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

No Footprints on That Unbroken Snow

Today is the first meeting of the class I’m co-teaching with Tom De Haven this semester, a workshop for students who want to write research-intensive fiction. I’ve enjoyed teaching in various formats over the years, in a range of subjects, but this is probably the most excited I’ve ever been. For the curious, we enticed students with the following description

“Write what you know” works until it doesn’t. How do you write about 1798 Pennsylvania? A journey to Alpha Centauri? Eating dinner as a parrot? Hiking in the desert? The experience of characters with different lives than your own calls for more than imagination, it requires research: archives, travel, diaries, interviews, etc. Workshop members will carry out weekly exercises to practice different kinds of research, learn how to incorporate new information into their fiction, engage in group critiques, and ultimately complete a short story integrating information derived from multiple kinds of research.

balloon lift-off

Away We Go!

 

Baby’s First Author Event

Following the photo shoot, the author was heard to shout "now give me back my goddamn whiskey, or you're getting written into the novel."

Following the photo shoot, the author was heard to shout “now give me back my goddamn whiskey, or you’re getting written into the novel.”

As previously advertised, yesterday afternoon I had the pleasure of speaking at VCU on a panel about research for creative writing. The weather here wasn’t blizzard-in-Atlanta bad, but the university opened late, it was cold, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if we’d had no attendees at all. Instead, there were more audience members than panelists. It was like a dream come true. The panelists warmed up by swapping stories with each other about encounters with vermin, after which historical and market research were a breeze.

My co-panelists were a lively and interesting bunch, each with great tips and stories to tell. Lindsay Chudzik talked about how much is too much, up to and including a detailed discussion of when and how to engage with seedy hotels, and what they can teach. Mary-Chris Escobar discussed writing close to home, as well as dropping a lot of knowledge about what’s actually involved in becoming your own publisher. Mark Meier talked about the treadmill of freelancing, and he warmed my librarian heart by talking about using both microfilm and government documents to add verisimilitude. Sarah Pezzat detailed deep-diving into your subject and interviewing people, as well as talking about when and why it is appropriate to taste-test celluloid.

Like a lot of things in life, it didn’t start with a flourish of trumpets or end with a crash of cymbals, but it was the first event where I appeared as an author with billing. Of course, given it was at the university where I work, I was juggling hats a little bit, but I’m getting more comfortable with that. On which note, let me don one more hat and say that if you’re in the Richmond and want to learn about self-publishing, check out JRW‘s January Writing Show, Great Expectations: The Realities of Self-Publishing, at The Camel at 6:30.

For the curious, here’s the flier we used to advertise, along with a few basic research resources: rev.handouts.

Research for Creative Writers

If you’re in the Richmond, Virginia area tomorrow, January 29th, come to VCU and hear writers talk about their research! Lindsay Chudzik, Mary-Chris Escobar, Sarah Pezzat, Mark Meier, and I will conduct a panel discussion on using research in both fiction and non-fiction creative writing. Free and open to the public. At VCU’s University Student Commons, Forum Room, 907 Floyd Ave, at 4:30 p.m. Curious for more about research & writing? Check out this post about research by Mark Meier.

The Art of Making Magic

This week my vocation and my avocations synchronized perfectly when Charles Vess came (back) to Richmond to speak at an event hosted by the library where I work. He spoke at the Grace Street Theater to a large, enthusiastic crowd of people from around Richmond and the region. He talked about his development as an artist and illustrator, his loves and taste as a reader, his time as a student at VCU, the joys and pains of making art before you become successful (and what happens when you do), working with Neil Gaiman, and many more things having to do with making art.

The talk was accompanied by a wide array of images, some of his work and some of his past; my favorites were his personal work, blown up to screen size. I love seeing the work of artists in their full power listening only to their muse. Afterward I bumped into a friend who said that it was the best lecture he’d ever seen at VCU. While I haven’t been a student there, I’ve seen many lectures, and his conversational, open, and direct style of address made for a great evening.

Questions from the audience included such topics as how one can succeed as an illustrator, his favorite Miyazaki films, what he finds inspirational or restorative, the nature of contemporary illustration, and more. I asked about his views on drawing from imagination versus drawing from life. I’d misunderstood something he said about using the real world in his work (some leaves, etc.), and he said that he does not, in fact, draw from life. He studies and is inspired by nature, but he doesn’t want to get all of the information onto the page. This was a comfort to me on many levels.

Over the last year I’ve been studying painters and draftsmen who most work from the model or direct observation, have been taking art classes that revolve around the same, and have been reading art instruction material that slants that way, too. That actually goes double for fantasy illustration. In an effort to bring naturalism to their work, many illustrators and artists of the fantastic use techniques that are closely tied to academic painting and 20th century illustration practices. This is all well and good, and I appreciate those methods and the works produced using them, but I do sometimes get restless working from observation. The painting I’m working on right now is in some measure an homage to Erol Otus, and while I could use maquettes, lighting, etc., I’m mostly painting from my imagination.

I had the pleasure of speaking briefly with Vess before the event, and I did my best to say concisely what his work has meant to me. Long story short, aside from appreciating his work for many years, I ran across photos of his studio on Terri Windling’s blog at a time when I was doing (same as it ever was) too much soul-searching about writing vs. making art, and how to integrate the two. Seeing photos of his studio was like a swift kick in the ass from a monk at the end of koan, reminding me that the two need not be separate. I bought a pile of books at the event, having forgotten to bring Sandman, etc. stuff along, and he was kind enough to inscribe & draw on the flyleaf from Drawing Down the Moon.

Drawing Down the Moon by Charles Vess

Inscription & drawing on the flyleaf of Drawing Down the Moon