Write from the heart

Ann Keniston

Dr. Ann Keniston is a poet who moved from Boston to Reno three years ago. She teaches English and creative writing at the University of Nevada, Reno, and she just published her first book of poetry, The Caution of Human Gestures. Keniston took a few minutes at a coffeehouse to talk shop about writing poems.

Do you find it different writing poems in Reno than in Boston?

I don’t really write about landscape very much, or place, but I do tend to have a lot of open vistas, and I’ve shown some of the poems I’ve written in the last couple years to some friends in Boston, and they’re like, “Wow, your work has really changed.” There are definitely mountains and clouds and things like that, even though they’re sort of a background.

Some of your poems are about pretty personal subject matter. When you’re writing, are you more exploring your own thoughts or specifically wanting to tell something to an audience?

I think when I sit down to write, I do want to sort of explore something and come to some understanding. … I definitely don’t write just for myself, but I don’t think there’s a moment where I have to make this palatable for everybody. I had a wonderful teacher in grad school, named Gallway Kinnell, who said, “Poetry is telling everyone what you can’t tell anyone.” …. It’s a very scary conception because it means that you’re revealing all your secrets to people, which I often feel that I’m doing. … It also is a way that he makes poetry the most important of all the arts because it is the place where you’re most, sort of, naked. I guess there’s not really a split between writing for me and writing for everyone.

You often mention failures and errors and imperfection, but it doesn’t come across like you’re dwelling on them. Are you trying to somehow redefine ideas about failure?

I feel like part of growing older, for me, has been, first of all, realizing how much hasn’t gone wrong, you know, how much I’ve been spared from. And I think when I was younger, I actually felt like I had a really hard life, and I suffered in all these ways, and part of growing up is realizing, first of all, there are all these catastrophes that didn’t happen. I think something that’s related to that is realizing that I’m not a perfect person … and I’m just trying to accept the way that I am.

That’s the impression I get from your work. It doesn’t seem like you’re complaining.

I was giving a reading in Boston awhile ago and a good friend of mine, who I’ve shared work with for years, said I was just incredibly good at characterizing all different kinds of suffering. And I was kind of a little offended, I must say. I do think that’s part of just growing up and feeling like an adult. Not that failures are all totally wonderful, but just sort of trying to find some balance, I guess.