[On Ken Irby]

Kenneth Irby reading in his study.

I have had the peculiar luck of never actually taking a class taught by Ken Irby. In my final semester of undergraduate study, I felt I needed some individual guidance to balance the terrifying prospect of my first graduate-level workshop. I needn’t have worried on that account, but fortune brought us together nevertheless — he as an independent study arbiter, myself as a weekly visitor with maybe an extra page to show for my efforts. That’s how we formally met, but it’s not where I first heard of Irby. That would have been through Cyrus Console and (indirectly) Ben Lerner. These being two fellows whose work I continue to admire immensely, and whose attentions to the man gave me a mental construct before I ever set eyes on him. I vividly remember Cyrus reading a few of his “rainbow acrostics at a hastily arranged reading in one of Solidarity’s bookstores in Lawrence. His work is definitely a poetic landmark for me, so his mention of Ken in passing did not escape my notice. This was reinforced a few months later at an art/music/writing exhibit in Topeka (yes, they have those), at which I happened to browse through a copy of No edited by Ben Lerner. Here was another fresh poetic hero of mine, another Kansan singing his praise and — importantly — dedicating a generous portion of that particular issue to the work itself. I admit that I don’t recall anything else about the night, having read through a good deal of the performance, completely oblivious. I was overwhelmed in a way that reminded me of the first time I tried to listen to Ornette Coleman; this accomplished actual thought on page, disciplined and un-equally there. It was hard for me the way sound and proximity carried the stakes (presumed to carry the stakes, I took it, wrongly). So I had a good deal to think about, and needed to, before walking into his office. It sweated books, migratory piles of them. I always seemed to catch him a bit off guard — but no matter, I would sit and wait for whatever came. Usually music, usually jazz. He helped me come to terms with that, too, come to think of it. And he was just as likely to be playing indigenous Peruvian chants as the Kronos Quartet; he gave all of his attention to the sound, easily swapping genres depending on the mood. There were times we didn’t get down to poetry at all because we just chatted through the allotted time. He had the professorial streak, to be sure. If he wasn’t dredging up an esoteric quote from memory, he would string a thought together from an amalgam of photographs, anecdotes, even knick-knacks he had lying about. Amiri Baraka, Robert Duncan (first I had ever hear of him), and of course Charles Olson. His casual familiarity with the terms of American Poetics — resources, personalities, contingencies, genius — astounded me. I was cowed most of the time, and usually curse my younger self for handing him such indulgent garbage, but then he had such discernment. He never gave me a program and the attentions he paid to my work were of a different lens entirely. The man looked at things better, harder, odder. He could point out the blueprint, giving me the impression that a viable poetic direction might be blueprinting as-is. Here again, the action of thought depicted. Where I wanted to make a metaphysical cardhouse, I learned from Irby to take into account the situational aspects of cardhouse-making. The way to accomplish this came clear with further reading: sound cues, the irresistible conveyance of the turn-of-phrase, or vowel coloration, or what have you. Take this example, from Etudes:

call snown draw              cold moon sawm

comb new leaver lean

so shadows dough

I will always be grateful for his guidance in word-smelting. The whole prospect is thrilling — its inherent draw demonstrated for posterity in Irby’s oeuvre. I would teach it even if this were the only reason.