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Interview with Robert Kiely

Author of Rob

Photo of Robert Kiely  in a blue cap, black jacket, grey shirt, the ocean blurred behind him
Image credit: James Goodwin (2022)

When did you write the book, and what was the inspiration behind it?

I wrote the book from around 2018 to 2022. During some of that time I was doing a lot of self-reflection and looking at things like old school reports, feedback on old essays, thoughts and dreams from childhood, the lasting impact of exactly where and how you grow up. All of that got bundled up with my job at the time, working on data related to Assessments in Higher Education – lots of Microsoft Excel, lots of data checking and validation, very complicated workflows with teams of fifteen people or so. Grading and assessment became a big thematic concern for me around this time, and I thought of them alongside and against how I had come to think of measurement in some of my earlier work. I think the recent Marking and Assessment Boycotts in the UK Higher Education sector highlight quite clearly that assessment is the sharp end where teaching meets our current systems of arbitrary domination. Teaching and assessment dominates so much of our lives. One of the poems is about an old school friend who just couldn’t stay still in class – and really, why should he have? Why is being still so valued? So the book, I hope, refuses to stay still, though the last poem lies down to allow a moment to be in broken sleep, our shared unrest.

How would you summarise this book in 100 words or fewer?

I’m always interested in picking at, undoing, inverting, and levelling out value-systems, like grades or the rooms where sitting relatively still is “good.” I like to think about how we can warp those grades, and chair-rows, or how they are already warped, so we can amp that up rather than getting stuck on how they’ve warped us. WE have to go further than that. In the book design Aaron Kent made that so clear, the wavey water lines on the cover from a hydrography book distort the grids of a primary school report card on the inside cover. Lockdowns, daily data-handling, and gut-reorienting introspection inspired each of the pieces in this book. Come to it for distortions, dissonances, and decoupling sound from sense. Renew the insurance on whatever harmonic regime you’re inside so that you still have something to think with when you encounter something you can’t count out in the given sheet time. The world is much weirder than we know, than we can learn. It even has people in it.

How would you characterise the style of your book? For example, would you see it as lyrical, prose or experimental? (to name but a few!) Can you provide some commentary around why you feel it falls into these categories?

The book is mixed-genre – there is a play, an essay which becomes a poem, and the acknowledgements is offered as the second poem of the book. The whole thing is in constant transit between these kinds of genres and descriptors – these grids, these boxes. The style of this book is a fox slinking out of the hen coop, you’ll catch glimpses of prose, closet drama, day-job, lyric, literary criticism, panegyric, childhood, protest, and paratext in the moonlight, but its too late. Or, if you prefer, a rabbit loose in your allotment. The style is take what you need.

During the writing of this book, did you learn anything new? either about yourself as an author or about the crafting of the work itself?

I learned that I could write about myself in a way that let other people in and didn’t give too much away. Another way to put it is that I learnt that I could share some experiences that felt deeply personal and people still had no clue what I was talking about. I also learned that the quotidian patterns so many of us have in common – like the seemingly ever-replicating shapes of relation and experience in primary and secondary school – that those shared things have a ground swell power which can rival any outlier unique selling points.

Can you list some of your main influences? Feel free to include writers, literary movements, but also any influences outside of the literary sphere that have had an impact?

Some major influences are Maggie O’Sullivan, Frances Kruk, Nisha Ramayya, Laurence Abu Hamda – they’re discussed in the essay-poem ‘Dissonance and Authenticity.’ Other major influences include Sean Bonney (who had no time for ringfenced cliques) and Samuel R. Delany (who provides the second epigraph).

For someone who enjoys your work, which other authors do you think would also be appealing to them?

I recommend you read the amazing Mira Mattar, the crystalline Tom Betteridge, and watch out for any of Daniel Owusu’s art, film, and writing you can – he features on ‘Hair’ in this book. Also check out Peig Sayers, Marina Vishmidt, Kneecap, and Pat Tierney.

Is there a particular audience you had in mind when writing this book? How did this impact the writing process?

With the exception of ‘Area Studies,’ and one or two other poems, almost everything in the book was addressed to Nisha Ramayya. I often imagined her as the sole audience, and she usually was the first one to read any of it. It is also for all of my friends from Carrigaline in Co. Cork, Ireland. Thanks to Broken Sleep Books, it gets to drift into other people.

Why did you write Rob?

I couldn’t stop. But this year I’ve learned.

What are you working on now?

I’m currently writing fragments of stories and hiding them in notebooks. Several other projects have started and stalled, but poems grow like the balls of cat-hair around the flat, it’s inevitable, they’re gathering there in spite of my best efforts. I'm working on making our attic walk-able.

Robert Kiely was born in Co. Cork, Ireland in 1987, and is currently based in London. His poetry, fiction, and essays have appeared in The Stinging Fly, Ludd Gang, Cambridge Literary Review, LONGITUDINES, and Los Angeles Review of Books, among others. His poetry collection simmering of a declarative void was published by the87press in Spring 2020, and his book of criticism Incomparable Poetry, an essay on the financial crisis of 2007-8 and Irish literature by punctum in 2020. This was followed by Gelpack Allegory, a meditation on the entanglements between mathematics, SF, and Elon Musk, which was published by Veer2 in 2021. ROB came out from Broken Sleep Books in 2022, which explored school assessment in our lives and education in poems, a play, and essay.


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