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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Steve Yates interviews Kevin Stewart and John Hennessy in the CL:

Writers Kevin Stewart and John Hennessy are about to do something rarely done. In one evening the two are determined to blend fiction and poetry on the same stage Thursday at and then again Friday at Square Books in Oxford. Both readings start at 5:30 p.m.

They are first-time authors. Hennessy's book of poems, Bridge and Tunnel ($17, paperback), is new from Turning Point Books. Stewart's collection of stories, The Way Things Always Happen Here ($16.50, paperback), is just out from Vandalia Press, a division of West Virginia University Press.

Hennessy, 42, lives in Amherst, Mass., and teaches at the University of Massachusetts. His poems have appeared in The Suwannee Review, The Yale Review, Best New Poets 2005 and elsewhere. Stewart, 45, teaches at Potomac State College of WVU in his native West Virginia. His stories have appeared in Shenandoah, Louisiana Literature and other journals, and his novella, Margot, won the Texas Review Press prize.

Q: A night of poetry and fiction. What inspired you two to tour around and mix things that aren't regularly mixed in one reading?

John: Kevin and I were the whole of our class of fiction students entering the University of Arkansas writing program in 1993-just the two of us. We hit it off immediately. It seems like more than just a lucky accident that our first books are appearing now in the same year, or unlucky if you want to think about all of that time passing!

Kevin: Yeah. When I found out our books were going to be out at close to the same time, touring together was the first thing that crossed my mind. Keeps readings from getting too monotone. I actually wanted to go another week! But I don't have a wife, two kids and a dog.

Q: You're mixing more than just prose and poetry. Kevin, almost all your stories have rural or small town settings in West Virginia. John, your poems have an urban edge to them. What do you want this mix to bring to listeners?

John: Before I moved to Arkansas in 1993 from Austin, Texas, I didn't write about New Jersey. Period. It took living in such a beautiful place, in Fayetteville, in the Ozarks, where I literally had to sidestep snakes, blue-tailed skinks, all kinds of beautiful creatures, on my way to class, to summon up all that industrial imagery from my childhood passed mostly in Rahway, N.J. I like to think that my poems in this collection have an urban setting with a natural edge.

Kevin: Skinks? I was around skinks in Arkansas? If I'd have known that, I'd have gone to 'Bama instead! I've been to John's old stomping grounds a few times, once even with him. While I still can't get why he's not a Springsteen fan, I do see similarities in our settings.

Q: What were your first impressions of each other's writings?

John: Kevin's work impressed me right from the start. His characters were people that any reader could care about. I learned both from reading his work and from listening to his editorial suggestions for my own writing.

Kevin: My first impression of him, the first day of boot camp for teachers, was this off-putting hipster loner. He seemed very unhappy to be there, as if the idea of academia was abrasive to him. When he announced, as we all had to do, that he went to Princeton and University of Texas, so much for the anti-academic! The next break, I said, I went to Princeton, too. Princeton High, West Virginia.

Q: John, how did the place you grew up affect the settings of your poems?

John: I grew up near the site of the state maximum security prison, the Merck plant, and near to many other factories and refineries, just across the Arthur Kill from Staten Island, and also in Belmar, on the Jersey Shore, just south of my first homes. I am still in thrall to New Jersey's landscapes and its people. The title of my book, Bridge and Tunnel, is a nod to the old derogatory term for people like me, who arrived in New York for the day or night via one mode or the other.

Q: Mississippians are accustomed to a powerful well of great writers we draw on and listen for in new writers coming through. What writers do you two draw upon?

John: One of my favorite contemporary poets was a Mississippian, the late James Whitehead, our beloved teacher at Arkansas. I still learn from him especially, when it comes to mixing the high and low, and to drawing it out of more or less traditional forms. Other poets I draw upon are Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, Ovid, Sylvia Plath, Mary Jo Salter, Daniel Hall, JD McClatchy, Robert Frost, Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop-although I certainly don't blame any of them for my shortcomings!

Kevin: Yes, Jim, if he didn't give pragmatic advice, he always inspired us to want more, more than what we had done so far. To get better. Breece D'J Pancake was a huge find for me. Until running across him, I had had a notion that literature was only about aristocratic types, the Henry the Vs, the Compsons, etc.

Q: What are you both working on next?

John: Poems about iconic figures in history, especially women who wielded power or were subject to it, or both: for example, Tokyo Rose, Tituba, Countess Elisabeth Bathory, Antinous, Squeaky Fromm (inspired by one of Kevin's stories) and many others.

Kevin: I hope you have better luck with Squeaky than I did! I'm on to Baton Rouge stories, which are set around LSU's North Gates of Highland Road area, where, until very recently, a thriving, eclectic, funky, cool neighborhood existed. After Katrina, developers are dozing it under, offering more many than current property owners can refuse. I'm writing inter-related stories, short shorts, and even prose poems, I guess. So far, the vibe feels there. Hard to explain that, but it's that part of you that knows it's working. There's work to do, but it's working.