The Traveling Word File (A Virtual Interview with David Kirby)

by Dan Albergotti

The following is a “virtual interview” conducted with poet David Kirby via email. I sent David the questions in a Word file attachment; he opened the document and filled in his answers, then sent the file back to me; I inserted follow-up questions in response to his answers and sent the file back; he responded; etc etc. The result of all this follows. Unless, of course, that’s all a big fib and this is a transcription from the tape recorder that was running as David and I sat and chatted poetry over a glass or two of bourbon on his back porch in Tallahassee in late May of 2003.
–Dan Albergotti, Associate Poetry Editor

Dan Albergotti: Syntax seems to be very important in your work. In the poems of My Twentieth Century (Orchises, 1999), The House of Blue Light (LSU, Southern Messenger Poets series, 2000), and The Travelling Library (Orchises, 2001), you employ long, twisting sentences that, despite their length and syntactical complexity, seem natural, even conversational. How did you arrive at this sort of style in your poetry? Is it a style you’ve always used?

David Kirby: My mother, who died last year a month short of her 100th birthday, was a great storyteller; she was a farm girl and spent long evenings around the fire listening to others’ tales and, when she got old enough, telling her own. I picked this habit up from her, and even when I was writing short lyric poems, I was telling stories on the side. One day Barbara [Hamby] said, “People like those stories; why don’t you write them down?” Now I’m an essayist, too, but what’s called creative non-fiction has never really appealed to me. Then one day it hit me: why not put the stories into poetic form and see what happens? The first of these “memory poems” I wrote was called “The Summer of the Cuban Missile Crisis,” and Marilyn Hacker accepted it for The Kenyon Review. And the next several were taken by good places, too, so I decided to continue this way. But even though I was writing narratives, I still wanted to keep the musicality of poetry. Answer? Long sentences! So it’s a relatively new style for me, one that’s intended to sound like the speaking voice but to go on in a fluid, musical way in the manner of poetry.

DA: Yes, I think the long sentences really do that job. There is a musicality to your poems. Some of those long sentences are almost hypnotizing, and they build up an intensity, a sense of anticipation, and at times a humorous undercurrent—perhaps based on the reader’s bemused surprise that the sentence could actually keep going. I mean, the first sentence of “A Really Good Story” is about 500 words! And there’s also something of Wordsworth’s “language really used by men” ideal in your syntax and diction. You mention that your language is intended to sound like “the speaking voice.” I could certainly imagine hearing it in almost any conversation, but it is language “with a lofty utterance drest,” even if that utterance is decidedly twentieth-century (or twenty-first, I suppose I should say). I can’t help but be reminded of Wordsworth’s leech-gatherer when we finally get the first of Mr. Andrews’s two sentences. Or is that going too far, to relate what you’re doing in the language of your poems with what Wordsworth had in mind?

DK: Good lord, no! I mean, obviously I’ll accept being in the same room with Wordsworth. And I don’t know that I dress my utterances with loftiness, but I do try to make it, not just my speech, but my best speech. I do my share of mumbling and stuttering, after all, so I want my speaker to avoid those infelicities and actually sound smart—conversational, yeah, but smart. So if my ordinary language wears jeans and a t-shirt, I make sure my poetic language doesn’t go out the door until it’s wearing a suit and a snappy hat. Last year I was talking to Campbell McGrath, and he said he thought his poems were starting to sound like his conversation. All I could think is that I wanted my conversation to sound like my poems, which are funnier and smarter than I am.

DA: Your poems are very funny—nearly every one of them makes me laugh aloud—yet they also often deliver a serious, even somber message. Do you see humor as a vehicle to such sober and emotionally honest messages, especially for poetry audiences raised on the virtues of detached irony?

DK: I don’t get it. People are always saying to me, “I notice you’re funny—why?” I mean, do people say to Kierkegaard, “Hey, lighten up!” First of all, I’m not trying to be funny; I write the way I see things, and if it comes out funny, well, good, since most people like to laugh. Second, I see people trying to knock the laughter out of themselves all the time, which is another great mystery to me. Hanging around on the front steps of the Williams Building before class, my students spritz like Borscht Belt comedians, yet most of their poems tend toward the sober, even the gloomy. Why not be a fully-evolved human being and use everything at your command to make the reader love your work?

