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Tension & Release: An Interview with Poet Kevin Clark

In Poets on May 3, 2011 at 9:04 pm

Kevin Clark is a poet with music in his blood.  Whether it be jazz, classical, rock and roll, or blues, he’s excited about all of it.  When reading his poems, one can be sure that an old classic is playing somewhere in the background.  Kevin Clark’s Self-Portrait with Expletives won the Pleiades Press contest. His first book In the Evening of No Warning earned a grant from the Academy of American Poets.  His poetry has appeared widely in such journals as The Georgia Review, Antioch Review, Kestrel, Gulf Coast, and Black Warrior Review. His criticism has appeared in many venues, including The Iowa Review, Papers on Language and Literature, and Contemporary Literary Criticism. His poetry writing textbook The Mind’s Eye is published by Pearson Longman. He teaches at Cal Poly and The Rainier Writing Workshop.  See also www.kevinclarkpoet.com.

The following is an interview via email April 2011 between Ephraim Scott Sommers and Kevin Clark.

As you understand it, what is the relationship between popular music and contemporary literature?

You know, I’m often wrestling with Walter Pater’s idea that “all art aspires to the condition of music.” I know what he means; we like non-verbal epiphanic moments in which we “get” something. But life is not an EST session in which we deliberately sit around waiting for “it” to strike us. I don’t buy Pater’s notion… It’s like saying all language aspires to the condition of French. Yeah, well maybe for musicians music is tops… Maybe for the French, language should be theirs alone. It depends on temperament, right?

Here’s the thing: In the big picture, all art is united by a need to create a visceral and intellectual reaction in its audience. Artists want to create two things at once: gut-level feeling and mental action. Good music and good literature do just this─as do successful examples of the other arts. To an extent, music and literature do the same thing, especially music with lyrics.

What kind of music have you been enjoying lately?  Other than those musicians you’ve written about directly, what music has influenced your poetry?

Do you have a month or two? Perhaps a 55 gallon drum of coffee? Because I love this question, the answer could go on and on…

Let me first say that for the last three decades I’ve been listening to jazz primarily, though I still love rock and I listen to classical as well. Very little hip hop, opera or chamber music. As an example of my recent jazz tastes, for my birthday my wife Amy just gave me a Chet Baker and Bill Evans CD recorded over three sessions in 1959. When we first put it on, I was stunned I hadn’t heard it before. It’s lush and complex and inspiring.

But today is April 24, 2011 and to answer your question I’ve just gone to look at the carriages in both of my cd players and here’s what else I found: In the bedroom: Goin’ Home by Archie Shepp and Horace Parlan, For Lovers by Nina Simone, Exile on Main Street by The Rolling Stones, Haunted Heart by Charlie Haden, and When the Heart Dances by Laurence Hobgood.  In the living room: The Complete Legendary Sessions by Chet Baker and Bill Evans, Ballad Essentials by Scott Hamilton, Demons by The Cowboy Junkies, London Live by Leonard Cohen, and Blessed by Lucinda Williams.

As to the music that influenced me, well, the totality of all the music I’ve listened to is like the totality of all the poetry I’ve read─it makes me aware of the seemingly infinite expanse of the heart. When I was this skinny, white ten-year-old in suburban Jersey, I heard a song that I think was called “Hey Little Blonde Girl” or something like that—and it was rockin’ and I played it over and over on my parents’ 45 record player. It made me want to dance. My parents listened to very little music but I also listened to their platters of South Pacific, the musical they saw in Manhattan before heading out on their honeymoon. “Bali Hai” still kills me. As a teenager I listened to Dave Brubeck’s Take Five album at the same time I listened to Chuck Berry, The Beatles, The Stones, The Shirelles, Smokey Robinson, The Beach Boys, etc. To this day I think “Sally Go Round the Roses” by the Jaynettes is one of the great expressions of the post-war era. Like “Bali Hai” it’s haunting and weird and even today I just love its mystery.

All of which is to say this: Sometimes inside me the raging drive of rock is at war with the sad romance of the ballad… If I’m lucky, the two impulses form a truce that simmers in my work as either hard driving narrative or elegiac lyric.

As you’re well aware, ekphrastic poetry is poetry about another art form.  Ekphrastic poems in your new book Self-Portrait with Expletives are about both sculpture and music. Can poetry about music provide something that poetry about sculpture or painting cannot?  What is the major difference between the two? 

