“The greatest benefit of the Guggenheim is peer recognition because it is so difficult to get. The result is that people look at you in a different way. It doesn’t mean you’re any better, but they look at you as though you are.”
Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor of English
David Kirby arrived home one night to find that construction workers had ripped up his sidewalk and re-poured the concrete, leaving a moist tabula rasa right in front of his house. What writer could resist that blank page?
Kirby found a screwdriver and dug in. The wet cement had been there a while, so he didn’t have much time, but he managed to scrawl out two names. His own? His wife’s? His children’s? No.
John Keats. Little Richard.
Question #1 of three most-asked-questions-of-poets is: Who are your major influences? A screwdriver-wielding Kirby, an FSU English professor and highly lauded poet, was tipping his hat to a pair of his idols, and in concrete, no less. He’s nuts for Keats’ graceful language of the 19th century, and Little Richard’s hopped-up energy of the 20th (I hear America singing; it sounds like Little Richard.—line from “For Men Only,” LSU Press, 2000).
“A guy asked me recently to give him a list of 10 poetry books that were essential, so I’m listing Blake, Whitman, Wordsworth, Dante,” recalls Kirby. “But I added The Essential Little Richard because, as different as his branch of show business and my branch of show business are, I want my poems to move fast and I want people to like them. And you can’t get all of that from Dante.”
Kirby has been an FSU English professor since 1969, and his poetry alone has earned him a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, four Pushcart Prizes, the Kay Deeter Award, the Guy Owen Prize, the James Dickey Prize, the Millennium Cultural Recognition Award, two appearances in Best American Poetry, and the Brittingham Prize. In 2003, he also was honored by a fellowship from the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.
“The greatest benefit of the Guggenheim is peer recognition because it is so difficult to get,” says Kirby, who received his award on the fourth try. “The result is that people look at you in a different way. It doesn’t mean you’re any better, but they look at you as though you are.”
Add numerous teaching awards, 22 books on a wide range of subjects, hundreds of articles and reviews in major outlets, and membership on the National Book Critics Circle’s Board of Directors, and you end up with a pretty distinguished career, one that last year earned Kirby the highest distinction that FSU faculty can bestow upon a peers, the Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professorship.
“That’s all the headlines,” Kirby shrugs. “They don’t talk about all the liquor stores I held up.”
All in all, 2003 was a very good year for Kirby, but he keeps it all in perspective.
“Since I got (the Lawton Professorship), I’ve been asked to speak to every group on campus except the defensive line,” he quipped. “For a year I get to do that, like Miss America.”