Steering Someone Else’s Boat

Luke Kennard shares his first thoughts as Canal Laureate.

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Luke Kennard, photographed by Billie Charity-Prescott, 2015

January 4th 2016

I’m attempting something along the lines of Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North here: scattered thoughts and self-conscious reflections on writing and the landscape interspersed with poems. This, I think, has two advantages: 1. I can just type up my notebook when I get home; and 2. I can edit and rewrite the poem but it will still appear that it just occurred to me on the road.

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I despise the haiku.

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Drizzly walk from Bournville train station into the centre.
            Before taking on this role I was at a soft-play centre with my sons and a friend. I was worrying aloud that I should probably turn the opportunity down because I know nothing about canals or rivers. My friend is a delightful and encouraging person.
            ‘You can learn!’ he said, brightly.
            ‘But I hate learning,’ I wailed. ‘I like things like drinking, and smoking.’
            I also like reading and writing, but these have recently been relegated to the first division of the Scottish Football League of things I like, leaving drinking and smoking to duke it out in the Premiership like Celtic and Rangers in the 90s. And my love of reading derives primarily from taking pleasure in the shortcomings of fictional characters so that I feel better about myself.
            I may need to work up some kind of ‘columns’ system to differentiate between thoughts.

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Early December Andrew Denny, editor of Waterways World, offered to take me out on his boat, Granny Buttons, in the centre of Birmingham. This was partly for an interview and partly to introduce me to the boating life, as well as parts of my own city I’d never seen before. Andrew was a garrulous, hospitable and kind host, whose knowledge of the canals was astonishingly encyclopaedic. His houseboat made me think of childhood, the way each compact room felt like its own world with its own systems; that a few objects could create a meaningful space and life; a mansion shrunk to a few square feet. After I spent a happy hour talking to Sarah Henshaw (who runs the book barge), Andrew was kind/rash enough to let me steer for a quarter of an hour. Mostly in an unchallenging stretch of open water, but also through a narrow passage where the canal divided in two around some kind of redbrick tower structure. He explained what it was but I couldn’t take it in because my internal monologue had descended into shrieking obscenities.

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Luke Kennard, photographed by Sarah Henshaw, 2015

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I’m informed by a stranger on Twitter that Canal Laureate (a title I hadn’t been using) is a meaningless conflation as “laureate” merely means “to be wreathed in laurel” and that it’s assumed I mean “Canal Poet Laureate”, and no wonder English is going down the drain. Ah, I think (but don’t Tweet) You must be the Canal Pedant Laureate. Ha ha ha.

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My secondary school English teacher (around 1993) once said he hated it when bands started using string sections. That, he maintained, was the point at which you should stop listening to a band, usually around the third or fourth album. Strings are the over-sized dinner jacket of popular music. But he also hated free verse, and when I showed him my poems he told me to write short stories, which I did. Whenever I try to write using a formal structure, even if it’s only a punt in the direction of blank verse, I think of him. Against a background of sweeping cellos.

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            STEERING SOMEONE ELSE’S BOAT

            To take a home between your finger and your thumb,
            stick out your chest, insinuate against
            the bank you would avoid is to be numb
            to all your cheerful vanity and pretence.
            We cut a ragged path under my captaincy.
            The towpaths are a fitting prayerbook for
            a dipsomaniac, wandering hermit monk.
            Sunlight through branches quickens, so ignore
            the dogshit smell of hydroponic skunk.
            Trust the Loops. The shaggy tollbooth islands,
            bowers of rotting pyramidal flowers,
            the gorgeous dereliction of a bridge.
            The prison, like a demon stadium,
            squats in your peripheral vision.
            the crenelated printer’s arm goes back and forth,
            records the soul of battered industry.
            I’ll think of it when my own mind’s not right,
            go home, try not to steer my own awry.

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Another passing memory. I took some of my students to the pub after the last seminar. I was talking about how I used to walk to work, but kept getting in the way of cyclists and almost falling in the canal. Then I mentioned the bunches of flowers stuck between the railings: the kind you see sellotaped to traffic islands after an accident, but what possible traffic accident could happen on a canal towpath?
One of my students was looking at me with weary amusement.
‘What?’ I said.
‘They’re murder bouquets, Luke,’ she said.
‘Oh.’ I took a sip of my stagnant English beer. ‘It’s not easy to lead a sheltered life in the 21st century, but I seem to have managed it.’

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That’s all for now. I’ll write something more cheerful next time. Thanks for reading. Please write all critiques in gold calligraphy and send them to my parents.
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