I really appreciate the fact you’ve read the book that closely…but, listen, I don’t think there’s a difference between poems on either subject. We could speculate that poems about music involve more kinetic energy and that poems about sculpture are more about stasis, but when I think of poems such as Rilke’s “The Archaic Torso of Apollo” I just don’t see that kind of difference. It’s the poet’s state of mind that generates the poem’s style, tone, and content.

­─Follow-up question: What ekphrastic poem has influenced your writing the most? Why?

Hands down, Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts.” High school? Freshman year in college? I remember being nineteen or twenty years old and sitting outside my mother’s house and thinking about that poem and the inexplicably wondrous and dreadful inevitabilities of life. Somehow I connected that poem to my father’s death in 1965 when I was fourteen. My first book was deeply influenced by his death, and in a way Auden’s poem was a part of my training.  His tone is virtually perfect. Unfortunately, the only time I was in Paris the museum was closed and I couldn’t see the painting.

Poetry is a form of art that is often compared to music, how would you describe the “musical quality” of a poem as you understand it? 

Fifty or more years ago poets would answer this question by discussing received forms─rhyme and meter and repetition and how these devices would engender “musical” sound. But for me, all good poems have─by virtue of the musicality of language itself─some degree of sonic resonance. Such character is the instantaneous and ongoing effect of many factors: word choice and colloquialisms, rhythm, repeated sounds (including alliteration and interior rhyme), line length, punctuation, etc.

The poet Marilyn Nelson said that some poets are talkers and some are singers because they either mimic conversational patterns or stress melodic qualities. I write in both styles.

The lyric is the kind of poetry most often associated with music.  How would you define the difference between narrative poetry and lyric poetry? In which direction to you see contemporary poetry heading?

I stick with the traditional definitions here. Both forms convey something about the human condition. The lyric renders the interior life: emotion, internal atmosphere, mental sensation, that kind of thing. The narrative focuses on external events in a way that usually heightens suspense. Both need elements of the other, however. If all you have is emotion without context, you have pabulum; so the lyric needs some semblance of a plot. On the other hand, if you have nothing but plot, your poem is antic and empty; so the narrative needs lyric interludes.

In praise of your narrative style in Self-Portrait with Expletives (Louisiana State University Press, 2010), Martha Collins writes, “These poems raise narrative poetry to a breathtaking new level of pleasure.”  As a narrative poet, how might the narrative construction of your poems be similar to a musical composition?  In what other ways might a narrative poem be musical?

Many musical pieces with or without lyrics present some kind of situation in which a conflict becomes apparent─and then the tension rises and rises to a climax. My poem “Self-Portrait with Expletives” has five sections. In the next to last section, the tension builds to such a climax. I tried to enhance the speaker’s growing urgency through the use of repetition, punchy figures of speech, increasingly shorter phrasing, etc., all factors that contribute to the ongoing effect of sound.

Some musical pieces, often those longer than the typical three minute AM radio hit, have a complex symphonic expression in which all kinds of melodies are presented before they return in a kind of coalescing closure. Surely this is the case in classical and jazz and rock: Beethoven’s Fifth, Dexter Gordon’s “I’m a Fool to Want You,” The Beatles “A Day in the Life.” In her great book Rapture, the poet Susan Mitchell provides this arc of progression over and over─but with surprise side journeys and unexpected conclusions. Narrative poems can similarly make use of threads and turns and runnels that may circle back on themselves into something new. I think this symphonic quality can be an aspect of verse musicality.

With regards to the intersection of poetry and music, poets such as Langston Hughes or Kevin Young choose to write poems in song form (that is they choose to speak as the musician), while other poets speak to or about the musician.  Which do you find to be the most effective?  Why?

I’m not a musician. I can empathize up to a point. I don’t write songs, never have. So I wouldn’t try to create a poem as a song. What’s more, I don’t trust myself to be in the musician’s originary moment of creation. So I rarely if ever attempt to write about the musician composing the piece of music. It’s a matter of the poet’s particular imagination. TR Hummer is a terrific horn player and I think he can write from that point of view much more readily than I.

