Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

"Poetry Would Blow Up like Beyoncé" An Interview with Robin Richardson

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"Poetry Would Blow Up like Beyoncé" An Interview with Robin Richardson

Robin Richardson is a writer, poet and illustrator. She is the author of the poetry collections Grunt of the Minotaur, Knife Throwing Through Self-Hypnosis, and Sit How You Want, forthcoming on Véhicule Press. Most recently she founded the Minola Review, an online journal for women, femme-identifying, and non-binary individuals. I remember repeatedly reading her poem “Little Robin Explains Growing Up” (from Knife Throwing Through Self-Hypnosis) when it first appeared in Tin House, struck by its probing imagery (“What does static/ on pink cotton have to do with sleep?”) and confident, confessional tone (“I lost his love/ the day I learned to know things on my own”). So it was my pleasure to get to chat with her about the Minola Review, autofiction, and whether or not novels and poetry are obsolete.

James Lindsay: Let’s start by talking about the Minola Review. What was your impetus for starting an online journal specifically for “women, femme-identifying, and non-binary individuals”?

Robin Richardson: There is no skirting around the fact that men dominate literature, and the cultural landscape at large. The majority of editors and reviewers are men, and the majority of works they publish and review are by men. The disparity is slowly closing as VIDA and CWILA began graphing the numbers in 2009, but equality is still a ways off. Women make up about 6.7% of film directors in North America, yet account for over half the population. I could go on ad nauseam about statistics but it is clear we live in patriarchy for absolutely no good reason. Even as the numbers inch towards parity the fact remains that we have been subjected to the male gaze, opinion, and preference to a crippling degree.

I created Minola Review in order to carve out a haven, to create a slick, strong space for people to begin breaking out of the patriarchal pandering so many of us have been conditioned by. This won’t happen overnight of course, but I believe this is an important first step. The reason I clarify the inclusion of women, femme-identifying, and non-binary individuals is that Minola Review is not about sexuality. It’s not about femininity or orientation. Minola Review is inclusive in so far as it welcomes and encourages work from all variations of gender and cultural perspective, with the single exception of men. Men have their platforms. This simply isn’t about them.

More than being about a safe space to explore our voices free from the judgment paradigm we’ve become accustomed to, Minola Review is also about strength and communication, about quality craft and unsympathetic, raw, and unpretentious work.

Minola Review makes no quality exceptions to accommodate, but rather proves that the highest quality work surfaces when women are given an arena free of the male gaze. This is when honesty comes in to play, when unabashedness and a certain carefree euphoria emerges.

We will not be applying for grants and so are not limited to Canadian content, which means a wider audience, and broader variety of voices.

The staff, which consists of only myself for the time being, will be all-women, femme-identifying, or non-binary, thus no potential contributors need to worry about thwarting advances from a male editor looking to take advantage of his position. I sorely wish I didn’t have to point out this distinction but the number of times male editors sexually solicit potential contributors is disheartening. I’m not alone in the fact that as a young woman in the literary community I was constantly worried about shutting down the wrong man and thus being expelled from publication on his platform. No one submitting to Minola Review will have to worry about any variable save quality of work.

JL: You’ve been writing a first novel. I’ve seen you mention Sheila Heti and Karl Knausgaard in comparison to what you’ve been working on. Both are writers who use strong autobiographical elements, so how do you feel about the so-called “autofiction” movement and how does autobiography relate to your own work?

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RR: Great question. I’m fairly obsessed with autofiction. I recently read David Shields’ “Reality Hunger” and though I don’t agree with everything he has to say I found it put to words what I’d been thinking for a while now – the novel is dead. There is just something so false about these made up worlds inhabited by made up characters all acting out contrived plots in order to arrive at some or other revelation. This whole idea actually ties into the move away from patriarchy I am instigating with Minola. It is the old school of men who have insisted for ages that this is the only way to write long form fiction with any prestige. We have accepted this and continue to accept this for the most part, long after it fails to hold our interest. The truth is what interests me is real life, and based on our collective addiction to social media, reality television, and storytelling-based podcasts and events, I think it’s safe to say I’m not alone in this.

My book does not come out of the desire to show off how well I can create some exquisite alternate universe, make new characters come to life, etc. I am not interested in playing God. I am interested in being, as Tavi Gevinson coins it, “a fan girl”, one whose value is as an observer rather than creator. This isn’t about what I can conceive of but rather how well I can capture and relay what the Gods have made of life as I’ve moved through it. In writing Like Father I have come to think of myself more as a conduit than an artist, being open and receptive rather than forcing content.

