Honey? You awake?
There's no shortage of romantic verse for people who have just fallen in love. But no one waxes poetic about the soft glow of a smartphone screen, or the sweet caress of sweatpants.
So John Kenney, a "longtime married person," has filled this void with a slim volume called Love Poems (for Married People), in which he celebrates what happens to romance after years (and years, and years) of partnership.
One poem asks: "Are you in the mood?"
Let's put the kids down.
Have a light dinner.
Maybe not drink so much.
And do that thing I would rather do with you than with anyone else.
Lie in bed and look at our iPhones.
The book started a few years ago as a rather hastily written humor column in The New Yorker and "it got a pretty good response," Kenney says. Every year on Valentine's Day, it resurfaces.
"Whoever you are ... newly married, longtime married, whatever kind of relationship you're in, I think there are some universal truths about life together," Kenney says.
Take, for example, "Bedtime":
We are in the bedroom in our underpants.
Let's turn the lights down.
"Off," I guess, is the technical term.
Maybe try a towel under the door, where that sliver of light is coming in?
What if we just cuddle, and by cuddle I mean not actually touching—
Each of us at the far edge of our own side of the bed—
Then close our eyes for the next seven hours or so?
I like you.
That last, passionate line, "I like you," is actually a direct quote from Kenney's wife, Lissa. "Last Valentine's Day it was the signature on the card she gave me," he explains.
Kenney wrote the book over the course of about six weeks and says his wife played a crucial role in the editing process. "[I] would stand by like a small dog and wait for her to laugh," Kenney says. "Oftentimes that did not happen, so we nixed those poems."
For the record, Lissa did not approve of the use of the word "underpants."
"When the piece was first published in The New Yorker, a very sincere person came over and said to my wife: 'I'm so sorry that John wrote about your underpants,' ..." Kenney recalls. "She smiled and said, 'It's OK, we're in discussions to live in separate houses.' "
Kenney found it helpful to solicit poem ideas from friends and colleagues. "The closer you can get to the truth in these things, I think, the better they are," he says.
Poems in the book include titles such as:
"Is this the right time for that?"
"Emily's name isn't Rachel"
"What time should we leave for the airport?"
"Would it be possible to stop volunteering me for things?"
"I ask my coworker, Tim, who doesn't have children, how his weekend was"
Despite the whole book being tongue-in-cheek, Kenney did work hard to craft something that was at least poetry-adjacent. "They're not poetry, but they certainly aspire to be poetic," he says.
In the acknowledgments, he thanks a list of "real poets" he loves — Marie Howe, Mary Oliver, John O'Donohue, David Whyte, Seamus Heaney, Billy Collins. "I don't think I have a deep wellspring of knowledge about poetry, but I did want to mention to people that there is good verse out there," Kenney says. He was 18 when he saw Heaney read for the first time, and Collins' poem "The Lanyard" was part of his wedding ceremony.
The last poem in the book is called "To Lissa. No kidding."
"It was one of the last poems I wrote, and I hesitated about whether to include it," Kenney says. "My wife and I have been together for, I don't know, 14 years, I think? (Although as she says: It feels like 20)."
They've been through tough times, they have two kids, and Kenney thought at the very least he could include a funny poem in the book for her.
"But everything I started putting down wasn't so funny — it was actual emotion," he says.
So he wrote as honest a poem as he could and showed it to her before publication.
"She was like, 'Yeah ... that's sweet. Did you get milk?' "
"She was very touched," Kenney says.
Gustavo Contreras and Courtney Dorning produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The world is full of romantic poems that are made for Valentine's Day, sonnets about first love, haikus about a beautiful stranger. The writer John Kenney saw a gap in this market, and so we now have his new collection called "Love Poems For Married People." I asked him to read us a sample. This one is titled "Are You In The Mood?"
JOHN KENNEY: (Reading) Are you in the mood? I am. Let's put the kids down, have a light dinner, shower, maybe not drink so much and do that thing I would rather do with you than anyone else - lie in bed and look at our iPhones.
SHAPIRO: (Laughter) John Kenney, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
KENNEY: Thank you. It's really nice to be here.
SHAPIRO: This book started as a humor column in The New Yorker. Where did the idea for that column come from?
KENNEY: It was closing in on Valentine's Day, and I don't know. I wrote this out sort of quickly - you know, 700, 800 words - and submitted it to my friends over there, and they were kind enough to print it.
SHAPIRO: And I take it you were kind of overwhelmed by the response to it.
