by Ramola D
Kim Roberts is the author of four books of poems, most recently Fortune’s Favor: Scott in the Antarctic (Poetry Mutual, 2015). She edited the anthology Full Moon on K Street: Poems About Washington, DC (Plan B Press, 2010), and co-edits two online literary journals, Beltway Poetry Quarterly and the Delaware Poetry Review, and one web exhibit, DC Writers’ Homes. Roberts is the recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Humanities Council of Washington, DC, and the DC Commission on the Arts, and has been a writer-in-residence at 14 artist colonies.
Ramola D: Kim Roberts is truly a literary light in Washington, DC. Like many writers and poets from the DC area, I’ve been fortunate to know her, and have frequently been the recipient of her thoughtful and generous attention as she regularly solicited and accepted poetry for her finely-edited, long-running online literary review, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, engaged writers in various initiatives such as the Arlington Moving Words competition which places poems on public Metro buses, edited the work of local poets for her anthology Full Moon on K Street: Poems About Washington, DC, hosted readings around town including at the Library of Congress, and went out of her way to introduce each poet in depth.
As a poet who cares about other poets, she continues to profile poets and feature great poetry in Beltway. In addition, she has become a prominent literary historian in DC, leading tours of famous writers’ and poets’ homes, and running the informative DC Writers’ Homes website (http://www.dcrwriters.org) with Dan Vera. I’m quite honored to have this opportunity to interview her for this edition of the Delphi Quarterly, and pleased to offer here a profile of her own extraordinary work.
Congratulations on two new books of poetry, Kim, in quick succession!—your most recent, Fortune’s Favor, and the prize-winning Animal Magnetism. Let’s start with Fortune’s Favor—is the book out currently, can it be ordered online?
Kim Roberts: Yes! Thanks for asking. The book can be ordered directly from the publisher, Poetry Mutual, at http://www.poetrymutual.org/books/roberts2.html. I am indebted to my publishers, Michael Gushue and Dan Vera, for their enthusiasm and the care they took with this project. This is the second of my books to be published by Poetry Mutual, a small press based in Washington, DC. Both Fortune’s Favor and The Kimnama, which they published in 2007, are book-length poems. And both were greatly strengthened by the efforts of these two remarkable men. Dan Vera has a wonderful way of seeing a long poem as a whole, and helping it to find its shape as a book. Michael Gushue is the most astute line editor I know: he worked with me on each book’s word choice and structure. They have made me a better poet.
Rd: Fortune’s Favor is an extraordinary and thought-provoking book, featuring the diary of Robert Falcon Scott, from his second and last trip to Antarctica, retrieved after a rescue expedition found his team’s bodies, eight months after they perished—how did you come to this subject, what was the great attractor that drew you to it, as subject for poetry?
KR: For over twenty years, I have been reading books on polar exploration—usually I read a book (or two) on the subject every summer, during the hottest months. It’s a great way to counteract the intense mugginess of a DC summer. I am drawn to these books because they are great adventure stories, because they involve the kind of athleticism I will never experience except imaginatively. But the main attraction to me is how obsessive these explorers were. They were willing to risk starvation, scurvy, frostbite, even death. I guess you could say I am obsessed with obsessives.
Rd: Did you choose the form deliberately, the blank verse sonnets, or how did that happen?
KR: Oh, yes, that was deliberate. In order to channel a voice so different from my own, it helped to have the formal structure. Scott was military trained, upper class, British. He believed firmly in maintaining rank and caste. There was something delicious about appropriating his story, considering how completely unacceptable I would have been to him in real life: not just as a woman, but as a Jew.
Rd: That’s intriguing. Did he view Jews –and women!—as outsiders in some way? A hundred years ago of course, in British society, women were seen as “having their place” and not welcome outside of it.
