Kim Roberts

Poet, editor, and literary historian
Headshot of a woman
Photo by Mig Dooley

Music Credit: Excerpt of “Annibelle June, ” composed and performed by Abigail Washburn and Bela Fleck

Jo Reed: That’s poet Kim Roberts reading “The Thing in the Thing.” It’s from her recent collection The Scientific Method and this is Art Works—the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.

We close out National Poetry Month with one of Washington DC’s literary lights, Kim Roberts. Kim has published five books of poetry. She’s founding editor of Beltway Poetry Quarterly; and co-founding editor of Delaware Poetry Review, and she’s also a literary historian, whose research focuses on writers who’ve lived in the District. Kim is an observational poet rather than a confessional one---informed by a lively curiosity and a distinctive poetic voice.

Her most recent collection is The Scientific Method. In The Scientific Method, Kim combines poetry about Thomas Alva Edison, Ming the oldest living clam, the pineapple and the American Herring Gull. Her work is both thought-provoking and refreshing; her subjects—clearly unusual. How many poets, after all, write about science?

Kim Roberts: I’ve always been curious about science but I always assumed that I couldn’t do it. In my household the skills were divided. And my brother got math and science and I got English and social studies. But as it turns out, you don't need to have training as a scientist to write about what I would consider popular science, public science. It just takes curiosity and reading. And I think actually, the fact that I’m not a specialist has made it possible for me to translate science for a non-specialist audience, at least, I hope so. That’s part of the goal.

Jo Reed: How did this book, The Scientific Method, how did it come to be?

Kim Roberts: Oh, I suppose the way all of my books come to be is not, there’s not any real plan to begin with. I just start writing things that fascinate me. And one poem grows from the next. And at some point, I think oh, these might all go together in a manuscript.

Jo Reed: And did you start doing research about science when you realized you could have a collection of poems that looked at science from various angles?

Kim Roberts: No. I’ve just been sort of heading in that direction for a while. And…

Jo Reed: So your reading was taking you there?

Kim Roberts: Yes, that’s right. That’s right. I wasn’t really thinking in terms of oh let’s set up a theme for a book. It sort of happened more of its own accord.

Jo Reed: Organically, as we say.

Kim Roberts: There you go. A good scientific word.

Jo Reed: Exactly. Now, you mentioned, though, you spent some time at a field station in Minnesota, correct?

Kim Roberts: Yes. Last summer I was lucky enough to get a grant to be a writer in residence at a scientific field station. The grant was sponsored by the Science Museum of Minnesota. It was terrific, the field station was specifically looking at bodies of water. It’s the St. Croix River that the research station is on.

Jo Reed: I know that river.

Kim Roberts: You know that river. And so the scientists just welcomed me with open arms. They were happy to show me how instruments in their lab worked. But they were also happy for me to take me out with them to do water sampling. I spent one whole day learning about harmful algal blooms in lakes in the northern Midwest. It was fascinating. It was terrific to see someone else’s obsession at work.

Jo Reed: Was this a one-off, or do they have an ongoing program?

Kim Roberts: They’ve had other artists in residence in there.

Jo Reed: They have. So that’s something they do.

Kim Roberts: Yes. It’s something they do regularly. And so there are different artists who are in residence there every summer.

Jo Reed: Are the scientists expected to interact with the artists? Or vice versa?

Kim Roberts: No, not particularly. I loved being among scientists, but, you know, it is true that some of the artists who come really are there just to do their own work. They’re not interested in interacting that much. And I made it clear right from the start that I wanted to look through their microscopes. I wanted to learn about what their projects were. I wanted to really take full advantage of being there.

Jo Reed: What’s your earliest experience with poetry? How did you get into the poetry game?

Kim Roberts: Hm, that’s really interesting, you know, strangely enough I was writing poems as a very young child. I was interested in the musicality of language from really early on. Poetry has been a part of my life from the time I was just a little girl.

