Friday, March 09, 2018

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Robyn Schiff

Robyn Schiff is the author of three poetry collections, the most recent of which, A Woman of Property, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize,  named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and the Chicago Tribune, and was an Editors’ Choice at the New York Times. She co-edits Canarium Books and teaches poetry at the University of Iowa. 

[Robyn Schiff performs in Ottawa on Saturday, March 25 as part of the 8th annual VERSeFest]

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different? 
My first book, Worth, came out in 2002, and my immediate response is to say that it didn’t change my life—but that’s not quite true. I wouldn’t have the teaching career I have if it weren’t for a record of publication that started with that collection. Publishing my first book made my professional teaching life possible; but the fact of that book, or my subsequent books, didn’t change my practice as a poet. My most recent work is still in conversation with the formal and thematic concerns of my earliest work, but my interests are intensifying. I’m working on a book-length poem now, and I don’t think I’d have the audacity to keep with it if I hadn’t written the poems that are collected in my first three books. 

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction? 
Honestly, I really don’t know! I was lucky to be exposed to all sorts of books as a child, but poetry spoke to me in way that made me want to answer in kind. I really believe that artists are called to their art, and poetry called to me when I was about 8 years old, and I’ve been responding since. 

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes? 
I spend a lot more time not writing than writing. Sometimes a year passes between poems, but once I get started, I work consistently on a piece over several months until it’s done. It takes a few goes to get the tone and form right, but once I lock into those aspects, I’m able to establish a slow but steady pace. I don’t generally draft through notes. Some performers say they learned everything they know on the stage; I learned everything I know about writing poems in the course of writing poems—that’s where I test myself, work out my ideas, and discover how to say what I didn’t know I even wanted to say. 

4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book from the very beginning? 
Except for the piece I’m working on now, which I intend to be book-length, I work poem by poem and once I have a good pile, I can start shaping a book. 

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings? 
Attending readings is definitely part of my process. I go to poetry readings the way some people go to church—to be in touch with something bigger than me, and to feel the strength of community. As far as my own process as a writer, it has occurred to me over the last few years that reading my work aloud is a final stage in my process. I used to strongly privilege the page, but lately I’ve been brought back to the roots of the art form as an oral, oracular, experience. It scares the hell out of me, but I make myself do it anyway. 

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are? 
I don’t know the questions until the poems asks them—but in general, the question that gets me back to the page is: I wonder what I’ll do next? 

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be? 
I don’t think there’s a single role for The Poet, but I’m interested in the body of work poets create that exists (almost) completely outside of commerce.  To insist that there’s a value in what has no monetary value is a role in itself. 

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)? 
I’m pretty sure I’ve worked with some of the most extraordinary editors in the history of the art form! Working with my first editor, beginning in 1999, was essential—but yes, difficult. He asked the difficult questions that have steered the course of my making since. I still work with him, but in friendship, now that I am publishing with a different press. My editor at my new press is also thrilling, and he poses questions that have also torqued my thinking. In my experience, good editing isn’t just about the poem on the table, but the ability to ask the questions that drive the next poem. I also have a pit crew of reader-friends I depend on. The editorial stage is one of my favorite parts of the process. 

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)? 
The best poetry advice is the basic one: read more than you write. The best life advice I was ever given by a poet: collect your frequent flier miles. 

10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin? 
When I’m writing, which isn’t frequently, I begin writing at as soon as I’m alone, and I don’t stop until my family comes back home. Sometimes I forget to eat. This summer I intend to make my lunch the night before. 

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration? 
I can’t write if I’m not reading a long, involved novel every night. But if I’m stuck in a line, I need to read poems. Often I stop writing to remind myself how high the bar is by reading some of my favorite poems, and marveling how they problem-solve in motion. 

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home? 
Newly-sharpened pencil. 

13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art? 
All of visual art—but the art of curating more than a single piece. Wayfaring through a museum is the closest thing to my own creative process. 

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work? 
I love my poetry friends, and how our conversations drift in and out of real life and in and out of poems seamlessly. These friendships, and the work that comes out of friendship, is everything. I’ll resist making a list here, but it includes the life poem I share with my husband, Nick Twemlow. 

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done? 
I want to finish this book-length thing I’m working on, and I want the strength to call it an “epic” when I’m done. 

16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer? 
My poems aren’t an occupation. I need a day job to support my habit. If I wasn’t a professor, I’d probably have a career in a museum; not as a curator, but in some other capacity. On the other hand, I sometimes wish I was a lawyer. 

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else? 
Writing makes me write. 

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film? 
My husband Nick Twemlow’s book, Attributed to the Harrow Painter, is greatest book on my bedside table. I haven’t seen a new great film in a long time, but the best of Buster Keaton is running in the film festival in my mind though. 

19 - What are you currently working on? 
A really long poem called Information Desk, about a job I had at the Metropolitan Museum of Art when I was in my 20s, and everything I’ve experienced since. 

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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