DA: Indeed! It’s not that the humor is what your poems are about—it’s just that it’s there where it’s not in so many overly serious poems. I think you’re right to say it’s about being a fully evolved person too. To be fully human, you’ve got to hold despair and joy in your heart at once, don’t you? I’m thinking of Keats’s “negative capability” and Blake’s assertion that “Excess of sorrows laugh. Excess of joys weep.” It just seems to me that you’ve got to embrace both to be most fully alive. This might seem like an unlikely intersection, but I’m reminded of that Jim Valvano speech they rerun every basketball season on ESPN. Here’s this poor guy who’s eaten up with cancer, knowing he’s going to die soon, and he implores the audience to laugh and to cry at least once every day. That’s his recipe for living a fulfilling life. And, thinking about it now, maybe that’s part of the recipe for writing fully evolved poetry too—not to deny that laughter is a central ingredient in the human spirit. There are laugh-out-loud funny lines in Dante and cheap, coarse sex jokes in Hamlet, but you don’t see people trying to argue that those works are trivial knee-slappers. Please forgive my tangent. I guess what I’m trying to do is articulate my ideas about the complementary relationship of the melancholy and the humorous in your work.

DK: Well, everybody’s funny, are they not? I mean, there are jokes in O’Neill’s plays—thank God! And just this last week I was reading Emerson, and he’s got a million zingers in those essays. So it’s all in the ratio. But even ratios can be deceptive: if you throw a cream pie in somebody’s face while you’re telling the truth about life and death, your audience is more likely to remember the pie than the wisdom. In the end, though, I think the ambivalence about humor is based on the value we place on it. The truth is not that humor is slight and tragedy is weighty; it’s probably the other way around. Ever try to be funny? It’s not so easy, whereas most of us have a story or two that’ll make people cry. Being funny is like having big tits: people might say, “Well, I don’t see what’s so special about those,” but inside they’re wishing they had a pair just as lovely.

DA: You know, I’m not sure I’ve ever wished for big tits—at least not on my own anatomy—but your point is well taken. Um . . . before we get into any more dangerous and frightening territory, let me steer us in a new direction. Some of the poems in The House of Blue Light—or at least significant portions of them—reappear within certain poems in your subsequent book The Travelling Library. It creates an odd effect for the reader already familiar with your work; it seems almost like you’re creating a “personal palimpsest,” writing over your earlier text in a new context. What is your aim in mining your own work this way, in reusing work that you have already published?

DK: Oh, I love that palimpsest notion! What happens is that I’m haunted at 3 a.m. by lines I’ve already written, so the next morning, I’ll say, “Okay, let’s try that again.” Maybe if I do it enough, it’ll start to look like a virtue, like Whitman republishing poems in successive editions of Leaves of Grass.

DA: Well, I guess it’s obvious that to me it’s already a virtue. I see it as fascinating “self-allusion” and recontextualization. But has anyone questioned the ethics of doing this sort of “republishing”? I want to make it clear that I’m not questioning such, but I can imagine other writers conceiving of it as “cheating.” How would you respond if someone did make that accusation?

DK: There’s been some headscratching, some people saying things like “I notice you did this, and is that permitted?” and even “David, are you aware that you repeated yourself?” Well, “yes” to the second question; my memory’s not that bad. And “yes” to the first question as well. One of the poet’s most valued freedoms is being able to do what he or she pleases: make the poem long or short, turn it on its side, throw in a Chinese ideogram like Ezra Pound. You sit around and ask yourself, “Gee, is this permissible?” And the only answer to that is, “It sure-God is! I’m the poet, damn it!” Sorry, I couldn’t help sounding like James Dickey there. Besides, in his essay on Napoleon, Emerson says “Mirabeau plagiarized every good thought, every good word that was spoken in France. . . . For Mirabeau, with his overpowering personality, felt that these things which his presence inspired were as much his own as if he had said them, and that his adoption of them gave them their weight.” So by re-using certain situations, I guess that I’m trying to give them new weight. At least I’m only inspiring, overpowering, and plagiarizing myself. Well, and probably not even myself: a poem potentially includes the whole world, and “the whole world” includes other poems. So the process never ends. I notice poets out there borrowing things from me these days, and that’s fine, too.

