Elizabeth Robinson’s most recent books are Three Novels (Omnidawn), Counterpart (Ahsahta), Blue Heron (Center for Literary Publishing), and On Ghosts (Solid Objects). On Ghosts was a finalist for the 2013 Los Angeles Times Book Award. Robinson is currently working with the homeless of Boulder, Colorado, and co-editing Instance Press and the literary periodical pallaksch.pallaksch.
The opening sections of the sequence “Simplified Holy Passage” appear in the fifth issue of Touch the Donkey and are forthcoming this month as a chapbook through above/ground press.
Q: Tell me about the poem “Simplified Holy Passage.”
A: I was thinking about your question, about where the poem sequence “Simplified Holy Progress” came from while I was walking my dog around the lake today. It seemed as though the mundane act of walking with the dog was pertinent. The poem emerged from conversation with my dear friend (and wonderful, oh wonderful poet) Jack Collom. We were having breakfast together and he was telling me about his daily calisthenics, the routine of which he then described as “simplified holy progress.” I think I was taken with the idea of a pilgrimage as embedded in a very routinized activity, and I took the phrase home with me.
I was also thinking of the way Jack describes his poems as “shaggy.” He doesn’t tidy them up, they have loose threads that trail off, and gesture in directions that exceed what any given poem does. I tend to be a compulsive tidier. I cut and edit out. So I wanted to adopt the idea of simplified holy progress as being a practice that welcomed in the quotidian, could be kind of conversational, and could distract itself from any given direction while still imagining some idea of the whole. To state the obvious, anything that works in this sequence is tribute to Jack. I admit that I am nervous about this writing, it’s changes of direction, its willingness to risk incoherence. But inasmuch as it became a kind of daily calisthenic that let me stretch my muscles, that’s okay.
Process: moving through my daily life, I tried to add a bit every day to see what would accrete, and I let my personal concerns and travels enter into the poem. So this poem is also a tribute to another poet, Beth Murray, with whom I was corresponding during her final months as she navigated cancer and redefined healing—again, (re)imagining some idea of whole.
Maybe I realize as I write this, that the rhythm running underneath this shaggy, distractible poem is a sense of being accompanied by generous friends and fellow writers like Jack and Beth, who give all permission for exploration.
You, rm, included in that accompaniment.
Q: How does the structure of this particular series of explorations and accumulations differ from other pieces you’ve written? I’m thinking, even, of the series of poems composed utilizing words and phrases gifted from friends. Are all your poems constructed from slow accretion?
A: I was writing, as I said, to/from my friend Jack Collom, and he writes with a tremendous sense of play, but also, in my view, intimacy. Anything is welcome into the poem. And, as I said, my writing tends to be (or so I think) clean and sometimes even minimalistic. Over the past couple of years, I’ve played a lot with keeping a great deal of open space on the page so that the poem can speak in different ways.
I’m actually rather uneasy about these poems because they aren’t tidy at all and bring in personal (as in biographical) information. I just let the associations swerve and I tried to write daily and keep some kind of thread continuous. I am not at all sure that they are successful. I did not go back and read the work in order to respond to your question, and, well, there’s been quite a lapse anyway from my last response to one of your questions. I’m a little bit afraid that if I went back and re-read, I’d go into a paring-down frenzy, but I don’t think that would be true to my original intention and my desire to honor Jack in the experiment of writing the poem.
Q: I’m curious about this idea of deliberate discomfort, attempting to keep the poem more open, more “shaggy.” Was this a one-off experiment with a deliberate looseness, or is this something you might see creeping into your future writing?
A: Well, I do strive not to be too consistent in what I do as a writer. And that’s what friends are for, right? To tell us that we are repeating ourselves, or repeating our gestures. But I really don’t think I will be cultivating shagginess in my work overall. It just makes me too uneasy.
Lately, I’ve been responding to my work and workplace—I’m working with homeless people at a day shelter. And I am surprised to find how narrative the things I’m writing. I think that might be because I am in a position where people just stand and talk to me, and I hear many, many stories every day. I guess I am currently interested in the intensity and proliferation of story and how stories can collage themselves onto each other (though that might be a result of my deficiency at absorbing everything that’s coming at me). And then the stories also start to sort themselves into patterns. It is definitely untidy, but rather than trying to foster the untidiness, or even simply accept it, I’m just holding onto the current for dear life and seeing where it takes me. The very possibility of living in a world that is primarily oriented toward narrative (as these client stories are, and insistently!) is discomfiting to me, because I tend to encounter the world as a place in which patterns arrange themselves and create meanings. I don’t think I’m really that narrative in sensibility, so this is another mode of discomfort.
Q: How are your books usually constructed? As a sequence of deliberately-constructed projects, or do the projects emerge through the process? Simply: that your work appears to focus compositionally on the book-length project, as opposed to the individual poem. How do you see your work unfold?
A: My work unfolds variously, and most projects develop over several years. The question might be: what is the difference between preoccupation and curiosity?
I find myself thinking a certain way, or about certain things, and then kind of circle around that process. Sometimes, the bigger idea of what becomes a book emerges slowly over time, and I discover it as I go along. That might be a slow-growing preoccupation. Other times, it’s more clear from the start that there’s a theme or a driving inquiry that directs what I am working on. I wonder if that would be a more overtly curiosity-driven kind of project.
I do admit to being fascinated by what constitutes a book, and I read others’ poetry books to see how they deal with creating a whole. I think that a good book of poetry sets up a variety of tensions, and that these should manifest in the book in ways that, at least a little bit, startle the reader. The poems need to talk to each other, and find the right balance of concord and disagreement in the conversation they make—that applies to both content and form.
