'Study is the gate': A conversation about Ken Irby
KW: Looking at this photo — a familiar view from Ken’s couch — gets me thinking of the small objects, totems, that fill his home. The left corner of the coffee table below, opposite the Martinique rum, is dedicated to such objects.
CC: Arrowheads from Kyle Eberle’s inheritance, Petoskey stone from you and Jackie, indistinct rock from Gloucester.
KW: Polished petrified wood. Agate egg from the Tallulah Gorge.
CC: Dried rhododendron receptacle. Cut-glass from turn of century, cameos of obscure relatives. Burr oak acorn.
KW: A few chestnuts, I think. Some gingko … berries? (Are they gingko berries?)
CC: Gingko nuts from Jeff Bergfalk? I’m trying to think what other rocks there are; maybe a, I can’t remember the name, museum gift shop stone with “clouded” or “night” in the name, black and grey. Antique marbles, there’s another. Do you think geology and geography are of a piece here?
KW: I think geology, the study, is always a component of geography, the writing. But the phenomenon of the rock’s shape, texture, flecked coloration, etc., is of greater significance to Ken than its classification. It seems to me the geographer in Ken has little interest in an unpopulated landscape: “The land is incomplete / without someone to live / into it.” Habitation and migration are modes of writing earth: the “areal landscape” (to borrow from Carl O. Sauer) is the ur-wiki, composed by occupation. (The rocks remind me of Novalis too, Ken roaming among the novices of Sais. “[T]he small stone picked up without thinking,” he writes in “Cahokia,” “means everything.”)
I also think of those chunks of pink quartzite (“Sioux Quartzite”) sprinkled throughout The Intent On that were pushed down from Minnesota to Kansas by a glacier 600,000 years ago. One of the larger boulders, standing on its end by the power plant near the bridge over the Kaw River (which follows the morainal line), bears a plaque memorializing the members of the Massachusetts Bay Company who founded Lawrence. The confluence of all those different kinds of movement at the continent’s vortical centrum is instructive of Ken’s sense of geography as a function of migration — tectonic, imperial, glacial, seasonal, vocational, nomadic, whatever.
CC: And then the totemic houseplants: Norfolk Island pine of many score years, “Christmas cactus” whose blooming is an annual event, I think there’s some kind of arum, a jack-in-the-pulpit?
KW: That sounds right. I can’t remember when, exactly, I took on the responsibility of taking care of Ken’s plants while he traveled east over the summer. I do remember being nervous about it, mainly because I was incapable of maintaining plants of my own at the time, but also because I’d read in Ken’s poems of the intersubjective exchanges between him and the plants I was to nurture — like the delicate Christmas cactus you mention. There were other complications too. It seemed, for example, that the number of pots in one back bedroom exceeded the number of plants, and the densely entangled vines make it difficult to determine in which pot the Joya, say, with its otherworldly inflorescence, begins. Sometimes I wondered if the pot I was watering had any plant in it at all, or if I weren’t perhaps watering the rug. The books, CDs, letters, records, etc. that a friend once said are “threatening to consume Ken’s apartment” represent one kind cultural growth, and the exotic, antediluvian flowering plants represent another — a sense of “culture” as a site or medium “for all manner of living growth.”
