FSU English Department honors renowned poet’s 50 years of teaching

David Kirby, the Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor of English at Florida State.

David Kirby began teaching at Florida State University in 1969. Fast forward 50 years, and the renowned poet and professor of English is still making a profound impact on Florida State students.

In recognition of Kirby’s dedication to poetry, teaching and FSU, the English department announced the creation of the David Kirby Graduate Fellowship during its annual awards ceremony Friday, April 12. The fellowship will support FSU graduate students in the creative writing program with the goal of launching the next generation of promising young poets.

When Kirby arrived at Florida State, the university didn’t have a creative writing program, so he helped establish what is now considered one of the most successful programs of its kind.

“The purpose of this fund is eventually to raise $50,000; $1,000 for every year that David has been here so far,” said Gary Taylor, chair of the FSU English department. “Every year we’ll increase the amount that we want in the fund, so we hope he stays on for many more years.”

President John Thrasher spoke at the ceremony, thanking Kirby for his contributions to Florida State.

“Thank you for all you have done to serve our students, support your colleagues, and elevate the national prominence of this university,” Thrasher said.

Kirby made it clear that he doesn’t plan on retiring anytime soon, and his advice to anyone looking to spend 50 years at FSU? Just look both ways on Copeland Street.

“This is the only award I’ve ever won that I’m absolutely certain I deserve,” Kirby said. “Thank you to my colleagues, you inspire me. Thank you to my students; I’ve always learned from you and I always will. I’m looking forward to the next 50 years.”

President Thrasher recognizes David Kirby at the annual English department awards, April 12, 2019. (FSU Photography Services)
President Thrasher recognizes David Kirby at the annual English department awards, April 12, 2019. (FSU Photography Services)

Kirby’s published more than 30 books, with his next one, “More Than This,” scheduled for an August release. The Kirby canon is filled with an eclectic range of literary works with topics ranging from “boyishness in America” to Little Richard.

His prolific list of works has earned him an equally long list of recognitions. He’s won a Guggenheim Fellowship, grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Florida Arts Council, and numerous writing awards.  In 2016, he received the Florida Humanities Council’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing.

David Kirby when he first began teaching at FSU. (Barbara Hamby)
David Kirby when he first began teaching at FSU. (Barbara Hamby)

Kirby’s collected almost as many teaching awards, including FSU’s Distinguished Teaching Award in 2008 and the Graduate Teaching Award in 2017. He’s also received the highest honor faculty can bestow on a colleague, winning the 2003-2004 Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor Award.

Alex Quinlan, who is pursuing a doctorate in poetry at FSU, recalls first meeting Kirby in the fall of 2013 as a graduate student in Kirby’s poetry workshop. He’s since forged a close relationship with Kirby and refers to him as a “walking funny story.”

“It seems that everywhere he goes, laughter and good cheer follow,” Quinlan said. “Just open up one of his books at random, read for five minutes, and I can almost guarantee that something will make you laugh. Hard.”

To Quinlan, though, these accomplishments pale in comparison to Kirby’s ability to support and nurture his students.

“He reflects back to us our best qualities and helps us find the best versions of ourselves, not only as writers but as people,” Quinlan said. “I can think of no greater accomplishment than that.”

John Corrigan, Lucius Moody Bristol Distinguished Professor of Religion at FSU, has a long-standing weekly lunch with Kirby at Suwannee Room.

“We typically eat at the Suwannee Room,” Corrigan said. “That is, after we make our way to a table, which is sometimes slow going because David knows everyone and exchanges words with them as we walk across the hall, and his seemingly ubiquitous students come up to chat with him.”

There’s a reason why Kirby is so popular: He’s not only an excellent writer, but also an exquisite performer.

“He is performing the poems even as he writes them,” Corrigan said. “Reading in front of an audience he appears to be in his true world, as a performer adept at making the audience laugh, mutter or shut up.”

Mark Pietralunga, chair of the department of Modern Languages and Linguistics, said his 30-year friendship with Kirby began with a love of food and Italy. The two professors connected while teaching summer session at the FSU International Program in Florence, where they became kindred spirits. Pietralunga said he’s been fortunate to experience firsthand Kirby’s range of talents, his wonderful child-like curiosity and his ability to put people at ease.

“Conviviality best describes my experiences with David, whether it be eating pulled pork and hush puppies at a local dive here in town or dining like kings in one of our favorite restaurants in Florence,” Pietralunga said. “David’s restaurant prowling’s are legendary as he has a blood hound’s sense for the best eateries, be it in his travels to New York, San Francisco, Prague, Paris, Palermo, Crete, Beijing or his beloved New Orleans.”

Pietralunga noted that Kirby is just as diverse as his travels.

“How do you define a dear friend of some 30 years who, at least for me, has multiple identities?” Pietralunga asks. “David is an obsessive planner and very well-disciplined. David is also a strong believer in professional decorum and etiquette. He is also someone who has succeeded at, and plans to continue, squeezing every second out of life and living to the fullest.”

Professor of English James Kimbrell appreciates Kirby’s youthful spirit.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better colleague and mentor than David Kirby,” Kimbrell said. “David has seen it all, and from the great advantage of time. The man has a secret recipe concocted by himself and the great poet, his wife, Barbara Hamby. I love them both, and I hope they know how much they are appreciated in Tallahassee and beyond.”

Along with developing several long-lasting friendships, Florida State also led Kirby to forge one of the most important relationships in his life: his marriage to Barbara Hamby.

Hamby, a respected poet in her own right, is also a member of the FSU English faculty. Kirby and Hamby, who have been married for 37 years, are one of the few couples who have each received a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship, which honors those who have demonstrated “exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts.” Kirby was awarded his Guggenheim Fellowship in 2003, and Hamby earned hers in 2010, making them the perfect poetic power couple.

“One of the things that’s remarkable about David is he’s still so energetic, I don’t think he’s ready to retire,” Hamby said. “He keeps talking about ‘I’ll think about it when I’m 80,’ so, he’s got six more years to think about it and we’ll see what happens. But he loves it, he loves working with students.”

To donate to the David Kirby Graduate Fellowship, visit spark.fsu.edu/Kirby.

David Kirby and Barbara Hamby. (Barbara Hamby)
David Kirby in his early teaching days. (Barbara Hamby)
David Kirby and Barbara Hamby taking a stroll on one of their vacations. (Barbara Hamby)