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Kenny, Maurice (b. 1929)  

Maurice Kenny combines a gay and Native American consciousness to create poetry that is located in multiple cultures.

Kenny was born in upstate New York, his father a Mohawk Indian and his mother part Seneca. At the age of nine, when his parents separated, he went to live with his mother in New York City. After a flirtation with juvenile delinquency, Kenny returned to upstate New York to live with his father. As a result, Kenny identifies most strongly with his father's Mohawk heritage.

Kenny began writing poetry as a teenager. At seventeen, he discovered Walt Whitman and was deeply drawn to his natural language and rhythm, qualities Kenny later discovered in Native oral traditions. Kenny attended Butler University in Indiana and St. Lawrence University in New York, and he studied with Louise Bogan at New York University. He was twenty-eight when he issued his first poetry collection and did not publish again until he settled in Brooklyn in 1967.

Kenny credits his poem "First Rule," written in the late 1960s, with leading him back to the oral traditions of his Native heritage. The incantatory quality of his poems have led some to describe them as "chants." Kenny prefers to call his works "pieces," reserving the term chant for works of a more ritual nature, in which "I mean certain things to take place in your heads."

Two collections, North: Poems of Home (1977) and Dancing Back Strong the Nation (1979), reflect Kenny's consciousness of his Native cultural heritage. In 1976, Kenny claimed his gay identity with the publication of "Tinselled Bucks: An Historical Study in Indian Homosexuality" and the poem "Winkte" in Gay Sunshine.

Drawing on diverse sources, Kenny boldly reclaimed native two-spirit traditions for contemporary gay Indians. Gay and Indian consciousness come together in his 1979 anthology, Only As Far As Brooklyn, where, as Rochelle Ratner argues, Kenny's mature and distinctive voice fully emerges.

The process of reclaiming his past continued in the 1984 collection, The Mama Poems (for which he received an American Book Award), in which Kenny writes for the first time about his childhood and family.

In the 1980s, Kenny turned to narrative poetry. In Blackrobe (1982), he relates the story of a Jesuit missionary martyred by the Mohawks in 1646. In Tekonwatonti/Molly Brant (1992), Kenny recovers the voice of Molly Brant, sister of Mohawk Chief Joseph Brant, who married Sir William Johnson.

A common trait of these characters, and of Kenny's own persona, is that they are multiply located. They are figures who cross (and often transgress) boundaries between cultures and ways of being: Indians in a white world, gay men in a heterosexual world, missionaries among Indians, and Indian women married to white men.

Kenny's identification with all these positions reflects his own complex history. At the same time, his use of multiple voices creates nuanced portrayals of characters and events in which the mixed motives of both oppressors and oppressed are acknowledged.

This is subjective, revisionist history, but not mythologizing and not "politically correct" rhetoric. Kenny's interest in historically grounded characters distinguishes his work from the mythico-poetics of feminist Native writers like Paula Gunn Allen.

The search for the historical voice of Native people led Kenny to reevaluate the legacy of Walt Whitman. In "Whitman's Indifference to Indians," Kenny criticizes the poet's silence concerning the policies of the U.S. government toward Indians, and he concludes, "It is regrettable, tragic, a great loss that the American Indian did not prove fit subject for Whitman's powerful poetics. . . . Sitting-Bull, Rain-in-the-face, Black Kettle, Roman Nose and their brothers and sisters await still a courageous poet to recreate their lives and deeds. . . . Perhaps their own sons and daughters will take up the pen. Whitman's indifference failed them."

Kenny has published over twenty-five collections of poetry, fiction, and essays. His work has appeared in over forty-five anthologies, magazines, and journals in several languages, and radio and film productions. In the words of Joseph Bruchac, he ranks among "the four or five significant Native American poets." He currently lives in upstate New York, where he is poet-in-residence at North Country Community College at Saranac Lake and visiting professor at Paul Smith College.

Will Roscoe


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Bruchac, Joseph. Survival This Way: Interviews with American Indian Poets. Tucson: Sun Tracks/University of Arizona Press, 1987.

Kenny, Maurice. "Whitman's Indifference to Indians." The Continuing Presence of Walt Whitman: The Life after the Life. Robert K. Martin, ed. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1992.

Ratner, Rochelle. "Brooklyn and Beyond: Maurice Kenny and the Legacy of Walt Whitman." Poetry East (New York), forthcoming.

Swann, Brian and Arnold Krupat, eds. I Tell You Now: Autobiographical Essays by Native American Writers. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987, 1989.


    Citation Information
    Author: Roscoe, Will  
    Entry Title: Kenny, Maurice  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated November 8, 2002  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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