Poetry Reboot: Interview with Kim Roberts

Today is the second in a series of author interviews—and though this is a “Fiction” Reboot, I am offering today a special focus on poetry. In my classes and in my practice, I have never thrown up barriers between the two kinds of writing; I find they are wonderful bedfellows. Or, perhaps more appropriately, they seem to act as fellow midwives, each giving birth to an idea that shapes and guides its sister form. I began by writing poetry, and through poetic story-telling found my way to fiction. And so, in homage to those beginnings (and to my students and blog followers who are themselves poets), I have invited Kim Roberts to join us today.

About the Author

Kim Roberts is the author of five books, most recently Animal Magnetism, winner of the Pearl Poetry Prize (Pearl Editions, 2011), and the anthology Full Moon on K Street: Poems About Washington, DC (Plan B Press, 2010).  She edits the journal Beltway Poetry Quarterly, and co-edits, with Dan Vera, the web exhibit DC Writers’ Homes.  She has been a writer-in-residence at 13 artist colonies (and is scheduled for a 14th this July), and is the recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Humanities Council of Washington, and the DC Commission on the Arts.  Individual poems of hers have appeared in literary journals beginning with every letter of the alphabet, have been set to music and modern dance, and have been translated into Spanish, Portuguese, German, and Mandarin.  Roberts will be a visiting writer on the campus of Winona State University this coming October.  Her website: http://www.kimroberts.org.


1.  As a medical humanist, 18th c historian and fiction writer, I find I spend much of my time crossing (transgressing?) boundaries. Your own work, with its amazing nexus of soul, spirit, embodiment–and even anatomy and biology–seem to transcend traditional genres. Can you tell us about the nature of your border crossing? What kinds of obstacles (if any) have you overcome to achieve this beautiful synthesis?

I have no training of any kind in science–yet I am drawn to scientific subjects often in poetry.  Sometimes I think it’s my very ignorance that provides a path for the poem, because, if I’ve done it right, the reader will experience the same sense of surprise and discovery as I do.  But that’s probably too simplistic–I do a fair amount of research for most poems, and I hope that comes through as well, so the reader trusts the voice of the narrator.  I don’t think of my poems as crossing boundaries.  I think of them as balancing the tension of opposites.

2.  I know that some of your poems have longer narrative arcs (The Wishbone Galaxy). Can you talk to us about poem and story? What and the benefits or limitations of different poetic forms?

The Wishbone Galaxy includes a sequence of 14 connected poems, “The Constellation Frigidaire,” which was the last thing I wrote for that book–and I think is the strongest part of the book.  It’s a sequence about the breakup of a romantic relationship, using the stars and planets as metaphors for what went wrong.  What I learned from working on that was the joy of continuity–that I could still make individual poems, but that I didn’t have to make up the entire world from scratch each time I sat down in front of a blank piece of paper.

My second book of poems, The Kimnama, is a single long poem.  That book was created out of a travel journal I kept while living in India.  I went back through the journal and lifted lines, then reworked them and rearranged them and that became the book.  The title comes from a tradition of the Mughal Emperors of northern India–they had scribes keep daybooks on their reigns that were named for each emperor–so, for example, Babur’s was the Baburnama, and Akbar’s was the Akbarnama.  “Kmnama” basically means “the history of Kim.”

My latest book of poems, Animal Magnestism, intertwines two distinct sequences, the Medical Museum poems and the Imaginary Husband poems.  I wrote those two series over the same time period, but in my mind they were completely separate and distinct.  Michael Gushue, who is co-editor of the press that published my second book, Vrzhu Press–he was the one who told me that they belonged together.  I resisted mightily at first–but he was right.  Sometimes we get too close to our own poems, and it takes a valued outside opinion to set us straight.

So you see I like series.  Most times I am not aware I am actually starting a series.  I just find myself going back again and again to a certain subject, so it’s clear I’m not done wrestling with it.  (The big exception to that of course was writing “The Kimnama”–that was always a long poem, even before I started writing.)

The benefit of writing in a series is the tension–there’s that word again!–that the writer gets to develop between the lyric impulse of each short section, versus the overall narrative of the whole. Plus I like the satisfaction of having a “project.”

3.  My students are often both intimidated and intrigued by rhyme and meter. Can you offer suggestions for how to make it a strength and not a weakness?

