David Kirby is the Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor of English at Florida State University. Kirby is the author of numerous books, including The House on Boulevard St.: New and Selected Poems, which was a finalist for the 2007 National Book Award in poetry. His Little Richard: The Birth of Rock 'n' Roll was named one of Booklist's Top 10 Black History Non-Fiction Books of 2010, and the Times Literary Supplement called it "a hymn of praise to the emancipatory power of nonsense." Kirby's forthcoming poetry collection is The Biscuit Joint, and there's more on his website.
This interview was conducted via email by Interview Editor Monica Petersen. She said of the process, “I was introduced to Kirby's work by a professor of mine. I love his humorous and thoughtful writing style and seeing the progression of his work across his canon. He was such a gracious interviewee, so generous with his time and thorough with his answers.” He examines the “seriously funny” approach to poetry, linguistic bits, and Elvis as a guide through hell in this interview.
Superstition Review: With your wife Barbara, you edited an anthology called Seriously Funny: Love, Death, Religion, Art, Politics, Sex, and Everything Else. Can you explain the "seriously funny" approach you used in it and how it affected what you chose to include in the anthology? Do you use the “seriously funny” approach in your writing? If so, how?
David Kirby: Well, it's no light verse anthology, that's for sure. We had a hard time at the beginning, because people wanted to send us comic poems, so we kept having to explain the serious part. If you read the poems, there's no special reason why you should think that they're funny, although you'd probably notice that there's a certain amount of humor in them. But hasn't that always been the case? Primitive peoples had hilarious chants and songs; take a look at Jerome Rothenberg's excellent Technicians of the Sacred for examples. There's humor in Beowulf, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickinson, and contemporary poets like Ginsberg, Frank O'Hara, James Tate, and Lucia Perillo. But the humor is only half the formula. The poet Lawrence Raab once wrote me that he liked work that is both serious and funny when “its essential seriousness emerges from its humor, rather than the humor being a kind of overlay or a set of asides.” Exactly.
As for me, I guess I do see the humor in things. Why be a sad sack? Who wants to be even more depressed than they are already? Nobody? That's what I thought. Again, though, read the poems. They're about love, death, and everything else poets have been written about. It's just that there's an extra dimension to them, a humorous one. I'd like to think I get all the dimensions in my poems and not just a couple.
SR: Your book The Temple Gate Called Beautiful is a collection of poems on death, hell, and afterlife inspired by reading the epics of Homer, Aeneas, and Dante. Why did you choose to write an entire collection about these themes? Was there something you were attempting to discover in writing this collection? Why did you look to these epics to explore death, hell, and the afterlife?
DK: Life after death is kind of the One Topic, isn't it? Little kids want to know if their doggies and kitties will go to heaven when they die, and even crusty old atheists wish there were a life beyond this one. That said, it's a topic that includes all others. Love, death, happiness, art, music, medicine: these and a hundred more ideas go into or come out of (or both) our inevitable musings on the afterlife. Besides, you can really flex your muscles in heaven and hell; where else am I going to meet Jesus and the Devil?
SR: In “Hello, I Must be Going,” you write that the “idea of Paradise is so appealing in a literary way.” Does examining Paradise in a literary sense alter the way you explore hell and death? If so, how?
DK: It's all the same to me, in a way. I mean, the physics that govern existence in Heaven and Hell are going to be pretty hallucinatory, right? It's not going to be the apple-lands-on-Newton's-head kind. And since we don't know what the physics of the eternal world are, we're free to make them up. Think what literature would be like if writers never tried to imagine Heaven or Hell. Artists, too: the museums would empty, and the concert halls as well. So when I think about the afterlife, I don't think about reward or punishment, which are boring to me. I try to figure out how those places work on the physical level. I'll let you know if I come up with the answer.
SR: Has your relationship with your wife, fellow poet Barbara Hamby, influenced your writing? Describe what it's like for two poets to live and work together.
