Robyn Schelenz is from Birdsboro, Pennsylvania. Her poems are at Maudlin House, The Nervous Breakdown, Words and Sports Quarterly, Gone Lawn and elsewhere. She currently lives in San Francisco, where she works when not doing the bidding of her dog, Donut. Special thanks to Bending Genres and Benjamin Niespodziany for hosting the workshop in which “It was (a new world record)” came about, and to Ben for his thoughtful edits. Her new chapbook, Natural Healing, is new from Bottlecap Press.
Her poems “It was (a new world record),” “Ice” and “Wildlife” appear in the thirty-ninth issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about the poems “It was (a new world record),” “Ice” and “Wildlife.”
A: About two weeks into this year, I took a workshop with Benjamin Niespodziany at Bending Genres (both great). Ben shared stuff from Kiik Araki-Kawaguchi (“about the author”) and Sabrina Orah Mark (“Box Three, Spool Five”) and other people I hadn’t read! The first poem came out of there and was surely influenced by those discoveries. I lay on the floor in my parents’ guest room and that came out.
That kick-started the love of the prose poem for me. It’s a really interesting form that allows you to do things I like to do in all poems (compression) in a way that allows you to get away with some really maximalist stuff. You can also play with people’s expectations of the story they think they will receive in that form. Particularly with pronouns — I can introduce “they”s and “we”s that play a role in events without really explaining themselves. Which is basically how life feels to me (why I was a sociology undergrad!). There's some autobiographical stuff under the exaggerated framework in “It was” but it’s all stuff it wouldn’t be fair for me to claim in reality. Childishly wanting people to applaud your sorrow and family being the first to ignore that is funny, to me. The only fact in it is how elephants grow.
“Ice” I wrote in the winter walking my dog in San Francisco where I live and there is NO ice. But there is fog … as a northeasterner, you’re trained to expect it as you go through life in the winter. Wherever ice is, it generates a story, I think. I could read a huge anthology about ice.
“Wildlife” continues a theme – I think transitions and fears can be humorous. Sometimes there are things we are afraid of or would be humiliated by that we can easily imagine and play over in our heads. The world is usually more complex than we think and therefore we are, too. I would love being a brown oxford in the dark corner of someone’s home.
Q: How do these poems compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?
A: For a while I’ve been sort of obsessed with juxtaposing natural figures with consumerism in hopefully interesting ways. one of the things that came out of the workshop as well was a little snippet about trees going shopping. that could obviously get heavy-handed. but i can’t be the only person who’s looked at a strip mall with its decorative fauna and felt like i’m in a half story. i think surrealism and absurdism can help us tell stories about our natural world which is in an increasingly surreal state. so i have a little chapbook coming out from Bottlecap Press called Natural Healing that leans into all that. Horses going to therapy, bulls relieving anxiety by compulsively shopping, trees going to space, bowling pins being hospitalized when they fall down. I think we are in a very anxious place about how our world is, how we can fix it, and if we even can at all. and hopefully opening imaginative space helps people think about this. Jason Heroux in his books does a great job of animating the world in surprising and empathetic ways. I got his books this spring and was like Oh my god! his work is so pleasing yet so heartbreaking.
the short prose poem form is key to a lot of that work. i think it offers some reassurance even if it screws with expectations – paragraph logic is so much of our daily lives. it propels inevitability. and there is also a little of, “don’t worry, this will soon be over,” haha. Which can also generate a little … light doom.
Q: How do you see or consider your unit of composition? Are you the author of poems, of chapbook-length manuscripts or of eventual book-length manuscripts? Do your poems begin as solitary creatures that eventually cluster, or pieces of a much larger whole?
A: I’ve usually got a bunch of loners, though much as in high school, loners find each other. I’ve got a bunch with “prose poem” buttons on their backpacks. Some with certain tones. A few overtly political. The most recent cycle I’ve been doing is the first time an idea, or even a title, “Natural Healing,” animated a whole and prompted poems on top of what was previously gathered. Which was fun, prompting myself to continue to poetically imagine and dig into that particular vein. It’s like a bunch of poems running around wearing the same hat. And I’m the coach whistling on the sidelines. Working on a larger scale is still beyond my poetic muscles. I enrolled in an MFA just this fall, aka a few weeks ago, in hopes of improving my poetic discipline, organization, muscles, etc. To really think intelligently about how a manuscript can be made. It’s at Saint Mary’s in California with Matthew Zapruder, whose book Why Poetry was really important to me. It’s been really stimulating.
