Scene4 Magazine — International Magazine of Arts and Media
Scene4 Magazine: Life Among The Heffalumps with Kathi Wolfe

The Desire to Write Poetry Is a Weird and Unnatural Thing

An Interview with Kim Roberts

Scene4 Magazine-inSight

september 2007

"Excuse me," a woman said to me recently, as I sat, sipping coffee and reading at a Starbucks in Washington, D.C, "but did something bite you?"  Seeing my surprise at this question, she explained that I'd been scratching myself as if a swarm of insects had bit me. 

Actually, I hadn't been literally stung by a bug. I'd been bitten by The Kimnama by Kim Roberts just out from VRZHU Press.

The volume, a Whitmanesque long poem based on Roberts' experience in New Delhi, India, is a "masala" of adventure, history and street culture.  Broken up into 3-line stanzas (of short lines), this work makes the reader viscerally smell, hear, touch and see the streets, mosques, gods, vehicles, shopping malls and slums of New Delhi.   So much so, that at the Starbucks in DC, reading Roberts' description of insects and a gecko in her New Delhi kitchen, made me itch and squirm as if bugs or a lizard really were crawling around me.

"....ants, small crickets,/enormous water bugs./....A gecko visits my bedroom,/crawling around the perimeter/of the ceiling, puffing/....and sticking out its tiny pink tongue," Roberts writes in The Kimnama.

On a recent Friday afternoon, at Busboys & Poets in Washington, D.C., Roberts, a poet and editor of the on-line journal Beltway Poetry Quarterly, talked with me about poetry, Whitman, the Harlem Renaissance, editing and her other literary passions.

Born in Charlotte, N.C., Roberts, 45, grew up in North Carolina and Connecticut.  "My father was in the textile industry and we moved back and forth {between Charlotte and Connecticut suburbs of New York City}," she said.

Roberts always thought that she'd do something in the arts, she recalled. roberts1-cr"But, early on I really thought that I would be a musician," Roberts said, sipping decaf coffee, "I started out being a singer/songwriter."  She moved to Boston to be part of the music scene there, Roberts said, but then, while a student at Emerson College, switched over to creative writing.  "I was making a living as a musician and I started getting more serious about my writing," she said.  Roberts decided that she had to make a choice, because "they {writing and music}....took up the same kind of creative energy," she remembered.

Roberts, a co-editor of Delaware Poetry Review, received her B.F.A. in fiction from Emerson College in 1984.

(There is a connection between Roberts' poetry and music.  The alternative rock band Arc of Ones and the classical composer Daron Hagen have set some of her poems to music.)

As an undergrad, Roberts studied fiction and wrote short fiction. Several writers, including Jane Anne Phillips, knocked her socks off, she said.  "In college, I also....started reading....classics of American literature that I might have read earlier and that I might not have," Roberts recalled. She read Moby Dick for the first time and thought it was "stunning," Roberts added. 

On her own, Roberts started secretly to write poetry.  She showed it to poet Bill Knott, who was teaching at Emerson.  "He was very encouraging," Roberts said, "and....he started meeting with me.  Almost like a private tutorial.....He was really my first big influence {in poetry}."  Knott was strange, but compelling, she recalled, adding, "he writes poetry that's....almost Surrealist."

Some poets, as she began reading and poetry, were important to her, Roberts sad.  "Most of whom I don't read much any more," she recalled, "My earliest favorite poets were (this is funny!) Jorie Graham (whose style has completely changed!) and Louise Gluck."

Her study of poetry continued in graduate school, where Roberts earned an M.F.A. from the University of Arizona in Tucson in 1986.  In grad school, because she'd switched over to poetry in her later undergrad years, Roberts thought the other grad students would be better read than she was.  "I...started reading as much contemporary poetry as I could," Roberts said, "I so overcompensated for what I thought was this horrible lack of knowledge that I ....probably was much better read than all of my fellow students."