DA: Well, that seems completely reasonable to me. And since you mentioned him, I don’t think you ever need to apologize for sounding like James Dickey—at least not to me. He’s still one of my idols, despite all the unfortunate postmortem muck that some have been dredging up. When I was finishing a lit PhD at South Carolina in the early ’90s, I had the good fortune to take a couple of his workshops. [You know, I guess that would have been around the time you were working on that pre-obit piece for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that you write about in “James Dickey’s Dream.”] And as outrageous and inconsiderate as he could be in his public persona, Dickey was always a dedicated and generous teacher. He also had the most amazing mind I’ve ever been around. Anyway, I remember one day in class he told us if we really wanted to be poets, we each had to believe: (a) that what we are doing is important, and (b) that no one else in the world can do it. Is that the kind of classic Dickey bravado you’re alluding to? And do you think he’s right that a poet has to have that kind of grand vision of his or her own work?

DK: I agree with Dickey about being brave and bold, though I believe simultaneously that you should not take yourself too seriously. And I’m pretty sure he felt the same way. Dickey always comes off as this big chest-thumper, but in one interview, he says he’s more like Oscar Wilde than anyone else. So while he projected this dominant image of the guy who wanted to swap jackknives with you, there was a side of him that knew when to pull back and sip a cup of parsley tea and be a pure aesthete. Thanks to the spate of recent biographies, we know that Dickey was a lot more complicated than he pretended to be, which shouldn’t be a big surprise. Great poems argue with and contradict themselves, and so do great poets.

DA: I said before that Dickey was a very generous man, and let me say also that I’ve always been impressed by your own generous spirit, not only in the poems, but in your life. I remember reading your contributor’s note for The Best American Poetry 2000 in which you encouraged struggling poets to be persistent and take heart from the fact that your poem reprinted there (“At the Grave of Harold Goldstein”), honored as one of the best of the year, had been rejected by seventeen magazines before being accepted by Parnassus. That just struck me as incredibly honest and generous. Here you were in a situation where self-congratulation could be tempting—could even be excused!—but you chose to be honest about the history of the poem and to give encouragement to those still searching for success. Thank you for that. I want to know if you feel, having attained a high level of success, a certain responsibility to reach back and help younger poets along, to give that kind of encouragement. Should poets who have found success feel obligated to encourage those still searching for it?

DK: I don’t know about telling others to go out and do good works. I do notice that a number of reviewers have said they find my work “generous.” I’ve always wondered what they meant, since that’s not the first word that comes to my mind when I think about my own writing. Maybe they’re referring to the fact that the form of my poems permits almost any subject matter to wander in there. Also, I try not to be judgmental. So, yeah, I try to stay open to everything and everyone around me, but not because I’m trying to be virtuous. I just entertain myself best that way, which makes it hard to recommend my way to others.

DA: I guess I kinda set you up for a difficult answer there with a you’re-so-great-shouldn’t-other-folks-be-great-too question. Sorry about that. But one way that you clearly do give generously to younger writers is as a teacher in Florida State’s graduate creative writing program. How has your work as a teacher influenced your poetry, if at all? And do you ever worry, with the proliferation of graduate writing programs, that American poetry is in danger of becoming over-academized?

DK: The answer to the first question is one you’ve probably heard before, which is that the great virtue of teaching is that you hear yourself say to your students the things you need to hear; a corollary to that is that you can solve a problem with a student’s poem and later realize that the same strategy is available to you as well. And I’m not worried about poetry becoming too academic. The options for poem writing are so numerous and so various that, after a while, the word “academy” refers to the building where the poems are written rather than the style they’re written in.

DA: Your wife, Barbara Hamby, is also a very accomplished poet. Her style is in a vein relatively similar to yours—a conversational tone with a lot of humor, poems often arriving at poetic epiphany through a rather prosy meditation. How have the two of you influenced each other’s work? Has your poetry evolved toward a similar style since you’ve been together, or did you each write in this general fashion before?

DK: This is an easy one. Phyllis Moore, a fiction writer who has known Barbara and me both for 20-plus years, says that Barbara’s work has gotten more humorous over the years and mine more serious. We do read each other’s successive drafts, and I see a lot of mutual influence. Still, our work goes off in different directions. Barbara’s is more concentrated and word-drunk, whereas mine tends to be looser and more narrative.

