An Interview With Kim Roberts
Kim Roberts is the editor of Beltway Poetry Quarterly. The author of two books of poetry, The Kimnama (Vrzhu Press) and The Wishbone Galaxy (WWPH), individual poems of hers are also included in numerous print anthologies, such as American Poetry: The Next Generation (Carnegie Mellon University Press), Cabin Fever (The Word Works, Inc.), Hungry As We Are (Washington Writers Publishing House), Poetic Voices Without Borders (Gival Press) and The First Yes: Poems About Communicating (Dryad Press), as well as CDs such as 31 Arlington Poets (Paycock Press) and Poetry Alive at Iota (Minimus Productions). She has published widely in literary journals throughout the US, as well as in Canada, Ireland, France, and Brazil.
Roberts is the author of six plays, three of which have had full productions, one a staged reading at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and two of which were published in 2006 in Ghoti Magazine. In addition, poems of hers have been set to music by an alternative rock band, Arc of Ones, and by classical composer Daron Hagen, and several have been choreographed by Jane Franklin Dance Company.
Roberts has been the recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the DC Commission for the Arts, and the Humanities Council of Washington, DC. She has been a writer-in-residence at eleven artist colonies: The Kimmel-Harding-Nelson Center for the Arts, Hidden River Arts, The Artists' Enclave at I-Park, New York Mills Arts Retreat, The Millay Colony for the Arts, The Mesa Refuge, Ragdale Foundation, Ucross Foundation, Blue Mountain Center, the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation of New Mexico, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.
They arrived before she did.
From where I sat, in a nook that wore warm, earthy tones, with my back staring at the sun standing outside the window, my eyes spying on busboys& poets, I saw them. The loose, vibrant curls scattered atop her head, each one alive, reaching, spreading, falling out, like ol’ Sis.
Jenkins when she catches the holy ghost some Sunday mornings.
The waiter seated Kim Roberts two tables next to me. She didn’t recognize me because we have never met. But I recognized her curls from a picture on her Web site.
I jokingly introduced myself as the person who was to interview her for the Howard University journal The Amistad.
I was nervous. My tongue tripped over my words whenever I opened my mouth. And I had no tape recorder. My pen and paper would have to catch all of her wisdom and experience. But my apprehension melted away with each word Kim Roberts spoke.
Her personality wore warm, earthy tones. She was relaxed and comfortable (she even eventually rested her bare feet on the chairs next to us). She sipped her decaffeinated coffee, and I my Big Daddy, an expresso with double teaspoons of sweetness covered in a frothy foam. Between sips I found out about the artistic inspiration behind her poems, her personal process for creating work, what she thinks are elements of successful poetry, and her new book that illuminates her experience in an exotic place.
BYF: In one of your two poems printed in this fall’s issue of The Amistad, “Mr. Jones Makes Poetry,” why did you choose to write a poem based on a painting by Rauol Hausmann?
KR: Last year I attended an exhibit at the National Gallery of Art called “Dada,” which traced the art movement through several countries: Germany, France, and the USA. I went back three or four times because the exhibit was so compelling. Most of the paintings were weird, strange, and all included disembodied figures. One of the times I went back, I found a painting with the title, “Mr. Jones Makes Poetry.” The word “poetry” drew me in. My poem is a description of what I saw. I used the painting as my starting point; I had not done any research about Hausmann.
BYF: From looking at the Hausmann poem, I originally thought that the man in the painting was the poet. If my interpretation is right, why was the poet reflected as inhuman? Or does the man in the painting represent a poet at all?
KR: To me, the painting reflected people’s reactions to World War II. The shock of how brutal and dehumanizing World War II had been on people was used to create surreal images, and many of the figures in paintings of that period have masks instead of faces or use mannequins rather than depicting real people. People aren’t cast in a heroic fashion, and the artist was responding to the violence of war and the growth of industrialization by creating these disembodied, almost inhuman, mechanical images. It’s the opposite of what one thinks poetry should represent. The painting reflects Modernism at its most vulnerable. The romantic, human view, with its most romantic ideals of love, is replaced by the new Modernist view, breaking down the ideals of earlier generations of poets. The poet is transformed into mechanics; the poem plays off of the painting. The poem is really an anti-Ars Poetica.
