TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe.
We don’t expect an elevator pitch from a poet, but can you tell us about your work in 2-3 sentences?
My poems have always been action-packed. They move the way the mind does on a good day, puddle-jumping from one topic to another and then coming in for a nice soft landing. That said, I wanted to try some new moves here, so you’ll also see poems that might recall the compactness of Jack Gilbert, the sweep of Allen Ginsberg, and the exuberance of Frank O’Hara. I’m hoping readers will like both the familiar sounds and the new ones as well.
What boundaries did you break in the writing of this book? Where does that sort of courage come from?
A few years ago, I caught myself wondering why I wasn’t so crazy any more about some of my favorite living poets. One day, the light bulb came on: they were still writing good poems, but it was the same good poem over and over again. So I started trying for some new sounds the way you do when you’re singing in the shower and pitch your voice higher or lower.
I wrote so many Jack Gilbert poems one summer that I told my wife Barbara I was afraid I was turning into him. She told me to go ahead because sooner or later I’d incorporate what I was learning from Jack Gilbert into what she calls “Dave Kirby poems,” which is what happened. It didn’t take any special courage to make the change. All I had to do is remember what I tell my students all the time, which is to try new things.
Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.
I’m happy to say I went through my lows years ago. When I won the Brittingham Prize in Poetry in 1987, I figured I had it made. What happened was just the opposite: I couldn’t get anybody to even look at my next manuscript. Finally, tiny Orchises Press published it and the several books that followed. I hated to say good-bye to Orchises, but I switched to Louisiana State University Press because their distribution system made it possible to get my books out more widely, and I’ve been with LSU ever since.
James Long, my editor there, is very tolerant of me, I think because my poetry collections sell in the hundreds annually as opposed to the tens. That said, in the words of Bin Ramke, as a poet you’re in a state of either absolute or relative obscurity. I’m clinging to relative obscurity with all my might.
What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?
Funny you should ask. In addition to Help Me, Information, I’ve just written a textbook that will also be released this summer; it’s modestly entitled The Knowledge: Where Poems Come From and How to Write Them. At its heart is the one thing I tell my students over and over, which is that art is the deliberate transformed by the accidental.
In other words, you make coffee, lay out your pages, lick the tip of your pencil, and go at it like a tax auditor until something – a phone call, a childhood memory, a cry in the street – derails you. You go back to your task, but what you’re writing looks different now. You’ve got to start deliberately, but you have to be open to the accidents that will change your work for the better.
My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?
Oh, heavens. Let me count the ways. This is poetry, remember, so the surprises come fast and furious. I’m not the Vin Diesel of American poetry, but when I said earlier that my poems tend to be action-packed, that means I welcome all the twists and turns that occur when you think you know what you’re doing, and pow! you get sent in a new direction by pure serendipity. Maybe I am the Vin Diesel of American poetry. Or the Samuel Taylor Coleridge whose “Kubla Khan” was famously knocked off the tracks by a visitor from Porlock. Some writers do everything they can to avoid interruptions, but I love them. They always jump-start a new line or stanza.
How did you find the title of your book?
I tried on a dozen titles. None fit. For a while I called it A Baby in the Piazza, which is one of those action-packed poems in the book (I’ll include the link to it below). That title’s wings didn’t quite cover the whole book, though. Then I remembered the first line of the second verse of Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee,” which is “Help me, information,” and said aw, yeah. Everything’s information, from a Wikipedia article to a dog’s tongue on your face when you’re trying to sleep. Don’t we need all the help we can get? I sure do.
Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)
Well, I do have a poem about/recipe for pruno in Help Me, Information. If that’s not a beverage you drink regularly and serve to your guests, let me say that pruno is an alcoholic drink typically made from ingredients that might include apples, oranges, fruit cocktail, candy, ketchup, sugar, milk, and crumbled bread. It’s made in prisons, where it can be concocted with such limited equipment— a plastic bag, hot water, a sock—as is available to the guests of the state who are its vintners. Fun! The name of the poem is “Pruno,” by the way.
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READ A POEM FROM THIS BOOK, “A Baby in the Piazza”: