Interview With Ken Robidoux
ConnotationPress, Vol. II, September 2010
Featured Artist of the Month. Interview with Ken Robidoux, Editor-in-Chief, and five poems with mp3 files (“The Blameless Cage of the Brain,” “On the Front Porch of the World,” “Italian Names,” and two of the Eleanor Roosevelt dramatic monologues “Lorena,” and “Murray the Outlaw of Falahill.”
Interview With Melanie Greenhouse
Date: September 6, 2009
Published in The New London Day, September 2009
MG: Little Boy Blue: A Memoir in Verse (soon to be published by CavanKerry Press) chronicles pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood of a young girl in an era when there were essentially no support systems. It had to have taken immense courage to put this story on the page. Talk about that.
GJ: At the time, I was writing Little Boy Blue, my son had asked me not to communicate with him; I hadn’t heard his voice in two years. The poems wrote themselves, of necessity, coming rather quickly over a six-month period in 2006. I did very little in the way of revision in terms of content. They appear in the book in the order I wrote them. I did make decisions about form and they are written with varying stanza patterns and syntactical and punctuational variations as well as different rhetorical strategies: that’s where craft came in. Of course, in truth, they took forty years to write since they contain material I hadn’t the craft or the perspective to approach until they arrived. Afterwards, I sat on them for two years, although I read them in public. The enthusiastic response of those audiences, plus the passionate support of a number of friends, gave me the courage to seek a publisher.
MG: The memoir is written in movements and like a symphony, ends with moving grandeur. Did you feel a sense of catharsis? Contrition? How did you feel physically when it was finished?
GJ: My promise to myself when I began was that I would tell the truth as completely as I could, honing to the facts and letting them speak for themselves. I honestly don’t remember how I felt physically, although, as one friend pointed out to me, each of the last three poems could stand as the last poem, so obviously I keep finding new endings and pushing further toward a resolution that felt right. The final poem is written in the prophetic mode and attempts to move this personal American story toward the transpersonal and transhistorical moment, which I think reflects that I have, now, a great deal of compassion for the young girl and woman I was as well as for the child who was born into such a troubled family constellation, born into this predicament.
MG: Your next project (in progress? – yes, I have written a dozen of a planned 24) is to capture episodes in the life of Eleanor Roosevelt in her voice. What inspired you to undertake her story? What sort of research did you do?
GJ: I read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s No Ordinary Time and then the two volumes (of a proposed three volume) biography by Blanche Wiesen Cook. I read the four autobiographies that Eleanor wrote herself, several collections of her letters, including letters she wrote to Lenora Hickok. I read a biography that focused on her relationship with her mother-in-law, Sarah Delano Roosevelt, and another that just focused on her relationship with Harry Truman. Joseph Lash’s Eleanor and Her Friends, is another important book. I have an entire bookshelf of Eleanor-related books. I found her courage infinitely more inspiring and interesting when I realized she had to reinvent herself a number of times, suffered enormously from the loss of both her parents before she was ten, and the ills and tragedies of her husband’s and her children’s’ lives, betrayals by husband and friends, public ridicule, private jealousies, from periodic bouts of depression (and so on!). Yet, she managed to create a rich inner life, to love many and deeply, to truly live up to her own standard of social service, a standard (“the greatest good for the greatest number”) few of us can even imagine today. I felt I could honor her by using the imaginative privilege of the poet, poetic license, if you will, to try to express her subjective experience in the context of her extraordinary time in history.
MG: FDR had his share of human flaws that, today, would make journalistic fodder. Does it seem to you as though that era was more willing to forgive or overlook moral lapses than the current atmosphere?
GJ: The culture, at that time, bought into the idea that one’s public life and one’s private life existed in distinct spheres. The press was less invasive, more respectful. People did not feel as though they had a right to know what today we think of as facts reflective of a public official’s character. Moral lapses were not overlooked in private life; humans were as intolerant then as they are now. Then there were more than a few occasions where the press could be bought-off either with a monetary bribe or through political influence. It worked both ways: the press (in particular William Rudolph Hearst) bought FDR’s promises on occasion. This bifurcation between the public and the private existed in Eleanor’s mind: For example, in none of her autobiographies does she reveal a word of what she considered to be no one else’s business. Early biographers followed her lead and did not include information about her that she avoided mentioning. It was a more circumspect era, at least in the public sphere.
MG: As a noteworthy poet and accomplished painter, do you move between the two art forms with the same fervor, the same appetite as a decade ago?