KR: Well, the worlds Scott was part of, the military and exploration, were considered man’s sole province. And Scott picked men for his expeditions who fit his narrow idea of manliness: they were all white, all Christian, with few exceptions all English. The mascot of their ship was a black cat named Nigger, which gives you an idea of their attitude toward race. When Apsley Cherry-Garrard, one of the men on the expedition, later described the Norwegian team who beat them to the South Pole by 21 days, he described their leader condescendingly: “The truth was that Amundsen was an explorer of the markedly intellectual type, rather Jewish than Scandinavian.” Those are not Scott’s words—but I believe Scott would have shared the sentiment. Scott served in colonial posts early in his naval career, and was steeped in that world of white upper-class privilege. Despite all that—what can I say? He is still a fascinating personality, with a distinctive nature. I can’t help but admire his optimism, his assurance that his team was destined to succeed, that they deserved success. And he was evidently a very strong leader: his men loved him.
Rd: The whole trip comes vividly alive through your work, the place, the cold, the striving onward, and, interestingly, each of the different characters on his team. The narrative trend as well as the focus on character makes me want to ask, is writing fiction an interest? Or do you prefer exploring narrative in poetry?
KR: I actually started out as a fiction writer, and my undergraduate degree is a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Fiction Writing from Emerson College. But—strange you should ask! I quickly found that plot is the least interesting part of writing prose to me. I am much more drawn to characterization and setting. And that’s part of the reason I made the switch to writing primarily poetry. My graduate degree is an MFA in Poetry from the University of Arizona. I guess you could say I have a matched set of degrees.
Rd: That is absolutely perfect. I always wanted to go back and do a second MFA in Fiction myself but never did—I just write fiction now anyway, along with poetry.
Your earlier poetry is no stranger to narrative though, nor to stories of historical interest. In your third book, Animal Magnetism, you feature many accounts of trips to intriguing medical-history museums, and spotlight many interesting objects with histories, such as the “Apothecary Doll” at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, DC and the “Anatomical Waxes” at La Specola Museum in Florence. How did these museum visits occur—did they rise from a particular interest?
KR: That was my cancer book. I nursed a dear friend through her final illness, and just before she died of cancer I got my own diagnosis. But I’m not the kind of poet who writes in a confessional style, at least not in a straight-forward confessional style, so I had to find a way to write about my experiences with cancer, both as a witness and as a patient, that were satisfying to me. So I started reading historic medical texts and visiting medical museums. I would pick an item from a collection that fascinated me, and use that as a way to explore my own feelings about the frailty of the human body. Sometimes I would pick an implement, such as a blood-letting basin, and sometimes an actual human specimen, such as a skull, as my starting point.
Rd: Stories are locked within stories in the poems, scattered across the book, so it’s not till one goes through and reads all of it that that underlying thread of personally experienced illness slowly reveals itself. Were these poems written across a long period, was something being thought through, slowly over time?
KR: Yes, the book took several years. I moved in with my friend Martha in 2002, so I’d guess the book took about eight years in total. Some writers seem to be able to write out of the rawness and immediacy of traumatic experiences, but I am not one of them. I need time to discover what I feel, and then I need more time to edit and re-edit. I also wanted to find a way to approach the subject of cancer that was authentically mine. I wrote a lot of horrible drafts of not-yet-poems when I was caring for Martha, and it became clear to me that I did not want to write about witnessing her experience—that felt disrespectful. But I was really moved by some of the things I was reading: I went back to Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days, in particular—and I found comfort. And then I discovered all these medical museums—that was the way doctors were trained in the 19th century, by looking at abnormal preserved human specimens. I started traveling to museums, making pilgrimages. I started balancing the prurient part of me that was both curious about and repelled by the grotesque, with a truly reverent sense of how we learn from and preserve human specimens. These are places with a moral duty as well as an educational history. They are amazing.
Rd: It’s wonderful that you are, in a sense, documenting these medical museums—for other poets, and for literature itself—to discover.
KR: A few of these collections are open to the public; the most famous one is the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. But other collections can be visited by request by scholars and those with a particular interest. I wrote a short article in 2006 for a medical magazine about the ones open to the public in the Mid-Atlantic region. You can find it online here: Mid-Atlantic Medical Museums.