Jo Reed: Did your parents read poems to you? Did they have an interest in literature and poetry?

Kim Roberts: No, not particularly. They certainly had an interest in the arts and took me regularly to museums and performances. My father was a big opera buff. So the arts were well represented in the household.

Jo Reed: When did you know it was something that you were really wanted to do?

Kim Roberts: I guess I would say in college. You know, in college you have to declare yourself at some point. You have to pick a major. And I ended up at a college where you could actually major in creative writing. There aren’t a lot of places where you can get a bachelor of fine arts in creative writing. But I went to Emerson College in Boston. And I started taking classes in the creative writing department quite frankly to boost my grade point average because I assumed I would do well. I’ve always liked writing. But then once I was in those classes, you know, I got sucked in. And then the longer I was in college, the more passionate I started to get about creative writing. I was writing both fiction and poetry.

Jo Reed: Well, that leads exactly to my next question, why poetry? What was it about poetry that spoke to you?

Kim Roberts: I started as a fiction writer, but of all of the various components of fiction if you break it down you have characterization and setting and dialog and what, symbolism and plot. I am least interested in plot. You have to include some plot. The readers demand it. But it really…

Jo Reed: Of which I would be one.

Kim Roberts: But it really is the thing that interests me least. And so it became clear that that was going to be the weakness in any prose writing that I did. And so it was with great relief that I switched over to poetry.

Jo Reed: How did they react when you made it clear you were going to be a poet?

Kim Roberts: Oh, my parents were always very against this idea. This was a totally alien idea to them. And I think it scared them quite a lot. But I think actually much about me scared them quite a lot.

Jo Reed: I’d love to have you read a poem, and I’d like you to read the title poem, “The Scientific Method”

Kim Roberts: Okay. So this is a poem that was inspired by visiting the Thomas Alva Edison laboratory complex in New Jersey. It’s a national historic site now. And what makes that place so incredibly marvelous is that they have not just the buildings but also all of the things inside the buildings have been preserved. So the curators have thousands and thousands of items. They have all of the items in the metallurgical lab. They’ve got all of the old recording machinery in the music recording studio. It’s amazing. And even the store rooms, they have some of the original raw materials that were there.

So this is a poem in two parts. And it’s really about the two different ways that science happens in increments or in large intuitive leaps. So the first part is, “The Chemistry Laboratory.”

Test tubes and retorts. Powders in stoppered bottles, some bright blue. Chemistry proceeds in increments. We try this. Fail. Try that. From stoppered bottles, some bright blue powder of nickel citrate. Try this. Wrong amount. Try that. The pure color of a robin’s egg. Powder of nickel citrate waits to reveal its secrets. The colors burnt orange, robin’s egg bloom in the high pressure distill. To reveal a thing’s secrets, patience and precision are required. To bloom in a high pressure distill demands just the smallest change. Patience and repetition are required. Watch your test tubes and retorts, your powders, for just the smallest change. Proof of how chemistry proceeds in increments.”

Part two is “The Stock Room.”

The new supplies have just arrived. Rhinoceros horn and elephant hide cataloged and shelved, wait mutely for some mucker to decide that their covalent dipeptide might serve some unaccustomed duty. When blizzards locked two men inside Fessenden and Ales survived three days on items picked astutely from the new supplies. Wayward innovation thrives as muckers wander down the aisles buggered by the absolutely varied proofs of worldly beauty, fresh applications might devise. Eccentric fancy is their guide through the new supplies.”

Jo Reed: Kim Roberts reading “The Scientific Method.” Patience and repetition and patience and persistence, it also applies to poetry. No?

Kim Roberts: Absolutely. Absolutely. These methods that scientists use are the methods that anyone in any creative field uses. Little tiny increments, little edits and then big leaps.

Jo Reed: Both impossible to predict.

Jo Reed: You’re in college. You want to write poetry. And there are many people who want to do that, but you actually do it and have published five books.

