from Five Points, Volume 14, Number 2
Since 1969, David Kirby has taught at Florida State University, where he is the Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor of English. His poetry has been honored with fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2007, his collection The House on Boulevard Street was selected as a finalist for the National Book Award; and in 2004, his collection The Ha-Ha was shortlisted for the international Griffin Prize. He is the author of a biography of Little Richard, a textbook on poetry writing, two children's books (both co-authored with Allen Woodman) and dozens of other books. His latest collection is Talking About Movies with Jesus: Poems (Louisiana State University Press, Southern Messenger Poets, 2011).
Hunley: Billy Collins once wrote "David Kirby, eighty-three percent of American poetry is garbage. You write the other seventeen percent." Compliment aside, do you agree with Collins about most American poetry? Do you say, along with Marianne Moore, "I too dislike it"? I remember you saying you agree with Adrian Mitchell "that most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people." Is there some point where you'd say, as Robert Bly did, that American poetry took "a wrong turn"? If so, what's the way back? What's your prescription for making contemporary poetry more vibrant, more pleasurable, more culturally relevant, more ... ?
Kirby: Tom, Barbara has a yoga class every Thursday night, which makes that my night to try out whatever restaurant has just opened in town. The other day, I saw that a Mexican restaurant had started up nearby, so of course I wondered, Hmm, is this going to be something new and inventive, or is it going to be just like every other Mexican restaurant in the world: chips and salsa, birdbath-sized margaritas, generic combo platters?
As you know, you can't sneeze these days without someone posting an on-line review ("not very loud but made up for it by coughing repeatedly into a large white handkerchief"), so I Googled the restaurant, and sure enough, the thirteen reviews that had been posted said yeah, this Mexican restaurant was pretty much like all the others. I think I'll just have a bowl of cold cereal this Thursday.
Poetry can be hard to love, but my point about Mexican restaurants is that it's a two-way problem. From the audience's point of view, readers need to be more active; they need to go deeper into the menu and talk to the chef, and if they can't get what they want, they should take their business elsewhere. Sometimes I'd rather tell the guy sitting next to me in an airplane that I'm anything other than a poet, because chances are he's going to say something along the lines of "I don't get poetry." I'm not a big mile-high chatterbox—I'd rather be working on a poem than getting grilled by somebody who thinks the arts are going to make his kids gay—but often I'll ask this kind of person what poets they read, and the answer is, well, none.
Now I wouldn't say to a physicist that I don't get particle physics, therefore particle physics is ungettable. Saying "I don't get poetry" is like saying "I don't like weather." There's all kinds! Move to someplace where the climate suits you. There are a dozen different types of poetry being written today; if you care, find the kind (or, more likely, the kinds) you like and dig in. I also tell the guy his kids are gay already, but that's another conversation.
On the other hand, it's not just an audience problem. It's like being a teacher, which most poets are, probably. You can't change the kids, but you can change yourself. Poetry is the most wonderful and thrilling narcotic on the market today; it's also some of the most godawful, humdrum crap you could possibly imagine. A lot of that is due to its brevity: it takes five or six years to write a bad novel, but you could write a bad poem in half an hour or so, and there's probably some editor out there who'll print it because it's so short. But when James Dickey said, "what you have to realize when you write poetry, or if you love poetry, is that poetry is just naturally the greatest god damn thing that ever was in the whole universe," I don't think he was talking about some half-hearted piece of minimalist navel gazing.
Myself, I think poems ought to be action-packed, like old-time Westerns. Let the bad guys shoot it out with the Earp brothers. Let the cavalry thunder over the ridge! And if the good guys get killed or the troopers arrive too late, so much the better; that's called tragedy, which is what paid the bills at Shakespeare's house. Now I'm not saying every poem has to be epic length. Look at Czeslaw Milosz's "Encounter"; it's only nine lines long, but it has everything in it that you need to break your heart and put it back together again.