To educate herself, Roberts read as much as she could in contemporary American poetry.  "I figured....I can't take on the whole world," Roberts recalled, "but maybe this country."  It was much later before she started reading poetry in translation, she added.

Gertrude Stein, Marianne Moore, Gwendolyn Brooks, Marilyn Hacker, Frank O'Hara, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, Marilyn Nelson, Mark Doty, Mary Ruefle, and Walt Whitman are the modern and contemporary poets who have most influenced her writing, Roberts wrote in an e-mail.  "I read poets who write in English much more than I do poets in translation," she added, "but the poets I love most–and who have influenced my writing most– who write in other languages, are Yehuda Amichai, Rainer Maria Rilke and Wislawa Szymborska." 

Roberts was quiet, when I asked her what compelled her to write poetry. "I don't know," she mused, "Don't you think some of these things happen almost from birth?"  Some people are just verbally oriented, Roberts said.  "I've always thought that the desire to write poetry is a weird and unnatural thing," she added, "If I want to communicate something to you, doesn't it make more sense for me to go up to you and talk to you?" 

The impulse to create poetry comes in part from a passion for how language is formed, Roberts said.  But alongside this love is "some kind of lack of faith in language itself to truly communicate the full weight of our emotions," she added.

In 1987, Roberts moved to the Washington, D.C. area to take an adjunct position, teaching creative writing, American literature and literature by women, at the University of Maryland at College Park.  Since then, aside from teaching for a year in Michigan, she has been based in D.C.

Over the years, Roberts has infused her creative energy into the Washington, D.C. literary community. From coordinating the 2005 festival "D.C. Celebrates Whitman: 150 Years of Leaves of Grass" to editing Beltway Poetry Quarterly, Roberts, with her support and wisdom, has nurtured DC.

She has long admired Whitman.  ""Part of what I love is the way that he engages with the outside world, that it's not all sort of internal," Roberts said, "....A lot of it is observing urban life."  Poetry that describes the outer world interests her much more than poetry that tries to map some inner world, she said.  "That's definitely a Whitman influence {on her work}," Roberts added. She's not a confessional poet, Roberts said, adding, "I've never written a lot of poems about my painful childhood. That doesn't interest me."  What interests her, she said, is "engaging with history and landscape."

Whitman's influence runs through The Kimnama–Roberts' new book. As in Whitman's work, the narrator isn't "letting it all hang" in a confessional manner.  Yet, "by making choices of what to emphasize and what to describe," Roberts said, "the narrator's still very much there."

These touching lines from The Kimnama show Roberts' narrator as a presence in the poem:

"At the chai shop two women/join me on the bench/....I make a sign, asking,/can I take your picture?/..../The older woman asks for money,/....When I reach for my wallet/she laughs and pushes it away/what is she saying?/Mr. Singh translates/....she is teaching you/the word we use for friend."

Roberts had read Whitman earlier, but became reconnected to his work when she remembered that he'd lived in Washington, D.C. for 10 years. Whitman moved to D.C. to be a volunteer nurse in Civil War hospitals and stayed long after the War ended, Roberts said. "I think he would have stayed much longer if he hadn't had his own health problems," she added, "but he needed help.  So he moved to New Jersey to be near his brother."

She became curious about where Whitman lived when he was in D.C.  "I was shocked to find that no one had written about all the places where he'd lived in D.C.," Roberts said.  She read Whitman's correspondence and researched city directories (of the time when Whitman resided in D.C.).  Then, Roberts made a map of the locations of the different boarding houses where Whitman had lived.  "This made me re-read all of his poetry again," Roberts recalled, "Whitman did me this terrific service of making me feel even more connected with D.C."

Part of her reason for returning to Whitman was personal.  "I went back to him again when a dear friend of mine–when her cancer recurred," Roberts said, "I was looking for texts about medical care."  Whitman wrote movingly in his letters and diaries about nursing young Civil War soldiers, she said.  "Some of them with horrible injuries that they would not survive," Roberts added, "it's so powerful!"

