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An Interview with Michael Robins, Plus a Review

By Harriet Staff

Over at yaakov murchadha, find this feature on Michael Robins, author, most recently, of Ladies & Gentlemen. The feature consists of an interview with the author, conducted by Catherine Theis, and a review of Ladies & Gentlemen by Virginia Konchan.

Here’s part of the interview, in which Robins talks stillness and form:

CT: I’m also interested in this idea that seems to be cultivated throughout your book of a story that leads nowhere, and what that might mean for us as readers—to sit in silence, to sit in mystery. Stevens’ jar upon a hill is retranslated into “a billboard that reads /Redneck Steakhouse.” Or how, “[w]e moved like statues.” I love this kind of transformative power that results when we use stillness as a kind of measure. Are you fascinated with stillness? With form?

MR: I love that some poems create meaning and order from the experiences of life; most of my own experiences, however, don’t conclude in convenient epiphanies. Maybe it’s my wiring. Too many things happen simultaneously, in fragments and half-developed episodes, convoluted always by complex emotions and skepticism. I want to reflect this particular experience of the world, yet I’m guilty too of reaching for solidity, cohesion, and meaning. Ideally, those couplets that you mentioned ease the reader through the sometimes dense imagery and figurative language of Ladies & Gentlemen, providing the reader another opportunity for silence and contemplation. Your reflection on stillness immediately brings to mind Wordsworth’s “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” Let us not forget that this overflow is also “recollected in tranquility.” When the creation of a new poem hits its stride, that stillness or tranquility feels like a hearth radiating in my chest. The few truly harmonious moments in my life—that is to say the instances when I’ve felt an ecstatic peace with my place in the cosmos (Kerouac’s “be in love with your life”) and was ready, right then and there, to leave this world behind—were moments of stillness and very much connected to an image. Immersing myself in an artist’s work is another kind of stillness, as is the simple pleasure of spending the day on the beach, far from the everyday nonsense and commotion.

Am I fascinated with form? The shape of the poem is hugely important to me, and you’ve probably noticed that the lines of each individual poem in Ladies & Gentlemen (except the two prose poems) are nearly the same length. I say nearly, because the lines of each couplet are purposefully not the same length. After September 11, 2001, during my second year in the MFA Program at UMass-Amherst, my language utterly failed in the wake of the events that day. Months of creative silence passed until, eventually, I found myself writing a sonnet that subtly alluded to all that had happened. Then I quickly began a second sonnet, as if at last the formal constraint gave an organizing structure to what I needed to voice. Of course I love Emily Dickinson’s “After great pain, a formal feeling comes—,”and it seems fitting that my own formal response arose while living down the street from the Dickinson house in Amherst. Anyway, eventually the single stanza of the sonnet gave way to couplets, and for me that’s another kind of formality, much in the way that rhyme or line lengths can serve as a stabilizing force in a poem.

Full interview and review here.

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Posted in Poetry News on Monday, September 24th, 2012 by Harriet Staff.