Interview by Laura Minor
James Kimbrell was born in Jackson, Mississippi. He has published three volumes of poetry all with Sarabande Books, The Gatehouse Heaven, My Psychic, and Smote, and was co-translator of Three Poets of Modern Korea: Yi Sang, Hahm Dong-Seon, and Choi Young-Mi (Sarabande, 2002). His work has appeared in magazines such as Poetry, The Cincinnati Review, Ploughshares, Field, The New Guard, and Best American Poetry, 2012. He been the recipient of the Discovery / The Nation Award, a Whiting Writer’s Award, the Ruth Lilly Fellowship, the Bess Hokin Prize from Poetry magazine, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and, most recently, a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation. He currently resides in Tallahassee where he teaches in the English department at Florida State University.
Jimmy Kimbrell: Hey old friend, let’s jump right in! The people want to know!
Laura Minor: I felt like Smote was something slow grown, a simmering meditation on your origins and familial development as a poet. There is a feeling of supplication and gratitude in the wake of loss. Do you feel like Smote is a prayer, a thanks, or a goodbye … or is it all three rolled into one?
A prayer, a thanks, or a goodbye hmmm? … maybe a little bit of all. If there’s a prayer, it’s a prayer for understanding, especially in the wake of grief and loss. But also on the more fundamental level, just a prayer for an understanding of the past. I mean, growing up in Mississippi, there are so many things that didn’t make sense to me. And little did I know then, that it would be my job for the rest of my life to try to make sense of them. But here we are! If there’s a goodbye, certainly there is a sense of farewell to people that recur, characters from my past that recur in the book that are no longer physically present, and so there’s a certain elegiac feel to a lot of the poems, sometimes more explicitly than in others. But, I’m not terribly good at goodbyes. Even the gesture is a continuation of a conversation, and I may never finish that conversation. In some ways, I hope not to. But also, it’s a goodbye to old ways of seeing the world, old ways of thinking, that were maybe limiting in some way, you know, ways of thinking about your individual possibilities, and a goodbye perhaps, to some of the myths that we construct out of our past in order to fabricate an identity.
Do you feel that Smote kind of set you free a bit?
Yes. The past can be a very (pause) … and walking around with it can be somewhat of a Sisyphean task. And to bring that past into light and to work with it, to shape it into an aesthetic order is in some ways a lightening process, which is to say: the past is no longer as burdensome. And I guess that’s what I’m getting at when I’m talking about understanding. Not that I achieve anything like a complete understanding or a complete reconciliation, but that process is the journey that the speaker is on in the book. And that process is the forward momentum.
This leads me to another question … You’ve done something very different with Smote. What led to this change on the page? In other words, do you think what life has handed you in the last decade has informed the way you approach a narrative versus in Gatehouse Heaven or My Psychic?
That’s a really interesting question. I mean, I think early on in my writing days, back in my twenties, I had an inherent resistance to narrative, and maybe this was because I had originally wanted to become a fiction writer. So, when I had the conversion experience of becoming a poet, the last thing I wanted to do was to write a narrative. As I began writing more autobiographically, narratives begin to take shape almost of their own volition. And I think at some point, I became curious about what would happen if my resistance to narrative was abated somehow, so I can kind of let myself go with it. If the poem started taking a narrative turn, then I let it take that turn. But I hope you can see in some of the poems, the ways in which the narratives head into directions that you might not expect. And I think that’s a result of both the resistance to and the reconciliation with narrative. So, I never want a narrative to dictate the terms and total movement of a poem. I see narrative really as an organizing factor and a meaning-making exercise.
Talking about the way the last ten years of your life factored into the writing of Smote, we’ve spoken before on quality over quantity in publishing. I know I took a decade off from poetry and music, so that I could live, love, and grieve to prepare myself for the next stage of life, the next record, and this first book of poems. One could say that time is the only true measure of one’s life in scope and that time measures grief, growth, love, and forgiveness. For you, how much of that ten years factored into the writing of Smote … taking that time?