DK: That's the second most frequent question I'm asked, the first being, “Why do you use humor in your poetry?” And the answer to both is “Well, they work for me.” I don't mind other people using humor—I wish more would, actually—but I really don't want anyone else to marry Barbara; I take a great deal of pleasure in having her all to myself. Yes, we read each other's work, but the main thing about being married to another artist is that you never have to explain what you're doing. If you want to work on a poem or throw a pot and shoot a short film, fine; the other person will just go off and write a story or splash paint on a canvas. Besides, an artistic life is better if it's shared. It just grows richer and deeper with every passing moment. That's probably true if you're both coon hunters or Red Sox fans or triathletes, but I wouldn't know anything about those pursuits. All I can say is that I treasure dearly the chance to live out my life as a creative person side by side with someone who is a consummate artist herself and also seems to be as crazy about me as I am about her.
SR: In an interview with Country Dog Review, you say that “all beginnings are small: great poems start with something trivial, and over time, that tiny thing becomes a great one.” How do you approach the beginning of the poem? Is it something static as you work through the poem or does it evolve as the poem does?
DK: That's something you just recognize over time. If I saw a dog get hit by a car, I'd feel terrible about it, but I wouldn't write a poem. Here's an example of how small things grow, though. Barbara and I were in a restaurant not long back and I watched a couple laughing and talking very animatedly; they were going great guns, and I thought, “Good for you.” But then a funny thing happened. When they finished their meal, the waiter brought them after-dinner drinks, probably cognacs or something like. They sipped for a minute or two and continued to talk and laugh, and then the guy excused himself and left the table. The woman watched him leave, and when he was out of the room, she picked up his glass, poured half his drink into hers, then drink hers down enough so that they were both at the same level.
Now why is that? Was it a subtle act of revenge? Was he getting too drunk to drive, and she wanted to make sure he didn't have more than would be good for them both? Was she steeling herself to have sex with him? To break up? This one little act, one I'm sure the woman herself has long forgotten, opened a door on almost every aspect of human behavior. That's why I make my students keep what I call a “bits journal” where they store up the hundred trivial things we see every day that are pregnant with potential. Save 'em up, students! The good ones will turn into poems before your very eyes.
SR: In your poem “Catholic Teenager from Hell Goes to Italy,” the speaker states “I serve poetry, not God.” This reminds me of the early renaissance shift from serving God in religious identity to serving humanity through the arts. How do you “serve” poetry in the way someone would serve God? What is important about serving poetry for humanity?
DK: Poetry can do anything God can do. God may have parted the Red Sea, but I've seen bigger things happen in poems. The main thing is that both are bigger than us and both are all-encompassing. I know people who are deliriously happy because they've turned their lives over to God, and the same is true for people who love poetry. That doesn't mean that there'll be no quarrels; the great thinkers of the Church like Augustine and Teresa of Avila had highly personal and even contentious relationships with their Maker. And the same for me and poetry. Most of the time, it makes me happier than anything else, but sometimes it just exasperates the hell out of me.
As far as my own service to poetry, in both my teaching and my writing, I take very seriously what Mallarme said, which is that it's the poet's job to purify the words of the tribe. Most of my students are pretty sophisticated, but from time to time I'll get one who thinks that effective usage and high standards apply to prose only and that poetry is where you go if you just want to urp up your inchoate feelings. Uh-uh! No, sir! Poetry's not the stuff that's worse than every other type of writing; it's the stuff that's better.. Your poems should knock the socks off of every other thing that comes down the pike. It's the job of your poem to make people say, “Jesus—how'd that happen? Where'd this come from? This is a damned miracle! Are you telling me a human being wrote this?”
That's what serving poetry means. It means giving it your very best.. From Sappho to Keats to Emily Dickinson, the “mighty dead” gave poetry everything they had. You should, too.
SR: Many of your poems are written with offsets that you call a “sawtooth style.” Was this style a conscious choice or did it evolve through your composition process? Why is this style so prominent in your poetry?