I do like writing about the song as its being played. I like imagining what the musician is feeling. I also like imagining what the conflict is, even when there are no lyrics. The title helps, of course. So I guess you could say that I prefer writing about the life situation being rendered by the music.

In the poem “Radio Fate,” you describe your boyhood experiences with listening to Jean Shepherd stories on the radio, and how the central characters in Shepherd’s stories received a flash of success followed by an imminent downfall.  It seems that the role of the radio during that time in the fifties and sixties was to provide a realistic look at ordinary Americans. How has radio changed since that time?  Today, what relationship do music and literature have with the radio?

I’m not sure I’m the best person to answer the first part of this question. Before the counterculture, yes, radio provided a look at ordinary Americans. In 1960, that same skinny ten year old I mentioned earlier used to listen to DJ Cousin Brucey of WABC playing the Four Seasons and the Four Tops and all those other groups. Those songs were about the usual heartaches involving love and romance. But when the counterculture emerged and FM radio became our radio choice, the songs became much more political and philosophical. College students drove the play list. The interests of the counterculture were wonderfully represented in music (though not as well in poetry). The songs were about personal freedom and personal choices in the context of war and race and much more.

Today there’s still great music about these subjects, but I think most downloads are purchased by teenagers, right? I may be in way over my head here, but radio and electronic delivery systems that guarantee your particular choice of style may be limiting what all people listen to… Not sure. I think it would be too facile to say that the increased obsession with celebrities has reduced our interest in what’s new artistically.

I do like the fact that you can hear poems on the radio and the internet. Garrison Keeler and Verse Daily and Poetry Daily and many other sites give us access to striking poems, sometimes even read aloud by the poets themselves. This is a good thing. But, ultimately, serious poetry, the kind that’s meant to be read on the page, is doing what it’s always been doing: striking out in search of effective, intriguing ways to render reality. Whether radio or the Internet gave it a voice or not, poets would continue on that search.

─Follow-up question: Currently, the songs we tend to hear on the radio have a very specific sound and construction, and because of this, we call them “popular.”  Is there a “popular” contemporary poetry?  What is it?  Why might it be so prevalent?

Great question. Clearly you’re a poet. You know how often we ask ourselves this kind of thing. Sides get taken. Manifestoes get written. Journals covertly criticize each other. Styles rear up and fall away. All of this is to the good. Poetry evolves. For fifty years, critics (who are usually poets as well) have worried about the so called “workshop poem.” The kind of thing that allegedly has no originality, that follows a script or formula, that seeks out common denominators rather than surprise.

There are, after all, undergraduate creative writing workshops in virtually every college in the country. And there are MFA programs in creative writing and now PhD programs in creative writing. Surely, some believe, these programs all teach the same thing! Not to mention, the same style! But, while there are plenty of similarities in what’s said, on the whole most programs advocate originality. I know absolutely that we do at Cal Poly─as well as at the Rainier Writing Workshop, the low-residency MFA program at which I teach during summers. That’s why there is so much diversity of style today. Much more than, say, in the thirties and forties and early fifties.

Free verse still dominates, of course, but there are plenty of formalist poets. Maybe free verse is a prevalent choice because it provides so much elasticity of expression. I often write in syllabics myself. In fact, in the book I’m writing now, I’m working in a syllabical tercet that’s marked by visual caesurae.

Think of poets such as David St. John, Susan Mitchell, Norman Dubie, David Kirby, Gertrude Schnackenburg, Ruth Stone, Kevin Young, CD Wright, Peter Gizzi, Michael Palmer, Rae Armantrae, etc etc. These folks are stunning writers and yet they differ from each other quite a bit. Today’s poetry is loud and provocative and varied─and yet it does not “sound” like poems of earlier centuries, because speech itself changes over time.

“Whipping Post” is a poem about a near-death experience you have while driving with your son and listening to an Allman Brothers tune of the same name.  There, you juxtapose the song being played live in 1971 with the poet’s experience while listening to the song in 2004 all in the same moment.  The poem provides an effective place for that to happen.  Can you explain how you went about composing the poem regarding the collision of two separate moments in time? Where does music fit in to all of this?

About seven years ago, just after my son had earned his driver’s permit, we decided to drive roughly 200 miles to San Jose for an SAT practice session─and we thought some driving practice was in order as well. We spent the drive sharing cd’s with one another. He’d pick out a favorite song and then I’d pick out a favorite song, and we’d talk about why we liked them. Then along Highway 101, he drifted way too far to the left, cutting off another vehicle. It was scary but we survived without an accident.

