NYSOM Contributor Ethan Shantie sat down for a conversation with Dr. Maurice Kenny, his former professor at SUNY Potsdam. A Pulitzer Prize-nominated poet, Dr. Kenny is a 2014 inductee into the New York Writers Hall of Fame.
I had been putting off conducting an interview with Dr. Maurice Kenny when I hit a deer on the way to work one morning. Five a.m. I took it as a sign.
Dr. Kenny, or “Kenny,” as I’ve always known him, is in his mid-80s. As grandchildren tend to be, I was worried about his health — not that he actually is my grandfather, but as I’ve never known any of the four grandparents to which I was born, Kenny served as a fine surrogate.
I waited a few more days while getting the wreckage of the truck collected before I finally called him to break the bad news that my chances of driving down to New York City for his induction into the New York Writers Hall of Fame were slim. The phone call confirmed my earlier suspicions. He told me that he had been sick for days and had to cancel a poetry reading performance in Potsdam, NY.
But as he always did, he bounced back by the next time we spoke and was as sprightly as ever. He is a charismatic man and though I have heard a hitch in his voice when he talks on a particularly sore subject, he has never been one with whom I would associate the word meek. My old man would call him a tough old bird if ever there was one. And he certainly is.
Though well under six feet tall, he speaks in a loud, booming voice when necessary, and when he reads from a poem, whether the words are his own or another’s, one cannot help but feel captivated. And it’s no exaggeration whatsoever that I’ve learned almost everything I know about the written word from him. I was a student of Kenny’s for four years: two as an undergraduate, and two as a post-graduate, during which time I continued to attend writing workshops at his apartment across from the SUNY Potsdam campus. Though initially I was intimidated by him, as are all of his students, the fear quickly faded. He became not just a professor, but a friend. A close confidant.
Kenny had been teaching at the University for 11 years before I finally got into one of his classes, on the insistence of a fellow student. “You have to take a class with Kenny before you graduate — or before he retires,” my classmate said. At that point it seemed like the professor was always on the verge of retirement, that the next workshop might be his last, so I wasted no time.
Based merely on that recommendation, I scheduled a meeting with Kenny as soon as humanly possible, without any real knowledge of his resume and professional reputation. He is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated poet, whose collection of works can barely be contained by an eight-foot-tall bookcase in his apartment, and who today will have his name forged in our state’s Writers Hall of Fame alongside Toni Morrison, Kurt Vonnegut, Walt Whitman, E.B. White and dozens of others.
I knocked on his office door, a typical 20-year-old student, and he welcomed me in. He asked me who I liked to read and, upon hearing my response, he laughed heartily. Nearly every day since he has told me that I read nothing but shit. It’s a running joke we have, and I’m glad it has stayed consistent; it would worry me if it didn’t. But out of luck or talent or whatever he saw, Kenny allowed me into his Fiction 301 workshop, and we have been close ever since.
His teaching did not stop at the classroom door. My education extended into long office hours during which he laboriously plodded through my rough drafts and read my writing back to me in a poetic voice I didn’t know my words could achieve. He edited out my bad language. He took away my “ands,” “buts,” and commas. Office hours became independent workshops with select other students on Thursday nights in his apartment. A homemade meal, a roundtable critique of our work, and then a game of Hearts.
Even now, out of college for as long as I was in, my skin begins to crawl if I don’t keep myself busy on Thursday nights. One night, our student group asked Kenny why he bothered to do hold those sessions. Why he would use his precious free time to cook meals for us poor college students. As it turned out, Kenny had a professor who cooked dinner for a talented few each week and never asked anything in return, only that if ever they became teachers, they would pass along the same kindness.
And he has. I was not the first student to develop my voice under Kenny’s tutelage. He would regale us with stories of pupils past who sat right where we were, of the poems and fictions and excuses they had shared. My classmates and I in his final years at SUNY Potsdam were the last in a long line that extends throughout New York State (Paul Smith’s College and North Country Community College), into British Columbia, and as far west as the University of Oklahoma.
When Dr. Kenny and I were finally able to catch each other on the phone for this interview, he told me that he couldn’t remember all of the places where he taught. The schools that granted him a Writer in Residence title are innumerable, whether the fellowship lasted two weeks, a month, six months, or in the case of SUNY Potsdam, 14 years.
“I hate interviews, by the way,” he says while laughing. It’s a thick, soulful. You likely would not know his age unless you had otherwise been made aware. He claims his voice used to be better, but to me it’s comforting. We laugh together and I tell him I’ll keep it brief.
Kenny tells me that he received his honorary doctorate from his alma mater, St. Lawrence University, in the early 1990s. A few colleagues who were familiar with his work thought that his writing was of such a quality that he had earned a doctorate without any further need for study. Despite the pedagogical title, he never intended to teach in the first place.
He says that at that point in his life, he hated teaching: “I never had a single solitary intention of teaching, I was going to get rich on writing poetry.” And for quite a while he did make a living. For 20 years or so he was living exactly the life he wanted — making money off his poetry and traveling around the country to read in front of people who adored his work. No bosses. No nine-to-five bullshit. A poet’s life. But age and a relentless performance schedule took him off the road.