Rd: There are many things that stand out about these poems, not least the quality of understated, or just laugh-out-loud humor and wit, as in “Dan,” or “Folding Chairs” where we meet the Bobs: “Everyone had a Bob then, so we identified them by the women they associated with.” Not everyone writes in that deadpan way, so I have to ask, how is humor important to you, in your work?
KR: I’m so glad you found humor in the book! Otherwise, the subject would simply be too bleak. And if we can’t laugh, what have we got? I do think that too many contemporary American poets take themselves way too seriously. But my favorite writers create contrasts, a tug of opposites. If I am writing well, I am always juggling that tension in subject and in tone. That’s my goal. I was just reading an interview in the Paris Review with James Tate, who recently died. Tate says that tragedy and comedy are “in the same theater, on the same stage. That’s true of the best poems. You can’t tell where they are going to go. One can start with tragedy and end with comedy, or the other way around…we walk around balancing the two all the time. I, for one, am not giving in. I am not going to walk around in tears all day long. I still want to have a good day if I can.”
Rd: That’s such a great way to remember James Tate, and his gift too for imagery. I’d like to ask about your interest in image. There’s a wonderful quality of description in the ekphrastic poems gazing at paintings or objects frozen in time—as in “Still Life with Fish, Mollusks, Asparagus, and a Trussed Chicken,” an object rescued from the ash of Mt.Vesuvius from the 1st century: “Most amazing/are the heaped plates of fish/ruffled fins/glistening pink//and the squid that stands/on tentacles/ and winks his black eye.” The power of description–as in Van Gogh’s desire to “paint what (he) sees” and John Berger’s observing eye—comes through; what is it about describing the physical world that is meaningful to you?
KR: Well, you’ve probably picked up by now how much I adore museums. I spend a lot of time in museums. The funny thing is that I’m not really visually oriented, not naturally, so I’ve had to train myself to learn to see better. So perhaps I am overcompensating. But visual art is a continual source of inspiration for my writing.
Rd: I also appreciate the studied, thoughtful tone in many of the reflective poems on objects and personal relationships, the poems become not merely personal reflections but vehicles for contemplation then, that draw the reader in, as in “Richard Diebenkorn’s “Figure on a Porch””: “It is human to reason,/ to try to make sense/ from the abstract. It is human/ to place ourselves on the porch.” How is voice important in your poetry, do subjects for poems—and poems themselves—present themselves in different ways, calling for a different tone and treatment in each case?
KR: I think subjects demand their individual form. I believe that any subject—every subject—is worthy of a poem. But the content of the poem needs to be matched with the song elements. That is to say, word choice, tone, alliteration, line length, pacing, rhythm, repetition—all the decisions writers make about the form of the poem they are writing—influence the meaning. The form needs to either complement the content or work in contrast to it—that tension of opposites again. Those are your two choices. And the work of the poet is to make that match. I think I’ll be trying for the rest of my life to learn more about those lessons of craft.
Rd: Who are some of the poets you are inspired by, or can feel yourself influenced by, and why, what draws you to them?
KR: You will probably think I’m crazy when I admit this—and you probably will be right. But recently I compiled my own anthology of 100 Favorite American Women Poets. It’s not for publication—it’s a personal reference. I’m calling it “The Kimthology.” Putting it together over many months forced me to re-read favorite poets, and also to go back to some of my influences from earlier time periods: poets from the Colonial, Federal, Civil War, and Reconstruction eras. I included some poets who are well known (Anne Bradstreet, Phillis Wheatley, Emily Dickinson, Gertrude Stein) and some who are too often forgotten or overlooked (Charlotte Forten Grimké, Emma Lazarus, Alice Dunbar-Nelson). I re-ignited my love for Marianne Moore, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Margaret Walker, Gwendolyn Brooks. Among the contemporary poets, I would also cite: Marilyn Hacker, Marilyn Nelson, Rita Dove, Mary Ruefle.
