This Evil Jewel: Talking with Gregory Kimbrell

The end of last month saw the publication of The Primitive Observatory, the first collection of poems from Gregory Kimbrell. A winner of the First Book Award in the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry, this book will catch and hold your attention as it carries you through foreign lands, drawing on rich and divergent streams of influence to create strange resonances and unexpected beauties. Gregory, a native of Charleston, South Carolina, got his MFA in 2011 from the Creative Writing Program at Virginia Commonwealth University. He was kind enough to take time recently to answer a few questions…

Gregory Kimbrell author photo, taken during the Second Street Festival in Richmond, Sunday October 5, 2014.

Gregory Kimbrell, photo by Joe Mahoney

The people in your poems have names like Albrecht and Hilde. They inhabit lodges, verandahs, and salons. Their time is spent in occupations that seem at times foreign to the last century of American life. What sources do you draw from to create these worlds?

First and foremost, novels. I tend to read slowly, so when I read those rambling, glacially paced, dense masterworks of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such as Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past or Heimito von Doderer’s The Demons, I live alongside their worlds for a long time. These worlds intensely color my interior imaginative life, and their twisting sentences become a kind of trap I can’t escape—particularly when I’m reading late at night during a bout of insomnia. Currently, I’m working my way through Private Life by Josep Maria de Sagarra, and behold this evil jewel of a sentence: “To the Lloberola scion those cheeks—over which the father confessor scraped a straight razor every morning, as if on tiptoe, as if it were a metallic virgin stepping timidly over the stumps of a holy field—looked like the stuffed viscera from a museum of anatomy that a perverse biologist had powdered over and wound up.”

What about movies? Few people I know have the same depth and breadth of knowledge that you do in this area. Are they important for your work?

Movies are another important source for my work. I spend more time with movies than I do with just about any other type of creative endeavor; I watch at least a part of a movie every day. And particularly B horror and sci-fi. I know that for many people the B stands for Bad and that B movies are, at best, a great joke. It’s true that when I watch B movies I laugh a lot—years later, I’m still laughing about that dance routine in The Island Monster—but even when B movies are unbelievably awful, they have an unpredictability and a sense of the sheer joy of creation that are too seldom found elsewhere. Maybe because B movies have relatively small budgets and so also have relatively little riding on their success, things that would never pass muster in major movies marketed to general audiences parade unashamedly across the B-movie screen, and even when I know with almost perfect certainty that the scruffy down-and-out hero will be betrayed by his slick business-executive ex-wife, I can’t help but be astonished when he, along the way to that betrayal, discovers a UFO inside a mountain and is chased by a killer cyborg—this, by the way, is the plot of Top Line.

Anyway—there are certainly many B horror movies in the Gothic tradition, such as the majestic Nightmare Castle—although period B movies tend to be fatally boring, and nothing is more boring than a B movie set in the Middle Ages; I’m currently working my way through a Spanish turkey called Star Knight, about a princess who falls in love with a humanoid alien whose spaceship is parked beneath the surface of a nearby pond—but I think that my poems have absorbed some of the absurdity of many of the hundreds of B movies I’ve watched, regardless of their milieu. When Kathleen Graber once described my poems as having a campy quality, I was thrilled.

cover of the primitive observatoryCan you talk about how the process of bringing a poem’s setting to life works for you? Do you have any other tools that you use?

When I start drafting a new piece, and also when I’m stuck in the middle of a draft, I’ll try, in my imagination, to visualize all the details of the space that I want the poem to inhabit: the light fixtures, the flooring, the pillow cases—countless details that may not make it into the finished work. Listening to music can help, especially electronic music with its alien sounds. Haruomi Hosono released a series of minimalist sound-art-ish albums in the mid ’80s; those are a touchstone for me. Early video-game music is also perfect for visualizing space—especially given that the music in early video games was composed and engineered to help make very limited two-dimensional visual worlds more immersive.