Why write a tame poem? Why read one? Put some muscle into it, poets. Remember, I don't have to eat at your restaurant; there are plenty of others.
Hunley: In "Talking About Jesus with Little Richard," the opening poem in your book Talking About Movies with Jesus, you assert that "There's always somebody before anybody: John the Baptist / before Jesus, for example." In an earlier poem ("Author's Note" from My Twentieth Century) you write "I don't know that very many other poets are writing exactly the way I am right now, / but certainly David Antin's work is close / to what I'm doing here." Do you know Antin personally, and how might he react if told that he's played John the Baptist to your Jesus?
Kirby: Never met the guy! Though since I'm claiming him as a kinsman, I'd be honored if he returned the favor. Part of it's just an accident of birth, of course; David Antin is ten or twelve years older than I am, just as John was probably born a little before Our Redeemer. Somebody's got to show up first.
But that doesn't mean I read David Antin and said, "Hmm, I want to write just like this guy but differently and maybe just a little better." Art doesn't work that way. Notice I'm claiming David Antin as a relative, not an influence, just as I'd claim Dante or Shakespeare or Whitman. Every artist I know flies by the seat of his or her pants, and when they find themselves approaching their destination, then and only then do they say, hey, look, so-and-so is my co-pilot.
One time Barbara was looking at something of mine and she said, "Boy, you hit the perfect trifecta of Frank O'Hara, Walt Whitman, and Allen Ginsberg with this baby," and I thought, "I did?" I'd be proud to think so, but when I was writing the poem, I'm sure I was bumping along like a World War I aviator as the Jerries blazed away and he just hoped he'd soon see the white cliffs of Dover.
I think that's the main divide between me and my colleagues who are purely literary critics. When we have these doctoral or MFA defenses, the critic will ask the student, "Who are your influences?" whereas I'm more likely to say, "Who plays in the same sandbox you do?" If you've never written a poem, you're likely to see a lot of cause and effect that just isn't there. Sure, writers influence one another, but it's not like a croquet match where your ball hits mine and knocks it out of bounds. In poetry, influence operates more along the lines of what Jimi Hendrix meant when he said, "Learn everything, forget it, play."
Hunley: In "Talking about Jesus with Little Richard," you mention wanting to produce "an art that is a memory of the future." It's a slightly mystical or mystifying notion, but as an award-winning and very experienced teacher, perhaps you could unpack it for me and for others reading this who aspire to make art?
Kirby: Gladly. This goes back to my call for action-packed poetry in your earlier question. If a poem is yummy and crunchy and emotionally resonant, it's going to say all sorts of things that the poet doesn't know it's going to say, and it's going to appeal to all sorts of readers, now and a hundred years from now. Shakespeare keeps talking to people: why are there fifty new books on Shakespeare every year? It's because, for a dead guy, he's pretty loquacious, yeah? Can't shut him up! Now if he had gone around just uttering truisms, if he'd said "y'all be nice to y'all mommas" or "it's a good idea to brush your teeth a couple of times a day," we wouldn't know who he is. But he didn't do that. What he did was write Macbeth.
Same thing's true for people who write anything monumental, even the ones who are wrong. Marx and Freud are filled with error, yet their mistakes are a lot more interesting than most people's truths. Look what's going on with capitalism these days, with all the inequity and the sharpened class divisions that go with it. You can learn a lot about capitalism by reading the New York Times, but you can learn more by reading The Communist Manifesto.
Think big, poets! You're not going to stir readers' blood with trivia.
Hunley: In the very next poem, "Paganini's Kickshaw, the Violin Known as 'The Cannon'" you state that writers "must be as brave before a blank sheet of paper / as we are in the face of a fire-breathing lizard." This reminds me so much of the things Robert Olen Butler says in From Where You Dream about writing from one's "white hot center" and being "unflinching." You and Butler have been colleagues at Florida State University for over a decade. To what extent have his ideas about writing rubbed off on you?
