Robinson Alone is a book of poems, but it is also a novel in which I derive a character from the life of the mid-century poet and mysterious disappearee Weldon Kees (1914-1955?), as well as from his alter ego Robinson. Although Kees’ Robinson poems are not persona poems, nor, for the most part, are mine—the poems speak about Robinson and not for Robinson—the experience of writing them has still been one of imagining myself into somebody else’s body and mindset. Plus, I have always been intrinsically fascinated with mustaches and Kees had a stylish one.
Why are you planning on doing most of your readings for this book in costume/drag?
Kees was a meticulous dresser, and so is Robinson—both seem extremely conscious of how they look not only to themselves but especially to other people. Also, Kees had a very let’s-put-on-a-show spirit; he was a sometime jazz musician and actor in addition to his many other creative pursuits, and one of his last major undertakings prior to his disappearance was putting together a literary burlesque show called The Poets Follies in San Francisco. Because I am trying, in the poems, to channel Kees and Robinson on the page, it seems fitting also to try to embody them a bit in the readings.
Currently, I’m teaching a workshop called “Writing the Body,” and one of our frequent topics of discussion is how readers and writers can feel as well as think—a book we read that’s great for promoting that attitude is CA Conrad’s A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon. We talk a lot about empathy, and how sometimes that means metaphorically putting yourself in someone else’s proverbial shoes, but it can also mean actually putting yourself in their mustache, their trousers, their topcoat, their tie.
Speaking of embodiment, what did Weldon Kees smell like, do you think?
I’m glad you asked about smells. My friend and writing partner Elisa Gabbert is a genius of perfume—check out her “On the Scent” column at Open Letters Monthly. By way of her initial encouragement and recommendations, I too have “gotten into” perfume, although I’m nowhere near the expert that she is. I suspect that Kees smelled like cigarettes, definitely, and probably an ever-changing balance of enthusiasm and anxiety. But also bergamot, pepper, rosewood and amber. Kind of like Bvulgari Pour Homme, maybe? Only more mid-century somehow.
Whose Google Alerts would you like this self-interview to set-off and why?
Elisa Gabbert for the reasons listed above; James Reidel for writing Vanished Act, his wonderful biography of Kees; Donald Justice if he were still alive and had a Google Alert for bringing Kees back into print by way of The Collected Poems; Eric Plattner for the cover photograph as well as the author photo on Robinson Alone; Mitchell Rathberger for making the book trailer (he set a couch on fire!); Hannah Rebecca Gamble who will be reading with me at Women & Children First in Chicago on Friday, November 2; Christian Hawkey for his book Ventrakl, which I read and loved as I was putting the finishing touches on Robinson Alone; Martin Seay for all his feedback on everything, always; Kate Clanchy for introducing me to Weldon Kees (by way of Simon Armitage) over 12 years ago in the UK and getting this whole project started; and Virginia Konchan for talking with me about citationality.
Citationality—what is that?
It’s a term from literary theory—especially from Derrida—meaning one author’s citation, or quotation, of another author’s—or bunch of authors’—work. Robinson Alone is super-citational. In some cases, like the fifteen first-person centos that appear throughout the book, the citation is direct and in others it is indirect. But Robinson Alone essentially couldn’t exist without allusions and quotations not only from Kees’ creative output, but also his reviews, his letters, and his stories.
Although Kees was not a formalist per se, his poems have a highly structured and formally rigorous feeling even when they are free verse. He wrote villanelles, sonnets, sestinas, fugues and many more fixed and invented forms, but as far as anybody knows, he never wrote a ghazal. Do you wish he had and if so, why?
Yes, I do—his name lends itself so well to that final send-off in the last couplet of a ghazal. He could have done any number of things there, the best of which would have been along the lines of “Well-done, Kees!” but also maybe having to do with welding and/or keys. I envy people whose names work well in ghazals.
You almost used a vintage image of the Golden Gate Bridge for the cover of Robinson Alone, but ultimately decided against that. Good call. But why?
I didn’t want to reduce Kees’ entire life and work to their possible/probable end. The heart image I ended up choosing instead goes more harmoniously with my sense of him as very much a poet of the heartland—not that he wrote much about Nebraska or that he was a regional writer by any means, and he spent most of his adult life on the East and West Coasts. But he seems—in his letters, poems, and prose—to have a matter-of-fact, deadpan, wry wit combined with an underlying decency, hope, and sincerity that I find really compelling and somehow archetypally Midwestern.
I was just admiring the typography on the cover of Robinson Alone. How did you and your publisher decide which font to use there?
Thanks. It’s a font we found online called American Captain that has been used and reworked since the 1940s. In his introduction to Kees’ Collected Poems, Donald Justice writes that Kees is “one of the bitterest poets in history,” and that “the bitterness may be traced to a profound hatred for a botched civilization, Whitman’s America come to a dead end on the shores of the Pacific.” I liked how this font which suggests Captain America and heroic optimism also looks austere and old-fashioned. It evokes the time period in which Kees lived, as well as how America liked to perceive itself at the time and how Kees kept being disappointed with America for not actually being as good as it could be. That feeling strikes me as relatable.
When you interview other writers, you always ask them to share a recipe. Why do you do that and could you share one of your own?
It all started back when I interviewed Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, for the journal Redivider because he writes so well about food in his Series of Unfortunate Events. I liked how his recipe turned out, so I kept asking that question. Getting a recipe from a writer is a way to be reminded of and to take pleasure in the embodiedness of people that we mostly know from a distance, through language alone. Everybody’s got to eat.
The recipe I’ve been making a lot lately (I’m bringing some of them to my grad students tonight) because it’s Fall is this really simple one for pumpkin-butterscotch-and-chocolate-chip cookies:
½ cup butter, softened
½ cup white sugar
½ cup brown sugar
1 cup pumpkin puree
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon nutmeg
1 cup butterscotch chips
½ cup dark chocolate chips
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease cookie sheets.
In a medium bowl, cream the butter and sugar. Stir in the pumpkin and vanilla. Sift together the flour, salt, baking soda, baking powder, nutmeg and cinnamon; stir into the creamed mixture. Then mix in both kinds of chips. Drop the dough by teaspoonfuls onto the prepared cookie sheets.
Bake for 8 to 10 minutes in preheated oven. Allow cookies to cool for a minute on cookie sheets before transferring to wire cooling racks.
Besides putting pumpkin into any and all available foods in honor of Fall, what else have you been really digging lately?
Flanerie! It’s a perfect activity if you want to do something that is purely absorptive and deliberately not productive—it’s the best way I know to get lost in a flow state. Baudelaire called it being a “botanist of the sidewalk.” Sidewalk botany is my favorite hobby.