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Tears of Triumph

Anne Kennedy performing at Poetry Live in Auckland. Photo: MW Sellwood.
Anne Kennedy is no stranger to success - but her latest accolade stopped her in her tracks. Find out why she's "still reeling."

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Whatever you do, don’t tell Anne Kennedy to stay in her lane.

Any sentence starting with “you’re just a…” or “stick to…” is unlikely to bear much fruit in a conversation with her.

Kennedy’s varied career has seen her win national honours for fiction novels, short stories and poetry - not to mention write screenplays, teach both here in and in the U.S., judge some of the country’s most prestigious literary awards and feature roles in a host of festivals and residencies.

“I don’t identify with one form or genre more than another,” Kennedy declares to The Big Idea. “It’s like doing different tasks in the house. You cook, you do the washing, they’re different but equally necessary, and linked because – well, it’s running the house. 

“For me, the link in my writing is narrative; I love a good story. My poetry tends to tell stories, even if unconventional ones.”

Her creative journey has never stood still or followed a script. Mainly because she admits she didn’t have one.

“I’ve never planned anything. Probably should have. But I’ve been really lucky to have opportunities, and I learned early on to say yes to them – after saying no a few times; don’t do that! 

“I never take anything for granted and having a book out is still a miracle.”  

Brought to tears

There’s no question Kennedy is the type to savour the moment. 

Much like the moment she discovered she was being honoured as the poetry recipient in this year’s Prime Minister’s Awards for Literary Achievement. The accolade means “more than I can say”, explains Kennedy.

“I cried when they called me. I guess it means something in my poetry is being read, and as a writer, what more can you ask? It’s an honour on any level if someone reads you. I also feel grateful to live in a country where there’s state funding for the arts. That doesn’t happen everywhere. 

“This award makes a huge difference to me. Altogether, I’m still reeling.”   

Anne Kennedy and some of her recent releases. Photo: Supplied.

Her skills have taken her around the world - with residencies and teaching positions in both Iowa and Hawai’i, which has played a crucial role in her growth as a creative.

“Place is probably the most important thing for me in my writing. A long time ago, I realised I wanted to represent here, particularly from a settler point of view. But here isn’t just Aotearoa, it’s the Pacific.

“Living in Hawai`i for ten years had a huge influence on my life and thinking. I literally looked ‘down’ into the Pacific from a US state, rather than looking ‘up’ at it from a former British colony - a complicated situation to put it mildly. 

“I still write about the landscape and how we live on it socially, politically, ecologically. Long may it continue!”

Working into the unknown

Of course, those international opportunities have been somewhat limited since roughly March last year. Kennedy is glad to be based in a country where COVID has been managed “so incredibly well”, currently based in Tāmaki Makaurau, working on a couple of writing projects.

While she finds the ability “to make a point in a new way about how we live, and for that to be read by another person” as incredibly rewarding, Kennedy still has challenges she regularly confronts, just like any creative. 

“For me, creative writing isn’t always fun, it’s working into the unknown, and I hate work, and I’m terrified of the unknown. But I realised a long time ago that not doing it is worse!” - adding “it is fun sometimes.”

While many feel the collective pressure to follow a ‘proper career’ away from the creative arts - Kennedy was never steered away from following her passion.

“Because of my age, class and ethnicity, I was very free as a young person. It was so easy in those days for someone like me. And perhaps being the youngest in a big family meant no one had any expectations of me, I could go my own merry way. 

“But the world has changed, and it’s so hard for young people trying to work creatively. 

“Apart from the enormous financial difficulty, it seems that true creativity - making things, writing things – is undervalued while marketing is elevated. I see it all the time, and it breaks my heart.”

Tips from the top

Having given so much of her time to mentoring, teaching and supporting the next generation of writers - Kennedy is never short of a word of encouragement.

Her first piece of advice - read. “I’ve never met a writer who isn’t also a voracious reader. Reading is part of your work. You write because you read. 

“A few of my favourites are Albert Wendt’s The Adventures of Vela, The Golden Gate, by Vikram Seth, and a blast from the past, Goblin Market by Christina Rosetti – one of the few women to be celebrated for narrative poetry. And many contemporary narrative poems from Aotearoa.

“Secondly, don’t wait for inspiration to fall from the sky like manna from heaven. It might not. Keeping trying things out and developing the ideas you do have.”

Kennedy also recommends seeking out fellow writers or even joining a writing group - ”even though you write alone, writing is about communication.” 

She continues, “don’t let rejection get to you. I’ve seen so many people knocked back by that. My rejections are legion. You have to pick yourself up and keep going. 

“And lastly - be humble. Take on board advice from people whose opinion you respect.”  

 

 
The 2021 Prime Minister’s Awards for Literary Achievement recipients - Dame Claudia Orange (non-fiction), Anne Kennedy (poetry) and David Hill (fiction) - along with Michael King Writers Fellowship winner Dr Monty Soutar came together for an engaging panel discussion, with live readings and answering questions from the creative community - you can watch it here.
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