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Sho' Like to Ball

David Kirby hits ‘em high and low in a galloping career through the quirky world of free verse. Little Richard would be proud.

by Steve MacQueen

David Kirby arrived home one night to find that construction workers had ripped up his sidewalk and re-poured the concrete, leaving a moist tabula rasa right in front of his house. What writer could resist that blank page?

Kirby found a screwdriver and dug in. The wet cement had been there a while, so he didn’t have much time, but he managed to scrawl out two names. His own? His wife’s? His children’s? No.

John Keats. Little Richard.

Question #1 of three most-asked-questions-of-poets is: Who are your major influences? A screwdriver-wielding Kirby, an FSU English professor and highly lauded poet, was tipping his hat to a pair of his idols, and in concrete, no less. He’s nuts for Keats’ graceful language of the 19th century, and Little Richard’s hopped-up energy of the 20th (I hear America singing; it sounds like Little Richard.—line from “For Men Only,” LSU Press, 2000).

“A guy asked me recently to give him a list of 10 poetry books that were essential, so I’m listing Blake, Whitman, Wordsworth, Dante,” recalls Kirby. “But I added The Essential Little Richard because, as different as his branch of show business and my branch of show business are, I want my poems to move fast and I want people to like them. And you can’t get all of that from Dante.”

Kirby has been an FSU English professor since 1969, and his poetry alone has earned him a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, four Pushcart Prizes, the Kay Deeter Award, the Guy Owen Prize, the James Dickey Prize, the Millennium Cultural Recognition Award, two appearances in Best American Poetry, and the Brittingham Prize. In 2003, he also was honored by a fellowship from the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.

“The greatest benefit of the Guggenheim is peer recognition because it is so difficult to get,” says Kirby, who received his award on the fourth try. “The result is that people look at you in a different way. It doesn’t mean you’re any better, but they look at you as though you are.”

Add numerous teaching awards, 22 books on a wide range of subjects, hundreds of articles and reviews in major outlets, and membership on the National Book Critics Circle’s Board of Directors, and you end up with a pretty distinguished career, one that last year earned Kirby the highest distinction that FSU faculty can bestow upon a peers, the Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professorship.

“That’s all the headlines,” Kirby shrugs. “They don’t talk about all the liquor stores I held up.”

All in all, 2003 was a very good year for Kirby, but he keeps it all in perspective.

“Since I got (the Lawton Professorship), I’ve been asked to speak to every group on campus except the defensive line,” he quipped. “For a year I get to do that, like Miss America.”

Seamless Sensibility

Witty and soft-spoken, Kirby’s raspy voice is instantly recognizable to anyone who’s heard him read in public or taken one of his popular poetry workshops. His conversation is marked, like his poetry and his driveway, with references both high and low. Henry James and Virginia Woolf sit easily alongside Fats Domino and Fountains of Wayne. Compact discs by Bach, Aretha Franklin and a New Orleans party band, The Iguanas, occupy the top of the stereo.

A stack of books features poems by Keats and Nobel Prize winner Wislawa Szymborska, etchings by Giovanni Piranesi, Sena Jeter Nasland’s Four Spirits, and Simon Winchester’s Meaning of Everything, which explores the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary. A few feet away is a turntable devoted strictly to the playing of some nearby 45s, topped by Lesley Gore and the Bee Gees.

So-called high culture and low are so co-mingled in Kirby’s universe that there’s really no difference. In “Your Momma Says Omnia Vincit Amor,” Michelangelo and Aretha Franklin collide to create a singular impression:

Running down the Via degli Annibaldi
I hear Aretha say
my momma said leave you alone
and as I hurry up the steps
of the church of San Pietro in Vincoli
I hear her say my daddy said come on home
and as I turn to go down the right aisle
she says my doctor said take it easy
and then I stop right in front
of Michelangelo’s Moses:
oh but your loving is much too strong
for the chain chain chains
which were used to bind St. Peter in Palestine
and are themselves preserved under glass
in the same church.

