Michael Robins is the author of four poetry collections, most recently In Memory of Brilliance & Value (2015) and People You May Know (forthcoming 2020), both from Saturnalia Books. He lives, teaches, and parents in Chicago.
Six poems from “Philip Says” appears in the nineteenth issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about the poem “Philip Says.”
A: “Philip Says” is my half of a postcard correspondence with the poet Ada Limón. That exchange took place in 2014, and is part of a larger, ongoing project (since 2005) in which I trade a postcard-a-day each February with a different poet. My most recent collaborators were Kate Greenstreet (2017) and Noah Falck (2018). I’m exchanging postcards with David Trinidad in February 2019.
The 2014 exchange took an unexpected turn when the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman was reported. Even now, all kinds of clichés flood my language when I consider the early, unexpected loss of someone who possessed such exceptional talent and who, despite profound self-doubt, was absolutely committed to his art. “Philip Says” is rather oblique in addressing Hoffman’s death, but the poem remains an attempt to navigate grief and impermanence.
Q: How does this compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?
A: Lately, I’ve written new poems that may or may not be included in the forthcoming book (People You May Know) and revising a group of thirty poems written this past April as part of an emailed, poem-a-day exchange with Adam Clay. The line lengths of this work are longer than those in “Philip Says,” which probably indicates my distance from studying and teaching Robert Creeley’s poetry.
Reading aloud has been essential in my writing process since the beginning and, in my more recent work, I feel I’m offering even more of myself to accuracy and how to convey it through taste: how the mouth and breath shape the poem. When trading postcards with another writer, there’s just a few hours, at most, to attempt something beautiful, and my own goals for the project include letting the language stand as a pure record of that effort, without revisions down the road. In contrast, the last poem I “finished” took nearly six weeks of revision. After many years living inside couplets, I’m more and more attracted to tercets, and I’m even more attracted (in theory at least) to the idea of letting content dictate form.
Q: What do you feel these collaborations have allowed that your solo work, at least to this point, hasn’t? More specifically, what differences have you noticed, if any, between your work as part of collaborating with Ada Limón over working with Kate Greenstreet or Noah Falck?
A: I’m suddenly suspicious of using the word “collaboration” in describing these projects, although there’s certainly a collaborative spirit in terms of commitment and simultaneity. With the postcard exchanges, I rarely have a sense of what’s going to happen in terms of shape or content until each February begins. Plus, due to the delay and general unpredictability of mail delivery, the first dispatches often don’t arrive for five, six, or seven days, so initially my collaborator and I are working blind. Still, I’ve yet to correspond with someone I haven’t met at least once, and I inevitably rely on some part of our shared history. Examples include invoking the town of Amherst, Massachusetts (where I went to graduate school with several collaborators) or the landscape where I taught last summer with Noah Falck and others at Kenyon College. And to help counter the empty mailbox and unavoidable silence that begins an exchange, I’ll start each day of the month by reading a few pages of the other poet’s most recent collection in order to associate or respond indirectly to a phrase or idea in their writing. In a more direct response to your second question, the direction of my writing in each yearly exchange is surprising, and also very much guided by my reading of, and relationship to, the other writer.
In response to your first question, the time it takes me to finish a poem (one that I’m writing on my own, without a postmark deadline) has slowed over the last few years. This isn’t a complaint as long as I’m satisfied with the end result and, should I feel discouraged by the pace of things, I need only remember that a “quick” poem for Elizabeth Bishop was one that took several months to complete. Few people understand why anyone writes poetry, and fewer people know how much time the poet spends alone, occupied inside a single memory, image, or other moment in the language. Correspondence (i.e. Postcard Poetry) offers relief from that isolation because my audience, when it boils down to it, is a single person who’s anticipating my words in their mailbox. Regardless of its shape or method, collaboration combats the solitary act of writing through intimacy and by connecting one human voice with another.
Additionally, given the frequency and time constraints established in most of my collaborative projects, the exchanges remind me that there’s no single way to write a poem. There’s also the reassurance that, yes, poets are capable of making something in the smallest window of the day. I work seriously on each postcard, knowing it’s doubtful I’ll permit revision after the fact. And although my side of each exchange settles into a consistent tone and shape, on more recent occasions I’ve given myself the project of writing a singular, month-long work. This culminated in a 174-line poem (sent to Dan Chelotti in 2016), an untitled 200-line poem (sent to Noah this year), and even a book-length sequence of 112 short paragraphs (sent to Kate in 2017).
Q: With four full-length poetry collections and three chapbooks over the past dozen or so years, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?
