Award-winning poet James Kimbrell discusses finding form in the Marianna Caves, the force of love, and bait shrimp as spiritual ligature.
TRANSCRIPTION (by Michael McDermit)
Ben Evans: I’m Ben Evans and you’re listening to Fogged Clarity. This morning, I’ll be speaking with the gifted poet James Kimbrell. Kimbrell has published three collections of poetry, including 1998’s The Gatehouse Heaven—selected by our current poet laureate Charles Wright for the Kathryn A. Morton Prize; 2006’s My Psychic; and his most recent book, Smote, published just last year. His many awards include an NEA fellowship and a Whiting Writer’s Award, and his poems and reviews regularly appear in Poetry, Pleiades, The Nation and Meridian, among other journals. He currently serves as a professor of Creative Writing at Florida State University. James, welcome. Thank you for taking the time.
James Kimbrell: Thank you, Ben. It’s a pleasure to talk with you.
BE: Your most recent book, Smote feels channeled—not only in its intensity and interwoven narrative, but in its freedom: the intuitive line breaks, the shift within individual poems from the prosimetric to more conventional lineation, and the assemblage of voices enacted by bisection and italics. Are you able to achieve this freedom because of a deep rooting in craft? That is: Are your wings spread in Smote because you’re confident in the learn-ed feathers and fibers that spun them; or are they spread because they’re spread and gravity be damned?
JK: Man, that’s a great way to put it. Maybe a little bit of both, I think. I’ll tell you, the other day I was with my wife in Marianna, which is not too far from Tallahassee, and she’s an attorney, so she was meeting with a client; so while I was waiting for her I took a little daytrip over to the Marianna caves. You go into these caves and–you’ve probably been in a cave before–there are these straws that form before they’re stalactites, they’re just straws. They’re hollow in the center; the water comes down and then eventually the water starts flowing on the outside which creates a solid rock and then it can form a column as it goes all the way down to the ground. Well, that growth of that straw into a stalactite into a column happens at about one inch for every hundred years. You sit there and you look at it, and you think: “What an incredible way to witness the passage of time, and the creation of form.” Because it’s a shape–it’s hollow on the inside and that shape starts to change. But what creates that shape and form organically is repetition–of dropping water, of water through a particular porous passage in the rocks. I think if you have a force, a voice, a statement, on the one hand, that may seem not terribly formally coherent–if it goes through a passage over time, form starts to work its own magic. It doesn’t end up being forced; it ends up being something that comes out of the repetition of a certain action over a period of time. I think the poems happen that way. I mean I still count syllables, I still count stresses at some point during just about every poem’s composition. But I also have the sense that there is a best possible shape for any given poem, and that if I keep listening to it and keep fiddling with it, that shape will manifest itself. Then it’s just a matter of getting out of the way, and letting that happen, and trying to be sensitive to it, maybe above and beyond what my intentions might have been for the poem. In this way the poet steps out of the shadow of his/her intentions or hopes or ambitions for it and it becomes its own presence. I think that helps lend itself to form as well. It’s like the way a child turns into an adult.
BE: Did you see that happening in Smote?
JK: Yeah, I think so. Gradually. But it took, more so than in anything else that I’ve written, a higher degree of tolerance for the disordered. There’s this great essay by one of my former teachers, Gregory Orr, in a book that came out with the Michigan “Poets On Poetry” series. I believe it came out around ’92-’93. It’s called “Richer Entanglements”; in it Gregory says that in some ways every poem is an argument between order and disorder. I think that disorder had the better half of that argument in the writing of this book, for a longer time than I was accustomed to. There were parts of poems that belonged to other poems; for years so much of it seemed to me to be grazing off in the back pasture of my intention. The poems didn’t seem terribly concerned with my need to get them into any kind of presentable shape. So the lesson for me was patience and not trying to force anything, but also being on standby for any possible connection or any kind of magnetic pull between sections that might want to come together. It seemed like in the last year of writing the book–and it wasn’t until the last year of writing–I’d have several days or weeks in a row where things that seemed really astray really started coming together and started taking shape and hooking up and making sense; taking shape and form in a way that it hadn’t. Boy, you talk about a rush, especially after being with it in a disordered state for so long. It was a long-term gestation. It was different for me; it really was. Certainly, in my younger days, in writing my first book, I was much less capable of letting things remain in that intermediate state. I remember once, when I was at the University of Virginia taking a workshop with Rita Dove, and she told me explicitly–of course she was encouraging and nice about it–she encouraged me not to be in such a hurry to put the polish and glaze on a piece, to let it breathe a little bit, and let it find its shape and not try to whip it into some sort of finished state too soon because you might cut the poem off from certain possibilities that could really bring it up to another level.