I’m fortunate in that the life I’ve led has been relentlessly story-worthy. There is no way I could come up with such symbolically appropriate instances, such perfect irony, or absurd trials and misadventures. Life has its own exquisite design, and my aim is to train myself well enough in perceiving, in identifying and drawing out the intricacies that I can bring them back to life in a way that will open other’s eyes to the natural handiwork of existence.

There is a magnificent hubris in assuming one can come up with something superior to life’s design. I think of my father always emphasizing the work of Ayn Rand, who insists that “man” is meant to overcome nature, to build above and beyond it. Even then, at about ten-year-old I felt the inherent danger in this sort of thinking. It is an innate wisdom, I think we all posses, that says nature, impermanence, uncertainly, and mortally are non-negotiable, and any time spent struggling against these truths is time spent suffering. Unlike Howard Roark, in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, I do not stand over a great expanse of the natural world and think of ways to conquer it, but rather of ways to better understand and sync up with it. Like Father is my exercise in attention, aimed at sharing the inherently archetypal, divine experiences of this fleeting, brilliantly designed life.

JL: When you say that, “There is just something so false about these made up worlds inhabited by made up characters all acting out contrived plots in order to arrive at some or other revelation,” it sounds like you are eulogizing fiction in general and not just the novel. What about writers like Lydia Davis? Their work is inarguably fiction, and is not thought of as having obvious autobiographical elements, at least not enough to lump them in as autofiction, but also resists the big a-ha! revelation.

RR: Yeah, that was definitely a broad stroke generalization on my part but I think the gist of what I’m aiming at still stands where authors like Lydia Davis are concerned. The content may not be autobiographical but the source, seems to me, to come very clearly from the truth of perception and from an acknowledgment and reverence for the actuality of our natural experience. Lydia Davis avoids traditional narratives, and though her scenarios are fictive, the movement she takes through these fictive instances is organic, truthful, and born more of observation than of self-imposed form and meaning.
There’s no doubt I fictionalize instances in Like Father, always in service of best illustrating the essence of whatever theme life has provided. The idea isn’t realism, but rather craftily fashioning a text that best illuminates that incomprehensible, invisible structure behind and beyond the reality of our experience. I believe in this sense that Picasso, for instance, is better positioned to recreate the truth with cubism than with the realistic painting techniques he was first trained in.
I hope I don’t seem to be contradicting myself here. I don’t think I am. Truth for me isn’t about physical reality but about what lies beyond it, which, given the limited scope of our consciousness, is impossible to ever fully perceive let alone represent, but is a present and driving force nevertheless. That’s the fun of it though, isn’t it? Marie-Louise von Franz, a contemporary of Carl Jung’s, writes that we never complete the process of integration, never become whole or wholly come to understand the nature of our existence. She says that the point isn’t arrival but aim, that to arrive would simply mean to petrify, to add oneself to a museum of dead forms.

I read Lydia Davis as someone who has an innate understanding of this process of becoming, of the inarguable fact of an intelligently designed existence, and of our incessantly entertaining shortcoming as we attempt to grasp this intelligence.

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JL: I don’t think that’s a contradiction, or if it is, I’m okay with it. I enjoy it when people like David Shields proclaim something dead (as in it’s lost validity) because if forces us to find the exceptions. It’s the wording I find interesting. Art and culture don’t go extinct like animals, and we all know that. It’s more like a long-term torpor while a few brave souls wait out the winter wide awake, hoping to be noticed and fed.

RR: Hmm, I agree that proclamations of cultural “deaths” don’t really point to extinction, but I don’t know if I see the death as a sort of torpor either. I don’t imagine anyone waiting around for the return of obsolete modes, except maybe for the purposes of reintegration in order to facilitate the new. We are always in forward motion. The Renaissance wasn’t a replication of Classical Art so much as it was a revival aimed at forging new ways through some stagnant mode into the future with the aid of the past.

It's like when Nietzsche declares “God is dead” I don't read it as a declaration of loss or extinction but rather as a statement intended to dismantle the paradigms of the past in order to free up space for new exploration. If God were truly extinct, as with the novel, there would be no need to declare them so.

Death is a process, not a destination or a putting to rest. It symbolizes, for me, progress and fertilization, new possibilities. I say something is dead so I can use its carcass to build. This is a common motif in fairy tales. Dragons often symbolize the old way, repressed and unexamined for too long. The hero must slay the dragon, thus confronting and re-examining everything it stands for. Once the dragon is slain its remains become a fertile breeding ground. Every scrap of that carcass gets put to use.

