Friday, January 22, 2010

Interview with Michael Robins

I caught up with poet Michael Robins late last September, shortly before the release of his latest chapbook, "Circus" (Flying Guillotine Press), which is made up of a section from "Ladies & Gentlemen," a completed manuscript he's been sending around for just over a year and which has been a finalist for a number of book prizes.

"It's an assortment of circus imagery," Robins, 33, said of his chapbook from his home in Chicago. "But circus seemed to be a good metaphor for the events in Iraq and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan in the wake of September 11."

Robins, a native of Portland, Ore., is the author of "The Next Settlement" (UNT Press, 2007) -- which was selected for the Vassar Miller Prize -- is a contributing editor at Born Magazine and is an adjunct instructor at Columbia College in Chicago, where he teaches literature and creative writing. In an interview by phone, Robins spoke about Allen Ginsberg, the structure of poetry and the influence of September 11 on form.

Poetic Desperation: How long have you been writing poetry?

Michael Robins: "I started writing earnestly my senior year of high school, although I wrote my first poem when I was in fourth grade as part of an art project. But I really didn't have any interest in poetry much after that. During my senior year of high school, however, I began reading the Beat writers. I read the work of Jack Kerouac at the suggestion of a substitute teacher, which led me to other Beat writers and Allen Ginsberg, who ultimately led me to writing my own poetry."

PD: So Ginsberg was the key?

MR: "I think I would have come to poetry without Allen Ginsberg, but he was definitely an important poet as my interest in poetry developed. A week or two before my high school graduation, Ginsberg gave a book signing in Portland, so I took my books down there and got those signed, and I passed him a note with the naïve expectation that maybe we would develop a correspondence. There was a huge turnout for that event and people gave him all kinds of things. It was really amazing to see that kind of response. Even more amazing for me was when, four or five days later, I received from Ginsberg a postcard he had written that same night from his hotel room. It was simply a postcard of the hotel where he was staying, just a few sentences, but that was very encouraging to me as a young poet. I came to understand later that Ginsberg was one of those poets who was very generous with his time and did that sort of thing on a regular basis. I still have that postcard, and come back to it every so often."

PD: Is there anything about your poetry structurally that you feel sets your work apart? Does the structure of Ginsberg's work inform your own?

MR: "Although I was a big reader of Ginsberg early on, I didn't use his work as a model for very long. In the poems I'm writing now I use a lot of couplets, but for the last little while I've worked exclusively using 10-syllable lines, with the exception of a few prose poems here and there. That might not be reflected so much in 'The Next Settlement,' but the next manuscript is almost entirely couplets and 10-syllable lines. My attraction for couplets stems from wanting the poem to be accessible to the reader when he or she comes to that work on the page. As a poet who isn't working strictly in narrative -- telling a story and offering an epiphany by the end of that story -- I feel that couplets help ease the reader into the poem. If I see a poem that has some white space on the page, then that poem is 'broken' nicely into small, digestible pieces.

"I got interested in form, oddly enough, after September 11. That might sound strange initially but I was in graduate school at UMass Amherst on September 11, 2001, so the epicenter of that morning wasn't very far away. I know there were a lot of poets who were able to respond immediately after those events. For me, the feelings that I experienced were so overwhelming that I had, I don't want to call it writer's block, but there was definitely an inability to put meaningful language on the page. The first two poems I eventually wrote after those events were the first sonnets that I'd ever written, and having that structure was something to ground myself back in the world, to create order out of what felt at the time like a chaotic series of events, a chaotic feeling in the air, my own chaotic emotions. After those first sonnets I've continued to be very interested in form and structure.

"I don't know if I can offer a real good reason behind why I'm stuck on the 10-syllable line. I don't want to call it a puzzle -- as a teacher it gets frustrating when my students persistently feel that poems are puzzles with a single answer or meaning -- but focusing on the poetic line challenges and almost strong-arms me into revising a piece of writing and creating acts of discovery. Instead of being able to dash off a sentence and leave that sentence as it is, or a line of poetry as that line of poetry is, a syllable count gives me the opportunity to go back to each line and look closer. And most of the time, as a result, I'm making that language more concise."

PD: So you don't feel a need to necessarily force yourself into the form? You see it as more freeing than constricting?

MR: "Yeah, I think that's well put. There are discoveries to be made when you are working within a form. Implementing some constraints forces you to reevaluate your writing and look for possibility. If you have an 11-syllable line and you're looking to make that a 10-syllable line, and if you're not looking to end that line weakly or make your line breaks something less than satisfying, then you're forced to restructure the diction, syntax and sometimes the meaning itself."

PD: Are there any particular themes, words or images that you find yourself returning to in your work?

MR: "When you put a manuscript together -- whether that's in a single Word document or you have those poems laid out on your floor -- and you have the chance to see how those poems speak to each other side by side, most poets will find recurring language. Horses, for some reason, have appeared in my poems of late, and in the last two or three years I've written a number of poems that have imagery resulting from the U.S. military's presence in the Middle East. When the events of war permeate the news, inevitably my thoughts return to the individual lives of those taking part and those whose daily lives have been changed dramatically."

PD: Are you the kind of poet who can kind of spontaneously write, or do you work more slowly, waiting for something to come that sparks the process?

MR: "I carry a pen and paper with me wherever I go, and that's something I've been doing for years. In fact I feel a little bit unarmed -- naked, if you will -- if I leave the house and realize that I do not have a pen. You can always find something on which to write, but you can't always depend on finding the instrument. In terms of working on individual poems, yes, I carry that pen and paper, but I might not use them for several days at a stretch. Then again, I might hear or see something that I want to take down immediately for future use.

"When writing my best it's for me, first of all, making and taking advantage of time and space, whether it's an hour at home or even a 30-minute train ride into downtown Chicago. When I do give myself that time and space I'm nearly always able to create and shape something satisfying. That's not to say that I can sit down and within an hour crank out a poem. Some of my poems might take six weeks or longer, they might take three weeks. I think my process has gotten a little bit slower since I left college and began surviving in the real world with a job and all of the other responsibilities of life."

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