Back with a few more impertinent Interviews With Poets. I’m in New York for a few days, getting up with friends (and thank you to the collectively lovely John Deming, Melinda Wilson, and Cate Marvin for their comfy spare rooms and fluffy pillows), and doing a reading for the KGB poetry series tonight (7:00, should anyone like to join us). I’m reading with Josh Bell who is by far one of my favorite poets writing today. Andhe KGB series is my favorite reading series. Two for two! Held on Monday evenings in a former soviet men’s club, the place still has the iron curtain memorabilia behind the bar and a loose, funny vibe where folks can have a cocktail and listen to some poems. It’s always a rollicking good time.
In other news, today we have James “Jimmy” Kimbrell and Kerry James Evans, two poets I love in equal measure. Since these two spend half their time at my house anyway, I reeled them in for a two-for-one deal.
Jimmy Kimbrell is someone I’ve known since we were hired as visiting baby poets together at Kenyon College in 1998. Kenyon couldn’t decide between us and had the good sense to take us both. Being smushed together in the Brigadoon of a bucolic, Amish village in Ohio is what you call a bonding experience. Pre parenthood and tenure-track responsibilities, we had vast oceans of time to drive around aimlessly looking for any movie theatre within 50 miles (and you wouldn’t BELIEVE the movies you’re willing to see when the options are desperate). Then Florida State arrived at the same conundrum—Jimmy? Erin?--and solved it by hiring us both permanently, back-to-back.
We’ve been there for each other’s family weddings and funerals, and I can’t remember a decade when Jimmy wasn’t stuck reading my latest poem. He’s also distinguished by being the quickest, funniest, most effortlessly erudite poet and thinker I know. Jimmy’s one of those people who makes you laugh so hard you end up puddled in a chair gasping for him to stop. Luckily, he uses his powers for good and not evil.
As a poet, over the course of three, major-award winning, truly enviable poetry collections (The Gatehouse Heaven, My Psychic, and the forthcoming in 2015 Smote, all from the estimable Sarabande Press), Jimmy’s taken the venerable tradition of the lyric narrative and injected it with his own high octane juice, reconfiguring the shapes of narrative with a tactile, restless quality of mind and soul that reminds us again how much we readers will always crave a story. How much we need a story. His new collection Smote takes up issues of race and class and family connection for a cavalcade of characters, along with the often-brutal and revealing constructions of masculine identity.
Kerry James Evans, on the other hand, feels like someone I’ve known forever, but technically he showed up about 7 years ago when he started in the Ph.D. program here at Florida State.
KJ is one of those charismatic human beings who can’t help but take up space in a room, even when he’s trying very hard not to.
Which is what he was doing on the first day of the first workshop he took with me. I remember folks in that class competing hard for gold medals in the “Who’s Most Invisible!” games. But try as he might, KJ is simply not capable of being invisible. He’s always springing forth from the bosom of himself, to misquote Frank O’Hara. But once workshopping commenced, KJ speedily crushed the competition for best poem of the night. You could feel the bolts of the grad-sanctioned pecking order begin to slide into place.
But I wanted to see what KJ was really made of, so I gave him some friendly grief, snipping here and there at the poem (which was indeed remarkable) just to see what he’d do.
I recall the irritated determination that settled into his face, though he didn’t say much more than “Yes, ma’am. That’s a good point.” Two weeks later, he came back to me with three poems jammed into his back pocket that all took my criticisms into account, each one astonishingly better than the last.
KJ is like that. Beyond his natural born gifts--a strange leaping quality of image and thought that sounds like no one else, his willingness to scale the grand lyric gestures of poetry, tethering them to his own earthy locations and weird observations--KJ’s secret is that he is prepared to work twice as hard as you. Ok, actually, ten times as hard as you. You ask him for a ten-foot ditch and KJ will not stop until it’s fifty feet long. KJ is the T-800 Terminator of American poetry.
Which is why his first and recent book, Bangalore, was chosen for publication by Copper Canyon while he was still in classes here. This is a book you should definitely order right now.
Here’s what we talked about on a recent evening:
Given the number of times I’ve shooed both of you from my porch at 2 am to keep the neighbors from lodging noise complaints with the cops, I’ve determined that Southern male poets are really loud.
The booming, Tudor-era voice seems to be a feature of your species, along with a gift for the luminous, elegiac line.
Why do you think southern male poets evolved into creatures of such magnificent volume? Is this a mating call or more of a courtesy alarm?
JK: If you got it, flaunt it!
But in the most social sense of the question, it comes down to competitive story telling. Three guys start telling a story at the same time in a large group of people, in our case that means relatives. At some point, it becomes collectively clear that everyone’s really listening to Uncle Tommy’s story, so Jimmy and Kerry James go ahead and shut the hell up. To do otherwise would be rude.
Volume, however, is only one of the more crude means of achieving the Uncle Tommy status. While I have to agree that there is a heightened sense of rhetoric in a good many Southern male poets, there is also a heightened sense of silence (consider Charles Wright). Think of it this way—if you want to be heard across a wide field, you need a good measure of the silence that occupies that field in the absence of your rhetoric, no matter how loud.
KJE: At the end of the meal, there's always one biscuit on the table. Who wants it most?
Jimmy, you’re presently goofy on pain meds while doing this interview. Which ties nicely into the motif of poets and their terrible habits that I’ve been mining throughout this series.
Beyond your back spasms (from trying to move a duck blind by yourself, which I mean, maybe not the best idea, Jimmy), how do you feel about people “altering" themselves to write?
