An Interview with David Kirby
By Stephen Reichert
November, 2000 (published in The Arkansas Review)
DAVID KIRBY is the author or coauthor of eighteen books, including five poetry collections. The House of Blue Light, his latest collection of poetry, appeared from LSU Press in 2000. In 1987, his first collection of poetry, Saving the Young Men of Vienna, was awarded The Brittingham Prize in Poetry from The University of Wisconsin Press. A recipient of grants from the Florida Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts, his other honors include five Florida State University teaching awards and Southern Poetry Review’s Guy Owen Poetry Prize. His poems have appeared in numerous publications such as Poems & Plays, Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, Chelsea, Smartish Pace, Virginia Quarterly, Gettysburg Review and The Best American Poetry, 2000 & 2001.
Kirby was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1944. He received his bachelor’s degree in English form LSU in 1966 and his doctorate from Johns Hopkins University in 1969. He is the W. Guy McKenzie Professor of English at Florida State University, where he has taught since 1969.
It is evident in Kirby’s poetry that he has forever unabashedly “stirred the pot.” Whether it’s stealing Roman Polanski’s Cookies or the Uh, uh, uh ah oui, AH OUI, AH OUI! cries of a French lover, Kirby’s poems are saturated with no-apologies wit, wisdom, and a dazzling account of his own personal history. It is through his narrative, “memory poems,” that one of the nice guys of poetry presents us with the “shiny jewel boxes” that are his poems.
This interview was conducted in November 2000.
STEPHEN REICHERT: Thank you for agreeing to do this interview.
I recently read your new book, The House of Blue Light, and it is one of the most entertaining books of poetry I have read. This book is laugh-a-loud funny, very refreshing.
In one of your new poems, “An Otherwise Mediocre Film,” you write that “an ordinary whole day on film would appear as a single dull continuum.” If you would, please give us some insight into what an ordinary day in the life of David Kirby is like. Would these days be unfit for film?
DAVID KIRBY: My ordinary day is a fairly splendid affair, but, yeah, it would be unfit for film. Look at it this way: someone said once that if you were just sitting around popping bubble wrap, you’d be in paradise. But to have to watch a video of yourself popping bubble wrap would be torture. And to be compelled to watch a video of me popping bubble wrap would be an incitement to homicide. I guess the moral is that art requires some intellectual and emotional peaks and valleys that real life doesn’t.
STEPHEN REICHERT: Have you ever lived a day that if captured on film would excite a moviegoer?
DAVID KIRBY: Maybe somebody who likes documentaries. Because I’ve never, you know, been a machine gunner storming a beach held by a well-entrenched enemy. But I’ve had a lot of luck running into famous people and just talking to them, and a clip of those would make a movie I’d pay to see.
Just last week, for example, I was in a buffet line behind Sam Moore of Sam and Dave. Now you can’t just walk up to somebody like Sam Moore and say, “Hey, I really dug ‘Soul Man’.” But when you’re in a buffet line, there are a lot of possibilities as far as your choice of icebreakers. As it happens, Mr. Moore was looking at this huge container of little fried strips, and he puts a big stack of them on his plate, and I see my chance, and I say, “Are those clams, Mr. Moore?” and he sticks one in his mouth and bites it in half and looks at it and says to me, “It might be a clam now, but it had a beak and feathers yesterday.” I’ll probably put that in a poem in a week or two.
STEPHEN REICHERT: How long after this occurred did you realize that it may be material for a poem?
DAVID KIRBY: I knew it for what it was instantly. I’ll just have to keep the image in mind until it starts to grow.
STEPHEN REICHERT: Do you often feel like you’re capturing moments for the purpose of writing poems?
DAVID KIRBY: Oh, yes. As a narrative poet, I can sometimes see a story happening before it does, so to speak. For example, someone started to tell me the story that became “Teacher of the Year” [from The House of Blue Light], and instantly I started listening with two minds: the friend’s mind that wanted to listen and respond and the poet’s mind that knew the story would turn into a poem.
STEPHEN REICHERT: How many ordinary days, weeks and months did it take you to create the eighteen poems that comprise The House of Blue Light?
DAVID KIRBY: Actual writing time? Probably a couple of weeks. Time elapsed while stewing, fretting, changing dashes to colons and back to dashes? Between two and three years total. But almost half those poems were written when I had a sabbatical and was living in France for six months. I had a lot of time and, thanks to my expatriate status, plenty of bewilderment that encouraged me to think poetically.
STEPHEN REICHERT: During the two-to-three years in which you revised your poems, who else was reading them?
DAVID KIRBY: My wife Barbara, who is a close reader, a great cheerleader when the poem is putting points on the board, and a ruthless critic when the poem is trying to run down the field in the wrong direction. I also listen to what magazine editors say. And I get a lot of cues from audiences when I give readings. People will come up and tell you what works, so why not listen to them?