Q: What was it about Zapruder’s book that struck? And how have you been incorporating those prompts into your own work?
A: I think I spent my teens and 20s getting an unorthodox poetic education. I was really drawn to writers like Apollonaire that I couldn’t read in French. (I only know English, despite attempts at learning half a dozen languages over my life). I loved the blogs of Momus and of Gilles Weinzaepflen, as well as Gilles’ poetic narratives in song under the name Toog (“The General Says” is still a favorite). I never felt like I had an entry point into American poetry or even English-language poetry. Maybe I was scared! But I really liked the heavy estrangement of reading stuff that was in Google Translate, back when it was way less precise. Or by select translators. Christophe Tarkos’ long poem “Toto,” which is translated in “Ma Langue Est Poétique,” is probably still the poem that fascinates me most. Yeah, I know it’s translated, but it puts me in a different perceptual space than anything else I’ve ever read! Some of this was a reaction to a high school friend writing in a very Yeats and Eliot-influenced style and that being the sole definition of poetry. So therefore, I was, by his definition, a prose stylist! But, I was drawn to poetry. So I had to go find my own models.
I think Why Poetry helped re-introduce me to American poetry and introduced the concept that finding your own particular models and influences are part of the work of being a poet. It’s not a waste of time or barrier to your own uniqueness. It was an education in language and how individual poems fit into poetry as a cultural resource and how they all feed into each other in a way that makes space for all sorts of individual styles or schools. It also introduced me, meaningfully, to what finding your audience and finding your community really are. I mean, we live in a spiritual wasteland, getting any poetic food is delicious. But sometimes you encounter stuff that makes you go, this is it, this tastes amazing! And that genuine interest is the beginning of finding an audience AND a community, I think.
I mean, I found your blogs, rob, through random queries about poetry many times over the years, even as a very, very young poet. It’s such a great and vital education on its own of the limitless possibility of poems. Funny enough, I reached out to Gilles/Toog about poetry once and he referred me to Jennifer K. Dick, a DUSIE author. And she was so helpful in providing the kind of advice about community and audience that I'm echoing. Take workshops, or send letters. Passenger pigeons. People in the poetry world are generous, I think. But it’s helpful to have language to talk about what you really like and what your aesthetic is, and Zapruder’s book gave me a great foundation to start thinking about that.
Being a poet is a social affair as well as a personal one. It’s also like being queer -- you have to find your people. Even if it takes a long time. And then you have to summon up the courage to say hi. (I say this as a queer person from Amish country, I would know, haha). Hi can be a big word! But just go for it. Good things start with Hi.
Q: Have any of your poems begun to cluster into groups that might evolve into manuscripts, or are you not there yet? How do you see your poems in relation to each other?
A: I’m still really in love with the idea of short forms. Chapbooks are like charcuterie for me; you have this delicious transitional meal. You may think you know what you're getting but you don’t actually know half the time, and there’s an emphasis on form. You appreciate it in a different way. That being said, this perspective is probably informed by our warped attention span as a culture and in me personally.
With a manuscript, I’m attracted to titles. I like the idea of a title always sort of standing behind individual poems in a collection, informing the interpretation. I haven’t yet come up with the name that would call what I’ve currently got to attention and prompt them to arrange themselves in a longer form. I could imagine a three section book, maybe. Natural Healing, Natural Disaster, and Displacement/Revenge ... or whatever I would call spaghetti drowning the world, like in my poem in Dusie. And then once I get that out of my system, I think I’d like to do something really different, experiment and problematize my way of writing. Like planting crops in a field. You need to and want to change it up.
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
Q: Oh good question … I love picking up Amanda Nadelberg’s Bright Brave Phenomena. Salamun’s “Mute and Time” always gets me with its fourth line. I first read that in translation at Del Ray Cross’ Shampoo Poetry, which has unlimited treasures in it. (Some jerk messed with the old domain but you can read it here http://shampoo-poetry.com/ ) I love this one poem by Erica Ehrenberg. Cort Day’s collection The Chime is one I always want to know where it is in my house. Graham Irvin’s Liver Mush is just visceral and cool and reminds me to be my version of that.
I love work that reminds me to be playful, joyful and precise all at the same time. Precisely playful. It’s an aspiration.