Robin Ekiss is a former Stegner Fellow at Stanford, the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Award for emerging women writers, and author of The Mansion of Happiness, which won the 2010 Shenandoah/Glasgow Prize. She’s on the Executive Committee of Litquake, is a contributing editor for ZYZZYVA, and lives in San Francisco with her husband the poet Keith Ekiss and their son. (Author photo: Lisa Beth Anderson.)
Emilia Phillips: Since you agreed to let me interview you, I’ve been devising a plan for how I could turn an anecdote into a question. Several years after you published your poem “Edison in Love,” I wrote a poem about the very story you use in these lines:
René Descartes, too, traveled alone
with a doll-in-a-box
he called his daughter. Francine,
I’m almost embarrassed to admit it, but at the time I wrote my poem I didn’t know yours! It was only later, after my book was picked up, my Francine poem nestled inside, that I encountered these lines! Forgive me for my self-reference, but I’ve always found it wonderful and strange when I find out that two poets have come to the same subject matter in different ways. For instance, Alan Shapiro and Tomás Q. Morín both have poems about Laika, the first Soviet dog in space. When I was working for a literary magazine in grad school, I would see rashes of poems about the same things: Gregor Mendel, “twilight sleep,” Frank Sinatra’s specially-made underwear, etc. I suppose that’s the risk when you take something from history or public knowledge and use it in your own poems.
My old prof David Wojahn has an essay called “Not Releasing the Genie: The Poetry of Knowledge vs. The Poetry of Stuff” that came out with The Writer’s Chronicle earlier this year; in it, he differentiates between the poem that simply nabs subject matter (from Google and Wikipedia these days, most likely) for the sake of novelty and the poem that demonstrates that the use of exterior subject matter has an intensive personal relevance and approaches that subject matter in a way that makes it new, compelling, and perhaps even strange.
So, first off, I’m curious about your encounter with this story about Descartes—how you came to it, how long it smoldered—and how you generally go about handling subject matter that comes from outside your life. What are things you generally try to avoid? Why go to history for subject matter?
Second, do you think that the internet has changed poetry? How so?
Robin Ekiss: I love that subject synchronicity, too—and the endless possibility of it. Even when we write about the same subject, our explorations are bound to be different. The “stuff” of the universe may be finite, but our interpretation of it isn’t: what we bring to the subject inevitably expands that universe endlessly outward. And inward, too, making something that’s historically or intellectually remote intimately personal.
That story about Descartes’ daughter Francine worked that way for me. When I’d read about it, it just started working on my imagination, and it didn’t take long to work its way into that poem about Thomas Edison, another iconic figure with some rather questionable quirks. I’m often drawn to the uncanny (and you can’t get much more uncanny than traveling with a doll in a box named after your dead daughter). In my life, and in my work, I struggle constantly with “daughter-ness” in a way that feels very Cartesian to me: a kind of separation of mind and body, in which love and grief are dueling, distinct states. The irony of Descartes staking his existence and his philosophy on the primacy of thought, but ultimately being ruled by feeling: that resonated tremendously with me in terms of my own creative process. I think the noblest writing bends anecdote toward emotion (not the other way around).
In that way, no subject matter exists outside my life and anything can have personal relevance. There’s not much I’m trying to avoid, but I’m drawn to history because it’s such an ideal playground for a poetic imagination: it attempts—and often fails—to give context to our experience, which is what poetry does, too. As a Jewish poet, I run toward history because so much of it is impossible to imagine, and yet I’m inevitably embedded it in: in my own personal history, in what’s familial, familiar. As a rhetorical poet, working in the tradition of Marianne Moore or Elizabeth Bishop, I feel like I can stand outside of it, apart from myself when I need to, to gain some insight into my own humanity.
One of my teachers, Eavan Boland, always made a distinction between history and the past: “history” being the public, civic record and “the past” reflecting more personal, often unspoken experience. I’m interested in both: where they intersect, how they feed off of (or feed) each other. And in building recognition of the emotional consequences of history, which we live with every day.
And to your second question there: yes and no! The internet has changed poetry, particularly for poets who research to write. Obviously, information is more accessible and immediate than it used to be, and that’s a good thing. But democracy is of no use to the imagination: more access doesn’t necessarily mean more insight. Is it a diminishment to curiosity to “click through”? Not at all. I find it helps me make connections more quickly and associatively, and broadens the scope of what’s out there to read and discover. That’s helpful to a restless imagination. But you’re still in charge of shaping the information you have, and that’s as much of a challenge as it’s ever been. I’d argue that other things have changed poetry more fundamentally, like personal computers or self-publishing or the proliferation of writing programs or rap, or a thousand other things. Poetry can handle the change. It’s made to evolve, right alongside us. It may even help us evolve.