Kirby: Bob Butler, Bob Butler ... oh, you mean the Bob Butler I have dinner with every Thursday night when Barbara goes to her yoga class? Bob's usually my partner in gastronomic research, and the man knows his Mexican cuisine, believe me.
I love Bob. I liked him the second I saw him, and the feeling has just deepened over the years. He and I have totally different writing methods, yet we get to the same place eventually. In the early stages of the writing process, Bob is very meditative; he's a deep diver, whereas I skim over the surface, picking up bright bits of glass and metal like a magpie. He's no hippie, though; he's very disciplined in that he writes in the same place and at the same time every day and doesn't quit until he has a certain number of words. I, on the other hand, grab a handful of minutes when and where I can. I assemble my magpie bits early and late, at the breakfast table or in a coffee shop somewhere.
I think where he and I come together best is in the area of voice. When you read a half dozen Bob Butler stories, you say, "My god—every one of these voices is different, yet each sounds totally authentic! How does he do that?" I try to nail that same authenticity in my poems, and by authenticity I mean that the voice is colloquial yet smart and, mainly, irresistible. Saul Bellow once said that it's better to have a smart neighbor than a psychiatrist; you have the same conversations, and think of all the money you save. I can't speak for Bob, but when you're reading one of my poems, I hope I'm your smart neighbor.
It's not as though he and I sit around like Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, strumming our lutes and thinking up pranks to play on the other cast members of Twelfth Night. But we do spend a lot of time together. And last year Bob and I made our mutual regard official when we each founded a prize in the other's name. He funds and chooses the winner of the David Kirby Poetry Dissertation Award for a student who shows promise in poetry, and I do the same with the Robert Olen Butler Fiction Dissertation Award. This confuses the hell out of people since I'm giving the fiction award and he handles the one for poetry, but, hey, if it gets people to talking about writing, I'm all for it.
Hunley: You earned your Ph.D. at John Hopkins in 19th Century American Lit, and if I'm not mistaken, your first book was the one on Melville. How did you make the transition, personally and professionally, from literary scholar to poet?
Kirby: Oh, heck, no—there were a dozen books before that Melville one, most of them bibliographies. I've always loved reference books, so I wrote a bunch of them while I was working on getting the poems right. And most of them were well-reviewed, mainly in Scottish library periodicals. So I've always had the image in mind of a bunch of kilt-wearing Scottish librarians shaking their heads and saying, "Ay, that Kirby—now what made the lad turn to poetry, d'ye suppose?"
There was no transition. I grew up in a relatively uncluttered world; my parents were relatively far along when they had me, and there was just the one older brother, so I was left to myself most of the time. And of course there was none of this electronic blizzard that we live in these days; we didn't even get a television till I was twelve, and back then the networks only broadcast during the waking hours. So I'd build a fort in the woods with my friends, read, make myself some lunch, wheel my bike around the countryside, read some more, do bodybuilding poses in the mirror, get a snack, look through my parents' stuff while they were out, and so on. In other words, I grew up leading a fairly seamless life, and I've tried to keep it that way. I'm the opposite of Batman, in other words. Or Dr. Jekyll.
Let me tell you a story. A few years ago, Barbara and I were driving around in Alabama looking at art installations by wonderful outsider artists like W. C. Rice, who put up a "cross garden" on his property, annoying his neighbors and delighting people like us. Somebody told us to go see Charlie "Tin Man" Lucas over in Autauga County, so we went to his place, and the first thing we see is a pterodactyl in an oak tree. But the wings of the pterodactyl are the hoods of a couple Dodges that have been welded together, because Charlie Lucas makes his sculptures out of car parts and other outsized castoffs; for example, there was a herd of deer whose legs were made of those giant springs that are supposed to cushion the fall when the cable of your elevator breaks and it drops twenty stories while you scream.
