Primitive Observatory Nominated for Elgin

sfpa logoThe Elgin Award nominees have been announced for 2017, and among their number is Gregory Kimbrell’s The Primitive Observatory, which I’ve featured here previously. The Elgin is given by the Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association for a book, in this case published in 2015 or 2016. On hearing the news, I checked in with Gregory to ask a few questions…

What are your thoughts on the Elgin nomination?

I’m over the moon that PrimObs, a book at the crossroads of various genres, has found readers in the sci-fi/fantasy community, home to some of my favorite literature. That sci-fi/fantasy poetry enthusiasts have liked the book enough to nominate it for an award like this gives me renewed faith that my genre or genre-inflected poems, which often feel to me like they exist inside a vacuum, do make a difference to people.

cover of the primitive observatoryDid you have any immediate reaction when you got the news?

The first thing I did upon learning of the nomination of PrimObs was to save the list of other nominees. This is the summer reading list I’ve always wanted.

What are you writing these days?

My writing has actually been moving in a more sci-fi/fantasy direction since PrimObs. I’ve recently completed a manuscript of sci-fi/surrealist poems full of robots, amphibian people, dinosaurs, surgical experiments, etc. I expect the trend to continue!

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.

 

Advertisements

Artful Weekend

Middle of last week I got the word that the VCU Communication Arts students’ Senior Expo was coming up on Friday. I’ve occasionally been to shows featuring work by Comm Arts students, but the description of the setup was great, and—By The Bats Of Mike Mignola!—the art was freaking great. The students brought their A game, and frankly the quality of what I saw was on par with what I’ve seen at conventions and fairs. Some of the highlights for me included…

Japanese flying squid

Japanese Flying Squid, by Lohitha Kethu

Illustrations of a cluster of figs and a Japanese flying squid, by Lohitha Kethu,  the latter of which currently graces the front page of my library’s website as part of an exhibit at our medical library. Scientific illustration’s been on my brain lately, as the digital arts and humanities initiative I’ve led for some years had a panel + workshop this spring that was on the topic. Kethu’s illustrations grabbed me because one was quite familiar, but the other—well, I like figs, and the clarity and detail of her work brought them immediately to life.

stickers

Stickers from Corey Hannah Summers

Corey Hannah Summers‘ work caught my eye as I was on the way out, off in a nook that I hadn’t seen walking into the expo. She had a few more original paintings on display than some of the students, which I appreciated, as well as a crop of stickers,  a few of which I had to have (those teeth!).

painting of antlers

Antlers by Corey Hannah Summers

Summers’ paintings can be seen on her website, but here’s an antler study that grabbed me from across the room. The warm accents really made it stand out, given how many bones-and-antlers paintings I’ve seen that go entirely warm or cool.

There were many, many other cool things on display, from Elly Call‘s tarot deck, to Norine King‘s stickers of heroic women, to Mike Collier‘s fangs and gaming-related swag, to Will Sullivan‘s atmospheric concept art. Near the start of the show, my eyes were caught by Emma Welch‘s Parasite. Parasitic & symbiotic imagery always gets me, but I’ve been consuming even more art than usual that plays with these themes, from a re-watch of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, to Jeff VanderMeer’s new novel, Borne.

parasite

Emma Welch’s Parasite

Really, the overall quality of the show was outstanding. I went in not knowing what I’d see, and I was repeatedly struck by the work our students are doing. It should also be said that the “artists alley”-type setup in The Depot really worked well, and the turnout was great, with folks turning out from all over the university and surrounding community.

Sunday we went to Arts in the Park in Byrd Park, a first for us, despite having lived here for years. The arts and crafts on display were high quality, and the weather was great for walking around. With 450+ vendors, there was more than enough to see, even passing over the stuff that wasn’t our thing.

vessey paintings

Trick or Treat!

The first booth we stopped at was that of Mary Ann Vessey, a painter from the Shenandoah Valley. She uses her paintings to tell stories and show off the land she loves, often through the lens of changing seasons, and there were a number of holiday-themed paintings on display, prints of two of which we picked up. Halloween is having a moment right now, but it’s also our thing, for all the reason you’d imagine.

We wandered the show and had a great time, admiring Debi Dwyer‘s 3D stained glass creations and Molly Sims‘ vivid, beautiful animals, among other things. Stephen Brehm‘s oil paintings were among my favorite in the show, as he has both a way with light on water, and a deft hand at bringing background light and color into the shadows. There were plenty of paintings to be found at the show, from abstract to whimsical to landscape, but his stayed with me.

allison funk's booth

Allison Funk’s Booth

Toward the end, we found our way into what was the most exciting and surprising booth in the show, that of Allison Funk, an artist specializing in prints, from woodblock to linocut to monotype. I wasn’t sure when we went to the show what, if anything, I’d be buying, but that immediately switched over from an “if” to “which one” when I saw her prints.

It’s hard not to think of Expressionist woodcuts looking at Funk’s work, but you can see shades of more contemporary styles, as well. Handling of flesh that echoes the honesty of Freud, compositions with the feel of Albright or Munch: these and many more things struck me, but—to be clear—they struck me because of her deft use and strong style. From the way she works with shadows to her use of reflective surfaces, Funk clearly has a style of her own.

allison funk with print

Allison Funk, with Zombie

I considered but did not buy a print of a version Funk did of an iconic scene from The Walking Dead. I’ve seen various art derived from the show, but none that have been as good. Funk’s take on it was as clear and iconic as the many subsequent versions we’ve seen of Night of the Living Dead, and I think it will appeal to many. For me, it encapsulates the pathos of Kirkman’s vision as clearly as anything else I’ve seen.

Ultimately I walked away with a quieter print, a linocut with watercolor that spoke to me the moment I walked into the booth. Funk’s work is “pensive” in the best possible sense of the word, and it’s no surprise she discusses “self-reflection” in her artist’s statement. The prints she pulls are all fundamentally moments taken out of time, with tension rising from things have come and gone, or are yet to be.

waiting by allison funk

Waiting by Allison Funk

Her vision feels distinctly more urban than I would expect from any given artist out of Staunton. And it’s happily not full of the contemporary clichés that connote “urban,” but istead is part of the patchwork of city life that has captured the interest of creators as diverse as George Bellows and Kathe Koja. Her scenes are tight, with a world pressing in that is kept at bay by walls and curtains, where her subjects consider things that are just out of sight, be they people or ideas. I look forward to seeing her work grow and change over time.

 

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.