And KJ, you gave up drinking last year—you even made it through the Sewanee Writers Conference without drinking!--there should be a plaque dedicated to this--they can hang it next to the liver I left there—which leads me to ask, what do you two see as the advantages or disadvantages of greasing the creative wheels with mind-stomping chemicals?
JK: I’m sorry; I’m waiting for my horse tranquilizer to kick in. Ok. It’s really just Ibuprofen 500. And it was a deer stand, not a duck blind. Actually, it was a blow up mattress, but that’s another story.
As for as drugs go, do them if you want, but there are no short cuts and many obstacles, so why make things more difficult for yourself, dumbass? I have to go now, my beer’s on fire.
KJE: There's no advantage to quitting drinking. I go to bed earlier. I wake earlier. I'm a rock star’s nightmare. I feel like I'm constantly awake, which gives me more time to reflect on why I'm not drinking. I'm like a snowball in hell.
Look, I like whiskey, but it kills my iambic pentameter. Now I'm learning guitar, which is terrible. At least I was good at drinking.
Ah yes, your mutual affection for guitars. Nothing bonds writers like playing guitars around a writers’ conference campfire for a good 7-8 hours at a time (*yawn*).
But you two started out first in a mentor-mentee relationship and I know Jimmy is a demanding taskmaster. He actually puts on a tie and jacket for class and can whip out a pretty handy, old school-style lecture on British Romanticism.
What are the pros and cons of the mentoring relationship? For instance, Kerry James’s recent book Bangalore is a big critical success. Jimmy, wouldn’t it be a lot smarter for people like us to stamp out the young ones in the nest?
JK: Pros to mentor-mentee relationship: friendship is one of life’s greatest pleasures, especially when it involves Kerry James. Cons: it tends to get hyper professional, especially when it involves Kerry James. Did I mention I have new book coming out with Sarabande?
KJE: I love two part questions, because that's two questions I can avoid, rather than one. Let me tell you a story about the time I was kicked by a mule. I was twelve years old hanging off the back of a cattle gate, when WHAM! The mule kicks me in the chest. Jimmy is a lot like the mule. It hurt for a while, but I learned my distance.
Speaking of your new book, Jimmy, it’s titled Smote. What’s that about? I mean, I like it, it’s intense and suggests the trials of Job, but it’s also a funny word. Smote. It kinda sounds like the new hipster fish everyone is eating. Like, “I’ll have the bacon-wrapped smote with frisee and saffron couscous.”
Did you pick the title when you were hungry?
JK: My aforementioned Uncle Tommy sends a bible verse to everyone in my family early every morning as a way of making us all feel guilty for sleeping late. Anyway, “smote” was there one morning (afternoon) when I woke; I believe it was a verse from Samuel. The word brought to mind all the things that can, and have, gone wrong, namely the death of people I love.
Also, there’s something lovely about the word—feels like a smooth, cool, skippable one syllable stone on the tongue. You have to love the long ‘o’. Mostly though, it became a kind of lens through which to focus on a recent past that came on so fast I couldn’t possibly process it in real time.
Poetry time, however, is a different clock altogether. As Whitman says, “I am the clock myself,” and Bergson, and Proust. Also, there was rash of nightclubs opening in Los Angeles that were all one syllable: Pure, Sweat, Lust, etc. Jimmy Buffet has Margaritavillle, not one syllable, but still a club based on a song, so with “Smote” I have a whole world of entertainment / marketing possibilities in the Los Angeles area.
(The interview pauses as the crushing humidity and carnivorous mosquitoes drive us off the porch. August in Tallahassee is not for the weak).
Ok, last question before the West Nile symptoms kick in, riddle me this: if Yeats, Auden, Dickinson, Whitman, Frank O’Hara, and Elizabeth Bishop were characters on recent TV shows, which characters would they be?
JK: By recent, I assume you mean the past thirty years? Yeats would be Matlock for obvious reasons. Auden would be President Frank Underwood in House of Cards. I’d cast Dickinson as the nerdy but brilliant forensic specialist on CSI Amherst.
Frank O’Hara may well be too cool for any TV show, but say he was in a TV show, he’d have to play Bruce Willis’ character in Moonlighting, opposite Cybill Shepard. No flies on him, that’s for damn sure.
Oh wait. I skipped Whitman. Whitman would, if only by virtue of his beard and staunch opposition to anything remotely homosexual, be the senior member of the Robertson clan on Duck Dynasty. Happy happy happy. Elizabeth Bishop—all patience and vision--would have been a great junior mob boss on The Sopranos with Marianne Moore as the senior boss of all-operations Brooklyn.
Wait, maybe Whitman would have been Moses in The Ten Commandments, which was never made into a TV show to the great loss of our entertainment pleasure. Think of all the other seas that might have been parted! Every week a new law, or a new revision of an old one, so long as one keeps one’s eyes on the bush all aflame and very much in need of an audience.
KJE: Auden as Tony Soprano (The Sopranos). He's got problems, but he's willing to fix them.
Elizabeth Bishop as Cersei in Game of Thrones is a no brainer. She's calculating. She's smart. She's beautiful.
Whitman may be a bit overweight, but it's obvious that he makes a great "Sonny" Crockett from an older show called Miami Vice. He gets it.
Dickenson as Lagertha from the hit show Vikings. It doesn't always have to make sense.
Frank O'Hara has to be Don Draper from Mad Men, since they’re clearly both in love with Frank O'Hara.
Thank you Jimmy and KJ, this has been a discombobulated but very edifying conversation. And it’s your turn to bring the bug spray next time.