Robinson Alone: An Interview with Kathleen Rooney
1. Excuse me for beginning with a rather longish question. Weldon Kees and Robinson are so durably linked, a bit inexplicably since Kees created a great deal of art, and “Robinson” appears in but four poems (to my knowledge). What is it about Robinson that emits such power? To borrow a term from Kees, what does it mean to be “Robinsonian?”
Actually, one of the things that makes those poems so compelling and unsatisfying is that there are four of them. If Kees had followed the rule of threes, then they’d probably be known as the Robinson Trilogy, and that would be that: done. But there’s something about there being four of them that calls for addition. Four is a bad luck number in Japan associated with death. I think that I—and other people who’ve done individual Robinson poems over the years since Kees vanished—read the fact that there are four of them as a kind of permission or even an invitation to take over. Like he’s saying “Obviously, guys, I wasn’t finished.”
As to what it means to be Robinsonian, not to be glib, but the poems in Robinson Alone are kind of an attempt to figure that out. Kees’ Robinson is stylish, worldly, and extremely anxious, but these are four very mysterious poems that present themselves as mysteries that open up onto other mysteries.
2. What is your opinion on fame in a writer’s life? Follow up: would you like to be famous?
Wait—you mean I’m not famous?
J/k! Fame in a writer’s life and fame in general is fascinating, but as an ontological state that a person has to inhabit, it seems dangerous—a trap. Last Fall, I read Eileen Simpson’s excellent memoir Poets in Their Youth which is about her marriage to John Berryman, but it’s also about how so many of those mid-century poets who were Kees’ contemporaries—Berryman, Randall Jarrell, Robert Lowell, and Delmore Schwartz—wanted to be, and sometimes were, famous. Simpson makes it sound as though any position along the fame spectrum—wanting it, thinking you deserve it, pursuing it, getting it, losing it—made them fairly miserable, although, of course, they thought fame would make them happy. I want my books to be read and I want people to have heard of me, but fame as such is not a thing I “want.”
3. I sometimes think contemporary poets have little understanding of prosody, classical forms, the structural history of poetry. You (as did Kees, of course) seem to have a very strong understanding of these techniques. Why is this important to your poetry?
W.H. Auden defines poetry as “memorable speech” and one way to make speech memorable is to think about meter, syllables, counts and rhymes. I like to read and sometimes to write “formal” poetry (especially in collaboration with Elisa Gabbert), although I’m not a “formalist”—nor was Kees—but these things are like magic to me. Also, anything that helps me to understand the depth of something (its history, like you say) as well as its most minute features (prosody, in this case) makes that thing more fun. FWIW, my favorite metric foot is the spondee because they’re so relatively rare, at least in English: shortstop, snowstorm, ad hoc, heartburn.
4. Carol Guess mentions the “Revisions and erasures of Kees’ own letters.” Can you discuss that process?
There are 15 pieces in the book which have the title “Robinson sends a letter to someone,” and each of them is a cento. They’re the only first-person pieces in the book—the rest are close-third—and they’re comprised of lines from Kees’ own letters, primarily, but also his reviews, stories and poems. “Cento” supposedly comes from the Latin for “a coat made of patches,” and the etymology goes with the process, which was one of searching for evocative lines that could be re-ordered and manipulated into standalone poems that would give the character a chance to “speak.”
5. How do you read Kee’s final act, the car, the bridge, the disappearance?
Maybe the best way to read it—and conceivably the way that Kees intended it to be read—is exactly as it appears: as a puzzle. A Schrodinger’s cat style mystery with no solution. An artist’s biography that has no ending cannot help but send people back to the work.
6. What causes you despair?
I despair at the idea of a world where everything has either the actual marketplace, or the belabored and ubiquitous metaphor of the marketplace, imposed forcibly upon it without question. It’s gross. The notion that the highest expression of your taste and values is achieved when you “consume” something or “vote with your dollars” is a frame that’s overtaken so many systems and ways of thinking. In his really bitter, really honest publishing memoir, The Business of Books: How International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read, Andre Schiffrin writes, “we have seen the development of a new ideology, one that has replaced that of Western democracies against the Soviet bloc. Belief in the market, faith in its ability to conquer everything, a willingness to surrender all other values to it and even the belief that it represents a sort of consumer democracy—these things have become the hallmark of publishing.” I’d say that the belief is rampant not just in publishing, but in general, and the lack of resistance this frame has met with seems hazardous. Thinking of people, of ideas, of art, of education, of whatever as only being worth some kind of monetary figure, and then subsequently hierarchizing the value of any given person place or thing based on that figure seems, ironically, like an impoverished and lazy way of looking at the world.