KENNEY: It got a pretty good response. And over the past couple of years, it tends to trend a little bit around Valentine's Day, so that's kind of fun because I get millions and millions of dollars in residuals.
KENNEY: I mean, you know - I mean, poetry - if you want to make...
SHAPIRO: Make a quick buck off poetry, yeah.
KENNEY: Yeah, no, that's the thing.
SHAPIRO: Yeah. Will you read another one of these for us? This is "Bedtime."
KENNEY: (Reading) Bedtime - now we are in the bedroom in our underpants. Let's turn the lights down - no, further. Off, I guess, is the technical term. Maybe try a towel under the door where that sliver of light is coming in. What if we cuddle, and by cuddle I mean not actually touch, each of us at the far edge of our own side of the bed. Why do I feel like this is a twin bed? You're so close. I have a fun, sexy idea. Let's close our eyes and see who can keep them closed the longest for the next, like, seven hours or so. I like you.
SHAPIRO: (Laughter) That's John Kenney reading from his collection "Love Poems For Married People." I love that last line, I like you.
KENNEY: Well, it's a direct quote from my wife on last Valentine's Day. It was her signature on the on the card she gave me.
SHAPIRO: So she has a sense of humor about this.
KENNEY: She is an amazing person, and the collection started - like all of my great ideas, it was someone else's idea. I was at a publishing party last June at Penguin Random House, and one of the execs there suggested that we do a book. I thought she was kidding, but they weren't. And I had about six weeks to do it. And I would write and write and write, and I would share them with my wife, who is a great writer and editor herself and, you know, would stand by like a small dog and wait for her to laugh. Oftentimes that did not happen. So we nixed those poems, so - but I can't say enough about her help in doing this book.
SHAPIRO: Was there anything that she said, oh, God, please don't put that in writing; please don't put that into the book?
KENNEY: Oh, a lot, like the word underpants.
KENNEY: There is one...
SHAPIRO: It's not the sexiest word for an undergarment.
KENNEY: No. You know, that's why when you - when it comes to romance, you want to turn to a middle-aged straight, white man because we sort of - I think we've cornered the market on romance.
SHAPIRO: Because you describe yourself as a straight, white man, I have to disclose I am long married. My husband and I do not have kids. And so there is a poem in this book that kind of spoke directly to me from maybe not the perspective you intended.
KENNEY: I bet it's "I Ask My Co-worker Tim."
SHAPIRO: (Laughter) It is.
KENNEY: So the title of this poem is "I Ask My Co-Worker Tim, Who Doesn't Have Children, How His Weekend Was." (Reading) Amazing, he says, eyes wide. It was amazing - just me and Michael. We slept in, got coffee at that new place in the Village. Have you been, no? Then we strolled through Central Park, wandered over to the Goya show at the Met - incredible. Have you been, no? Rode Citi Bikes to Coney Island, had pizza at Di Fara's. Have you eaten there, no? I thought you lived in Brooklyn. Then on a whim, we bought scalper tickets for "Hamilton." Have you seen it, no - really, wow. We walked over the 59 Street Bridge and watched the sun come up. Then we went home and slept till noon. How was your weekend? Well, Tim, we went to a kid's birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese and made inane small talk with other parents we have nothing in common with. Have you been, no - amazing.
SHAPIRO: (Laughter) How did Tim respond to this?
KENNEY: Tim LeGallo, one of my favorite people, was thrilled. And he said, yeah, that's all true. That was our last weekend.
SHAPIRO: This book takes a turn in the final pages. The last poem is called "To Lissa. No Kidding." I think it's the longest poem in the book, so I'm not going to ask you to read it. But will you tell us about it?
KENNEY: It was one of the last poems I wrote, and I hesitated about whether to include it. But my wife and I have been together for - I don't know - 14 years, I think. Although as she says, it feels like 20.
KENNEY: We have two amazing kids. She's just a rock and seen me through lots of tough times. And so I thought, well, I should write a funny poem for her, but everything I started putting down wasn't so funny. It was actual emotion, which is something of a challenge for me. I really - I wanted to write something honest for her, and I showed it to her right before publication. And she said, that's the best you can do?
SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Oh, no, really?
KENNEY: I'm kidding. I'm kidding.
SHAPIRO: No, no.
KENNEY: She was like, yeah, no, that's sweet. Did you get milk?
KENNEY: She was very grateful. She was very touched.
SHAPIRO: John Kenney, thanks so much, and happy almost Valentine's Day.
KENNEY: Thank you, Ari. Happy Valentine's Day to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.