Robbie Q. Telfer "The Non-Native, Non-Invasive Poet"
Robbie Q. Telfer: The Non-Native, Non-Invasive Poetan interview
David Fairbanks for Columbia Poetry Review: Before we dive in too deep, what brought you to poetry?
Robbie Q. Telfer: I've always liked to play with language and make people laugh, early on with less empathy, and that propensity morphed into what I now call "poetry." But I feel like I use that word as a means to be listened to a certain way, and my personal definition of it shifts depending on how I feel (which makes people with more prescriptive definitions scoff immediately, including the tiny little pretentious man who lives in my brain). I believe that everyone can create poetry, everyone can play with language and try on new ways to be heard, and that some of us are privileged enough to be recognized by others as poets.
So I've always been a poet, I just didn't always... know... that….
DF: I like the idea of having always been a poet even if you may not have called yourself one, that it's more a process of self-discovery than something learned or transformative. Has your shifting idea of what poetry is had an effect on you as a writer or on your role in the poetry community?
RQT: It has definitely changed how I teach poetry to young people, and I'm sure it's fed into some poetic experiments of mine that nobody responds to. I feel lucky that I came to what I call poetry from the spoken word world, where it's much easier for anyone to just call what they're doing poetry, and work out the libretto later. That can instill an inferiority complex in some as they try to rub shoulders with page, non-performance poetry—a stress that might be likened to having to show your work in math, even though you were getting the right answers and didn't know how.
I've said before that you shouldn't have to know the names of your bones in order to dance, and you shouldn't have to know prescriptive poetic vocab in order to poem—it is not a science. Paul McCartney said he doesn't read sheet music, and yet he's somehow managed to write a few real toe-tappers in his day. You don't have to be good musicians to punk good, and you don't have to sing in order to hip-hop good.
Comics artist Lynda Barry has had the most profound influence on how I think about art and teaching and what I call poetry. She doesn't care what genre you call her stuff, some of it is more obvious than others, but she is more interested in tapping into and finding the things that people respond to—basically, the parts of us that feel magical. I'm paraphrasing violently here, but essentially, it doesn't matter what you call the things you are doing creatively as long as they feel right, as you practice whatever that thing is, keep following the things that feel right and learn to see and avoid the things that don't feel right. It's a much gentler and more open way to view art-making and discipline and less about what Bukowski and others have said, that you are either "chosen" to be a writer or not. So if the mayor of Poetrytown came to me and said "You're not making poetry," I wouldn't really care, because I'm making something that I like making and that sometimes starts conversations with people, and I try to do so ethically and try to keep challenging myself and others.
Perhaps that's not good career advice, but being a successful artist and being what you can call a good artist are very different skill sets, often with not a lot of overlap.
DF: It may not be good career advice, but I feel like many of us aren't in the poetry world for the money either (though some money would be nice). Most of the writers I know hold down a day job or two to keep the lights on; could you talk a bit about what you do for a living and what took you from working with Young Chicago Authors and Louder Than A Bomb to your position at The Field Museum?
RQT: Surely. At YCA I was lucky to help organize Louder Than a Bomb for six years. LTAB is the world's largest youth poetry festival, and part of the work of organizing it was trying to show how anyone can be a poet, and that the only thing needed to ignite that poet inside is a safe place to write and a safe place to share. In this way, poetry can become activism, because there are a lot of gate-keepers who will tell you that what you're doing isn't poetry. Like I mentioned earlier, I think lots of people are confused; when they find a way that works for them to express themselves, they think that it's the ONLY valuable way to do so. This one way often involves a certain kind of (expensive) education and is therefore inherently discriminatory against people of a certain financial and often racial background.
If art is a conversation—which for some it is not—then I think people who create a certain kind of poetry need to be honest about the kind of closed-off conversation they're having with a very small group of elite people. And so accessibility isn't about "dumbing down" poetry, but about who your audience is, and I worry that there are a lot of poetic institutions in place that are merely a coded language to keep the majority of the planet out of the conversation. I've heard anecdotally that the scoring system in tennis (love-15-30-40) was created to confuse poor people outside the French aristocracy so they wouldn't be able to follow the game. I don't know if that's true, but that's essentially the kind of poetry I'm talking about; it excludes people outside of the closed conversation. LTAB (and poetry slam in general) is so great because it, as Bob Holman has said, democratizes poetry. And considering the violently oppressive segregation of Chicago, democracy in any form is direly needed.
