Equal Parts Instruction & Delight: An Interview with poet, editor, & literary historian, Kim Roberts
By Kari Ann Ebert
Kim Roberts is an award-winning poet, founding editor of Beltway Quarterly Review and Delaware Poetry Review (2007-2017), as well as co-editor of the web exhibit DC Writers' Homes. Living in Washington DC, she can be found researching, conducting literary walking tours of DC neighborhoods for nonprofits and schools, or speaking, conducting workshops, and writing works infused with her strong sense of place. Roberts is the author of A Literary Guide to Washington, DC : Walking in the Footsteps of American Writers from Francis Scott Key to Zora Neale Hurston (University Press, 2018) and five books of poetry. Her individual poems have been published widely in journals throughout the US, as well as in Israel, Canada, Ireland, France, Brazil, and New Zealand and in over 40 anthologies. She is also editor of two anthologies.
Grace Cavalieri, Maryland’s Poet Laureate called Roberts “a scholar in poets clothing,” and Roberts herself has said that her most recent collection of poetry, The Scientific Method (WordTech Editions, 2019), houses poems that “translate science for a non-specialist audience.” But it does so much more than that. Whether deep-diving into the fishy lexicon of “Hatchery” or taking an ontological approach to chimneys, cars, and telephone calls in “The Thing in the Thing,” Kim Roberts puts everything under her microscope. Readers are plunged into the interior of the poems’ subjects, leaving them with a sense of having been gifted secret knowledge.
Broadkill Review: To begin with, can you talk a little bit about your practice as both a poet and prose writer? What is your practice as an editor?
Kim Roberts: I am a fairly prolific writer—but a large proportion of what I write is unusable. I’ve had to learn that a big part of my process is simply allowing myself to produce a whole lot of bad writing. So I am constantly forgiving myself! I give myself permission to write crap, in the hopes that it will eventually allow me to come up with something worth keeping.
Editing is completely different, as I’m usually working on a deadline. (I assume you mean editing the work of others, not revising.) But writing and editing are of course two related skills: editing has honed my analytical abilities, which in turn has made me a better writer.
BKR: You’ve mentioned that you started researching writers’ residences in Washington DC so you could feel more connected to a sense of place after moving there 30 years ago. Your book, A Literary Guide to DC: Walking in the Footsteps of American Writers from Francis Scott Key to Zora Neale Hurston, was birthed out of that research. You also put together an anthology and two special edition books centering on DC and Arlington, VA. In addition, in your most recent book of poetry the last section of the book is made up of poems of place. This is a large portion of your writerly universe, this concept of place. Can you talk about what it means to you, how it informs your writing as well as the projects you’re drawn to?
KR: Setting has always been extremely important to me—much more so than plot—and setting, handled skillfully, can become almost like another character in a book. I love literature that is firmly grounded in place, that transports the reader to someplace recognizable and specific.
When I moved to DC, I immediately started reading about the history of the city and exploring the built environment of my new home. I find that this connects me more deeply—and I love the idea of layers of history inhabiting the same location. Working as a literary historian of DC has allowed me to combine two things I am passionate about: I can trace how the writers who lived here were influenced by the environment of this city.
BKR: What is the most generative place (or space) in your life?
KR: Much of my writing starts with reading—so I read as much, and as widely, as possible, and try to remain open to influence. I’m also really moved by going to museums and historic sites. But for the actual writing, I need a quiet space, some privacy, and I like writing in the mornings best when I’m fresh.
BKR: Georgia Douglas Johnson is a particular favorite of yours among important Harlem Renaissance writers. She ran a Saturday night literary salon in DC, which encompassed all intellectual subjects including civil rights. Many readers may not be familiar with her and her sweeping influence. Can you speak to her importance and the importance of bringing such women to the public’s attention? Do you have any plans to work on a project with DC women writers as the sole focus?
KR: I’m in awe of people who can build community, who can draw others to them and create spaces that allow for both reflection and connection to others. Georgia Douglas Johnson was such a person. She hosted weekly salons in her home at 1461 S Street NW from 1921 to approximately 1928; she continued hosting gatherings more sporadically through the Great Depression and into the early 1940s. She was a mentor to many and a generous friend. She wrote that she named her home Half-Way House because “I’m halfway between everybody and everything, and I bring them together.” I wish her work was more widely known! It’s a mystery why some writers continue to be read and taught and loved—and others get lost over time. Johnson began publishing actively in 1916, prior to the start of the Harlem Renaissance period and published five books of poems. She also wrote six plays and 32 song lyrics—she was one of the best-published women authors of her time period—and she did all this while working full-time (after her husband’s early death in 1925).
I’ve tried in my small way to bring Johnson back into prominence, including her in my book A Literary Guide to Washington, DC and on the website I co-curate with Dan Vera, DC Writers’ Homes. I’ve presented papers about her at libraries and conferences—and will again at the Associated Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference in 2020, in a panel called “New Engagements with Forgotten Writers.” I always include her home when I give walking tours of the U Street neighborhood. I have no plans at this point to put together a project focused specifically on DC women writers—but I love the idea. If I did, you can be sure Johnson would be part of it.
