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Interview

Albert Goldbarth Wins Mark Twain Award for Humorous Poetry

America's funniest bard doesn't just win awards, he also collects robots and rocket ships.
Introduction

Is there a connection between someone's poems and their obsessions? Richard Siken interviews Albert Goldbarth about his collection of vintage space toys. The first in an occasional series.

The Poetry Foundation's 2008 Mark Twain Award winner for humorous poetry Albert Goldbarth is the author of over 20 books of poetry, including Heaven and Earth: A Cosmology, Beyond, and most recently, The Kitchen Sink: New and Selected Poems. He lives in Wichita, Kansas. This interview originally ran in February, 2007.

Richard Siken: What do you collect?
Albert Goldbarth: 1950s outer space stuffs, toy spaceships and robots. Also, I have a bunch of homages to the manual typewriter, some old manual typewriters, some of them quite beautiful as physical objects, and lots of old typewriter ribbon tins with beautiful designs lithographed onto the covers. I’ve always been a hoarder, a kind of bower bird–like creator of displays from out of my hoard. Going back even to childhood, as far back as I can imagine. There’s junk all over, there always has been. By my standards, there isn’t a real line of demarcation between “junk” and “collectibles.” The question is: is it lovely to my eye?



Do you type on the typewriters you collect?
No, I just look at them and imbibe the aura they have for me. That’s true for the toy spaceships and robots. For example, many of them, as you know, are meant to be wound up, or they’re battery operated. Some of them are extraordinarily intricate and very jazzy performance objects—they move, they beep, they clang, they spark—but generally I just like to look at them. Sometimes, when I’m moving around my spaceships, I feel that I’m doing something similar to what Joseph Cornell did—arranging his bird eggs and feathers and clipping from magazines—although I know there is some element of hubris in saying that.

How many objects do you have in your collection?
I’ve never counted, but I’ve been accumulating these things for well over 20 years now. I love a certain kind of 1950s outer space look—Cadillac-finned rocket ships, bubble-helmeted space guys and gals, fantastically futuristic space guns that go zap. I also have a cornucopia of old kids’ coloring books, comic books, paperbacks, pulp magazines, board games. A lot of it is just packed away—there really is no more room for display—but the brunt of it exists in what would be, in a more normal household, the dining room. After a long time in negotiations, my wife and I have yielded [this room] to the outer space collection.



What’s the most important item in your collection?
Although it’s hard to pick, that might be a Buck Rogers spaceship. It’s from 1934, created by the Marx Toy Company—that was a very famous producer of American toys from the ’20s up into the early ’60s—and it is probably the first commercially produced toy spaceship ever. To my eyes it’s just lovely, faithfully produced from the way the spaceship looked in the Buck Rogers comic strip. It’s just fantastically, almost ichthyologically finned, with the most beautiful array of deco colors displayed all over it.

I suppose one of the nice things about the toy spaceships—and in some sense the toy robots, too—is that no matter how imaginative or surreal they are, they’re made, by definition, out of the real material they would exist in if they existed in our actual world. You’re looking at a tin spaceship, opposed to a plastic spaceship or a carved wooden spaceship. You’re looking at a tin robot, and they have the look of working models, something someone might actually stumble over if they walked outside and saw this spaceship parked at the curb. So at one and the same time you have this fantasy object that never could exist, made of a material that we choose to believe has an actual existence in some other nearby universe.



Why tin? Why not some other metal?
The story that has come down to me, through various sources, is that after World War II, when the Japanese economy was virtually dead, due to our own intervention, the Japanese realized there were all these tin cans around that the American soldiers had left behind. They collected them, smoothed them out, and used them for the original batch, as fodder for the first generation of Japanese tin toys. There’s a sort of symbolic lovely revenge that evened the economic playing field. The original tin they had at hand and was free, and to this sudden lucky windfall they were able to add new techniques in vibrant color lithography and new possibilities for windup and battery-operated mechanisms, so that long before the Japanese became the primary inventors of transistor circuits or Toyota cars, the world of American childhood was being defined by tin Japanese space fleets.

Why collect stuff? How do you decide on, or give in to, the impulse to collect?
I said before, I’d been hoarding all of my life. I still own old textbooks and notebooks from third and fourth grade, for example. But naturally, over the years, certain kinds of fetish interests declared themselves, and much of my willingness to incorporate objects and physical beauty into my life have circled around these kinds of design looks. They form a fulcrum, an armature, for all of the other accumulations in my life.



How will you know when you’re finished with your collection, or will you ever be?
I hope I never am.

Poems are documents. Collections are documents. What does your collection document that your poetry doesn’t?
Your question assumes that there’s a difference. I think it’s a fair enough assumption. I must say first, I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about the line of agreement or even the line of distinction between my writing and this collection. They’re both deep pleasures for me—the writing even more so, of course. I’m sure there must be overlap, but I’ve never been one who sits around and very consciously becomes an archaeologist or a psychologist or a deconstructor of his own aesthetic life. I don’t sit around and try to self-articulate the details: the where, the why, and the how. It seems to me that there’s probably more likeness between some of the spirit behind the writing and some of the spirit behind the collecting than there is difference. If I wanted to, I could think of many of my poems or essays as display cases of objects, also ideas, also human needs and human pleasures and human perils, that have been arranged for a specific aesthetic effect. When I think of my spaceships and my typewriters and my little collection of pinup art, they are chosen moments that are consciously wrestled with, until the best possible display options occur.



Do your friends and family understand your obsession, or do they give you grief?
Obsession? Who said it was an obsession? My wife understands. We’ve had our moments of disagreement over dust issues. On the whole, I think she’s intellectually supportive, even though, on a day-to-day basis, I think she might walk through the dining room and think of other uses to which it could be put. Friends generally tend to find it pretty amazing when they walk into some of the rooms here. Often, if they haven’t seen the things before, and they’re at a loss for any other analogy, they say “Ooooh, it’s like a museum” or “Ooooh, this is the ideal toy room I dreamt of as a child.” [My favorite reaction is from] those who really see these things with the same kind of understanding of the era and the pizzazz of innocence that these toys possess.

Is there anything you’d like to tell me about your collection that I didn’t ask?
I guess for me some of these robots are beautiful. Some of them have a kind of futuristic look that I really appreciate. They’re part of the future that was promised us, that wonderful future where we really were going to be living on other planets, zipping around to work with little jet packs on our back and changing our personal weather by turning a dial in our homes, telebeaming to one another from the moon, to Mars Port, that beautiful innocent very optimistic and expansive promise-ful future. Of course, it became the world we’re living in now—AIDS and overpopulation and terrorism—but these robots are part of that alternative future. That’s quite lovely to me.

But also when I look at robots, I see heavy manual labor. To a large extent, we imagined that as mechanical creatures they would do our work for us. They would go into the mines on the moon, and they would be the ones to wield the picks to take out all the moon metal. The word “robot” comes from Karel Capek’s early play R.U.R., Rossum’s Universal Robots. Robot, for him, means labor or some heavy manual laborer. But when I look at these rocket ships, these anti-gravity vehicles, these things the size of 12 battleships put together, that nonetheless can zoom off the surface of a planet as if through the pure power of wishing, I think of the exact opposite of manual labor. For me, I think space and spaceships imply a world of immediate wish fulfillment. A kind of technological version of Peter Pan’s flight. And I wish I could articulate well for you how absolutely and deeply beautiful they are to my eyes.



Photos by Skyler Lovelace.

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  • Richard Siken is a poet, painter, filmmaker, and an editor at Spork Press. In her profile of Siken, Nell Casey wrote, “he effectively juxtaposes holy wishes with mundane images—making them both seem beautiful by some strange lyrical alchemy.” His poems unwind on the page effortlessly, barely pausing for breath; the speaker’s voice wracked...

Interview

Albert Goldbarth Wins Mark Twain Award for Humorous Poetry

America's funniest bard doesn't just win awards, he also collects robots and rocket ships.

Related

  • Richard Siken is a poet, painter, filmmaker, and an editor at Spork Press. In her profile of Siken, Nell Casey wrote, “he effectively juxtaposes holy wishes with mundane images—making them both seem beautiful by some strange lyrical alchemy.” His poems unwind on the page effortlessly, barely pausing for breath; the speaker’s voice wracked...

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