GJ: I began my life as a painter, but stopped for more than two decades and devoted myself to writing poems and teaching. It was only after my third book was accepted, that I permitted myself to paint again. A few years ago, I thought I’d made the transition to painter completely and would not return to writing. I find painting and writing conflict with one another because I have limited time to devote to either and certainly not enough to devote to both. When I attempt both, I do neither well, and feel torn apart continuously. Right now, I’m not painting, although I miss it very much. A few years ago, I wasn’t writing. A part of me would like to put this conflict to rest, but I love both ways of expressing myself creatively. I’m an avid gardener as well, but I manage to limit that to April through June, then the flowers have to take care of themselves.
MG: Do you miss teaching? (Am I correct in assuming you’ve retired?).
GJ: I am elated not to be teaching. I miss being a mentor but not the classroom, and it is a great relief not to be a part of academe. I hope to channel my desire to teach into writing critical essays, but that hasn’t happened yet.
Interview with Nikki Moustaki
NM: Gray, how did you come to poetry? What is it about poetry that brings you to it again and again?
GJ: I came to poetry through painting, and I still paint from time to time, but have no ambitions as a visual artist. In my late 20s, due to a number of circumstances, primarily economic ones but emotional ones too, I stopped painting. When I first took up poetry it was because I couldn’t afford painting supplies and studio space. Poetry was something I could experiment with on my lunch hour, but of course it quickly became a deep and profound commitment as I discovered some of those glorious “poetical affects” as Poe calls them. What brings me back to poetry again and again is the sheer bliss I experience in the process of writing. It’s addictive. There’s a kind of pure aesthetic pleasure that I experience when I’m reading a truly masterful and beautifully written poem. I suppose the most accurate way to say this is to call it “intellectual delight”. That experience, associated with the musicality and structure and imaginative levels of the poem all fusing together, while, at the same time, saying something, flooding the mind with ideas, is one way of accessing the transcendent. It elevates and expands and enriches my experience of being human. Reading great poems, struggling in one’s own practice to capture something of what Longius meant when he wrote about the rhetorical sublime, and watching how one’s perceptions and emotions grow over time, all these are my reasons for a continuing engagement with poems. After twenty-five years of such an engagement, poetry is so much a part of how my mind works, and I always did think analogically so it’s natural for me to make metaphors, it’s just inconceivable to me that I should do anything else with my creative energy. That’s putting it on a practical level. So poetry, and my relationship to it as a maker of poems, has many levels of meaning: aesthetic, spiritual, practical, emotional.
NM : Is there anything in your background that you feel greatly influenced your writing?
GJ : I’ve been tremendously influenced by my graduate school education. I went to Brandeis University where I earned by M.A. and my Ph.D. and had the extraordinary good fortune to have had the great poet and teacher, Allen Grossman as my mentor. I took every course he offered during the five years I was there. Either I took it for credit, or I audited it, or I served as a graduate assistant if it was an undergraduate course. In addition, I took two independent studies under his tutelage (one on Yeats and another on Stevens), and Allen directed my dissertation. His poetry, his prose writings, his Summa Lyrica and the Winter and Summer conversations that were carried on in dialogue with Mark Halliday, all have had a profound influence on my writing as well as my ideas about poetry and the work it does in a culture. Allen taught me to be uncompromising vis-a-vis the poem with regard to my own integrity. He taught me what true eloquence is. Most importantly he taught me to truly understand that unless the poem points beyond itself, points to the transcendent, to the eternal, to that which is more than can be conceived in the mind of a single individual, than it’s merely an amusement. He taught me to recognize my lineage in the tradition and to honor it. I will never have the skill to combine words into an accurate expression of my gratitude toward him. He took my fairly ignorant autodidactic self under his wing and gave me everything he had to give as mentor.
NM: What do you think is the most common misconception that people have about poetry today? What are some misconceptions that your students bring to you?
GJ : One of the most common misconceptions is that poetry is something anyone can write or compose for oral presentation. We believe no special training is required. Anyone who is literate can eke out a poetic utterance, and since there is no poetry police hired by the culture-at-large who go around and say ‘this is a poem” and “that’s not a poem,” everyone has the right to call what he or she writes “a poem”. I don’t dispute that. I just wish that it were more commonly understood that poetry is a fine art, with a three thousand year tradition in the West, and that a long and intense period of apprenticeship is not uncommon, and probably a good thing. I remember that once Robert Bly said that in his estimation it took about 15 years of a serious engagement writing poems before the an individual had served a decent apprenticeship. I know it took me at least that long before I can honestly say I knew what I was doing as a poet, had evolved a degree of technique that gave me flexibility and a range of tonalities to work with, and a number of rhetorical strategies to which I had easy access. Not to mention the time it takes to understand one’s own culture and figure out one’s place in that culture.
