When a young Kim Roberts went to college to please her parents, she had no idea the writing classes she took to maintain her GPA would introduce her to a lifetime passion for poetry. Although she never left the arts, she followed a path somewhat different than she originally intended. In this interview with Weirding Word (SM), the editor of Beltway Poetry Quarterly discusses the inspired yet deliberate nature of creating poetry, her latest release The Kimnama, and the how integral writing and words are to her life.
WW: Tell me a little about yourself and how you got into poetry?
KR: I’m originally from North Carolina and grew up in North Carolina and Connecticut. I came to DC after grad school for a job teaching part-time as an adjunct at the University of Maryland. I knew I wanted to come back to the East Coast somewhere. I have a BFA in creative writing from Emerson in Boston, with an emphasis in fiction, and an MFA in poetry from the University of Arizona in Tucson. I found myself missing the vibrancy of the East Coast culture.
WW: Now you have a BFA in creative writing. How did you move into poetry?
KR: I started out thinking that I was going to be a professional musician. And I moved to Boston because they have such a great music scene—especially acoustic. So, I moved out there after high school. My father told me that if I’m ever going to go to college, I should go now. So, I applied to a school in Boston that would keep me in the music scene and that was Emerson College. I planned to take writing and English courses to keep my GPA up. Then I found that writing and creative writing used the same energy as writing music. It was something I began to think I’d like to do. At the time, I was writing both poetry and fiction, but my degree was in fiction.
It was a pretty direct path. I always knew I would do something in the arts.
WW: How did your father feel about that?
KR: My parents weren’t pleased that I chose an arts degree, but my father felt he’d fulfilled his responsibility and made sure I’d gone to college.
WW: Your work is not the poetry we usually learn about in high school. It doesn’t seem flowery, contrived. In high school it seemed like poetry came from dead white men from a Victorian era. How would you describe it?
KR: The strongest work we can create is the work where we allow ourselves to sort of obsessively explore the things that matter to us. A lot of art is figuring out your themes that you’re going to explore again and again. The issues that come up in my poems are my issues, but I wouldn’t write about nature. I’m more interested in the built environment, architecture and cities. If you’re only reading about dead white men, then you need to read something from somewhere else. You need to find other models.
WW: What don’t people generally understand about poetry?
KR: I guess what people don’t understand is that they need to trust themselves. The optimal experience of poetry is collaboration between the writer and the reader. There are literary forms where you feel the author’s hand at the helm a lot more strongly. Poetry is an interaction that depends on the reader. In poetry a lot of the process of reading depends on the reader working with the writer. For that reason, poetry is more difficult. It requires more. So, people get scared of it, but it also has the potential to be so much more powerful than the other arts. Poetry can actually change the way you see the world if you let it. But I think, often times, people don’t trust themselves to make meaning.
WW: How do you approach your work? How do you create?
KR: Basically, my process is to just write a lot and to allow myself to do writing that ultimately fails. I do a lot of bad of writing. And that’s the working process. So, my approach is to overwrite a lot of what I need and then to spend a lot of time in the editing process. And, because that’s how I work, I’m always sort of suspect of people who don’t do a lot of editing. I feel like that’s part of the writer’s job.
WW: So people edit their poetry?
KR: Are you kidding. Sometimes I’ll work on a short poem and then spend time editing it for years. The goal is to make it seem seamless. Editing is, by far, a more important process than the inspiration part of it. Inspiration is pretty momentary and then there’s all the hard work.
WW: That’s very true about a lot of things.
KR: Oh, yeah. Yeah. If you’re not making choices, if you’re just taking whatever lightning bolt comes down from God, then you’re not doing your job.
WW: Tell me about The Kimnama.
KR: The Kimnama is a book-length, single poem in 38 sections. It’s about my time in India for two months and means “the history of Kim.” It’s about my experiences during a trip that I found very life changing. The trip changed my sense of what it means to be American, what unspoken expectations are. You know, India is a place…you can’t go somewhere more exotic where they all speak English. The poem came out of a journal I was writing while living there.
WW: What did you learn about what it means to be American?
KR: I learned that there are a lot of things I took for granted about the choices that I would have for education and job opportunities…it just felt to me like Americans are very privileged because we have so many options. But, also, I loved that in India there are so many contrasts living side by side. There is both ugly and beautiful living together. There is both privilege and poverty next to each other. There’s nothing like taking you out of your culture to make you feel very American. I don’t think we realize that we walk around with a lot of cultural assumption. It’s like the air we breathe. When you go to a place like India, you suddenly realize that you’re walking around with all of these cultural assumptions. It changed the way I perceive in some very basic ways, and I hope some of that comes through in the book.
So this is my second set of poems. It’s from a DC press called VRZHU. It’s sort of a surprising second book because it’s all about this one long poem. I’m very happy with it and to be part of this new press.
WW: Were you involved in starting the press?
KR: No the press was started by two men who are poets themselves, Dan Vera and Michael Gushue. They’ll be publishing four books a year. The Kimnama and Hiram Larew’s More Than Anything are the inaugural titles.
The second part of Kim Robert's interview will focus more on the role of writing in her life. An excerpt of The Kimnama is available at VRZHU Press.
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