as often as I entered his house, I thought I was in the wilderness
Certainly the plants and the poems grow from a common soil:
midwinter days when the focus stays inside entirely, some yet again different than you’ve ever made it before dinner out of leftovers and bare, chance essentials — as the glue of the turning of the year begins to dry and crack, pages starting to loosen and fall out, the gin before dinner helps watch, without imitation, and the irritation increasingly an instant answer to its own pointlessness, by that quick anger and regret, to use, as by some new peccadillo — to slow, to enjoy, to thank for, the Christmas cactus blooming once again, the realizing it is closer to Jeffers’ birthday than Weinnacht, and from the morning, a book jacket fitting a depiction of the Globe Theater into the cursive script of the title without having to do with words or the letters or their shapes at all, which in any case were not to be remembered—the crucial words, it matters very much to look up, though no one dictionary for them can be found, the crucial words tenedos &/or tendeos &/or teneos are kept stretched very taut and resonant across the rest of the day, without ever yielding up exactly what they mean — I hold the tantra of the tendril’s tone — the hypotenuse of containment is the alternate sitar — thin, but tender — lean, but cherce — into the family of love, the lover’s home, the body of the lover, and the food, that protect the stretching forth to hold and keep, yet heavy with the rift of predictive judgement and its loss — what is meant beyond etymology, in the shifting and then lost d, the delta Δ where the seed and the eye appear and disappear in the history of the singular a-historical event, translated to the next dimension on, not quite totally out of the one before, the equilateral three in one in many more than three in one, the three hermits of the story who pray unceasingly, “You are three, we are three, have Mercy on us”
KW: Ken’s poems really capture the feel of his home; they’re structures of commensurate intrigue. And his home is one of the most inviting, comfortable, invigorating places I’ve ever been — a space set aside time, like Duncan’s “eternal pasture folded in all thought.” And you’re right, this sense of a nourishing substratum, of undergrowth inside and outside, interpenetrant—“[the] calm pasture of the mind” and “the carpet of grass” “carried in the back of the head” — is formally and thematically elaborated in a number of the poems:
What do you desire? And not just the carpet runner that comes into being under your feet out in the street and then into the yard as you approach the front door, nor the figurations in the carpet that are after all alive and rustle and run and jump around and bloom and fly, or the weaving itself that is still going on and talks to you as it throws the shuttle back and forth, and looks up at you and stops and explains the fabric up out of the ground, and the spindles of thread that whirl at the steps, set into song by the wool and the sheep that give the wool. And who is that at the door? The lore. Says, let you in.
In his preface for To Max Douglas, Ed Dorn wonders if this rhizomatic “rumination” (“the mind has aerial roots”) has something to do with what “it mean[s] to be from Kansas.” He links “the volition to movement” in that corridor with an image of the windswept “waving carpet of grass.” Ken delights in the prairie’s stormy weather, and the midcontinental grasslands are for him, as they were for Coronado, an oneiric transport as well. (Recently reading over a handful of letters from Ken to Dorn, I came across this: “I’ve found that what direction I sleep in makes a difference in my dreams — they’re sexier when I lie east-west — the N-S axis is very unrestful & headachey.”) Likewise, the polyvocal thicket that Jed Rasula describes in Ken’s work — the dense, matted “dendritic” journey of quotation (“lore” that “lets you in”) — also reveals how geographical processes inform Ken’s writing and living. If geography is the writing of the earth, then many of the poems in Relation and Catalpa are “geographical” in a very strict sense — like “Point Reyes Poem, 2,” for example, in which we read of poison oak as an intergenerational agent whose “infernal” messages, which “we share across 400 years” with the members of Sir Francis Drake’s New Albion expedition, are inscribed on “equal, heedless bodies.”
Anyway, all of these entanglements are constitutive of the synesthetic intensity of Ken’s living space. The odor of garlic and fennel mixing with the smell of aging paper mixing with Clifford Brown and Max Roach remixing Duke Jordan, etc. The interior of Ken’s home doesn’t really change, it accumulates layers, arboreal, like the Norfolk Pine that has grown exactly to the height of his living room ceiling. There’s a very palpable sense in his apartment of time passing — i.e., of measuring time (the calendar with a smattering of birthdays; the stack of books that offer an index of Ken’s recent attentions; the fact that he personalizes the fly-leaf of every book he owns, etc.) — and of time standing still (in the frayed shag carpet from the ’70s, say, or the dusty glass vases and paperweights of an earlier era, etc.). The Norfolk Pine is a measure, like the gifted rocks and the Thorpe Feidt paintings Ken returns with from Gloucester every summer, which signal the coming Fall semester — “the Bloody Grind,” as Ken calls it.
CC: The paintings — propped against piles of books in the dark — by no means neglected, quite to the contrary, but not displayed in the way an acquisitive nature would have them displayed.
KW: That’s true. You’re a man of few possessions, Cyrus, capable of carrying the bare minimum on your way. It seems to me that Ken lived a more peripatetic and, by necessity, ascetic life in his twenties and thirties. He makes that autobiographical statement, turning on Spinoza’s asceticism, in his poem “Notes”:
The itinerary of emending the intellect, which is the journey of renouncing the inheritance of all wealth. To become a professor in your own discovery, but of something else. Not the distance covered, but the total lack of anything carried along.