The strangeness and narrative strength of your poems have drawn early readers to liken your work to creators in other forms or media, from Edward Gorey to Marcel Proust, from H.P. Lovecraft to David Lynch. I feel that, but I also know how important many traditions of poetry have been to you. Can you talk a bit about the poets, dead or alive, who inform your own poetic sensibilities?

I feel an affinity, certainly, for poets who were writing around the turn of the nineteenth century to the twentieth, and I think of The Primitive Observatory as, in a sense, participating in the tradition of Romantic/Gothic/supernatural/weird poetic narrative found in the work of authors such as Alfred Tennyson and Alfred Noyes. And of course, there’s Edgar Allan Poe—although I feel a greater affection for Poe the writer of short stories than Poe the poet.

Linguistically, though, I draw more from later in the twentieth century. I especially like poems from the twilight of popular formalism, things that grapple with the rise of free verse and plainness. Both early James Wright and early William Everson get nods in my book. (“The Burial Plot” is an homage to “At the Executed Murderer’s Grave” from Wright’s second book, St. Judas, and “The Fog” is an homage to “The Screed of the Frost” from Everson’s first book, The Crooked Lines of God.)

When I was in graduate school, David Wojahn introduced me to the work of French poet Jean Follain. The poems in his Transparence of the World often have an eerie, enigmatic, and even Goreyesque quality of seemingly disparate events occurring in concert according to the obscure doom that is the past. My poems “The Marshes” and “The Sluice Gate” were written originally in partial imitation of his unique aesthetic.

Which poets do you find yourself returning to regularly?

James Merrill was the first poet whose work I ever read for pleasure. Although I don’t mirror in my book his interest in meter and rhyme, reading his poems has taught me a great deal about the integrity of the line—even if my principal allegiance is still to the sentence. His bizarre and regal The Changing Light at Sandover continues to be one of my favorite books. I reread it periodically to remind myself of why I started writing in the first place.

My favorite poet is Kenji Miyazawa. “The Passing Brigade” in The Primitive Observatory is an homage to one of his most famous pieces, “Pine Needles.” Kenji was among the first wave of Japanese poets to explore free verse, which he used to make what he called “mental sketches,” attempts at capturing in words the bottomless mystery of lived experience. His poems, with a vocabulary enriched by his background in agricultural science and Buddhism, tend to have a wild, hallucinatory quality. The Primitive Observatory has little in common with that, but when I seem to be stuck in my writing, I often consult Kenji as though he might show me the way.

He also wrote curious and very moving prose fables, many with anthropomorphic animal characters. His novella “Night on the Galactic Railroad”—which, I have to say, was also made into one of the world’s best animated movies by director Gisaburо̄ Sugii and featuring electronic Satie-esque music by none other than Haruomi Hosono—is a major thematic influence on a second book manuscript that I’ve recently completed.

It’s exciting to hear that you have another manuscript finished! How did your process for creating it differ from that of The Primitive Observatory? Did you find yourself writing different kinds of poems, or drawing from different influences?

While I wrote the poems and sequences of The Primitive Observatory as discrete pieces—each its own little experiment in narrative—this new manuscript, which consists exclusively of two thematically related sequences of longer narrative poems, was conceived of as a unified project from the outset. I outlined it as though I were writing a novel. The finished thing sits somewhere between one of those sprawling European novels I mentioned previously and a work of fantasy horror. One of the characters from the manuscript actually appeared in my dreams soon after I’d started drafting it, and I took that as a sign that it needed to exist.

Gregory Kimbrell’s The Primitive Observatory is available from major online bookstores [Amazon | B&N], and is available for order from your local independent bookseller.

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Writing Year 2014: Into the Blender

Around this time last year, I wrote a lengthy post about my writing activities in order to kick myself into higher gear. It worked. I didn’t meet every goal I set, but that doesn’t really bother me, for reasons detailed below. Writing a “year end” sort of post now, rather than at the end of the year, was a boost to my production last year, and we’ll see if it happens this go-round.

What’s new, pussycat?