Anyway, we're walking through this marvelous fairy-tale landscape populated by one smile-making critter after another when we notice a guy poking around under a tree. He comes over, and we begin to chat about this and that, and about the time I'm beginning to get the idea that I am in the presence of Charlie "Tin Man" Lucas himself, he says, "You want to see the workshop?" We were there a couple of hours, and he was happy to walk and talk with us. We didn't buy anything—how are you going to tie a pterodactyl made of a couple of Dodges to the top of an '85 Toyota Corolla?—but it didn't matter.
So Charlie Lucas reminded me that this is the best way to live your life, that is, seamlessly. In the journalistic pieces I write, I've interviewed a lot of athletes and entertainers, and a lot of them are real pricks: "Don't bother me, man, can't you see I'm working here," that kind of thing. Okay, but at the end of my day with Charlie Lucas, I said to myself that I'm never going to not talk to a student who walks in my door. I'm never not going to answer an email or chat with some high school kid who calls up just to talk about poetry. There's time for everything. Do it all, and do it with your whole heart and soul. That's what coffee's for. As Warren Zevon says, I'll sleep when I'm dead.
Hunley: Did you take any graduate-level creative writing workshops at Johns Hopkins? Who were some of your early teachers, be it in or out of the classroom?
Kirby: The Writing Programs were one walled-off unit and the Lit department another, and ne'er the twain shall meet, at least in those days. The writing students thought we literature kids were a bunch of reedy page-munching stick insects, and we considered them a bunch of pot-smoking hippies. Both groups were correct. No, I just read shelf after shelf of big thick books and ended up writing what Billy Collins calls "a regular egghead dissertation" (he wrote one, too) on Henry James. And wrote poems on the side, of course.
My greatest teachers were my mother and father, she a farm girl who had wonderful stories about voodoo and conjure women and other spooky folk who lived out in the woods and he a philologist who read or spoke a dozen languages. Voodoo and scholarship: you can't beat it! I wouldn't be writing the poems I'm writing today if my parents had been anyone else.
Another great teacher of mine is the Tallahassee airport. Tallahassee is a way station between major hubs, so if a flight's going be delayed or cancelled, it's not going to be one going in and out of Atlanta or Miami. This means that if you want to get somewhere, you're going to have to be strategic. If I had a nickel for every flight that left Tallahassee on time, I'd be a poor man. Every time I use it, our local airport reminds me of all the virtues I mention earlier: start early, make a plan, don't lose it just because you hit a rough patch, and so on.
Hunley: You mentioned once that you typed your first graduate school papers on a Royal manual typewriter. Can you discuss your reaction to some of the major technological inventions of the past few decades, such as the internet, GPS, the iPod the iPad, and so on? Which have struck you as most positive? Which have you resisted or found intimidating? How have they impacted your work as a writer and teacher?
Kirby: I'm one of the lowest-tech people you'll ever meet; as a friend of mine said once, I can't even work a toothpick machine. We don't own a microwave, ours is a tube TV that's as big as a small refrigerator, and I still get out my boom box to play mix tapes at parties.
That said, can you imagine not having the internet? Or a computer: once every couple of years I have to type out a form on an electric typewriter, and I think, "Why isn't the cursor moving?" And I did get a GPS for the car, but since I know where everything is in Tallahassee already, I don't use it much.
I do have an e-reader, though, and I love it as least as much as I love such old-school apps as my guitar and bicycle. I had a flight coming up and, knowing I'd probably be delayed out of Tallahassee (see previous answer), I want to the bookstore to get S. C. Gwynne's Empire of the Summer Moon, a history of the Comanche Nation. This is a fabulous book, by the way. It's one of those ones that puts you out there in your little mud house; the moon is bright, and there are people moving around in the woods, and whatever's going to happen, you're pretty sure it's not going to be in your best interest.
