Jerome Stern Distinguished Writers Series begins

The 2019 fall semester Jerome Stern Distinguished Writers Series is crammed with literary nutrition for the soul.

The weekly menu offers a feast of highly decorated authors from around the country and creative talent direct from the English department. The readers from out of town include Georgia’s poet laureate Chelsea Rathburn, National Book Award winner in poetry Justin Phillip Reed, and New York Times bestseller Kristen Arnett.

English Professor David Kirby, who has his own bounty of writing awards, kicks off the series Tuesday, Sept. 3. The fun happens each Tuesday evening beginning at 8 throughout the semester at The Bark, 507 All Saints St. The restaurant offers food and drink to add to the night out.

“I’m very excited about the readings we have slated for this fall,” Creative Writing Program Director and English Professor Skip Horack says. “We have a terrific lineup of very talented graduate students, FSU Professors David Kirby and Aaron Jaffe reading from their new books, and the Southeast Review fundraiser, of course. And more.”

The Southeast Review is the English department’s literary journal, and its annual fundraiser is scheduled for Oct. 15.

“I’m so thankful to Creative Writing Program assistant Laurel Lathrop and reading series hosts Bridget Adams and Keri Miller, for all the hard work they’ve put into bringing this together,” Horack says.

Kirby will read from his recently published collection of poems, More Than This. The Louisiana State University Press writes that his 12th collection of poetry is “shot through with the roadhouse fervor of early rock ‘n’ roll. . . . Little goes unnoticed in these poems: death is present, along with love, friendship, food, religious ardor and philosophical skepticism, nights on the town and quiet evenings at home.”

Being in front of a crowd for Kirby is usually far from quiet, for him and the audience, as he tears through his creations with spot-on timing and humor.

“I love to give readings,” he says. “You know, Stephen King’s the nicest man in the world. I was talking to him once, and he asked me what I did, and when I said I was a poet, he said, ‘I think poetry should be read aloud, don't you?’

“Sometimes a poet will say on Facebook that they hate to read, and when I look up their poems, I see why.”

Kirby starts to consider the act of reading aloud as he works through the writing process.

“Ninety-seven percent of my poems will only be known by people who see them in a magazine or a book, but I write every one of those babies as though I’m going to be in front of a microphone and you’re going to be in the audience listening and, if I’ve done my job, liking what you hear,” he says. “Especially when you read on a campus, yours might be the first poetry reading a lot of audience members have been to.

“And none of us are immortal, so it could also be the last poetry reading for some people. Make it good.”

More Q&A with David Kirby:

This is your 12th poetry collection. Does the feeling of finishing and holding a hard copy of the book in your hands ever change?

The most ecstatic feeling any artist experiences is in the middle stage of composition; that’s when you’re watching the work come together. When you’re rubbing your hands together and saying boy-o-boy over and over like a cartoon character, you’re on top of the world.

Now when that piece of writing actually goes out into the world, you feel a very opposite emotion: you’re patting your brow with a handkerchief and saying, “Oh, jeez, what have I done now?” Personally, though, I feel pretty content even at that point. I work on everything I do for a good long while, so I know I’ve done the due diligence. If the book works, it works. If it doesn’t? Okay, I’m already at work on another one.

As you went through the process of deciding which poems to include in the book, what was the most difficult part, especially in terms of the ones you had to leave out?

I’m certain that the person who came up with the expression “trial and error” was putting together a poetry collection at the time. Poetry is neither hard nor easy for me. It’s just something I do. In terms of process, I’m always going down the road at 35 mph with my arm out the window, checking out the scenery and thinking about what I’ll write next.

What this means is that, when it comes time to put a book together, I’ll have maybe five times as many poems as I can use. But a book isn’t a greatest hits collection. It has to have its own arc. It has to begin right and end right, and the poems in the middle need not only to lead the reader from start to finish but provide little hiccups and surprises and bottle rockets along the way.

On the book’s acknowledgments page, you thank the Florida Humanities Council for a residency at the Hermitage Artist Retreat, when you finished the book. Could you write a little bit about how that environment helped get you to the finish line?

That’s an experience I would call nice rather than essential. I’d never been to a writers colony before. When I got that Lifetime Achievement Award [in 2016] from the Florida Humanities Council, one perk was that I was offered six weeks at the Hermitage. I like my wife [English department Senior Lecturer Barbara Hamby] and my house and my cat and my mates and my bicycle, and six weeks sounded like a long time, so I said, could you make it two? And they said sure, so off I went.

When I first started writing and publishing, I had little kids and not much money, so I’d write at the kitchen table while the children played at my feet and something boiled on the stove. I had a beautiful cottage at the Hermitage which faced the beach, and about 11 a.m., some of the other artists and writers would spread their towels and rub sun block on each other and lie out as I moved lines and stanzas around, and then later in the afternoon they’d go in for drinks. Maybe they did this amazing amount of work after the sun went down, but I had the feeling some of them were there to get away from their families. I still have a credit for four more weeks at the Hermitage, but I don’t think I’ll use it.

This quote of yours comes from a 2007 interview: “One thing I want to do in my poems is portray the mind as it actually works.” Has that idea evolved much over the years? Do you think our minds work differently now, considering the changes in the ways we communicate?

Well, we don’t have the attention span we used to have, do we? But that’s okay. The stakes are higher these days. We live in this blizzard of information, so I figure I’ll just work that much harder to set that hook in the reader’s jaw and reel her in. The reader doesn’t owe me anything. It’s up to me to entrance the reader as best I can.