“You don’t eat, you don’t sleep, you don’t have your family. It’s not really a good life. I believed in my work strongly and I will do anything to protect it, short of killing someone — and I have socked a few guys on the chin because of it; you forget I was a drinker at one time.” We laugh about that, too. “I came to Saranac Lake in 1985. The first couple of years while I was at North Country [Community College] and Paul Smith’s [College], I still traveled quite a bit. And then I went to Oklahoma [and] I started traveling less, and by the time I got to Potsdam … [I thought] I’m getting tired, I don’t want to travel, so I turned a lot of things down. I pretty much wouldn’t go out of New York or Vermont. I was really involved with what I did and how I worked and how I made my students work.” He came to love teach, and now regrets retiring.
But he has never stopped writing. Like all good artists, it bothers him when he can’t practice. When he’s not putting pen to paper — a process that includes taking off his glasses and then putting them back on to stare at his words, then to gaze out the window, and again stare at the words — he gets the itch. He’s into his seventh decade as a writer, having first published a poem at age 12 in Syracuse’s Post-Standard. “It was [a story] about my mailbox that I never got any mail in. I had been reading Robert Frost and I thought I should be getting lots of mail and I never did.” He received one dollar as payment.
“Other things interfere with writing,” he notes, “like liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But I am always writing. I’m always writing something. I tear up a lot [of drafts]. And right now I’m working on this biography and it’s very personal and I don’t necessarily write personal stuff. I’m really basically a shy guy; I just defend myself by being a loud guy.” And is he ever. You wouldn’t know that he’s reserved by talking to him. He certainly has a healthy ego, but not in a resumptuous way. He’s playful about it. He’s flirted with every girlfriend I’ve ever had and further admonishes me for not writing them love poems.
But in his heart he is shy and he is fallible. He questions himself as all thoughtful people do, but that has never hindered him from putting a poem in the mail. It’s not stopped him from publishing enough to fill a bookcase. And still, he was surprised to receive a letter notifying him of his induction into the New York Writer’s Hall of Fame.
Dr. Kenny’s initial reaction was one many acclaimed writers must feel. “Do they have the right person? I’m really flabbergasted. And I sometimes just march up and down the room saying it can’t be true, they must have made a mistake. Not that it doesn’t please me. Greatly it does. But I never expected this kind of thing. And when you look and see the names that are there [in the Hall of Fame] — Herman Melville, Toni Morrison — people who I’ve admired most of my writing life and I’ll be standing next to them after June 3rd, that’s almost immoral I think! I’ve cried a few times.”
The information has had a few months to set in, but still, he says, “It’s something like a dream. I used to have these dreams where I flew [as if] over a Broadway theater, and as I flew the audience would clap. And I would think, Hey! That means I’m gonna be famous. Or I’d be climbing up the walls of a huge building and there would always be people looking up and wondering when I was gonna fall. And I still have those dreams. And I know they relate to my art, my writing. They have to … When I’m working, when I’m writing, I [don’t] worry about any of that extra nonsense that goes with writing, getting published, making money. Am I gonna win awards? I don’t think I do. Write for yourself. You write for yourself. And then you hope that afterwards at least someone will like it, at least your momma will like it.”
Of his induction, he says that he still gets sad because his father is not here to see it, to have at least read the [induction] letter. As a student, as a friend, I’ve sat listening to him talk about his old man for hours. How he was a hard man, a businessman, this and that and the other thing. How he gave young Maurice a year to go down to New York City so he could try to make it as an actor, and came to collect him when the year was up to bring him back to the North Country to attend university.
His father, as all our fathers do, had a profound impact on his writing. Kenny recalls a reading he and I did together in Potsdam at a tiny, packed nightclub. “Your dad was so proud of you,” he says. “I wished he was mine. I’m very sensitive and I am very shy. All the bombast is to hide it.” That reading was a crowning achievement for me. And if I never accomplish anything else, I will be able to say that I opened for Dr. Maurice Kenny, by reading my poems in front of him, and then introducing him to the stage. I sat in that audience which was brought to tears, breathless, as he read a Holocaust poem and screamed “Jesus Christ!” and nearly knocked over a podium in his fervor.
I didn’t know that attending Fiction 301 class would provide for me a connection that would fundamentally change the course of my life. I didn’t expect, either, that I would be making a friend who has had such a profound reach; he has traveled the globe to read poems, and some of those books on his shelf are published in a foreign tongue. Hundreds of students have sat in desks before him and become better writers, and more importantly, better and more thoughtful individuals as a result.
Not bad for a short dude from Watertown, New York. The good news is I’ve got a new car and we’re driving together down to the induction ceremony in New York City.
I told him I’ll buy a suit, but I’m not shaving the beard.
“Keep your bloody beard,” he says. “I may just grow one myself.”
And we laugh about that, too.