Anyway, I could tell when I hefted it that it was going to be a wonderful read. It was so big, though! After I finished it, it'd be haunting me from some corner of our house, since there's no room on our book shelves any more. Plus I'd be lugging this eight-pound book around on my travels, presuming the plane left the Tallahassee airport that day. So I said the hell with it and ponied up an extra hundred books for an e-reader, which I promptly lost to Barbara, because she, too, was pulled in. I got her one as well, and now we're not only reading more books but better ones. Still don't know how to work a microwave, but I love that e-reader.
Hunley: Your wife, Barbara Hamby, has a surging career as both poet and a fiction writer, and your son Will regularly appears on television, having won the half million dollar first prize on Big Brother 2. Do you ever feel overshadowed within your own family?
Kirby: I know! They're a collection of absolute geniuses, aren't they? Or monsters, to use a term I prefer and one that I mean favorably, in the sense that people like Napoleon and Van Gogh are monsters, i.e., different from us.
And I'd be wrong not to mention Will's brother younger brother Ian, who dreamed up the whole Big Brother plan. He worked it out on a couple of paper napkins in a Miami deli when Will was desperate to get out of the 36-hour shifts he was pulling as a resident at the Heart Institute down there. Add Ian to my list of teachers; he's my l'il boy, but I've learned so much from him about patience and all those other virtues previously trumpeted in this interview.
Yep, they're all better people than I am, and that's why I keep them around. I learn from them all every day of my life. I have a new little grandboy, too, named Cash Kirby, who's teaching me how to be silly—sillier, really.
Hunley: In "Skinny-Dipping with Pat Nixon," you allude to "bad America, America the weird," and again in "Hey, Gerald," you profess affection for "the old, weird America" with its "jack-a-dandies, knee-walking drunks" and the like. As an Americanist-turned-poet who spends a good portion of your time abroad, what do you like best and least about our native land?
Kirby: Well, I certainly don't go away because I don't love this country. I'd say the foremost American characteristic is practicality. It's historically wired into us: you get on a ship in Portsmouth or Bremerhaven or La Rochelle, and you sail to this new country where you have to put up a fort and plant seeds and learn how to cook bear. Nothing was handed to our ancestors, and their habits are ones we can't shake.
Now the same thing makes us a little literal-minded: "What do you mean, you can't feed yourself? I fed myself. You're not my problem, buddy!" I still cringe when I remember being in Australia thirty years ago and meeting a couple of nuns, and the first thing one of them said when I told her I was from the States was, "Well, you're very cruel to your poor, aren't you?" Yes, we are, sister. Or at least about half of us are: the thing about any American election is that most of them come down to roughly a 49/51 split, which is to say that, at any given moment, about half of us are decent, compassionate, altruistic folk and the other half is a bunch of knuckle-dragging cave people. Maybe that's not bad, as odds go.
The thing I really miss when I'm out of the country is pop culture: music, movies, food. There are a lot of crybabies in academe who claim they want to live elsewhere, but I'm not one of them. I'm like Antaeus, who has to touch the earth to live. And I'm talking American soil here, son.
Hunley: I've seen you give several poetry readings, and I must say I've seen few professor-poets who can captivate an audience as well as you can. How important are readings to you, and what practical steps would you recommend to those of us who wish to become better performers of our own work?
Kirby: Oh, I love to give readings. And to go to good ones—when I can find them, that is. Meow! Did that sound too catty?
Most poetry readings are pretty awful, aren't they? How many times have you heard somebody say, "Okay, I'm just going to wing it" or "I think these poems speak for themselves, so I'm not going to say anything about them" or "The next poem is ... the next poem is ... the next poem is"?
Look, I have season tickets to the FSU women's basketball games. The Lady 'Noles are currently #16 in the nation. I go to the games with Howard, my barber; he's an ex-cop who knows more about human nature than the entire faculty of the College of Social Science put together, and I love to spend time with him. So if I'm at your poetry reading, that means I'm not going to a game with Howard. Or I'm not going to a movie. Or I'm not having a three-course dinner and a nice bottle of Cotes du Rhone Villages with Barbara.
