Talking about writing–Christine Robbins

It’s been an embarrassingly long time since I posted anything here. In my defense–anything I had to say would have been boring. Want to talk about the cost of new furnaces? Medicating cats? Cooking yet another pot of soup? If so, call me up. I’ll fill you in on all the mundane life stuff I didn’t include here.

Today I have a special treat to make up for all my time away—someone other than me to do the talking! I promised this interview several weeks ago, but time differences can wreak havoc on a schedule, and we weren’t able to carve out interview space until a few days ago.

My guest is Christine Robbins, a wonderful poet, a good friend, and a stellar critiquer of my fiction. She grew up in Northern Virginia and has lived in Olympia,Washington for most of her adult life. She is a graduate of The Evergreen State College and received an MFA in creative writing from the Rainier Writing Workshop in 2012. Her poems have been published in The Georgia Review, Talking River Review and the …And Love… anthology (Jacar Press). A sample of her work, the stunning Waiting-for-a-Diagnosis Suite, can be found here. I’m very grateful to her for consenting to play guinea pig and answer my rather eclectic collection of questions about writing. Thanks, Christine!

How would you like to introduce yourself as a writer? I’m leaving that purposefully vague, because I’m interested in how writers define that term for themselves.

I’ve always written poetry, but I’ve recently allowed myself to take it seriously – that’s the real issue, isn’t it? When I was in my late teens / early twenties, I wrote poetry all the time but then came the years of raising young children and working – and I didn’t write very often. I was usually at some stage of working on a poem, but it would take me months to complete. Then suddenly my kids were old enough and my time to write and read opened again. And then I was just hungry to go back to school, so I did. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened had I made room for this earlier – I’m 43 and just finished an MFA this past summer, but I have the time and the drive now, so here I go!

What role did the MFA process play in your writing?

Even making the decision to apply felt huge. I’d been thinking about it for years and at my grandmother’s funeral in Indiana, I had a great talk with my cousin’s wife about her MFA program. A few years later, I applied as a non-matriculating student – I felt completely under qualified – I had nothing published and I’d never really shared my work in any real way. But I felt comfortable there – it was a low residency program (Rainier Writing Workshop) and I was knocked out by the faculty and the classes. I think that pulled me in – it became less about my fear and more about my hunger for what was there. Spending three years writing and attending residencies – sending work to mentors I trust as people and as artists – shifted my confidence and also let me carefully guard the writing space I carved out for myself. I’m keeping the same pace now – I write at least one poem and read at least one book of poetry every week.

What comprises your writing space, by which I mean that dreaming space of writing, not your desk (thought you’re welcome to describe that as well)? I’m interested in the place where writing grows, and what is necessary to keep it fertile.

I like to be deeply alone to write anything new. I write in my bed with the door closed or if everyone is out of the house and it’s cold, I sit on the couch by the wood-stove, or I sit in the yard in the sun if it’s hot outside. I guess I want to be alone and warm. I write by hand with black gel pens and two notebooks – I re-write poems over and over and it helps to have two notebooks so I don’t need to flip pages during a re-write. I write for at least an hour before I feel something shift in the quality and pace of what I’m writing. That’s the time it gets exciting – something lifts and moves in a way that surprises me. Sometimes it doesn’t happen and it feels sort of the way insomnia feels – the lift never takes – the ceiling is still right there. It helps me to read books of poetry that make me want to talk back somehow – books of poetry that feel like they can enter the way I walk and not change it, but make my steps fully mine. It feels like a conversation I want to enter. I also find that I stew over a poem for days before I write it – an image or a line will start taking shape before I have the expansive time set aside to write. I need that expansive time for something new. For later re-writes, the colder more clinical mind is a good thing.

Has writing changed the way you relate to reading? There’s a lot of emphasis on reading critically if you choose to be a writer, and I went through a period where that was very damaging to my life as a reader. And my life as a reader has always been a crucial piece of who I am. It was a little like redefining a romantic relationship after having a baby–that painful and wonderful period of allowing everything to breathe and grow and evolve.

Writing has even changed the way I listen to bad pop music – that turn of line works and that one doesn’t. Or reading fiction – I believe this voice and not that one. But it has especially changed the way I read poetry. I pay more attention and I find that there are some poems that make me want to follow my husband or kids around the house and read aloud to them – the poems I want to string up on a flag pole and say “look at THIS”. But I don’t leave it there the way I used to – I’m gleaning what I read for what I’m trying to do. It isn’t a simple pleasure for me anymore – it’s redefined, like you said. I also find myself getting envious of others’ poems but in a good way. I think it’s back to the idea of entering into a conversation with other writers – I don’t just want to read – I want to talk back.

I love that sense, that feel of being challenged to speak when reading something, of the place I inhabit suddenly being shifted by someone else’s words. I didn’t write for a very very long time, and I think what I needed to do was to wait until I could hear that challenge and answer it in my own voice, with confidence. I think voice and confidence are so closely entwined. What things have helped you strengthen your voice (which is lovely and strong)?

It’s interesting – what you’re saying about voice and confidence makes me trust coming to writing a little later in life. I don’t think it took as long for me to find and trust my voice as it might have in my 20s, although of course that’s still evolving. I still feel very new at this. I have the sense that life is moving quickly and it keeps moving faster but I wouldn’t trade even one minute of what I’ve learned from living. My mentor, Kevin Goodan (whose poetry astonishes me) once told me that when I move into something strange, I scare myself and pull back and I should stop that. That feedback came to me at exactly the right time – I think I’d been waiting for that permission forever – and right after that feedback, I wrote the first poem that really felt like my own writing. I also feel like I’m stronger as a writer and as a person when I stay in a vulnerable place and I don’t need to have any answers. I guess that takes confidence though – to sit with the mystery and allow myself to be an idiot. It’s a place I certainly enjoy.

Yes–it is very hard not to pull back from those unexpected places! I think writing also requires a level of trust–in oneself, or the world, or words–that comes more easily with age for some of us.

One last question, I think, before I have to go do important mom things like bedtime. It’s unfortunate, because I could continue on for quite a while. A writer’s life shapes her writing, but I’m also curious about how you feel your writing has shaped your life? I find, for example, that there are things I say in my writing that I would never have thought to tell myself otherwise.

Yes the mom things! (And I think we could talk for hours, and the interview should also be reversed.) I can relate to the idea of writing freeing up an honest internal dialogue and it’s often surprising. Just being there with a pen and being willing to engage with what comes – it matters. Sometimes I read about something or feel or witness something that haunts me and I need to find a way to give it my voice – which might be the best thing I have to offer. I think writing also shapes my relationship to humility. I’ll never really capture what I’m trying to write, but I try anyway. I think trying anyway is a pretty good way to go about life.

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7 responses to “Talking about writing–Christine Robbins

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