Simply Ornate by Jack Palmer

Paul Killebrew’s debut collection of poems, Flowers, is excitingly fresh, mining a strong vein of modern American poetry with a deft touch. BOMBlog’s Jack Palmer talks to the poet about form, simplicity and the poetics of tax law.

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Paul Killebrew’s debut collection of poems, Flowers , is excitingly fresh, mining a strong vein of modern American poetry with a deft touch. Both a lawyer and a poet, Killebrew grew up in Tennessee and now resides in New Orleans. His work is infused with an unpretentious viewpoint that is unafraid to examine life closely, but is not merely seeking controversy.

Like an expert horticulturalist, he carefully examines the minute details of life, delicately exacting their finest details. His poem “Glamour” is typical of his style—a defense of the word ‘like,’ it transforms the supposedly banal into something quite meaningful. Flowers is a collection to treasure, tend, and let grow.

Jack Palmer The title of your collection Flowers is very simple linguistically, though ornate in its implications. Many poems are themselves like flowers, displaying a strong sense of superficial beauty, but also carrying a heavy weight of meaning. How did you choose it?

Paul Killebrew Your question pretty much nails it—simple and maybe a little garish. I like to imagine the title being spoken in a husky stage whisper by Ian McKellen. I arrived at Flowerswith an early incarnation of the manuscript, when there were a lot of poems written for specific people, many of them love poems. As the manuscript changed to what it is now, the title became less heavy-handed but still seemed to fit, like the title stood still while the book rotated around it.

JP The title seems to relate to an idea of superficiality running through the poems, perhaps a slight worry of ‘the crime of overseriousness’. Is this something that informs your poems?

PK I’m all for simplicity. I mean, I like mouthy titles like “A Vestibule of Reflexive Phlebotomists,” just usually not for me. I’m much happier aiming for the Dolly Parton end of the spectrum in all things. Somewhere on a Venn diagram, superficiality overlaps with abstraction, and I think that’s an interesting ellipse.

JP In Flowers , you employ a wide variety of formal strategies, from clear stanzas to loose word association. How important is form to you as a poet?

PK Do poems have content? I can never remember. Actually one of my unfortunate habits is to write as if a form that makes sense will eventually shape itself around whatever I’m doing, which is a little like walking in a straight line as if wherever you need to go is on that line. I get better results when I direct my awareness towards form as I’m writing, and that’s probably what happened with many of the poems that ended up in the book.

There are a lot of ekphrastic poems in the book—poems about paintings—and much use of apostrophe—poems of address. (On a side note, isn’t ekphrasis sometimes a kind of apostrophe, writing to the painting?) Like a lot of poets my age, I sort of came to life as a poet while reading first and second generation New York School poets, for whom ekphrasis and apostrophe were bread and butter. So, some of my own writing in that direction is a matter of influence. Also, my dad is a painter, and growing up around visual art has made writing about it feel very natural.

I think a lot about form and consciousness, like, for example, how a standard grammatical sentence in American English operates as a stand-in for all sorts of propositions about the position of the mind in the cosmos. I often look for forms that correspond with certain states of awareness, like there’s a book by Mark Terrill, Bread and Fish (you can read some of ithere), where each poem is one long, unpunctuated sentence, stretching the breath of thought in a way that brings the present very much into view. There’s a poem in Flowers called “Dead Black Men” (available here) that tries to do the same thing.

JP There is a poem in the collection entitled “John Fucking Ashbery.” Kind words from Ashbery are included at the front of the book and he seems to be a stylistic influence, so is it safe to say your tongue is safely in your cheek? Is it a challenge to the treatment of Ashbery as an almost sacred figure in American poetry?

PK I would like Ted Berrigan to take this question for me:

“I remember I read Ulysses three times, and I never had a fucking clue, as to … I mean, there were parts of it I liked a lot; other parts I really just went through it and, puzzlement, you know, and the thing that baffled me was how come that I didn’t get to the end of the book and read the last page, that the lightning didn’t flash in the sky and I didn’t turn into Batman or something like that. Because that was the implication, that was given by Ezra Pound and everybody else; you know, that if you just read Ulysses, you would become Batman tomorrow, you know. Alas, that will not happen. A few years ago, the illusion was, in the world, was that if you read the works of John Ashbery you would become Captain Marvel instantly. Alas that was true. If you read the works of John Ashbery, you would become Captain Marvel immediately.”

[from “Incredible Masterpieces,” originally published in On the Level Everyday: Selected Talks on Poetry and the Art of Living , New Jersey: Talisman House, 1997, edited by Joel Lewis, and available here .]

JP You grew up in Tennessee and now live in Louisiana. Do you remember how you became interested in writing poetry as a boy? How much do you see yourself as a poet of the south?

PK I remember once in a high school English class we were allowed to pick whatever poem we wanted and prepare a ten or fifteen minute analysis of it to present to the rest of the class. I picked Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence” without a drop of irony and was practically in tears by the end of my presentation. I might have even been wearing a turtleneck and black socks with tiny Eiffel Towers embroidered on them. I was a bleeder.

I love the South and plan to live and work in the South as long as I can. I think that gives me as strong a claim on Southern poetry as anyone. I grew up in Nashville, which is a fairly large city by Southern standards, and I’ve always admired what I’d call Southern cosmopolitanism—a sort of unpretentious sophistication that tends toward inclusivity and pooh-poohs status hunger. Now, like so much in the South, that kind of attitude surely developed to mask or cope with profoundly unjust situations, so I wouldn’t say my appreciation is totally at ease.

JP At first glance lawyer and poet seem quite antithetical occupations. Yet both contain in some way an essential search for truth. Do you think they relate to each other in any way? Has becoming a lawyer made you a better poet, and vice versa?

PK I have an incredibly interesting job that gives me great satisfaction, and I think that’s made me a better poet. As far as law and poetry, you see some overlap occasionally. There have been plenty of lawyer-poets or near-poets, Lorca, Kafka, Wallace Stevens, Charles Reznikoff, or today Brad Leithauser, Martìn Espada, and Michael Friedman. So it’s not an empty set.

Occasionally there’s even crossover in the work, like there are certain aspects of tax law that are, unshittingly, poetry criticism for profit. And rhetorical moves spill both directions. One of the more overwrought titles in Flowers is “The Sweaty Intimacy of Creatures Locked in Combat,” which turns out to be how an important legal academic from the 1960s and 70s named Alexander Bickel described the relationship among the branches of government. Yowza! There’s also a solid tradition of argumentative poetry, which I’m not at all immune to.

The lines don’t cross so much with what I do, but for whatever reason I’m totally happy to spend a fair amount of time in activities and states of mind that are very far away from poetry. Though, like anyone, I wish I was writing more.

Paul Killebrew’s Flowers is available from Canarium Books.

Jack Palmer is a writer currently based in Devon, England.

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