Elizabeth Robinson is the author of eleven collections of poetry, most recently The Orphan & its Relations (Fence Books) and Also Known As (Apogee Press). Three Novels, a new collection of poetry, is forthcoming from Omnidawn in 2011. Robinson was the recipient of a 2008 Grants to Artists Award from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts and has been a winner of the National Poetry Series and the Fence Modern Poets Prize. Robert Creeley selected her work for inclusion in the 2002 Best American Poetry Anthology. More recently, her work has been anthologized in American Hybrid, Not for Mothers Only, The Best of Fence, and Joyful Noise. Essays have been published in The Grand Permission, writing on motherhood and poetics, and Radical Vernacular, a collection of essays on Lorine Niedecker. Robinson has had a long involvement with and commitment to small press publishing. With Colleen Lookingbill, she co-edits EtherDome Chapbooks, a small press that publishes chapbooks by women who have never had a chapbook or book published. With Beth Anderson and Laura Sims, Robinson co-edits Instance Press, a press devoted to innovative writing. Robinson was educated at Bard College, Brown University and Pacific School of Religion. Currently, she lives in Boulder, Colorado with her family.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book was a chapbook published by Burning Deck Press, My Name Happens Also, though there was a very lovely little chapbook called eight etudes that came out perhaps a little earlier, published by paradigm press. I think the first chapbook was more of a neighborhoody thing, that just a few local people saw it. Being published by Burning Deck was significant for me because I so respect Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop and I was really gratified to be part of their legacy, the great work they had published. So it felt like being welcomed into a larger community and era of writing and that meant a great deal to me. In the aftermath of that, I got more responses to the work than I had anticipated, and that kind of scared me. Burning Deck distributes their books widely and generously, so I got a few notes from people I didn’t know and one magical note, which I still have, from Barbara Guest. The chapbook received one scathingly critical review as well. In the aftermath of that, I felt a bit scared: people are actually reading this, and they have access to my interior. Shortly thereafter I was really fortunate to have paradigm press publish In the Sequence of Falling Things and Kelsey St. Press published Bed of Lists. Each press did a beautiful job. But I think at that time what I knew best and wanted to know was how to write poems, and not how to be a poet, so I felt exposed and very unsure how to perform some kind of social role as a poet as sometimes seemed to be expected of me. It’s probably no accident that the next book I had published, House Made of Silver, came ten years later. Since then, obviously, I have overcome my hesitation and I’ve published a lot. My approach now is that the work comes first, and is part of a process, not necessarily a career. I like to see poets are writing in some sense in unison, in community, and that one book unfolds one process or series of ideas in relation to its context and time, among many other writers and books. I like it, of course, when people respond positively to my work, but I don’t think my concerns are that deeply tied to reception.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I have always loved language, and I wanted to write from the time I was early in grade school. I read enormous amounts of fiction, and tried to write a few stories in, maybe, third grade. But my mind seems to work more after the patterning of poetry, and I quickly discerned that that’s what I wanted to do. In any case, by fourth grade, I’d made a clear commitment to poetry. It might have something to do with my mother having given me a book of Emily Dickinson poems for my birthday around that time.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I work in a fairly haphazard manner, but I don’t typically use notes and I almost always use a keyboard/computer. I have worked on some projects for years, just letting bits and pieces find their way through preoccupations into each others’ company. For the past ten years, I have put a lot of energy into trying to understand what makes a manuscript out of discrete poems. I am really fascinated by the book and how it creates its own entity. So for me it’s not how a project starts, but how it emerges. How do poems begin to talk to each other? I tend to write in blurts, and it might look like I write fast, but more accurately, I tend to walk around thinking about things for a long time and then suddenly one day it’s time to sit down and write things. I used to be haunted by these non-writing interludes, but now I’ve been at it long enough to realize that I have a deeply established pattern of writing and that I’ll return to that. As for revision, I do revise. The older I get, the more I revise. This is sometimes a practice of rearrangement, and more often a practice of excision. Some poems jump out of my mind with fairly focused energy, but others are intractable, messy, insubordinate and can take years to negotiate.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
Poems tend to come from what I call “soaking.” I will have a preoccupation, or a little ghost lingering at the edge of my consciousness, and I carry that around, sometimes, for a long time. Then it will be ready to articulate itself, and even what I may have thought I would say is interrupted by what actually gets said. I love the balance of discipline and volitionlessness in that process. It feels both mystical and erotic. And humorous. I think I write multidirectionally, and so at any given time, I am making some random poems and also some poems that seem to deliberately converse with each other. Pieces often coalesce into collections or units in ways that I didn’t anticipate, even when I set up some kind of project or game.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I both love and dread doing readings. If I feel that I’m in a hospitable environment, and especially if I’m reading with someone whom I love and/or who is a terrific writer, it’s really fun. If I feel that there is an attitude of skepticism or judgment in the offing, it’s no fun at all. But I do like to feel the language in my mouth and I think the tension of bringing private language into public exchange is an excellent way to find out what does or doesn’t work in the poetry. Sometimes that’s even a bit horrifying in the moment, but definitely instructive.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
It seems as though the current questions vary from poet to poet. My work has always had to do with my theological and ethical curiosities. In that sense my interest has to do with what kinds of permissions making art opens onto. Because I was brought up as a Christian, I have a lingering interest in the intersection in the concept of the “word made flesh,” which for me is a query into the ways that poetry is both a fully material and embodied art and the way it tries on possibilities for transcendence. I like the way language straddles that divide. Language might be a limited set of sounds, relationships, meanings, but there is still mystery there. What’s possible hasn’t yet been exhausted.
