When did you set your foot on the path of poetry? Did you feel a sudden bolt? Or did you grow gradually more passionate about poetry?
My second grade teacher, Mrs. Durst, used to have the class copy Emily Dickinson poems from the blackboard once a week to practice our penmanship. I don't remember a sudden bolt in those encounters, but habitually that year I was overcome with a strange feeling of familiarity, as though I was being reminded of something. I never felt that I came to poetry, but that I was remembering something fundamental and was lucky to have been reminded. My "ah ha" was like remembering a name or a face. In particular, I remember copying down the first stanza of #1052, "I never saw a Moor - / I never saw the Sea - / Yet know I how the Heather looks / And what a Billow be." I think my teacher used a corrected version of the poem though, because I recall the last line as "And what a wave must be." In any case, it seemed to me at the time to be about the great liberty of the imagination— though of course I didn't express it that way then. It's still a favorite poem.
Is there a collaborative element to your writing process and what do you think it is?
Abstractly, yes. Poetry always seems to be collaborating with its own history and future, the way a conversation is collaboration. And poetry communities are a kind of collaboration, too. I'm lucky to have recently lived in Chicago among so many inspiring poets; I live in Iowa City now, which feels to me like a pilgrimage point for poets. Most poets pass through, but I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to make something of a permanent camp here. More specifically, I'm married to a poet— and most of my collaboration happens in and around domestic activity. So there are many, many living and long gone poets whose voices are in my head when I write. But ultimately, for me, the actual act of composition has been a solo undertaking.
Do think that poetry can have an effect on everyday speech? How?
It certainly has had an effect on the way we speak— I'm looking back pretty far here, but Shakespeare and Chaucer make such wonderfully obvious examples. In terms of contemporary poetry, I strongly believe that the political poetry of the past 40 or 50 years— like feminist poetry and Black Arts poetry— has helped broaden the sense of who has a right to speak at all. So yes. Poetry has a profound effect on everyday speech.
Are there poems, poets, or anthologies that have opened up or radically altered your ideas of what can be done in poetry? How did they do that?
Every time I read Marianne Moore I have this sensation. And I have this feeling when I read Nick Twemlow's poems, too. Sometimes I need reminding that poems can be aggressive and emotionally wrought, and I go to his work for a fix. Nick is my husband, so I have access to a trove of poems that the rest of the world doesn't.
Are there aspects of painting or photography or dance or video art or music or architecture or theater or film or any other art inform your own poems or that your poems are in conversation with? If so, how?
Absolutely— but more so than a specific practice in one of the other arts, curation as an art form in itself has most informed me. Of course at museums I'm moved by so many individual works— but it's the crosstalk between seemingly disparate objects that really inspires me.
Did you start off with an idea that your book grew around? Did you move away from that idea as the book progressed?
I was committed to the armature of my second book, Revolver— which is a collection of poems that concern objects that were on display at the Great Exhibition of 1851. That's not so much an idea as a way to generate ideas. I usually don't find out what my ideas are until I'm editing my poems. Sometimes not even then. Often I wait until my editor tells me what my poems are about.
Are you interested in the relationship between poetry and politics? Do you believe that your own poetry has political implications?
I am interested in the relationship between everything and politics; I guess I use my own poetry to underscore some of those relationships.
Do you think that your poetry or poetry in general speaks to spiritual or religious yearnings and struggles? If so, how?
It certainly speaks to yearnings and struggles. Personally, I'd call the object of that yearning and the counterpart in that struggle "Time."
* * *
Colt Rapid Fire Revolverby Robyn Schiff
The wedding cake of Elizabeth Hart (Colt since
noon) was trimmed with sugar pistols
with revolving sweet-tooth chambers with gears
that rotate one position over like a
dancer down a dance line
prompted by an aisle that parts in music
to switch partners while a
fly drawn to the sugar places a stringy foot
on the trigger. Dysentery.
There must be a gallery with bull's-eyes
blown through sugar faces spun on the same scale
and a wife at a sewing
bee bridging a scarf like a ray of house-
between her sticky knitting needles who admits
that when her husband said he'd be
at the gallery she assumed he meant
to see pictures she was too innocent to
see. She imagined him hat
in hand leaning toward a battle scene and
deep in the grainy wound
in the painting's newly dead, indeed a bullet
too deep to see gleams beyond the
vanishing point in both his vision as
he aims and fires in target practice and hers
as she conjures past a line
she would never cross on foot following
the caravan of her
thinking in tedious steps over internal
prairie until it overcomes
the body of her youngest catching
a fly off an ox's tail while the
oxen are moving and yet
onward the party continues until
the provisions of her
fantasy wear thin. Though this is manifest in
sugar, it still disturbs me when
the Donner Party built to scale with the
Patented Colt Revolvers trimming this cake
melt their weakest into a
desperate sap. Though the world's first sugar
bowl was passed from guest to
guest to show the wealth of Elizabeth's court when
an ounce of sugar traded for
a calf, it's worth more than that. You demur
to mourn lives lost in the frontier raised in scale
and substance to people the
West the Patented Colt Revolvers that
trim a cake were cast to
defend, but I say the bull's-eyes marksmen see mapped
upon the apples poised on the
heads of all things are cut on a lathe whose
smallest revolution of thought is in sync
with that which shapes the metal
of the revolving chamber whose circular
with the rings a fly circling the bullet wound
makes in air. Focus my gaze; I
see like a fly whose vision is more like
several interlocking rings left by a tea-
cup on a book but the cake
was six feet high and how could I resist
pistols winding tier up-
on tier up the icing reverberating in
decoration the prudence of
a revolver's placement in the holsters
of a row of guards under whose raised arms that
beam a private arbor the
bride and bridegroom enter their union. Re-
petition of pistols
map a rebus of progress marching since the first
firearms to devise a weapon
that can repeat fire without reloading.
Behold the rapid fire pistol inspired
by Colt's meditations on
the wheel of the ship steering him toward
India spinning and
locking in position like the machinations
of fortune pacing through the in-
finite face of its clock in such baby
steps that I shall reign I reign I reigned adjust
the powers of judgement en-
trusted to calibrate them. Leaning in
to see the gears, like the
wick of one candle used to light the next all along
a dark corridor, leaning in
and replicating, is not unlike the vision
the sugar wife had of her sugar husband
leaning in to see the detail
of a battle painting,
and stirred by the fire there,
* * *
"Colt Rapid Fire Revolver" from Revolver. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with the permission of the author.