Ken, now a full professor, carries no PhD, and no degree at all in the discipline he teaches, and yet he also subscribes to the Lawrence and Fort Scott newspapers, and often has a copy of the New York Times too. If questions about movies come up over dinner, we might consult “the Hound” (VideoHound’s Golden Movie Retriever), or the Leonard Maltin Guide, or Ephraim Katz’s Film Encyclopedia, or all three. What do you make of this more recent, almost encyclopedic accumulation? And what does it have to do with his poem’s lengthening line?
CC: In Ken’s case the hoard of books and periodicals is a paradoxical form of nonattachment, because of the way he allows the printed matter (like the plants) to take over. He himself asserts no ownership of the domestic space. His space is populated by the people behind the print:
Dale Hawkins is dead, that day, the 24th, in Topeka, where he’d been a fireman, battalion chief, retired — a year older than me, I hadn’t ever known or didn’t remember — failed a grade? it could be, though not very likely — or rheumatic fever? some faint memory click of that? — but we were in the same grade all along? — I’d just a day or so before been thinking about him in grade school, wanting the recipe in an old chemistry handbook I had from my brother, for rose water, to make some for his mother — intense request, pleading, remonstrating, “come on man, you promised, it’s for my mom” — AA member, Little League, Boy Scouts, the Fort Scott Tribune’s obituary of last Friday tells — one more to earth o’ergiven of childhood’s friends — as birth month ends — the dark time of the year — and what tales of the dark time here? — first Christmas cactus buds just starting to open — Dale and Dale — and Dale Barney and all the taunts growing up because of Dale Evans — the far West side of town, Dale Hawkins, less money, Ab Wood, Jim Hegge, Carmen Lewis, Oop Hood, to my nearer West side, big house, doctor father — or Dale Barney’s East side, and railroad father — and the closeness with Dale Hawkins not kept up as we went on into high school — and he into the Navy after graduation, married in San Diego, and then Topeka and the fire brigade, children, grandchildren — those who can tell you about yourself when you were young, or you about them — fewer and fewer, one by one — the closed-in self, the expanded self —
KW: I like the idea of the people behind the print very much, a question of who’s on the other end of the line. There was a period when Ken lived with his mother in Lawrence. I think of that line from his poem written on Chuck Stein’s 60th birthday: “they call for my mother who’s dead, because her name’s still in the phonebook, and only use her first name / and I haven’t had it changed for mine because I’m still alive.” These lines suggest the fixity of an address — whether of the domicile or the utterance — sets one that much closer to death.
It also seems to me that Ken intentionally lives on top of things — his flat-screen sits on top of the wooden cabinet of an antique television; stacks of cds frame his stereo; etc. One could view this habitation geologically, as a kind of stratification, or one could take George Carlin’s view, of the home as a mere storehouse for your shit, “while you go out and get more shit!” Both are encompassed by Ken’s sense of the “pastoral,” as the concern for “the precise landscape wherever we are. […] Given the amount of shit we live in, it is also manure for all manner of living growth.” It’s interesting that while Ken, as you aptly put it, “asserts no ownership ... of the domestic space” — in the most generous and inviting way — he also remains inseparable in my mind from the texture and wonder of its interior. I think of that “Home Sweet Home Sweet Home Sweet Home ...” fabric he salvaged from a dumpster in Berkeley — or was it Lowell Levant who recovered that?
CC: I don’t remember, can’t visualize, the fabric.
KW: Here it is:
… and there’s Ken digging for Josquin or Aksel Schiøtz or Dexter Gordon’s “Homecoming” or who knows what. The red and blue design of that fabric produces the same minor visuals as the Vision® skateboard deck I had in middle school.
CC: And next to that chair the cameo chair, and the view out the balcony:
The quiet intricate interior forest of the Christmas cactus and its blossomings bends down
over the jade tree where the cameo chair seat looks out to the Northern world
what can be seen over the balcony boards, wood rush to meet, contemplation of the tops
of trees and roofs and the sky lines advancing and receding
If you lean forward far enough you can see almost in the back right corner one board with
a knobhole through it
the start of a needle down to thread and begin the sewing, the mending and the
and just barely visible over the edge straight ahead at the other end of the compound
the upper third of a balcony door and the room seen lit the night of the poet’s death and
known there was a sun in there through the dimension
through the leaves and branches into and through the dimension, through what stare
stares into and through
and drew it, the red life, the thread drawn
The throw makes me think of Ronald Johnson’s
— a Topeka poet, one of the first of a very long list of writers and artists Ken introduced me to. “Also the author of The American Table,” you can be sure Ken noted, “an excellent cookbook.”