DK: I could give you a dozen reasons for that look. One of the simplest is that it's a way to avoid what lay-out people call word stacks; I write long sentences with lots of “ands” in them, so this way I avoid a big stack of “ands” running down the left margin. If I thought I could snow you with pretension, I'd say I'm trying to replicate the rapid eye movement of the dreaming state—that's not a bad idea, actually, since I do want my poems to have a dreamy, half-logical quality to them.
But the most important reason from the craft viewpoint is this. If I give each stanza the same distinct look, it forces me to rework it again and again until I get the form absolutely right. Every word, every letter counts that way. It's a way for me to be rigidly formal and get the best out of my materials without writing formal poetry.
Of course, the main reason why I do it is that people like it. Editors like it, is the main thing.
SR: In an interview with Smartish Pace, you talk about stockpiling linguistic bits to harvest later for poems. What does poetic inspiration look like to you? What linguistic bits do you tend to pick up on a daily basis?
DK: I don't know a single writer who uses the word “inspiration” except in a negative fashion. For instance, Mark Strand says people who claim to get inspired always seem to get inspired in the same way. I'm not sure what he means by that, but I can imagine. I'm guessing he means they write the same poem over and over again; it's a didactic poem or one that says “My boyfriend stinks” or “I love women,” meaning “I want to have sex with as many women as possible.” This is broken-record poetry. It's no fun to read, and you'd think it'd be pretty depressing to write as well.
You're closer to the mark when you talk about stockpiling linguistic bits. I'm not sure what percentage it is, but plenty of poets are magpies—I know I am—in that they like to pick up shiny things that may or may not be useful and then get them out later and see what happens.
It's funny how otherwise sophisticated people think writers operate on inspiration, as though our eyes roll up in our heads and we begin to speak in tongues. It's a lot more systematic than that.
SR: When you write your “memory poems,” is there a particular memory you are looking to explore or unearth? Or is it a more organic process of looking to see what you can find?
DK: Good question. I don't discriminate among the varieties of things that can turn into poetry. So I might hear somebody say something edgy or pick a quote out of a book I'm reading or go back to something that happened years ago. The raw materials aren't all that important, after all; it's what you do with them.
I will say that memory needs lots of distance to work well in poetry, at least for me. Lately I've been writing more and more about things from my childhood, and that was decades ago. You can pick up anything by the right handle or the wrong one, and I suppose that the more time you have to wander around whatever it is that you're looking at, the more likely you are to get a good grip.
SR: “Stairway to Heaven” explains the process of how you write and compose poems. How did you approach writing a poem about how you write?
DK: Isn't that funny? I know you're not supposed to write poems about writing, which is a huge workshop no-no. But “Stairway” is only the first of many poems I've been writing on just that topic. And I'm doing so more and more lately; my next book, The Biscuit Joint, will be made entirely of poems about the creative process. Why not, though? Shouldn't we write about the things that excite us the most? A lot of the best rock 'n' roll is about rock 'n' roll.
And truth to tell, every work is two things, itself and a comment on the genre it's written in. A movie shows you how to make a movie; that's true even if (and maybe especially if) it's a bad one. As it unscrolls on the page, every poem makes a public statement and then a private one that says, “See what I'm doing here? I'm setting up this image and coming back to it later, and I'm using this kind of line length, and I'm rolling over onto a second page because I can't say what I want to in one,” and so on. So when you write about writing, you're just taking that quiet statement that's there already and making it louder.
SR: You have written twenty-two books in the last forty years. How do you continue to create new exciting volumes of poetry without telling the same story multiple ways? How do you maintain focus when working on a new book?
DK: Sorry, thirty-two books. Which makes the problem worse, doesn't it? Not really, though: I alternate between keeping my head down and working for a couple of years and then climbing up on my mountain to see what I've done. There are always changes; it's just in our nature to change. Of course, I don't know what changes, if any, other people would see in my work. But that's not my problem. As long as it stays fresh and exciting for me, I can keep cranking out the good stuff. Will it ever stop being good stuff? Sure. My mother died a month short of her hundredth birthday, and my dad lived a good long life as well, so I expect to be around long enough to be a has-been. Ask me again in another thirty years, okay?
