In this interview with poet Robin Myers, we learn how experiences in foreign countries and questioning our role in certain spaces can be the best teacher for writing poetry.
At some point of our lives, most of us have felt a desire to be creative and make some kind of art. It might have been music, painting, acting, or singing, but I believe that the one art where most people have dabbled is poetry. Either in our teens or as a way to convey our purest feelings to someone, we have used poetry as a means to understand the world as well as our own feelings. However, not everyone decides to turn it into a life practice. Sometimes the only thing stopping us from following this beautiful and sublime path is a lack of tools. Fortunately, we can learn from great artists who have embraced this art as part of their everyday life. Cultura Colectiva had the chancee to interview poet and translator Robin Myers, from whose powerful work we can learn that one of the greatest tools to write poetry is not only being open to new experiences, especially in other places, but being aware of the roles we play in these spaces.
First, we asked Robin about her creative process and the sources that inspire her work. According to the poet, places have a central role in her poetry, and it all starts with a draft that evolves into a thorough exploration of a question:
"I generally spend more time thinking about poems than actually writing them. When I start to feel the itch of an oncoming poem—sometimes it’s a line, sometimes an image, sometimes just a nebulous question or concern or juxtaposition or feeling that I sense could become a poem—I don’t write much down at first. If I do, it’s a couple basic notes, something to remind me that it exists and why. And then I wait, and I mull it over for a while (days, weeks, occasionally months) as I go about the rest of my everyday life. When I finally sit down to draft something, it’s like the poem has already started to take shape without my being entirely conscious of it as a “process.” Once I have a draft (which I always write by hand), I’ll go over it again and again (typing it up, but sometimes rewriting by hand, too), and I edit until it feels like I should put it away for a bit."
"My work is inspired by a continual preoccupation with place: what it means to be from a particular place (country, city, language, community), what it means to live in a particular place (which may be someplace different altogether), what it means to be part of a place and be altered by it. I also think a lot about intimacy as a mysterious and contradictory and sort of arbitrary thing: who we find ourselves close to and how, how we talk about that closeness or are unable to talk about it, what we can share, what we can’t. As I get older, I also find myself thinking and writing more about what people decide to make: plans, music, households, children, ideological alliances, mistakes. Music is an important part of my life and an important part of my writing, too, I think, although I’m only just starting to think about how. And I also often feel influenced or inspired by what I read—sometimes poetry, though often fiction or essays or whatever I read in the news the other day, too."
One particular feature of Robin’s life is that she has lived in different countries, including Mexico, where she currently resides, and Palestine in 2010. These experiences have not only shaped her career as a translator, but also her poetry by confronting her with another language and views of life, and also by creating a thoughtful clash with something we take for granted: one’s own language. In the poet's own words:
"I live a bilingual life in Mexico. I feel very comfortable in Spanish, and there are even parts of my inner conversations with myself that happen in Spanish. But my default—my deepest, most private, most constant reversion to language—is still English. And I write only in English. Which makes writing poetry (in English) feel more private somehow, and sort of useless in a way that can feel strange but also liberating. When I say “useless,” I don’t mean pointless; I mean without utility, in the sense that the language I use to write poetry isn’t the same language as I use to pay the rent or ask someone for directions if I get lost. Things like that. Poetry itself is often discussed in similar terms: as a form of language that doesn’t set out to get something done, to perform a transaction or yield a specific result. So it’s as if the privateness or “uselessness” of my English-language-self has made me think more intensely about what poetry is for, where a poem lives, what it can do, what it can’t."
"Another thing I’d say about all this is that living in different countries has made me much more conscious of how politically heavy, and ugly, the English language can be—the way it’s wielded as a neoliberal tool, the so-called “universal language.” English is used to lots of oppressive ends. I feel acutely conscious of and troubled by this. At the same time—and it always boggles me that these two feelings and conclusions can exist alongside each other—I also find myself paying more attention to how textually beautiful and varied and strange the English language is. I experience the sounds of English in a much more physical way than I did before."
After telling us about how her personal experiences and language shape her process of writing poetry, one particular feature of her work that is worth highlighting is the fact that she endows her poems with a narrative quality. It might seem strange because when one hears of the word narration or tale, you rarely think of poetry as a means to achieve that. However, Robin proves wrong this misconception and, on the contrary, shows how we can make the most of this literary genre and how it allows verses to say more beyond what we see at first sight. Robin states:
"I see poetry as a way to tell stories without having to tell stories. Poems can do anything, really: they can jump around in time and space; they can zoom in and out of time and space; they can be telescopes, microscopes, kaleidoscopes. And no matter what they do, the language they use to do it—the effects caused by sound and syntax, rhythm and register; the way its words cut up a page or unfold across it—is just as important than the content of what’s being told. A poem doesn’t have to be narrative to tell a story. A poem can also free a story from its linearity. My poems tend toward the narrative, but I can’t imagine writing any of them in prose. What I want when I read a poem, whether it’s narrative or not, is for its language to show me how to read it. The language is the guide."
Finally, we couldn't miss asking her what advice she would give to new or young poets who are feeling the call of poetry, but don't know what to do, and Robin gave us insightful answers.
"As a teacher once told me, “Read everything and live an interesting life.” Explore other forms of art: music, visual art, dance, anything. Talk to people whose lives are different from yours. Don’t be afraid to play with words (they’re supposed to be fun). If you read something you hate, read it again and try to figure out why you hate it: you may keep hating it, but your own writing will grow clearer about what it wants to be. Don’t pay much attention to the people who say you have to be writing All The Time if you’re going to be a Serious Writer: there will be periods when it will feel important to write All The Time, and other periods when you will need to use more of your energy being okay, finding kindred spirits, figuring out what kind of life you want to be living. Take walks. Think about what sorts of habits you’re developing as you write, then practice breaking them. Study a new language. Don’t worry too much about forgetting things. Nothing (I think I’m even starting to believe this) is wasted."
As cliché as it may sound, Life is the best teacher of them all. However, for it to really feed our creative spirit, we have to open our eyes to the world that is around us and question the role we play in the places we live or visit. What we can learn from Robin's poetry and creative career is to open ourselves to the new perspectives that the world offers to us and not closing ourselves to a single view. Sometimes going from one place to other, from one language to other, or from one artistic genre to other, can be enough to acquire the tools we need to make not only poetry but the best works of art.
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Images by NOOR