KW: I dig the Johnson. His categorizing that poem in particular as a “beam” is wonderfully suggestive of its spectral and structural qualities, of the poem as a self-sustaining ecosystem that you “can enter from any corner, like a field” (to quote another Topeka poet). Thinking of managing the hearth, of the peculiar chores each home calls for, and of working to live with the other objects of one’s environment, rather than trying to subjugate or overwhelm them — like what Creeley says, that we “will find a world only as [Irby] does, by loving it” — all of this echoes the themes of “Song 3,” as well, from Olson’s Maximus Poems, an obviously important text for Ken:
This morning of the small snow
I count the blessings, the leak in the faucet
which makes of the sink time, the drop
of the water on water as sweet
as the Seth Thomas
in the old kitchen
my father stood in his drawers to wind (always
he forgot the 30th day, as I don’t want to remember
a house these days
so much somebody else’s,
Or the plumbing,
that it doesn’t work, this I like, have even used paper clips
as well as string to hold the ball up. And flush it
with my hand
But that the car doesn’t, that no moving thing moves
without that song I’d void my ear of, the musickracket
of all ownership …
in my shoes, that’s all right, my fly
gaping, me out
at the elbows, the blessing
that difficulties are once more
“In the midst of plenty, walk
as close to
In the face of sweetness,
In the time of goodness,
go side, go
smashing, beat them, go as
(as near as you can
In the land of plenty, have
nothing to do with it
take the way of
your legs, go
Ken’s encounters with his own leaky faucet, for instance, or with the plastic bowl emptied weekly and repositioned on top of the tin of Washington State cheese in order to catch the drip in the back of the refrigerator, these inconveniences (so most people would think of them) are the poignant, “bless[ed],” rhythmic “difficulties” by which “the day is saved” for Ken; these are those “leftovers and bare, chance essentials” from the poem you cited above, to be dealt with, as with the daybooks to be cannibalized. In a way, it’s like whatever happens happens in Ken’s world, and he writes his way into and through it as love. The poison oak he “got at Reyes a week ago” is something that “we” — as “equal, heedless” humans — get to share! Here the mind encounters temporal/historical distance as proximal to its distance from the body and, as such, as constitutive of what Lyn Hejinian calls the “lyric sociality” in Ken’s work. There’s obviously a dose of fatalism in this “whatever happens, happens,” but my sense of it is much closer to the closing lines of Hejinian’s The Fatalist: “That’s what fate is: whatever’s happened / — time regained.” The will to regain — “the reciprocity of hospitality” — is the rub for Ken: Ken’s care for the reclamation of minutiae that most people pass over is intense, gemlike — such as his account of saving a wolf spider in “[a Nocturne of the day — James Huneker],” a poem that demonstrates his empathy, as well as what he’s done with Olson’s instruction:
In the middle of the day the smell of peanut butter and mayonnaise and jelly brought
out a small spider from under the chopping block and the blender
a puff of breath, a puff, and it rolled into a ball, recovered, and hurried back where it
had come from
bringing and receiving luck and renewal
The wolf spider, hunter of the night, trapped in the kitchen sink and its porcelain slick
took quite a while to rescue, since it hid much of the day in the garbage disposal and
kept trying to get back there
at last brought out with a big plastic spoon and set down between the icebox and the
sink counter, and away
saving, and the day saved, and again
You might own a pair of such great lichen screens
one of the rocks, one of what grows on them
dyed with their pigments, translucent, illuminant, through
and at the centers, they turn
Focusing on the uncommon care it takes to rescue the spider, I almost overlook the fact that Ken releases it in his kitchen a few feet away! What’s remarkable here is not that he avoids killing the spider — of course he does — but that, in his placing it out of harm’s way, he’s equally intent on minimizing the disturbance this intervention will otherwise create. Our current culture of gratuitous collateral damage and fearful excess — “the superstructure of filth,” as Amiri Baraka has put it, “[that] Americans call their way of life” — could learn a lot from the everyday values in The Intent On. It’s responsibility of use that confers value in Ken’s world, not possession; not how many shares one has, but how one shares.
