At the final event for the Visiting Writers Series (VWS) this semester, Robyn Art will be coming to the College today at 3 p.m. in the New Library Auditorium. The award-winning poet took time to answer questions about her inspirations, awards and teaching at the College.
Audrey Levine: How did you begin your writing career?
Robyn Art: I’ve been reading and writing poetry from a very young age. I was lucky to have a mother who read to me often, and I think this got me hooked pretty early on. I also had some incredible teachers in grammar school who encouraged my writing and, further down the road, a college professor who helped me develop the confidence to pursue writing after college. After graduation, I was living in Portland, Ore., kind of lost, not writing too much and working at various menial jobs, when I started auditing evening poetry workshops at Portland State University, and met my most important mentor, the poet Henry Carlile, who to this day remains (next to my parents) my most ardent supporter and loyal fan. He and my classmates helped me get refocused and writing prolifically, and everything took off from there.
AL: What do you find most gratifying, writing or teaching?
RA: I find writing and teaching both extremely gratifying, but in different ways. With teaching, the happiness I get from watching my students grow as writers and gain confidence in themselves really can’t be compared to anything else. I also enjoy working with young writers because I know from experience how discouraging the world can be when you’re just starting out. I had a lot of helping hands along the way, and I like the idea of returning the favor by supporting and encouraging the next generation of poets. Writing is, of course, extremely gratifying too, but in a solitary, entirely self-focused way. For me, the combination of writing and teaching is a perfect one.
AL: How does it feel to be reading at the College after having taught here?
RA: I loved teaching at the College, and I’m happy to be reading here again. Catie Rosemurgy and Cathy Day have done an amazing job with the creative writing program, and I continue to be inspired by them as writers and as teachers. My students were also great: talented, motivated and very bright. I hope I’ll get to the chance to teach at the College again.
AL: Where do you get your inspiration for your poetry?
RA: I get inspiration for my writing from regular, boring, everyday life: garbage cans, overheard conversations, animals, Burger King, loneliness, the complex and painful web of human relationships. Even though I live in the city, I’m also very much influenced by the natural world. Furthermore, I’m one of those people who doesn’t like the idea of writing in an isolated artist community. It’s the daily interaction with the minutiae of the world that really feeds my creative spirit. I think writers tend to live in a highly attentive state, and that daily engagement with the world is what is eventually transmuted into poems.
AL: How does it feel to be nominated for such prestigious honors as the Pushcart Prize?
RA: I have to admit it does feel good to be acknowledged as a writer by people whose business it is to bestow literary honors. For so long I struggled with rejection after rejection; of course, rejection is an inevitable part of the game and I still get turned down constantly, but you get a thicker skin as you gain confidence in your own ability and artistic vision. I still write first and foremost for myself, and would write even if I never got anything published at all, but it is a nice feeling to be recognized in your field.
AL: What is your best advice for budding poets?
RA: The best advice I could give is to believe in your own writing and develop a thick skin. You’ll get rejected constantly (my good friend, a widely-published poet, already has 400 magazine rejections to his credit) and encounter many people who will try to undermine your writing ambitions, but if you’re writing primarily for the love of it, all of this just sort of falls away, and one day you find that you’ve become so stubborn and determined that the rejection just doesn’t matter so much anymore. Also realize that life is long and publication tends to come very slowly; Robert Frost didn’t publish his first book until he was 42, and there are many writers who embarked on their careers or found recognition relatively late in life. Be patient, and let things unfold as they will.
The second best advice I would give a budding poet is to develop a sense of discipline, and don’t let writing time be crowded out of your day. You have to learn to write in off-moments – waiting in line at the bank, on the train, at the Laundromat, etc. – because otherwise, you’ll find that writing gets pushed aside. Be stubborn about your writing time and guard it, even if it’s just twenty minutes a day.
Finally, do a lot of reading: you need to read at least twice as much as you write. It doesn’t have to be just poetry, either, and probably shouldn’t be: I tend to read a great deal of fiction, and find that it really helps me nail down concrete description.
AL: What do you hope students take from your reading?
RA: I hope students enjoy the reading and feel comfortable enough to ask me questions afterwards. I was in their shoes not so long ago, and it’s been a tough road to get where I am, but I would hope that hearing or reading about my own experiences as a fledgling writer might help them realize that they can get there too.