by Eric Hoffman
Burt Kimmelman teaches literary and cultural studies at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. He is the highly acclaimed author of eight collections of poems. Kimmelman’s poetry has received praise from such notables as Robert Creeley (“a rare evocation”), Jerome Rothenberg (“a strict & powerful accounting”), Alfred Kazin (“artful, fastidious, learned”), and Susan Howe (“a singularly locating force”). In addition to his poetry, Kimmelman has also produced an impressive body of critical work, including numerous penetrative essays as well as two full-length books, The Poetics of Authorship in the Later Middle Ages: The Emergence of the Modern Literary Persona (Peter Lang, 1996) and the ground-breaking study The ‘Winter Mind’: William Bronk and American Letters (Fairleigh Dickinson, 1998). It was this latter effort, first encountered over a decade ago during research on my biography of George Oppen, which led me to contact Kimmelman, initiating a conversation on poetry that continues to this day. A small cross-section of that conversation is here provided, albeit in the less casual format of a formal interview, occasioned by the recent publication of Kimmelman’s Gradually the World: New and Selected Poems, 1982-2013 (BlazeVox, $18). This interview was conducted via e-mail primarily from April-May 2014, with a brief follow up in July.
Eric Hoffman: Burt, a fair amount of your work experiments with formal verse, in most cases with syllabics. What is it about working this way that appeals to you? Do you believe that working with syllabics encourages invention?
Burt Kimmelman: I first set eyes on Donald Allen’s watershed anthology, The New American Poetry, in 1965. A decade before the Allen book, Charles Olson had published his ground-shaking essay "Projective Verse" (1950); that essay was given pride of place in the poetics section of Allen’s book. So, for a fledgling poet like myself, the question of writing free verse was not a no-brainer so much as moot (I had written some sonnets, haikus, a couple of concrete poems etc., and did get great pleasure out of set form, but was not at that time in a position to have any particular form work for me in any kind of creative or generative way). Olson's astonishing essay (to say nothing of his amazing poetry, an exemplar I took to heart) explained, so to speak, how to leave free verse behind for something rigorous but not formal in any sense except the sui generis sense—as Robert Creeley had said, “form is nothing more than an extension of content.”