Poet and publicist Kim Dower joins Zibby to discuss her fifth book of poems, I Wore This Dress Today for You, Mom, which helped her grapple with her mother’s dementia and passing. The two talk about Kim’s journeys as both a writer and a book publicist—as well as how the two roles inform each other—and what the catalyst was for her to return to poetry after nearly twenty years. Kim also shares some of her favorite poets and what inspired her to write a number of the poems in this collection.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Kim. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your beautiful poetry collection, I Wore This Dress Today for You, Mom.

Kim Dower: It is wonderful to be here. I’m a big fan of yours, Zibby. I am thrilled that you want to talk about my poetry. Thank you.

Zibby: It’s really beautiful. It made me so sad, honestly. It evoked so much emotion as I watched you grapple with your mother’s dementia, but then the aftermath of her loss and the one moment where you’re thinking about what you’ve done with the lab tech and you’re saying, what did I do this weekend? The loneliness of loss and the aftermath of that and your son being grown up, it just made me sad for you. I just wanted to give you a hug and be like, oh, my gosh.

Kim: Thank you. I would’ve been happy to have the hug. A lot of these poems absolutely come from the truth. A lot are embellished because they’re poetry. Like fiction, it’s not all autobiographical, but they do elicit feelings, emotions. A lot of people have told me, that was my situation with my mother. Also, a lot of the poems are funny in the book.

Zibby: Yes, that’s true too. Sorry. Yes, I should’ve said they were multidimensional.

Kim: For whatever reason, I do find humor in the very saddest places. There was a lot of humor with my mother’s failing. She would’ve thought it was funny too. We’re New Yorkers. There’s a lot of New York in these poems. Even though I’ve been in Los Angeles for forty years, my roots are growing up right there on the Upper West Side. People make fun of everything.

Zibby: I liked how you had the poem about how a lot of mothers are gardeners, but you learned how to take a cab. You learned how to buy a hostess gift. Your mom was a New York City mom, so there you go.

Kim: The book is a lot about different kinds of mothers, the mothering that we had, what we wished we’d had. One of the poems in the book, as you talk about, is called Different Mothers. Mine didn’t know about things — I had friends who grew up in the country. They grew up in Connecticut. They had adventures in the wilderness with their mothers. My mother, the wilderness was getting the bus on Madison Avenue. You think, oh, god, I wish I’d had that kind of mother. Really, it was fine to have a city mom.

Zibby: Oh, good, because I’m a city mom. Can I read this poem? I wanted to read a couple of them if that’s okay.

Kim: Please.

Zibby: Different Mothers. “I’ve read about the ones who garden, teach their daughters to cut a rose just above the thorns so a fresh bud will pop up like toast in time for breakfast. These different mothers show their daughters how to plant tomato seeds in the damp earth, tingle when the first green fruit appears, and when they explode into deep red, pick them off the vine, slice them in their sunny kitchens. These are mothers whose daughters learned through smells of lakes, weeds, pastry dough, have memories of lightning bugs in jars mothers have poked holes into. These are different mothers. I am not one. My mother didn’t know about soil or earthworms. City mothers, we know about bus routes, restaurants, Broadway, the people on the eighth floor. Mine taught me to accessorize, bring the ideal hostess gift, have my keys in hand when I enter the building. I have no daughter, but my son can look anyone in the eye, tell them what he’s thinking. We eat tomatoes from the grocery. Our roses are store-bought. Different mothers sound better, and I think about what might have been, calling to the birds, naming the stars, fingers locked together while hiking on hidden trails, cleaning home-grown mint before placing it in tea before bed. I’ll flag a cab instead.” I love that. Oh, my god, I love it.

Kim: Thank you.

