August 2010

Blake Butler


An Interview with Adam Robinson

In spring 2010, Adam Robinson released his first full length book of poetry, Adam Robison and Other Poems, from Narrow House Press. It is a magical book of odd reflections, funny thinking, singular brainpower, jokes, confusion, rallypower, philosophy found in the smallest modes, big gush, and fun. Shortly thereafter, he released a second book, Say, Poem, two long, equally disarming, and surprisingly subtle and complex at once little speeches of speech. Adam is also the mastermind behind the indie hero press Publishing Genius, which maintains a steady flow of books that must be, and might be nowhere else. Adam is a force. We did some e-mail.

Adam Robinson, who is Adam Robison?

You started with the toughest question. The easiest answer is that the character came out of a failed novel manuscript called All the Globe or Globule where all the characters were me, and had some version of my name. It was mostly about Robbie, an amnesiac who fell off a boat in Baltimore's Inner Harbor, and a woman named Robin, who discovers she's his (my) mother. There's a womanizing bum named Bob who teaches him the bum ropes -- all the characters come together at one point and form me, and the Robison character was the closest to who I actually was when I was writing the story (temp, in love, broke), and he was the narrator. The book's introduction was a part of that novel.

The more difficult answer is boring, and involves me misunderstanding Kierkegaard.

One thing I like about your writing is the way it feels both common and of a very specific brain, almost like falling down the stairs with a bunch of cool books and someone's baby. I don't know how you do refreshing and surprising so well at the same time. A lot of it sounds like the way you talk, but then also like that talking got caught in a brain and trapped or something. Basically, what I'm trying to wonder is how you write. Like, were many of these poems written in single sittings in a room, or on paper on a bus, or where? Is it like talking to a friend inside yourself, or something else?

I am sitting in my cubicle at work now, typing on my phone. The little box where the words go is so small. Also small: the little box where the words come from. There's a lot of scrolling and losing track of ideas in my brain. One of the things I learned while discovering Adam Robison is that I don't have grand thoughts. I am very rarely amused by thinking about stuff. So I knew my poems had to be little and unambitious, but who wants to read something that doesn't do anything? So I put a bunch of weird colloquialisms in there to keep people reading. Which sounds silly or diminishing or falsely modest, so let me say that I also did this because I wanted to point out that it is a thing that can be done.

Oh crap, I didn't really answer your questions. They were mostly puked up onto my computer at work before lunch, then revisited after lunch, then discussed with Steve Matanle, one of the most impressive, damnedest readers I've had the pleasure of knowing. He'd tell me what he was getting, then I'd try to pull that out more (if I liked what he said). Many of the poems took months of fiddling. Some took moments.

One time when I saw you read from the book you said usually when you read for people in your writing program, the boyfriends were the ones that liked you the best, because they thought you were funny. Why do you think you appeal to outsiders in this way? I wonder about the responses of more formal poets to your writing in workshops. Is it ever awkward? Do you feel funny?

Yeah, because I think the poems are funny, and because I read slowly so people can follow the poems. In my workshop experience, more formal poets seemed to like my work okay, but I think that might have been cult of personality. I acted confident, so who knows what they really thought. That's why I asked Johannes Göransson to blurb the book, actually. He's like the most intimidating poet I could think of, and I wanted to see if he'd hate the poems and reject me. But, anyway, I put the funny, immediately affecting bits in their on purpose because I want people to enjoy the poems so they look for the something that is heartfelt.

I agree that you are funny, and it's kind of amazing how that humor pulls on those heartfelt elements. The funny of children and philosophy mashed: I don't think I've seen anyone do what you do in that way. What makes you laugh? What writers make you laugh? Were your parents funny?

What makes me laugh, among a lot of other things, is when something goes wrong. The last time I laughed really hard was when I sat on a bee and it stung me in the butt. It's hard to talk about humor. Why is stand up so rarely funny, but pretending to do stand up is hilarious? I have high standards when it comes to what's funny, but they are not narrow standards. Spontaneity is key. Manner of speech, comportment. Sometimes a great idea is funny, or something done well. Lucky's speech in Waiting for Godot is one of the funniest bits of literature, but it's also excruciating. In high school we were all getting our driver's licenses but my friend Steev, who spelled his name in an unfunny way, said he wasn't going to get his until he turned 22. That was annoying, but we knew that if he held out, it would work as a good joke. It did, and I still laugh about it sometimes. My parents are funny in a if-your-hand-is-bigger-than-your-face,-you've-got-cancer way, but they wouldn't laugh if I rubbed them with bananas. One time I showed them a letter a girl wrote me in wonderful, true gibberish, and my dad got annoyed. But I love most the things I can't understand. People esteem "laugh out loud" funny, but I think "I need to die" funny is better. I didn't laugh out loud at your story "The Copy Family," but I thought: Life Is Over. That feeling is very close to "funny," but it's better. I could go on, but I won't.