Her research on Whitman made Roberts curious about Langston Hughes, who lived in D.C. at the beginning of his career.  "He adored Whitman," Roberts said, "that....brought me to him."  As she learned about Hughes' DC connections, Roberts discovered that other writers associated with the Harlem Renaissance also lived in D.C.  "We call it the Harlem Renaissance," she said, "but that's a misnomer.  Because it was a renaissance that was happening in two cities {New York and Washington, D.C.}."  Washington, D.C. doesn't get credit for this, she noted.

One well-known writer of this period, Zora Neale Hurston, author of Their Eyes Were Watching God, was a student at Howard University in Washington, D.C.  Sexism is one reason why D.C. isn't seen as being a part of the Harlem Renaissance, Roberts said.  "A lot of the major Harlem Renaissance writers who were women stayed in D.C.," she added, "A lot of the ones who were men ended up in New York."

One of Roberts' favorite Harlem Renaissance writers is Georgia Douglas Johnson, who ran a salon in her DC home every Saturday.  "All of the writers of that period ended up going there," she said.  A lot of those women writers wrote beautiful work, but didn't publish full-length books, Roberts said.  Clarissa Delaney, Gwendolyn Bennett, Jessie Fauset, Angelina Weld Grimke, Alice Nelson Dunbar and other writers of that time have been largely hidden from literary history, she noted.  "I found them because so many of them became friends with Langston Hughes," Roberts said.

Roberts has brought these writers out of obscurity by giving walking tours of where they lived and worked in Washington, D.C.  She will lead a Harlem Renaissance in DC walking tour during the "Split This Rock: Poems of Provocation & Witness" poetry festival in 2008.  (Roberts is on the Split This Rock advisory board.)

Roberts got the idea of launching Beltway Poetry Quarterly, from her friend Kathy Keler, a painter and graphic designer.  "Kathy had started this website Washington Art, and she asked me to do a poetry section on the website," she said.  The first issue of Beltway appeared in 2000.  "It's been a great project for me," Roberts said, "It has helped me become a better editor.  Which is not something I think I was particularly skilled at when I started."

Beltway Poetry Quarterly ( showcases well-known and emerging poets from the greater Washington, D.C. area.  The well-regarded journal offers literary blogs and a comprehensive Resource Bank.  "I try very include a range of poets," Roberts said, "People of different backgrounds.  People writing different types of poetry." 

(I'm one of the emerging poets who has been published in Beltway.)

The challenge for her, Roberts said, is to be as inclusive as possible in each issue of Beltway, yet to still make the issues cohere. Some editions are more successful than others, she added. "[In} some issues....I've managed to get people who have completely different writing styles," Roberts said, "and yet you can see a connection somehow in their work."  There are other editions, where you know it's more of a motley collection, she added.

Roberts traveled to India in 1995.  She jumped at the opportunity when a subsidiary of Apple Computer hired her to do a short-term consulting job in New Delhi.  Roberts stayed with a host family there for two months–working and exploring the area as much as she could.  "I've never felt so American before," Roberts said, "I fell in love with Delhi, despite the fact that I was often sick....and there were many aspects of the city that made me profoundly uncomfortable."

There's poverty in the United States, but it's mostly hidden from sight, she said.  "In Delhi, poverty was clearly on view," Roberts said, "So was overcrowding, unsanitary conditions–the caste system.  Yet, there was beauty everywhere, too."  She saw that the beauty and ugliness were intertwined.  Roberts realized that "my pleasure and my privilege was dependent upon the willingness of others to do the ugly work I was unwilling to do." The trip changed the way she saw herself, her culture and all her assumptions, Roberts said.  "I knew I wanted to write about this experience," she said. 

Roberts did luminously in The Kimnama.

For more information about Roberts' work and projects, go to

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About This Article

©2007 Kathi Wolfe
©2007 Scene4 Magazine

Kathi Wolfe is a writer and poet in Falls Church, VA.
Her reviews and commentary have appeared in an array of publications.
For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives


Scene4 Magazine-International Magazine of Arts and Media

september 2007

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