Yeah, you know, after my second book came out … This was right around the time of Hurricane Katrina. Apart from the calamity of the hurricane itself, there were many life-changing things that came out of that as well … My father was in a home for mentally disabled veterans about 30 miles east of New Orleans. Of course they lost everything, so he moved in with me. I was a single father. My father’s cancer came back within the space of a few months. Both of my sisters were diagnosed with cancer and so it was a disorienting and all-consuming process for me, lots of driving back-and-forth to Gainesville to chemotherapy, me and my dad trying to talk about things and trying to not talk about other things, and at the same time it really began to wake me up to the fact that, and I know this sounds like a cliché, but to life’s brevity and to the importance of my relationships with people in my family, relationships that when I was younger I took for granted. So, I stopped taking a lot of things for granted. I slowly started noticing a heightened and sometimes uncomfortable perception with regard to just my daily life and especially with regard to my interactions with other people, especially the people I love, that caused me to rethink quite a few things about how I wrote as well as how I lived my life when I wasn’t writing.
Grief is a crazy train.
It is a crazy train. And I think about Keats and the “vale of soul-making.”
And so this idea took on a very new dimension for me and a new reality because it felt like something which I was living and not merely reading. And the thing is that my wife, my daughter, and now my stepdaughters, they call me to a higher purpose beyond my own more selfish needs and desires, and that really has made a major difference in my life. Before I had the kind of love in my life that I have now, I had a lot of love from my parents. But now I have love and responsibility, and if you can find those two elements together it has the power to transform you.
The hardest job you’ll ever love! But now, of your first book, Charles Wright wrote, “Kimbrell sings a serious song.…The poems are deft and sure, there is a sense of vision in them, and I have the feeling that this is the start of something significant.” But Smote is quite funny too. I’ve always felt that humor had a place alongside grief in poetry. How should one treat humor in poetry?
Yeah, I think what Charles Wright says there, the thing that I always paid attention to in that statement was the word ‘vision’. What does it mean to have a vision, an approach to life, an orientation toward life, and a hope for life? There’s a futurity built into the word ‘vision’. And, I think that this is part of what we talk about when we talk about voice. It’s something that happens organically, even though we have to will ourselves to sit in the chair to write, there is an accumulation of those moments that go toward something that’s beyond our will. And I see, often times, humor as a vital part of that. I don’t see humor as something necessarily frivolous or less important. In fact, for myself and for my sister, when we were kids, it was a survival mechanism. It kept us sane, and it provided a kind of buffer for us. And it assuaged our anxiety about what was going on in our family, about the situation we were in, my father’s alcoholism and mental illness. I think about a poem in my last book, a section of this long poem for my mother, where my sister and I were shopping for an urn for her ashes and you know we were doing this in a mall because the funeral home prices were outrageous. And we didn’t think mom would like them anyway. So we were going to places like Pier 1 and the Bombay Tea Company, and they would ask us, “What exactly are you looking for?” And of course we explained it, which would freak them out, and the jokes just kept coming. This is just an example of how humor brought us together even as it separated us from the world beyond our family, but I also think, in poems, it has a disarming effect on the reader. It has a relaxing effect, and it increases receptivity to a broader emotional scale that goes beyond humor. So humor itself is not really the end; it’s more a part of how we move forward, how we stay sane, how we comfort each other, how we make light of our deepest fears in order to even begin comprehending them. I also think that, you and I have known each other for a while, and you know that there’s not going to be too many minutes that go by in our conversation that I’m not going to try to say something that’s funny, whether it’s funny or not. And so, at some point, after writing for a while, you want to get more personality onto the page. And of course, at some point, it’s not about your personality, it’s the personality of the poem. If that’s how you think, if you think through humor, if you process emotion through humor, it wouldn’t make sense to leave it out of the poem.
Yes! We have known each other for some time now. We both love writing and performing music. Now, we know that songwriters have always been obsessed with writers, and writers have always been obsessed with songwriters. Here’s a three-part question: Does your love of music inform your process? And do you think songwriting is the true sister art to poetry vs. painting? I know that I’ve struggled for years trying to strike a balance, but do you feel like to be a poet in the great tradition, one has to be conversant with music?