STEPHEN REICHERT: When and how did you meet your wife [Poet Barbara Hamby]?
DAVID KIRBY: At a party. Actually, we’d known each other casually for years and got along, but at this party, well, I just knew. I guess she did, too.
STEPHEN REICHERT: How has she influenced your career as a poet?
DAVID KIRBY: She’s made me more serious. And not that you asked, but I’ve made her goofier. It’s a pretty fair exchange, if you ask me.
STEPHEN REICHERT: Has this seriousness carried over into your writing or are you saying that your wife helped you become more serious with the rest of your life?
DAVID KIRBY: No, I’m only talking about the writing. The rest of the time, we’re both pretty frivolous—we like to travel, go to movies, dance, eat in fancy restaurants, and in general waste money we should be saving for our years in the Home for Aged Poets.
STEPHEN REICHERT: Are there any particular difficulties that come with a marriage of two poets and if so, how do you deal with them?
DAVID KIRBY: No difficulties. In fact, quite the contrary. Poetry’s not something everybody gets anyway, so I feel lucky that I have someone right there across the table who can understand what I’m talking about. She gives great advice, poetic and otherwise. I don’t always take it, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t terrific.
STEPHEN REICHERT: In “Meetings with Remarkable Men” [from The House of Blue Light], you write, very humorously I might add, what you’ve learned about the world from the cops, boxers and fullbacks of this world. From which poets have you learned the most about the world?
DAVID KIRBY: The Old Testament authors, Blake, Whitman, Ginsberg. They’re the boys who gave me the long lines that I use to try to lasso life’s runaway calves and make them do my bidding.
STEPHEN REICHERT: Speaking of long lines, your new poems are longer and filled with more detail than your earlier poems. I’d be astonished to learn that any of the new poems were complete on first draft, but what about the poems in your first book? Were any of them complete on arrival? Is there any correlation between the length of your poems and the amount of time spent revising them?
DAVID KIRBY: No. A 20-line poem and a 200-liner both take the same amount of time. Funny, isn’t it?
STEPHEN REICHERT: Yeah, but why is that?
DAVID KIRBY: You can’t make a mistake in a short poem; every word has to be made of gold, and it takes time to unearth those nuggets.
STEPHEN REICHERT: Well, you’ve unearthed plenty of nuggets during your days as the W. Guy McKenzie Professor of English at Florida State University. If you would, please take us on the journey that leads to your current position.
DAVID KIRBY: Well, there was no special game plan, if that’s what you’re asking. Any reward I ever got was secondary to what I like best, which is reading and writing and talking about books with other people. I didn’t even realize that I had to get a job until a few months before I got my Ph.D. Fortunately, I ended up at Florida State, which has always been a great environment for me. I work hard. I don’t play golf, which is the great addiction of middle-aged white men; it’s claimed any number of buddies of mine, upstanding fellows who disappeared at one point and haven’t been seen for months.
Oh, and I’m nice to people. You know, just that Southern how’s-your-mama kind of niceness. It sounds obvious, but lots of talented people are real pricks, and they can’t understand why nobody likes them.
STEPHEN REICHERT: Who are some of the poets that you’ve taught?
DAVID KIRBY: Stephen Dobyns, Billy Collins, Caroline Knox, Christy Sanford, Campbell McGrath.
STEPHEN REICHERT: Of these poets, with whose work are you most impressed?
DAVID KIRBY: I like McGrath’s work a lot. I think he’s really one to learn from. His whole career has been interesting; there is a sameness to his work, yet he’s constantly re-inventing himself. He’s a real American original. So much poetry one reads these days seems to have been written by one person. When you read a McGrath poem, you know it’s his instantly, even before you see his name at the bottom of the page.
STEPHEN REICHERT: While reading your poems I can’t help but think that you must have been a trouble maker in grade school, someone I would have foolishly been attracted to, someone who would have landed us both in the principles office. Is there any truth in my suspicions?
DAVID KIRBY: Well, I wasn’t an overt troublemaker. I knew how to stir the pot, though. Typically, I’d create a turmoil and loudly express my chagrin that the situation had deteriorated so rapidly. Then I’d take a walk and think the whole thing through, probably write something about it. To all my high-school teachers: it wasn’t Lowell Wunstel and Eddie Graham, after all. It was me.
STEPHEN REICHERT: When you say you’d write about it, are you talking about poems? At what age did you begin writing poetry?
DAVID KIRBY: I always wrote, from the moment I could hold a pencil. I didn’t really get serious about poetry until I was in college, though. Before that time, I wrote a lot of sketches, short-shorts, and other hard-to-classify pieces that were the forerunners of the kinds of poems I’m writing now.
