I watched the excellent biopic, The Queen the other night and was struck by the exacting rules of behavior one is to follow when in the presence of the queen of England: bow or curtsey when you meet her; never turn your back to her; she offers your hand, you never offer yours. A little War of Independence waged in me every time the characters marched through these formalities. I imagined myself meeting Her Highness with my hand audaciously outstretched. I’m just that much of a rebel. In actuality, I’m sure I’d follow every behavioral rule because I want people to like me. Or maybe I wouldn’t. In truth, sometimes I don’t care one whit what anyone thinks of me, and sometimes I seem to care about nothing else. It’s a natural consequence of being human, I think, whether you’re a prince or a peasant. It must be very confusing and unnatural to treat someone as above you in every way, which is why the English have these rules. Fortunately, as a non-celebrity American, I doubt I’ll ever meet royalty – though I did come close once.
Caroline Kennedy had just edited and published a book of her favorite poems. On a lark, I shot her publicist a request for an interview and thought a mistake might have been made when I heard back five minutes later with an enthusiastic, “Yes!” I was tempted to remind the publicist that Caroline was A Kennedy, and I was but a humble editor of an online magazine for writers.
By the silent osmosis of history and television and movies, the Kennedys were like royalty in my mind. I had set them apart from everyone else, had made them just a little bit more than human. So, I could not, in the three weeks before the shoot, undo nearly fifty years of myth making. I had by this time grown pretty comfortable around other humans, but I could not picture that same comfort with A Kennedy.
On the day of the shoot, I greeted Caroline Kennedy outside the bookstore as she stepped out of her car. The very first thing I noticed was that she was dressed in a tailored grey suit and pink running shoes. I was struck more by her pink running shoes than the fact that I was shaking hands with A Kennedy. The shoes seemed at once practical and a little geeky. I couldn’t stop thinking about them until we were seated for the interview. She was starting to feel like the other humans I knew. Still, I couldn’t shake the awkwardness I’d hoped wouldn’t visit me during our conversation – laughing a little too loud, agreeing a little too immediately.
That changed, though, once we got to the subject of the interview itself. Poetry had meant a lot to me as a young man. Reading poetry was what taught me how to write. It also taught me I wasn’t as alone as I sometimes felt because someone I had never met could speak to me in what felt like the language of my inner world. Caroline Kennedy loved poetry too. When I asked her about how she had discovered poetry and what it meant to her, I left the world of kings and queens and was speaking instead from that place within me reserved for the things I loved.
The interview went much better after this, and I started sounding like myself again. The world of books and writers is filled with royalty in its own way, those lords and ladies who occupy the bestseller lists or who have contributed to The Canon. Unfortunately, I do not know how to write like a king. On my best days, I can write like myself. On my very best days, I know this has always been enough.
"A book to keep nearby whenever your writer's spirit needs feeding." Deb Caletti.
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com