This year’s writing theme, if you can say a year has a theme, has been “blending.” For many years I pursued creative writing largely apart from what I do as a librarian. One of my colleagues at VCU, Jenny Stout (review blog), started a discussion series within our division this year, “Research and Learning: Living Up to Our Name,” where people talk about aspects of their work, conceptual developments in the field, etc. She got the series off to a start with an hour of micro-talks, and I spoke about hunting for overlap in activities from different parts of your life, in order to increase efficiency, work strategically, etc. This has been productive for me, as I’ve found myself more dedicated to and interested in both scholarship and creative writing. I have no intention of blogging about my career as a librarian (God forbid; the internet is already littered with unread biblio-blogs), but selected contents & activities are another story.

Intersections

This week I submitted an article to a high-profile professional publication about work I did with a creative writing class at VCU. A submission is not an acceptance, but I’m a heck of a lot happier with that than with the idea lying in unquiet repose in my brain.

Next semester I am co-teaching with Tom De Haven a semester-long class about writing research-intensive fiction. This is aimed at students interested in developing both research skills and a proficiency at incorporating research into their fiction. Course description (ENGL 437).

Next March I’ll be delivering a paper at the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts (ICFA 36). This paper will blend a lifelong literary interest and my more recent interest in digital humanities methodologies. Its title is “Node, Edge, or Tentacle? Data and the Lovecraftian Literary Network,” and it’s about a computational analysis of Selected Letters.

I have various future scholarly activities in the works associated with the above agenda(e). Just what form they take depends to some extent on how things go this spring, and realistically they aren’t going to be started until summer, but it’s good to have plans.

Into the field

This year I’ve read many good books, and some excellent ones. I’ve heard a number of people talking about a new golden age for the Weird, even a Weird Renaissance, and it’s hard to argue. From a score of anthologies, including the VanderMeers’ monumental The Weird, to continued excellence from Weird Fiction Review, to Mike Kelly’s establishment of Year’s Best Weird Fiction, things are coming up Weird all over. The kind of horror I like to read, which has a strong overlap with Weird, but not entirely, seems to have surged as well.

One of the best things I’ve read this year (am still reading, actually) is John B. Thompson’s Merchants of Culture: the Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century. Ross Lockhart, who has himself been having an impressive year, was talking about the book a couple months back, and so I picked it up. So glad I did. Merchants of Culture is an analysis of contemporary publishing in terms of Bourdieuian fields, among other things. I’ve spent a lot of time over the last decade trying to wrap my head around publishing and writing, and this book was part of what reshaped my thinking about authorship this year, from the role of scholarship in my creative life to the places where I aspire to publish.

I regularly attend the Annual Conference of the American Library Association, but this academic year I’m attending or have attended various other meetings. I was invited to attend/speak at Digital Humanities and the Dartmouth College Library, a one-day event in advance of The Digital Crucible, a conference focused on computation in the arts and humanities. Last month I attended the James River Writers Conference here in Richmond, where I moderated a panel entitled “Write What You Research.” Last weekend I attended the 40th World Fantasy Convention, where I met people across the range of activities in the fantastic arts (more on that another day). Next year I’m pleased to be guesting at RavenCon here in Richmond. The list of people I’ve met as a result of all of these activities is in the hundreds, so I’m not doing a roll call, but I will say that in the process I’ve made new friends, met heroes, and gotten a better understanding of the ecosystem of the writing world. I did (or am doing) all of this for a host of reasons, but Merchants of Culture led me to view my activities through a new and improved lens.

What have I accomplished in 2014?

Let’s go to the data…

statistics for fiction

Fiction Statistics, 2005-11/14/2014

Blog Statistics, 2005-11/14/2014

Blog Statistics, 2005-11/14/2014

Fiction & Blogging, 2005-11/14/2014

Fiction & Blogging, 2005-11/14/2014

I could talk about this in various ways, but I think the easiest thing to say is that I feel like I’m back on track. If I’d tracked things by month, and only shown the last two or three years, the difference would be even more stark.