And in fact, Kirby explains, the goal is to get beyond such distinctions of high/low and job/life and work/art, to see everything as more of a whole.c

“The operative word is ‘seamlessness,’” Kirby explains. “Once, Barbara (Hamby, his wife and fellow poet) and I went to see this really interesting folk artist named Charlie ‘Tin Man’ Lucas in Rogue, Alabama. He makes these hybrid creatures out of car parts, pterodactyls in trees made out of Dodge hoods, and he has these creatures that look like deer made out of shock absorbers. And he just came out and talked and showed us his workshop and he hit this thing with a hammer a couple times.

“There was none of this feeling of ‘When are these people going to leave so I can get back to my art?’ There were no seams between this guy’s work and his art. That’s where I want to be.”

Stuffing the Warehouse

Looking over Kirby’s bibliography, it’s clear that the man keeps busy. But he’s no hermit. Kirby and his wife are fixtures around town, catching bands in various nightspots, hitting the art openings, attending the English department’s weekly readings, or perhaps sitting in the movie theater, where Kirby often indulges his passion for “bad cinema” (his poem “An Otherwise Mediocre Film” offers a very funny explanation for his attraction to this dubious art form).

But when he sits down to write, there’s never a shortage of ideas.

“I don’t know when I learned it, but the key is just listening,” he explained. “Be a sponge. That’s where you get rhythms and that’s where you get stories. You put the stuff in the warehouse. I have these long folders of 30 or 40 pages with quotes and memories and sound bytes and snippets of conversations, and I raid that all the time.”

That brings us to Question #2 : how do you deal with writer’s block? Well, he doesn’t.

“There’s really not any such thing,” he said. “Writer’s block is a false metaphor because it sounds as though you’re circling this Fort Knox that’s filled with gold and rubies and sapphires and you can’t get in. But you’re the one who put the gold and sapphires there. And sometimes canned hams and old typewriter ribbons and clarinet reeds.”

The secret is knowing that there’s nothing too outrageous, nothing too obsessive or odd—and applying just a little dedication to the craft.

“John Kenneth Galbraith says if you write a page a day and take off for holidays and weekends, that’s 300 pages a year and that’s a book,” Kirby said “It’s just work habits. I think about writing every day. Sometimes it’s two hours, sometimes it’s four hours, but I always devote some time to it. I never sit and stare at a blank page.”

Class Act, Too

Since arriving at FSU in 1969, he has directed 25 undergraduate honors theses, 41 masters theses and 20 doctoral dissertations. Thousands of students have passed through his American literature classes and poetry workshops. You’ll occasionally hear professors rail against the failure of modern education, the lax standards of today’s students and a lack of intellectual curiosity, but you won’t hear it from Kirby.

“The students that we get now are so much better than they’ve ever been,” Kirby says. “I think that’s because we can be more selective. When I first started teaching, about 20 percent of kids went to college and now that number is up to 70 percent. Barbara had a kid who wanted to go to cosmetology school and her parents wouldn’t let her. They told her she had to go to college.”

Tony Morris, who earned his Ph.D. in creative writing at FSU, had a similar experience.

“David Kirby has this wonderful combination of not taking himself too damn seriously and at the same time having a wealth of information and knowledge that, because of his years in the field of writing, I really trusted,” Morris said. “He was tough in the sense of wanting to push us as writers, to keep working and keep improving. He’s always been generous with his time and his thoughts. It’s hard to be in a bad mood around him, unless you’re determined.”

Such student praise helped Kirby earn special university teaching awards in 1992, ’94, ’97 and ’99.

“I’m lucky in that I have so much to choose from,” Kirby said. “It’s not like teaching a German class, where every year you have to say ‘Now, let’s conjugate haben.’ I can change the form whenever I want to, so it’s never gotten boring.”

Partners in Verse

For 22 years, Kirby has been married to fellow poet Barbara Hamby, whom he met at a New Year’s Eve party following the demise of his first marriage. And while the movie version—obviously some updated Spencer Tracy/Katherine Hepburn rivals-turned-lovers tale that would focus on competition—the real story focuses on cooperation.

