In today’s jmwwblog INTERVIEW, Josh Maday talks with Everyday Genius publisher, musician, and poet Adam Robinson about ADAM ROBISON AND OTHER POEMS, his new collection of poetry from Narrowhouse Press (2010), the underlying concept of “no tidy distinctions,” Adam’s crappy memory, and about writing a books of poems about other people that are really about himself but which do not define him (or others). We think. Decide amongst yourselves:
Josh Maday: You said in another interview (the one with Pat King) that you had been “mulling over this idea by Helene Cixous (among others) that literature should be unreadable, so I saw poetry as the best way to explore this notion.” And yet the poetry in ADAM ROBISON AND OTHER POEMS is written in a conversational style that, on the surface, is quite readable. And while the poems do not become “unreadable” in that no sense at all can be made of them, they move in the realm of “no tidy distinctions,” to borrow one of your phrases from your interview with Michael Kimball. It’s clear that ideas play an important role in your poetry. Ideas (philosophy/theory, to clarify) are very present, but not in a pretentious way, due largely to the colloquial, conversational style, but also a simultaneous irony, humor, and seriousness. Which came first for you, poetry or philosophy? Or is this also an instance of “no tidy distinctions?”
Adam Robinson: Yes, I guess it is inconsistent of me to make the whole “literature should be unreadable” thing such a primary tenet of the book, and then try so hard to make it a book that any English-speaking person would be able to read and enjoy easily. This may be one of the many mistakes in the book, and it may or may not be intentional, like so many of the others.
Regarding your main question, philosophy definitely came first. Although I was a poor student, at least I liked philosophy. I wrote a lot of study hall poems in high school, but until 2006, I didn’t know how to approach poetry, and I didn’t know how to determine what poetry I liked, and I backed away from all of it slowly. So there is definitely a tidy distinction there—though I suppose I do try to offset even that with a little humor. I’m afraid of saying something serious because I’m afraid I’ll look dumb if I say a serious thing wrong. Seriously.
JM: I know what you mean. Every time I review a book, I experience that anxiety, at least in part because I’m usually tight on the deadline, but also because of that requirement of writing something serious about the book or magazine or whatever; there’s always that risk of saying something that seems brilliant only to have complicated something simple or missed the mark entirely. But in your book, I think that that juxtaposition, that contradiction of the unreadable, unseeable soul in street clothes is what draws the reader in the first time and then brings them back for another look.
Many of the poems in the book begin with this person’s name and what you know about them, and then you will make things up or draw from your own experience to fill in what you don’t know, such as the poems “Everything is Different” and “Frederick Law Olmstead.” And in the Kimball interview, you said that “poetry is our best shot at . . . understanding what’s understandable.” It seems to me that in ADAM ROBISON AND OTHER POEMS the issue of identity and the notion of unreadability among others all lead back to or spring from a struggle with knowing and not-knowing. The poem “The Skeptic,” which you discussed a bit with Pat King, seems to indicate an epistemological thorn in your flesh. Is there any validity to this or am I producing an overly complex reading of the book?
AR: No, yeah, absolutely—I think you nailed it. Like, whenever I read “Brahms” and say the line, “I can’t remember the first name of Brahms,” people always yell it out. That’s fine. It’s fun. But Brahms’s first name is who cares. It doesn’t matter that it’s Johann Sebastian. The point is that I don’t remember it. It’s not like I didn’t revise that poem. I CHOSE not to look it up. I could write an entire poem about not being able to remember the name of that guy, the actor, I think he was in The Prince of Tides, what’s his face, not Gene Hackman, I think he was in Another 48 Hours, you know who I’m talking about. Right, no, it wouldn’t be a perfectly sublime poem. It wouldn’t be like a poem by Emily Dickinson, but the thing is also that Emily Dickinson wouldn’t write that poem. Somebody has got to though. I, a human with a crappy memory, am worth it. Oh man, nothing is as good as being wrong. I think there is an interesting philosophical conceit here. To know the good is already not to do the good. Levinas said that. I don’t know what it means. Ethics is the first philosophy. I’m not being intentionally naive. That’s my main thing: don’t be intentionally naive, but don’t try too hard to be smart, either. I’m hardly ever impressed by smart people. I saw Derrida a few times. He was talking about “circumfession.” I was all like, “BORING!” But Derrida doesn’t care about knowing shit either. He’s dead. Socrates said, “Know thyself.” Joe Young said, “No, that was Confucius.” We made a bet. Turns out, I was right. I was happy as all get out because Joe knows everything. Ask him what a tree is and he’ll tell you Juniper or Dogwood. So I beat him at one and it was awesome. But if I don’t already know a thing, it’s hard for me to really learn it. It has to come natural. I could go on and on, but I won’t.
JM: “Brahms’s first name is who cares”—that’s great. I like that you chose not to look it up. I think that that kind of honesty is refreshing and endearing in your book. Also, I enjoy that you wrote a load of biographical poems that are ostensibly about other people, but, as you said in the Kimball interview, the poems are really about you, even through the biographical lens. And through that humor it seems like you can allow yourself to be serious. I sense a lot of irony in the book, which often feels like a double irony: you’re serious but you’re not because you’re using humor, which allows you to be serious. Very Kierkegaardian. Since, we both have Kierkegaard grafted into our brains, so you had to know that I would ask you to talk about him. Of course, I was excited that you mentioned K in your Introduction and even spoke through him in a couple poems. So what’s the deal with Kierkegaard in relation to what came out of you in the form of ADAM ROBISON AND OTHER POEMS?
AR: I just read the poem “I Hate Irony” in Dorothea Lasky’s book BLACK LIFE and got kind of convicted about my tendency to approach things distrustfully. So much of my double-reflection is based on a distrust of fact. I think this comes from Kierkegaard’s discussion of faith in the PHILOSOPHICAL FRAGMENTS, where he says there is absolutely no reasonable justification for believing that God would become human. That’s offensive, no matter how you look at it. I’ve taken that and applied it to everything, like even gravity or whether George W. Bush was a bad guy. I’m afraid of being definitive about anything. This makes it difficult to make plans. And I don’t want to make judgments, either, so a lot of the poems are just statements, and then a lot of those statements are just stupid and wrong. But doing that, at least to me, highlights the emotional truths that are so much more valuable, and so much harder to proclaim. I don’t know if that will make sense to anyone, but that’s what it’s about for me. Like in “Captain Cool,” which is just a bunch of trivia about Mike Schmidt’s baseball career, and then a resolution that is all about my life.