7. What are advantages and disadvantages to persona poems?
It’s you but it’s not you. Berryman is Henry isn’t Berryman. Kees isn’t Robinson is Kees. I am not Kees/Robinson are me. I love the kind of first person that Whitman does in “Song of Myself”—“For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you”—but sometimes that reads (or mis-reads) as vain or self-centered. So the persona poem is a great opportunity to empathize and identify but not to lose your “self.” You can use the persona to get at concerns you have for real but with a filter that causes you to express them—and your reader to experience them—differently, and maybe better.
8. There’s a lot of play in these poems. Sparks of joy. Language revelry. Is that important to your work?
Yes! Because of how Kees’ life ended—a probable suicide (although maybe not)—there’s a temptation to read his work as more gloomy or depressive than it actually is. His poems are smart, fun, funny and playful—they’re game-like. I feel like my non-Robinson solo stuff and the work I do with Elisa is also fairly playful. But I tried hard to make Robinson Alone as playful—at least on a linguistic level—as possible, even when the subject matter is melancholy because that seemed truest to Kees’ life and work.
9. I’ve rarely read poetry this tight. Very, very precise. Quick, stark images. Tight observations. Get in, get out. Can you discuss revision?
Thanks. I wrote and revised this book (on and off, but still) for about ten years. So it was approximately one decade of researching and writing and revising all at the same time. There’s a tendency, I think, to consider research, writing, and revision as three separate processes, but of course, in most cases, they’re all sort of happening simultaneously, and that was the case with this book, definitely. It kept changing shape, and I call it a novel in poems because I was dealing with a narrative arc and a structure that are like those you’d find in a long work of fiction.
10. When writing, how do you know when a poem of yours is finished?
Funny thing: I tend to know quickly when something is finished. It takes me longer, usually, to know that it’s “good.” Often, after leaving it alone for a while, I’ll conclude that a “done” piece is just not ever going to be something I’d want to show anyone, no matter how much revising I’ve already done to it.
11. You publish individual texts in print and online. Will you talk about that decision? Do you consciously try to publish in both mediums?
Yes, I make an effort to publish in both because I like both a lot. And I dislike the binary, zero-sum game of print versus electronic that the “media” or whoever like to endlessly hype. Henry Jenkins terms the way that new and old media can and do exist synergistically “Convergence Culture” and it’s a super-sane, super-useful concept: “Cinema did not kill theater. Television did not kill radio. Each old medium was forced to co-exist with emerging media. That’s why convergence seems more plausible as a way of understanding the past several decades of media change than the old digital revolution paradigm had. Old media are not being displaced. Rather their functions and status are shifted by the introduction of new technologies.”
12. I find the ordering of these poems purposeful and exquisite—from the beginning page we are going on a journey, an inner and outer quest. I suppose the book is a novel in poems. Will you discuss writing the actual poems? Did you write them in the order they appear?
Thanks! Like I mention above, I definitely do consider it a novel in poems, which maybe is kind of like a linked collection of short stories or a novel comprised of short stories. I drafted a whole bunch of poems that were meant to be able to stand totally alone (just intrinsically and then also for when I wanted to try to have them published in journals), but did so while thinking, too, of how they might eventually go together. So I went through several drafts of the manuscript before it got to its current 130-page length and structure. For example, the book ended up having three main (though not equal in size) sections: New York, a trip from one coast to the other, and San Francisco. So once I realized that that was how the format would be, I had to go back to the poems from each point in the narrative and cut the ones that weren’t working or didn’t fit, and then in a lot of cases to write new poems that would make that arc make sense.
13. Robinson thinks about a system for processing doubt. Let’s assume poetry is also a system. What do you think poetry is a system for?
It’s a system for getting lost in a flow state and learning stuff.
14. What is the best part of writing for you?
It’s an unbreakable tie between getting lost in a flow state and learning stuff.