“It’s more of an ongoing workshop,” Hamby says. “You never have to explain what you’re doing. If you need to go off and write something—like when we’re traveling and I get a crush on something and start following it around—I never have to explain it, because David does the same thing.”

Hamby, a writer-in-residence within FSU’s English department, says their age difference (Kirby is eight years older) has helped because the two are at different stages in their careers, meaning they hardly ever compete directly against each other for prizes, awards or publications. Instead, the two tend to nurture each other, frequently looking over each other’s work.

“It’s wonderful to have someone who can read your work, someone you trust,” says Hamby. “That’s a wealth above rubies.”

Her husband concurs.

“I’ve had writers say they couldn’t imagine being married to a writer, but I couldn’t imagine not being married to one,” Kirby says. “It’s everywhere. We’ll be making dinner and we’ll start talking about poetry.”

Hamby is a frequent character in Kirby’s well-traveled poems (just as he often pops up in hers). You can find her sketching in Italy, walking across a field in rural Alabama, dancing in the kitchen and dining with friends. She doesn’t mind.

“I come off so well in those poems—better-looking, smarter, funnier,” Hamby laughs. “Who wouldn’t love it?”

Kirby didn’t have to search for the academic life. He was born into it. His father was a renowned professor at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, his mother was an elementary school teacher, and his older brother became a medical-school dean.

“My father was a Chaucerian, a medievalist,” Kirby recalls, “And they’re a different breed. It’s like being in a cult. He knew Icelandic and old Norse and he had all these dictionaries with words where the o’s had smiley faces and there were umlauts over the t’s.”

Kirby spent some of his pre-teen youth tending bar at his father’s departmental parties (a job he passed along to his own sons a few decades later), learning his mixers by pouring drinks for the likes of Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and poet Robert Penn Warren and the renowned literary critic Cleanth Brooks.

Kirby’s passions skewed to the literary, naturally, but not in his father’s direction. Few would view a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins (which Kirby picked up in 1969) as a form of rebellion, but that’s how it played out at the Kirby house.

“I wrote about Henry James (for my thesis), which my father thought was pretty risqué, kind of avant garde,” Kirby says. “Like I’d dropped out to go surfing.”

Moment by Moment

Given his extraordinary success as an academic and poet, it’s logical enough to wonder what next? What is still left for Kirby to accomplish in the world of poetry? The answer is simple: more work.

“I don’t care if I ever win another prize in my life,” Kirby says flatly. “Poetry’s one of those fields where honors come to you because you’re so deeply invested in the pleasures of the work itself. Prizes are surprises; you’re happily making your poems in your cave there, and suddenly there’s a shadow in the doorway: it’s the prize guy! If you’re smart, you’ll say, ‘Hey, thanks! Put it down over there, if you can find a space! Want something to drink?’ But you don’t ask if you can have another; you just go back to work.”

The real goal for Kirby is another of those fleeting times when everything comes together in the poem and its presentation, something Kirby calls ‘the moment.’

“I’ve noticed that when I read a poem that’s really working, it’s as though something else has entered the room. Usually you can’t see your audience—they’re out there in the darkness somewhere— but you can feel them leaning toward you, or toward the poem, actually.

“I’ve looked up from my page at moments like that, and sometimes I’ll just stop. Sometimes I think I could wait up there a half hour and nobody would move. They’d rather be dead than not know what’s going to happen next. And then I wake up and finish reading my poem, and you can hear the people letting their breath go, and then there’s applause, and the lights come up, and people start talking to one another… This doesn’t happen very often, obviously. But when it does, you’d rather be in that moment than anywhere else on earth.”

In the meantime, there’s another new volume of poetry, The Ha-Ha (LSU Press, 2003), which has been receiving the usual praise from sources like The New York Times Book Review:

“The loquacious style of David Kirby’s poetry can sometimes resemble the riffs of a brainy stand-up comedian... In relating seemingly autobiographical, spryly digressive sagas about work, marriage, travel, and even the joys of mediocre movies, Kirby makes the narrative poem—a form often proclaimed to be outdated—amusing, lively and relevant enough for contemporary tastes.”

