The S.B. Questionnaire: David Starkey

Talking Writing and Publishing with Santa Barbara’s Gentle Poet and Professor

David Starkey
Paul Wellman

When I asked the ever-congenial David Starkey how he’s feeling, he responded, “Like I’m being pulled in different directions.”

That’s in part because his first grandchild was about to be born, but the deeper reason is that David is quite the renaissance man: He’s a poet, playwright, college professor, director of SBCC’s Creative Writing Program, textbook author, television show host, and publisher of Gunpowder Press, which publishes poetry books. “I have my hands in different pots,” he tells me with a smile.

Most impressively, he’s written several full-length collections of poetry, including It Must Be Like the World (Pecan Grove, 2011), Circus Maximus (Biblioasis, 2013), and Like a Soprano (Serving House, 2014), an episode-by-episode revisioning of The Sopranos television series. As for the latter, he approached the original source as it was Shakespeare. “I took notes as I rewatched each episode and tried to capture the moments that were best for a poem,” he explained.

In 2009, David, who is very tall and exudes a gentle, peaceful quality, was named the City of Santa Barbara’s Poet Laureate. “I attempt to write a poem every day,” he said. “A good poem requires a lot of attention.” And he always conveys that to his students, whom he strives to nurture and encourage.

He used the earnings from a successful creative writing textbook to start Gunpowder Press, which publishes other poets. “It’s an obligation. If you have extra money you have to do it,” he said. “A poet who has a published book in his hands is very grateful.”

As we part, he reflects on his role as poet, teacher, and publisher, “Poetry will always have a limited audience, but it offers so much freedom,” he said. “Because there’s so little at stake financially, you can always change directions.”

Santa Barbara’s bard answers the Proust Questionnaire.

What is your current state of mind?

Perplexed. (Ask me again after the election.)

What is your greatest fear?

Other than the usual things — loss of loved ones, catastrophes, and so on — it’s probably the fear of not being able to write. I could imagine not standing in front of a classroom after 26 years, but I would have a much harder time envisioning myself as a person who doesn’t write frequently and with at least some facility.

What do you like most about your job?

When I feel as though I’ve helped a student become a better writer. It’s especially gratifying when the student initially seemed skeptical about my advice, but then, lo and behold, it turns out I knew something after all. I also have no complaint about the long summer vacations.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

There’s nothing quite like the moment when a piece of writing I’ve been working long and hard on is accepted for publication. My agent, Bob Diforo, is currently submitting a mystery novel I wrote set in Santa Barbara. If that were to be picked up, I would be perfectly happy — for an hour at least!

Who do you most admire?

At the risk of being corny, I’d say my wife, Sandy. She amazes me everyday with her resilience and sense of humor and fierce dedication to her family (and dogs). She’s the person everyone wants to be around, and I get to be the person she comes home to.

What is your greatest extravagance?

Guitars — most recently a Rickenbacker 4003 Fireglow bass.

What is the quality you most like in people?

The willingness and ability to get along with people who are unlike themselves.

What is the quality you most dislike in people?


What do you most value in friends?

Flexibility. The friends I’ve kept over the years are people who don’t need to be in your life all the time — they have their own lives going on.

What is your most marked characteristic?

Persistence, which is kind of ironic considering I just said I didn’t like pushiness.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

“Wow!” That’s sincere: I’m really wowed by lots of things. And then “Anyways,” which I use sardonically. Even my colleagues are starting to say it. Whatever happened to good old “Anyway?”

Which talent would you most like to have?

The ability to predict the exact date on which I am going to die. It would make it a lot easier to sift the important things from those that don’t really matter.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

The desire to know the exact date on which I am going to die. Who even says that?

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

My children, of course. I started off as a too-young and reluctant parent, but I lucked out with my kids.

Where would you most like to live?

I would love to live in a new country every year until I was too old to enjoy the experience. Then home sweet home to Noleta.

What is your most treasured possession?

Whichever computer is currently storing my writing. I’m also pretty fond of our Saint Bernards — Falstaff and Ferdinand — but you can’t really possess a dog.

Who makes you laugh the most?

My wife. In fact, I tend to judge people by whether or not they get her sense of humor. If they don’t, I’m probably not going to have a lot in common with them.

What is your motto?

Ars longa, vita brevis.

Which historical figure do you most identify with?

The first person who comes to mind is Matisse — someone who faced a life-altering difficulty but found a way to go on making art deep into old age.

On what occasion do you lie?

When I’m telling people their writing is better than it actually is. Alas, it’s an occupational hazard for a creative writing professor!


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