Writing as Permission

Kenny Likis long ago wrote his master’s thesis on Robert Creeley. He’s read contemporary poets obsessively since, but focused on reading, not writing. Early in the pandemic, he leaped before he looked and began writing poems. He is now working hard to make up for lost time. “Dear Joe,” his homage to Joe Brainard, appeared in Caustic Frolic Fall 2021.

Kenny and his wife Lori live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where they have stuffed their home with books, records, folk art, and baseball gloves.

Read Kenny’s work in this issue:

Rainmaker / Body and Soul / We Workshopped Poems

Kenny says: I’ve spent decades reading poetry and less than two years writing it. Because my reading experience far outstrips my writing experience, I need most of all to give myself permission to write.

Discovering the world of independent poetry workshops (online, during the pandemic) has given me communities that encourage me to write. Workshops make the practice of writing poems less solitary and esoteric. They have long played a central role in creative writing, and now I understand why.

I also tend to write “under the spell” of one poet or another. James Tate’s prose poems, for example, many of which read like tall tales, inspired “Rainmaker.” I wrote it with his mastery and mischief in mind.

Similarly, I drafted “We Workshopped Poems” after encountering Patricia Lockwood’s poem “The Arch” in a workshop and then reading her book Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals. Her strategies and riffs helped me find a cadence for a mock anthem of the workshop experience.

I dedicated “Body and Soul” to Charles Simic  because it owes its existence to a comment by him that stuck in my head. In an interview, Sherod Santos asks him about the influence of jazz on his work. Simic replies:

The poet is really not much different from that tenor player who gets up in a half-empty, smoke-filled dive at two in the morning to play the millionth rendition of “Body and Soul.” . . .  It’s the same old thing which is always significantly different.

By writing poems modeled after, or in conversation with, poems by poets I admire, I celebrate their work. At the same time, paying homage in my poems helps validate my work. Their art helps convince me of the legitimacy of mine.

That last point is important, because, for me, writing poetry feels Sisyphean. Needling voices say who needs another poet? Why would anyone want to hear anything you have to say? The counter is a poem I am glad I wrote and am happy to share. If it speaks to others, all the better.

Kenny grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. He supports the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, and in 2018 attended the opening of the EJI’s Lynching Memorial (National Memorial for Peace and Justice) and Antiracism Museum (Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration).

Kenny would also like to spotlight Harvard Bookstore (or the independent bookstore of your choice) and 826 National, a nonprofit that helps students improve their expository and creative writing skills.

Riddled with Arrows 5.2: “Spotlight 2022”
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