A: As impressive as that publication history might sound, I feel like I haven’t published at all. Maybe it’s a sense that all of the poems I’ve written are working toward a single poem, the ending of which will arrive with my death. Plus, for every book I’ve been fortunate to publish, there’s another manuscript that made the finalist lists at presses X, Y, and Z, but won’t likely see the light of day. I’ve begun to wonder at what point should a writer stop letting editors decide if his, her, or their efforts are book worthy? We forgive Whitman for self-publishing Leaves of Grass. I’m no Whitman, though I’m lucky to have accumulated as much writing as I have. I’m much more interested in the poem started this morning than the one written five years ago. Our job as poets, after all, is to write the next poem.
Ultimately, I hope that each new poem will reflect a broader knowledge of the world and surprise me with its language, subject, and style. But who knows what kind of trajectory awaits. Paraphrasing a line from Noah Baumbach’s first film: you shoot for the stars and maybe you hit the roof. I won’t write a poem if its destination is already set.
Q: You mention that you’re working on a single, life-long poem. Was this something you decided early on, or was this something you realized along the way?
A: Along the way, for sure. Peter Gizzi, with whom I studied at UMass-Amherst, has described book organization and his awareness of the thread that exists between the first poem of a new book and the final poem of his previous collection. He’s not just structuring a book of poems, he’s shaping an ongoing body of work. Here, in the early decades of the 21stcentury, most of us have photographs and curate some record of our lives on social media. When I first stepped into poetry (swept up by its river, you might say), I felt the possibility of language cutting through the noise and a discrete, more accurate record of an existence. When I’m corresponding with friends, even friends who aren’t writers, I’ll sometimes include my most recent poem. For me, it’s the most accurate response to the question, “How are you?” or “How have you been?” The poem is the mental space I’ve occupied, and its creation is a genuine record of how I’ve spent my days. Then the work accumulates and, yes, ideally becomes evidence of a life.
Q: What does that mean for you in terms of building book-length collections? Do these exist as a continuous thread, or are projects constructed concurrently?
A: It’s difficult to work on more than one poem at a time, let alone book-length projects. In the last decade, I’ve tended to write in a certain mode or style (e.g. the couplet or a staggered line) before transitioning to something else. I mentioned writing very short paragraphs in my postcard exchange with Kate Greenstreet, and in a year and a half I haven’t yet returned to the paragraph form. “Philip Says” reflects, to a degree, my reading of Creeley, and my insistence on the short line (a period spanning about four years) is behind me, for now. In terms of book-length collections, that gathering of poems loosely reflects a contained period of my life and my writing. The length of time might span a month or several years. If lucky, sometimes the manuscript becomes a book, which allows me another opportunity for focused revision and re-envisioning.
Going back to style, it was odd when my last book (In Memory of Brilliance & Value) was accepted because the medium-length lines of that work preceded my exploration of shorter lines, and so I found myself struggling to reengage with a form that wasn’t in my immediate wheelhouse. It took considerable effort to reengage with poems that were several years old, though I was eventually able to remove some pieces and offer revisions to others. The origins of those poems remain firmly rooted in 2010 and also reflect my efforts five years later. I mean, Paul Valéry is credited with acknowledging that a poem is never finished (it’s merely abandoned), and with that in mind I found consolation in letting In Memory of Brilliance & Value stand as a record of the best I could do as a writer on the day my final proofs were due. I have zero desire in becoming one of those poets who regrets the past and makes changes years or even decades after the writing has appeared in a book.
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
A: As a parent of two children, my time for reading feels smaller than ever. My library continues to grow (more slowly than it used to) and I’ve managed to extinguish most of my guilt for what I haven’t read. I’ve also grown comfortable thinking of my book collection as a partially explored library where discovery is very much alive. I’m not always intellectually or emotionally ready for the books I acquire. Our tastes as readers change (thankfully) and what sustained me in my early twenties can leave me puzzled in my early forties. There are also books I purchased five, ten, or fifteen years ago that are just now beginning to resonate. For the past several years, sober and sometimes less so, my evening ritual involves searching that library, browsing poems until I find one that hooks my attention, my affections, and then post a photograph of the poem in my social media streams. This might sound like I’m dodging your question, but I’m constantly looking for the undiscovered gem. Maybe it’s a poem by Muriel Rukeyser. Maybe James Schuyler, Gwendolyn Brooks, or a poet whose name I won’t know until I open the latest issue of a literary journal. The energy of such poems brings to mind Whitman’s dictum from Leaves of Grass: “read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life.” Poetry has accompanied the best periods of my life and served as a ballast during the worst. Poetry gives me an essential reason to live and be alive. I hate to imagine a world without the kinship of poets and their work.