KW: Yesterday you asked what I considered to be Ken’s task and I didn’t have a very good answer. I guess I’d say the task is to communicate, a word which derives from the Latin for “share,” another important term in his work. The desire to get across is present in his poems’ patchwork of quotations, in his epistolary habits, in his anecdotal pedagogy, in the way he talks of friends as ore (that personal lore, from OE lār, “instruction), and in the connections he facilitates among them — “these people you know are like gold,” I hear him saying, “only where you find them.” All of these associations convene, “commune,” under the roof of the host — from L. hospes (meaning both “host” and “guest”) and L. hostis (meaning “army,” in the sense here of containing multitudes). Ken is a consummate host, and the lessons he’s shared have considerable half-lives, if that makes any sense. Having moved away, I find them returning with greater intensity.
CC: Writing — to which Ken’s dedication is total, writing as sustenance — as subordinate to a higher task of keeping company (thinking of Creeley’s etymology com + pānis plus eucharistic idea of “host” as bread), the daybooks a form of communion with the day, the weather, the place, the flora and fauna, and the reading is a form of company with the like-minded, like-in-spirit.
Apropos of food and hospitality: Ken’s delight with the name and concept of “gravlax.” His anecdote of the first time — was this in Berkeley — that he bought (almost accidentally, and at an incredible bargain) a case of “good” wine.
KW: I think of his delight in the exaggerated mispronunciation of “feesh” (for “fish) and other signature cooking remarks — like his preference for letting a soup or sauce “muse on itself.” Ken is a superb cook, though I’ve never seen him look at a recipe or measure out anything in the kitchen.
CC: Catfish baked in the oven under a thick sprinkling of anise, oregano, and thyme, arborio rice flavored with drippings from the feesh, half an avocado with olive oil and balsamic vinegar pooled in the pit concavity, often asparagus or roasted red pepper … Divine sweet potato baked to deliquescence in foil, split, buttered, with parsley.
and now remember here: interior with a Norfolk Island pine as Christmas tree, until
and through it a garden in the wall where two figures suspended are confronted by an
angel whose back is to us
or is it at the balcony door where the curtains moiré the last sunlight of the year, and still,
the chalk, the little chalk, the oil, the wax of the little chalk
is cray the crayfish cray?
but that’s a mistaking out of OE crevise, OF crevice, OHG krebiz: edible crustacean
made to crayfish, crayfeesh, and craw- and -dad
but gerbh- and scratch and crab and crawl and graffiti and diagram and draw
KW: Succulent pork chops with the same herb sprinkling glazed with soy sauce and honey, blackened scallops, olive oil over everything, fresh mango slices on vanilla ice cream swimming in cognac for dessert. Not a gin drinker myself, I can’t speak to what Patrick Doud calls “the shimmer of Ken’s special gin apertif,” but you enjoyed the drink, once upon a time.
CC: What I remember above all about the drink was the viscosity of the cold gin. It doesn’t seem that the drink had anything in it other than gin (straight from the freezer, and the condensation froze white on the Sapphire bottle), lemon zest, and assorted olives. Ken introduced me to the oil-cured “Moroccan” olive, for example, and to the large green “Sicilian” and bright green “Castelvetrano.” The aperitif almost always contained a very small olive that seemed mostly pit — maybe that was an Arbequina. I drank so fast at Ken’s, that only the speed of my drinking could subdue the shame of my manners. I don’t know if it was that I had something to prove, or that I was taking out some unnameable aggression.
Yet anyone, however unlettered, would be welcome at Ken’s table.
KW: True, I don’t think lettered and unlettered are categories Ken’s hospitality recognizes. I guess the important thing for Ken is that one pays attention to how one goes about doing whatever it is one does. “Process is soul,” as the man “sd.”
CC: That seems right. What Ken seems to admire in a person is the faculty of taking an interest. And his conversation is characterized by singularly intense interest, attentiveness. One visible way his truly astonishing learning serves him is that it allows him to take active interest in his interlocutor, whether he/she’s a trucker or flautist or hydrologist or itinerant schizophrenic. But there are whole tracts of Ken’s learning that are obscure to us. I don’t mean literature we haven’t read — I mean whole fields.
