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.

The Primitive Observatory Has Arrived

This week featured many excitements, but none better than the release of The Primitive Observatory Amazon | B&N | Goodreads], the first collection of poems from Gregory Kimbrell. This astonishing book of poetry, which won the First Book Award in the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry, has already drawn analogies to: Chekhov, Escher, Gorey, Kafka, Lovecraft, Lynch, and Proust.  Reader, it was my delight to see this collection in draft, and all of those analogies are appropriate. If those names resonate with you, I urge you to pick up my friend’s new book! You won’t be disappointed.

Want to learn more in person?

  • March 23, 2016 – 7:00 pm – Richmond, VA
    VCU Visiting Writers Series: Gregory Kimbrell & Allison Titus
    Scott House 
  • Thursday, March 31, 2016 – 12:00 pm – Los Angeles, CA
    AWP Conference
    Robert Muroff Bookfair Stage, LA Convention Center, Exhibit Hall Level One 

cover for Gregory Kimbrell's The Primitive Observatory

Tarfia Faizullah: a Conversation Between the Internal and External

Tarfia Faizullah

Tarfia Faizullah

The 2014 James River Writers conference happens this weekend here in Richmond, Virginia. If you haven’t registered yet, there’s still time. Among the many authors, poets, editors, agents, and other publishing industry experts you’ll have the opportunity to hear there is Tarfia Faizullah, a rising star among poets, whose first book, Seam, won the 2012 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award. Her list of accomplishments is already formidable, with a host of impressive publications, fellowships, and scholarships to her name. This year she is the Nicholas Delbanco Visiting Professor of Creative Writing in Poetry at the University of Michigan Helen Zell Writers’ Program. I had the pleasure of conversing with Tarfia this summer, talking about what makes her tick. She had this to say about the impact of the James River Writers Conference and Richmond as a city had on her as a writer…

I’ve spent a good part of my life longing for spaces in which I wasn’t a weirdo, and when I finally decided to apply to graduate school, it was that longing that ultimately took me to Richmond to attend VCU. I remember driving down Broad for the first time, further and further away from the ubiquitous corporate strips housing the usual Best Buys or fast food restaurants, and closer and closer to the heart of Richmond’s downtown. Nestled there was an unexpectedly rich and welcoming community of arts and letters where I would learn from and grow inside of as both a writer and an artist.

My first year at VCU, I was fortunate enough to receive a scholarship to attend the James River Writers Conference. There, I sat in rooms beside them listening intently to panels of authors share what they had learned from their own joys and failures, from dedicating a life to the work of the word. I was too half-formed at the time to understand what a gift the scholarship truly was: I was too impatient, too ready to charge forward with my own poems. But I wasn’t so impatient that I wasn’t moved by a panel with local poets Brian Henry and Elizabeth Seydel Morgan. They discussed poetry with verve and thoughtfulness in such a way that made me realize that poetry could vibrate the universe, if we wanted it to. If we let it. Yes, I thought. Let it.

Your description of Richmond, and transitioning from the corporate zone to the heart of Richmond’s downtown, is striking and matches how I remember coming to the city. What part does arrivaldoes gnosisplay in your poetry?

I want to both understand and appreciate mystery, and I ask my poems to do the same work. In this way, To me, the practice of poetry is arriving—at some version of myself I was heading towards but didn’t know I would become in a world that seems different than the day before. In Seam, I’m always arriving somewhere both geographically and spatially new: a hotel room in a village in Bangladesh, in a kitchen in Richmond, Virginia, along a highway in west Texas.

Do you see this fundamental change—becoming a version of yourself in a world that seems different—as something internal, or as coming from change in the world?

I see it as a conversation between the internal and external—I’m affected by the external, but I try not to let it dictate my feelings completely or for very long. I suppose in a way, I vacillate between feeling anxious about the world’s difficulties and exuberant over its beautiful mysteries.

The urgency you describe with respect to your poetry is understandable, but it seems at odds with the poems themselves. Your lines are so solid, and the women at the core of your first collection, Seam, don’t have stories that feel like they can be rushed. How do you balance urgency and craft?

That’s a great question—one that I consider each time I wrestle with a poem. Sometimes, I can carry a poem with me for a long time: there is the gathering of the materials, considering the connections between them, articulating those connections. My first reader and co-editor Jamaal May and I can take a good long while considering and wrestling with the tiniest components of a line or sentence: we call this getting a poem past-done. Other times, a poem will come as though summoned, and it only takes an edit or two before it gets to that past-done place. Regardless, I always take the time to let a poem rest. To let my eyes rest from it, so I can see it more clearly the next time I look at it.

Your approach to writing and editing sounds deliberate and rock-solid. In addition to these craft steps, what else do you feel is necessary for poetry that, in your words, can vibrate the universe? Can we even quantify that?

Seamus Heaney draws a distinction between craft and technique in his essay “Feeling Into Words.” It’s a terrific distinction, because craft are the tools you can learn such as meter and sound, the processes you can employ, and technique is voice and perspective. You can put the words together with craft, but you need the heart—its myriad concerns, its pulse, its erratic behaviors—to hold them there.

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Read Tarfia Faizullah’s Seam to see this brilliant poet at work, and come hear from her this weekend at the 2014 James River Writers Conference.

Wine, Word Play, and Writing Process

Writing Process, with Hats

Writing Process, with Hats

Today’s Monday, and what does that mean? The aforementioned posts in the My Writing Process blog tour from two of my writerly friends.

photo of S.J. Chambers

S.J. Chambers

S.J. Chambers writes about cutting up manuscripts, theming wine, womanhood, and the poverty of marketing labels when discussing writing.

“I don’t like fetishizing or explaining things away–I like for there to be poetry”

 

 

 

 

 

Mark Meier photo

Mark Meier

Mark Meier writes about word play, German literature, and making the world a better place.

“…I don’t want readers to escape this existence so much as to study and reconsider it, especially in their relationship to other beings.”