BYF: If an artist wanted to create a portrait titled “Ms. Kim Roberts Makes Poetry,” what would it look like?
KR: A portrait of me -- never! I would never let a picture like that be taken. But if there was one, it would be me, in bed, wearing my funky, torn pajamas, hair standing up all over my head, with a notebook. Wouldn’t that be a pretty picture? I try to save my mornings for writing. I am freshest in the morning.
BYF: Can poetry be made? What I mean by that is, can anyone learn to be a good poet, or does one need more than skill?
KR: Inspiration is not enough. What gets me are poets who don’t read. You have to read, and you have to read like crazy. We aren’t born knowing how to read and analyze poetry. To learn to read poetry, you have read everything, you have to read a huge range of poems and think critically about what you are reading. So, really, what you learn about the craft is more important than the inspiration. Inspiration is so unreliable. If there is no inspiration, what do you fall back on? You fall back on acquired skills.
BYF: What are your thoughts on formal poetry and free verse?
KR: I write both. But when writing formal poetry, I like the traditional forms that don’t look formal. You can read them and not recognize that it is following a form. (This is true for poems written in blank verse, or sapphics, for example, or forms such as the glosa or rimas dissolutas). I can’t wrestle free verse into formal poetry. I write free verse and it remains free verse or I write formal poetry and it either stays formal poetry or gets transformed in revisions into to free verse. I believe that even for poets who write exclusively free verse, it is good to also study aspects of formal writing. A weird thing happens. Because when you have to follow traditions (like rhyming and metrical patterns), you know what you write won’t sound like you. It gets me to talking in a new way. I like making things difficult for myself. I like the challenge. It makes you aware of the musical aspects of language. We need to stretch ourselves more.
BYF: When did you realize you were a poet? Were you one of those that knew what you wanted to do by age 3, like those who say “I want to be a doctor, a lawyer, an astronaut”?
KR: Starting from when I was very young, I was a musician and songwriter and interested in doing that. I didn’t think about being a writer until I was in college. I studied creative writing as an undergraduate at Emerson College, which is one of the few colleges that offers an undergraduate fine arts degree. I was studying fiction but would secretly write poetry. I showed a well-known, published poet on the faculty, Bill Knott, some of my poems, poems I had been writing in secret and shown to no one, and Lord knows what he saw in them, because they were not good. But he encouraged me to explore poetry. From then on I would go to his office sometimes as often as three times a week, and I remember him telling me, “read this, read that, have you read this?” It was very generous of him. So I sort of switched allegiances between undergraduate and graduate school. I got a BFA in fiction and an MFA in poetry.
BYF: In the second poem you submitted to The Amistad, “The Book,” was there a reason you chose to the title this poem with a specific article “The” instead of simply calling it “a” book?
KR: I don’t know how consciously I made that decision, but the word “the” is more specific.
With this poem, I was inspired to write after, again, looking at visual art. I was looking at some photographs of ruins of Greek temples. It occurred to me that in ancient art and architecture, we only know fragments of what once was. This is sort of a metaphor for artistic intent. Language is also flawed and fractured in what you get, so that was the starting point for me. Any bit of writing we read, we only get a tiny glimpse of what the real intent of the writer was. Hopefully some of the intent comes through to the reader. Meaning in any art form is made as a collaboration between the audience and the artist. This is the reason why art is powerful. We are interpreting. It’s active--we have to work to discover the meaning. But it’s also why it can be frustrating, because the tools of communication are poor and incomplete. They are fragments.
BYF: Why did you compare a book to an artifact?
standing in a field of rubble
whose ransacked gaps we work
to re-gather and mend
KR: The words art, artifact, and artificial all share the same root. All are made by imperfect humans. I tried to compare architecture to poetry here.
BYF: How did you become involved in different genres of writing, like writing plays and having poems set to music and productions?
