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Poet David Kirby receives Florida Humanities Council's lifetime achievement in writing award

Poet, critic and Florida State University professor David Kirby is the 2016 recipient of the Florida Lifetime Achievement in Writing Award. Photo courtesy of Louisiana State University Press.
Published Feb. 5, 2016

Lifetime achievement awards, David Kirby says, are usually handed out by organizations like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. "So I see this as the equivalent of the Oscar."

"This" is the news that Kirby, a talented and prolific poet and essayist and the Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor of English at Florida State University, has been named the seventh recipient of the Florida Humanities Council's Florida Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing. An independent panel of five judges (of which I was one) selected him from a field of 19 nominees, calling him "one of Florida's literary treasures."

Speaking from his home in Tallahassee, where he lives with his wife, Barbara Hamby (also a poet and FSU faculty member), Kirby says of the honor, "I take this as encouragement. I take it as my marching orders from the Florida Humanities Council: Get out there and get to work!"

No problem for Kirby, who at 71 is teaching a full load at FSU, just published a book in December and has another on the way. Even he isn't sure how many books he has published. "If you pin me down, I'll say 34 books," he says, as well as hundreds of book reviews and essays. Most of his books are poetry collections, the newest of which, Get Up, Please, will be published in March. His collection The House on Boulevard St. was a finalist for the National Book Award for poetry in 2007.

Typically Kirby's poems are constructed of long lines shaped into stanzas, often narrative in form and filled with exuberant wit. He writes about his own life and mashes up high culture and low — Walmart and Beethoven and Hitler, in just one of his poems — and comes up with surprising insights. Just as he draws material from many sources, he also has cited a wide range of influences on his work, from John Keats to Little Richard.

"As a poet you go from absolute obscurity to relative obscurity," Kirby says, "and when I went to relative obscurity people asked me to write about poetry and talk about poetry.

"Then about 10 years ago I re-invented myself as a music journalist, and that's how the Little Richard book happened," he says of his fascinating nonfiction book Little Richard: The Birth of Rock 'n' Roll. In December he published Crossroad: Artist, Audience, and the Making of American Music, which ranges from the origins of the folk song John Henry to Elvis and Nirvana.

"I know this award was given to me for my books," Kirby says, "but teaching is just as important as writing for me."

Kirby, who was born in Baton Rouge, La., graduated from Louisiana State University and earned a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins. On the faculty of FSU since 1969, he estimates he has taught at least 2,000 students.

"I think of us as studying together, rather than me thundering at them from a height," he says. "The way I see it, I'm training the next generation of poets and writers, and they'll train the next one after that."

Kirby is also renowned as an entertaining performer of his poems; in a recent review, fellow poet Tony Hoagland described him as "doing stand up in the Tiki Room of American poetry."

Kirby says, "I have very strong feelings about people preparing for any kind of performance. I look out there and see people who could be doing other things. I've read for audiences of around 700, and I've read for two people. That's my range. Everybody gets the same show, and it's the best show I can make it."

The Florida Lifetime Achievement Award is the latest of the many awards and honors Kirby has received, among them the Pushcart Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Brittingham Prize in Poetry. He is a repeat medalist in the Florida Book Awards, has won grants from the Florida Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts, and has been published several times in yearly volumes of The Best American Poetry.

He will receive the FHC award in April at a luncheon at the Governor's Mansion. In the meantime, he says, he's been working on an essay about Cuba after traveling there last fall.

"I make things more real to myself by writing."

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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