David Kirby’s collection The House on Boulevard St.: New and Selected Poems was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2007. Kirby is the author of almost forty books. A Johns Hopkins PhD, Kirby teaches at Florida State University, where he has taught for over fifty years, won five major university teaching awards, and is the Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor of English. Kirby has won fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Recently, the Florida Humanities Council presented him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in Writing. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife, Barbara Hamby, a poet and fiction writer who also teaches at FSU.
In this interview we discuss his latest poetry collection, Help Me, Information, as well as his new book on writing poetry, The Knowledge: Where Poems Come From and How to Write Them, along with heaven, hell, loss, laughter, and the Waffle House.
William Nesbitt (WN): The Knowledge: Where Poems Come From and How to Write Them weighs in at almost 500 pages. I’m figuring you didn’t crank that all out on a rainy Tuesday morning. When did you start the project? What was the idea behind it? How was assembling the poems and writing the book different from writing poetry and what about the process of putting together The Knowledge is like writing poetry?
David Kirby (DK): Truth to tell, I wrote that book in a little over a month. Or I wrote it over 50 years, if you want to put it that way: I had a big data base of prompts and another big one of classrooms tips that I’d accumulated, and I shuffled those two files together like a deck of cards. Then came the fun part, which—oh, wait, I see that’s question #2.
WN: How did you go about selecting the poems to include in The Knowledge?
DK: This, too, was a process that had two parts. I just picked 50 or so poems that I adore without thinking too much of the lessons they taught, figuring that if my readers liked them as much as I did, they’d be self-starters and wouldn’t worry so much about having to learn or making mistakes. They’d just be enjoying themselves. After that, my publisher sent the manuscript to four readers, and those readers told me what else they’d like to see in The Knowledge, part of which was suggesting additional poems, so I added another 20 or so.
You asked earlier how writing The Knowledge was like writing poetry, and the answer is, it was exactly like that: you gather your materials, you sequence them, you do a draft, you get readers’ reactions, you revise accordingly. All writing’s like that, don’t you think?
WN: What poem would you most suggest when teaching and/or reading to a new-to-or-not-that-into-or-maybe-even-hates-poetry-audience-but-this-poem-will-get-deep-into-them?
DK: Uh-huh, yeah. Well, I think I’d send the students on a chase and tell them to go to two websites, the Rattle site and the one for The Writer’s Almanac. Those are two sites I consult every day, and half the time I end up copying and pasting poems from one or the other or both so I can use those poems in class. But this kind of thing works best if the student makes the discovery rather than getting an assignment from their stuffy old teacher.
Now if someone said, “Who should I read this weekend?” I’d tell them to read poems by George Bilgere. Tomorrow I might recommend another poet, but right now, I’m saying George. Take a look at his work and you’ll see why.
WN: You state, “if it works, a poem is more likely to be half understood rather than fully comprehended.” Is that true of all art, or is it unique to poetry?
DK: Well, all art is a game, isn’t it? And it invites the reader to play, promising to be not too difficult and not too easy but just right. Thing is, the game doesn’t have to ever end. And it probably shouldn’t. Don’t you go back from time to and look at a poem or a painting or a novel or movie and say “Dang, I never noticed that the first time”? I could read Keats forever and come up with new pleasures every time. Or listen to the Cowboy Junkies.
WN: You bring high art, philosophy, and European locales into your poetry, but you also mix in popular culture, especially music. You’ve kind of got one foot in the Louvre and one foot in the Hard Rock Cafe. Why do so many people view high art, say, Shakespeare or classical myth as something hard to understand and dull and why do so many academics think comic books, popular music, and television/movies are trash no educated adult should waste their time on?
DK: Most of us stay in our own little boxes, but man, you got to get out there and eat the world. It’s going to eat you one of these days, so don’t you want to get your chomps in first? There’s good and bad Shakespeare and good and bad pop music as well. Point is, there’s tons of both. Find the Shakespeare and the songs you love and forget about the rest. In the end, it doesn’t matter what you love as long as you love a lot of things. If you want to be a real person, that’s mandatory. Be an omnivore, damn it.
WN: Your most recent poetry collection is titled Help Me, Information, which makes me think of Pound’s oft-quoted definition that “Literature is news that stays news” and Mr. Aaker in “Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator Ode” from Help Me, Information who says, “Facts don’t work. People counterargue. They’re skeptical. But if you tell them a story, all that goes away.” News, facts, stories, information—they are not always the same thing, but they might overlap and intersect. What is the meaning of the title Help Me, Information?