STEPHEN REICHERT: Congratulations to both you and your wife for having poems selected by Rita Dove for The Best American Poetry 2000 anthology.
In the Contributors Notes and Comments to the anthology you wrote, as an inspiration to poets, that “before ‘At the Grave of Harold Goldstein’ was accepted by Parnassus, it was turned down by seventeen magazines. So you poets, hang in there.” What three pieces of advice would you give a young poet—not in some letter to a young poet, ala Rilke-but here, now, in this interview?
DAVID KIRBY: I’d tell them to master punctuation, because mastery of punctuation means you can use a more flexible syntax. Most people today use the comma and the period to produce a subject-verb-object sentence, and then that’s what you get over and over again. The dash, the colon, and the semi-colon have largely either disappeared or are being used incorrectly. So I’d tell the young poets to learn to punctuate so that they can write long, fluid, supple sentences.
I’d have the young poets maintain a stockpile of linguistic bits: stories, weird words, snatches of conversation they’d overheard, lines from movies they’d seen or books they’d read. Most young poets will say something like, “Well, I have to write a poem now. Let’s see; what can I write about?” And then they end up writing about their own experiences, and, let’s face it, we all have the same experiences. So what all poets need is a savings account they can raid from time to time.
Finally, I’d tell them to remember that the poem is a gift. You’re not writing it for yourself; you’re writing it so you can give it to someone else. So what are you going to give them, a handful of wadded-up tissues from your trash can or a bright, shiny jewel box you’ve spent weeks making?
STEPHEN REICHERT: Do you keep a stockpile of linguistic bits?
DAVID KIRBY: Absolutely. It runs to about 20 pages right now. In fact, I don’t like it to get too bushy. So when it starts to get longer, I harvest it for poem material.
STEPHEN REICHERT: Again a congratulations is in order for your collection of poems The Traveling Library which recently won the 2000 Tennessee Chapbook Prize for Poetry and was printed in the Spring | Summer Issue of Poems & Plays [Middle Tennessee State University].
I must ask you about “The Ah Oui Girl,” the poem that is, and your poem “Heat Lightning.” “The Ah Oui Girl” is the first poem in The Traveling Library and a few of its early stanzas appear in “Heat Lightning,” which is included in The House of Blue Light. The poems’ concluding stanzas are different, but do you consider one of these poems a revision of the other? Which poem came first?
DAVID KIRBY: Both versions came more or less at the same time, because I was working on both projects simultaneously. What happened was I realized that one experience could be used two different ways. I’m assuming that my readers will applaud my creative daring here and not assume I was so lazy I decided to plagiarize myself.
Incidentally, “Heat Lightning” is the poem that is quoted back to me the most often. And for obvious reasons: the girl in it is shouting “ah oui, ah oui!” as she’s having sex, so I’m always having somebody shout “ah oui!” at me as I walk across campus. The other day, I retrieved a phone message, and here was this guy shouting “ah oui, ah oui!” over the phone. It turned out to be Billy Collins.
STEPHEN REICHERT: It came as no surprise to find blurbs by Stephen Dunn and Billy Collins on the book jacket of The House of Blue Light. I’m pleased to say that Stephen Dunn has a poem in the current issue of Smartish Pace and I’m still working on Billy, but the point is, I’m an admirer of their work for similar reasons. It came as no surprise to me because the three of you seem to share that sort-of Graham Greene-esque (or pick a phenomenolgist: Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Jaspers), sensitivity to, and understanding of, the subtle movements of human nature, coupled with natural humor and wit. Do you find this similarity among you, Dunn and Collins?
DAVID KIRBY: Yeah, I think we’re fraternity brothers. I’m not sure I’d use the word “coupled,” though. That sounds as though the Understanding is over here on the kitchen counter and the Humor is out in the garage, so you go out and get a couple of pounds of Humor and bring it in and attach it to the Understanding with a screwdriver. I’ve never sat down with these two and said, “Okay, guys, give it up,” but I suspect that, like me, they’d see the Humor and the Understanding as arriving at the same time—as being inseparable, as it were.
STEPHEN REICHERT: You have recently said that you grew tired of writing the 2” by 4” I-looked-out-my window-and-here’s-what-I-saw poem. In the forward to your book Saving the Young Men of Vienna, Mona Van Duyn tells us that you aren’t writing 2” by 4” poems. Now she’s telling us that back in 1987. At what time were you writing 2” by 4” I-looked-out-my-window-and-here’s-what-I-saw-poems?
DAVID KIRBY: Oh, I haven’t written those for a while, obviously. I guess my point is that comprehension always lags way behind achievement. I’d stopped writing those short babies long before I’d figured out a way of describing what it was that I wasn’t doing anymore.