So put yourself out a little bit, will you? This is show business! For the life of me, I'll never understand how people can put hundreds of hours into writing these great poems and then no time at all into reading prep.
To me, the best poems work on both the page and the stage. That's not to say your sonnet about your mom should sound like a slam poem. But the poem on the page should have an aural quality; the reader in a library in Kansas should hear you, even though you're a thousand miles away. Reading your poems aloud will help you develop that quality in your written work. And Tom, don't you find that the simple act of picking poems for an audience will make you think hard about what you do best and how to do it better? No, I think a good reading style is indispensable to good writing, which is why I wish more poets would read better; it'd make their poetry better as well.
Practical advice? I'll say one thing: slow down. Think Shakespeare: the words are great, the silences even greater. Take your time. I'm afraid if I say "patience" one more time, whoever's reading this interview will lose patience with me. But it works.
Hunley: Who are some of the best readers you've seen, poets you would recommend to the sponsors of a visiting writers series?
Kirby: Oh, boy. I'm going to get into trouble here, aren't I? Lynne McMahon is a great reader. Billy Collins. The inimitable Albert Goldbarth. Mark Halliday, Jennifer L. Knox. David Bottoms is the co-editor of this venerable publication, but he's also a terrific reader; I've always felt he's got that Southern evangelical tradition rolling through his work. And as far as conflicts of interest go, I'll say Barbara Hamby, and I'm not kissing up; I praise her plenty elsewhere in this interview, so there's no reason for me to do it here if I don't mean it.
To tell you the truth, though, the best readers I hear on a regular basis are graduate students in our Creative Writing program. There are a couple of reasons for this: one is that they're reading to their friends, and while a visiting poet might just stumble through a show and pick up a check and go out to the Tallahassee airport and wait for his flight to be cancelled, these people really put themselves out. The other is that we have a long-standing reading series here; it's always on Tuesday, it's always at 8:00 p.m., it's always free, and it's been going on for forty years or more. You know how Marshall McCluhan says the medium is the message? That's the case here: the medium (the series) has been so effective for so long that it has a direct and very positive effect on the message (the readings). These people are used to seeing great readings, and that makes them want to deliver great readings themselves. And they do. So to someone who wants to mount a great reading series, I'd say think locally; make it regular and make it free, and the quality will take care of itself.
Hunley: You seem to read omnivorously, not just poetry but also nonfiction on an array of topics. What's on your active shelf right now?
Kirby: You mean what's sleeping quietly in my e-reader, waiting for me to hit the power switch? A ton of Russian literature, mainly. It's our 30th wedding anniversary this year, and Barbara wants to take the Trans-Siberian Express from St. Petersburg to Beijing; the woman thinks big. So there's a lot of Pushkin and the boys on there.
But you're right; I'll read anything, mainly because, as far as my poetry's concerned, I steal a lot more from non-fiction than I do from other poets. I'm reviewing a book on the blues guitarist Big Bill Broonzy right now, and I'm reviewing another on the chitlin' circuit. Here's another case of the medium being the message: the chitlin' circuit called for four-to-six person combos barnstorming around the country as opposed to a big band playing every night in the same venue, so the chitlin' circuit created the template for rock 'n' roll that exists to this day.
And the book review editor at the Washington Post wrote recently to propose a biography of Evel Knievel and see "if you are interested." I wrote back: "Ron, did you really think I'm going to pass on a biography of Evel Knievel?"
Hunley: You review thirty to forty books per year, mostly for the New York Times, and you sit on the board of directors for the National Book Critics Circle. What ingredients go into a well-written book review? How do you feel about the state of poetry book reviewing today? It seems to me that the William Logan style is ascendant, and more and more critics are going for the jugular or concerning themselves more with their own wittiness than with the books under consideration. Logan teaches at University of Florida; do you feel a kind of Seminoles-versus-Gators rivalry with him?
