Michael Robins "Like the Ice Cream, I've Sampled Three Distinct Regions"

Michael Robins "Like the Ice Cream, I've Sampled Three Distinct Regions"

an interview

Have you recently found yourself in conversation with another writer or artist?

About once a year I hit the road for a week of readings with poets Adam Clay and Ada Limón, and the value of those trips and our friendship can’t be overstated. We learn from one another, and improvise our readings by taking turns, one poem each in a round-robin fashion, with the on-the-spot challenge of connecting the poem about to be read (through image, subject, tone) to the poem that preceded. The pacing and mood of each reading is unique, and audiences have responded positively to our collaboration as readers. Rising to this experiment—not to mention the hours spent together in a car sharing poems, songs from our playlists, and conversations both lighthearted and sincere—swings poetry to the forefront of our lives.
I’ve also found myself thinking a lot about the exchange that occurs between a reader and those writers who’ve left us. For poetry readers, this past year or so has been devastating. I’m thinking Toma┼ż Šalamun, Galway Kinnell, Claudia Emerson, Philip Levine, Franz Wright, Tomas Tranströmer, Carolyn Kizer, Mark Strand, James Tate, and C. K. Williams. Stretch a few more months and there’s Russell Edson, Maxine Kumin, and Maya Angelou. When I read poems by these writers now, I find the lens or perspective has shifted. I like Mary Ruefle’s observation (“A Short Lecture on Death”) how the living cannot teach us anything about poetry: “People who are alive are not really people because they haven’t died; but people who have been alive and then died are the whole kind of people we want to be our teachers.” Jim Tate is an exception for me. He taught me so much when he was alive, and continues to do so in my memory and as I revisit a half dozen or so of his poems before sleep each night.

How does geography or landscape influence your work? Do you need to be in a certain environment to write?

Honestly, when it comes to geography and, more specifically, how it influences my writing, I pretty much feel like a mutt. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, lived a spell in New England, and now live in the Midwest. Maybe in lieu of “mutt” (not a military brat, after all) I should say Neapolitan in that, like the ice cream, I’ve sampled three distinct regions. I don’t know. In my writing and in my day-to-day life I probably haven’t strayed very far from the experiences of my childhood. The geography of the Pacific Northwest is part of that. Yet I also sense a kind of placelessness and believe that the interior and imaginative landscapes contribute as much to my writing as the present din of Chicago beyond my front porch. Seasons tend to infiltrate my poems, especially the winter, and I’m sure that’s a result of growing up in a region where the seasons were muted. The snow fell maybe just once on my birthday in mid-February.
On a side note, while trying just now to spell “Neapolitan” (N-e-a not N-e-o) I learned that Neapolitan ice cream is sometimes called harlequin ice cream. So maybe I’m a harlequin?
In the last few years I’ve been most productive in the early morning, before the rest of the house wakes and at the kitchen table with several cups of coffee. Presently, writing time (let’s not mention reading time) is at the mercy of the shifts and surprises in our son’s sleep schedule. He’s nearly eleven months old and gorgeous. In the early summer his body decided it’s better to wake at 6 AM (or 5:20 this morning) instead of 8 AM, and my early mornings are suddenly less productive. I’m writing a lot now on the train and in the short windows traveling to and from my classes. Because life is busy and unpredictable, I’ll write at any time or in any place providing I have pen and paper. I carry both always, though in a desperate moment I drafted a poem along the thin, outer edges of a five-dollar bill. I eventually spent the cash, but only after the draft was recopied and secure.  

What is the poem you have always wanted to write, but have not been able to?

First would be a poem that’s funny. Humor and the connection of shared laughter is very satisfying, yet humor is something that gets left behind, time and time again, in the revision process. It’s become a lost cause… I’d also like to write a poem that somehow addresses (in a manner that’s humorous or not) the curiosity and inconvenience of having a “doppelganger,” an “adversary,” or what some have called a “nemesis” in the poetry world. No term is wholly accurate, and the confusion is more complicated than simply having to introduce myself to other writers with the inclusion of the phrase “Robins, one B.” The mix-ups and cases of mistaken identity would occur less frequently if he or I added a middle name or initial, but it seems unlikely at this point. My favorite remedy (thanks to Adam Clay) is to adopt the name John Ashbery, but adjust the spelling to include two Rs. Obviously, this would clear up everything.

Describe the value of being a published poet in an increasingly digital literary landscape. What is the future of the published poem?

Reading from a printed book is as imperative as sitting in a stadium for baseball or a dark theater to watch a film. For instance, you can now devour a movie in the comfort (and discomfort) of anywhere, even while driving or mowing the lawn if you choose, but to make plans, talk with a human at the ticket or concession counters, find the perfect seat among others trying to do the same… All are part of a richer, more memorable experience. I feel my growing age when arguing against the belief that viewing a high-res reproduction of a painting is close enough and more convenient than the experience of standing before the real thing in a museum. The latter is where it’s at for me and, similarly, I want the flesh of the book.
We form unique relationships with books, and those relationships evolve when we return to the familiar covers, the smell of the pages, memories of the hallowed spaces we made to spend time in their worlds. I’ve never had this type of experience reading a story or poem on a device. Publishing individual poems online is fine, even essential for the wider presence of authors and journals, but I don’t believe the book will be abandoned. I recently heard that the last five years have been the most profitable at San Francisco’s City Lights Books, an early and invaluable pilgrimage in my life as a writer. This gives me hope.

What is your biggest pet peeve about your own writing? Other writers’ writing?

In response to both questions: predictability. As I get older, the Dickinsonian sense of poetry (“as if the top of my head were taken off”) occurs less and less. I concluded recently that, on a scale of A through F, there are many, many poems that rank a healthy “B minus,” including many of my own. Not bad, but not approaching what I’d call “breathtaking.” Part of that assessment is my own failure to resist the culture that increasingly values immediate gratification. It can be difficult to find the substantial, undistracted space that’s ideal for reading poems. I’ve read and written poems for more than twenty years, continue to read and write poems, yet still distrust my own initial reactions when reading, especially if my response is negative. The “C plus” poem today will likely improve to a “B minus” by the third read, and maybe rank even higher the more time I spend with the work. Thus, the importance of reading and rereading poems, even those poems you don’t enjoy at first. Given enough time and patience, I think it’s possible to fall in love with any poet’s body of work.

How do you know when a poem is done?

Poems are never finished; they’re abandoned. This is a paraphrase of something someone fancier than me once said. Paul Valéry? There’s a way to embrace that uncertainty, that failure to “know,” and I think of the exchange between the student and John Berryman in W. S. Merwin’s poem “Berryman”:

I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t
you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write

If you had to give your life a title, what would it be?

Let’s try the title of one of my first published poems: “My Life as a Former Siamese Double Boy.”