Zibby: I love so many of these. Oh, my gosh, this letter to your son. I won’t read the whole thing. You wrote a letter to your son because dementia runs in your family, about what you’d want to say to him. Tell me about that. Was this emotional to write? I know it was sort of funny when you were like, you don’t have to visit me. Just deal me a hand of blackjack. What was that like, putting yourself in his shoes after —

Kim: — That’s one of those poems — it’s a prose poem, which means there’s no line breaks. It’s just a block of prose. That is one of the poems in the book that is very autobiographical. When I was going through dealing with my mother and her dementia, I came into my office one day after visiting her, and I literally sat down and wrote a letter to my son. I wasn’t necessarily thinking of it as being a poem. I was just letting him know, look, if this happens to me, and I don’t know that it will, this is what I’d like you to know and remember. It was very emotional. I put it away. As a matter of fact, about a month later, I looked at it. I’ll put my poems away and revisit a month later. That’s sort of the litmus test. Is it a keeper or what? I will say that the poem made me cry. I didn’t really remember reading it. It’s one of those things that came through me. Anne Sexton would say the poems came through her from God. I don’t have the God element, but I feel that feeling sometimes where I don’t know where it’s coming from. It made me very sad to read the poem. It is one of the poems that people point out the most. It moves them. That’s a good thing.

Zibby: It is a good thing. It’s a good idea. I know it’s written from a place of emotion. That’s going to be such a comfort. If and when that happens, that would be such a comfort. I would love that, if I found something like that from a parent in a similar situation. I think that was great. I also loved this one about the couple next door who are both reading. Can I read that one?

Kim: Yeah.

Zibby: The Couple Next Door. “The couple next door reads all day long. I can see them from our adjoining hotel patios high above the sea. The couple next door sits at a round white plastic table on hard chairs, their books touching as they turn their pages at the same time. I listen for any sounds they might make, soft cough, sigh of joy, but I hear nothing except for southbound traffic on the Pacific Coast Highway, distant waves, morning sounds of housekeepers cleaning the grounds below our deck. The man’s book looks fat. I can see him, thick glasses, brand-new cap, staring intently into the page. I never see him smile, so I know the book is not funny. I never see him shake his head, so I know the book does not confuse him, but he suddenly lifts his head, looks out at the ocean, puts his hand over his mouth. The woman looks content like her book understands her. It’s about something she knows too well, bringing up children, watching them grow, saying goodbye. I brought books too but prefer watching them. Wonder how they arrived at this place where reading in silence carries them through the day.” Aw, that’s really beautiful. It’s a love letter to marriage but also to books and how you can be alone together and that intimacy that reading provides. Tell me about that. Did that moment happen? I’m assuming it happened.

Kim: I used to go to — I live out here in Los Angeles. There’s a beach town called Laguna Beach about ninety minutes south of here. I would go every summer for a couple of weeks by myself and get this room with a deck, and I would write. I would just write. Oftentimes, I would just watch. I’d watch the surfers below. I’d watch the waves. We had an adjoining deck. I would watch this couple. They never moved. I just thought, wow, that’s very lovely. Oftentimes, I start a poem, I don’t know where it’s going. I don’t know how it’s going to end. I don’t know what’s going to happen in it. I just wrote the title, The Couple Next Door. That’s what happened with this poem. They were something.

Zibby: Then even with your mom, who keeps getting mail, and wanting to call your mom when the flight lands, each poem is its own little moment. It’s a little glimpse into the everyday scenes that are somehow different because of who is absent and the meaning that that imbues. It’s really beautiful the way you did that. I feel like she would be so happy.