Another misconception is the idea that poetry is someone legitimized by the power of the emotion a person felt while composing it, or while experiencing whatever emotion informs the poem’s content. That misconceptions, and the idea that an expression is legitimate because “it really happened” are the two that my students present me with most frequently. I think most poets who teach would say the same thing.
I am constantly baffled by the dissociation of artistry from the writing of poems. People feel that just getting out what they had to say makes it a poem. It takes most people a number of years of practice before they can figure out how to stand outside and above their own material and manipulate it, rearrange chronologies, fictionalize, embellish with figuration, fragment, juxtapose without writing in the transitions, etc. Most writers who call themselves poets these days really have a very narrow range of tools at there disposal and they work those same old strategies over and over again, thinking that it’s the content that’s important. Not only a narrow range of tools, but a narrow range of subjects and the ability to work only within a narrow range of tonalities. Those are not my kind of poets. I honor them in my heart because I know they’re just as earnest and committed as I am to furthering this art, but I don’t enjoy reading their poems. I’m simply not excited by what they have to offer me as a person and an artist.
NM : Please tell us a little bit about your process. Do you have a muse?
GJ : My muse is called “reading”. So much of what I end up writing about comes from my reading and my thinking about what I’ve read. There’s no question in my mind but that poems-beget-poems. I always read before I write and that starts the poem coming, and I think it’s so important not to limit oneself to reading only poetry or poetry and literary criticism. I like to read biography, nature studies, good novels, theology, general interest articles (such as those found in Smithsonian Magazine or National Geographic and while I can’t say that I read “science” I read around in books about contemporary science written for lay-persons. Of course I have a secret weapon in this regard because my husband’s professional training is in physics, astronomy and cosmology, and he has widespread interests in philosophy, economics, neuropsychology and neuroscience, among other fields. He talks to me about his interests, and since he’s someone who becomes passionately excited about what he’s reading, I pick up a lot of ideas and concepts just from being with him. Much of the intellectual texture of my writing, quite honestly, comes from the good fortune I have in being married to a truly brilliant man who regards me as his intellectual equal.
NM : Who or what are some of your primary poetic influences?
GJ : Well there's three poets who rank highest in my pantheon on influential spirit/predecessors. Emily Dickinson, about whom I wrote my dissertation, and who, without doubt, taught me a great deal about the power of metaphor and how to make them. She also taught me to write about matters of consequence (not that I always do). I love her poems more than those written by any other poet and they continue to dazzle me. Next is Wallace Stevens, who I consider to be the greatest poetic genius of the 20th century. From Stevens I learned the beauty of blank verse in the contemporary mode and the power of strong ideas woven through a fabric of sensuous details; he's also given me the courage to be a thinker/poet. And thirdly, Elizabeth Bishop has taught me the power of an easy-going conversational mode, rich with specific details, and the control of tonalities. She's also taught me how to write about the natural world, about phenomena, in a way that is not appropriating, but that truly honors what one is beholding. Of course I've been influenced by dozens and dozens of contemporary poets, in small minor ways, picking up this rhetorical strategy here, way to sequence images there, etc. I’ve already talked about how influential Allen Grossman’s work has been for me. The most important living poet whose influenced me, besides Grossman, and an exact contemporary, is the Irish-American poet Eamon Grennan. His work literally gave me permission to use a richly-textured diction and to allow my delight in lush language to come forth. Before exposure to his work I'd been too much under the influence of the minimalism that had limited the lyric range of an entire generation of writers (a consequence of the worship of William Carlos Williams, who I consider to be, by far, the most over-rated of the Moderns.) Robinson Jeffers is important to me too. Jeffers has a grand vision and he writes with verve and a kind of pure clarity and authenticity of expression that makes me marvel. He reads, today, like the very best of some of our contemporary poets. Of course, I’m not talking about all his work, but perhaps about 20 or so of his shorter lyrics. I love Hart Crane, too, and he’s the poet I would most love to emulate. Oh but that’s another story.
NM: What, if any, advice do you have for people just coming to poetry today?
GJ: The usual. Read widely, read deeply, learned how to read critically. Read literary criticism hand-in-hand with reading poems. Ask questions of what you’re writing so that you can work into your practice ideas that come across to you in your reading. Find a variety of mentors. Work on yourself continuously so that you can separate your feelings of personal worth from the reactions others will have to your work, particularly so you can keep all those rejections slips from affecting your relationship to your art. Stay in it for the joy of writing and for how it enriches your experience of being alive. Never allow what others say about your work, both compliments and insults, encouraging remarks and discouraging silences, to influence your own relationship to poetry. Remember that it’s important to have given yourself away to the art your love, to serve language first and to honor your imaginative life; it’s not important, in the least, to have had a successful career. Realize that many of the most recognized poets in a culture at any given time, are frequently not that culture’s greatest and most important poets. Learn to recognize fads and cheap, easy imitations of great work, and read the masters at least weekly, if not daily.
