Interview with Joshua Robbins
Author of Praise Nothing
Interview by Michael Levan
How do you determine what’s “poem-worthy”? Or, in other words, could you tell us about your writing process, particularly in regards to finding that initial poetic spark?
My first thought is to wonder what isn’t “poem-worthy”? Certainly it’s true that not everything one writes is a poem, but I’d say that all parts of the human condition, corporeality, the material world, etc., are worthy of interrogation and celebration. Writing poems provides a process and a medium for addressing such things. That’s not to say “everything” is a poem or that everything one starts out with when drafting makes it into a poem, but isn’t that the challenge? To write the poem that has a wide enough sweep and scope and ever-expanding inclusivity so as to “contain multitudes”? But I should probably rein this in a little bit in order to answer more directly.
I recently read an interview with the poet Ruth Stone in which she talks about poems coming from the ear or the gut. It’s an interesting distinction, though I’d say they aren’t mutually exclusive. Normally, for me, poems do come from the ear, though I do know what Stone means by “gut.” If you write poems, you know what she means. I think the poems I’m working on now come from a combination of the two.
Talking about how one “hears” an unwritten, immaterial poem is really a strange way of addressing process and it’s equally difficult to articulate, but there’s usually some scrap of language that comes from who-knows-where. I suppose a synapse sparks in the gray matter and a word-phrase presents its music to the conscious mind. Maybe that’s the Muse, I don’t know, though I’m not inclined to believe in an actual Muse. Inspiration: yes. Actual Muse: perhaps not. And “inspiration” is where the ear’s link to the gut comes in. We’re waiting for and working to hear the obsessions we store up within us. The two work together to present the poem’s material and subject matter to the creative mind.
Many of the poems in Praise Nothing reference popular hymns, yet the poems far more often take place in the suburbs than in a church. I think of the opening of “Theodicy”: “Predestined for the warehouses / of the snow, cold sweeps east / across the asphalt, the darkening suburbs.” What drew you to taking spiritual elements and refiguring them into human-made and often flawed ones?
I am, quite simply, obsessed with questions of faith and doubt. Always have been. Consequently, many poems from Praise Nothing explore this obsession by responding to hymns I sang in church growing up. The connections between hymns and poems goes way back, too. Charles Wesley’s hymn “[Love divine, all love excelling],” for example, very clearly riffs off (or rips off?) John Dryden by taking Dryden’s love for beauty and transforming it into the love and beauty experienced by the believer in communion with Christ. Wesley basically used Dryden’s poem “Fairest Isle” as a blueprint or as scaffolding on which to write his hymn. So, I wondered, “Why can’t I do the same thing as Wesley, but in reverse? Take the hymns and use them as the blueprints for poems.”
The hymn and the lyric poem, oftentimes, have similar effects and arise out of a common desire. Singing a hymn is a way to get outside oneself, to join a chorus of voices and have access to something outside ourselves. For the believer, this means an encounter with God. This is, I think, also what compels the writing of lyric poem: instability. What I mean is that we feel something is missing, we’ve lost something, and so we look to find it within that which we are not. This is why we make comparisons. We say this is like that. We say, “I wandered lonely as a cloud,” or we say, “Hope is the thing with feathers.” We make these comparisons because we are looking to understand and, perhaps, to fix out incompleteness through these relations. By articulating our yearning in a poem we are, we hope, able to find a moment of constancy and stability. We are able to slip outside ourselves and have an encounter with that which we are not, and hopefully find meaning there.
And, damn, if this isn’t a tough issue to talk about, then I don’t know what is. I think if we are religious, if we do have faith, or if you are, like me, a faithful and God-fearing agnostic, how should we talk about these issues within the poems when any time you discuss religion or faith and poetry you end up necessarily treading on some very rocky ground, and those seeds you plant aren’t likely to grow simply for the reason that the relationship between religion and art has always been difficult, and in contemporary poetry the two are, for the most part, I think viewed as being mutually exclusive. So, what is our obligation? I think our obligation is to bear witness. And I don’t mean witness like door-to-door sales of the Gospel. I mean we are obligated to articulate this experience of faith and doubt because it is uniquely human, because this is what makes a poem a poem.