DK; Shoot, I knew you’d ask me that.
Let’s see . . . okay, the first thing is that that title comes from “Memphis, Tennessee” by Chuck Berry, who, along with Little Richard and Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis and a hundred others whose names we barely remember, were the pioneers, the artists who invented the music that changed the world. Other than that, everything is information, isn’t it? The odor a dog smells on your pants leg is information to that dog, as is a radio signal or a note you find on the sidewalk or a childhood memory or a space rock that pings you on the head while you’re walking along thinking about your childhood.
Look back at question #5 and my answer to it. The world is made of information that’ll help you be your most three-dimensional, so get out your catcher’s mitt, because it’s all headed your way. By the way, I had to get permission from the Chuck Berry estate to use a couple of lines from his song. It took months, and they were going to charge me $300, but in the end, they said, “Wait, we’re talking about poetry here, right? Hey, those lines are yours—no charge.” Who says poetry doesn’t pay? Or at least it doesn’t cost you anything.
WN: What did we lose when we lost Aretha Franklin whom you mention in “My Girlfriend Killed James Brown” and “Hitchhike”? When I read the end of “My Girlfriend Killed James Brown,” I wonder: do we ever really, completely lose people?
DK: We didn’t lose a damned thing. Somebody asked Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead if he missed Jerry Garcia, and Weir said, “I see him in my dreams all the time. I hear him when I’m on stage. I would say I can’t talk to him, but I can. I don’t miss him. He’s here. He’s with me.”
Oh, and here’s another quote, this from Septimus Hodge in Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia, who tells a grieving character:
We shed as we pick up, like travelers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again.
Nice, huh? By the way, I hope you don’t mind the quotes. When I find that someone has said something better than I can say it, I let them have the floor.
WN: The way I read “My Girlfriend Killed James Brown” James Brown accompanies the girlfriend in heaven’s waiting room and then escorts her into her personal heaven where she finds her parents sitting at a table in the house where she grew up. Insert yourself into the end of that scenario. Who escorts you into the next room and who is seated at the table?
DK: Man, do I love these questions. In 1967, Otis Redding was touring Jamaica, and one night he walked unannounced into an after-hours club where Bob Marley was playing. Otis appeared “like a god,” as eyewitnesses say, and when Bob Marley looked up, he stopped what he was doing and went right into “These Arms of Mine.” Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if you’d been one of those in the club that night? The bartender points you to a seat and hands you a bottle of Red Stripe, and you think you’ll listen to a couple of songs and go home because you need to get to work early the next day, and the door opens, and in walks the Big O. Yeah, I’d know I was in heaven then.
WN: “Europeans Wrapping Knickknacks” suggests that there are physical ways we can give ourselves to others or carry others with us. What are the non-physical ways? Can the poem or the song be both a physical and a non-physical item or entity that endures?
DK: Well, any words can, can’t they? The words of a poem or song or just something someone says? Think about the dozens of snippets of language that you’ve read or overheard or dreamed up on your own over the years that recur to you constantly and that are almost forgettable, but not to you because you’ve charged them with meaning.
An editor took a poem of mine recently and said he and the other editors at the journal were wowed by the fact that the poem is so “straightforward,” by which I guess he means that most of the poems they get are not straightforward. So, yeah, a good way to work is find something around you that’s pretty trivial and make it the most important thing on this earth. If you can pull that off, your readers will start looking at the world differently. If you want to see what I mean, look at “Today,” that short poem by Frank O’Hara that turns the ordinary things of this world into sacraments.
WN: In “Having a Chat with You,” the narrator asks, “When you die and I still want to talk to you, / will you hear me?” What is the answer to that question? Can the dead hear us and vice versa?
DK: As far as I know, no one’s ever heard back from that “undiscovered country from whose bourn / No traveler returns” (Hamlet, act 3, scene 1), but we can keep in touch with the departed. When the poet Edward Field lost his partner, he put up the most extraordinary Facebook post, saying, “we were together for 58 years. it was so wonderful i don’t mind being by myself for a while and reflecting on our life together. i am so grateful.” May everyone who loves someone else feel this way when their time comes.
WN: “Hitchhike” explains that according to Simone Weil, “Hell isn’t endless suffering; it’s endless monotony.” In “Legion, for We Are Many,” the devil himself explains that “hell’s just boring.” We learn in “This Magic Moment” that “Bravery is doing / the same thing every day when you don’t want to. / Not the marvelous but the familiar, over and over again. / Do that, and the magic will come.” Is this the secret, then, to getting out of hell whether it is spiritual or physical, real or imagined? Is poetry a passport out of hell?