JL: You’re absolutely right about the forward motion, but I think instead of rendering the modes obsolete, it pushes them to the back, the derriere-garde, which isn’t necessarily the same thing. The modes still have great significance for marginalized groups, and, just like in the military sense of derriere-garde, this is where we keep our artifacts. Stuff to inspire the future. Can I be honest? I think it’s music that’s haunts me here. Not to change topic from literature, but I think what we’ve been talking about applies here. Take folk and punk, two kinds of modern day roots music. In the ’60s folk was pop (like how trendy poetry was at the same time), but like punk in the ‘70s, was declared dead by the end of the decade. Obviously both forms of music still exist and have their communities with millions of members, and though they will never reclaim the wide reaching audience they once did, still carry so much cultural influence and significance it’s hard to call them obsolete. This leads me back to poetry. Where are we with poetry? Does it still have significant cultural influence? As a bookseller I’ve seen Anne Carson, Claudia Rankine and Eileen Myles outsell some modern novelists. They are the exception, but where does this leave poetry in terms of obsolescence/death/torpor?

RR: Yes Yes Yes, I have so many responses to this. Have you read Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants? In it he’s basically arguing for the inevitable evolution of technology, that in a way it has picked up where biological evolution left off, and we are just sort of along for the ride at this point. Anyways one of the things he brings up in the book while tracking the evolution of technology, by which he means anything created, really, is that though it incessantly moves forward no part of it is ever entirely extinct. While VHS can arguably be called obsolete there are still VHS players kicking around, and there will always be someone somewhere who clings to one, even if just for nostalgia’s sake. I like this. Biology destroys aspects of itself to move forward but our creations don’t, and as you say, this is a great thing because those remnants of the past are often reached for again at some point, and reintegrated in one way or another. You can see this is music, in fashion, in literature, film, and visual art. When the present state of a thing gets to be a drag we reach back into the past to revitalize it, use it to propel it forward.

As for poetry, Anne Carson is of course a great example of the revitalization of the past, in this case the classics, in the creation of something absolutely new. Anyways, it’s always a trick to tackle the question of poetry’s being or becoming obsolete because my perspective is so biased. In my world poetry is everywhere. It is one of the most vital, innovative, daring, honest, and exciting modes there is. Where in long form writing an author has one long term shot at trying something new, a poet is allowed to experiment with each new poem, meaning that one can engage in a new form, new mode of thought several times a month, at least. I think it helps too that poets are so overlooked by the general population. This allows them to take more risks, speak more freely, though of course the opposite effect can take hold when a poet puts too much stock in the opinions of their immediate community. As for the rest of the world, I really can’t say. If we’re measuring a thing’s relevance by numbers then of course poetry is suffering, but if we’re measuring in terms of forward motion, innovation, vitality, which is the way I prefer to measure, then poetry is alive and thriving. An audience would be nice, sure, but the absence of one is no argument against a thing’s quality.

JL: I share your bias here. If anything, I feel overwhelmed by the amount exciting, innovative poetry being published right now. But hey, we're poets. We're on the inside looking out. I bring up the question of audience because there seems to be an attitude that if poetry has lost it's popularity, it's cultural capital, then it is the fault of the poets so it's up to the poets to regain readers. A good exception to this approach is Claudia Rankine, again. I think that she is one of the most popular and significant poets of the moment, both because of her challenging, relevant subject matter (race and capitalism), but also because of her accessible style. Yet her example feels all too unique. Is poetry VHS? Are most of us just nerds worshiping archaic modes, remnants of the past waiting to be reached out to? And, is there something that can help to make poetry relevant to more people?

RR: Exactly. I totally agree that the key, and Claudia Rankine is great proof of this, is relevance and accessibility. Trouble is most poets pride themselves on mastery of an extremely elite use of language and allusion that requires a specialized and high-level education of its reader. What I hear from my non-poet friends repeatedly is that picking up a contemporary book of poetry more often than not makes them feel stupid, frustrated, and ultimately discouraged.

The trouble here is I really don’t know a lot of poets who’d sacrifice exclusivity and prestige in favour of clear communication and fresh takes on contemporary issues for a broader audience. It’s a conundrum. If these individuals applied the same amount of effort to writing innovative, relevant, and accessible work that they do pleasing a handful of gatekeepers, then poetry would blow up like Beyoncé. I’m sure of it.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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James Lindsay

James Lindsay has been a bookseller for more than a decade. He is also co-owner of Pleasence Records in Toronto, a record label specializing in post-punk, odd-pop and avant-garde sound pieces.He is the author of the poetry collection Our Inland Sea (Wolsak & Wynn).

You can write to James throughout April at writer@openbooktoronto.com

Go to James Lindsay’s Author Page