The way that poetry works patterns, and then rejiggers its patterns into different relations and constellations is powerful for me. That both suggests a self-refreshing, recombinant world, and the possibility that the interrelations of language by analogy suggest the possibility of real intersubjectivity between human beings. Mostly I like that poetry/art-making is a way of stepping into what I don’t know, what might not ever be known. In that unbounded space, I can speculate, explore, and in so doing, participate.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I have answered this question before in other places/contexts. So I’ll repeat more or less what I believe I said then. Writers are people who pay attention. They help bring attention to things that might otherwise seem insignificant or help reinterpret modes/nodes of significance. That freshness of attention is a disruption of the cliche-ridden understandings that we are expected to ingest day to day. To move against cliche and open to original thinking/questioning seems a central role for a writer. And lately, I find that I want writers to be generous and unafraid. Too much of what I’m reading has a timidity, a “will-this-please-the-market?” mentality that keeps looking back over its shoulder. One of the great freedoms of poetry is that so few people care about it; that permits us who make poetry to be more adventurous, and so perhaps adventurousness becomes our responsibility.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
In my working with presses, I’ve rarely had a real editor in the sense that they shaped my work, made suggestions or corrections to the manuscript per se. I have been deeply impressed by seeing how Keith Waldrop (of Burning Deck Press, and also a former teacher of mine) knows how to take a clump of poetry and shape it into a real book. Patricia Dienstfrey of Kelsey St. Press did a scrupulous and really enlightening reading of one of my manuscripts. I have always felt that we write in communities, and in the past couple of years, as I have lived in a place that doesn’t feel very friendly to me, I’ve been grateful for the sustenance and insights of poets who have been generous enough to read and respond to my work: Brian Teare, Ed Smallfield, Valerie Coulton, George Albon. There are actually many others.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
“Write everything.”—Robert Kelly
“If someone offers to publish some of your work, give them work to publish.”—Rosmarie Waldrop
“When you have a baby or young child, that’s a good time to emphasize beginning projects in your writing. Don’t worry then about finishing things.”—Kathleen Fraser
“Lead with your curiosity.”—Deborah Lichtman
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I don’t have a routine. Instead, I have two sons, a dog, and a very erratic employment history (i.e., either working like mad or unemployed). This used to bother me. It seemed to me that I was undisciplined. But the fact is, I’m a very disciplined spurt writer. When I’m on to something, I pretty much gorge myself on it. And then I don’t. I seem to write a lot. I don’t know when or how it happens; it just does.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
At this point, when I’m not writing, I usually just let things be. I wait it out. The evidence has been, by now, that I’m not going to stop writing forever. If I feel stiff, though, and as though I need to limber up, sometimes I will ask friends for assignments, or will do the assignments that I have given to my students. I don’t think the work that results tends to be particularly good, but that’s okay with me. Sometimes it’s revisable. In fact, sometimes when I’m stalled I revise old pieces (not necessarily successfully). Lately, I find that I spend a lot of time between writing poems doing things like reviews, essays, and other kinds of critical writing. That at least keeps me attentive.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
A mix of pear soap, lemon blossoms, dog hair, marine air, and Mexican food.
13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
I am an indiscriminate and largely untutored lover of music. I like musical patterning, and I hope that it has informed my poetry. Ditto for dance. Watching modern dance is a spectacular was to think about poetry. I also dance secretly.