KR: I was really just playing around and trying different artistic disciplines. I love to start a process that gets a whole army “directors, stage hands, actors, etc.” involved. Collaborating with others and seeing how different artists transform and interpret my work is fascinating. The collaborative process is different from the poetic process, so it is a nice break. I didn’t focus on creating work in these other genres; I just had friends who wanted to use my work, like Jane Franklin, who owns a dance company [Jane Franklin Dance Company], and I have worked with two composers, a rock musician and a modern classical composer.
BYF: How often do you go to museums?
KR: All the time. I love looking at visual art. In a way, it might be my jealousy of the form. I am not a visual person at all. Visual art is concrete. They get to deal with real things, like paint, and brushes, and for representational painters, painting what actually exists. Writing is abstract. There is nothing “table” about the word table. And I want the world to be in my poems. I believe the most vibrant writing connects to the concrete.
BYF: Does all successful poetry connect the concrete?
KR: I am going out on a limb here, but too much contemporary poetry is really abstract, especially those poems that focus solely on things like the poets suffering or [his or her] own experiences. I am not saying that a poem can’t be abstract, but it should mention a table--or something concrete. I think poets should aspire to create work that is particular and specific. My personal ideal poem is a poem that talks about something larger than us. Poems that point outward instead of inward.
BYF: What is your definition of Ars Poetica, or the Art of Poetry?
KR: Can you be more specific?
BYF: I am trying. What I am trying to ask is--?
KR: Are you asking me what I think poetry is?
BYF: Yeah, kind of. Let’s start with that question. If the question is specific enough to answer.
KR: Every artist has a process, no matter the art discipline or the form. But the form is what determines what our tools will be. Specifically with poetry, it is the most precise of the language arts in its ideal form. The language is heightened more than in other works, like fiction. It is hard to define. People can read a novel and see poetic prose. They can also read really bad poetry and know that it isn’t poetry. We can recognize it in contrast to what it is not. Poetry is not made by stanzas and lines on the page but by the heightened language of the work.
BYF: Can you elaborate on your own personal process for creating work?
KR: I give myself permission to create really, really bad work. Some of my poems are crappy and will never see the light of day. But I continue to work on a poem until I get one that is a keeper. Part of the process is allowing myself to write poetry that stinks. The other part of the process is revising. I have to spend a certain amount of time with a poem. There are some poems I have spent a year revising. I have spent no less than a couple of months on any of my poems. I have written some work that I thought, “I am genius, how did I think this up, this is wonderful, this is so clever,” but when I go back and read it, I realize it is terrible. The best writing happens over time, in revision and rethinking how clearly I stated things. The only witness to my bad work is my cat, and she is not telling.
The process for creating work for my friend Jane [Franklin] is a very public process. She works on dancer’s bodies. If something doesn’t work, sometimes you may not see it until rehearsal when the dancers are performing the moves. It is surprising to watch artists in other disciplines in that way. I don’t know that I could be that public with my process. And since we have become good friends, I get to see more of the raw parts of her creation in the studio. That is a privileged view.
The most wonderful thing about art in any form is what it can reveal about our obsessions. Most great artists keep examining the same themes time and time again. Some themes just stick with the poet. I think it’s important to honor our recurring obsessions.
As a poet I am learning to be a better perceiver, to look and listen more closely to life. A lot of our lives are spent walking around on auto-pilot. I create work, write in a journal, and carry a small notebook everywhere with me. If someone says something funny, I write it down. If someone says a word I don’t know, I write it down. It is interesting that I carry this notebook everywhere because it has made me hyperaware as I walk through the world; I pay better attention. Sometimes I am so in my own head that people are standing there calling me: “Kim, Kim.” So I have to remind myself to not only pay attention mentally but physically.
BYF: Is there anything else you want to include?
KR: My new book!
BYF: Yes, I had certainly intended to ask about that!
KR: At the beginning of the summer I published my second book of poetry, The Kimnama (Vrzhu Press), a book-length single poem about my experiences in New Delhi, India. Everything was strange and new, and although I was originally in India on business, oh God, it was so fascinating. There is not a more exotic place in the world where they speak English as a native language. It was eye opening, so culturally different. I didn’t use pictures in the book, so I tried to make the imagery easy to visualize. I had the book signing right here at Busboys and Poets. And I finally got my own Web site: www.kimroberts.org