Kim: I think she would be really happy. I’ll also say that she would also think some of these are funny. I would read one if you would like. It’s a poem that I end my readings with because people do get a little sad. I want say there’s humor in the book too. One of the things that we all will recognize is how we get irritated with our mothers. That’s just the way it is. You have these conversations. It’s like, oh, Mom, are you still talking? Of course, mine hasn’t talked in ten years because she’s been dead for ten years, but I hear her voice a lot. She was one of those critical people where you’d have a conversation and the person would walk away and she’d say, “Why doesn’t she wear more makeup?” or “She wears too much makeup.” I’d think, oh, god, Mom, why do you have to — now that she’s gone, I think I agree with a lot of what she . I thought about my mother. We have conversations now because that’s what happens when people pass. You still are connected. I’ll read a poem called My Mother Bakes Sugar Cookies. “My mother bakes sugar cookies in heaven, which is funny because she never baked here on earth. They have you doing that first thing, she told me. They have you baking right away so you’ll feel useful. We deliver the cookies to children who’ve passed. The people in charge of heaven sound so thoughtful, I tell her. Well, they’re angels, she says, but not like you’d imagine. Sure, they wear white, have wings, smile sweetly, but they all talk way too much, and their asses are huge.”

Zibby: I love it.

Kim: That’s for my mother on Mother’s Day.

Zibby: It’s really beautiful. Kim, we met through your work as a publicist. I would always get emails from Kim-from-L.A. and wondering, who is Kim-from-L.A.? Does she have a last name? What’s the deal here? Then we had such a nice time getting together in person, which is such a rarity in this world we’re living in. What is the backstory? When did the writing intersect with the publicity jobs? I know you’ve been doing this for a long time. You’re a total pro. Have you always been writing these poems on the side? Any other genres?

Kim: I started when I was a little girl, like so many of us. I would write in my journals. I would write little poems. I was always writing, as so many of us. That was that. Then when I went to college, it became very serious. I was lucky, right time, right place. I went to Emerson College in the seventies with phenomenal teachers who were just teachers then and became famous poets. Thomas Lux, for example, was my very first teacher. We were serious. I was serious. When I graduated, I taught creative writing at Emerson, Introduction to Creative Writing. I loved it. Honestly, it was Boston. It was the late seventies. It was cold. Female poets were just killing themselves, literally. It was a different time, a very different time. I didn’t want to be absorbed in that world, frankly. I wanted to move to Los Angeles. I didn’t want to go back to New York. I had family out here. I came out. It was great. It was fun. I had jobs here and there but landed on a job as a publicist for a very small publisher, Jeremy Tarcher, who has also passed. In those days, he did all the new age. He was really ahead of his time. Women Who Love Too Much is one of his books, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. I thought, wow, there’s a job of just picking up the phone and talking people into reading a book? No computers back then. I could read a book and then get people to get excited about it, write press releases. It was my dream job. I got the job. I stopped writing poetry.

I started my own company, Kim-from-L.A., thirty-five years ago, got married, had a baby, and basically stopped writing seriously for about twenty years, poetry. Zibby, it was like there was something deeply missing. There was something always missing. I had little notes in pad and pockets which I found years later. I used to sunbathe on Tyrone Power’s grave at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, big slab of marble. I wrote Sunbathing on Tyrone Power’s Grave. I found it, the note in a pocket years later, and I titled my book before this one. It was always going on. When my son went to college, as will happen to so many of us, there was that big gap and a sadness and missing. Then the poems started coming back. Flooded with poems. I went to a writing workshop every morning. I went all over the country to workshops. I became very serious, and five books in thirteen years. I’ll tell you, the writing poetry informs my publicity business. They really go hand in hand. I understand my authors. I know what they’re going through because I’ve gone through it. I’ve been to the bookstore, and the books didn’t arrive. There were two people, and both of them were homeless. They were just there because it was warm inside. I’ve been through all of it. I also know what they want and what they need. It’s fun to come together in a nice way.

Zibby: That’s wonderful. That’s really great. Are you working on your next collection already?

Kim: I write almost every day, and so the poems pile up. I have a folder on my computer called Poems in Play.

Zibby: Oh, I like that.

Kim: I just put them in there. When this is over — I still have some cities I’m going to, and readings. When this dies down — as you know, it’s very exhausting. It’s stimulating, but it also drains you. You’re excited and stimulated and drained all at the same time. It’s a lot to unravel. When you really get home, it takes about a month to feel normal again. At that point, I’m going print out everything that’s in my Poems in Play folder and see what’s in there. It could be something.