KW: Like the travel journals of sixteenth-century Spanish explorers, or Scotch Heredom.
Dr Dee stood at the edge of Governor Winthrop’s Chinese garden, gauging the descent, catching sight through the rhododendrons of the rain-swollen stream
Here, he said to his
host, I am in intimate contact with that Far Ancient East which has been heretofore only a
matter of venerable report to me—among these exotic shrubberies, the traceries of these
paths afford us insight of the flow—this, I take to be patterned exact fixation of those
features, what one master of such lore once termed to me, fungh-shwaye, or water-winde,
which pierces the earth, and attracts from the heavens the mute attendant spirits to in-
So he spoke, stopped at the pond’s edge, leaning out over the water ...
Ken is a spirit of the threshold. He has guided us over many of them, and, as you say, it takes a long time for some of the lessons to accomplish this. Is there a corresponding sense in which Ken’s poems and his persona alike are hermetic, closed, remote, inaccessible? His connection to the source of the poems seems more mysterious than that of other poets.
KW: I’m not sure, maybe. For example, in his preface to Movements/Sequences, Ken writes: “Finding a way in what shows no way: so, blind: but with the confidence that even to set one word down or speak at all moves in meaning: so, certain.”
Interesting that we’ve come back to the heap of stones on Ken’s table that we started with — that is, “hermetic” = Hermes = herma (Gr. “heap of stones”).
CC: But a sense in which the poems might be intended never to commune with another sensibility. Surely undecidability is part of all bodies of work, but I see that as a different thing from the cryptic — I guess I’m asking if Ken’s poems also do some work of encryption that other poems, other oeuvres do not.
KW: I read, in the distance they aesthetically, syntactically and intellectually construct, a form of Eros, and, as such, a gift — an open-ended Whitmanian proposal entreating the reader to collaborate in bridging that gap. I find the poems instructive in this sense, but not didactic. Both Gerrit Lansing and Jed Rasula have made this last point before me, or one close to it.
CC: All items in the richness of his routines — in them, the work emits a special sense of company, even its recondite elements, even if they remain obscure, some are insistently so, they grow personal, demonstratively familiar.
CC: I would like to hear an account of how Ken mediated your deep and abiding interest in Dorn. Surely Ken introduced you to his work? Dorn would be a good example, in your case, of the effect of Ken’s teaching. You wrote a 600pp master’s thesis on Dorn. The process put you in touch with many other writers and scholars, I mean intimate touch, connected to Dorn.
Would the Dorn project — all of it — have started for you at Ken’s table?
KW: Probably, but it’s hard to determine where a 600pp master’s thesis entitled News from Now/Here started. Somewhere in Call Steps Ken writes: “study is the gate of justice.” Ken illumined a path that gave me, as he said of the project, “a way in.” I learned a great deal at Ken’s table, mostly because Ken is an extraordinarily patient teacher. The process of my thesis project (and what it’s led to) is, most of all, an example of how Ken brings his students to a cognizance of what is, in front of and around them; he shows us a way to deal with that, whatever that happens to be. The lesson is portable.
CC: I’m curious about how Dorn figures in Ken’s conversation. It’s hard for me to understand why Dorn or Dorn’s work (on which I am no expert, and forgive me for putting it in these terms) should mean so much to Ken (whereas the meaning of Duncan and Creeley — Duncan’s spiritualism and Creeley’s mindfulness — seem essential to Ken’s work and presence).
KW: That’s a tough question for me to answer. I think Dorn was the only poet addressing the Poundian all-times-are-contemporaneous complex of the North American continent in a way that Ken felt it should be addressed, or maybe simply in the way that Ken felt it. Neither Duncan nor Creeley really offer a way to incorporate the kind of historical information that Dorn’s early, lyrical and elegiac narrative poems about Meriwether Lewis, or John Ledyard, gracefully animate. The lean, barbed, intermittently tender lyricism of Dorn’s first few books, in addition to his “Elizabethan” ear, clearly spoke to Ken, and Ken’s earlier poems frequently borrow from, and/or respond to, Dorn. They both hail from the same time zone too—the nation’s slowly deserted and desiccated agricultural core, where you and I also come from.