BE: Absolutely. I think so often we equate organic development with something expedient that comes like leaves to a tree, but it can be over time and sporadic.
JK: That’s right. You think about that one-inch for every hundred years. That really kind of puts things in perspective because you’re sitting there looking at one of these cave straws that’s about a yard long and you’re going “Okay, there’s three thousand years right in front of me.” We can go back to the Renaissance and that covers about the first two inches. It telescopes time in a way that personally I find very liberating. Time doesn’t seem like this big burden of armor that you carry trudging up the hill. It’s not a Sisyphean feat just to consider it. You don’t feel the weight of all that time. It feels more fleet somehow.
BE: It is indeed a human construction. You need not feel it all.
JK: Correct. That’s right.
BE: The dynamic of Smote is so fascinating to me—because it begins with a poem like “Free Checking” with you, perhaps half-jokingly, flirting with the concept of transcendence, a stripping away of banality and self–but two poems later we get the poem “How to Tie a Knot” and this line: “Now the sand crane dive-bombs the surf / of his own enlightenment because everything / is bait and lust and hard-up for supper.” This is such a key line to me because it acknowledges the human reluctance to being content in contentment; growing restless in one’s achieved peace, and how our perceived wants encroach again and again on sustained wisdom. And from this poem forward, it seems you do in fact, tie the very knot that the collection then subsequently works to untangle through investigations of personal history. James, I’ve been asking this a lot lately: do we need conflict to create beauty, does the artist, at times, invite conflict in order to engender beauty?
JK: That’s a good question. I don’t know if I’ve ever thought about it in terms of necessity. I don’t know that we need it; it does seem, to some degree, inescapable–what we’re calling conflict. I also think that we might have some preconceived ideas about conflict that are more negative than they ought to be. If we look at the idea of contraries in Blake, for instance. “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” does a good job of delineating conflicting impulses. Or “The Songs of Innocence and Experience”–delineating different stages of human consciousness or human development. But these states and polarities don’t operate in isolation–they gain their meaning by their reference to each other. In the poem “How to Tie a Knot”, for instance, it literally came out of this experience after I’d won the NEA, and so I took a couple of working vacations on a barrier island not too far from Tallahassee, and the idea was to go out there and get some writing done, and also to absorb what had been a very rapid experience until then. So much had changed so quickly. I was trying to come to terms with everything around me. Of course, you find on the island what you take to the island. That distillation process of focusing more intently on hearing that voice and putting words down on a page–it takes place, but it also takes place at the same time when one needs to eat or sleep. There are these things that the body requires us to do and somewhere in between the physical demands of being alive and the spiritual drive to focus and hone one’s attention; these poems happen in that relationship. There is a conflict there, but I don’t see the conflict necessarily as a negative thing. I think that’s what came out of that experience and, for instance, there’s a lot of self-acceptance that can come out of conflict–or at least the recognition of conflict. When you recognize conflicting impulses within yourself, you can spend a lot of time trying to repress one impulse for the sake of the other, whereas you might just accept both of them. Instead of trying to “fix yourself”, just decide to work with what you have. Maybe you don’t need to become this different person; maybe you don’t need to be perfect; maybe who you are is what you need to be. Start with that. So many people in life, including myself, put off doing things they want to do because they haven”t become the person yet that they want to be. And that may never happen. Life is short. Better get started; better not wait for the perfect person and that standard; better just drive the car you got. You might get a little farther.
BE: Damn right. Will you do me a favor and read that poem, “How to Tie a Knot”?
JK: Sure, yeah. Like I said, the poem, I’m worried when I first started that this was so abstract, and then I thought that it seemed too allegorical and set in a particular place, and it’s really about a spiritual issue, but all the details in it are very literal. There is actually a video store called Long’s Video Store on this island. Anyway, here’s the poem… (Reads “How to Tie a Knot”)
BE: Damn, James. It’s all there.