I love writing in rhyme and meter!  I find it’s a wonderful tool for forcing writers to speak and think differently–to break patterns that we all form when communicating, and use different word choice, different syntax, different word order, different pacing.  I write in form quite a lot.  Sometimes I use form as a starting point, then revise the poem into free verse later.  And I love the traditional forms that are less obvious–where the reader doesn’t recognize the form they’re reading.  I think as writers we have a  duty to learn as much as we can about the structure of our language, to love it completely, and find new ways to play with the words.  If students are intimidated, then they’re not allowing themselves to try and fail–which is the key to all art, as far as I’m concerned. You won’t push yourself to try new things and take risks unless you gives yourself permission to fail.  Students must learn–like all of us–to be more forgiving of themselves, and to be more playful.

4.  Your use of language is truly inspired. Can you talk about the process of refining the language of a poem? How do you begin? What is the revision process like? How do you know when you are “done”?

Thank you!  That’s lovely to hear.  I do think that poems need to be equally about what they are saying (the plot) and how they are saying it (the song elements)–and that a poem builds meaning equally out of both.  Plot and characterization offer a way into the poem, and they offer an emotional connection to the reader.  But most plot is not going to be new.  We humans rarely come up with anything truly new.  So the music of our language must pick up the slack–we bring surprise to our poems through the word choice, pacing, line breaks, line length, alliteration, internal rhyme, rhythm, etc.  All forms of repetition (of sound, beat, word, refrain) are pleasurable if handled well–and the music brings texture and nuance to the plot.

As to how you know you’re done–that’s a hard one.  T.S. Eliot once said, “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.”  I am an inveterate tinkerer, so I can keep a poem in draft form for months, sometimes years.  But I have a very talented writer’s group I depend upon–we meet once a month and discuss works in progress.  They are great about telling me firmly where I’ve gone down a wrong road, and where my language sags, and steering me back on the right path.  And I have some very valued friends who I depend upon when I start putting poems together to make a book, and they are good at telling me which poems need to get cut, and rearranging poems.  I think it’s a good idea to get advice.  The writing process is solitary.  Much of the revising process is too.  But everyone needs guidance from friends.

5.  From where do you draw your inspiration(s)?

From books for the most part.  I find something I’m reading fascinates me, and then I want to read more.  I also love museums, and looking at art and artifacts is a continual source of inspiration.

6.  You are also the editor of Beltway; has the experience shaped or changed your approach to writing?

Oh yes.  I started Beltway Poetry Quarterly in January 2000–so I’ve been doing it quite a while now.  And as with anything, practice makes you better.  The longer I do it, the better editor I become–and those are some of the same skills I need when revising my own work.  The journal has definitely helped hone my critical thinking skills.

It has also helped me connect more deeply to my community, for which I am eternally grateful.  I publish writers from the greater Washington, DC region and the Mid-Atlantic, and the journal has provided me introductions to so many writers I admire.

7.  Do you have suggestions for aspiring poets, especially as concerns publication?

Yes–read.  Read voraciously, constantly.  Read things you are drawn to immediately, then challenge yourself with things that are harder.  Read what comforts you, and what makes you squirm.  Don’t stop.

8.  Are there any resources you would like to suggest?

Any ambitious writer can teach herself more about language, and get more mastery over her use of language, by studying poems in traditional verse forms and trying to write in those forms.  There are traditional forms from every country and every culture–some translate into English better than others.  The book I spent a year poring over (I interned myself to this book!) is out of print now, but I still love it, and you can often find it in used book outlets.  It’s called Strong Measures: Contemporary American Poetry in Traditional Forms, edited by Philip Dacey and David Jauss.  They compiled a great collection of poems–and the Appendix at the back where they define each form is invaluable.  I would have added more forms, personally–I wish ghazals and some other Asian forms were included.  But this is a small quibble: the book should be a starting point for exploring; we should not expect it to cover the whole universe.  Also: writers should get themselves a good thesaurus.  When you get stuck on a poem, change some key words for synonyms.  And then I think everyone should read the 1855 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.  If you have read it already, it helps to read it again.


Tune in tomorrow for Fiction Feature Friday–next week we will be hosting Tessa Harris, the author of The Anatomists Apprentice!

If you have announcements or items you would like me to address in this section of the Fiction Reboot, please don’t hesitate to contact me!

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