On the other hand, I do tell the same story multiple ways; I'll say, “Oh, I've got to make a poem out of that” and then remember I did ten years earlier. It's not a problem in that the re-telling is always radically different, as you might expect. What is painful is coming across a poem I wrote when I was much younger and didn't do justice to the materials because I didn't have the skills then. That's a pretty negligible pain, though, and one easily cured by—ka-chock!—knocking a new poem out of the ball park.
SR: Your book of poems, The House on Boulevard St., is a collection of new and selected poems. How do you decide which of your poems are published as “selected?” What is your approach to melding your new and previously published poetry into one volume?
DK: Take a look at that book and you'll see that it's a lot different from most new and selecteds. Instead of proceeding chronologically, I made three good-sized sections in which new and old poems are mixed, and I preface the book with a key to which poems are published where. Because the new poems speak to the old ones, don't they? For all I say about changes above, I'd like to think there's a consistency to the work. A good book is like a good concert by a good singer/songwriter: you recognize all the songs as coming out of one mind and heart, yet you see a lot of diversity in there.
SR: Has your professorship at Florida State University influenced your writing style? If so, how? Do you teach things that you do not always do in your own writing?
DK: That's a tough question to answer, since I've never taught anywhere else. I think the main advantage of being at FSU is that I had to figure things out on my own. I didn't graduate from a marquee-name writing program. Truth to tell, I've never taken a writing workshop; I'm like the William James who said the first time he attended a psychology class is when he taught one at Harvard. And when I started teaching here, there was no real program to speak of. Add to that Tallahassee's physical isolation, and you have a nice formula for solitary instruction.
As a result, my poetry is a good bit different from 90% of what's out there. You may not like it, but when you see one of my poems, you're going to say, “Oh, I know who wrote that.” And that's because the way I do things is something I came up with on my own.
So I guess I'm glad I never enrolled in a program that shaped my writing in a certain way when I was young and impressionable. On the other hand, it took me a long time to figure out what to do, so if I had gone to a name program and made contacts and started publishing a lot earlier, then things might have been different. But I'm happy where I am in my career and have been for a long time, so there's not a whole lot of point to the what-if game.
Now here's a certainty for you. One way in which teaching at FSU has shaped my poetry is that it has made it possible for Barbara and me to teach at a number of our International Programs campuses, notably the one in Florence, where I've taught eight times, including several four-month fall terms. You can open any book of mine and see how much the cultural richness of countries like Italy enter into those poems. FSU has been my travel agent, and my writing has a higher fat content as a result.
As to my teaching being different from my writing, oh, hell, yes. Wouldn't it be awful if I could actually create clones of myself? Human nature is such that there's no possibility of that, so I'm very happy to show my students how to handle every tool in the poetry toolbox and figure out which ones work best for them.
SR: What goes through your mind when you read works written by poets you have taught like Billy Collins, Caroline Knox, and Campbell McGrath? Do you ever see your influence when you read their writing?
DK: I'd say those poets and I run on parallel tracks rather than influence each other; and you can say the same for Tony Hoagland, Lucia Perillo, Mark Halliday, Denise Duhamel, and Barbara Hamby, among others. All three of the of the poets you mention were well established before I came along, so there's not much chance in any of us shaping what the others do, though clearly we're all mutually supportive.
I do see my influence in two groups: older poets writing a poem like mine once or twice and then going back to what they've always done, and then newer poets. The other day on Facebook, I saw a post by a poet who was mad that someone had adopted his style and not given him credit. Hey, come on—I like what I do, so if you want to take a shot at it, feel free.
SR: In “Elvis, Be My Psychopomp,” Elvis acts as the narrator's tour guide through hell. Why did you choose Elvis to fill this role? Was there anyone else you had in mind?
DK: In the poem I talk about similarities between Elvis and me, but it's probably the differences that matter more. The King and I have points of connection, but don't we learn the most from people who can show us something new? I bet when you look back you'll see that strangers or people you barely knew pushed you in a direction you hadn't even thought of before. That's why new people and new experiences are crucial to creative people of every kind, whether they're poets or screenwriters or scientists or glassblowers.
