stephanie roberts is the author of the poetry collection rushes from the river disappointment (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020). A widely published Quebec-based poet, her work has been featured in Poetry Magazine, the League of Canadian Poets, The BreakBeat Poets: LatiNEXT (Haymarket Books, 2020), and elsewhere. She won first prize for Black Mountain Press’s The Sixty-Four: Best Poets of 2018. You can contact her at www.oceansandfire.com, @ringtales Instagram
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
rob, thank you for this opportunity. My first book, the self-published collection, The Melting Potential of Fire, didn't change my life, rather my changing life was the pressure for new expression. That book was all gut intuition and nerve; in rushes from the river disappointment, I reckon I've added a knowledge of craft.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process?
I have had a miserable time most of my writing life trying to chart a writing routine. I almost never sit down to write new work, instead, I keep small themed spiral pads: notes, quotes, books, and poems that I write in all the time—often full poems. Does that count as writing quickly? I work to revise and edit work when I begin submitting.
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?
I read that the pilot fish of sharks are so attached to their sharks that they will follow the ship that captures their shark for days afterward. I've never written a poem about that but the image of that true or anecdotal relationship is the sort of thing that ignites me. I have done the former but feel up for the challenge of the latter.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I think public readings are translations of the written work and are a related but different art form—more akin to performing than writing. Ideally I'd have the actor Marianne Jean-Baptiste do all my readings and I'd sign the books in the back. I do enjoy the challenge of giving an audience a good performance, and if drinks are happening afterward all the better.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work?
Thought-provoking questions, thank you Rob. I find composing poetry pleasurable this is my point A. As I continue, it seems I'm trying to answer the questions: What feels true? What does love mean to me? What does a life of courage look like? I'm terrified of my cowardice; I'm always metal testing my courage. I want to work just over my head within reach of drowning.
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?
My answer is paradoxical. The writer shouldn't give a fuck about their role in culture, and their role is vital. The role of the poet is to, as much as possible, be themselves intensely and remain themselves. Not to say who we are is static. I think the healthy psyche is subject to the same pressures on a caterpillar to become butterfly.
Wallace Stevens believed that poetry achieves more for the knowledge of human nature than history. In an essay on poetry and the imagination, he looked to Swiss historian Jakob Burckhardt for affirmation, "Burckhard considers the status of poetry at various epochs, among various peoples and classes, asking each time who is singing or writing, and for whom. Poetry is the voice of religion, prophecy, mythology, history, national life and inexplicably, for [Burckhardt], of literature." I tend to agree.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
My experience with this is too limited to comment constructively. Desolé.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I am whatever I want to be.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to essays to short fiction)?
I am deeply in love with and energized by writing poetry. I have ten unfinished short stories and a handful of essays but I have no desire to cheat on poetry.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
The day cracks open at the whir of my espresso machine after that I could end up on the moon.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
A nap, maybe a couple of them.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Two levels down on a New York City subway station platform. Inimitable.
14 - 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?
Music and visual arts infuse me with emotional energy which I convert into my work, but there is a certain kind of raw brutality in science and nature that catches me most sharply as to resemblances like the previously mentioned pilot fish. I attribute human passion to the behaviour of the pilot fish which I know is ridiculous, or is it? What's the difference between instinct and will when many of us have damn well chased fishing boats after the dead and long gone shark of our desires? Feel me?
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Emily Dickinson for life and art, Toni Morrison and Marilynne Robinson are exemplars of intellect, courage and compassion, and Elena Ferrante and Patrizia Cavalli are gods. Rilke is The Reverend. I have a love/hate/hate relationship with Wallace Stevens, nevertheless I identify with his insularity and, for better or worse, his way of thinking inspires me. I think Steve Scafidi is one of the most astute living American poets. I relate to the ambition of his work which somehow manages a polygamist marriage of heart-breaking tenderness, the erotic, anger, and humour while tangling (or untangling) intimate relationship, and politics. I am deeply wounded and excruciatingly challenged by his work.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Weathered a Tw*tter scandal.
17 - 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?
Theoretical physicists or sculptor. I may yet squeeze in the sculpting.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I think I was destined to be a writer. In grade four or five, I got into trouble for co-writing with my sister a small graphic comic that dispatched her school enemies. Writing well suits my Hydra-like imagination.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
20 - What are you currently working on?
My next full poetry manuscript should be ready for submitting by June's end, and I'm finishing a chap-sized collection of erotic anti-love poems. In early stages, I've begun a semi-autobiographical poetry collection that spans the geographies of Panama, Brooklyn, and Beauharnois, I'm thinking of it as my Patterson.