I guess because I am so interested in the conversations that emerge between poems, I am less and less engaged with what single poems do, unless perhaps serial poems or sequences. For instance, I love the idea of including in a collection or sequence a fragment that would just be nothing on its own, but which, when placed properly, can galvanize the work around it. I am also interested in manuscripts as being constituted of rhythms, maybe rhythms of attention, and how you might create a rhythm of sustained attention and then break it and juxtapose it against something that moves in a more staccato way.
I could go on about this forever.
Q: This makes curious about your compositional models. What writers, and even, what specific works, have influenced the ways in which you put together a manuscript or grouping of poems?
A: I know you probably despair of me because it takes me so long to respond to your questions. Often these days my job is so exhausting that I just need the weekends to do tranquil things like laundry. Re: compositional models, I would say that there are a few poets whose mark on me is indelible. One of the early, cherished influences would be Creeley. The way he can use spareness to create poems that are so resonant, so charged, continues to be very powerful for me. Listening to Creeley speak his poems in collaboration with Steve Swallow (jazz bassist) helped clarify for me what I already recognized intuitively—the idiosyncratic rhythms of individual voice within language, and how these have meaning. That is, I think we tend to cite a poem as “expressive” (or a voice or an artwork) as though to be expressive were in excess of the central value and communication of that artwork. But Creeley’s poems are expressive so intrinsically and on so many dimensions.
This kind of attuned ear for cadence-as-meaning is so alive in Niedecker’s work too. I reread poems by Creeley, Niedecker, Spicer, and Beverly Dahlen every year. I reread a good deal of Barbara Guest’s work too, but especially her essays which satisfy the way poetry does (as do Robin Blaser’s essays). I think that Niedecker, Spicer, and Dahlen are all masters at pacing and sequencing. That is, they know how to create tension, suspense, and movement with the way they use the page and make pages speak to each other. I am reading and rereading Dahlen’s “The Rose,” published as one of the textile series chapbooks by Little Red Leaves.
As for making a manuscript, I study that in every book I read. I was lucky to work as a graduate student with Keith Waldrop who is pretty much a genius in this way. He does some kind of sleight of hand and poems that were just okay are suddenly singing in unison. So I read his books and Rosmarie’s books with a lot of attention. I like books that operate in a way that I wouldn’t necessarily expect or wouldn’t assemble myself. Paul Vangelisti’s book Two puts together two very different (formally and tonally) sequences. I don’t think most poets would have been nervy enough to place together poems that function in such different ways, but the combination is ultimately bracing, startling in a good way. Kim Lyon’s The Practice of Residue is composed mainly of the long (and amazing) title poem. If it were my manuscript, I would have let that long poem stand alone. She decided to include some shorter poems after the long one. In the end, I like the way this compels the reader to read backward from these shorter poems to what came before them. She uses the shorter poems to upend the momentum of the long one, but also to draw out some of the ideas the come earlier in the book. It surprised me and I think it works.
Q: With more than half a dozen poetry collections back a decade or more, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed, or working towards?
A: For me, the writer’s nightmare is that the writing will run out, that there won’t be anything left to explore, anything in which I can get entirely engrossed. But over time, I think I have gained confidence that writing is a lifelong process for me. I don’t think of process as being linear and necessarily developmental, as in building into something ever larger, ever better. I think of it more as veins and capillaries—either you are sending blood into new tissue, or you are just noticing that those smaller tributaries are getting nourished. You start paying more attention to different parts of the organism, parts of the process and their motility.
I just don’t know if writers get better, but the writers whose work I most value always stay interesting. That’s my aspiration: to stay productively restless. But to be a little more specific, the things that are interesting me right now are multiple. I’m really interested in the page as an expressive field—how blank space can speak and create rhythm. I am really enjoying writing essays. If I have an essay project, I will think about it eagerly during the week and then spend time on it over the weekend. I feel as though my mind is a different shape when I’m writing an essay. And I hesitate to jump on the bandwagon, but all the play with hybrid genre writing intrigues me and is resulting in such inventive and alive work, so I am playing with some of that too. Lately, because I am working at a day shelter for homeless people, I hear (as aforementioned) stories all day, and the narrative shape of one story and then many stories colliding is fascinating. So this is a way of thinking anew about narrative and what its value is and where it is more than an overdetermined form (beginning/middle/end)—how can narrative be an expression of humanity that elicits and instills value?
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your writing? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
A: In the past couple of years, I’ve written many, many blurbs for books. Maybe too many, but then again, I think it’s an honor to be asked. This is writing that consistently reenergizes my writing. This may have to do with the way I am interacting with the book—reading and writing about it, but it is also a function of feeling involved with new writing, with the writing that is happening right now. These new books help me to feel like a participating member of a writing community.
Authors that I’ve returned to frequently in the past few years: Beverly Dahlen, Rae Armantrout, Robert Kelly, Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Day, Brenda Coultas, Kimberly Lyons, Mary Butts, Jean Valentine, Fanny Howe, Cole Swensen, Eileen Myles, C.S. Giscombe, Myung Kim, Evelyn Reilly, Claudia LaRocco, Jack Collom, Norma Cole, Laura Moriarty. Recently engaged with new books by Laura Sims, Susanne Dyckman, Jean Donnelly, Lisa Lubasch. I can’t really enumerate all that’s good out there.
Then I have a dedicated couple of shelves—sort of the if-the-house-catches-fire-and-I-need-to-grab-stuff-fast—that includes Creeley, H.D., Niedecker, Blaser, Spicer, Guest.