Kim Roberts: <laughs> It took a while but yes.

Jo Reed: I understand that. So what’s the trajectory from wanting to do that in college and then actually being able to make a life where you do do it?

Kim Roberts: I also went to graduate school and so I have a matched set of degrees, a BFA and an MFA both in creative writing. So it was in graduate school where I learned some of the skills that you need to be professional about this. And then since graduate school, I’ve done a lot of work as an arts administrator. And the skills that you use for organizations also work well to your own personal benefit. So I know how to get myself grants and fellowships and how to apply for things. How to present myself. How to make proposals for books.

Jo Reed: Right. It’s the part two. There’s the writing of the poetry but then there’s the finding the funding for the writing of the poetry and then there’s the promoting the poetry that you write.

Kim Roberts: Right, right. And there are many people who really fine writers who just can’t do the other side, what I call “po-biz” and so their work suffers for that. It’s unfortunate that we are expected now to do it all. But there are no longer editors in the publishing business who work with you to refine your work. They want a finished book. There are no longer publicists who are going to set up readings for you. Poets, you pretty much have to do it for yourself.

Jo Reed: Now, The Scientific Method is divided into three parts. Tell me how you organize the book.

Kim Roberts: Well, the themes sort of run in and out throughout but I have most of the more science-ey poems in the first section. And the second section has a lot of poems about Judaism and Jewish identity. And the third section has a lot of poems about place, and the place specifically is Washington D.C. where I live. That makes it sounds like it’s very neatly divided, the themes sort of flow in and out. But, in general, there are three major themes in the book.

Jo Reed: I’d like you to read something from the second section. The section that deals with Judaism, and your parents and grandparents as well, and the poem I have starred is “A Boy Named Schmutz.”

Kim Roberts: Okay. So, this is a poem that really is based on a real experience from my father’s childhood. And the reason I wrote it is because my father never spoke about his childhood. He never spoke about anything personal at all. So the fact that I happen to know one story is rather remarkable. I’m not quite sure why I know this story or how it came about that he told this. He was too taciturn. He just didn’t speak about himself. So schmutz is, of course, a Yiddish word meaning dirt.

A Boy Named Schmutz.”

His mother dressed him up so fine. Spent all her cash on sailor suits, wool knickers with the sewn-in pleats and floppy grosgrain ribbon ties. The Coney Island crowd of boys liked him, though. His dirty jokes. His pitching arm. Also the way he let his mother dress him up then watched her face go purple red, screaming down the tenement walls to all of the ragged neighbor boys who called him out to stickball games. ‘His name is Irving’ she would shout to my father and his gang below. ‘It’s Irving you dirty indigents. You impecunious gutter rats.’ No one screamed as gloriously. ‘How dare you beggars call him schmutz.’”

Jo Reed: Good reading. It’s a very visual poem.

Jo Reed: How do poems start for you? What gets you at your desk and writing?

Kim Roberts: Poems start for me with something outside myself. Poems always start by something I’m reading, something that I’m looking at, a historic site that I go to, a painting that I’m looking at. They start with something that I read or experience that just clicks. If I can’t stop thinking about it that’s the sign.

Jo Reed: Now, what’s your writing routine? Do you try to write every day?

Kim Roberts: Oh, I wish I was more disciplined like that. I get away with not being disciplined because I happen to be fairly prolific. So no, I don’t write every day. But I do write a lot. I guess I would say my routine is to write a lot and hope that a small proportion of that will rise to the surface and be what I call a keeper.

Jo Reed: How do you decide?

Kim Roberts: Oh you sort of know with what feels right. You don’t know right away, of course. You write something and you think I’m a genius. Look at what I’ve just done. And then you let it sit for a while. And then you realize actually I’m an idiot.