DK: It is, but it’s not the only way out. I never want to come across as one of those people who says there’s something wrong with you if you don’t read poetry or you’re not a poet. There are plenty of ways to add to the world’s beauty. Jack Gilbert has this wonderful poem called “The Abnormal Is Not Courage” in which he describes a Polish cavalry charge against German tanks in the early days of World War II. Fine, he says, but attacking armored troops on horseback is not courage. Courage consists not of single king-size dramas but of basic decency over the long haul: the whole marriage, Gilbert says, not just the rapture of the first month. Go for the beauty “of many days,” of “normal excellence, of long accomplishment.”
I read a piece recently by a man whose father’s last words were, “Take care of everybody.” That’s a way out of hell. That’s heaven right there. And you don’t have to write poetry to know this, but I will say that, given its concision and precise use of words, poetry is the best way to get the message across. And what’s the message? It’ll be different for different people, but one possibility is “don’t just be kind—be kinder than you have to be.” In other words, when you’re in the drive-thru line, always pay for the person behind you. Don’t look at their bumper stickers, and don’t dawdle when you’re done in hopes of getting a wave and a honk. Just pay.
WN: “The 1909 Air Show at Brescia” says that “the things you love can kill you.” The baby in “A Baby in the Piazza” says, “Nothing’s worth loving unless it can kill you.” Is that a contradiction or an explanation?
DK: I take it more as a definition of what’s important in this life. Nothing really counts unless it has power, and to have power, there needs to be power for good and evil, power that’ll make you dance with joy or knock your teeth out. Take the internet: now you can chat with Aunt Gracie in the comfort of your own home, but you can also convince your fellow dimwits that Barack Obama was born in Kenya. Yeah, I like to order crap online, but I was also able to walk into Sears and buy stuff back when Sears was a thing and not pay delivery fees. I could get along fine without the internet as long as I wasn’t the only one who didn’t have it.
WN: I see this sort of baseball diamond in Help Me, Information consisting of death, love, God, and sex. What’s that all about? Are those just topics that poets tend to write about, or do you think you focus on them more? If that baseball diamond metaphor is accurate, which one is home base for you?
DK: I’m thinking now that those four words just might be synonyms. In Howards End, one character says, “Death destroys a man, but the idea of death saves him.” If we lived forever, we’d probably think ourselves so excellent that we’d be, like, “God who?” And love and sex would just be things that drift in and out of our life. No, no: death makes you sit up and take notice. It makes you get busy, makes you think, “Okay, time to come up with some priorities here. No more reality TV and bong hits for this slacker: I’m going to make my time on earth count for something—I’m going to make my time on earth count for something, by God.”
WN: Blake, Whitman, and Ginsberg are recurring presences in your poetry. I also notice works by them form the top three of your list in The Knowledge of the ten books you regard as “essential reading for young poets” and you describe the trio as “dithyrambic.” Why do you dig them so much?
DK: Well, they’re exuberant, aren’t they? They celebrate. They make a lot of noise. In the EQ department (or “emotional quotient,” for those who don’t throw that term around as much as I do), they’re the most emotionally healthy poets out there. Every optimistic cliché applies: they see the glass as half full, they make lemonade out of lemons, they turn mountains back into molehills.
Frank O’Hara works the same way. Check out “Today.” I’m always dreaming up new classes, and I’m putting one together now called “The Daughters of Frank O’Hara,” because, for whatever reason, I notice that a lot more young women than young men are trying to match O’Hara for sheer exuberance these days. Hera Lindsay Bird and Chessy Normile are two who come to mind.
WN: I had a student who said of Ginsberg’s “Howl,” “When you read ‘Howl,’ you know where you are.” When you read “Howl,” where are you?
DK: I’m right there on the back of Big Al’s motorcycle. I have to admit, I’m a sucker for just about any kind of come-on. What a masterful poem, huh? The poet only has to utter those first few words of invitation. Who could resist?
By the way, he and the other poets I mention in my answer to the last question aren’t just exuberant about chocolate sundaes and back rubs. They’re boisterous and excessive about everything. Take Blake: he’s as political as all get-out, but he’s never sour or resentful. He lived in a day before two-stroke combustion engines, but he invites you to clamber aboard his cosmic Harley and head out on the highway, see what’s going on, celebrate it if it’s far out, kick its ass if it isn’t.