DA: Yes, that seems like a very apt descriptor for Barbara’s poems, “word-drunk.” Her obsessions seem to be more on the word level, while yours are on the larger arc. I am always impressed with the way you can weave two, three, or more narrative or thematic threads through a poem and have them all arrive so inevitably at a conclusion together. I think that’s a strong indication of your “narrative identity.” But may I ask you to speak for your wife for a moment? She has been very visible lately, winning the James Dickey prize from Five Points among other honors and journal publications, and I wonder if there is an imminent book I should be anticipating? I certainly hope so.

DK: Barbara has written two books of poetry, and she herself says that her second book [The Alphabet of Desire, NYU, Felix Pollak Prize, 1999—.] is better than her first [Delirium, UNT, 1995—.]. Right now she’s working on a manuscript for a third book; it might be just me, but I think it’s a quantum leap forward. We’ll be seeing that one soon, I hope, although Barbara will re-work a poem like nobody I’ve ever seen. You know how André Gide said “I rewrite in order to be reread”? I’m not saying that’s Barbara’s motto, but it might as well be.

Okay, stop: the needle just jumped off the record here. This isn’t quite believable, but such is life. As I’m going over this interview for the last time, Barbara rushes into the room to say she just received a phone call from Supriya Bhatnagar of the Associated Writing Programs announcing that Barbara has won the 2003 AWP Poetry Prize for her manuscript Babel. The contest judge was Stephen Dunn, 2001 Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. Barbara will receive a cash prize of $4000 and give a reading at the 2005 AWP meeting in Vancouver, B. C. Sheesh! None of this contradicts my previous assertion that Barbara’s “working on” her book; knowing her habits, I predict she’ll be revising the manuscript as it’s still in the typesetter’s hand and he’s backing away from her toward the press.

DA: Wow—that’s wonderful news for Barbara, and I’m glad to be able to share it with our storySouth readers here. We’ll all be looking forward to Babel now. Your own new book, The Ha-Ha, comes out in the Southern Messenger Poets series from LSU Press in the fall. What can we expect from this new book? Are there any long sequences, as in The Travelling Library, or are you returning to the style of The House of Blue Light? Or are you moving into completely new territory?

DK: The Ha-Ha is a loose sequence of poems organized around the idea of an 18th-century English landscape feature which was designed to keep cows and sheep at bay. A ha-ha is a wall at the bottom of a ditch; from your manor house, you couldn’t see the ha-ha, but you’d be able to enjoy the pleasing prospect of your livestock in the fields without having them under your very windows, frightening the guests and eating the geraniums out of your window boxes. So in the book, the term “ha-ha” refers to the mechanisms we employ to make our lives complete yet orderly; obviously, poetry is one such device. After this, I’ll be putting together a “New and Selected”. And then I’m going to write a group of poems about religious ideas, though from the point of view of a non-believer (me). Most people don’t believe in heaven, but everybody wants to go there, right? Now there’s a topic for a poet.

DA: I’m with you there. We all want heaven, whether we believe it exists or not. And if we’re unsure as to whether heaven is attainable, shouldn’t we work to create it, just in case? Say, do you think heaven could be a couple of bourbons on the porch on a mild spring Tallahassee afternoon?

DK: That sounds pretty close to paradise from my standpoint. Just before she died, I asked my old mom if she believed in an afterlife, and she said nope, we make heaven or hell right here on earth. The implication is that we shouldn’t be wasting our time when we can be doing the things that create joy for ourselves and others. As the fellow said, you’ll never see a hearse pulling a U-Haul. Therefore let us write the best poems that we can, and when the writing’s done, let us put ice cubes in a glass and felicitate ourselves in the company of those we love. And then let us rise again the next day, drink coffee, and write more poems.

DA: I’ll drink to that—bourbon and coffee. Thank you for taking the time to talk with me and sharing your work and insights with our storySouth readers.

Dan Albergotti is the author of The Boatloads (BOA Editions, 2008), Millennial Teeth (Southern Illinois University Press, 2014), and Of Air and Earth (Unicorn Press, 2019). His poems have appeared in 32 Poems, The Cincinnati Review, The Southern Review, The Best American Poetry, The Pushcart Prize, as well as other journals and anthologies. He is a professor of English at Coastal Carolina University.