Old goals

Write at least 100,000 words of completed or truly “in progress” fiction rough drafts by December 31, 2014.
Didn’t happen. The last day I added to my count, it was around 18,000. Since then I’ve written three stories, substantially revised several stories, and started and abandoned a novel.

Place six pieces of fiction for publication.
Placed three, which was actually my “good enough” goal, so I’m fine with that. I’ve got four stories out right now, one of which is a “hold for consideration,” so that’s good.

Get back to blogging.
Check.

Read at least two books per month.
Some months it was only one, but some months it was four, so… check.

2015 goals, you say?

Some of this is going to sound familiar, but…

  • Write at least 100,000 words of completed or truly “in progress” fiction
  • Complete enough thematically similar short fiction for a strong collection
  • Place six pieces of fiction and one essay for publication
  • Find a home for my Seattle magical realism novel
  • Draft two new scholarly articles or opinion pieces
  • Keep blogging
  • Read at least two books per month

I have a few other things on the stove, as well, some on front burners and some on the back, some small and some large. Further bulletins as events warrant.

And last but not least, thanks are more than due to my friend, partner, wife, and sine qua non, Kyla Tew. Without her support and patience, it would be difficult to do this.

Blowing the Doors Off Those Crypts

vintage halloween costumes~

The better to see you with…

Lately horror and the Weird have each been going great guns, entering an efflorescence unlike anything we’ve seen for decades. Tobias Carroll put up a fine essay at Electric Literature the other day about the state of literary horror—”‘Then, a Hellbeast Ate Them’: Notes on Horror Fiction and Expectations.” It captures the breadth of the authors who are making free with all things horrific these days, often in places where the word “horror” previously was unwelcome. Whenever I encounter a meaningful and unapologetic treatment of literary horror (or literary fantasy, for that matter) I feel a kind of excitement that goes bone deep.

Genre and literary snobs look down their noses at each other, particularly around formations like “literary [GENRE],” and phrases like “slipstream” or “magical realism” have both lost and gained precision over time, but at least that latter is finally a little less likely to be used as a term of contempt in genre. That said, literary genre work is a strange beast, and, pace Carroll, I think not actually all that common, to judge by the shelves at B&N. Little of it appears in the F/SF section, or to stay for long if it does, and so it’s off to sift through literary fiction to find eloquent novels about disaffected werewolves.

The Weird has had similar success of late, with a high-water mark being Jeff VanderMeer’s outstanding Southern Reach novels. He has a piece over at The Atlantic, “The Uncanny Power of Weird Fiction,” that is about as clear as sign as you’re ever going to see that this strange little niche is seeing more daylight than I ever could have hoped. Jeff’s piece is very well written and introduced me to, as every time I see something from him, writers of whom I’ve never heard.

The VanderMeers should bear, of course, a huge part of our gratitude for the recent surge. Jeff’s fiction was a part of the New Weird when that came along, of course, but it’s grown since then, strengthened by his omnivorous consumption of fiction in all forms and his well-documented efforts to focus intently on his writing. Ann VanderMeer’s stint as Fiction Editor at Weird Tales put the cat so much among the canaries that a veritable legion of living fossils rose up and cried “to R’lyeh shalt thou go, and no further.” Though flags have repeatedly been planted in the sand about the end of the avant-garde, such flags are ever meant to be torn down. Jeff and Ann blew the doors off with The Weird and everything that followed, debunking some of the Old Weird/New Weird/That’s Not Weird stupidity in the process. I do so love the Weird of the early 20th century, but people too often think of those guys as a terminus, when they were actually a phase.

Yesterday Laird Barron posted “New Blood,” calling out some of the current leading lights of horror, springboarding off of an introduction Stephen Jones wrote at the start of his 2011 A Book of Horrors that led with “What the hell happened to the horror genre?” I won’t repeat Laird’s excellent roll call, but I will point out that the average age of the contributors to A Book of Horrors (2011) was 55. A similar book with the same lineup could, with the right twists of fate, have shown up in Horror at B. Dalton Bookseller around 1989. Laird’s list is a little harder to suss, age-wise, in so far as the people he names haven’t all cast such long shadows yet that their biographical data is easy to find, but the “new blood” moniker is pretty apt.