I don’t usually do this, but I’d taken a laptop with me and while he was in class I drafted the poem in the hotel room. I had played “Whipping Post,” which, as most Duane Allman aficionados know, has the one of the greatest guitar solos in rock history. I love the song. It builds and builds as if it’s heading for some rock satori.

I knew I wanted to write about the song and our near accident. As soon as I sat down to write, Duane’s own vehicular death in a motorcycle crash and our very dangerous experience struck me as a parallel and the poem pretty much wrote itself. I played the song over and over in that hotel room and I went back and forth between the song and the moment of my son’s driving trouble. The poem’s cadence picks up something from the song’s rhythm. Tension builds and builds. Finally, we’re safe─but Duane’s death is a kind of haunting behind both.

“Accident Alert,” is the last poem in Self-Portrait with Expletives.  The epigraph reads: “Dexter Gordon’s ‘I’m a Fool to Want You’ plays for 1:23 — then fades out quickly.”  The poem ends with an aside: “‘I’m a Fool to Want You’ fades in from 2:53 to finish.”  The poet has a really intense sensory experience with the song.  As you have envisioned, in what way do you intend for the audience to experience the poem?  What role does the song play for you in the composition of the poem?  Why is it the final poem in the book? And why that song?

In “Accident Alert,” I tried imagine what it was like in the Blue Note recording studio in Englewood, New Jersey in 1965 when Dexter Gordon got together with Barry Harris (piano), Bob Cranshaw (bass), Billy Higgins (drums), and of course Freddie Hubbard (trumpet). I tried to get in touch with Dexter, with that sax, so I could render what he’s rendering: What it feels like to be flat-out rejected by someone we love.

I can tell you that the song title fit thematically with my idea, but that would be nonsense. I chose “I’m a Fool…” because, quite simply, it’s my all time favorite sax song.

I also have a poem in the new book called “I’m Fine,” and it’s about being in the hospital with a possible pulmonary embolism. I don’t mention “I’m a Fool to Want You” or any other song in that poem, but, all alone one night on a hospital bed, after the TV was off, I listened to that song a few times on my headphones. I’d already been listening to the poem for years after my friend Mary Kay Harrington gave it to me. She and her gift appear in “Accident Alert” as one of the fortunate accidents.

“Accident Alert” came into being when the College of Liberal Arts at Cal Poly asked me to deliver a “last lecture” talk at Cal Poly. The idea was to imagine the last lecture of my career. What would I want to say to my students? I didn’t want the students simply to listen to a dry lecture; so, after a couple of truly awful passes, I wrote it out as a poem. I’m deeply, happily married, and my wife tells me she’s sticking around, thank god. But people heart-close to me have died, especially my father and Joe Ryan, the ex-priest in the poem. I felt that linking that sense of ineradicable loss to the question of writing might uncover something visceral. My writing group gave me a good deal of help with it, and, despite its length, the journal SOLO published it, for which I’m grateful.

When you write a poem, you don’t necessarily try to direct the reader’s feelings per se … Looking back from a distance, I realize I want the reader of this poem to experience that downright funereal sensation you get after the person you need is lost or gone forever. But I want something more than that, too.  Most elegies try to have some kind of comforting principal, and both the song and the poem are elegiac. I suppose I hope the reader feels all the sadness and comes out with some kind of sustaining motive to survive. In part, we survive by making art─which is, I think, an upbeat sentiment with which to close out a book.

MORE KEVIN CLARK

Get a copy of Self-Portrait with Expletives here.

Browse a broad list of Kevin Clark’s recommended reading here. This is a helpful resource for any poet, from beginner to professor. Clark provides several different categories of poetry and includes a short list of books under each.

Experience “Class Politics,” a poem from Self-Portrait with Expletives here. This poem was also published in RATTLE which is a wonderful print journal edited by Timothy Green. RATTLE also publishes several of the poems from their issues online.

Purchase Clark’s The Mind’s Eye: A Guide to Writing Poetry here. This is a craft book, and according to Amazon, it is the only poetry writing textbook designed specifically for a college term. Again, this is another excellent tool for the beginning poet or the seasoned teacher.