I don’t know that one has to be. But it is certainly a part of my life that I wouldn’t want to live without. I think that they’re all very much connected. But in my own personal experience, sometimes we need something to prime the pump. I can remember once in Rita Dove’s workshop at the University of Virginia, she brought in a box of crayons, just passed them out with blank paper and said, “Get to work!” It was great for relaxing the critic at least long enough to get going. I got into the habit in the mornings before I’d start writing, especially if I didn’t know what I was going to write that day, I would start with crayons or colored pencils, drawing pictures without any preconceived idea, just to see where it took me. And then, when I finished the drawing I would name it. I’ve always been fascinated in art galleries and museums, not only by the paintings and works of art themselves, but by what they’re titled. Sometimes they’re just wonderful! So the titling of the drawing leads you into the verbal sphere, and you move from the drawing to the poem. And it exercises that part of your mind that understands reality through pictures, through the scenic aspects of memory. For that reason, it’s vital. Music, I think does something similar in that it bypasses certain filters, certain emotional filters, and it stimulates all the memories. You know when you hear a song from a particular time that was popular, in a particular summer … when you hear that song, you don’t just hear the song, you smell the suntan lotion, you taste the chicken sandwich that you ate that day, you can hear the ocean, the gulls, the voices of the people that were around you. It all comes flooding back in a very Proustian fashion. The other aspect about performing, practicing, writing music, for me is that it’s a much more physical process, especially when we’re talking about the guitar that you and I are so crazy about. Inasmuch as it’s a physical process, it requires something more than thought. You can’t think your way into it or think your way out of it. It’s an experience that is physical, and I think that also is important in poetry, to say nothing of the lyrical effects of the language on the page. The physical experience of playing music is a natural segue out of and into the writing of a poem.
Yeah, they’re similar in the sense of just “Demons be gone!” Got to get them out somehow! Writing is so much more cerebral. When I’m singing or playing, it feels like I’m having an exorcism.
Yes! And the bottom line, especially with music, because it is such a physical process, is that you can only take so much private despair. Picking up a guitar, singing a song, even if only for yourself, it eases that despair. Inasmuch as the blues can be healed, it’s by singing the blues. It gives you somewhere to go with it, and it lightens it, and it allows you to escape the constant bombardment of thought. I think part of the fundamental aspect of despair is that it feels so immobilizing and paralyzing. And music is all about movement, and so it hoes a new row so to speak; it loosens the ground, it lubes the wheel, it cranks the tractor, and we’re off to the races! And despair is somewhere in the rearview mirror looking like an ill-mannered hitchhiker that’s no longer welcome.
(Laughing) Okay, onto something a bit more serious.
(Laughing) Oh I thought that was serious!
I could talk about music all day with you! Got to give people what they want!
Well, you think about a song like Bill Callahan’s “Cold-Blooded Old Times.” To me, that song works on me very much like a poem does. I mean, you have the repetition, you have the storytelling, the irony, and you have the lyricism …
And it’s heightened by the chord progressions right?! So when we call a songwriter like Bob Dylan a poet, his response is No, I’m actually not. There is a difference between lyrics and poetry. And I think the songwriter Jason Isbell just said this in a recent interview as well.
That’s right, in the past, when I’ve gone through periods of more songwriting than poetry… I did this because someone challenged me to take something I’d written in a poem and put it in a song. And it was not going to happen for me; I would much rather start from scratch because by the time I finish a poem, that music is so encoded in the language that it feels like a little bit of a traffic jam. I think maybe if I were trying to set someone else’s poem to music that might not be the case. But I think somehow through this process of trying to assemble, disassemble, and reassemble language into a poem without the assistance of instrumentation, we begin to hear music inside the language, and so to try to adapt that for me seemed like trying to listen to two different songs at the same time. I’m still interested in it, but I think that they are very different in significant ways and they’re very similar in significant ways. And you begin to get a first-hand experience with that when you’re working in both areas at the same time. Don’t get me wrong, I have spent much less time writing music than reading and writing poetry. But, I just have huge respect for songwriters.
Who do you think translates well to the page? I know that for me, Leonard Cohen and Elliott Smith read a bit like poetry.
Definitely those two. I would also I would say Bill Callahan. Also, I would say some of the earlier, more surreal lyrics of R.E.M., Wendell G., that kind of stuff. Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon…just terrific lyrics.
Springsteen loved Flannery O’Connor! And Tom Waits!
Yes, also a lot of the Mississippi blues tradition. Willie Brown. Robert Johnson. Muddy Watters. B.B. King, R.L. Burnside, right on up to the more recent work of rapper David Banner. You can’t deny these lyrics, just powerful, moving.
Oh, Robert Johnson’s “Phonograph Blues!” Smote also reads like a meditation on and a response to Major Jackson’s 2007 essay, “A Mystifying Silence: Big and Black,” in which Jackson calls for a change in the way poets address and incorporate race into their work. I feel that, at the heart of Smote, you want to answer this call and have begun a dialogue with your own coming-of-age narrative where you weave a transparency about race, as you experienced it in Mississippi, into the poems. Did the essay have an impact on Smote?
Oh sure! You know, early on, in just writing about my experience, issues of race came up and were always on my mind, but after I read Major’s essay … you have to keep in mind when I read it … I came to this essay because I found the copy of American Poetry Review where it appeared in the house where I was living in Oxford Mississippi as a Grisham fellow. So, I was back and living in Mississippi for the first time since my early twenties. I grew up partly in rural Mississippi and partly in urban Jackson, right, in a predominantly African-American neighborhood. I was maybe one of three white kids in my elementary school class. So, that means, you know, that many of my neighbors, my friends and playmates growing up were African-American. You know when I read Major’s essay, it was like a light going off inside me and it made me have an overwhelming sense of love for my old friends and our neighborhood, and this need to revisit that love and to express it. I think that Major did a great service to all of us in writing that essay.
And that brings me to this next point. Let’s talk about the last year for poetry in regards to race, the several Internet-fueled controversies and outcries regarding how certain poets have treated race in their poems has been very public this year (I can think of at least five explosive examples). Where do you think we are? Because that article was published in APR in 2007, almost ten years ago.
… In one of my classes my, students asked me questions about this and I said You know, you need not think about it necessarily so much as an issue of race in the abstract. Think about in terms of your own experience, your shared history. Most of them didn’t feel that they had enough experience beyond their own group, enough of a background beyond their own demographic to write about. In the same way that when I was teaching English in Korea, and one of my Korean students asked me “What is the percentage of African-Americans in the United States?” And I said, “Ohhhh I don’t know, about 40 percent??” And one of my American colleagues was like “No! No! Jimmy’s wrong! He has no idea, he’s from Mississippi! He has no idea what’s going on in the rest of the country.” Ha! You know, it’s true. I didn’t travel out of the deep South until I was eighteen and that was to a military base in Indiana. I realized that things are different where I’m from. And while there were certain obstacles I had to overcome when I left Mississippi, there were certain gifts that you are also granted, and one of the gifts that I was granted was the gift of living around people that were different from myself. Whether by virtue of race or class, or whatever. And I think that we’ve seen some controversy recently, often times for good reason. I see it as necessary growth, maybe growing pains.
I think that there is so much history that we’re finally processing, trying to come to terms with … I think there’s a sense among many people that transcends any particular group that We have to do this in order to move forward as an artistic community, and as a nation, and just as human beings who want to evolve!
And so I don’t expect that evolution and the conversations around it to be anything easy…I don’t expect them to be neat.
Or safe or comfortable for everyone all the time.
That’s right, sometimes things get messy in the same way that when you’re pouring your heart out to someone in a moment of crisis, and you’ve got snot all over your face … it has to get messy before it gets better. And the thing is … is that we have to be willing to make ourselves vulnerable.
Yes, and I think that’s what Major Jackson wanted.
Good! I know you are pretty well versed in the Romantics, but I think we want to know what poets were you reading when you wrote Smote? Who was influencing you during all this time?
Oh boy that’s a good question! I wrote it over a number of years, so I was reading a lot of different people. I have been teaching a survey of British Romanticism at Florida State for years, so I’m always going back to the Romantics. And not just Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, and Keats, but Felicia Hemans, Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, and Dorothy Wordsworth. Certainly, in my mind I’m having conversations with these people. I’m reading and rereading them. But I’m also reading more contemporary poets: Frank Bidart, Rodney Jones, Terrance Hayes, Louise Glück, Levis and Hass, John Koethe… poets that are creating poems that bring together emotion and intellect and that broaden the possibilities. There are poets, poets that have written about Mississippi, that I return to again and again for that and for so many other reasons not related to homesickness: Etheridge Knight, T.R. Hummer, Frank Stanford, Margaret Walker Alexander (the first poet I ever saw read!), Brooks Haxton, Natasha Trethewey. I’m fascinated by the work of Korean poet, Ko Un. I keep going back to the work of Czeslaw Milosz—Second Space blew me away. Also Nazim Hikmet. I taught a course on the modern long poem and started with Homer to lay the groundwork and fell in love all over again, ditto Ovid. Went on several binges of James Schuyler. And, of course, poets that were former students and are now writing at a level far beyond what I may have imparted in the classroom, poets like Kerry James Evans and Jane Springer. We’re always exchanging poems, reading and responding to each other’s work.
There is a lot of raw emotion in Smote, which is one of the things that initially arrested me. I’m a fan of that vulnerability on the page. Now, it seems that there are more poets writing and publishing than ever before, and you just won a Guggenheim (Congratulations!) In regards to prizes, money, and jobs–it gets a little discouraging to the up-and-coming. Do you have any advice for poets at the beginning of their career?
Well nobody is born with a bunch of awards, at least not to my knowledge. I think it’s important to keep it in perspective. We’re each living out the story of our own life, and each of those stories has a hero or a heroine. And if you think about the way these stories go, there is always a separation, an initiation, and a return. And in the initiation process, you come upon certain gifts. It could be a pair of ruby red slippers. It could be a golden sword. It could be something that you’re really going to need when the initiation gets rough. And that’s how I see prizes. They’re not the destination. They’re gifts that you’re given in order to get to the destination.
Right … along the way, and it keeps you going!
That’s right, they’re nothing to be big-headed about. If you’ve been given the ruby red slippers, you’re not going to get much use of them if you just sit in your room and look at them, and think about how great you are. You have to click your heels!
…put them on the shelf and keep going! That’s a good way of thinking about it.
So awards you know, they won’t help us teleport or slay a Dragon, but metaphorically, that’s exactly what they do. And they do that through encouragement. And they do that, sometimes in a very real sense, in terms of allowing us time, which of course is a crucial ingredient. And, they do it by allowing us to be strengthened by a larger community of artists, which is very important given how solitudinous this business can be, the business of writing that is.
Speaking of the Guggenheim, the foundation must have been very impressed with what you’ll be working on next. What’s the next book Jimmy?
I’m working on a book right now titled Flea Trap! Ha! Without showing you the title poem, I’ll give you a little background. I was living in South Mississippi in a pretty rundown place; this was the summer before I was getting ready to go to the University of Virginia. My girlfriend at the time, with whom I’d been living, was in a mental hospital, so I was pretty much there by myself in an un-air-conditioned apartment in South Mississippi. It had a really serious flea infestation, and so through a series of experiments, I arrived at the ultimate flea trap, which consisted of a pan of shallow water, a couple squirts of Dawn, and a lamp placed next to the pan. The fleas jumped towards the heat of the bulb, and would land in the soapy water. And that’s where they’d stay. The idea is one of probing, not only the space between the past and the future, which is sort of where I was that summer. It was my last summer in Mississippi before leaving into a broader world, but also that space between what we call sanity and what we call insanity … and also that space between what we call hard times, and what we call escape. Most of these newer poems tend to be located in that zone of transition. And the title itself is kind of cartoonish I guess. It has a bit of humor built into it. But I like the way that it positions me to move into a larger group of poems, and it may be that I’ve said just enough to completely ruin the thing. Ha! But we’ll find out and if we have to throw the baby out we will, but right now that’s what we’re going with!
(Laughing) All right now! Thank you for your time!
(Still laughing) You’re so welcome!
Laura Minor is the recipient of the 2016 Emerging Writers Spotlight Award at Florida State University, chosen by D.A. Powell. Her poetry has most recently appeared in Hobart, Spring Gun Press, Bicycle Review, Trivia, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Sixers Review, and Lungfull. She was a Teacher’s College Fellow at Columbia University, the recipient of the Sarah Lawrence Poetry Award, and a finalist for Steel Toe Books & Pudding House Press. A celebrated singer-songwriter, she is also currently working on a third record (forthcoming in summer 2016) while she finishes her debut book of poems as a doctoral candidate in poetry at Florida State University.