Man, yes. I like that distinction a lot. (And thank you). I think you nail this distinction pretty well in one of the very short poems in the book, "The Skeptic," where you say you are "looking for a balance between not God and God." I think that gets a lot of what the book feels like to me, not only in a spiritual sense, but in the phrasing, your choosing "not God" before "God," creating the more surprising and stirring diction on microlevels that then add up into these crazy amalgams of talking, which is both hilarious and unnerving at the same time. I kind of feel like that's what the act of writing is, somewhere between not God and God. Were you raised religious? Did you imagine yourself writing a book of poems in which God may or may not appear?

I love what you pulled out of "not God" coming before "God." I think it must have been something I did for sound (I can never write first for meaning on purpose) (I'm interested if you can/do?), but it is gratifying that you see it as a hallmark of the collection. I mean, it's REALLY gratifying, because I think that was a main objective for me -- especially to explore that balance between life as it hits me in my routines and the sense that there is something beyond that. And I'm willing to accept that the something more is fruit, feet, birds -- all things that are miraculous to me and marvelous. Marvelable. It's complicated though, because I came up very, very religious, and I still consider that upbringing as a positive thing for me, intellectually. I still filter everything through the Biblical narrative in what theologians call Radical Orthodoxy. I never considered writing poems about this balance without dogma or cheese or being simplistic, but only because I didn't have to. It is the what.

I like that a lot of your opinions are or contain blatant opinions. Like "Martin Luther" begins with the line: "I don't like him / I hate his vestments / He was just a reactionary." But then just as quickly it moves into imagining and translation of fact and further opinion again. It seems like a lot of poetry or writing even in general avoids opinions. Do you think a lot about what you are writing before you write it, like about Martin Luther, or is it something that occurs and comes over and works out?

I think about Martin Luther a lot, which is how he ended up in a poem. I run through the facts that I know and have feelings about, and eventually Luther is bound to come up. Or, I kept hearing about the Mendoza Line off and on for a couple years, but I didn't know what it was, except that it had to do with baseball. It's such a funny thing -- a demarcation of badness that's named after a person. It was floating around, so I grabbed it and applied it to my poetry. I'm not totally comfortable admitting this, but so many of my poems come out of thinking blank thoughts, like "I don't know what to write I don't know what to write I don't know -- oh, the Mendoza Line, okay."

I feel like I am bad at asking questions. Will you tell me something about the book no one else knows? Not bad because of your answers, but because questions are weird.

Naw, naw these are fun questions. I'm really throwing out pearls and diamonds here. Thanks to you.

What could possibly not be known? What is there to know? When I started putting the book together, I made a list of annoying things not to do, one of which was an index. However, I couldn't resist the temptation. Also, when I said it was Thomas Aquinas who wrote the Institutes (in "Martin Luther"), I meant to say John Calvin. Of course it was actually Calvin, duh. When my friend Bill pointed out my mistake, I laughed and laughed.

You are throwing out pearls for sure. I think I just think questions are funny. You play music in a band called Sweatpants. I think I was surprised not to remember any music references as much in the book. Maybe they were there, but not as much as Kierkegaard or George Brett. Do you feel that your music and poetry come from different parts of you? Are there effects and distances?

Oh man, the last song I wrote was about my dog dying. That was in 2005. Before that it was probably another 5 years. Sweatpants is a great band, really fun and cathartic for me, but we're basically amping up troubadour stuff I wrote in college. That said, I think that everything I do comes out of the same place -- which is a sense that making something is the best thing to do.

I feel like you can write about anything. Not a lot of people can write about anything. Will you write about the white shirt you left in my apartment. It's balled up on my floor.

Haha, I love that little cowboy shirt. I was always careful not to stain the armpits. I put an iron on on it, the logo for the old bar we used to have in the basement in Kankakee, Illinois. The logo, it has an eagle capturing a snake, but the snake is biting the eagle, and I think there are arrows in the snake. And then somewhere there is a golden retriever with a mug of beer. The bar was named "Triggers," after a dog I found. We would have events down there. I often wound up naked. One time we found a fat kid who was going to kill himself, he said. He had all his clothes in a garbage bag, so we took him back to Triggers, named him Walt, and he made up drinks for us. One was called "Masturbating in the Dirt," and had a gummy bear in it. Walt ended up living with us for a while, but then we forgot him somewhere, just like my sad white shirt balled up on your floor.

Awesome. How has Publishing Genius affected you as a writer? Do you feel it helped you put this book together better?

Not really? Or maybe. Reading submissions, just like playing songs at open mic, taught me to consider the audience, to not waste their time or attention on anything inconsequential. I always hated it when singer/songwriters would play a chord progression a few times without singing anything. Like anyone is going to move me playing C-Am-G-C. Get to the hook! The same applies to poetry. Don't set me up, just give me the punchline.

Tell me about how Say, Poem came out in relation to the first book. Two in a row, like bam! Whoa.

It's kind of embarrassing. I spent a long time working on Robison, and then I put Say, Poem together in a couple weeks. I raided my hard drive for stuff that I didn't include in Robison. Most of the poems were left out of the first book because they weren't good enough. So I wrote the envelope around them, the banter, and everything became something else. It disguises the awkwardness of the poems. I wouldn't have done the book at all, but it was a requirement for my MFA thesis. Of course, now I'm glad that I did.

What now what next who's on first what are you doing where is life what is money what is the word on the street who is god.

This is my favorite question. I feel like I should just leave it at that.