Rd: I don’t think it’s crazy at all–it sounds profound. And really does showcase the scholar you are. Those sound like wonderful re-discoveries. And a mix of both form-loving and form-imploding and experimental poets.
KR: And of course we read poets differently at different times of our lives. There are poets I simply didn’t get as a younger woman who now mean so much to me. And some of my early favorites have faded. But that’s why it’s so important to re-read, to keep challenging ourselves as readers to try poets who we didn’t connect to at first taste. Sometimes these poets are just waiting for us to mature into the right reader, the perfect reader for their poems.
Rd: I loved the poems in your second book, The Kimnama, recording your travels in India—the import of the title didn’t impact until I read the poems. Especially striking was the fact that you included the history from seventeenth and eighteenth-century journals from the Mughal Empire in India (which is of special interest to me, being from India)—that’s such an interesting story, would you like to explain those journals, that name?
KR: A few years ago, I had the good fortune to spend a couple of months in New Delhi. It was my first time outside of a Judeo-Christian culture, and completely eye-opening for me. I visited a huge number of mosques and Hindu temples. I also read as much as I could about the history of the city. And I was fascinated by the Mughal emperors. These were Muslim rulers who invaded Northern India from further north, traveling over the Hindu Kush mountains from Afghanistan, to conquer a Hindu majority. The Mughals ruled from 1526 until the time of the British Raj—who was a different sort of invader. So much of the culture of Northern India derives from that combination of Islamic and Hindu cultures co-existing for so long. The title started out as a joke: the emperors all had court scribes who kept daily diaries of their reigns. “Nama” is a Persian word, meaning “history” or “book,” and each emperor’s book was named for him. So The Baburnama is the History of the Emperor Babur, and The Akbarnama is the History of the Emperor Akbar. I was being very grand and pompous when I called my own modest book of experiences The Kimnama.
Rd: The poems in The Kimnama as also many in Animal Magnetism, are written in very beautiful tercets. Most of your poems, whatever form they assume, seem to exhibit a symmetry of form throughout—and in Fortune’s Favor, your poems are sonnets. I guess it’s slowly dawning on me there is an extraordinary attention to form here in your work—how do you see it, how important is form to you?
KR: For me, the ideal poem is equally dependent on what it says and how it says. That goes back to what I was saying before about content and form. They both create meaning. Perhaps I am more insistent on this point since I started out writing prose. To me, poems must be more than prose with line breaks. And playing around with form is endlessly amusing! Even my free verse poems—many of them started in traditional verse forms, and then I revised them into free verse. I find the structure of traditional verse forms paradoxically freeing.
Rd: The Kimnama reads like a travelogue, and a mirror of India, such intimate descriptions of the people in the street, the forts and tombs you have visited. How did the book come together, did you keep a journal as you traveled?
KR: Such an astute question! Yes, the poem is a re-written version of my daily journal. With lots and lots of editing. I didn’t realize that I was writing a book at the time, but later, when I started working on some poems about India, I went back to my journal and starting lifting phrases and images. And then I couldn’t stop—it got longer and longer until it turned into a book-length poem. I learned so much from my experience in New Delhi—and I felt intensely American. I hadn’t realized how much I took for granted until I was in a completely different culture from the one where I was born.
Rd: You are also a literary historian. Is there crossover, do you think, does your work there, excavating the work and lives of older writers spill over in some form or influence your own writing?
KR: Absolutely. My work as a historian is all focused on the writers of Washington, DC, and that research gives me a stronger sense of connection to the place I call home. The research combines all my passions: I look at the lives of individual writers and the literature they produced, but also the built environment of this one specific urban setting, and the web of connections groups of writers create. We are influenced so much by our environment and our historical context! And I love how cities change over time, and groups of writers do as well.
Rd: How did you come to be a researcher of writers’ homes and lives in Washington, DC?
KR: There’s a certain temperament you need to have to find this kind of thing fun—sitting in dusty archives, reading old City Directories, reading rare books, or the collected papers of a writer in a library’s special collections. It’s not for everyone. Luckily, I have a partner-in-crime: Dan Vera. Dan is also the type of person who finds archives fun, and we created the web exhibit DC Writers’ Homes in 2011, and update the site and add more writers every year.