SR: You once stated in an interview, “a poem is a self-representation.” How does your poetry represent you? Is there a specific image you try to project through your poetry?
DK: Aha! Now we get to talk about one of my favorite topics, which is what we do and how it comes across to others, which isn't always what we intended. Sure, a poem does many things, but one of these is that it introduces the poet to his or her readers.
Let's talk a common example, which is the poem in which one chastises an indifferent lover. Okay, you get your revenge, but you're likely to come across as whiny or just plain dumb—why are you putting up with this idiot? Ditch the chump! You'll be happier, and your readers will be, too.
Same thing with poetry that's just weird and unapproachable. Okay, okay—you're smarter than me. Fine. Thanks for letting me know, and where'd you say the door is?
The self I try to present through poetry is someone like myself, though much improved. So that person doesn't stumble over his sentences as much as I do in life, and he knows a lot more than I do. To put it as briefly as possible, I'd say he's a smart but silly person, because brainy people who love jokes and laugh a lot are the best to be around.
Anyway, that's what I try for, though not all the time. Of course I like it when people say, “You make me laugh,” but I write about death and failed love and the things every artist deals with. Don't take this the wrong way, but I like to make people cry, though I only do that because people like to cry. People like to go on the full roller coaster ride of emotions, and I want to be the one who sets those cars in motion.
I notice that people who write and talk about my poetry use the word “generous” from time to time. That please me, but I'm not quite sure what they mean. I don't think of myself as an especially generous person; I have my little charities here and there, but I don't spend the weekends working at the homeless shelter. I hope they're referring to a spirit they see in those poems. I hope they see something of Whitman in there. Whitman says we're all the same and we all have something to give, which is good enough for me. Maybe I'd better modify the sentence that ends the paragraph above: brainy, big-hearted people who love jokes and laugh a lot are the best to be around.
SR: You claim in one of your poem, that you are “Mr. Walt [Whitman]'s son, li'l Dave.” Do you feel a connection between yourself and other poets, specifically Walt Whitman? Who are your major poetic influences and how do they influence you?
DK: Sure, I connect with Whitman. I connect with Shakespeare and Dante as well, just to name two more of the “mighty dead,” as Keats called them. And I connect with Keats, too; I'd love to be as lush in my poems as he is in his. But I'm hesitant to call these or any other writers influences. I can't think of anyone who ever said, “I'm going to write like Neruda” or “look, I'm writing like Sappho here!”
At most, we take in these people, we mix them with our experiences and our moods and the music we like and a hundred other things, and the result is something that has a genetic code that's almost impossible to decipher. I bet Sylvia Plath was influenced more by her blood chemistry than any book she ever picked up.. And while Frank O'Hara read a lot of French poetry, I know he looked at a lot of paintings as well; that comes through in his work, but nothing comes through more strongly that the sense that he was just a happy, happy guy and wanted to come across that way.
SR: What does your writing space look like?
DK: What does my—ah, ha, ha, ha! You're killing me, Monica. If I even have a writing space, it looks like my mind, which is to say it's a three-ring circus. I write all over; certainly my first poems were written around the breakfast table when my sons were young, because I didn't want to miss out on my time with them. I write wherever I can get my hands on pen and paper or the digital equivalent; there's always something coming down the poetry highway, so if I go inside and put on my toga and laurel leaves and try to get all holy and stuff, I'm going to miss it.
Eventually, of course, everything has to be squared away and shaped up and sent off to some editor somewhere, so I do have this one old cherrywood desk that was my father's. It's in a nicely lit den; two walls consist entirely of windows, so I can look out and see the squirrels and the birdies and rap on the glass whenever one of the neighborhood cats gets ready to pounce. But there's a phone in there as well, a television, a couple of guitars; people walk through, the doorbell rings, and cars bang into each other outside when somebody runs a stop sign. Chaos is my friend. I love order, but I adore chaos.