And just for the record, I think we should all write poems about Frank Sinatra’s underwear, and publish an anthology of them. We can call it, “I Wore It My Way” or “They Can’t Take Briefs Away from Me.”
EP: “Boxers In the Night”—what were the chances?
A fun question: If we were to literally evolve through poetry, how would our bodies change? Would we have larger lungs for all that breath? Will we be able to use our feet to type?
RE: We’d all have skylights in our brains! And extra sets of eyes so we could see more of the world around us. And maybe bookshelves built into our backs, so we could carry a few slim volumes around for reference (although I guess that’s what smartphones and tablets and e-readers are for). More than a physical transformation of writers, I’d like to see a broad-spectrum evolution of readers: more people receptive to the ambiguity of language, more critical thinkers who engage with art and understand why it’s important, not just as entertainment but in creating empathetic, sentient beings. Poetry helps us walk upright: be more man, less ape, so to speak.
EP: I can’t help but think of your line “the spine is laddered // for an uphill climb” in “Genealogy” here and, well, looking back at that poem, I’m drawn to the idea of literary genealogy. For instance, my teacher’s teacher would be my literary grandparent, and the web extends. Do you think this notion is bogus? Can we inherit writing traits? Or does this sort of pedigree making make monkeys out of us?
RE: Is this like playing a literary form of Six Degrees of Separation? One of my teachers, Sandra McPherson, had Elizabeth Bishop as her teacher. Does that mean I can claim Bishop as my grandmother? (Or Marianne Moore as my great eccentric aunt, once removed?) If so, I’m disappointed they didn’t leave me anything in their wills. My husband (the poet Keith Ekiss) and I once went to Vassar to see Bishop’s archives, and by accident the librarian on duty gave us her actual notebooks (rather than copies). We only discovered the mistake after we’d handled them with abandon all morning (no pencils, white gloves, or preservation protocol in effect), and turned them in to leave for lunch. She’d made some very beautiful watercolor paintings of leaves, including one of the Croton tree. Croton is also the name of the town I’d grown up in. You could feel the warp of the paper, knowing she’d held it, and see the deliberateness of the brush strokes, imagining the intention behind them. I felt connected to her then by this intimate violation, in a way that I often do reading her poems.
In the poem you’re quoting from, “Genealogy,” I’m grazing around in this idea: the notion that we’re hard-wired to inherit. But biological imperatives don’t apply to art. Inherited traits aren’t: what we read and how we write may be predilections, but they’re not predeterminations. In art, if not life, we choose our own forebears, which schools we subscribe to, which poems teach us what we need to know. Many poets don’t have the benefit of a teacher’s mentorship, but that doesn’t make them orphans. If you love a poem, you go back to it. It claims you. But we don’t have to inherit what we don’t want to inherit. We have some free-will in the matter. I don’t believe in pedigree or the “purebred poet.” All poets are mutts.
EP: Do you think poets are too quick to create taxonomies into which we trowel poems, keeping the russets in one row, the yams in another? I’m mixing metaphors here—but in knee jerk reaction to the idea that one identifies with only one school of poetics or another.
RE: Identifying with a school of poetics doesn’t mean you can’t take classes outside the curriculum, so to speak. There’s nothing “textbook” about writing poetry, or reading it for that matter. I do have a tendency to go back and back to the same well, but that’s the nature of obsession, the root of all poetry really. It doesn’t mean I can’t wander into someone else’s garden. I would agree we’re quick to categorize, and maybe that’s motivated by a desire for a common language about poetry that allows some degree of superficial understanding. But I’m not sure it’s useful. Saying something’s “neo-formalist” or “confessional” may shape our expectations, but it’s pretty limiting and rarely so simple. One approach doesn’t necessarily contradict another, and they can (and should) build on each other. It’s why poems remain relevant to our cultural conditions: they’re able to change perspectives and evolve. Ultimately, poets are cobblers, so writing strictly in one mode just isn’t practical: you need access to all the tools in the shed. Poetry isn’t about either/or, it’s about either/and (and sometimes neither/nor). Schools are self-imposed stereotypes that don’t leave room for deviation, and the best poems are deviant in every way. Readers aren’t faithful to one school or one style; why should writers be? We’re polyamorous thinkers. And our poems should reflect that.