Read another interview with Kevin Clark conducted by Glen Starkey of New Times here. Clark discusses Self-Portrait with Expletives, Lorca’s “duende,” and what winning the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Poetry award means to him.

Responding in Song: An Interview with The Autumn Film’s Dann Stockton

In Musicians on May 3, 2011 at 1:47 pm

The conversation between creative mediums ebbs and flows. A poem replies to a painting, a song accompanies the visual imagery of a film, and a short story answers an opera. I recently interviewed Dann Stockton from the Boulder, Colorado based band, The Autumn Film, about the influence of literature on their song writing. The Autumn Film is comprised of Tifah Phillips, Dann Stockton, & Reid Phillips. The band formed in 2006 and their most recent full length album is The Ship and the Sea (http://theshipandthesea.com) which was released in 2010. Download their music at http://theautumnfilm.com/ and follow The Autumn Film on Twitter @theautumnfilm.

The following is an interview via an e-mail exchange from April 2011 between Dann Stockton and Crystal Hadidian

First, tell me about the band name. How did you pick that?

This is a funny story, actually. We were playing at a conference in the Rocky Mountains, and we had been going under the moniker ‘Tifah’ when we first started playing because Tifah had been singing by herself for a couple of years. We all wanted to be an “official” band, which required an actual band name. At the conference, we planned a day to spend as long as it took coming up with a good name and locking ourselves in our room until we came up with something we could all agree on. After 2-3 hours, we came up with “The Autumn Film” because, a)we liked how it sounded b) ‘Autumn’ is a season of change and inevitably loss, which is what a lot of our lyrics talk about, and  ‘Film’ is an artistic way to tell a story which we strive to do with our music. And c) The domain was available.

How has reading affected your creation of music and lyrics?

Reading sparks my imagination. Often I’ll try and put myself into the shoes of a character I’m reading about. Sometimes the imagery I get from reading helps set me in a creative direction that I can run with.

What are you currently reading?

I just recently finished reading (again) George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Lauren Hillenbrand’s, Unbroken. I love them both. Unbroken was especially fascinating and just an incredible story. Seabiscuit is on my short list to read next.

What book has been most influential in your song writing and approach to music?

I’d have to say C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. Specifically in the Magician’s Nephew where Narnia is being sung into creation by Aslan. We are all  completely awestruck with the imagery of that scene. We make music, and it’s inherently creative, and we just love the idea of tying creation and melody together.

Are there any specific books that have influenced or inspired specific songs?

The one that immediately comes to mind is called The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. We haven’t released the song yet, but it’s a song about self-sacrifice and giving all of yourself to another person. That idea is powerful to the three of us, and I’d say it’s come up multiple times in our songs. We’re hoping to release this song and 7 others in the Summer of 2011.

Does this song explicitly refer to the Silverstein text in title or lyric, or only indirectly respond to the ideas?

I would say that its only responding to the idea that Silverstein laid out. The title is still tentative, but definitely inspired by what is talked about in his poem. We tried to step into both characters and write from the tree’s perspective.

Do you see the song as a re-iteration or re-telling of the book or a response beginning a conversation?

I think it’s our own take on the universal theme of self-sacrifice. Our highest hope is that it would spark conversation and compel people to relate to it, and think about themselves and their loved ones.

When did your song “Roll over me” air on One Tree Hill? Although I wouldn’t compare anything on T.V. to literature, it is a type of currently popular storytelling. What are your thoughts on how songs accompany or strengthen the narrative in that medium?

“Roll Over Me” aired in November, 2010 on One Tree Hill. We are actually really humbled and thankful that a music supervisor decided to pair our music to their narrative. I think in a lot of ways music enhances the story being told on screen. Matching the general feeling of a particular song to a story that’s already in progress – within the medium of TV, that likely has a lot of back story – is a tough job. I love when someone does that well. Television, just like any other medium, can be used to move people and tell a worthwhile story.

How do you view the relationship between popular music and contemporary literature?

It’s unfortunate, but I feel like it’s almost non-existent. There are still a few great songwriters who are influenced by great literature, but in general, popular music has taken a completely independent journey that I would be surprised to find is in any way influenced by any type of literature.

Do you have any other thoughts regarding the intersection of music and literature?

