‘A witty guide and generous soul’

This article originally appeared in the the Fall 2016 FORUM Magazine

David Kirby has been called a literary treasure of our state. This year he received the Florida Humanities Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing, the latest in a galaxy of honors he has earned during a sparkling career.

Kirby, an internationally recognized poet and essayist who has taught and inspired thousands of Florida students and writers, says his love for the written word had its roots on the 10-acre South Louisiana farm where he grew up. There (as you will learn in the accompanying Q&A), he absorbed nature, communed with animals, and met quirky Cajun characters. His storytelling mother told him tales about voodoo spells and people who lived in trees. His father was a medievalist college professor who could read 12 languages and speak many of them.

All those elements—and others, including a bout with a dreaded childhood disease—combined to inspire his love of writing at age 5.

“Seeing my hand clutching an oversized pencil and watching words spool out of the tip of that pencil onto that rough, gray paper we had, and listening to stories of my mom on our porch, made me feel like storytelling was a great form of capital…I never thought of it as part of schoolwork, it was just what we did.”

His work includes poetry, essays, criticism, and children’s literature. His biography of Richard Penniman—better known as Little Richard—defined one of rock ‘n’ roll’s earliest architects.

Kirby, who received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University, has taught since 1969 at Florida State University, where he is the Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor of English. The judges for the Lifetime Achievement Award praised him for mentoring thousands of students over the years as well as for demonstrating to all “how craft, humor, and insight can create enduring works of art.” They added: “David makes us feel fortunate that we can be in the company of such a witty guide and generous soul.”

Sometimes serious, often humorous,
here is Kirby in his own words:

Please tell us about your background growing up on a farm in South Louisiana, near Baton Rouge. What was your childhood like? Who were the influential people in your life? How do you think the culture of that distinctive area (which includes Cajun country) informs your outlook?

I’ve always felt as though I had three parents. My mom and dad were older when they had me. And to say there was no helicoptering in those days is an understatement: the aircraft itself was barely known, and certainly no one hovered over yours truly. Instead, my folks turned me loose in the vast acreage that surrounded our house, and it was there that I learned to observe, to entertain myself, to engage with people and animals. So that farm was my third parent. We lived on the border of Cajun country, which featured some of the oddest, sweetest people I ever met, ones who showed me how you could be responsible and trustworthy yet reach for the fiddle and the whiskey jug when you needed to (which was every Friday and Saturday night, at least).

Kirby, who grew up on a South Louisiana farm, has taught at FSU since 1969.
Kirby, who grew up on a South Louisiana farm, has taught at FSU since 1969.

What drew you to writing? How did you get started? Why are you attracted to the written word and to the nuances of language?

I remember writing before I remember remembering. I can still see my five-year-old hand scrawling on a tablet, probably trying to entertain my mother but also just wanting to figure things out. I had polio when I was a little kid, which gave me a lot to think about. Polio also made me realize I’d better learn how to have fun, because it was apparent early on that life consisted of a lot more than free movies and popcorn.

Although you are known most widely for your poetry, you also write essays, literary criticism, children’s literature—and even a biography of rock legend Little Richard. What is your favorite form of writing—and why?

Oh, poetry’s just the best. Poetry is where the true freedom is. I’ll always work in the other genres, just as I won’t have a tuna sandwich for lunch every day. But I’ll always come back to poetry.

What are your current areas of interest? What would you say are some of the main areas of interest and themes running through your work over the years?

Well, it’s always interesting to look back and see how things have changed, isn’t it? I used to write fairly traditional twenty-line poems, but everyone was doing that, so I started writing the big fellows. And it’s funny: editors would say “nice poem” about the traditional ones, but they either loved or hated the big guys, so I knew I was on the right track. I’ve always seen the world as a pretty amusing place, so I don’t know that my themes have changed that much over the years, though recently there has been more tenderness in my writing, more awareness of the world’s beauty. Oh, and just recently, I’ve started writing short poems again.

Kirby and wife Barbara Hamby, also an acclaimed poet and FSU professor, enjoy the cuisine during a trip to Japan.
Kirby and wife Barbara Hamby, also an acclaimed poet and FSU professor, enjoy the cuisine during a trip to Japan.

Those who know your body of work describe it as serious—often including deeply profound observations and insights. Yet you are known for your witty, engaging personality and entertaining style of public speaking, as well as for hilarious wit in some of your poems. Some might even describe you as a humorist. Would you discuss these contrasting perceptions? How you see yourself as a writer? 

That’s an easy question for me. Here’s the deal (1) I do use slapstick humor in maybe half my poems, but I also use irony, dry wit, tragedy, pathos, bathos, and everything else in the poetic toolbox. I want to build a real roller coaster for you so you can experience as many highs and lows as possible. Now (2) if you read much contemporary poetry, you realize that most poets are pretty sober. There are actually a fair number of poets who use comedy from time to time, and you’ll find a good many of them in Seriously Funny: Poems About Love, Death, Religion, Art, Politics, Sex, and Everything Else, an anthology I co-edited with my wife, the beloved Barbara Hamby. But as I say, most poets are pretty stone-faced, so most readers think of most poetry as joyless. Therefore (3) I’m always hearing, “Oh, David Kirby is the funny poet.” But I’d say no, David Kirby is the poet who tries to make sure you get the full roller coaster ride.

You have been a professor at Florida State University for 45 years and are highly respected and lauded as a teacher and mentor of young writers. What have you learned about teaching and what is your philosophy about how to mentor writers? What advice would you give to budding writers?

Teaching is like anything else; you just have to do the heck out of it and let it show you what your style is. Mine is to know everything I can about the subject, lighten all that freight with a joke from time to time, and, mainly, to be enthusiastic: for my subject, for my students, for myself. After that, it’s just time. Time, time, time. Spend as much quality time as you can with your students, and they’ll get better. Spend as much quality time as you can with your poems, and they’ll get better, too. And you will as well.

What do you think the role of a poet is in our society? What do you think it should be?

Have you seen that Woody Allen movie Stardust Memories? At the end, Woody’s character asks this space alien what he should do to be a better person, and the alien says, “Tell funnier jokes.” That’s our job: grow better crops, build better houses, play better songs, write better poems. Don’t worry about the rest of it. I always tell my students to take a self-inventory every few years. If you avoid the things you can’t do well or don’t like to do, which are usually the same, then you can spend your whole time being good at something that others will appreciate and that will be a reward in itself. The poet William Matthews says, “Life is fun when you’re good at something / good.” But not everybody has to be a poet; you just have to do something worth doing.