BKR: You’ve played with traditional form as well as free verse in The Scientific Method. One of your poems in particular, “Hearing Loss,” reads like a hybrid of sorts or perhaps simply a new form. You’ve used each line in section one again in section two in a new way, varying the punctuation, and even using a homonym. What do you think is achieved when a poet fits the content of a poem into the finite limits of traditional form? Which is more natural for you? If you had to name the form in “Hearing Loss,” what would you call it?
KR: “Hearing Loss” is a nonce form—a form made up for a single occasion. I love working in form because it forces me to speak differently than I might otherwise, to break my own linguistic patterns and surprise myself. Learning traditional verse forms is a great discipline—it connects me to the long line of poets who’ve come before, and allows me to explore the forms of different cultures and time periods. The fact that we’re still writing pantoums like the ancient writers of Malaysia, or sestinas like the French troubadours is delightful. Plus I love the playfulness of working in form, of trying to fit my ideas into the patterns of meter or rhyme or repetition. I tend to think that most ideas are floating out there, looking for the best form in which to present them.
BKR: Your mother was deaf (but didn’t know sign language), and your father was very quiet. You said, “I was, by the way, my mother’s human hearing aide.” And “My father was the kind of man who never talked about himself, never talked at all. He was just like a cypher.” (NOVA Review launch keynote address, 2017). How do you think this attention to words and silences contributed to your life and growth as a writer?
KR: Absolutely. Writing is such a strange way to communicate. Instead of talking directly to someone else, we go into a room by ourselves and scratch symbols onto paper. Then we try to get our words published, and we try to help the published work find its reading audience—that’s pretty circuitous and abstract! I think most writers are people for whom the more direct ways of communicating didn’t work well (for whatever reason—and usually starting in our youth). Language is an imperfect medium, and it’s so easy for us to misunderstand one another. But the mystery of language is also its great beauty.
BKR: There has been much talk recently about the discovery and forthcoming publication of Zora Neale Hurston’s lost work, though it is certainly not the first discovery of its kind. Ms. Hurston holds a prominent place in America’s literary history and as a major writer who used anthropological research and detailed field notes that few women writers of her day employed. What do you see happening in relation to these discoveries? What is the importance of the publication of these works?
KR: I love Hurston’s writing—both her fiction and her nonfiction—and I’m thrilled to see her get this posthumous recognition. It’s well deserved! But Hurston is also an example of a writer who was forgotten getting re-discovered, and that gives me hope for a range of other writers. There’s a certain randomness to what we consider canonical American writing, and I feel strongly that we need to widen our scope. We like to believe this myth that the “cream” rises to the top—that our best writers will endure. But it’s much more complex: racism and sexism play a large role of course. And each era has its own imperfect gatekeepers, determining what stays in print, and what gets taught to students. So much gets lost.
BKR: Grace Cavalieri mentioned that whenever she sees you at George Washington University, you’re “in the special collections department with your face in a book.” What draws you there so frequently? What is the most interesting fact or piece of work that you’ve uncovered in your many hours reading through archived material?
KR: I spend a lot of time in archives. Not just at GW University, but also at the Library of Congress, the Washingtoniana Collection at the DC Public Library, the DC Historical Society, the Moreland Spingarn Special Collections at Howard University. I plan trips to other cities to visit archives—archive tourism! I’ve done a fair amount of work at the Beinecke Library at Yale. Last April I got a grant to spend two glorious weeks in the special collections at Emory University in Atlanta.
There’s nothing quite like seeing the original documents of writers who’ve been meaningful to me, reading drafts of their poems, or going through their correspondence. It’s very moving. Whitman, for example, used his handmade notebooks in his poems, cutting and pasting lines. If you go to the originals, you can see where he tore out pages in order to cut them up. So that reveals something fascinating about his writing process.
BKR: How important is personal correspondence in your work? If someone were to read your correspondence and journals one day when they are archived, what would they be most surprised to find out?
KR: I love snail mail—and continue (stubbornly) to write old-fashioned letters. I love how correspondence slows me down. There’s a lot of overlap between my letters and my journals. I tend to use my journals not only as a place to write down what has happened to me, the daily events I want to remember—but also a place to type out excerpts of books and articles—so my journal is also what they used to call in the 1800s a “common-place book,” where I combine quotes, drafts of poems, interesting facts. It’s a scrapbook of ideas. Some of that ends up in personal correspondence. A lot of that ends up in my poems.
BKR: In that vein of surprise, a recent Paris Review finds Kaveh Akbar talking to Leslie Jamison about grace, delight, and surprises. He refers to Horace’s assertion that a good poem must delight and instruct. He then goes on to say, “I tend to think of his delight...as a kind of surprise, an encounter with an unprecedented experience of language or sound or living or thinking. I find a lot of poets so eager to charge into instruction that they forget about the other side, the surprise.” Do you agree with Horace? If not, what would you call the delight Horace asserts? Do you consciously cultivate surprise in your writing?
