Published: July 17th, 2015
David Kirby is an acclaimed American poet and professor at Florida State University. He has published over 20 books. Some of Kirby's accolades include being included in The Best American Poetry series four times, a Pushcart Prize, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Howl: What is your writing process like?
Kirby: I’m not sure a word like “process” really works in my case. I have a full life—I travel, go out to dinner with my wife and to ball games with my friends, teach—but poetry is always there. As much as possible, I want to live a seamless life, one in which everything is important and there are no boundaries. Scraps of poetry come to me twenty-four hours a day; sometimes I feel as though I’m the world’s secretary.
Howl: How do you edit your work?
Kirby: With the concentration of a mohel performing a circumcision. Even though I may have questions about a poem, I never show it to anyone unless I think it’s as perfect as I can make it at the moment; after I get their reaction, I pick up my scalpel and go at it again. By the way, “anyone” means transcendent American poet Barbara Hamby. I edit her work, she edits mine. She’s the best in the business; just ask her students. Understand, I didn’t marry her because she’s an absolutely splendid editor. Well, I did, but there were other reasons.
Howl: What advice do you have for budding writers?
Kirby: I’d say learn to tell a joke.
This is where I’m supposed to say read, read, read, right? To me, that’s like telling an athlete to breathe. Besides, you can read the wrong things. Or read them the wrong way: Thomas Hobbes was said to have remarked "that if he had read as much as other men, he should have been as ignorant as they.”
A lot of poetry you see online these days is joyless; it’s clotted with Latinate words and is intellectual rather than sensual, as though the poet is trying to prove how smart he is rather than giving the reader something that brims with pleasure. A lot of this kind of writing is really theory disguised as poetry, and since so many of these poets only teach and read each other, the result is a poetry that is 100% cerebral. It’s like someone describing their dream; it may have meant a lot to them, but you’re on the outside of it. Or somebody describing their brother’s dream. Or somebody describing a dream their brother had when he was eight.
There’s nothing wrong with being cerebral, but if that’s all you are, then you’re one-dimensional. I want a poetry that’s three-, four-, twenty-dimensional. Each of the arts has the capacity to be multidimensional, of course, but poetry does it best.
I’d say the best thing a budding writer can do is learn to tell a joke. That doesn’t mean that your poems have to be funny—far from it. But a poem, like a joke, always works on at least two levels at once. Also, a poem is like a joke in that you either get it or or you don’t. Proportion, timing, economy, precise diction...yeah, learn to tell a joke if you want to have a poetic mind. It doesn’t mean you have to be funny. People sometimes tell me I write funny poems. Yes, I do. But I don’t write only funny poems.
When someone asked James Joyce what he had learned from the Jesuits who taught him at Clongowes College, he said, “I have learnt to arrange things in such a way that they become easy to survey and to judge.” Isn’t that beautiful? It’s also surprising. You’d think Joyce would say he’d learned something visionary or mystical, but no. What he said, in effect, was that he learned to see the world the way poets do.
Oh, and take care of your body. You don’t write poems with this mysterious soul of yours; you write them with your body. Do fifteen minutes of exercise every morning, then make a protein shake. If you’re of age, drink moderately—I do—but don’t drink every day. Get a good night’s sleep. Your readers expect nothing less.
Howl: Why do you feel that poetry, or writing in general, is your creative medium of choice?
Kirby: Poetry’s just the best way to be in the world, to be most fully alive. The Russian writer Variam Shalamov said that his contemporary Osip Mandelstam lived not for poetry but through poetry.
That’s why I say it’s better to have a poetic mind than to write poetry. Life comes at you a mile a minute; you’re going to enjoy and manage it a lot better if you know how to pick and choose and combine and put things in perspective, to be able to explain to yourself and others what matters and what doesn’t, the way a great poem does.
By the way, you can have a poetic mind and never write a single poem in your life. I’m sure most of my undergraduate students never write another poem after they leave my class, but if they look at the world with a poetic mind for the rest of their lives, I’ve done my job.
Howl: What do you look for in reading poetry, and are there any writers we should have our ears on the tracks for?
Kirby: More than anything else, I look for generosity. Those cerebral poets I mention seem to be holding something back, whereas others give us everything we want and more. Shakespeare is the greatest writer for exactly that reason. Nobody gives us more. I love Dante, Blake, Keats, Whitman, and Ginsberg for the same reason. But there are plenty of generous poets writing today: Amy Gerstler, Lucia Perillo, Sherman Alexie, the aforementioned Barbara Hamby. This time last year I fell hard for Jack Gilbert, a poet I had admired up to that point but hadn’t come to appreciate fully. I got so involved with his work that I began to write poems like his. I’m serious. If you saw what I’d written, you wouldn’t think it’s me..
These are some poets I’m going to be teaching this fall, many of whom I’m discovering for the first time: Craig van Rooyen, Patricia Smith, Heidi Shuler, Lynne Knight, Albert Haley, Ishmael Reed, Fatimah Asghar, Gregory Corso. I just came across a poet named Dzvinia Orlowsky the other day; I wrote to say how much I liked a poem of hers, and now we have a nice little correspondence going. That’s another thing: you can locate anybody on the internet these days, so when you find somebody whose work you love, tell them so. You’d be surprise at the friendships that develop. As I heard the poet Laure-Anne Bosselaar say once, the best thing about poetry is the friends it brings us.
Howl: Many of your poems are very personal. How do you find the balance where your poetry can be personal - even introspective and therapeutic - and knowing that it will also be read by the masses? It can be a very vulnerable experience publishing poetry.