<group laughter>

Kim Roberts: So, you know, much of what I write is not actually usable, but that’s part of the process. That’s an important part for me is to write a lot of crappy poems. And from that, take that small percentage that I want to keep working on. I do quite a lot of editing and sometimes…

Jo Reed: That’s what I was going ask to you.

Kim Roberts: …the editing process will last a year or more before I move forward with doing something public with a poem. But I do have a writer’s group that I share works in progress with. And we meet once a month and they are invaluable.

Jo Reed: I assume during the editing process, that’s also another place where you decide what’s a keeper and what’s not.

Kim Roberts: Oh absolutely. Yeah.

Jo Reed: The editing process can be daunting for lots of people.

Kim Roberts: Editing, it’s a hard skill. I hope that I have become better at it. I think I have become better at it. When I was a younger writer I would often edit a poem to death, you could feel the spark in it just sort of seeping away as you edited. And so it’s not perfection that you’re looking for in the editing process. It's more the refining.

Jo Reed: I’d love to hear another poem, how about “The International Fruit of Welcome,” another poem from section two.

Kim Roberts: Sure.

The International Fruit of Welcome.”

A pineapple is the perfect gift to bring to a blind date. A pineapple is like a blind date, spikey and armored at first, with the hope of sweetness inside. A pineapple is the perfect housewarming gift. You don’t have to wrap it. It doesn’t spill inside your car. It comes in its own house. A pineapple is the perfect birthday gift. You might prefer a coconut, that planet molten at the core. But the pineapple has a better hairdo, better wardrobe. It never goes out of style. Think all of those historic houses with pineapple bolsters, pineapple finials, pineapples carved above lintels. Such a sophisticated fruit. Every sailor wants one.”

Jo Reed: Okay. What inspired that poem, which I find charming.

Kim Roberts: <laughs> It really is true that if you go to historic sites, which I happen to adore, especially historic sites that are in seafaring towns, historically seafaring towns you will see pineapples everywhere. They were a colonial sign of hospitality. They were very hard to come by. And if you served a pineapple to your guests, that was the ultimate gesture of hospitality. So you will see, oh, all over Boston, all over a lot of these New England seaside towns that had that kind of history of trade and a whaling industry, you see pineapples everywhere. They actually are carved into the architecture. So I was thinking about that. And I actually did watch a video of a friend’s sister. She had set up a series of blind dates and then decided to video them. I know, It was an art project. At any rate one of the people who showed up and had agreed to be videoed brought a pineapple with him and that was the start.

Jo Reed: You can’t make that up.

<group laughter>

Kim Roberts: Nor should you.

Jo Reed: Nor should you.

Jo Reed: Let me ask you this, are there questions you find yourself exploring over and over again or returning to as you write?

Kim Roberts: Yeah. I think in some sense you could argue that most poets are writing a version of the same poem for their entire lives. I think that actually our most successful poems are the ones where we allow ourselves to really just sort of go over a bend with our obsessive natures. And I certainly have an obsessive nature myself. But I’m also quite frankly, obsessed with other obsessives. And that’s often a starting point for me as well, reading about people who are just so passionate about one thing.

Jo Reed: You’re also the coeditor of two journals, the Delaware Poetry Review and Beltway Poetry Quarterly, which you founded.

Kim Roberts: Right. Yes, I actually co-founded one and founded the other on my own. Both of them are on online literary journals. And they really exist to help promote poets from the mid-Atlantic region and to try and find a larger readership for these poets. And so having them online is a really important tool. You can just reach so many more people.

Jo Reed: Beltway Poetry Quarterly came first then about, I don’t know, half a dozen years later, you started the Delaware Poetry Review – why, what was the need for the second journal?

Kim Roberts: Well, there was a group of people who were already editing other journals who came together to co-create the Delaware Poetry Review. And that was simply because of all of the Mid-Atlantic States, Delaware had the fewest literary journals. It was the least well served of the area. So, in every issue we include some writers from Delaware. The idea was to provide another venue.