Zibby: I love that. That’s amazing. What poets do you read? What do you love to read?

Kim: There’s so many poets that I love. There’s the old, dead poets that inspired me at the beginning. I’m a huge William Carlos Williams fan. “So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow, glazed with rainwater beside the white chickens.” What that poems means is just to be able to see things and report on what you see, no ideas, but in things. I’m also madly in love with Frank O’Hara and the whole New York school of poetry, The Day Lady Died. Frank O’Hara would say a poem is like a phone call. That’s what it should be like, a quick phone call. I love his poems about New York. I love Thomas Lux’s poems and the surrealists and then all the poems alive and writing today, Sharon Olds, Kim Addonizio, Ellen Bass. These women are amazing. I teach them all the time. Maya Angelou. There’s just so many. People will say on a lot of these interviews, I don’t like poetry. I never really liked it, but your poems are so accessible. I think, wow, that’s a shame because so many poems are accessible. For us to say we don’t like poetry is to say we don’t like food. There’s something for everyone. I hope to open that door for people. If you read my poems and connect and find them accessible, find other poets because they’re out there.

Zibby: It’s just another way of organizing the words. It’s really beautifully written sentences organized in an artful way. You could take the words, you could make it short, little essays. You could call them something else. It’s a lot about the form, right?

Kim: It is. That’s exactly right. It’s a lot about the form. Poetry is, as T.S. Eliot says, the most concise form of language. You do have to chop away, keep it really concise. Every word has to have meaning. Poetry’s like dancing. Prose is walking. The story is there. The connection is there. You could read a poem a day like a vitamin and just feel infused with a connection or a feeling or an emotion. That’s an exciting thing.

Zibby: That is an exciting thing. Each is one is a little gift. It’s a little offering. They should just slide you a poem with your bill. You could almost see it at a restaurant or something. You just take it with you. How nice would that be? If I had a restaurant, that’s what I’d do.

Kim: Listen, the Poetry Society of America does a book every year called Poem a Day. If you belong, you get a book. You can tear the poems out. I would often do, on Thanksgiving and other holidays, I would make my poor family — I think they like it now. Everyone would have a poem in front of their plate. They would have to read it. I would order, “Read it aloud.” At first, it’s like, oh, Mom. Then everyone likes doing that. You read the poem, and you literally are flooded with feeling. We would talk about the poem. I love the idea of a poem a day and handing people a poem. That’s great.

Zibby: That’s nice. I like it. Kim, this is so lovely. I Wore This Dress Today for You, Mom. How else can people find you? Where should people find you? What’s your website? What can they do to track you down?

Kim: I have a website, like we all do, There’s the website. There’s poems from other books. There’s way too much stuff on that website. Oh, boy, but it’s all there. Of course, this book should be available in all the great independent bookstores. If it’s not, they’ll order it. I’m a big indie bookstore fan, but for those of us who like to push buttons, it’s right there on Amazon, I Wore This Dress Today for You, Mom. I love to hear from people also. Through my website, there’s an email. Tell me what you think. I heard from a second-grade teacher who read my poem, Bottled Water, to her class in the Midwest. They were all arguing about, is it a funny poem or a sad poem? What kind of bottled water do they drink? When I got that, I just thought, thank you. Nothing else matters but this correspondence. It’s beautiful.

Zibby: That’s amazing. Kim, thank you so much. Thank you for the poetry. I’m going to give this to my mom on Mother’s Day, actually. I’ve just decided. Thank you for that too.

Kim: Thank you. Thank you for everything you do for books and writers, which is a lot.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure, seriously. It really is. Thank you. Hope to see you soon. Take care.

Kim: Bye.

Zibby: Bye, Kim. Thank you.



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