Your poems pay considerable attention to sound. “Equinoctial,” for instance, is especially rich in this way: “Beneath the zodiac’s turning wheels / and the stars’ nocturnal parade, / the moon, pockmarked and mottled, / stamps night’s scroll.” Did the hymns you sang while growing up have an impact on the musicality and rhythm of these poems? If not, where did that impulse come from?
I’m sure they did. In terms of how my ear hears and deploys combinations of accentuals and syllabics. Also in terms of the pacing of a line. Hard to sing, “Be Thou my Wisdom, and Thou my true Word; / I ever with Thee and Thou with me, Lord” from “Be Thou My Vision” and not be moved by the combination of the hymn’s music and the pure sounds of the language, how its steadily-building crescendo beginning in the first verse leads up to the final verse through a tense combination of liquid semivowels and mutes. Or, as a slightly different example, take the phrasing of “How Great Thou Art” (also a hymn based on a poem!): “When through the woods and forest glades I wander / And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees, / When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur, / And hear the brook and feel the gentle breeze.” Not the normal common measure of, say, “Amazing Grace,” and it is, I think, that extra foot that builds a tension within the line, too, and, consequently, certain diction receives a unique emphasis which calls the singer’s attention to the imagery.
My thinking of each line as a unit with its own unique construction and the combination of lines as a structure of arrangement and revelation is certainly informed by the hymns. “Each line should be a station of the cross,” as Charles Wright says.
In another interview, you mention how you believe the collection is “about interrogating the differences between what is and what should be.” Could you discuss that distinction more? Why is poetry the best place for you to examine this divide?
The difference between what is and what should be—this tradition of struggle, or agon, which goes as far back as Archilochus, Sappho, Horace—is the core of the lyric poem. Carl Phillips has a wonderful essay on the ode in which he shows how the tension between these two poles is what connects the reader to the poet’s lyric expression.
I suppose poetry is the best place for me to examine this struggle because it’s really the only mode of artistic expression I’ve got. A poem’s agon-istic utterance, for me, best expresses this struggle and is the point of connection between my experience of the binaries of the human condition, the difference, for example, between the disorder of my day-to-day life and my drive to locate some order, to locate meaning in the confusion and chaos of being.
In the title essay from The Triggering Town, Richard Hugo suggests “most poets write the same poem over and over.” What’s the poem you’re consciously or unconsciously trying to write, again and again?
Writing the same poem over and over again is a criticism that’s directed at some of our best poets. I’m thinking of Charles Wright, Jack Gilbert, Sharon Olds. So many others, including Richard Hugo. So it’s important to note the tone of Hugo’s claim here, right? That a poet writes the same poem over and over isn’t a critique or a problem for Hugo; it’s simply a consequence of a poet’s obsessions and inner life. These obsessions lead to a vocabulary and a music and a means for addressing and exploring one’s subject matter.
For me, that poem is the one that would reconcile what is and what should be, which is, of course, impossible. But that doesn’t mean I stop writing the poems. What matters is the yearning for it, the desiring of meaning and beauty through the process of bearing witness to the human experience and the human condition.
If I might answer this question another way, somewhat less loftily, idealistically. I suppose I’m always trying to write the next poem again and again.
Who's the last poet or what's the last book that "got" you?
That’s an easy one: Jake Adam York’s posthumous collection Abide. Buy it.
What's the one poem you wish you could have written?
Eliot, “East Coker;” Dante’s Purgatorio; Levis, “The Perfection of Solitude;” Charles Wright, “Homage to Paul Cezanne.”
What's your current project about?
I’m taking the new manuscript poem by poem and so I’m not really focused on a “project” per se. I moved to San Antonio in June, 2013, and the city and the South Texas landscape are beginning to enter into the poems. I’m making a concerted effort to mine the personal in these poems—my childhood, fatherhood, marriage—even as I can’t stop writing about my obsessions: faith and doubt, the Problem of Evil, systems of exchange.