Jo Reed: And you’re also a literary historian.

Kim Roberts: I am. Yeah. I’ve really focused on writer’s who have had strong ties to Washington D.C. And I have a book coming out next year, spring of 2018, from the University of Virginia Press. And it’s called “A Literary History of Washington D.C. from Francis Scott Key to Zora Neale Hurston.” So what I’m doing there is I’m looking at the history of Washington D.C. from its founding up to just the beginnings of modernism – so that earlier history which is not as well-known. And the book includes portraits and excerpts. But it also includes four walking tours. And I’ve been leading these literary walking tours for a couple of decades now. So there’s one, Walt Whitman and the Civil War. I also do the Dunbars, Paul Laurence Dunbar and his wife Alice Moore Dunbar Nelson. And that’s the Reconstruction period. Henry Adams during the Gilded Age. And then Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes and others who were active in D.C. during what’s now become known as the Harlem Renaissance. So looking at major sort of groups of writers around different time periods but all in D.C.

Jo Reed: Which takes us so neatly to the third section of your book of poetry. Why don’t you read “Double Indemnity?”

Kim Roberts: Okay. So I mention an archive in here at the University of Maryland. It’s an archive of Maryland writers.

Double Indemnity.”

No, not insurance. What I meant to say was double identity as in Boutros Boutros-Ghali, William Carlos Williams, Sirhan Sirhan, Lady Gaga. For these folks, surely, the postman always rings twice. But now I’ve Mildred Pierce’d [ph?] myself to the image of James M. Cain typing away in his little white house in suburban Maryland. His typewriter is preserved in a university library. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen the change from manual to electric to electronic to what the hell is a typewriter. And no one will be archiving our battered, beloved iPads even if they once belonged to Yo-Yo Ma, Flavor Flav or Marky Mark. Now, all of our devices must do at least two things, phone cameras, calculator umbrellas. But in truth all of us lead double lives, an outer story plus a hidden story separated by such a thin skin. Tell us that one, again, Ford Madox Ford. Kris Kristofferson. Humbert Humbert. Richie Rich.”

Jo Reed: “Double Indemnity,” Kim Roberts. I like your sense of humor in that poem.

Kim Roberts: Oh, thank you. Thank you. Yes. I can’t help myself with the puns.

Jo Reed: When you think of yourself as an artist, as a poet what do you feel pretty confident about claiming? And no one will think you’re arrogant.

Kim Roberts: I guess curiosity and engagement with things outside of myself. You know, I think there are parts of myself that get revealed nonetheless because it’s me writing about these subjects. But usually my goal is not to be confessional but to explore something that piques my curiosity, something that I can learn something new from.

Jo Reed: What do you work on being better at?

Kim Roberts: Well, you can never learn enough about craft. I feel like I’m constantly trying to get the content of the poems, what I’m saying, to somehow speak to either matchup with or do the opposite, work completely intention against the song elements of the poem. So what it says and how it says it have to be related, be sparking against each other, otherwise I’d be writing prose, I guess. I’d be writing nonfiction. What poetry does, and does so well is those song elements. And if the language is not exciting, the poem is not working. I guess, again, I’m showing my hand here. It’s not really plot that is the most interesting. It’s how it’s said.

Jo Reed: Kim Roberts, thank you, I really appreciate it. I so enjoy your work. I think the poems are very idiosyncratic, and I feel like I’m taking a walk with you, and you’re taking me down these alleyways and byways that I would wander into on my own, and you’re pointing everything out that I might’ve missed. That I’m sure I would’ve missed, so it makes sense to me that you do walking tours around D.C., because you do textual tours with your poetry. I really appreciate it.

Kim Roberts: That’s lovely. Thank you.

Jo Reed: Thank you.

That’ Kim Roberts—her book is called The Scientific Method------ You've been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the “Art Works” blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

Kim Roberts brings a poet’s eye to The Scientific Method