Kirby: That’s an easy answer. Everything starts personally and is usually very small. So it’s my job to add to that small, personal beginning, to change and color it until it’s so big that you can’t resist the connection I’m trying to make. Say somebody runs over my foot with a shopping cart and doesn’t apologize. Pretty trivial, right? Yet the themes in that little incident are the stuff of scripture and the Greek epics. Aggression, outrage, callousness, the desire for revenge, the need to forgive: these and a dozen other themes are packed into that very finite occurrence. It’s up to the poet make this personal encounter a universal one, and once you do that, you’ve taken care of the vulnerability issue because it’s no longer your experience but the reader’s.
Howl: In your poem, "Broken Promises," you mention finding these broken promises metaphorically "wandering in a wood where I too have wandered." Over your long career, what are some of the memorable things you've learned about yourself that poetry has helped you better comprehend?
Kirby: Anything I know about myself I know either from a poem I or someone else has written or from thinking the way a poet does. A poem is many things to me, but first and foremost, it’s a problem-solving machine. Who are those people over here? What language are they speaking, and why are they acting that way? Here, let me write a poem and answer that question.
Probably the main thing I’ve learned from poetry is forgiveness. A lot of my poems deal with a problem I have with something or someone, myself included. How many times are you annoyed or irritated in the course of a day? That’s a lot to carry around. Better to write a poem and create a place where you can manage all that ill will and make something worthy of it.
Howl: Likewise, in the same poem, you end with "'You bastards,' I scream, / 'you have to love me - I gave you life!'" There is a sense of loss of control, of something taking on a life of its own after you have brought it into this world. Similarly it is with poetry once it is published. Do you believe the poet has a responsibility to the reader and how would you describe your relationship to your readership?
Kirby: I always tell my students that when you write a poem, you’re making a gift for someone. It’s not for you—what fun is it to buy presents for yourself and open them and say, “Oh, a present!” Your poem begins with you, but it’s for somebody else. The poem isn’t your reward. Your reward is the delight that readers take in it. We’ve all gotten lousy presents; you say, “Oh, gee, thanks” and put it aside. But when you get a good one, you’re so excited. And the person who gave it to you is happier than you are.
Howl: Many of your poems explore form with the syntax. How do you, as a poet, determine the form that will provide the vessel of the poem - whether it be even stanzas, indents of every other line, or so forth?
Kirby: Excellent question, the answer to which has as much to do with making mud pies as poems. You have to get in up to your elbows. You’re going to get dirty, but if you don’t have the materials of your labor all over your clothes and hair when you’re finished, you haven’t done it right.
That said, one of the most important things anyone ever said about art is John Dewey’s statement that a work of art is not “experience” but “an experience.” Everything has a start and a finish. As Blake says, “Truth has bounds. Error none.”
Too, everything has a right size. Wine comes in 750 milliliter bottles: can you imagine what it would be like if you said, “I’ll have the chianti” and you got a thimbleful one night and a gallon the next? Movies last about two hours, symphonies consist of four movements, we order a dozen oysters, the second half of a play is slightly shorter than the first. With exceptions, married people limit themselves to one spouse; trial and error suggests that’s the right amount. Or one at a time, I should say. One carry-on bag, one personal item. I could go on like this forever.
Now there are no such bounds to “an experience” called “a poem.” But every poem has the right or wrong dimensions and symmetry. Poems are short, so it’s easy to tell when they need something more or have too much content or are “just right,” as Goldilocks said. Again, trial and error is the key here. And customer satisfaction: sometimes I’m asked why my poems look the way they do, and I always say, “Because editors like them.”
I don’t want to miss the opportunity to talk about syntax. That’s not a word that’s used often enough; people tend to say “grammar,” and usually they’re not even talking about that. Syntax is simply the arrangement of words, but beyond that it means long and supple sentences and then short, crisp ones when you need them. So many poems are choppy and monotonous. Remember that Pound said ''poetry should be at least as well-written as prose.''
That means exquisite sentences, which means a mastery of syntax. I was talking to Kim Addonizio once, and she told me she had students imitate syntactically complex poems like Ginsberg’s “Howl,” literally writing out “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,” and then mimicking that syntax but plugging in their own words for Ginsberg’s. Is that a marvelous idea or what?
Howl: What is next for David Kirby?
Kirby: Did you know I’m a music journalist? A few years ago, I was being asked to write, not poetry, but statements about poetry: essays, reviews of poetry books, and so on. Okay, but after a while, enough was enough. I was tired of being monolingual, so I decided to learn another language. Literally: at a time when a lot of people think about retiring, I started taking guitar lessons and spending as much time with musicians as I could. From there, I started going to clubs and shows and writing about them for magazines and newspapers.
So that’s a new part of my life and will continue to be. I’ve got pieces coming out in newspapers on Dylan and the Doors, and I’m getting ready to drive up to Augusta, Georgia to do a piece on the music scene in that city for Oxford American. I also have a book coming out this fall called Crossroad: Artist, Audience, and the Making of American Music.
Five years ago, I didn’t know I was going to be doing any of that. So there’s no telling what I’ll be doing five years hence. Whatever it is, it’ll be in addition to poetry. I can’t think of anything I want to do more than to write poems that other people want to read. This time last year, I was standing at a hotel room window in Chile looking out at a ship in the harbor. The person in the room next to mine may have been looking out at the same time and thinking, “A ship.” What I saw was a shipful of poems; they were clambering over the side and heading my way.