I wish there was more of it. There is increasingly more and more meaningless music which is disappointing because there’s such a vast array of wonderful literary thinkers from which an endless amount of inspiration could be cultivated, if artists were more willing to acknowledge it.

Happy Accidents: An Interview with Poet David Kirby

In Poets on May 2, 2011 at 11:24 am

David Kirby’s poems will put you and your imagination on a jet plane and fly you both around the world. They’ll take you to Italy and France or into conversations with Jesus and Elvis.  They’ll even force all of you serious critics to crack a smile. David Kirby is the author of Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll, which was hailed by the Times Literary Supplement of London as a “hymn of praise to the emancipatory power of nonsense.” Kirby’s latest book of poetry is Talking About Movies With Jesus, and he is the Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor of English at Florida State University. See also www.davidkirby.com.

The following is an interview via email April 2011 between Ephraim Scott Sommers and David Kirby.

As you understand it, what is the relationship between popular music and contemporary literature?

Relation between music and poetry? There is no relation, unless you want there to be. Anything can cause a poem to be written, and I bet there are a lot of fabulous poets out there who are completely tone deaf. Paintings can trigger poems, heartbreak, other poems: anything goes, and every poet has a different strategy to get the job done.

That said, music and writing are sure tied together in my mind, probably because pacing and rhythm are keys to both. If you’ve ever heard my friend and colleague Robert Olen Butler read his fiction, you know how important a musical sense is, an awareness that it’s not just the best words in the best order but also the best rhythm as they roll out onto the page.

You probably know that Howard Nemerov said a poem is like a joke; either you get the joke or you don’t, and the same is true for poems, and, since we’re talking about music here, songs. I don’t mean that the poem or song is crystal clear in its meaning the way a stop sign or a cross is; I mean there’s a level of comfort and familiarity, that you like what you have and you want to spend more time with it. But you have to get it first: you don’t jump up in row H during a pop concert and say, “Stop – I don’t get it!”

And one more thing. There’s a compositional similarity between music and poetry. You ever watch a great guitarist improvise? It seems random, and then you notice they’re working within a tight grid: certain strings (but not others) between the fifth and the seventh fret, for example. Same in the free-verse poetry that most people are writing these days: you can do anything you want, but you’re going to have the most luck if you choose from among the dozens of time-tested techniques poets have always used.

What kind of music have you been enjoying lately?  Other than those musicians you’ve written about directly, what music has influenced your poetry?

I’ve been listening to a lot of different kinds, but then I always have. I try to support live music as much as possible, and recently I’ve been to every kind of concert from classical to the Kronos Quartet to soul reviver Sharon Jones. In my car CD player there’s, let’s see . . . Hall and Oates, the J. Geils Band, Son House, and a newer group, Lost in the Trees, whom I also saw in a riveting stage show recently. This morning I listened to a lot of classical music as I drove out to a church in the country, where I and five other guitarists played Bach and a Japanese folk song.

So I like it all, and all of it has influenced me. There aren’t a whole lot of one-to-one correlations of the now-I’m-going-to-write-the-way-Debussy-sounds type, but when I write poems, I pay attention to the highs and lows, the sound quality, the refrains, the pace, the tempo – pretty much everything you try to put in a good song.

The internet has affected the music industry in a colossal way, and many musicians are upset by this.  In your opinion, is the internet a good thing for poetry?

Oh, yeah, sure: you can look stuff up, swap poems with folks, do a million things you couldn’t do twenty years ago, when, for all the advances that had been made, reading and writing were closer technologically to what went on in Chaucer’s time than what you see today.

Musically, the internet makes access almost magical. But I hate what’s happened to record stores and even the music sections of stores like Borders. Serendipity’s gone: you can’t go looking for a Del-Tones record and say, “Whoa – Del Shannon! I forgot all about him!” There are no more happy accidents of discovery, and no more listening stations for you to listen to those happy accidents on.

So thank god for Amoeba Music! Then again, how often is an East Coast boy going to find himself on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley?

When you compose, is there music playing in the background?  What is it?  If not, why not?

Oh, hell, no! That’d be like imposing a basketball game on top of an opera on your TV set; somebody would say, “Who’s winning?” and you’d say, “Um, I don’t know – Tosca?” If the music’s good, you can’t resist, and same thing if the poem’s going well. No, you got to keep them separate.