CC: So it goes without saying that we really became Ken’s students in his apartment.
KW: That seems right. There was his basement office in Wescoe Hall, too — the decommissioned parking garage into which KU has cast their Humanities — with Coleman Hawkins or Debussy trickling into the hall. It was a kind of gateway, a portal to a richer life.
KW: One of the first times I visited Ken’s office he asked if I’d read Mary Butts. Then he proceeded to read “Friendship’s Garland” aloud. In retrospect, the intense generosity of that spontaneous gesture spoke louder than the text. At the time I remember thinking I should have something interesting to say about the story, but was preoccupied with a dread at my own banality. I guess I was intimidated by Ken’s erudition, but in the larger struggle that that led me to — the struggle to take my interest in literature and the arts seriously, which was the struggle to take myself seriously — Ken’s deeply sympathetic wisdom made all the difference. He didn’t care that I hadn’t read the Butts, the point was to share it, to offer his time as a form of trust and gracious encouragement to his students. A few years after the Butts story, more than a decade ago now, Ken casually reminded me one evening: “The greatest mystery you will ever be involved with is yourself.” That affirmation, which again emphasized the value in paying attention to what I was doing, rather than what hadn’t yet “done,” is among the most useful things I’ve learned from Ken — or anyone. Did you have similar anxieties? And how did Ken influence your artistic development?
CC: I didn’t want him — still don’t — to find out how little I had read. I remember when he asked me if I had read Sarah Orne Jewett, whose “The White Heron” is (thanks to Ken) among my favorite short stories. “White Heron” is where I encountered the name “Sylvy.”
KW: Your daughter’s name. Wow! And that Jewett story speaks specifically to the virtues that characterize Cyrus Console. It shows Ken’s perspicacity that he knew to recommend it to you. This was around the same time — 1998? — when you and I first met, in what we then spoke of as “Irby’s” class, though we’ve been referring to him as “Ken” in this discussion. Had you read any of his books before you took his classes?
CC: I knew him first as my teacher, though, being in the class you mention, I probably went to look at his work in the KU library at about the same time. For me, coming to know the work and coming to think of him as a friend are part of the same process, one that must have begun officially when we continued to interact after that semester’s end. And “Ken” is the name of the friend, and the name that feels natural to this discussion, though “Irby” is how we have traditionally referred to him in the third person, probably an artifact of our having been nineteen years old. The dilemma is evidence of how large his presence is, how often his name comes up, how many times we have had occasion to say “Irby showed me this Odilon Redon catalogue ...” “Irby played me this Dagar Brothers CD ...” “Irby has these Thorpe Feidt paintings ...” “Did you hear Irby’s Lord Buckley record ...” “Remember how Irby met Neal Cassady? ..”
And he played music just as he declaimed Mary Butts — whole cloth, no apologies — and it would have been a real faux pas to treat it as “background music.”
KW: True. That makes me think of Ken’s story about meeting Borges, (through his brother, James) in a bar, and how Borges scolded someone who interrupted their conversation: “Silence! We speak of poetry, all else is darkness!” To neglect the music Ken offers would be more than a “faux pas” really, it would be a diminishment of the spirit of sharing on which friendship is founded for Ken; it would be “crapmusic,” musickracket. By the way, I can’t help but hear that Borges quote in Ken’s Robert Duncan voice, which is the voice of nearly everyone he imitates. Borges, Charles Laughton, Billie Holiday — they all sound like Duncan. And Ken’s version of Duncan sounds vaguely like the Church Lady on Saturday Night Live.
CC: It should be recorded that for these and perhaps other purposes Ken has a “Duncan voice.” But he also has the “hepcat” voice.
KW: True. I hear his hepcat voice from Lord Buckley’s “Jonah in the Belly of a Whale”: [sucking in a long drag] “What d‘you say fish?”
CC: I was going to say “The Nazz”.
KW: Ken’s wealth of experience, to which he has seemingly unrestricted access through storytelling, and his knowledge of the world out there — the natural world, say, not merely the literary anyway — are astounding. He’s capable of mobilizing all of these different knowledges in his teaching. Then there’s the “news” straight from the mailbox that he shares with his classes, no matter the subject of the course — letters from his brother, or Duncan McNaughton, or the catalogue for a Jess show, whatever. “Interdisciplinary” barely scratches the surface of Ken’s approach to teaching.
