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Louisiana Writer Award

David Kirby

Poet David Kirby is the 2024 recipient of the Louisiana Writer Award, presented annually by the Louisiana Center for the Book in the State Library of Louisiana. Kirby is the 25th recipient of the prestigious award that recognizes outstanding contributions to Louisiana’s literary and intellectual life exemplified by a contemporary Louisiana writer’s body of work.

David Kirby is a National Book Award finalist and the author of nearly 40 books. That said, he values his five teaching awards as much as anything he has written and tries to model for his students a life in which one goes from writing to teaching to everyday activity and back again as effortlessly as possible. Kirby tells every class to exercise for fifteen minutes first thing in the morning and then drink a protein shake because we write, not with our big brains or our sensitive souls, but with our bodies. He’d had a mild case of polio as a child—his first memories were of the polio ward at Baton Rouge General Hospital—and has exercised like a madman since, which sometimes resulted in surgeries (one shoulder, two knees) but also a physique that remains more or less trim as the years go by. As to the protein shakes, he starts every day with one but eats with equal pleasure at Paris’s Le Dôme and E & J 5-Buck BBQ on South Monroe Street in Tallahassee. He loves IPAs and wine and crafting classic cocktails. He smokes a cigar every year on his birthday unless he forgets to.

These days Kirby teaches at Florida State University, where he is the Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor of English. His latest books are a poetry collection, The Winter Dance Party: Poems 1983-2023 (August 2024), and a textbook modestly entitled The Knowledge: Where Poems Come From and How to Write Them. Kirby is the author of Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll, which the Times Literary Supplement described as “a hymn of praise to the emancipatory power of nonsense” and which was named one of Booklist’s Top 10 Black History Non-Fiction Books of 2010. Entertainment Weekly has called Kirby’s poetry one of “5 Reasons to Live.” In 2016, Kirby received a Lifetime Achievement Award from Florida Humanities, which called him "a literary treasure of our state."

Kirby’s attachment to southern Louisiana life endures to this day. He spent his first 21 years on a stretch of property just outside of Baton Rouge and likes to say that he had not two but three parents: his mother, his father, and the ten acres he lived on with them and his brother Albert. There were trees, water, animals, and playmates of every kind, from bankers’ sons who lived in mansions to kids who used outhouses because their shacks had no plumbing. On that little farm, he turned on his green plastic Westinghouse radio one day in 1955 and heard a singer from Macon, Georgia, shout, "A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop, a-lop-bam-boom!" With that utterance came a sense of “somebodiness,” to use Martin Luther King, Jr.’s term, a sense of the full experience of being human, every inch flesh and spirit, with nothing denied. Not long after, a gentleman from Saint Louis told the world all about “Maybellene,” while in nearby Faraday, a third was saying that somewhere there was a whole lotta shakin’ going on. And just down the road in New Orleans, a fellow named Fats sang of a place called Blueberry Hill, where dreams came true that Kirby hadn’t dreamed yet.

There, too, he became a crack shot: his farm-girl mom taught him how to shoot her single-shot .22 and paid him ten cents for every cottonmouth moccasin he knocked off that otherwise would have menaced their sheep and horses. Kirby taught riflery as a camp counselor but gave up weaponry for the pen, though he says that the lessons of sharpshooting apply to the writing of poems as well: preparation, patience, steadiness over time, making sure you hit your target.

All of which must have worked well enough: according to The Chicago Tribune, “Kirby is a brilliant narrative poet who gives enormous and, in the end, deeply serious pleasure: his poems deliver surprise, thoughtfulness, and delight.... These poems are tender, funny, talky, full of bad jokes brilliantly told.” Writing in Ploughshares, Philip Levine noted that “The world that Kirby takes into his imagination and the one that arises from it merge to become a creation like no other, something like the world we inhabit but funnier and more full of wonder and terror. He has evolved a poetic vision that seems able to include anything, and when he lets it sweep him across the face of Europe and America, the results are astonishing."