JK: I wrote the first ten lines out there on St. George Island in 2005–the winter after Katrina. I remember my dad was with me; he had been living about sixty miles west of New Orleans, and they lost everything in Katrina, so he came to live with me, and he was out there with me. Anyway, I got about the first ten lines of it, then it just stopped, and I couldn’t figure it out. I loved the tone; there was something about it that I couldn’t let go, yet I couldn’t quite move forward with it, either. It starts off on a heady note; this repetition that gets a little incantatory, and then it reminds me–I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to fly a drone, but one of my daughter’s got a little remote-controlled one for Christmas, and it’s a lot harder to fly than you think. You’re just sailing along and then all of a sudden–PLOP–man, it just smacks on the ground. That’s kind of what the poem did. I’m gettin’ some height on it, then–SLAM–it just slams on the ground. Then, this goes along with the self-acceptance thing–I was like, “alright, let’s just let it do that.” Then I headed out to the Island Quicky and got a ziplock bag full of bait shrimp and just decided to go with what might actually happen. Then, that conflict starts between the spiritual ambition on the one hand and the need for bait shrimp on the other. I said, “well, alright, let’s see how that works” and put what is really a spiritual impulse to the test of experience and see how it turns out there. It took a long time for me to get a final draft of that poem, and I remember talking to my wife when I got an email from “Best American Poetry” saying they wanted to run that poem. I tried to remember—I had kind of forgotten that I’d published it–turns out that I’d published it in “The Cincinnati Review” and since it had gotten published, I’d already changed it completely. It was unrecognizable. Anyway, I decided to go with the version “Best American” took, and defer to their judgment. That’s the version that ended up in the book.
BE: This speaks to the power of poetry because the micro–going to get bait shrimp, stepping away from the poem–blooms on the page, and becomes universal. Waiting is the work I’m waiting for–yes! It’s such a beautiful poem. It’s all there, as I said. James, I’ve been struggling with that: one-foot in enlightenment and the other foot on the ground and in reality. I think you address that dichotomy so beautifully and so accurately there. You did earlier in the conversation when you spoke to human need–we need to eat, we need to sleep–and I spoke to Martha Serpas about this. She has a poem: “Travel Slowly Back”, meaning, I think, from that enlightened state because one sometimes needs ballast to stay down here on earth.
JK: For me, it’s been something that’s been with me all along because when I was in college at Millsaps College in Jackson–it was a great school and I was a philosophy major and I got to indulge myself in developing my thought and becoming familiar with the history of thought, on the one hand. And then on the other hand, I’d have to go to my guard drills in the Army National Guard, or go out to my uncle’s farm and help bale hay. These were very different worlds: the world of the philosophy department and the world of the military. My experience felt very dissonant: how do I reconcile these completely different experiences within the same life; the experience of the solider on the one hand, the experience of the philosopher on the other. Another way of saying that is the experience of the body on the one hand, the experience of the spirit on the other. In the first book, and throughout all of them, really, you see that dialogue going on and informing it to find a way to speak to both sides of human experience. As you said, it’s all on the page: wanting to get the full experience there and wanting to create a poem that doesn’t require you to shut your eyes to half of your experience. This is what we love–or what I love, at least–about poets that are dear to me and poems that are dear to me is that they articulate something about experience for me that was, before that, only vaguely sensed. They somehow bring those senses and that experience into language, that goes toward remedying that sense of isolation that we all carry around with us, the separation and distance and alienation–and I mean that in a literal sense–of us walking around feeling like we are aliens, somehow different from all other humans, when we’re not. We’re all individuals, we’re all unique, but we’re more together than I think we believe for the most part. If that makes any sense.
BE: I ask this question: do you think human beings, as a species, have the capacity for mass, radical change? Or is large-scale change something that must occur organically through evolution? By change, I suppose I’m referring to what you were just talking about–to move away from ego towards selflessness and the embracing of oneness and the interconnectivity of all things.