How would you define a “good” song?  How is that different or similar to the way you define a “good” poem?

It’s not easy to say, is it? Nor should it be: cultural criticism of every kind is a conversation rather than a judgment; if I can persuade you that something is worth reading or listening to and you do it and agree, then I’ve done my job, and if I can’t, that’s my fault, not the work’s.

I wrote a book of essays called Ultra-Talk: Johnny Cash, The Mafia, Shakespeare, Drum Music, St. Teresa of Avila, and 17 Other Colossal Topics of Conversation in which I argue that anything we consider good has to pass three tests: it has to be admired by the elite, it has to be embraced by the masses as well, and it has to do this over time. That’s how we know Van Gogh is good, for example; an art professor will tell you so, but an inner-city kid will say the same, and that’s been going on for decades, so Van Gogh must be doing something right.

Your new book, Talking about Movies with Jesus, is filled with poems that dip and dive in several different directions imaginatively.  How might the narrative construction of your poems resemble a musical composition?  Can you think of a specific song it might resemble?

Hey, you make me sound like Frank Zappa! So pardon me if I stop for a brief sniffle and to say I’m not worthy. There, that’s out of the way, so let’s get back to the question.

When I was maybe fourteen years old, my older brother was a beatnik, or at least as much of a beatnik as you could be in Baton Rouge. He had a lot of jazz LPs, and I remember trying to understand what I then thought of as the ugly parts of the music, the often violent changes in key and tempo. Even though they were ugly, I liked them. What I finally realized is that art that’s smooth and beautiful can get boring pretty quickly; later I learned that Edmund Burke made a distinction between the merely beautiful and the sublime, which was beyond beautiful because it contained something frightening as well, maybe even evil.

So I’m happy put lots of swerves and zigzags in my poems; what you get is less of a slow tram ride down the mountain but a lot of tumbling and cartwheeling, and if you land in a crevasse, I try to make it possible for you to scramble out again. Am I switching metaphors here? Hey, it pays the bills at my house! Anyway, in a musical sense, there may be more jazz in my writing than pure rock, which is why I mention Zappa.

Did Bo Diddley really shake you down for money at the induction ceremony to the Florida Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?

Ephraim, what does it say about me that I let you talk to me this way? Of course he did! Can’t you tell those stories are true? Too many good things happen to me for me to make things up. Of course, sometimes my wife, the sublime poet Barbara Hamby, will accuse me of trying to make things happen. (“It’s okay if we get arrested; at least I’ll get a poem out of it!”) But, yeah, it’s all true.

There seems to be two different ideas of music working throughout your book.  In the poem “Big Man’s Got the Blues,” you point out, “Maybe Big Man’s// been listening to too much Otis and too little/ Little Richard.”  You continue, “Little Richard is all gimmick—all trickeration.”  How would you define the difference between the music of gimmick and the music of soul?  How might this idea of gimmick be applicable to contemporary poetry?

What starts as a gimmick can turn into something soulful. Come to think of it, it probably doesn’t work to say that you’re going to do something soulful; that’s like announcing that you’re getting ready to be smart or beautiful. You try something, mess with it, see what other people think, forget it, find it again, combine it with something else, and, pow, entire audiences are falling at your feet.

Notice that, in that same poem, I quote Diane Arbus as saying, “What if we couldn’t always tell a trick from a miracle?” So it doesn’t matter how you begin; it’s where you end up that counts.

I like to tell my students that art is the deliberate transformed by the accidental; you make your plan and set out all full of ambition and caffeine, and then something unexpected happens. One minute, you were practicing a card trick, and the next, you’re feeding loaves and fishes to the multitude.

The aptly named poem “These Arms of Mine” outlines an imaginative experience that the poet has with the gut-busting Otis Redding tune of the same name.  There, the author becomes the singer in that the poem ends with the poet crooning the lyrics from Redding’s song.  There, music and the poetry become unified.  What is the significance of this?  Is it that the singer is speaking for the writer in some way?  Why Otis Redding?

If the gods said, okay, you get to steal anybody’s stuff, who wouldn’t want to steal Otis’s? Besides, the gods don’t have to give us permission. Steal, brothers and sisters, but steal the best.