Kirby: A good review does a couple of things, and the less important is that it says whether or not the book under review is good or not. The more important function of a review is that it reproduces the book on another level, sort of the way a whistler shows you what an orchestral rendition of "Bolero" sounds like by whistling a few bars. I try to reproduce the tone: if it's a tragic story, I'll do tragic, whereas if comedy is the key note, I can do that, too. If it's a biography of Evel Knievel, I'll toss in as much sociopathy and narcissism as I can get away with and still sound like myself.
I also use examples a lot, and I can illustrate their use best by talking about music criticism. A music piece could say a particular work is up-tempo, features vocal harmonies, and segues to a minor key during the bridge, but you wouldn't know whether the writer was talking about a classical composition or something by a heavy metal group, whereas if you say "sounds like Mozart" or "sounds like Megadeth," the reader is right there with you. So if someone reminds me more of Whitman than Dickinson, I'll say so. I also use a lot of quotations so the reader can get the flavor of the book and a sense of the writer's style.
To me, the best book critic in the business is Dwight Garner of the New York Times; he does all this in a smart, colloquial that reminds me of the final thing I want to say about reviewing, which is that a lot more people are going to read your review than are going to read the book, so your review should be like any other piece of writing you do. It's not a summary or a report; it should take the reader on the most exciting roller coaster ride you can cram into 800 words. Poem, book review, memo to the boss: whatever you write should be ablaze with heat and color.
William Logan is a fine, fine writer. I've met him, like him a lot, and hope he feels the same way about me. I've never felt his lash across my back, though I guess worse things can happen. The writers I know who have been whipped mercilessly by Logan seem almost happy about it, as though there'd be something wrong with you if Logan didn't flog you till the blood spurted from your frame.
Relations between Florida State and the University of Florida are an interesting study; of course, we literary folk are all transcendental and don't give a flip for this childish rivalry, right? Wrong! It's the Israeli-Palestinian conflict all over again, only this time it takes place on the shores of the Suwannee. Barbara and I did go over to Gainesville to read a few years ago, and UF writers have come to Tallahassee. We still eye them with suspicion, though, and vice versa. That's what's called human nature, I believe, and I say thank god for it, for without it, what would poetry be?
Hunley: In "Old Dog Man," you write about an aviation pioneer who "killed himself because he thought the airplane would allow statesmen / to fly to one another's countries and explain / themselves, but instead they used his marvelous invention / to bomb the enemy into oblivion." Do poems, like other kinds of inventions, ever have unintended consequences, or was Auden correct in saying "Poetry makes nothing happen"?
Kirby: Poetry makes things happens, but you don't know (a) what's going to happen or (b) when. So you can't write a poem the way you plant a seed and watch a plant grow or drink a triple espresso in the certain knowledge that, in fifteen minutes, you're to be jumping around the room as though you'd stuck your toe in a wall socket. After 9/11, millions of people turned to poems for consolation, including ones by Kay Ryan and Adam Zagajewski and Auden himself. But all of those poems had been written long before the attack. Lots of poets have written 9/11 poems, including me, but the best ones were written by poets who were thinking of something else.
Here's another story for you. When Emerson was a teenager, he worked one summer on his uncle's farm on the outskirts of Boston. There he met a man known only to history as "a Methodist named Tarbox." Tarbox told Emerson that men are always praying, and that all prayers are answered.
In poetic terms, what that means is that we should write the best poems we can, always, and not worry about their place in human events. Just write the good poem. It'll take care of itself, believe me.
About the Author
Tom C. Hunley is an associate professor of English at Western Kentucky University and the director of Steel Toe Books. His recent books are Octopus (Logan House, 2008), winner of the Holland Prize; Greatest Hits (Pudding House, 2010); and The Poetry Gymnasium (forthcoming from McFarland & Co., Inc.).
Georgia State University
Editors: David Bottoms, Megan Sexton
Associate Editors: Beth Gylys, John Holman, Sheri Joseph, Josh Russell