Theology/mysticism/religious practice is a struggle, and it remains often inchoate, but it is a central basis for my practice as a writer and my sense that writing can be a means of building community. I have also studied ethics, and I am deeply interested in the ways that ethics and art-making can/could intersect.
I like making things by hand—gardens, jewelry, collages, cooking. The practice of making slows me down and helps me refine attention.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Jack Spicer, Lorine Niedecker, Robert Creeley, Beverly Dahlen, Fanny Howe, Barbara Guest, Michel de Certeau, Simone Weil. These are authors whose work I seem to reread every year. Mark C. Taylor’s postmodern “atheology,” Erring, Joan Retallack’s The Poethical Wager, Phillip Hallie’s Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, Joan Acocella’s Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints, and Amy Hollywood’s Soul as Virgin Wife and Sensible Ecstasy, Darcey Steinke’s Milk are books that have preoccupied me lately. A completely incomplete list of peers whose work I love: Kimberly Lyons, Brian Teare, Brenda Coultas, Andrew Joron, Laura Sims, Cole Swensen, Beth Anderson, Thomas A. Clark (of Scotland), Cecil Giscombe, Truong Tran, Laura Moriarty, George Albon, Stacy Szymaszek, Norma Cole, Jack Collom, Andrew Schelling, Anselm Hollo, Orlando White.
I’m lucky that writing reviews and blurbs has brought continually interesting work my way. And frankly, the work by my students is often the best thing going.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I’d like a good long term job that pays a living wage, provides opportunities for me to do what I do well, and comes equipped with sane, ethical, and civil colleagues.
Since that is apparently impossible, I’d also like to find various ways to follow out my theological and mystical curiosity. I have a master of divinity, and that keeps tugging at me. I’d like to be able to work in a community that comes together with imagination and humor and kindness for the common good.
I’d like to write a novel. (Unlikely.)
I’d like to live outside the United States.
I’d like to learn another language really well.
16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I wanted to be a hospital chaplain because many of my friends had AIDS and they didn’t seem to have adequate spiritual resources. I began to train for this, but didn’t finish for financial reasons. The work was amazing: the opportunity to enter a very privileged site of intimacy and talk about what was truly important. Maybe someday I will be able to return to that.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
My childhood house was full of books, and when my family had little money, there was always money for books or trips to the library. My father read to me a great deal, starting when I was very small. Hearing the language come off the page, even before I could read myself was truly a miraculous thing. I loved the feel of the language, the sound of it, the way it could shade meaning. There was often music played or being made in our house when I was a child, and I think that I unconsciously made the connection between the structures and patterns of music and those of language. It all just seemed natural, the obvious track for me to follow. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
This is an unfair question. All answers are subject to change without notice.
I just reread Joan Retallack’s The Poethical Wager. And this spring I reread Aime Cesaire’s poetry with a class I taught. Both were great. One of the things that was especially exciting about the Cesaire is that I think that work is pretty challenging, but my students just loved it; it was revelatory for them. It was wonderful to share in their excitement.
Most of the films I see are Not Very Good. I think the only thing I’ve seen for the first time that’s stuck with me in the past few years was I’ve Loved You So Long.
19 - What are you currently working on?
I have been writing a series of poems that plays out my longterm love of modernism and the historical figures who were prominent within it. I like to use little biographical snippets to inform the poems and sometimes I have two individuals who may or may not have known each other interacting within the poem: Gerald Murphy and Cole Porter, Simone Weil and Unity Mitford, Havelock Ellis and Pamela Colman Smith. I like the mixture of history with juxtaposition. This project has given me such intense pleasure that I’ve actually slowed down on the work, so that it will last longer.
I have also been working intermittently on a series of poems that speculatively explores attributes/qualities/”truths.” Each poem is titled, “On _____”—thus, “On Doubt,” “On Loyalty,” etc. As I got more involved in this, I wandered farther afield: “On Getaways,” “On Light Pollution.” Whatever occurs to me is fair game.
I am also working on some essays, primarily in relation to mysticism. One essay was on employing persona in poems as a sort of mystical strategy. I am working with my friend Jennifer Phelps on putting together a book of essays on contemporary women poets who are interested in spirituality in different ways. With Brian Teare, I am in the early stages of putting together a poetry anthology that includes contemporary poetry that is interested in theology/mysticism/theology. In the aftermath of the more Marxist-inflected, materialist language poetry movement, I feel there is a growing curiosity and openness in this direction.
12 or 20 (second series) questions: