The Colorado Poet, #24,Fall 2013

Interview: Bob King

By Lisa Zimmerman

Some of These Days
Conundrum Press, 2013

Lisa Zimmerman: First, congratulations on the new book! Some of These Days adds to a marvelous fleet of poetry collections you have out in the world. I know the manuscript was a finalist in at least one contest: the Anhinga/Robert Dana Prize. Where else did you send Some of These Days and did it undergo many revisions in between its travels?

Bob King: I got the manuscript together and decided to ‘go for it,’ sending the same one to at least 14 contests during a year and sitting back to wait, willing to bite the bullet of all those entry fees. I got one honorable mention, some negatives, and some still out when Conundrum accepted it. So I withdrew it from the others and deleted their names which I don’t remember now. It was an expensive proposition! But the manuscript didn’t change although I added a few new ones with Conundrum’s okay.

LZ: What, if anything, felt different about putting this collection together compared to your previous full-length book Old Man Laughing (Ghost Road Press, 2007)?

BK: Well, I’d had several chapbooks published,  but Old Man Laughing was my First Book so it’s still my First-Book-Feeling. I felt certain as I put that book together and the poems were, I think, fairly consistent. For Some of These Days, I’d been experimenting with a kind of new style, or ‘voice,’ for me—a style where I wanted to get as much as possible into the poem, including off-track associations and observations, and still bring it together. My old style was trying to keep out these kinds of jumps. Therefore, I had more choosing to do, more questions as to whether differently styled poems should be separated or follow each other. But when I got done I was fairly confident again.

LZ: Were you involved in the book’s cover design?

BK: I was not, and I wasn’t with Old Man Laughing. Only once did I question a cover, a chapbook called Naming Names, and they had two women’s profiles, lips, with bright red lipstick, talking which made sense according to the title, I know, but I didn't feel it represented the actual content. They agreed to use another cover but were a bit upset at my interference. I think book publishers have a design interest—obviously a professional designer in many cases—and they just want to do their job of attracting readers and that’s it. The cover of Some of These Days is a richly colored close-up of the fender of an old rusty car and I guess it can relate to ‘time’ and ‘years’ and ‘those days.’

LZ: I love how the last word in the book is “eternity” because that plays so beautifully with the book’s title. How did you come to choose “Why I Invented War” as the first poem? (I remind my students that we poets put our poems in order in a manuscript even though most readers do not read a book of poems like they do a novel, starting on page 1.)

I used the word “eternity,” which I’d basically forbidden students to use in poetry, in several of the poems.

BK: I was almost embarrassed and certainly surprised when I had the manuscript together to realize that I used  the word ‘eternity,’ which I’d basically forbidden students to use in poetry, in several of the poems. Then I decided it was my way of working with that concept, and arguing it, in a way I hadn’t recognized. I didn’t intend to end the book with “eternity” but the poem I wanted last happened to end with that. I did hope the poem had a ‘carry forward’ feeling that would last after the book itself ended.

The ms. originally began with the second poem, “World War II in Omaha,” which consists of three sections focused on three small images from my childhood but a new one came up that related to toy soldiers I had at the same time but didn’t involve concrete images—it came out as a kind of idea-oriented fantasy meditation—so I put that one first to put the reader on alert that there were two different kinds of poems ahead. The two types don’t alternate, you understand, but I was very aware of where I was placing a particular poem throughout.

LZ: The first section ends with a poem about light and the second section begins with “A Treatise on Light” followed by several beautiful elegiac poems about your father. Were those poems, “Examination,” “A Sorting of Clothing,” “At the Care Center,” and “Birds and Death and Beauty” written much later than the events? By the way, I was pierced by the ending of “Birds…”:  “How beauty comes when it comes, // how beauty goes when it goes, / how we can recognize it, / how we can sit and love in silence, / how silence is the last word.”

BK: Thanks for being “pierced” by some lines! That ending was one of those things we all hope for all the time, lines that come out of the writing and are far more wise than the poet himself.

 The poems about my father’s final years were written as they happened, rather than later, so there wasn’t a distance in time—it wasn’t “emotion recollected in tranquility”—but there was a distance in poetry. That is, the ironies and contrasts and sadness and horror that make such a situation painful in life can be composed, become smoothed out in order to write a poem that then summons up ironies, contrasts, sadness, and horror but in a different mode.

LZ: You and Ted Kooser have been friends for many years. You once told me and my poetry class that Ted claims that poetry comes from something we see, something we remember, or a piece of language. Has that proven to be true for you?

I haven’t found anything better [than Kooser’s statement] to describe the sources of a poem and it has the added benefit of being tremendously useful.

BK: I haven’t found anything better to describe the sources of a poem and it has the added benefit of being tremendously useful: go write down something you see, or something you remember, or a piece of language that intrigues you. I used that quote for students all the time who were asking “How can I get an idea for a poem?” where the very problem is that word “idea.” You don’t get an idea for a poem, generally speaking—you find an idea, or a feeling, or they find you, as you are working on the poem. This is what multitudes of poetry-teachers tell their students and what multitudes of students still find difficult. I think part of it stems from high school or college teachers asking “What’s the idea/theme of this poem?” and it gives students the notion that that’s where you start. It’s a terrible misunderstanding.

LZ: You are an avid reader of Chinese and Japanese poetry and have given a nod to some of those poets in a number of your poems.  Were you reading Buson, Wang Wei, Shih Tu, and others as early as graduate school or did you come to them later? What did you learn from reading their poems? Who are the other poets you’ve learned from—or simply loved—over the years, and who are you reading this month?

Someone looked at a flower in the rain sixteen hundred years ago and I can read it and know what that means.

BK: I read the Japanese—Buson, Basho, Issa, etc.—early on as an undergraduate and liked them and then put them aside for years. Then I came upon the Chinese, staying with the big guys, like Li Po and Du Fu, for some years before I discovered Wang Wei and that led me on to a host of others.  What I “learned” was the power of simiple concrete images. Another attraction was the role of nature in Chinese poetry, which I’m receptive to in my dailly life, and another the fact that they basically invented the lyric poem centuries before Europe did. And what comforts and thrills me as I read is the distance of time these poems have passed over. Someone looked at a flower in the rain sixteen hundred years ago and I can read it and know what that means. That’s a tremendous experience As a side note, I think the translations have gotten a lot better lately and I appreciate the work of David Hinton, David Young and, of course, Red Pine.

Regarding poets I’ve learned from, and love, the list would start with W.B. Yeats. W.C. Williams was tremendously important for me as he was for a whole generation. I was in college when Lowell was “new,” at least for me, along with James Wright. Later, Berryman and O’Hara helped me add new tones to my poetic thought.

Who am I reading this month? Honestly, it’s mainly Colorado poets as I read a lot of them in order to interview them for this newsletter. I just now looked at my bookshelf to see who I had the most books from—an idea I hadn’t thought of before—and I find the most by Stephen Dunn, Mary Oliver, Larry Levis, and Tony Hoagland. And I read, again and again, Hsieh Ling-Yun, Han Shan, Su T’ung Po, and many others.  I don’t what one can make of that kind of collection but that’s what’s on my current shelves.