'postmodernism'. At least I think that's what postmodernism is.

At every moment there are so many factors engaging our attention!

At every moment the happiness of others,

the health of those we know and our own!

And the millions of people we don't know

and their well-being to think about

So it seems strange I found time to write The Circus

And even spent two evenings on it, and that I also have time

To remember that I did it, and remember you and me then,

and write this poem about it

...A long time from now this poem wants to get off on its own

Someplace like a painting not held to a depiction of composing The Circus.

(from 'The Circus')

I love it! It is obviously very much a 'poet's poem', but aren't they all? He goes on, as is often the case, to talk about the artists he hung out with in 1950's New York, which is great from a biographical perspective if nothing else. O, I just want to quote the whole thing!

I never mentioned my friends in my poems at the time I wrote the Circus

Although they meant almost more than anything to me

Of this now for some time I have felt an attenuation

So I'm mentioning them maybe this will bring them back to me

Not them perhaps but what I felt about them

John Ashberry Jane Frielicher Larry Rivers Frank O'Hara

Their names alone bring tears to my eyes

As seeing Polly did last night

After this poem, he goes on to expound his theories on love (Tie your girl's hands behind her back and encourage her / To attempt to get loose. This will make her breasts look / Especially pretty, like the Parthenon at night), height (Many tiny people. In a little room make an amusing sight. Large / Persons, both male and female, are best seen out of doors) and schmoozing (Clasp other people's hands firmly / When you are introduced to them. Say 'I am glad to meet you!' / Be able to make a mouth and cheeks like a fish. It / Is entertaining).

It is a book to live your life by! And a chock full of suprising and pleasing lines. Thankyou Kenneth!

The most underestimated poem? And why?

This is a hard one. I think they're all underestimated, but I suppose there is this poem called 'Sleeping with Women' which you could misunderstand as a load of random words interspersed with 'sleeping with women'. But I think he uses the pace and atmosphere like a master:

Alone, sleeping with women, all he has wanted,

The dog-eyed fearless man.

Sleeping with them: as in The Perils of Pauline

Asleep with them: as in Tosca

Sleeping with women and causing all that trouble

As in Roumania, as in Yugoslavia

Asleep and sleeping with them

Anti-Semitic, and sleeping with women,

Pro-canary, Rashmon, Shakespere, tonight, sleeping with women

A big guy, sleeping with women...

(from 'Sleeping with Women')

The most over-rated? And why?

It's still a great poem, but 'One Train May Hide Another' because it's available on the internet as an mp3, so maybe more people have heard it. As an avid student of old Ken, I think his more obscure and longer works are better! Still worth it for his delivery though.

Kenneth Koch

What work of yours most bears evidence of this influence?

Most of the influence comes from reading Koch while mulling my own ideas, and it's about style and freedom, rather than content.

My poem/song Marriage, owes a lot to KK's Sleeping with Women. Me and Sarah Nicolls spoke about The Boiling Water (read it here) when we were coming up with the concept for my poem 'The Coming'. Here is a snippet of one of our practices...

Rehearsal of THE COMING (clip)
Nathan Jones with Sarah Nicolls on piano

In a much broader way though, Koch has given me the bravery and clarity to be true to my own voice in poetry, and not become too stodgy. So everything I have written since 2006 bears his stamp. He wrote this poem that me and a couple of contemporaries love, about a series of assaults on stodgy poets, called Fresh Air. That has been inspirational in stopping us using too many adjectives and staying 'fresh'.

Summer in the trees! “It's time to strangle several bad poets.”

The yellow hobbyhorse rocks to and fro, and from the chimney

Drops the Strangler! The white and pink roses

are slightly agitated by the struggle,

But afterwards beside the dead "poet" they

cuddle up comfortingly against their vase.

They are safer now, no one will compare them to the sea.

Please put any extra links below.....

Just google him. There's loads of stuff on the net, I have just noticed! Am going to read it all now.

This is a good site, generally: Poetry Foundation

O, and buy his Collected, it's on Amazon. Especially if you are a writer. You won't regret it!

You can see Nathan perform with Wave Machines at this years Latitude Festival – in the poetry tent at 8.30pm on Saturday, 18th July.

A blog accompanying his residency at the Bluecoat is right here: www.nathanatthebluecoat.wordpress.com.

His poems also feature in Mercy's latest poetry/illustration publication,
This Is A Little Book, available here.


    • Nathan Jones

    Yes. That's why Kenny is called Kenny.

    And not 'Kenny' as in Kensington, where real people come from, or 'Kenny' Ken Dod, or 'Kenny'-Ken. Also, he is called Len, Ben, Bengi, Brenda...

  1. so is that why kenny's called kenny?

  2. One of the most extraordinary things I've ever seen was Nathan breaking up a fight between two huge blokes in the FACT cafe. I thought about helping, but he seemed to have the situation in hand.

    Oh, and his beard too.