STEPHEN REICHERT: The poems in Saving the Young Men of Vienna are not nearly as rambling as your newer poems. By rambling I mean to say that your older poems have a topic and generally stick with it to the end. Your newer poems seem to move from observation to thought to thought to observation and so on to the end of the poem. Have you made a conscious effort to write longer poems, or have the longer poems been an unintended result of some other new purpose in your writing?
DAVID KIRBY: I wanted to tell stories; I had a lot of stories to tell that weren’t getting into the poems. I noticed that, at readings, poets would often tell a fabulous story and then read a humdrum poem based on the story, a real reduction of all these crunchy details to something vague and raggedy. So I needed the extra length to get everything in.
I didn’t have a particular goal in mind beyond that, but the first poem of this kind that I wrote, called “The Summer of the Cuban Missile Crisis,” was taken by Marilyn Hacker for an issue of Kenyon Review that she was guest-editing. Now I have enormous respect for Marilyn Hacker, who is our foremost sonneteer, among other things, and I hadn’t even come close to getting into Kenyon Review before. So naturally I considered this a tremendous validation of the new kind of poem I was writing.
And, like the Dow Jones Industrial Average, it’s been mainly a rising market ever since; there are ups and downs, but the long-term trend is up, so far. Occasionally someone will ask me why my poems are so prosy or why they’re so long, and I can only say, “Because magazine editors like them, and my books get good reviews, and people send me fan mail and invite me to give readings.” Oh, and I forgot to mention that I like writing the poems this way. I mean, if the devil jumps up and tells me he’ll give me the whole world if I’ll just go back to the short lyrics, I’ll hear him out, but until then, I’ll stick to what works.
By the way, I call my long poems “memory poems,” since initially, at least, they were based on stories I remembered. I thought I was pretty clever. Then I was reading a Byron biography, and I saw where he called this one group of poems he was writing his “memory poems.” Oh, well, there are worse poets to steal from, even if you don’t know you’re stealing.
STEPHEN REICHERT: Are you saying that if your memory poems never received validation, or generated much interest, we might now be reading a different type of poem from David Kirby?
DAVID KIRBY: Almost certainly. I mean, you can’t predict a non-existent future based on a past that never happened, but I’m no Emily Dickinson—I wouldn’t just write poems and then bury them in a trunk in my bedroom. I want people to say, “Yes, I liked that—more, please!”
STEPHEN REICHERT: Is it the response to your poems by others that make them bright, shiny jewel boxes?
DAVID KIRBY: I’d like to think the brightness begins with me. But since I do want others to think my poems are worth reading—even better, re-reading—I’m always going to try to write poems that I think other people will want to read. Now that doesn’t mean I’m going to try to second-guess my readers. No writer should do that; can you imagine what Moby-Dick would look like if Melville had only considered what he thought his readers might like? The point is to create something readers want even though they don’t know that’s what they want yet.
STEPHEN REICHERT: It’s the day after the presidential election. We know Nader didn’t win, but according to my morning paper, the Washington Post, we still don’t have a winner thanks to the mess in your state of Florida. Are you in any way personally responsible for this craziness? I’d love to be the first to break this story.
DAVID KIRBY: The truth can now come out: yes, I am responsible. For Halloween, I dyed my hair a rich, chocolate-y brown and dressed up as Al Gore. And the second I knotted that red tie around my neck, I felt his physical stiffness enter my body and I began to talk like him as well. So I went out and rang a few doorbells in my neighborhood, and most people laughed and gave me candy, but this one woman started asking me if I’d help her to register to vote, and as I talked to her, I found it harder and harder to break character. So, yes, I think I confused at least part of the Florida electorate. Maybe Shelley was right; maybe poets are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind.
STEPHEN REICHERT: David, thank you for taking the time to do this interview. It has been a great pleasure.
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DAVID KIRBY is the author or coauthor of eighteen books, including five poetry collections. The House of Blue Light, his latest collection of poetry, appeared this year from LSU Press. In 1987, his first collection of poetry, Saving the Young Men of Vienna, was awarded The Brittingham Prize in Poetry from The University of Wisconsin Press. A recipient of grants from the Florida Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts, his other honors include five Florida State University teaching awards and Southern Poetry Review’s Guy Owen Poetry Prize. His poems have appeared in numerous publications such as Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, Poems & Plays, Chelsea, The Quarterly, Smartish Pace, Virginia Quarterly, Gettysburg Review and the Best American Poetry, 2000 (selected by Rita Dove). He was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1944. He received his bachelor’s degree in English form LSU in 1966 and his doctorate from Johns Hopkins University in 1969. He is the W. Guy McKenzie Professor of English at Florida State University, where he has taught since 1969.
STEPHEN REICHERT is Founder and Editor of Smartish Pace.