An Interview With Poet Kathryn Starbuck

Henry Stimpson

Kathryn Starbuck has been around poets and poetry all her life, but she never wrote a single poem herself until about seven years ago, when she was grieving over the recent deaths of her parents, brother, and especially her beloved husband, the poet George Starbuck, who died in 1996 at the age of sixty-five, after a twenty-two-year battle with Parkinson’s Disease.

Her first book, Griefmania, was published in July by Sheep Meadow Press. (The title is a translation from Greek of Starbuck’s maiden name, Dertimanis.) The sixty-seven-year-old is both a self-taught poet and journalist who edited the Cabinet, a weekly newspaper in Milford, New Hampshire, for many years. With Elizabeth Meese she edited two books by her husband—Visible Ink (University of Alabama Press, 2002) and The Works: Poems Selected From Five Decades (University of Alabama Press, 2003), which includes a foreword written by the late Anthony Hecht. She lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Poets & Writers Magazine asked Starbuck how she started writing poems.

Kathryn Starbuck: I was sixty years old. I started writing poems without knowing it. Everybody in my life had died, and I was pretty much dead. I found myself scribbling things, and I looked at them and couldn’t help but notice they looked like poems. I had never written poems. I never had an interest in writing poems, but they were poems. I could tell that much. I gathered a few of them up and didn’t know what to do with them. I had been the editor of the country’s oldest weekly newspaper, so I thought, "What the hell, I’ll send these to the country’s oldest literary magazine, the Sewanee Review." So I did, and they took them.

P&W: Were you surprised you had this latent talent?

KS: Yes, I was surprised, but I was in a state of deep and unrelenting grief, and I was writing about death and history and Greece. I don’t know that I was thinking about poetry. I wasn’t thinking about poetry—capital P—at all really. I wasn’t looking for poetry. I wasn’t looking for poems. I was writing about suffering. I was just scribbling.

P&W: How did you feel when the Sewanee Review accepted your first two poems?

KS: I was excited; I thought it was wonderful. Intermittently, when I was feeling up to it, I wrote more poems, and slowly I began. I didn’t know anything about publishing poems, but I knew what good poetry magazines were because I had read poems over the years. I had for most of my life lived with a wonderful poet, and before I even knew him I had worked for Paul Engle at the Writers' Workshop in Iowa City and had been surrounded by a whole bunch of crazy poets.

P&W: Did you show your poems to anyone?

KS: I was too shy to do that. I could send them to editors and ask for their opinion, but I couldn’t show them to anyone.... I’m shy about my work. When I was a freelance journalist, I was the same way. I would write articles and just send them to publishers. I didn’t show them to people.

P&W: Would you have ever written poetry if you hadn’t gone through this intense grief?

KS: I don’t think I would have. I was driven to do it. And once I started doing it, I liked it a lot. I still like it. I just love writing poems. I love working with the words. I know nothing about how a poem is put together. I have no interest in any of that—whatever it is that is supposed to make a poem. But I know how I like to do it. It just really, really interests me, so I do it a lot.

P&W: How often do you write?

KS: Whenever I get hit by a poem—usually when I’m driving—and I try not to get hit by a car or hit someone else.

P&W: Is there any crossover between your journalistic writing and poetry?

KS: It seems very different. When I was putting out a newspaper it was something I liked doing a lot, but it required hard work and meeting deadlines all the time and interviewing people and making copy, whether I wanted to or not. That seems to me very different from trying to avoid a car wreck.

P&W: Did you have any fears that you might be imitative of George when you got started?

KS: Oh not at all! George was a genius, first of all. [Laughs.] George knew everything about poetry and words and rhyme and form and all the things that I not only know nothing about but have no interest in. I’m interested in modern Greek history and my interior life. The little bit I know and understand about George’s poetry is very foreign from the things I’m interested in.

P&W: How do you think George would react to your success as a poet if he were alive?

KS: I think George would be jumping up and down with joy. George would be really delighted. George always loved me as a writer, as a journalist. He would love my poems, and I wish he were here to read them.

P&W: Would he have been surprised?

KS: I’m not sure he would be. I think he knew a lot more about what I was capable of—certainly more than I did.

P&W: How did Anthony Hecht learn about your work?

KS: Anthony Hecht was a wonderful poet. I edited a couple of George’s books after he died. Anthony Hecht wrote the introduction to George’s selected poems, The Works, and I had published a couple of poems in the Harvard Review—about the time The Works was coming out—that Tony Hecht had seen, and he was quite astonished to learn that I was writing poems. And it was through that that he learned I was a poet, and he took an interest in me and my work.

P&W: Are you working on a new book or just writing poems?

KS: Just writing poems.

P&W: Do you hope to have another book eventually?

KS: I think it’s too soon to tell. I’ve got some poems coming out in the Harvard Review in the spring. I’ve written to my satisfaction about thirty or forty [new poems]. I haven’t sent them out. I should do that, but I haven’t. I’ve haven’t been sending things out very much lately.

P&W: Anything else you'd like to say?

KS: I do think it’s possible to find joy in grief. Certainly I wasn’t looking for that. I wasn’t looking for anything, but I’ve found it.