KR: I actually don’t think there’s enough instruction in poems anymore. I want to learn something new from reading poems—so I guess I want equal parts instruction and delight. And yes, I guess I do “consciously cultivate surprise.” When I know too much about where I want a poem to end up before I start writing it, it almost always fails. The writing feels wooden and predictable. I think a reader’s experience mirrors the writer’s—if the writer has learned something new from the experience of writing the poem, then the reader will too.
BKR: Can you tell readers about your forthcoming anthology, O Say Can You See: The Early Poets of Washington, DC (University of Virginia Press 2021)? What can they expect?
KR: I’m very excited about this book! I gather 125 poets who were writing from Washington’s founding in 1800 through the Great Depression of the 1930s. Some of the names of the authors I include will be immediately recognizable: Walt Whitman, James Weldon Johnson, Henry Adams, Ambrose Bierce, Frederick Douglass, and Paul Laurence Dunbar. But I worked hard to include lesser-known poets whose work is just as fantastic, just as deserving of our attention—particularly by women, working-class writers, and writers of color. For each poet, I include a short biography, placing their work into their historical context (and emphasizing their DC ties). There are quite a sizeable number of poets who were also federal employees, or journalists—and there’s a fascinating sub-group of poets who were born enslaved, who overcame traumatic beginnings to become writers of note. I loved finding poems that reflected the politics of their time period, and poems that drew on the city’s geography—and could only have been written by a DC resident.
Compiling this collection also allowed me to think more deeply about the history of DC, and how the context and setting in which we live inevitably influences what we write. DC’s history is so entangled with the federal government—so I’m hoping these authors I highlight have both local and national interest.
I also took pleasure in focusing on the city’s earliest writers, because I think their stories are less often told. So I have a role to play in their rediscovery. But it’s also fascinating to study the poets of a time when poetry was more accessible, more popular, and more a part of most Americans’ daily lives than is true today. Poems were regularly included in newspapers. They were memorized in school, recited at town hall meetings and family gatherings, copied into album books, mailed to friends.
BKR: You’ve been awarded writer’s residencies at eighteen artist colonies and retreats, the most recent being a two-and-a-half-month residency at Art Omi Sculpture Park in the Hudson River Valley, NY. What have you gained through the grand sum of these experiences? Can you speak specifically about your latest experience at Art Omi?
KR: I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have these opportunities. Artist colonies are places where you are juried in (based on a writing sample and a work description) and you stay for a period of time—usually a few weeks to a few months—in order to create new work. Your time is unscheduled and uninterrupted. Many of these places have staff to shop and cook and clean for residents. I’m always amazed at how much writing I can get done with that kind of focus.
Many artist colonies mix artists of different kinds together—writers alongside visual artists and composers. At Art Omi, that’s not the case: we were a group of just writers and translators. Art Omi is also unusual because their focus is international: fewer than half of the residents at any time are Americans. (During my stay, we had writers from Denmark, Spain, Germany, Australia, Sri Lanka, Scotland, the Philippines—plus writers born in Cameroon and the Dominican Republic.)
Art Omi is on the grounds of a stunning 130-acre sculpture park, and I walked in the park every single day of my residency. From the porch of the main house, we had expansive views of the Catskill Mountains. It was really glorious.
BKR: Finally, what are the most important elements a writer should focus on when applying for an artist residency? Alternatively, what advice do you have for a writer who has been awarded this opportunity to prepare for their time there?
KR: It’s crucial that you have a plan in place when applying for these residencies—a book to finish, or another kind of project that needs sustained attention. Since your time is unstructured, writers need to be self-disciplined. And in general, the kinds of applications that get selected tend to be ones where the writer can articulate a clear plan for how they’d like to use their time.
Once I’ve been accepted to a colony, my most important decision is always what books to pack. Whatever I’m reading will inevitably show up in what I’m writing.
* * *
To find out more about Kim Roberts, her publications, projects, and upcoming events, visit her website: kimroberts.org.
View three of Kim Roberts poems here.
Humble thanks to Kim Roberts for her thoughtful responses and agreeing to be interviewed during her residency at Art Omi. This interview was conducted by Kari Ann Ebert, winner of the 2018 Gigantic Sequins Poetry Contest and the 2019 Crossroads Ekphrastic Writing Contest. Ebert’s work has appeared in Mojave River Review, Philadelphia Stories, The Broadkill Review, Gargoyle, and Gravel as well as several anthologies. She was selected to attend the BOAAT Press Writer’s Retreat (2020) with Shane McCrae, awarded a full fellowship for the Brooklyn Poets Hudson Valley Retreat (2019), and selected to attend the Delaware Division of the Arts Seashore Writers Retreat (2016). Kari lives in Dover, Delaware where she enjoys making up-cycled art and collaborating with local artists, musicians, and writers.