Then I left YCA to be a freelance poet and teacher for a while because running a giant poetry festival is exhausting. Freelancing is a different kind of exhausting, and recently, my interests in habitat restoration have led me to this new career path. Basically, habitat restoration work is all about bolstering an ecosystem's biodiversity—minimizing invasive species and protecting native species. Biodiversity and cultural diversity have a lot in common, it turns out, namely that each signifies a healthy society, each increases its own society's ability to deftly handle change, and every species—as every culture—deserves the right to exist and pursue its own aspirations. So in my work at The Field Museum I help organize communities around habitat restoration in the Calumet area—a region that starts on the (segregated) South Side of Chicago and stretches all the way to Michigan City, Indiana, hugging the bottom of Lake Michigan. This area is one of our country's most bio- and culturally/economically diverse, and it holds many treasures and challenges. The effort to bolster cultural diversity and racial justice through poetry in communities is actually not that different from bolstering biodiversity and environmental justice through habitat restoration in communities. Both have unique struggles, but everyone can help restore habitat just as everyone can poem a poem. And when writing a poem, I like to consider my audience's experience and try to maximize it, vacillating between rewarding and challenging the reader. When restoring a habitat I try to do the same, but instead of an audience who might snap or go "mmmm" or "daaaaaaamn" my new audience are salamanders and nematodes and forbs and grasses and turtles and fungi and a nesting pair of osprey.
Perhaps this is why I'm writing less poetry than normally. I still get to perform and teach new poetry through Project VOICE and various local shows, but I'm also getting the same feeling I'd get writing a poem when I restore habitat. It's my job now, but I'll go volunteer at various forest preserves on the weekend, too. It is rare I don't feel lifted afterward, that I don't discover something I've never seen before. After writing a poem or volunteering in the woods, I have to resist the urge to gloat—look what I did! I did a thing! Often I don't resist that urge, too.
DF: That's an interesting realization, that you are experiencing a similar feeling volunteering in the woods as you would after writing a poem. Have you found your conservationist efforts influencing the writing you're doing right now, aside from filling a similar role in your emotional well-being?
RQT: I have definitely written about conservation stuff creatively—in poetry or in other weird experiments. I just wrote a poem about hippies and my frustration with really liking flowers and poetry and having that create an image in people's minds when both can be a lot more crucial than just pondering how beautiful the world is, man. [Ed. note: see RQT’s poem, "Hippies," at the end of our interview.] And I wrote a poem for elementary school kids about the expression "bee’s knees" and how great the knees of bees actually are. But also I've started what is essentially a PR campaign for native ecosystems. The outward goal of the campaign is to change the state flower of Illinois from the violet (boo) to the Kankakee mallow (yay). The Kankakee mallow is the only flower (that's still alive) known to be from only within our state's borders. So I've been writing various things about the mallow, including an interview I conducted (like this one) for Illinois Audubon Magazine where I'm talking to the violet and it tells me that it doesn't want to be state flower anymore and that the mallow is a better fit for the office. The implicit goal of the campaign is to get people to see that all native species deserve special attention and protection, from the very rare mallow, all the way to the ubiquitous human.
I think I mentioned how every time I enter our wild spaces I discover something I've never seen or thought about before, so a lot of my writing is just a reporting about my newest discovery. The discovery of any of these ideas or species aren't new to psychology or science, but they're new to me, and perhaps in combination they're new to others. Pill bugs are land crustaceans. Earthworms are an invasive species. Salamanders breathe through their skin. There are plants that live here that are non-native, but also non-invasive—they don't take more than their share of our native ecosystem's resources. As a white guy in America, that's the best role model I can strive to be like. Non-native, non-invasive. You should title this interview that: Robbie Q. Telfer: The Non-Native, Non-Invasive. Ha.