WN: “Three’s Company” lists, explores, and documents the power of three in subjects such as politics, history, and America. There’s one heart, two eyes, and four seasons, but three appears an awful lot. Morning, afternoon, evening. Youth, adulthood, old age. Heaven, purgatory, hell. Past, present, future. Id, ego, superego. Lower class, middle class, upper class. The three Star Wars trilogies. The three Fates. The Three Stooges. Blake, Whitman, Ginsberg. Small, medium, large. Why is three such a powerful number and why does it show up so much?
DK: Gee, I don’t know. I guess it’s a Goldilocks number, isn’t it? Just enough and not too much? You always want choices, but don’t you hate those BuzzFeed article with titles like “23 Ways to Cook a Chicken Breast”?
My last two big decisions were to buy a car and get a new roof put on the house. I looked at two cars, a Toyota and a Honda. And I called four roofing contractors to get estimates. In other words, I had a little less or a little more than three options in each category. I was thinking three-ishly. Works for me, and if there’s anything to the poem, that way of thinking works for the general run of mankind as well.
Besides, three ingredients are just about all you can remember anyway. And a three-part list is punchy: you can nutshell life aboard a British naval frigate with just “rum, sodomy, and the lash.” So why would you say, “rum, sodomy, the lash, scurvy, body odor, lousy rations, bad teeth, sadistic officers, and surly bunkmates, not to mention that I haven’t heard from Molly in the two years I’ve been at sea”? Too many details can rob a punch line of its power.
WN: Now that we’ve gotten The Knowledge and some Information, let’s talk Wisdom. With all of the instant and constant access the internet and other connective technologies have gifted/unleashed on us, it’s also become proportionately difficult—for me, at least—to unplug or know when I am done working for the day or week. How do you figure out the work/life balance and allow yourself to take a break?
DK: A break to me is an event. It’s just as important as a bike ride or a meeting with your lawyer. It’s not that I get up and write
- Get up.
- Write or at least get ready to write.
- Take a five-minute nap.
- Write more, using ideas that came during nap.
- Eat lunch and nap again
I’ll add two codicils to this pronouncement. The first is that you should throw in a worthless activity from time to time, though by doing so, that activity automatically becomes worthwhile. The second thing is that I’m talking the talk here, but I don’t always walk the walk. There are days when I write nothing, days on which I skip one or both naps, and other days still when I throw my head back and yowl like a cat with its tail caught in the door. I try, though.
WN: I was glad to see you giving Waffle House some love in “Waffle House Index.” Over the years, Waffle House has been sanctuary, retreat, social club, entertainment venue, shelter, headquarters, make-out station, hideout, and study space for me. I probably wrote half of my undergraduate papers after midnight in the Waffle Houses of Georgia. I don’t know that I have a question in here so much as a thank-you, but please riff on Waffle House anyway. Oh, and I saw what you did there at the end with the take on section 52 of “Song of Myself.” I think Walt Whitman would have enjoyed the diversity, the American-ness, of Waffle House.
DK: Jeez, Waffle House is like the Vatican, isn’t it? Or Buckingham Palace. Or Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin. It’s the center of the universe. But whereas those other places are ground zero for particular populations, Waffle House is like that Emma Lazarus poem on the Statue of Liberty, saying come one, come all.
Waffle House is to greasy spoons what Shakespeare is to the rest of us. Man’ll tell you a great story, but he never stops there; he always throws in lots of useless beauty as well. Therefore, to fully activate the potential of your local Waffle House and have it radiate its magic throughout your entire region, remember the one thing you must always do, which is to get a waffle. They serve other stuff there, but even if you just want a cup of soup or a salad, order a waffle as well.
WN: If I went into a bar and ordered a “David Kirby,” what ingredients would the bartender put in the drink?
DK: Again, I’ve loved every one of these questions. I do a lot of interviews, and I’d rather drink a glass of gasoline than be asked “where do you get your ideas?” again. But this one stumped me, so I called in a consultant, my most mentally adventurous grad student, Brett Cortelletti. Just as I knew he would, Brett gave me the formula you’re looking for, complete with hand gestures. I’m thinking we should make an instructional video.
Anyway, what you do is tell your barkeep you’d like a David Kirby, please, whereupon this mixologist of many years’ experience makes you a martini but neither shakes nor stirs it. Instead, he hands you the drink and a couple of quarters. You take everything over to the jukebox, put the drink on top, slip the coins into the slot, select “Long Tall Sally,” and let the machine’s vibrations marry the gin to the vermouth in a gentle and nuanced way. In just two minutes and ten seconds, your icy beverage is finished to perfection. Enjoy!