This is no complaint about Olds: many writers come into their prime a lot later than people do in other fields of artistic endeavor. Some of the names on the roster of Jones’ anthology are ones that I respect and have loved to see work from for decades. And while some of what Jones has to say is distinctly get-off-my-lawn-y, there’s a certain truth in what he says that’s clear from the work of many of the authors on the list: many of them share a certain idea of horror, one that’s faded away. I expect that’s hard to deal with. When literary horror goes fallow a couple decades down the road, I’m going to be irritable.

Some months back I had a lengthy conversation with a friend about horror now vs. horror in the 1980s. As my friend said, while I was busy lamenting that Young Me never got to read Barron or Llewellyn, “you know, it was just a very different scene.” And that, folks, is truth you can take to the bank. Jack Williamson, Dennis Wheatley, Robert Bloch, Shirley Jackson, Anne Rice, Charles Grant, Clive Barker, Thomas Ligotti, Laird Barron, Justin Cronin, and Lauren Beukes all have something to do with horror, but they are not all doing the same thing. Not by a long shot. (To which I personally say “thank God,” but I digress.) While one writer may be more skilled than another, what we are writing now is… what we’re writing now. It’s generally more self-consciously literate, and much of it profits, one way and another, from the overall greater attention to good prose that prevails in U.S. fiction these days, thanks primarily to the development of BFA & MFA pedagogy, and the ripple effect it caused throughout literature.

Today, on this best, scariest, and most ooga-booga of days, I’ll say that I’m grateful for masks of all kind. A mask-maker who uses burlap and twine is trying to do something different from the injection molded and painted horrors of Party City. One’s no better than the other, and we’re the happier for having both. It’s a shit game, trash-talking your elders, and it’s likewise a shit game to trash-talk the young turks. You’d be smart to avoid doing either, not least because you either were once the New Blood, or will, with luck, wind up part of the Old Guard.

Happy Halloween.

MFA, NYC, and Motherfucking Rock Stars

Cover of Spring 1989 New York Writer

NYC, you say?

If you didn’t know already, Nick Mamatas always seems to hear about the interesting books. His post about MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction was the first time I’d heard about that (2014) book, and nor is this the first time I’ve heard about something from him before my RSS feeds, database alerts, etc. Actual recommendations mean so much more when we’re practically swaddled by hype coming from every surface that can be used to advertise.

I’m currently reading the book, and, as Nick says, am reviewing my own life in tandem with it. As always, I feel a bit of either culture, being an academic who writes on the fringes of both literary and genre culture. Maybe in 90 years I’ll be (re?)discovered as the American H(aruki) P(hillips) Kafka, if we aren’t simply beating each other with sticks and eating children by then. In any case, it’s an interesting book that both gets at and ignores literary cultures, albeit quietly acknowledging the gaps.

Lately I’ve noticed a surge among my fellow writing people in discussion of writerly behavior. Not the “have a sweet business card to impress important people” behavior, but the “go out and drink seven vodka sours before 4 p.m., shoot an elephant, and hump wildly before writing” writerly behavior. Some of this ties back to Chuck Wendig’s post about “Turning Writers Into Motherfucking Rockstars,” which I’d hazard to guess was 9/10 satire, 1/10 yearning for a little old-fashioned boat rocking. On this subject, a quote from Alexander Chee’s “My Parade,” which appears in MFA vs NYC:

The boom in the MFA, whatever you might think of it, didn’t come about because young writers wanted to imitate Carver’s work, it came about because too many of them imitated the late Carver’s life, too much — and administrators everywhere began to demand some sort of proof that the writer knows how to behave. There was a demand for writers with the skill and the will to teach, and to be a colleague, participating in the work of the department. You can sniff all you like that a book is the only credential that matters, but chances are, you haven’t met a provost. In the aftermath of these unaccredited greats, the rest of us are required to present our degrees.