Rd: And you’re an editor as well, of a now-quite-well-known poetry review, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, which is an online review, one of the first ones. Would you like to talk about the inception of Beltway, how it started, and how it’s grown over the years? What were some of your initial goals with Beltway?
KR: I can’t believe I’ve been doing it for 15 years now. I started the journal in January of 2000, with the help of a friend and web designer, Kathy Keler. Kathy created the logo and the template for issues, and taught me some very basic coding. My aim with Beltway Poetry was to document the poets of Washington, DC past and present, providing a forum to explore the richness and the diversity of one small geographic segment of the world. I try to include poets of all types: academic, spoken word, experimental. That has challenged me in some really good ways—I’ve learned to love the work of writers who I was not initially drawn to. Editing is a terrific way to hone your critical thinking, and the process has taught me more than I can say. But after 15 years, I needed a new infusion of energy. I am proud to say that this year I took on a co-editor, Gowri Koneswaran. She’s been a featured poet and a guest editor of Beltway Poetry in the past. She’s already proving herself to be an immense asset. I’m looking forward to learning more from her.
Rd: That’s terrific. You recently put together the really marvelous poetry anthology, Full Moon on K Street (in which I’m fortunate to have a poem) which features such a range of poets and poetry. Would you like to tell us more about that project, how it came together, what you found most rewarding about it?
KR: The anthology was compiled as part of Beltway Poetry’s ten-year anniversary, and was released in 2010 by Plan B Press. I included some poems from the journal, but also a large number that are not online. Full Moon on K Street is a collection of 101 poems by writers who currently or formerly lived in the greater DC area, written between 1950 and the year it was released. I was able to include some truly eminent writers: two-time U.S. Poet Laureate Reed Whittemore; DC’s first Poet Laureate, Sterling A. Brown; five-time presidential candidate Eugene J. McCarthy; and the winner of the Cervantes Prize for lifetime achievement in Spanish-language literature, Jose Emilio Pacheco. But I also included wonderful lesser-known and less published poets—a wide range. What they all had in common were poems set in recognizable places in Washington, DC, from monuments to bus stations. The title comes from a poem by Miles David Moore.
Rd: Since Delphi has a special interest in expanding the publishing arena to include the voices of small presses and the poets and writers who publish with them, I ask all editors what their view of the literary publishing world is today. What do you see happening, as the Internet has expanded options for all of us, are things improving, and becoming more inclusive, what is the future of literary publishing?
KR: I see a varied, healthy, expanding world for literary publishing. We have always benefited from the introduction of new technologies: the Small Press Movement of the 1970s was a direct outgrowth of new printing technologies that made it cheaper and easier for more people to join in and become publishers—and I think we’re going through the same sort of revolution now, with print-on-demand and digital technologies. When I first started writing in college, there were fewer options, and more gatekeepers, keeping out diverse voices—especially the voices of women, people of color, queer people. Thank God we have those voices now.
Rd: What lies ahead for you, or just round the corner, re. poetry and other projects?
KR: Well, I’m already at work on my next book, which seems to have a lot of poems about the history of science and technology. It’s still evolving. Knock on wood. I also continue to research writers from DC, and have a particular interest in the early writers, from the city’s founding until the beginnings of modernism—which coincides with the beginnings of the Jazz Age and the Harlem Renaissance. So many of these writers’ stories have been forgotten and deserve to be more widely known.
Rd: That sounds like a book to wait for. Do you have any words of advice you could give younger and beginning poets as they embark on a lifetime of writing?
KR: Read. Read widely and voraciously. Read everything you can get your hands on. Challenge yourself to read books that are difficult. And in between books, take a break and visit a museum.
Visit Kim Roberts’ website: http://www.kimroberts.org.
You’ll find excerpts of her books, links to Beltway Poetry Quarterly and DC Writers’ Homes, and much more.