DF: That's officially the title now. From poeming your punk rock roots in "Dance" to campaigning to oust a 108-year incumbent flower, part of me thinks the "Q" in "Robbie Q. Telfer" stands for "rebel," which leads to my next question: the Internet nearly broke the way we think about, distribute, and consume music, and with all of the ways it has opened up the distribution and experience of poetry, do you see that closed-off poetry conversation opening up? Have the Internet, YouTube, and social media changed the way you experience or produce poetry?
RQT: Yeah, I'd say so. It's anecdotal, but it would seem to mean something to me that spoken word poetry has proliferated at the same time that the Internet has emerged as a daily part of most Americans' lives. Information moves faster, people are writing now more than any other time in history, and video creation and sharing is relatively cheap. Another way spoken word in particular is even more democratizing for poetry, besides being shareable and judged in the slam of Facebook likes and YouTube views, but if you write a performance poem, you don't HAVE to be literate.
I mentioned how there are certain registers of English that work to exclude the majority of a very stratified society, but you don't even need to know how to read or write in order to compose an original poem. I've seen the text versions of some wonderful spoken word poems and they're sometimes hard to read because they're not written in an English that I am used to reading. But uniform grammar and spelling and style and line break usage were created organically out of centuries of communication and now we have new ways to communicate that make those things not obsolete, but also not as necessary to connect with another person.
And a side-note on the "Q"—my middle name is Hamrin and I made up the Q when I first started writing to seem weirder. My friend and poet Nate Marshall has said before that the Q stands for "murder" which has definitely bolstered my street cred in various places.
DF: The Internet definitely seems to be a democratizing force in poetry, and having Facebook likes and YouTube views standing in for the judges of a slam feels like a really apt comparison that brings the level playing field Marc Smith was going for onto a much larger stage. That kind of equality really feels necessary to open up the conversation about just what exactly poetry is. The original plan was to end by asking you how you would title your life, given the chance, but it feels like we covered that with "Non-Native, Non-Invasive." Do you have anything else you'd like to add or talk about?
RQT: Well, I feel like it's important to note that even my most viewed poetry videos on YouTube are eclipsed by the popularity of the jankiest yeti hoax videos. It gives my art something to shoot for.
DF: Thanks for your time, Robb.
In addition to "Hippies," we also have a recorded performance of his poem "Home Gardening Made Easy" below. Help put it on par with the yeti hoax videos.
by Robbie Q. Telfer
Far out, man.
A hippie once put
a flower into the
barrel of a gun
of a National Guardsman
to protest the Vietnam war.
A hippie once told me
they stare at the sun
instead of eat
because the sun
gives them all the
nutrients they need.
These were probably
I saw a Dead Head sticker on a Cadillac.
A little voice inside my head said
working too hard can give you a
Hippies are often silly
easy to discredit
because they are insufferable
I often agree with the
first three things
Monsanto is evil!
Nature is my church!
Crystals have healing power!
Fossil fuel is… oh hey, man, can I get a ride?
I thought I smoked pot once
out of a bong my brother made
that used to be a mountain dew bottle.
I didn’t find out it wasn’t pot
until like last year
the hippies at my school
were all also bullies
and were all also punk kids
the previous year
the hippies at my school
probably all work
for Halliburton now.
I want to get behind the hippies
I want to crouch behind the hippies
while a friend knocks them over my back.
I happen to think flowers are important
but I have to say not like hippies
and I have to say not like poets
not like dead white poets
like the good white poets
and the good non-white poets
I like the good hippies
I like the good poets
I like the good flowers
Which is almost all of the flowers
the ones in guns and in ground
I want a bouquet of
Native Illinois perennials
real tall and sturdy prairie flowers
I want to use my bouquet
dedicated to biological diversity
and indigenous sovereignty
I want to use my sturdy bouquet
to pummel the hippies
do some instructive damage
tax some welts from their
hippie skins and appropriate
some non-permanent bruises
out of their drippy faces
your dreadlocks are stolen
your feminism’s broken
you SMELL BAD IN MY NOSE
like imperialist missionaries
riddled in good intentions
stinking of misinformation
you burn my nostrils like
they burn the language
of the people they mean