JK: I don’t know if we’re capable of it or not. I think in some ways you can mark the progress of human evolution by the extent to which we have become capable of the getting outside of the confines of self-interest and ego and beyond that into a genuine care and concern and love for other people, other beings, other presences. As easy as it is to become jaded, I think I’m still fundamentally a very hopeful person. Why write at all if you’re not carrying around some degree of hope? Hope that there’s a reader, hope that there’s a way for human beings to mature and to get beyond the same mistakes that we seem to be making as a species over and over again: namely, killing each other and hating each other and despising each other because of religious or cultural differences or whatever. Obviously, it’s something we need to grow beyond, and there is something of a bit of a clock on it. There is a race against self-destruction that we’re all involved in, whether we realize it or not. I think that there are opposing forces, and it’s a real situation. But I feel hopeful about it. I really do.
BE: James, I feel a new consciousness taking hold on this earth; I really do. I’m very hopeful myself. Just the way in which things work, even in talking to you this morning–it’s amazing the similarity in experience. I played football at Colgate University and also studied under the preeminent Kantian philosopher Joseph Wagner. I, too, felt that intellectual tension, and hearing you articulate that is… I see affirmations everywhere I look these days and it’s really heartening. I wonder, given the intellectual distance you spoke to, and that you’ve traveled since leaving Mississippi, how do you regard the state, the culture, and community in which you grew up, right now, at this point in your life?
JK: Man, you know, on the one hand, I’m very proud of Mississippi; I’m proud of my friends there, of the things they’ve accomplished, whether it’s in writing or in community development. Surely, Mississippi is one of the most fertile places in the world, culturally speaking; in terms of its music, literature. I do think in terms of our history, race relations, we’ve come a really long way–on the one hand. On the other hand, there’s so much that’s difficult to swallow; the governor recently declared April “Confederate Heritage Month”, and I’m appalled, and I would assume that a good number of people in the state are also appalled that he would make this proclamation during Black History Month. It seems to me that “over the top” puts it lightly. I don’t know why I feel so surprised and shocked by this, but I do. I guess, it’s like you’re saying: you want to feel hopeful and you anchor yourself in that hope, and then you see a leader of the state coming out with a position like this. It’s very discouraging. But then, I talk with friends of mine back home, and I see the work they’re doing–building communities of writers and artists of all races and cultures–and I get really hopeful. I think that force is a healthier, a more sustainable one, and, ultimately will be a longer lasting force than the forces that want to proclaim April “Confederate Heritage Month”. I have to really hold on to that hope, because if I don’t, it’s too discouraging and bleak to even contemplate. Beyond what I want to see, what I would prefer to see, I genuinely believe this: that the force of love and tolerance and of mutual embrace is a stronger force. It will win, and there’s going to be some growing pains. I think we’re seeing a lot of that right now across the country, not just in Mississippi. Growing pains are inevitable when people start taking steps toward genuine dialogue. By genuine dialogue, I mean dialogue that requires you to become vulnerable, that requires you to reveal something about yourself, no matter what that revelation presents. There’s a growing pain there, and I think we’re all feeling those growing pains. I think that those growing pains are healthy–it can be healthy if we don’t allow the forces and voices that fear that kind of growth to have the final word. Fortunately for us, words are a business so we’re in pretty good shape. We probably will get the last word, if nothing else.
BE: Damn, James, you’re speaking truth because I just wrote the other day that what we’re experiencing now with Trump, it’s like the writhing of a disease that knows its end is near, it’s the last writhings. You’re right: love wins.
I’m wondering if you can point to a key moment in your life or your career as a poet where you had a chance to fall in line or slot into the norm, but chose otherwise? I ask this because, as I age, it feels as if one must become ever more vigilant of convention and protective of wonder. Do you believe there are necessary concessions to normalcy one must make in order to live in this world?