And the 2007 National Book Award citation for The House on Boulevard St.: New and Selected Poems says this:

David Kirby's wonderfully adventurous sentences, his supple, discipline rhythms, the casual accuracy of his versifying, and his astonishing gift for transmuting his memories into ours lead his readers through surprise after surprise to unexpected — yet inevitable — fulfillments and revelations. An American walker, his poems are a noble addition to the long, bipedaled excursive tradition inaugurated by his great exemplar, Dante. Digression and punctiliousness, directed movement and lollygagging, bemusement and piercing insight are among the many paradoxical dualities that energize and complicate the locomotion of his informed, capacious consciousness.

After an undergraduate spell at LSU, David got his PhD from Johns Hopkins in three years, not because he was smarter than anyone else but because he lucked into an accelerated program. Even though he has officially been Dr. Kirby for most of his life, he prefers to be just David rather than let himself be defined by a milestone he achieved decades earlier. He’d also been a Catholic, an Eagle Scout, and an airman third class in ROTC, but those experiences, too, fell away at some point. Mainly he hopes to enjoy himself every day by wearing life as a loose garment, in Thurgood Marshall’s words, and not taking himself too seriously.

These days, Kirby’s life is not just with poet Barbara Hamby, it is Barbara. She has been his companion in Turkey and Russia and India and Greece and Japan and on jaunts to visit their sons Ian and Will and their families in Southern California as well as to Barbara’s native Hawai’i. Thanks is due for much of that travel to FSU‘s International Programs office. IP was David and Barbara’s travel agent for years, sending them a dozen times to teach at its campuses in Florence, London, Paris, and Valencia. There they spoke languages they never would have spoken, ate dishes they never would have sampled, made friends they’d not have met elsewhere, read books that would have remained unopened, and written poems they wouldn’t have written otherwise.

Other than hanging out with Barbara and his sons and their families and his lunchmates Mark and John and his basketball buddy Howard, David likes nothing more than working on a poem, sometimes chasing the mystery for years and then witnessing that little miracle that occurs when everything falls into place almost as though someone else did the work (in the words of playwright Tom Stoppard, the process is “like trying to pick a lock without thinking about the lock”). Kirby says a poem either sends you a bill or writes you a check, and he always wants to make sure the reader gets paid. Kirby also says that “art is the deliberate transformed by the accidental” — he probably says that to Barbara at least once a week and to every class he has ever taught and worked it into every piece of writing he could work it into. To this day, he continues to be amazed that this phrase isn’t on everyone’s lips, so please memorize it and pass it on, as has fellow poet and friend Darrell Bourque:

David Kirby is like one of those messenger gods of old. He is everywhere, bringing the vital and lifesaving messages in the shape of poems. After his 40-plus years of residencies in classrooms and workshops, he calls the classroom a paradise where “we’ll sit around this big table, and you’ll teach me.” In his nearly a-book-year-publications, he limits his coverage to nothing less than to everything he loves, everything he values: the mind, the body, the imagination, Little Richard, Barbara Hamby, world travel, Mary Weiss of the Shangri-Las, the Patels of Tifton, Georgia, Mrs. Jones the Home Ec. teacher, his father the Chaucer scholar, Elvis, and on and on as he scours the world he lives in for those moments when the message and the messenger are one. But more thrilling perhaps is his ability to leap with the ease of a master dancer’s grand jeté in poem after poem: for instance, in “Come to Find Out” (a pursuit of happiness poem), from his mother and his aunts on the porch in Baton Rouge to a scoundrel in Breaux Bridge, from shopping in the local Walmart to Schiller and Beethoven, from a lump in Hitler’s throat to Punch and Judy, and back to shopping in an ordinary store brushing by ordinary shoppers and talking to them perhaps, and finding out that “you’re happy.” A sleight-of-hand in a series of jetés guided by his mantra: “art is the deliberate transformed by the accidental.” I am a grateful student of the Kirby poem, a grateful reader of everything Kirby. Hardly any of my poems look like David Kirby poems or sound like David Kirby poems, but he is somewhere in nearly all of them. – Darrell Bourque, Ph.D. in English – Creative Writing, Florida State University; 2007-11 Louisiana Poet Laureate; 2014 Louisiana Writer Award Recipient.