James Kimbrell was born in Jackson, Mississippi. He has published three volumes of poetry all with Sarabande Books, The Gatehouse Heaven, My Psychic, and Smote, and was co-translator of Three Poets of Modern Korea: Yi Sang, Hahm Dong-Seon, and Choi Young-Mi (Sarabande, 2002). His work has appeared in magazines such as Poetry, The Cincinnati Review, Ploughshares, Field, The New Guard, and Best American Poetry, 2012. He been the recipient of the Discovery / The Nation Award, a Whiting Writer’s Award, the Ruth Lilly Fellowship, the Bess Hokin Prize from Poetry magazine, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and, most recently, a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation. He currently resides in Tallahassee where he teaches in the English department at Florida State University.
Jimmy Kimbrell: Hey old friend, let’s jump right in! The people want to know!
Laura Minor: I felt like Smote was something slow grown, a simmering meditation on your origins and familial development as a poet. There is a feeling of supplication and gratitude in the wake of loss. Do you feel like Smote is a prayer, a thanks, or a goodbye … or is it all three rolled into one?
A prayer, a thanks, or a goodbye hmmm? … maybe a little bit of all. If there’s a prayer, it’s a prayer for understanding, especially in the wake of grief and loss. But also on the more fundamental level, just a prayer for an understanding of the past. I mean, growing up in Mississippi, there are so many things that didn’t make sense to me. And little did I know then, that it would be my job for the rest of my life to try to make sense of them. But here we are! If there’s a goodbye, certainly there is a sense of farewell to people that recur, characters from my past that recur in the book that are no longer physically present, and so there’s a certain elegiac feel to a lot of the poems, sometimes more explicitly than in others. But, I’m not terribly good at goodbyes. Even the gesture is a continuation of a conversation, and I may never finish that conversation. In some ways, I hope not to. But also, it’s a goodbye to old ways of seeing the world, old ways of thinking, that were maybe limiting in some way, you know, ways of thinking about your individual possibilities, and a goodbye perhaps, to some of the myths that we construct out of our past in order to fabricate an identity.
Do you feel that Smote kind of set you free a bit?
Yes. The past can be a very (pause) … and walking around with it can be somewhat of a Sisyphean task. And to bring that past into light and to work with it, to shape it into an aesthetic order is in some ways a lightening process, which is to say: the past is no longer as burdensome. And I guess that’s what I’m getting at when I’m talking about understanding. Not that I achieve anything like a complete understanding or a complete reconciliation, but that process is the journey that the speaker is on in the book. And that process is the forward momentum.
This leads me to another question … You’ve done something very different with Smote. What led to this change on the page? In other words, do you think what life has handed you in the last decade has informed the way you approach a narrative versus in Gatehouse Heaven or My Psychic?
That’s a really interesting question. I mean, I think early on in my writing days, back in my twenties, I had an inherent resistance to narrative, and maybe this was because I had originally wanted to become a fiction writer. So, when I had the conversion experience of becoming a poet, the last thing I wanted to do was to write a narrative. As I began writing more autobiographically, narratives begin to take shape almost of their own volition. And I think at some point, I became curious about what would happen if my resistance to narrative was abated somehow, so I can kind of let myself go with it. If the poem started taking a narrative turn, then I let it take that turn. But I hope you can see in some of the poems, the ways in which the narratives head into directions that you might not expect. And I think that’s a result of both the resistance to and the reconciliation with narrative. So, I never want a narrative to dictate the terms and total movement of a poem. I see narrative really as an organizing factor and a meaning-making exercise.
Talking about the way the last ten years of your life factored into the writing of Smote, we’ve spoken before on quality over quantity in publishing. I know I took a decade off from poetry and music, so that I could live, love, and grieve to prepare myself for the next stage of life, the next record, and this first book of poems. One could say that time is the only true measure of one’s life in scope and that time measures grief, growth, love, and forgiveness. For you, how much of that ten years factored into the writing of Smote … taking that time?
Yeah, you know, after my second book came out … This was right around the time of Hurricane Katrina. Apart from the calamity of the hurricane itself, there were many life-changing things that came out of that as well … My father was in a home for mentally disabled veterans about 30 miles east of New Orleans. Of course they lost everything, so he moved in with me. I was a single father. My father’s cancer came back within the space of a few months. Both of my sisters were diagnosed with cancer and so it was a disorienting and all-consuming process for me, lots of driving back-and-forth to Gainesville to chemotherapy, me and my dad trying to talk about things and trying to not talk about other things, and at the same time it really began to wake me up to the fact that, and I know this sounds like a cliché, but to life’s brevity and to the importance of my relationships with people in my family, relationships that when I was younger I took for granted. So, I stopped taking a lot of things for granted. I slowly started noticing a heightened and sometimes uncomfortable perception with regard to just my daily life and especially with regard to my interactions with other people, especially the people I love, that caused me to rethink quite a few things about how I wrote as well as how I lived my life when I wasn’t writing.
Grief is a crazy train.
It is a crazy train. And I think about Keats and the “vale of soul-making.”
And so this idea took on a very new dimension for me and a new reality because it felt like something which I was living and not merely reading. And the thing is that my wife, my daughter, and now my stepdaughters, they call me to a higher purpose beyond my own more selfish needs and desires, and that really has made a major difference in my life. Before I had the kind of love in my life that I have now, I had a lot of love from my parents. But now I have love and responsibility, and if you can find those two elements together it has the power to transform you.
The hardest job you’ll ever love! But now, of your first book, Charles Wright wrote, “Kimbrell sings a serious song.…The poems are deft and sure, there is a sense of vision in them, and I have the feeling that this is the start of something significant.” But Smote is quite funny too. I’ve always felt that humor had a place alongside grief in poetry. How should one treat humor in poetry?
Yeah, I think what Charles Wright says there, the thing that I always paid attention to in that statement was the word ‘vision’. What does it mean to have a vision, an approach to life, an orientation toward life, and a hope for life? There’s a futurity built into the word ‘vision’. And, I think that this is part of what we talk about when we talk about voice. It’s something that happens organically, even though we have to will ourselves to sit in the chair to write, there is an accumulation of those moments that go toward something that’s beyond our will. And I see, often times, humor as a vital part of that. I don’t see humor as something necessarily frivolous or less important. In fact, for myself and for my sister, when we were kids, it was a survival mechanism. It kept us sane, and it provided a kind of buffer for us. And it assuaged our anxiety about what was going on in our family, about the situation we were in, my father’s alcoholism and mental illness. I think about a poem in my last book, a section of this long poem for my mother, where my sister and I were shopping for an urn for her ashes and you know we were doing this in a mall because the funeral home prices were outrageous. And we didn’t think mom would like them anyway. So we were going to places like Pier 1 and the Bombay Tea Company, and they would ask us, “What exactly are you looking for?” And of course we explained it, which would freak them out, and the jokes just kept coming. This is just an example of how humor brought us together even as it separated us from the world beyond our family, but I also think, in poems, it has a disarming effect on the reader. It has a relaxing effect, and it increases receptivity to a broader emotional scale that goes beyond humor. So humor itself is not really the end; it’s more a part of how we move forward, how we stay sane, how we comfort each other, how we make light of our deepest fears in order to even begin comprehending them. I also think that, you and I have known each other for a while, and you know that there’s not going to be too many minutes that go by in our conversation that I’m not going to try to say something that’s funny, whether it’s funny or not. And so, at some point, after writing for a while, you want to get more personality onto the page. And of course,