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Featured Poet #2

February 2006 - V1 I2


margaret a.

                        Despite the wicked conspiracies designed by her quirky email address, Margaret Robinson is one of the most amenable writers I've had opportunity to work with -- it's always a pleasure to read her poems. Her approach to writing bears no nonsense, yet is also a model of liveliness. Her keen observation shapes her well-honed poems in pleasant curves, surprising angles – and because Margaret is an erudite woman, language yearns to obey her eager examinations of art-in-life.

Editor of The Centrifugal Eye,
Eve Anthony Hanninen asks
Poet, Writer, Teacher, Margaret A. Robinson:

Foil Hearts EAH: You made a successful splash in women's magazines early in your career – what were editors looking for at that time, and what has changed about those markets over time?

MAR: My first publication in Redbook, which took a majority of my fiction during the 1970s, was a story called Snow. Depicting a winter day in the life of a young couple, it focused on the wife's worry about one of her students. Redbook also published stories I wrote about young women's conflicts with lovers, parents, and children. In the 1980s, many women's magazines dropped fiction in favor of self-help articles.

Foil Hearts EAH: What do you teach at Widener University, and how does your curriculum affect/influence your personal writing?

Margaret Robinson found her wings

Featured Poet
for Winter 2006
Margaret A. Robinson

Margaret's Poems

MAR: Although I occasionally teach a class in Widener's Creative Writing Program, mostly I do one-on-one tutoring in the Writing Center with undergraduates, grad students, and the occasional faculty member. Engagement with a wide variety of students and writing projects broadens my scope. I especially enjoy the primary materials of topics like W.W. II Naziism, girls in the textile industry in 19th-century New England, or American slavery. A question from a student – "Can't we have happy poems?" – found its way into my poem, Jubilation.

Foil Hearts EAH: What first drew you to writing poetry? Was this a natural evolution from other forms of writing, or was there a particular circumstance that opened this avenue of interest?

MAR: When my high school friend, Nancy Kline, lost her husband, she asked me to recommend a book because she wanted to write some poetry. I told her about The Poet's Companion by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux, which my colleague, Ken Pobo, recommended (Today I would also recommend John Timpane's Poetry for Dummies, a terrific guide despite an unfortunate title). I proposed to Nancy that we write together, two poems each week, one personal and one based on anything in The New York Times. Having published stories, articles, and three novels, I saw myself as a writer, but not as a poet. Perhaps because college professors had put poetry at the highest peak of the literary mountain, I found poetry intimidating, but at this point in my life I was ready to give it a try. Nancy accepted my proposal. We began, in June 2001, swapping our work by snail mail from Storrs, Connecticut, where Nancy lives (and where I grew up), to my mailbox in Swarthmore, PA. Ken, who has written poems for 30 years, helped me get started with weekly meetings, helpful critiques, and challenges to try forms – such as the triolet, villanelle, sonnet, and sestina. Nancy soon finished what she had set out to do. I was hooked and kept going.

Foil Hearts EAH: Every writer has her own creative, gestation process. What's your particular method for generating the subject matters for your poems? And do you have a #1 resource for inspiring new material?

MAR: Any day's events – trivial or important – can give rise to writing. Yesterday, a writer friend told me about a TV story he caught on a local station just before Christmas. A group of kids had been going around their neighborhood and stealing the plastic baby Jesus figurines from nativity scenes. They had gathered 20 or so and were planning a bonfire. The TV story presented these kids as mentally sick. My friend found this event hilarious – it reminded him of pranks he'd played as a teenager – and he thought the kids were just showing that they were "Christmased-out." I immediately thought of T. C. Boyle. This news story, for a writer like Boyle, could be a writing prompt.

Foil Hearts EAH: Which poets would you say have most influenced your own voice over the years?

MAR: I like Ed Hirsch for emotion, Jane Kenyon for stoic beauty, Hayden Carruth for perseverance, and C. K. Williams for moral courage. Recently, I was lucky enough to hear Gerald Stern again (he stays as cocky as ever) and Albert Goldbarth for the first time (funny, with big associative leaps). A Billy Collins reading offers humor and a conversational tone; he's helped to close the distance between readers/listeners and poets. Two young poets I admire are B .J. Ward (Landing in New Jersey with Soft Hands) and Gwen Hart (Dating the Invisible Man).

Foil Hearts EAH: What are you reading right now, and how might it influence your future work?

MAR: Lately I've reread Alice Munro's Lives of Girls and Women. She's one of my writing heroes. I also reread Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping and read Gilead twice. Munro reminds me not to be afraid of adjectives – if they're well chosen and paired for breadth or contradiction. Robinson shows how a carefully selected detail – such as the grandfather's blood-stained shirt – can evoke a variety of responses.

Foil Hearts EAH: How often do family members show up in your poems?

MAR: My family appears in my poetry. I just completed a chaplet of 10 poems called Against Local Custom. It begins with my earliest memory of death, when our next-door neighbor was hit by a snow plow. It ends with a description of my own funeral. Many family members – including my parents and a couple of dogs - show up in this sequence. Each death is a bit quirky, so the overall effect isn't gloomy.

