Reading Barbara Hamby is like savoring a fine multi-course meal. Her poems are thick and meaty, filled with savory details, but full of subtle nuances only realized on multiple reads. She fuses humor, pop culture, literature, travel, and romance in an ebullient mix that one can’t help devouring.
Barbara Hamby was born in New Orleans and raised in Hawaii. Her colorful life is reflected in her books Delirium (University of North Texas Press, 1995) winner of the Kate Tufts Award, The Alphabet of Desire (New York University Press, 1999) winner of New York Public Library’s 25 best books of 1999, and Babel (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004) winner of the 2003 Donald Hall Prize in Poetry from the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. Her poems have appeared in nearly every literary magazine under the sun including the Paris Review, the Iowa Review, the Kenyon Review, and Best American Poetry. She teaches creative writing at Florida State University in Tallahassee, where she lives with her husband, the equally awesome poet, David Kirby.
I interviewed her about her latest book, All-Night Lingo Tango:
SD In your new collection, All-Night Lingo Tango, you have a number of variations of the abecedarian form. In the current poetic culture where form often falls by the wayside can you speak to why form is so important to you?
BH Form is as important for a free verse poet as it is for a formal poet. Every poem has a form, and I think that it is up to the poet to discover a poem’s best form. As a free verse poet it is very easy to be lazy, to say in essence, “This is what I saw, this is what I thought about it, and this is the epiphany I had.” We’ve all read these poems and written them, too. To be fair, much formal poetry is boring in a different way. However, I’m talking about my beginnings as a free-verse poet. When I was writing my first book, I found myself being pleased when I was working under certain formal constraints. Whether it was an anaphora that I had to repeat, the abecedarian corset, or a sound I was repeating-I found that the constraint forced me to dig deep into language and, more interestingly, into myself.
The first poem in Delirium is “The Language of Bees,” which repeats the title throughout the poem. I had no idea what I was doing in that poem. I loved Christopher Smart’s poem “To My Cat Geoffrey.” I had just read a long book on the archeology of beekeeping, I loved Plath’s bee poems, I was thinking about how Eskimos have so many words for snow, and then I just started thinking about what a bee language would be like. Writing that poem was such a high, and when I finished I knew I had written my first real poem, even though I had written hundreds before it.
All I have been doing since then is trying to replicate that experience. In The Alphabet of Desire (NYU; 1999) I wrote a sequence of 26 abecedarian poems, and in Babel (Pittsburgh; 2004) I began to count syllables and use enjambed end rhymes as well as fooling with double abecedarians. Most of the time I wasn’t skillful enough to pull off the more formal poems, so I reconfigured them as free verse poems. “Ode on Satan’s Power” is in 13-syllable lines, 13-line stanzas with end rhymes, mostly couplets. In All-Night Lingo Tango the madness reached its zenith. Most of the odes are in 13-syllable lines with rhymed couplets, and there’s that abecedarian sequence in the middle of the whole thing.
One of the things I love about form is how it gives me access to more of my brain. The form makes me take leaps and make associations that I wouldn’t take otherwise. I love to start a poem and then be totally surprised in the last few lines. I also love the language that it leads me to, such as rhyming “spatula” with “Dracula.” Ciaran Carson is one of my heroes when it comes to fantastic end rhymes. English has such a huge vocabulary, and it’s growing like a weed as I write.
At the end of All-Night Lingo Tango, I felt as if form had helped me all it could for the moment. I was afraid of painting myself in a corner, so I’m writing free verse again. It took me about a year to shake off the formal habit, but I can see its influence in the poems I’m writing now. They are looser, but I’m writing a lot of list poems, and my vocabulary is still amped up.
SD You seem to fuse pop culture and the literary world so effortlessly, erasing the line between high and low art (example: Betty Boop reading Rilke, Olive Oyl thinking about Quantum Theory). Have you had trouble placing poems due to this? Can you speak to why erasing that line is such a big part of your work?
BH I can’t imagine not using pop culture in my poems, just as I can’t imagine not using images from art and music. Comic books, movies, Renaissance and Baroque art, jazz, rock and roll, Mozart, travel, Fox News, The New York Times, The Tallahassee Democrat, recipes, overheard conversations—they are all a part of my consciousness and thus a part of my poetic voice. To take one element out would change my voice utterly and, I think, for the worse. It certainly wouldn’t be as much fun to write. When I first started out, I was trying to write like T.S. Eliot, which was fine for him, but it was a dismal business for me. Learning to let go of that and find my own diction and syntax were my first steps toward finding my own poetic voice. I like to say that my voice is one that’s like me but me at a party, a little tipsy and far less inhibited than I am in real life. As for publishing my poems, it’s always a matter of finding editors who are sympathetic to what you are doing. When Richard Howard was editor of The Paris Review, he took some early poems that had tons of references—high and low. Andrew Zawacki at Verse published half of that abecedarian sequence. I’ve found a lot of editors over the years, who have taken me as I am. However, I’ve been rejected a lot, too. But I think that’s true for most writers.
SD There are several literary/poetry couples like CD Wright and Forest Gander, Mark Doty and Paul Lisicky, to name a few. You’re married to the poet David Kirby. How has that affected and informed your work and career?
BH Living with another writer is a dream. I never have to explain what I’m doing to him. If I want to stay at my desk all night or look at a painting for an hour or order weird books—he knows that it’s all going into my work one way or another. The Poetry Store is always open at our house or wherever we are. We also are always reading other poets, and my loves and hates have an influence on his work as do his on mine. We both love to travel, so that’s an added benefit. I wrote most of the odes in All-Night Lingo Tango during the fall of 2006 when David had a sabbatical, which we decided to spend in Paris, and Paris definitely gave me thousands of images and stirred my imagination in ways I couldn’t entirely explain. Before I met David, I had a boyfriend who hated to travel and when forced to leave town was miserable. David has opened a huge world to me, and he has always been so supportive. When something good happens in my career, he is happy for me. He also has the best work habits of anyone I know. His work isn’t separate from his life. I really learned everything about work from him.
SD All-Night Lingo Tango is all about language dancing. How are you as an actual dancer?
BH I’ve taken a lot of ballet lessons, and I like to dance, but I’m a pretty mediocre dancer. David and I took swing lessons, which was fun. I’d love to learn how to tango.
SD This question is mostly for young, eager poets struggling with career patience—What age were you when you published your first book? What were you doing up until then? How did you keep writing amidst various rejections etc.? How has age and experience informed your work?
BH I published a chapbook when I was 40, and Delirium came out when I was 42. I worked as a technical writer and editor before that, but I also edited a literary magazine and ran a small press in my spare time. The latter kept me involved in the literary world, while I tried to figure out how to write. I heard Tom Lux read once, and he said that it’s important for beginning writers to serve the profession. I certainly think editors of magazines do that. One thing I learned as an editor is how subjective the editorial process is, and how much perseverance matters in any career. David has a great story about the first poem he had in Best American Poetry. It was turned down 17 times before it was finally published.
One thing I’ve learned is that sitting down at my desk is the most important thing. Having a poem accepted by a great magazine or winning a prize is great, but it can’t happen every day. Sitting at your desk can happen every day, and that’s where art happens. I don’t believe in talent. I believe in love and work. You have to put in the hours—reading and writing. Studies show that a person has to put in 10,000 hours to become an expert in a field. It doesn’t matter what kind of gifts you might have, you still have to put in those hours. That’s the work part. Love is what makes you want to work, what makes it not seem like work.
All-Night Lingo Tango is now available from University of Pittsburg Press.