CC: I am thinking about all the times I rode my bicycle home from his apartment west of campus — I would cross the neighborhood where the professors lived (The Dept. of English, inscrutably, did not promote Ken from “Lecturer” until late in his teaching there) and then fly down the hill into the student ghetto, as it was called — and the buzzing of my mind, whether I have felt so excited before or since about poetry and the intellectual life of which poetry seemed the sublimest fruit.
The first image I have of Ken, I think I’ve got it now, he is in front of the poetry workshop, he’s mentioned Kerouac (and doubtless Creeley and Duncan and Olson, whose names would have been ciphers to me at the time) and now he mentions that in the middle of his graduate study at Harvard (Eastern Studies), he “came into possession of a large quantity of a certain ... substance.” And thereafter dropped out. And at that moment I felt I had discovered a real teacher. And I didn’t know this at the time but I would take leaves of absence from every degree program in which I ever enrolled, thinking at the time I was through for good — and each of these leaves involved large quantities etc. So in that moment when Ken — he would have started the first class by saying “I am here in my capacity as a poet, though my formal training is in … and Eastern Studies” — and then within a few minutes, after cataloguing some of the people important to his becoming a poet, he’s telling this story of dropping out — and suddenly — here is the point of what I’m trying to say — I saw someone like me, who was like me in some deep and abiding way — and this person had found a way to live. I saw a window to this dream, and that meeting gave me confidence to, you know, dedicate my life to reading and writing.
KW: That’s beautifully stated. My academic career has similar gaps, during the BA and the MA, and before the PhD, which I’m still working toward. I now attend the Graduate Center, CUNY, where I work with (among others) Ammiel Alcalay, who also considers his having dropped out of college as a valuable and formative experience. It’s funny that the first thing we’re looking for in a teacher is how they’ve denied or abandoned formal education.
CC: Funny but very true somehow. Ken is our teacher because no one else we encountered shared our particular alienation — from formal education and from the American Dream —
they kept asking, but what do yall do? o God, I said, I’ve tried everything, and
never any luck
— and Ken’s table, because extramural, is a figure for that alienation.
KW: Alienation really brought us together.
I have one more question for you, Cy. You were, without question (as Ken himself has said), the most accomplished writer in our undergraduate classes, and the first real poet I met who was my own age. I very much admired your poem about the mob of emus you didn’t see on I-70, and your “Keyboard Partita” and “Destruction of Woods” that Lee Chapman published in First Intensity, a magazine Ken introduced us to. That’s also where I first read Ben Lerner. In any case, if Ken demonstrated that it were possible for you to pursue the life you’ve now realized as an artist, can you talk about how his teaching, or his writing, or his take on your adolescent form of alienation, contributed to the particular shape that life has taken? or how it shaped the specific concerns of the work that life has produced?
CC: I met you and Ken both about the time of transition from childhood/adolescence (which I regard effectively as having been lived by another person) into adulthood, the sentient part of my life, one dominating affect of which has been, for good or ill, “this isn’t quite right; I didn’t sign up for this.” I don’t know how articulate or detailed this sense was at the time of the poems you mention, but it was the sense of this not being what I signed up for, of realizing there never was a sign-up sheet anywhere — I mean, it was out of that inarticulate feeling that the poems you mention arose. And Ken’s teaching on this point is deep. You say “The hell is this?” and he says yes “but what do you do with it?”
if I can be the young man who went with that expedition long before I ever knew him
and was their navigator with as much certainty as his own life was not
if only for one long evening finding him lifting himself to be someone more
haven’t I kept that yearning since before I was born and his
Cyrus Console and Kyle Waugh
Kansas City–Brooklyn, July 2012
Cyrus Console and Kenneth Irby, Lawrence, KS, August 2012 (photo by C. Console).
Kenneth Irby and Kyle Waugh, Gloucester, MA, July 2012 (photo by J. Zammuto).
9. Kenneth Irby to Edward Dorn, 13 January 1966, Folder 137, Edward Dorn Papers, Archives and Special Collections, Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries, Storrs, Connecticut.
22. See Hejinian’s essay, “‘We might say poetry’,” in this same Jacket 2 special feature.