Interview with Nicole Robinson

Nicole Robinson

Joan Hanna: Nicole, we were so excited to have your poems Genesis and Trust Because in our Winter issue of r.kv.r.y. Can you first talk a little bit about the difference in the these two poems stylistically?

Nicole Robinson: Thank you, Joan. It’s an honor to have these poems in this issue of r.kv.r.y; I think the work that all of you do is lovely, and important. Words as recovery… it holds so many meanings for so many people. As for the different styles in “Genesis” and “Trust Because” –I suppose the styles are different because the urgency and questions as I was writing and playing with language were different. In “Genesis” I wanted to know how “it” all began. I’m still not sure I fully know what “it” is… But I know I wanted to dig at the beginnings of many things. I think it started splitting into sections because I kept trying to get deeper toward the “beginning.” I still have not gotten there. And I don’t even know if a beginning of anything really exists—because it’s so knotted into some other type of beginning. In “Trust Because” I needed to know why I should trust. Though again, I am not sure what I was trying to trust: my soul, maybe, or maybe some voice that speaks to me through poems to help me understand our complicated world. That poem (“Trust Because”) did not want to be split up—not into sections, stanzas, or even by a period. It reached out and grabbed everything, sort of like me in a thrift store.

JH: Trust Because is such an interestingly layered poem. It seems to have several conflicting points of view. Can you elaborate a little about how you came to the juxtaposition of /images in this poem?

NR: It certainly is a “layered” poem, though I never thought of various points of view being conflicting. I suppose the juxtaposition of /images and the layers came about because, well, the world we live in is vastly layered. Right now I’m thinking of a line from Stanley Kunitz’s poem, “The Layers” –it’s the part where a nimbus clouded voice speaks to him: “Live in the layers not on the litter.” With “Trust Because” I think I was at a place where I was buried in the litter, and some voice was telling me, and really bothering me, to “trust, because…”. And then, by trusting language, the way words sing in our mouths, I started listing the reasons to trust—while at the same time, accepting the place I was, a place where I could not trust, thus the lines “if I could give in and trust / I’d want to trust the redbud tree…” Eventually the poems comes to a place of acceptance, a place where I could be a woodpecker “beating his beak against bark, / the sound of it, something round, / a hole to hide out until I can find the world.” After all, it is beautiful, the way a woodpecker beats and beats at a tree until it pecks a hole large enough to find the food and nutrients it needs. Of course, I did not think of any of that while writing this poem. I simply trusted the music of language. Poems are such great teachers, aren’t they?

 

JH: I was especially excited to have Genesis as part of our war and military themed issue. You use the image of war in correlation with emotional and traumatic incidents in our lives. Can you share with our readers why you use the Gulf War as a jump off point in this poem?

NR: Good question. I’m not sure I have the exact answer. I am only 30. The Gulf War happened when I was young. But the television was always on, and somehow, the Gulf War really affected me. I did not know anyone (that I remember, at least) in the Gulf War, but I remember clips of /images on the television, and the feeling of great empathy for both the Iraqi people and the U.S. soldiers. I also remember, very clearly, wondering why people weren’t talking about it much, or trying to stop it. And also how I couldn’t really stop thinking about it, how it stuck with me every time I faced anything difficult, how it was somehow my job not to quiet that war, because if I couldn’t find a volume button for my own difficulties, then other peoples difficulties should not be silenced either. I was a strange kid, spent a lot of time looking at the sky and realizing we’re all sitting under it. I guess I used that at the beginning of the poem, because it was one of those “beginnings” I wanted to look at.

 

JH: I am so drawn to some of the contrasts in Genesis, for instance, in section 5, the lines: “hands can open softly like a shell casing, then fingers send bullets bleeding” have this idea of soft and harsh, or love and pain (if you will) as being initiated from the same source. This is such an interesting image to me. These contrasting parallels run throughout Genesis. Why do you think these /images set against one another are so strong in your work?