Of course, if Kirby needs a reality check on the popularity of poets, he need look no farther than his own family. His elder son, Will Kirby, a doctor specializing in internal medicine, became an overnight TV sensation and heart-throb (see: www.willkirby.net) when he starred on the reality TV show Big Brother, in which a houseful of roommates take turns evicting each other until only one remains. The show was a big hit for CBS in 2001 and Kirby was able to log in to the show’s web site and keep track of his kid.

“They had a 24-hour live feed and I’d minimize it up in the corner of my computer screen and I’d be able to watch Will sleep, then I’d watch him wake up and stretch, go make an egg-white omelette. It was very comforting.”

Will, who earned the nickname Dr. Evil for his tactics on the show, actually won the competition, earning $500,000 and some red-hot celebrity notoriety and perks.

“What I discovered is that when you’re related to a celebrity, you’re a celebrity,” Kirby says. “We went out to eat one night and we were waiting in line with everyone else when the hostess sees us and says, ‘Will? How many?’ And we were seated ahead of all these other people. Fortunately, we were in Los Angeles so nobody cared.”

Sundae Drive

The poet who gets a lot of criticism is a critic in turn. Kirby’s critical reviews and essays frequently crop up in the Times, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Southern Review and the national literary magazine, Triquarterly. He also has written books of scholarly criticism on Mark Strand, Herman Melville, Henry James and Grace King.

Edward Hirsch, president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, called Kirby “one of the top poet-critics working in the United States today,” praising his “literary range, his quintessentially American open-mindedness, and his humane sensibility.” Kirby’s What Is a Book? (U. Georgia Press, 2002), a collection of essays and critiques, reflects those very qualities.

Kirby’s not too hot on rhyming couplets or Jim Morrison, or Jewel, or the so-called “wino poet laureate of L.A.,” the late Charles Bukowski. Kirby calls the pop trio “the dark triumvirate whose evil influence is pervasive in American undergraduate poetry these days.” But he’s constructive rather than hostile, a level-headed reader who writes from appreciation rather than high-mindedness.

“Reviewing is trying to describe what’s going on to people who want to hear it, “Kirby explains. “And, as Kurt Vonnegut said, a vicious book review is like a knight in full armor riding full-tilt towards a hot-fudge sundae. You should save your anger for things that actually deserve it.”

Everyman Poet

Reading Kirby’s six collections of poetry in chronological order illuminates the development of his art. The early poems are shorter, not as conversational and less directly autobiographical. Then, starting somewhere around the publication of My Twentieth Century (Ochises, 1999), the length expands, the pace increases and the tone shifts.

As Kirby himself explains in the poetic forward to My Twentieth Century:

I’ve been working
on what I call ‘memory poems’ or longish narrative poems
that stick as closely as possible to events
I actually experienced. Each memory poem
is thus part poem / part memoir, though each
has a certain shape to it that mere autobiography
doesn’t have

The words and the rhythm are conversational, despite their velocity, creating the illusion of everyday speech—even though it’s safe to say that nobody really talks like that. Kirby has his own term for the style—“ultra-talk.”

“I wanted to make my poetry conversational but take out the ‘uhs’ and ‘ums,’ give it a cup of coffee, and just make it smart and funny and fast.”

It seems to have worked. David Lehman, editor of The Best American Poetry series, said that Kirby’s poems “demonstrate a great agility of mind and a wonderful sense of humor. His poems are discursive, conversational, skillfully blending narrative with argument.”

Billy Collins, the current U.S. poet laureate, calls Kirby “one of the most engaging and original voices on the American poetry scene today…I could recognize a Kirby poem on the page across a room, just as I could recognize one of Emily Dickinson’s.”