EP: I was once at an AWP Conference panel for the late poet Eleanor Ross Taylor, one of the last surviving Middle Generation poets. She was married to the fiction writer Peter Taylor but was really discovered by Randall Jarrell. One of the panelists quoted Eleanor Ross Taylor as having once responded to a question about Jarrell by stating that one has to be a little in love with one’s mentors. But I think that, in some ways, you’re right—we’re polyamorous thinkers—and we sort of come to love the poets whose poems we admire whether or not we like them as people, or if we’ve met them. Maybe this is a rather conceptual—if not unabashedly hokey—question, but I wonder: Is loving a poem a kind of unrequited love?
RE: No. Definitely not! When you love a poem, it’s always reciprocated! Poems aren’t people, obviously, but they can be just as responsive to our emotional needs, just as human, just as changeable and fickle, too. Loving a poem is a nostalgic kind of love: an act of remembrance. What may have begun as “love at first sight,” grows and deepens as we go back to that poem days, months, even years later. As we change, the poem changes—and what we demand of it, and what it demands of us—changes, too. If that’s not a relationship worth fostering, I don’t know what is.
EP: Then again, as readers, we insert so much of ourselves into the poems we love that it occurs to me that loving a poem, fostering a relationship with it, as you put it, is like indirectly returning all of that to ourselves? I always warn my students against using workshop as a kind of therapy, and I recently listened to one of the Poetry Foundation’s Poetry Off the Shelf podcast episodes in which Joy Katz said that she had had a hard time finding poems that helped her through the grief she experienced after the death of her mother, until she encountered a poem by Mary Szybist, but I wonder: can we see poetry as a stay against the self-loathing of our culture? Is poetry self-help? Or is that simplifying it? Is it inflating its potential?
RE: There’s nothing simple about it. I’m not sure why people resist the notion that “poetry as therapy” is unproductive. If more people read poetry, they might be more conscientious about their own emotions, less prone to sentimentality, less guilty of triteness, more at ease with complexity and contradiction, more empathetic. Therapy isn’t inherently bad, anymore than „self help” is. (If we can’t help ourselves, who can we help, and who’s going to „help” us?) Poems can be paliative (in the way that all knowledge offers a kind of solace against the unknown). But even „the strange becomes solace,” (as Marianne Boruch once wrote) and for me, that’s the heart of it. It’s tempting to look for comfort in poems, but poems aren’t meant to comfort us. Quite the opposite: they’re discomforting. They introduce us to our own strangeness. They hold a mirror up to our experience, and don’t always forgive us for being human. In „The Grave,” Marianne Moore writes, „it is human nature to stand in the middle of a thing;/but you cannot stand in the middle of this.” She was talking about the ocean, but she might as well have been talking about poetry, what moves us when we read or write poems. To quote Moore again, it’s neither „volition nor consciousness.” It’s mystery. And how we come to terms with that mystery—whether it’s grief and mourning, joy or anger or wonder, whether we’re readers or writers—well, that’s why we’re here.
EP: Even when I’ve felt a poem is done, I’ll sometimes have a very belated urge to revise again. Is that true for you? If so, how do you temper that urge to go back to the page?
RE: For me, it’s not such a belated urge: it’s omni-present. I don’t temper it at all. I just give in. I find myself altering words or phrases, changing them out when I give a reading. And why not? They’re not sacred texts. Is a poem ever really done? I don’t mean that lightly: knowing when a poem is finished is becoming harder and harder for me to gauge. I think about Elizabeth Bishop spending seventeen years writing “The Moose,” and I think, yeah, that sounds about right. I want my poems to reflect my understanding of the world now—not just yesterday— so it’s hard to look at a poem I’ve finished and not see a new way in to it.
There’s this cross-section of a redwood tree at a state park not too far from where I live, and the rangers have labeled the tree’s rings with important historical markers to give context to the tree’s age. You can see how big it was when the Mayans built Chichen Itza, or when the Declaration of Independence was signed. Every year, another ring is added, and it just keeps growing and expanding, while the world moves in its own circles around it. And when it’s cut down, you can see—literally—where it’s been. I like to think my poems can sustain a little pruning every now and then, in the interest of creating those kinds of layers.
Don Share*: Where will your poems be in ten years?
RE: Don! I have absolutely no idea—and I hope it stays that way. Perhaps they’ll have mastered teleportation, and visited the very distant future. Maybe they’ll bring back a few new words. Maybe they’ll replace punctuation with emoticons. I hope they’re still curious. I’ll let you know when I get there.
EP: Now, Robin, please provide us with a question to ask our next interviewee.
RE: Let’s say tomorrow you were given an unusual—but wholly serious—ultimatum: you can either read poems or write them, but not both. Which would you choose, and why?
Emilia Phillips is the author of Signaletics (2013) and Groundspeed (forthcoming, 2016), both from the University of Akron Press. She’s the prose editor of 32 Poems. For more information, visit her website: http://emiliaphillips.com.