NR: First of all: thank you for the fine editing suggestion. Truly. I think I wrote: “…then fingers send bullets speeding.” But I like “bleeding” as well! Anyway, I guess I don’t’ really think of /images being set against one another when I’m writing because somehow, in someway, things are simply together. This might be off topic, but my first creative writing instructors as an undergraduate student, Virginia Dunn (who passed away, but is still very much alive in my thoughts) and Maj Ragain, helped me to hone in on what I already, in some small way, knew: pay attention, listen, see and feel myself in the other person or object. I’ve gone on to practice that, and by doing so I can’t help but see the connectedness of people, and things. To answer your question plainly: I suppose /images set “against one another” are often “strong” in my work because that is how it works in the world… but we have to be still and quiet enough to notice the beauty in them.

 

JH: I’m not sure if that was a serendipitous typo in thinking “bleeding” instead of “speeding” or how I actually pictured the image when I read the poem. One of the things I am so struck with in your poetry is the sense that somewhere within all of these intense realities there seems to be a voice that sees beauty in the world outside of the purview of emotional trauma. How do you think this positive voice seems to come through even though you are dealing with such deep emotional issues?

NR: I remember hearing or reading an interview, or maybe an essay, where Robert Pinsky talks or writes about poetry, and he says something about the process of human imagination taking in its surroundings and discovering how to make art from them. While I don’t intentionally think about making a “positive voice” I think I am searching for the art, the life, the deeper truth in things. I cannot tell you why I do this, but I do.  Maybe it’s some pure instinct to run into the unknown and find something worth picking up, holding and even transforming.

 

JH: Can you share a little about the work you do at the Wick Poetry Center?

NR: I pinch myself, very often, for being able to do the work I do. As you may know, the Wick Poetry Center is located in Kent, Ohio at Kent State University, and does a lot of work locally, regionally and nationally. I’m the program and outreach coordinator. This means I get to put my hand in a million jars and always come out with a really tasty treat. As we say often, the Wick Poetry Center “encourages new voices” –and it doesn’t matter if that voice is the winner of the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize for a first book of poems, a third grader realizing the joy, pleasure and wisdom in his poem, or a psychiatric patient saying writing has allowed her to see she’s a beautiful person— it is all so powerful, watching poetry change lives. Basically my job at the Wick Poetry Center ranges from organizing an author’s visit, which is almost always more than a reading, to leading writing workshops in the schools, hospitals, community centers, and all over. On a daily basis I get to share what saved my life with others. Here’s the plug: visit one of our project websites: Traveling Stanzas or Speak Peace, or the Wick Poetry Center’s home website and become involved by joining “Friends of Wick” and/or supporting in some way (even if it’s liking us on Facebook)—help us bring poetry to all who need it, which is everyone.

 

JH: Nicole, thank you so much for sharing your lovely poems and your thoughts on writing with our readers at r.kv.r.y. Just one final question: can you tell us what recovery means to you?

NR: When I think of the word recovery I first think about loss, loss from personal trauma and from wars,environmental destruction, etc. Recovery to me is going back and picking up those pieces. And it can be a sloppy, painful mess at times. On a physical level (a good example of the non-physical) I think of my ACL reconstruction I had years ago. I tore my ACL skiing, had surgery, and then months of painful physical therapy where I learned to use my leg and knee again. During all of that pain there were pockets of beauty: bending my knee a little further, taking another step, witnessing the love and patience of my partner, Deb, and my friends. I guess what I’m getting at is the duality in the word recovery. For me recovery is filled with beauty and pain. Writing for me is an act of recovery; it allows me to follow the music of language and search, dig, ask questions, and slowly recover some part that was lost. Something in the act of recovery helps us to expand, so that we are able to hold what we did not have the capacity to hold before. Something about the act of recovery…  if we’re paying attention we’ll probably be doing it our entire lifetime(s). And that, I believe, is beautiful.