It's odd to read things in a completely different context. I am far removed from my grad school days. I've written a whole lot of poems since then and many poems that were in that bundle I've not seen in quite some time. I came to Kirby's note from a different and, perhaps, more open place.
As I was ending my MFA, I was being nudged to write poems that didn't focus so much on gay identity and the domestic life of a gay couple, which was a lot of what I wrote during those three years. In the moment, I often took a bit of a offense to these comments and I partly chalked it up to the "heterosexual male factor." Mostly I felt this way because my thesis committee had three people on it and two were heterosexual males and one was a heterosexual female (she was my thesis advisor). She never shared these concerns, but the two heterosexual male faculty did. They were encouraging concerns, but they were concerns nonetheless.
Kirby was one of the men on my committee. I greatly respect and admire him, and his poetry continues to inspire me and surprise me. He was also great in the classroom. This is why I'm thankful I got this bundle in the mail. His note to me read:
Stephen, As you depart our city (or at least the Williams Building), you should appreciate the hard work you've done and the terrific position you've put yourself in to launch the next phase. Yes, you do write a lot about sex and identity; yes, readers will say "enough already!"--not because of the subject matter but because any subject matter becomes monotonous if it goes unrelieved. But the upside of the narrow subject matter is that you've taught yourself to write a nuanced, supple poem. And once you start writing poems like that which are made of a variety of materials--well, you'll be a wealthy man! Cheerio, DK
Two and a half years ago, I would have been pleased with Kirby's encouragement and acknowledgement of what I had accomplished, but partly saddened at once again mentioning the subject matter issue. Today, my feelings are bit more balanced. Once we leave the education world, we begin to view our experience differently and sometimes come to understand what someone was really trying to tell us or at least what we can learn from it.
Kirby, for those who don't know, is a master at putting a variety of materials into just one poem. He mostly writes very lengthy poems that are wonderfully put together and often very insightful. Kirby wanted me to broaden the world of my poems, which I actually have since leaving grad school.
The three years I lived in Tallahassee, I was very taken in by the confines of a relationship and a domestic space. Dustin and I had never had a place to our own until we moved to Florida. We were completely isolated from everyone we had ever known. We were in a smallish and very Southern city with hardly any gay community and much of those three years were spent inside our relationship and private world. That is greatly reflected in the poems I wrote during those years. Moving to Orlando, our lives completely changed and took many turns we didn't expect and with that my poems have spread their wings and have encompassed a lot more of the world. In the last year, that has also been shown in the length of my poems. They've gotten longer and longer.
I believe Kirby wanted me to see that and knew I would with time, which is what his note suggests. He is a wise man and has much experience to back it up. But his note also suggests there may always be a divide between our ideas about poetry. I still write mostly about sex and identity, but more of the outside world has entered those poems. The biggest difference between Kirby and me is that I don't see sex and identity as a narrow topic. It is a topic filled with things to explore and I could write poetry about sex and identity for the rest of my life and still have things to write about. There is always that notion that if you write about issues related to your minority that somehow you are being narrow. This may never change, but I hope to continue to push people to think beyond that notion.
I am thankful for my experience at FSU and for the great people I met and the faculty I worked with. I am also pleased to reflect back on just what two and a half years can do to your creative work. I feel like I'm such a different and better poet than I was in the spring of 2008. I also continue to grow and learn from people's comments even if I don't always fully agree with them.
I'm actually beginning to feel like I've found my footing in the poetry world. I've taken the best of what I could learn from everyone that's crossed my path and I am forging my own direction.
Note: I do not want to suggest, in anyway, that David Kirby is homophobic or unsupportive of the gay community. He was/is very much a supporter. I am only suggesting we have differing views on sexuality as a subject matter in poetry.