Foil Hearts EAH: Some beginning writers struggle with the idea of needing to revise their manuscripts and poems. What can you pass on to such a developing poet about revision?

MAR: Revision is what writing is all about. Revision is easier after judicious feedback from a smart, trusted reader. Revision shouldn't happen too soon. It helps to read every draft outloud, listen to the beats, notice where your voice stumbles over spots needing attention. It helps to think about audience.

Foil Hearts EAH: You were named as a finalist in Harpur Palate's annual Milton Kessler Prize competition. Congratulations! Who did you share the news with first?

(Read the HP-selected poem in this issue of The Centrifugal Eye.)

MAR: My husband Claude, in every possible way, has always supported my writing. He's the first one to hear my news, of success and failure.

Foil Hearts EAH: This is the "Write Your Own Question" moment – What question would you most like to be asked about your poetry? And then how would you answer it?

MAR: Is it helpful to memorize poetry? Yes! Choose something you love - even just a few lines if not an entire poem - and commit it to memory. Put it on a card and say it out loud when you're stuck in traffic.

(EAH: You know, I've heard this piece of advice often, but never really heard it explained satisfactorily. What's your take on why/how it's helpful to memorize?)

MAR: Having memorized lines in one's head is like having memorized music, or remembering the faces of friends. My memory stores what I love, and I feel richer – safer, happier, more satisfied – when my cupboard is stocked with words from Auden, or Elizabeth Biship, or Jane Kenyon. Actually, the question of memorizing poetry is one Ken (Pobo) and I have been discussing. He, too, feels memorizing is good, yet he doesn't ask his students to do it. I bet they already know certain lines and phrases by heart, and that they would enjoy picking others out to learn. I learned Frost's poem Nothing Gold Can Stay without planning to, years ago when I was teaching it. When I recite it from memory to classes at Widener, the students seem slightly amazed, but I also feel they receive the words more fully because I'm not reading them off a page. The father of one of our students gave several readings of his poems while his daughter was enrolled (she has now graduated). He is a plumber in Maine, and a very fine poet. He recited all of his work from memory, which meant he really gave it to the audience, with full eye contact all the time, in a way which couldn't happen if he had to keep looking at the words on a page.

I've gotten so interested in this topic that I've written a series of poems about it (working title for this collection is BY HEART; 16 pages so far; if I get 24 poems that I like, I'll send the bunch to some chapbook competitions probably). One amazing moment in this project happened when I was lying in bed one morning and realized I still knew a long fable in French, about the Grasshopper and the Ant, which I learned in a French class 50 years ago. Remembering that poem led to recalling 2 other lovely ones in French, which I realized I had inadvertently memorized when I worked as a secretary for the French Department at Columbia's School of General Studies. I was so pleased they were still in my memory! If nothing else, memorized lines help to amuse me when I'm stuck in traffic – keep me busy trying to "love my crooked neighbor with my crooked heart."

I'm also interested in how we store phrases people say to us – ones that hurt, ones that charm, ones we find confusing. My mother used to say, "A shirt with a pocket on it." As a child, I had no idea what she meant – and I still don't. Her words hold a mystery I don't want to solve. Sitting one desk away from my high school boyfriend in our senior English class, I took in the lines he said he liked best in Hamlet, – "to post with such dexterity to incestuous sheets." Naturally, as a 16-year-old boy, he liked this chewy reference to immoral sex, but he liked the way the words were said as much as what they were talking about. Why do these language moments stay with us? I don't know, but they do, and I find that phenomenon most wonderful.

Foil Hearts EAH: Do you have a favorite hobby, interest or activity outside of writing? How often does it show up in your writing in any form?

MAR: Gardening and cooking. Plants, birds, and trees appear often in my poems. I put the scent of frying onions in a novel as a moment of hope, and a cut cabbage in another novel as an image of natural beauty. There's food and cooking in some poems, as well.

Foil Hearts EAH: Got any favorites to share with readers?


Favorite Poem:
Today, it's John Donne's 12th Devotion: "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed way by the sea, Europe is the less, as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." A 92-year-old friend recited this Devotion to me over the phone this morning. When I read it, I hear his voice.

Visual Artist:
Alice Neel, for her vivid psychological insight. I especially love her self-portrait, seated in an arm chair, at 80 – nude except for her glasses, paint brush, and turpentine rag. She is focused, working, intent – beautiful.

Topic To Write About:
Life and death. What else is there?

Same answer as the first. A few weeks ago, I might have answered James Wright, or perhaps Carol Hamilton.

Some Like It Hot. There's not enough silliness in the world.

Zoe Mulford, Travelling Moon, available at www.zoemulford.com
Ok, full disclosure: Zoe is my niece. Her 3rd CD is expected in April. I've heard the rough cut; it's going to be fabulous. The working title for CD #3 is Finding Wings. One of the songs, Angel in the Storm, is about the poetic muse showing up outside the window.

I love many places – Vermont, Tuscany, the Oregon coast, Manhattan, Wellfleet, MA – but I really like where I live, in Swarthmore, PA. It's a tiny college town, with sidewalks leading to a town center, and a commuter train zipping into Philadelphia where there's great food, art, movies, readings, and hospitals.

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