NM : How important was it for you to have a book of poems published? Why? What do you think that having the book published did for you? Did the recognition do anything for your writing?
GJ: I circulated a manuscript for 17 years, and had a manuscript identified as a “finalist” fifteen times in the six years or so before I finally won a manuscript competition and had a book published. When it finally came, it felt like “too little too late.” I was relieved that that particular struggle was over, at least temporarily. I say temporarily because winning one competition didn’t mean I’d have a publisher for my next book. In fact, for my next book, The Surface of Last Scattering, I had to enter the contests all over again and win another competition (The X. J. Kennedy Prize). Of course now with a third manuscript in hand, I’m back to square one again. I’ve got to send it out to the contests just as I did before. I hope to God it doesn’t take another 17 years to find a publisher.
Basically, to get back to your question, I felt demoralized by the struggle to find a publisher, and for years before The Double Task came out, I felt embarrassed whenever anyone would ask me about my books. I had no books. I had lots of magazine publications. I had fellowships and other honors to my credit. And people assumed I had a book, at least one, because I taught creative writing in a university. After the book was actually in my hands, yes, I felt that at least I’d made a beginning in terms of finding a tiny little audience for my work. I’m happy about that. But it’s mercurial. One book will never do anyone’s career any good, I don’t think, even if it’s a very good book. Not in today’s po-biz world that’s so dominated by the same old big names and by a very few critics. The recognition, which is so negligible that it’s almost laughable, did nothing for my writing.
NM : Finally, what’s your favorite poem and why?
GJ: My favorite poems is one by Wallace Stevens: “To An Old Philosopher in Rome”. I love this poem because both the vision and the music are exquisite. It is truly magisterial and the pathos in the poem is enough to break my heart every time I read it. Here is the dying philosopher Santayana, whom Stevens is imagining to be dying under the care of nuns in Rome. Santayana taught at Harvard when Stevens was there in the last few years of the 19th century. His philosophical writings were very important to Stevens. The way Stevens mixes the small and the ordinary (the candle, the chair) with the glimpses we have of the imperial city from the balcony beyond the room in which the great man is dying, is so masterful, it’s dazzling. To me, this is Stevens at his most tenderhearted and at his most eloquent. The blank verse is so perfect I literally dream of its cadences as a kind of pure sound. Here are the first three stanzas:
On the threshold of heaven, the figures in the street
Become the figures of heaven, the majestic movement
Of men growing small in the distances of space,
Singing, with smaller and still smaller sound,
Unintelligible absolute and an end—
The threshold, Rome, and that more merciful Rome
Beyond, the two alike in the make of the mind.
It is as if in a human dignity
Two parallels become one, a perspective, of which
Men are part both in the inch and in the mile.
How easily the blown banners change to wings . . .
Things dark on the horizons of perception
Become accompaniments of fortune, but
Of the fortune of the spirit, beyond the eye,
Not of its sphere, and yet not far beyond . . .
NM: Might we have a poem of yours?
That tiny figure in the distance, an eighth of an inch tall,
is my husband walking back from the ferry,
picking up the groceries ordered from Skibbereen.
He’s walking down a serpentine hill that rounds
the harbor wall. Soon he’ll vanish as he climbs
the two hills this side of me, then suddenly,
around a hedgerow of blooming blackberry,
fuchsia and grasses, he’ll appear nearly full-sized,
smiling, cheerful, holding out the twine-wrapped box
he’s carried two kilometers. I like him so close
his face becomes obscured in my near-sightedness,
and at this eighth-inch size as well, his distinct gait
visible even from this distance, so that I can spot him
in a crowd the way a mother sees a child across
several playing fields, in profile, even from
the back and knows its hers. He’s known by me,
although, at times, he surprises me as he did
last night when he picked up a rock and smashed
the mortar sealing a farmer’s gate latch because
he wanted access to private property, so damaged
property to get it. So out of character, this act,
it’s taken me aback. Back to where? To the time
before we came into one another’s sphere, strangers.
Perhaps we never know the one we think we know
so intimately, the unpredictable predictably to erupt
and dislodge our preconceptions, the way the heart
of life is erratic and wild, and each of us is autonomous
and free, and I’ve yet to speak to him of my dismay.
From: The Surface of Last Scattering
University of Texas Press