Kirby’s poems are perfect for those who say they don’t like poetry. Because of the conversational tone, the ever-present humor, and the grounding in realistic, everyday situations, they read like lyrical stand-up humor frequently accompanied by a head-slapping piece of insight at the end. Kirby finds comedy in Elvis Presley (“Elvis would be a dim memory / to most people were it not for the Weekly World News / and those crappy oldies stations that people listen to / so they can find out what they missed / back when they were too busy painting signs for / their pro-segregation rallies to listen to the radio” he writes in “The King Is Dead”) and the small obit afforded a baseball player in “The Death of Fred Snodgrass”:

San Francisco,
April 6, 1974.
It says here
in the Chronicle:
“Fred Snodgrass,
who muffed
an easy fly ball
that helped
to cost
the New York Giants
the 1912
World Series,
died yesterday
at age 86.”
F— you,
Fred Snodgrass.
Some things,
we never forgive.

In House of Blue Light (LSU Press, 2000)—a title he lifted from a lyric in Little Richard’s 1958 hit “Good Golly, Miss Molly”—Kirby puts verse to a cheeky encounter he had in France with a hot-shot movie producer. In “Roman Polanski’s Cookies,” the poet just happens upon a film shoot in Paris and notices a plate of cookies on a nearby table.

…and even though the cookies
are obviously for the actors, I can’t help sneaking one,
and it turns out to be exactly the kind of cookie
I’m thinking of…
and soon I’m hog-facing
those cookies like nobody’s business, only
just then I look up, and there’s Roman Polanski
standing there with that big cigar in his hand
and staring at me with a look of pure hatred, as if to say,

“Stop eating all those goddamned chocolate-covered
graham crackers!” And while part of me
wants to say, “Make your movie, dude, it’s only a cookie,”
another part of me realizes that maybe they’re
his favorite cookies too, and that even while
he was blocking out the scene and moving lights around
and giving the actors their cues, what he’d really
been obsessing on was those chocolate-covered graham
crackers, same as me,
though who’s to say? Who, including ourselves,
knows what we know and when we know it?”

To What End

And so we arrive at Question #3 of the three most-asked-questions-of-poets, this one hitting at the heart of poetry itself: Why, in this media-saturated age, is poetry still important?

Kirby says the question of poetry’s ultimate value to the human experience has been the topic of debate by scholars and lay people alike for centuries. Somehow, despite the profound cultural changes wrought ‘round the globe by modernity, poetry has clung tenaciously to life as a unique form of literary art. Kirby credits this remarkable survival to poetry’s success in surmounting two paradoxes that apparently don’t arise in other forms of art and self-expression.

“The first paradox is that poetry is both the most worthless and the most highly-valued commodity in the world,” he said. “And the second rises from the first; it is that everyone hates poetry and everyone is a poet.”

In an essay he wrote last year for The Christian Science Monitor, Kirby opined on the topic of poetry’s intrinsic worth.

“People who question the value of poetry need to consider this: why have there always been poets?,” he wrote. “As far as that goes, why is there a poet laureate but not a novelist laureate or playwright laureate, not to mention a composer/painter/sculptor/filmmaker laureate? Since the dawn of history, every culture has had poets; why do people write and read poetry if it isn’t hugely rewarding to them?”

Obviously, such rewards have little if anything to do with money. When it comes to capitalist cultures’ obsession with putting price tags on anything of value, poetry may be the last art form to wear one.

Last year, the poetry world was stunned by the news that Poetry magazine, the art form’s leading American journal and a publication that has survived on a shoestring for decades, was handed more than $100 million from Ruth Lilly, an heir to the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical fortune. Kirby’s Monitor essay addressed the meaning of this windfall in typically humorous fashion (see an excerpt, page 20).

Surely, to many devotees poetry’s appeal will always be its power as a balm for deeply rooted personal fears, even an antidote to what they view as the creep of cultural malaise. And for higher education, no better expression of the fundamental values of the liberal arts tradition (remember those?) can be found on any campus anywhere—a curriculum exuberantly freed from the trade—school imperative of pursuing high-dollar degrees. Relievedly beyond the why of the art, here’s a final bulletin on the matter:

From his dandy pulpit at Florida State, David Kirby is stand-up proof that poetry not only still lives, but good golly, rocks.