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Literary Prestidigitations on Display

15 Questions: An interview with Burt Kimmelman


15 Questions: Burt Kimmelman

Author: Burt Kimmelman
Bio: Burt Kimmelman has published seven previous collections of poetry: The Way We Live (2011), As If Free ( 2009), There Are Words (2007), Somehow (2005), The Pond at Cape May Point (2002), a collaboration with the painter Fred Caruso, First Life (2000), and Musaics (1992). He has also published a number of book-length literary studies as well as scores of critical articles on medieval, modern, and contemporary poetry. In the 1980s and 1990s he was the senior editor of the now defunct Poetry New York: A Journal of Poetry and Translation.
Kimmelman was born and raised in New York City and now lives in a nearby suburb with his wife, the writer Diane Simmons. He teaches literary and cultural studies at New Jersey Institute of Technology.
Recent interviews of Kimmelman are available online: with Tom Fink in Jacket2 (text) and with George Spencer at Poetry Thin Air (video). Additional information and internet links can be found at
15 Questions

Tell me about your book.
This is a book that collects a good deal of the poems I’ve published over more than three decades, and it charts the development of my poetics. The newly published, the recent, poems that begin the book, exemplify a working praxis that is now fully evolved, and  so all together the book is making a statement as to what my poetry is and implicitly where it might fit into the North American canon. The book is graced by beautiful artwork by Basil King (including the book’s cover), which I feel aptly complements the poetics and let’s call it the philosophical outlook the poems embody.

What influenced this book?
Increasingly, over time, quality of attention has become hugely important to me in my life and in my writing especially, and this sense of the act of attention, or attending to the presence of moment-by-moment experience, is what I want more than ever to memorialize.
I’ve realized,  too, that the poets I’ve thought of as being the most important influences on me (I’m speaking of my immediate elders here rather than, say, a poet like William Carlos Williams or George Oppen, who have been cited frequently as literary ancestors of mine) were also poets of attention, so to speak (to name a few of them only: Paul Blackburn, Lorine Niedecker, Cid Corman, William Bronk, Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, Joel Oppenheimer, and Charles Olson  among my  elders who have now passed on—lately I’ve been realizing how crucial Blackburn’s contribution to letters and to my own work has been).

Where does this book fit into your career as a writer?
Up to this point in my life this book stands as the acme of my career as a poet. It is a major event in this sense at least.

If you had to convince a friend or colleague to read this book, what might you tell them?
I’d say: “Don’t try to understand the poems—rather, let them find you, and this may not happen right away.”

Tell me about the last literary reading you attended.
The last reading I attended was a group reading to celebrate the publication of an anthology, New Amearica (edited by James Tolan and Holly Messitt, published by Autumn House), which includes two of my poems. The book’s target is people who teach college introduction to literature courses.
The reading was a thrill, not least of all because of the quality of the literature I heard read (in alphabetical order work by: Chana Bloch, Denver Butson <> , Jason England, Kaylin Haught, Carlos Hernandez <> , Michael Montlack <> , Elizabeth Primamore, Evie Shockley, Diane Simmons <> , Hal Sirowitz, Patricia Smith, Sandy Tseng, and Estha Weiner, and me).
When did you realize you were a writer?
I was in college, studying to be a football coach. I was one of a handful of physical education majors who discovered literature and started writing. One of them showed me a poem he wrote and I thought I’d try to write a poem too. There was a Friday night workshop run by a professor. I soon realized my calling after attending. I switched my major to English.

Tell us about your process: pen and paper, computer, notebooks ... how do you write?
I start out writing by hand and after a number of drafts, when I feel sure I have something cogent, I put it in my computer and print a copy and then I go back and forth between  paper and pencil/pen and the computer. Often there are a great many drafts but not always.
I often hear a phrase in my mind that has a pithiness and music to it, and I start with that, but sometimes other provocations occur too. Recently I had a line come to me in a dream. I think I remembered it correctly and it led to a poem.

How do you handle a bad review of your work?
Reviews of my poetry have always, thus far, been positive. I did see a blog post one time, however, which trashed me. And at times some reviewers have had quibbles with one thing or another.
I try to see how my disappointment is part of a larger process and I try to see what is being said and make something of it, reflect on my writing as a future process in relation to it, try to make it a teaching moment for myself. A bad review can haunt, however, as I know from a negative review of a literary-critical book I published.

Which writer would you most like to have a drink with, and why?
I think I’d have to say Geoffrey Chaucer, because he was obviously someone who rolled with the punches and found the comedy in life. But maybe he would have wanted to have had that drink with Guillaume de Machaut (who may have shown Chaucer what funny could be in some weird way), so maybe if I could get that drink with any one writer I ought to choose Machaut, go right to the source. They were both survivors in tough political times, in  early fourteenth-century France and later fourteenth-century England. Chaucer was a genius but he owed a lot to Machaut (who was only being recognized as something other than a literary hack—he has always been lauded as a great comporser—about fifteen  or so years ago).

What's the biggest mistake you've made as a writer?
I stopped writing for about fourteen years, and eventually stopped reading too, when I was a young man, dropped out of the literary world. Wow!

What's the worst advice you hear authors give writers?
I can’t think of what that would be—I guess any bloviating by writers I’ve been either directly or indirectly subjected to, or heard vicariously, I’ve succeeded in forgetting (must be a survival mechanism in me).

What scares you the most?
Losing my mind.

Where do you buy your books?
If I’m in a hurry, I confess, I go to the Amazon website. Otherwise I try to support local booksellers and small presses.

Who are you reading now?
I’m reading Diane Simmons’ (my wife’s) new manuscript (creative nonfiction), which I won’t say more about with the exception that it’s gorgeous writing and really compelling otherwise. I do recommend her recent prize-winning collection of short stories, Little America.
Recent great novel I’ve read, worth one’s time: The History of Love by Nicole Krauss. Recent poetry: there’s been a good deal of work I’ve admired but don’t have the space here to mention it all, so I’ll opt for reticence on this.
What is your favorite TV show at the moment?
Rachel  Maddow. My favorite radio show is Radio Lab on NPR, with The Moth Hour coming in a close second. Lots more great stuff on the radio than on TV. But I’m not talking about cable, really, where there have been terrific shows I watch via NetFlix, like, some years passed already, The Wire or The  Sopranos or Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Bonus Round:
What do you want the world to know about you? Make it juicy.
I’m trying to make space in my life to write prose memoir. I’ve published one memoir piece I’m quite fond of, titled “The Carroll Capris,” in The Missouri Review. I wish more people would read it and write to me about it (my contact info is at, not least of all because I’m hoping someone can help me get the piece optioned for a film.