2007 National Book Award Poetry Finalist Interview With David Kirby

David Kirby

The House on Boulevard St.

Louisiana State University Press

Interview conducted by Craig Morgan Teicher.

Photo © Barbara Hamby.

CMT: How do you feel about being a National Book Award finalist?

DK: Very happy, but I’m a pretty happy guy by disposition. All the other emotions are kind of a waste of time.

CMT: Let’s talk about the book. You call these poems “memory poems”: they’re conversational, far reaching, witty, referencing all kinds of things, from Dante to whatever happens to be going on at the moment. How did you start writing this kind of poem?

DK: I used to write what I called “2 by 4 look-out-the-window-poems”: you look out the window and see something and give your thoughts on it. That amused me for a while, but I knew I wanted to change. Meanwhile I’d grown up on a farm in south Louisiana, and my mother, who was born in 1902, was an old school farm girl in a rough part of the world. There were actually people on her family farm who had been born into slavery and were emancipated. There were voodoo elements and conjure people in the woods, people who could talk the warts off your hands for a nickel and that kind of thing. My mother was always a great story teller, and she passed on a love of stories to me. In addition to writing these “2 by 4” poems, I liked to tell stories and my wife, the poet Barbara Hamby, said, “you should turn these stories into nonfiction essays.” I kept thinking about that, then one day a light bulb ignited. I said, “ooh, why not combine the two, cut out the middle genre, nonfiction, and make the stories directly into poems.” Then I ran out of stories, and I realized I could either hold up liquor stores and have more stories or do something else. That’s when the poems became more braided, referring to high and pop culture and something I had for lunch.

CMT: What about the relationship between nonfiction and imagination in your poems. What kind of a reporter is a poet?

DK: One thing that I want to do in the poems is to portray the mind as it actually works. You know that statistic that when you’re in a college economics class, 30% of the students are thinking about sex. Actually, 90% of the students are thinking about sex, the economics lecture, regretting that they didn’t have breakfast that morning, the pleasure they’re going to have text messaging their girlfriend as soon as the idiot at the front of the class shuts up, and some song that they’re working on on their guitar, and it makes sense to me to write poems that way, with a lot of editing, of course to take out the static and screen saving functions that the brain performs.

CMT: Frank Zappa—arguably a very funny musician—has an album called Does Humor Belong in Music? Your poems are often very funny. How would you answer the same question about poetry?

DK: That’s one of the things that people ask about, and often it seems like an accusation: people say, “I noticed your poems are funny—why?” I say if it’s good enough for Chaucer and Shakespeare and Mark Twain and Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch, it’s good enough for me. I think the presence of humor in poetry is a problem only for those who think that a mature poem is a relative of teenage angst poems, where you talk about how much you hate your mother and want to shoot up your classroom, but grown up poetry doesn’t have to be that way. And also, if I need to, I’ll rise up on my toes and observe to my questioner that I am not—repeat, not—a light versifier. I love Ogden Nash, but I don’t write that kind of poetry.

Craig Morgan Teicher's poems, essays, and reviews have appeared in many publications, including, The Paris Review, The Yale Review, Bookforum, and Poets & Writers. His first book, Brenda Is In The Room And Other Poems won the 2007 Colorado Prize for Poetry and is due out this November. He works as an editor at Publishers Weekly.