Your last book was titled Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll (Continuum, 2009).  You seem to have an affinity for the man responsible for “Tutti-Frutti,” and so much so that your new book begins with the poem “Talking about Jesus with Little Richard.”  In that poem, you go to a Little Richard show and find yourself wondering what the musician keeps in a small black bag.  When you finally get near the black bag, you write, “Up close, it looks a lot more ordinary than it had/ before.”  Can the same be said for artists who achieve stardom? 

Oh, yes, absolutely. I’ve met a bunch of them, and they all have that carapace of stardom wrapped around them, but if you say the right thing, suddenly they’re your next-door neighbor. One tip: if you’re talking to a woman in show biz and you know her kids’ names, ask how they’re doing. Every woman likes to brag about her kids. Of course, if her kids are in rehab. . . .

As the poem ends, you make the promise to Jesus ironically to “stay close” to Little Richard, and you write in the penultimate line, “I will know him.”  “Talking about Jesus with Little Richard” focuses on the musician himself and not on the music the musician makes.  Why is that?  Why must the poet really “know him?”   

I didn’t really mean know as in personally or socially; I meant knowing a great person, an influence, as completely and totally as possible. What’s the best part of this person? What’s the worst? Really, what makes him or her tick? Because that brings us back to theft: just as you can steal an artist’s moves, you can also model yourself on the parts of that person that made him or her an artist in the first place.

In Richard’s case, it’s understanding how he grow up poor and black and crippled and gay in a little town nobody ever heard of and how he both built on and abandoned all that to become somebody who changed the world. When you understand Richard’s hunger and ambition and, mainly, his ability to adapt himself to his circumstances, you learn things you yourself can use.

Of course, you can only learn so much. Everyone is unknowable, and the monsters of our cultures are even less knowable than the rest of us. I mean “monster” in a positive sense, of course, in the way that Napoleon and Beethoven are monsters, that is, a whole hell of a lot bigger and more complicated than you and me. In the end, we can’t know them. But we have to try.

I imagine you have seen many bands, both good and bad, play live.  When I saw you read at San Diego State University in March of 2011, you charged the audience with emotion and laughter, something which doesn’t often happen at a typical poetry reading.  What advice can you give to beginning poets about how they might deliver a memorable poetry performance?  How might a poetry performance be similar to a live concert?

Thank you – oh, man, you’re slinging the compliments like an out-of-town businessman in a singles bar!

The main thing you have to realize is that poetry reading is show biz. It’s not an Aerosmith concert, but twenty or a hundred people have come to see you when they could have been doing something else, so you should entertain them. That doesn’t mean you act silly or do slapstick; it means you give them a good show.

So a couple of things. One is to set the reading up like a concert. Start big! Hit them with something high-energy. Keep that up for two or three poems, and then you can segue into the slow stuff – this would be the part of a concert where the lead singer might do some acoustic ballads, say. Here, remember to slow down. The silences are just as important as the words. A writer like Bob Butler or a singer like Otis Redding will make you wait, make you want it. Give your audience time to feel their hearts break, to feel them come back together again. Then speed up! Setting and changing tempo will keep your listeners listening.

The second thing is rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. When bluesman Big Bill Broonzy was on the road in the sixties, there weren’t many hotels that took black guests, so he stayed with promoters. Bill loved kids (and vice versa), and he’d always sing them to sleep. But the amazing thing is that he’d rehearse: he’d always go to his room and go over the songs he was going to sing, even though his audience consisted of a single three year-old.

I read to an audience of two people once, and on a couple of occasions, I’ve read to eight hundred. Doesn’t matter if there’s ten or a thousand of you, though; you get the same show.

MORE DAVID KIRBY

Buy Talking about Movies with Jesus here at the Louisiana State University Press website.  The site also contains a short description of the book and a short author biography. Customers also have the choice of buying either a CLOTH or PAPER copy of the collection.

Enjoy the poem “Talking about Jesus with Little Richard” here at Poetry Daily. This is the first poem in Talking about Movies with Jesus and is referenced in two of the questions above.

Find a full publication list and a list of honors and awards Kirby has received here at his Florida State University Department Faculty page.

Read an article about Kirby’s life as a poet here. In it, Kirby discusses traveling and the business side of poetry.

Examine the New York Times archives page for other articles written by David Kirby here.