by Khashayar Mohammadi
“It’s a really lovely thing to be Kirby right now!” says the proprietor of knife I fork I book, one of Toronto’s newest hubs for poets and poetry lovers alike.
Jeff Kirby’s spacious second-floor balcony looks over a lovely little garden on Church Street. After the release of his most recent chapbook, She’s Having A Doris Day, my recurring questions about his poetry earned me a chance to visit Kirby at his home, and, sitting in the comfort of his living quarters, I got a chance to explore the voice that defines him.
Kirby was born and raised in the industrial town of Toledo, Ohio, where the profitable glass manufacturing industry allowed for the construction of The Toledo Museum of Art, one of the most prominent museums in the country. Kirby attributes his sense of aesthetics, brightly reflected in his stylishly decorated home, to the endless hours he spent walking through that museum as a child.
Growing up as a gay young man in Toledo, Kirby found refuge in LGBTQ literature, exploring LGBTQ identity through the poetry of Ginsberg and Cavafy in particular.
As a young Lutheran, he had to resist the imposing figures who tried to “straighten” him out. “My life at the time was the Church,” Kirby recalls. Reminiscing about his first boyfriend, whom he met at bible study, he says, “the difference between me and Howard was that I never felt an internal conflict between my sexuality and spirituality.” In his living room, he has four works of art that are dedicated solely to Christ. “Jesus is my sister,” he continues. “We have a lovely relationship. She’s always welcome!”
Feeling that he did not belong to this world, Howard chose to end his life, an act that opened an entirely new chapter in Kirby’s. Thirty years later, “The seven-year suicide of Howard S,” a powerful piece that still resonates to this day, was performed at WorldPride 2014.
I point my revolver and fire five slugs
Into the fundamentalist’s head
Disfigure the believer unrecognisable
Except for the fingerprints on her
Blood drenched bible
Did you hear about the faggot who shot
The fundamentalist to death in honour of
His lover who hung himself because he
Had no home?
Before coming to Canada in his early twenties, Kirby developed a movement arts program for the severely disabled. “It’s one thing to have a physical disability. It’s another thing not to have a voice,” he says.
After the disabled artists “found their voices” and took over its leadership, Kirby left the program and was drawn to Toronto to study Moshé Feldenkrais’ Awareness Through Movement. Feldenkrais pioneered a technique that helps break conditioning patterns imposed on the brain, an exercise intended to release practitioners from oppressive habits and to help people feel more at ease in their bodies.
“There’s no blockage in the body; the blocks are what we impose on ourselves,” Kirby says. “I’m a liberationist by heart, and any liberation that we’re going to experience in this life shall happen through our bodies.”
Kirby practiced psychophysical therapy for years, but the HIV/AIDS outbreak affected his mainly homosexual clientele in the 80s. The crisis sparked The Nourish Project, a vehicle by which affected men could gather together in a nurturing environment to prepare meals, wash one another’s hair, and support one another. This nourishment came not only through food, but also through the power of touch. “It became a model for such programs across Canada and the US,” Kirby recalls.
The Genesis of knife | fork | book
Having felt a desire to change his relationship with the world around him, Kirby stopped this practice as he approached the age of fifty.
“Every step of the way, I’ve seen a need or an interest and created a vehicle that meets the interest or the need, which is entirely why knife I fork I book came into being. I saw a need for poetry to be displayed and fronted.” He gleefully elaborates on having achieved a great fantasy of his: to give poetry a home.
His chapbook She’s Having A Doris Day is dedicated to Hoa Nguyen, a celebrated Vietnamese-born, Toronto-based poet whose efforts were instrumental in the opening of knife I fork I book. Kirby expands: “I started attending her Sunday afternoon poetry workshops, where she was very much a mentor in getting me back into a writing practice, but our relationship became a friendship, and much of that was based on her unbelievable support in opening knife I fork I book.”
Poetry as a Social Voice
Kirby’s poetry reflects his socio-political anger. Following the 2016 Orlando Shooting, Kirby wrote the poem “Adam’s Feet,” which appears in She’s Having A Doris Day:
I touched Adam’s feet beside me, within reach
I touched one today, a greeting
He’s married. A daughter.
Fags have been shot for less
A look a glance
If he had a gun he could killmenow
Kirby reflected, “the perpetrator of the crime was simply set off by two men kissing in front of his family.” Kirby’s poem brings further attention to the precarious position of gay men in our society:
I have been a moving target my whole life.
At OCAD gunsights drawn on my face. My Back.
The Language of Genderfluidity
He speaks of the conditioning process our men go through, even remembering his own mother teaching him how to have a “firm” handshake. “I love what I bring to being a man,” he says. “Unfortunately, the hypervigilant has not decided by himself what a man ought to be, but holds the stricture that has been posed by someone else.”
On the issue of masculine identity, he expands, “the divide is still there; there’s still the hyper-masculine ideal of what a male body is supposed to look like, as opposed to the lovely slender boy who is a wonderful mixture of butch-femme or genderfluid. I consider myself genderfluid.”
His smile widens as he mentions how he has always felt like a boy, but has often referred to himself as a she. I shyly ask whether to refer to him as a he or a she, and he sweetly replies, “Oh darling! I’m not fussy.”
Overlooking the Church Street rainbow flags, he says “the best thing that the gender movement has done for me is that my she has surfaced. I’ve always referred to myself as a she, but I’ve always seen myself as a boy. She’s Having a Doris Day is the first time I’ve unapologetically written as a she, front and centre. I love being my she, but not in a campy derogatory way. I say she and I’m glowing.”
but, its not a bedroom
Its simply where
Its not like she
Has sex here that white
Part of her must still
Think that’s what bedrooms
Are for. Silly boy.
The Inspiration of Doris Day
I ask him about the significance of using Doris Day as the title of the chapbook.
“She was iconic, both as an actress and as a singer. She became a gay icon because of her comedy films with Rock Hudson, but the idea is that Doris Day is not a real name, it’s an entirely presentational made-up character. She had to become Doris Day. That’s what a lot of gay people my age had to do. To become someone else in order to live in a non-gay world.”
Referencing his erotic art, Kirby tells tales of his voracious sexual appetite in his youth. He says it was “pure luck” that he survived AIDS and is now here with us to give a voice to what is “vital and new.”
Taking a breath, he stops for a moment to reminisce. “Beauty is my primary motivator. There isn’t any time when I’m not taking in beauty, but now my interest isn’t the same. The drive has shifted, so I’m more comfortable in my own skin. It becomes even richer to be in the presence of beauty!”
She’s Having A Doris Day was published and released through knife I fork I book publishing, and is due for a second print run after selling out of its initial copies. “It’s a great time for poetry. Poetry’s never been packaged quite as pretty as it’s being packaged right now.”
On the subject of publishing, he tells me of his upcoming projects: “We have two chapbooks in progress: David Bradford’s chapbook called Callout, which is a really incendiary piece, and an edited version of Elianna Lev’s previously self-published Sex Made Me. We also recently released a poetry collection by Jonathan Garfinkel called Bociany (Storks).
It’s my time to leave and Kirby takes a breath for his closing remarks: “I’m silly drunk on the idea that this is happening. It’s amazing what we’ve lived through. It’s amazing that I can sit here and be Kirby. I don’t take it for granted, but now there’s no longer any gap between myself and who I am. I am who I present, and I wish that for anyone. I wish that for everybody.”
Khashayar Mohammadi is an Iranian-born toronto writer, currently working as an editor for the independent publishing company Inspiritus press.