JK: Man, that’s a great question. When I was growing up, normalcy didn’t seem like an option that was available to me. My father served in the Korean War and was a jet engine mechanic, had a lot of exposure from atomic bombs and things and it did some serious damage to him; he got radiation poison which led to mental illness and alcoholism. They didn’t know there was a relationship between these until scientists did studies on people after Chernobyl. So growing up in a house that was dominated by mental illness and alcoholism, the rest of the world seemed normal; I just felt isolated from that; it didn’t seem like an option to me. I feel like I operated in a bit of a bubble for a long time. It wasn’t really until I had my own children that the need to embrace things like team sports, for instance, things that we take for granted, took hold. In that sense, normalcy, for me, was something I longed for when I was young, but then, let’s say when I got to college, for instance, and I didn’t join a fraternity right away, but then I did. There was a situation where a friend of mine who was an African American wanted to join the fraternity, and there were other people in the fraternity who didn’t want him to join because he was African American, so I suppose the normal thing to do might have been to go along with the status quo, but that didn’t happen. I ended up in conflict with a lot of people I considered to be my friends, and, turns out, maybe they weren’t. I guess that was a choice, a kind of crossroads where you are given a decision, where perhaps the normal path wasn’t the best one. That is probably an example of a case in which I chose against that. Normalcy–I value it in as much as I value community, which requires a norm, whether it’s on the linguistic level or whatever level. On the other hand, this quest for normalcy can become a discriminatory force; an exclusive force that squelches real possibility and real potential. In that sense, it’s something that I’ve had to resist in various situations over the years.
BE: James, it’s amazing because the older I get, the more I read, the more I study, it seems so much of what I was taught and came up believing is just patently wrong. Like, what I was taught to aspire to, like a job in which you sit at a desk and die just in order to have money to get by, what was portrayed as the American Dream is really just a stultifying cell that deadens creativity and imagination.
JK: Yeah, it’s more like the American Trap.
BE: It’s scary, man.
JK: Yeah. For instance, when I was growing up, we didn’t have a car and a lot of the times we didn’t have TV. And this wasn’t because my parents were freethinking hippies–we just didn’t have the money. When you live in a world where you have to have a car to get to your job, you have to have a job to afford your car, walking becomes a right that is threatened by the danger of automobiles. There are so many places where you can’t even walk safely anymore. You begin to see how normative behavior is really a choice. We choose to organize our society in this way, despite the fact that 48,000 people a year die in highway deaths, despite the fact that all these resources that we are burning up are killing our environment, despite the fact that all this human energy is wasted on this unnecessary motor travel. And I don’t mean to bash the automobile industry; I’m just using this as an example of ways that we find to trap ourselves. And usually, if you look deep enough, there’s gonna be some money somewhere in it. We stay there because there are people that stand to make a lot of profit off of things going the way they’re going. I don’t mean to bash capitalism–I also think that the drive for profit can be a force for positive change or at least the possibility of profit might sustain positive change. If we look, for instance, at the viability of alternative forms of energy–whether it’s solar, wind, or hydraulic–that they could sustain a profit means that we might actually see them as the primary sources of energy in our lifetime, whereas, if they were not potentially profitable, I wouldn’t hold my breath.
BE: The thing is, man, is that currency is something imagined. There’s no gold backing it anymore.
JK: It’s a trip, isn’t it? It’s funny that you say that; my sister was a big reader and writer when we were young, and I always wanted to go into business. It turned out that she went into business and I became the writer. We started thinking about how writing poetry or anything becomes a kind of currency. It’s a kind of counterfeit money, but still more real than actual money. It’s a currency that has its value inherent in it. There’s no gold backing it up, there’s no something backing it up at a bank in Fort Worth or anything. The gold is on the page. It’s the currency that is its own backing. Sadly, for most of us, it doesn’t really amount to a lot of money in any other way. Poetry cash is still pretty cool.
BE: What it amounts to are meaningful interactions like the one we’re having this morning, and the ones I have with so many friends. There’s just a number of poems in Smote that filled me with awe and gratitude for the possibility of shared intellectual and spiritual experience. It made me feel less alone.
JK: That’s great. That’s the goal. Just imagining that possibility when I’m writing makes me feel less alone and less isolated in my experience. So to hear you say that is as validating, if not more, than any number of prizes poets might win or anything like that. You can’t fake that. It either happens for you as a reader or it doesn’t. I appreciate the hell out of that, man. I really do.
BE: Why I felt that so much was because–what you were talking about earlier–the freedom in these poems; the absolute freedom. Yet they seem to move organically, and thank you for writing it, and thanks so much for talking today. I really enjoyed it.
JK: It’s my pleasure, Ben; I really enjoyed it. Thank you for all the good work you’re doing at “Fogged Clarity”. I think you guys are great. I always look forward to seeing the posts and seeing what’s going to be up there next. Keep it up, man. Good work.