Poetry Around Us with James Ballowe
An interview series with featured poets of Fifth Wednesday Journal
Mechanisms of Emotion: An Interview with Ed Roberson
Sometime last spring I mentioned to my friend Lisel Mueller that FWJ would be doing an interview with Ed Roberson, this issue’s featured poet. She immediately accepted my casual invitation to come along, saying she would like to know Ed better, having met him only twice before, once in the eighties at Goddard where she was teaching and more recently at an event in Chicago. Ed, too, was delighted to spend some time with Lisel, whose Alive Together was recognized in 1997 with a Pulitzer Prize.
So in June the three of us sat down for a weekday lunch at Francesca’s Bryn Mawr on Chicago’s Far North Side. As if we had known each other forever, the conversation immediately began to flow around what we were doing, family, acquaintances, travel, and life in general. Soon I found myself thinking, here I am admiring the talk of two of the most interesting folks I have ever met while drifting from my purpose as designated interviewer. Then Lisel quietly focused the moment for us with a question that was far from being preemptive, merely a continuance of the conversation. She and I then soon found ourselves under the spell of Ed’s calm, certain, and illuminating narrative responses.
Lisel Mueller: Did you always want to be a writer?
Ed Roberson: No. I started out in the sciences, wanting to be a scientist. That’s what I was studying in college.
LM: Well, how old were you when you began to think about writing?
ER: It wasn’t until I was a couple of years into college. I would have been about twenty. I had one teacher, Mrs. Graham. I had to take her writing course. When I turned in my papers, she was always encouraging. At the end of the semester, she said, “You keep this up, you’re going to be a writer.” I don’t mean I decided right then. I took it as a compliment, but she certainly sparked my curiosity. Me, a writer? So what I did the rest of my college career, I got involved with some friends who were working at the lab, and who were also working with the literary magazine. So there was this connection of people between the two, and gradually I just gravitated toward writing.
I had no idea whether it was going to be poetry or prose, because I hadn’t even made up my mind what I was doing. It was more general, “Art.” Then I took a couple of courses from Professors Tim Philbrick, Charles Crow, and Richard Tobias. Those were the folks who pulled me aside and sort of led me to really get serious. I took Dr. Tobias’s Renaissance course, and I was a terrible student. Sometimes I’d go to class and discover something that I would want to go to the library and look up. In his class he taught the sonnets of Wyatt and Sidney, and I started looking at these things to see how they were pieced together, to see how they affected me the way they did. And this sort of introduced me to the composition of poetry through the mechanism of the sonnet. And it was almost like, for me, the kind of cumulative, rational discovery that comes in the science lab, not just a fit of emotion. I could see how all the pieces fit together, and I could see how it was meant to work . . . composed to work.
LM: Did you figure that out by yourself?
ER: Well, I was intrigued enough to go to the library and look at some of the facsimiles of the sonnets, and I began to actually write sonnets just to see how you do the structures and counts, how you make it work. I was looking at these things as little mechanisms of emotion, rather than literature, you know. And I was writing sonnets and really writing a lot.
In one of Dr. Tobias’s classes he made the remark that it was sad that people weren’t writing sonnets anymore, and this was one of the things he thought was going to disappear. And here I am sitting in a class with a stack of these. So when I left the class I dropped a bunch of these things on his desk. So the next time I came to class, he said in a low voice, “Mr. Roberson.” And I had to go up and see him after class. And he told me that he felt I knew what I was doing and that I should get serious. And then he failed me because I didn’t attend enough of his classes. But what he really did was show me where I was going right. Years later, when I was actually an adjunct professor at Pittsburgh I met him in an elevator, and he laughed and said, “See, it’s good I failed you.” He was laughing the whole time. But he was like a kick in the butt, you know, for the writing.
And then Dr. Crow was, like, one of those people who knew everything, and he was always willing to have some conversation about ideas. A student would casually make a remark about something, and he would say, “Yes, that’s true, but . . .” And then we’d get this broad-ranging little lecture. And you always learned something from that “but.” Those guys got me to thinking seriously about the techniques of writing. At the same time, there were a bunch of artists in the city [Pittsburgh]. Thad Mosley had a gallery on the North Side where a lot of young black writers, poets, dancers, and artists hung out. Everyone would also go to this gallery in the Hill District, Harambe House with the New Horizons Theater. There was a strong community arts movement of black consciousness there. I was getting everything. I was getting the school thing, I was getting the community arts thing, black arts, some of the folks who had done trips to the south — the Freedom Riders. It was a tremendously rich time for me, but I didn’t know then that it was a rich time. I was sort of just there looking at everything, taking it in.
FWJ: Was this in the sixties?
ER: Yes, the early sixties. I was just there sucking it all up. I didn’t know that this was an unusual time. This was what art was supposed to be. So, you know, I just kept working and writing and not really thinking anything was going to happen with it. I was just wanting to know how to do it right or how to do it well. Thoreau was always about doing it right and doing it well. So I wanted to do that kind of thing. So, there was no real training in college. I was just more living and enjoying it all rather than having someone sitting me down and saying, “Do this right.”
LM: When did you start becoming a published writer? Was that your intention?
ER: No. That was an accident. I was working on the literary magazine, reading other people’s writing. Of course, I was trying my own writing, and we had an advisor for the magazine, Irving Rothman, a Milton or Defoe scholar now at the University of Houston, I believe. He took us all to lunch once and said there was this contest The Atlantic Monthly had for college students’ writing. He thought it would be a good idea for one of us to enter. And it was actually like the situation in the old cereal commercial, where the little kid’s brothers gang up on him to try the new stuff and they say, “Let’s get Mikey!” There was actually a moment when we were all walking back from lunch, and everyone said, “Let’s get Ed!” So they entered me in the contest, and I won. So my first published piece outside of school was in The Atlantic Monthly. The grand prize. It was an opportunity to attend Breadloaf. But I didn’t go to Breadloaf. At the time, I was with the Pittsburgh Explorers Club, doing rock climbing. The Explorers Club was going to climb in South America. So instead of going to Breadloaf, I went to South America, and we climbed mountains in Peru and Ecuador.
I want to say that writing was serious, but it wasn’t a directed goal. Even after I started getting published, it was mostly enjoying it with friends and picking up books and passing them around. One of the guys I hung out with, Gerry Rhodes, would bring stuff back from New York, and he’d just say, “Here read this.” So I got to read things like Frank O’Hara’s “Personism,” his manifesto on poetry that appeared in Yugen before it was ever anthologized in the New American Poetry: 1945–1960 book. So, like I said, we didn’t know where we were going, and I definitely didn’t know where I was going.
We were listening to music, too, at that time. I discovered Thelonious Monk. One of my fraternity brothers had this album — I can’t remember which one. It was the album that had “Tea For Two” on it. I went out and bought my own copy. I just loved it. The wrong notes would be all the right notes. It was the most exciting thing. You could see that little shift. And Miles Davis was doing things. At the same time I was appreciating Monk’s twists, I was getting these real pure, minimal sounds from Miles. It just seemed so rich, so much going on. I didn’t play an instrument or anything. At that point I wished I did. I just followed folks around.
FWJ: What about Coltrane?
ER: I came to Coltrane much later.
LM: Coltrane was wonderful. I still listen to a lot of his music.
ER: Yeah. I came to him much later. For me it was Monk, then Miles, then Coltrane. I guess the transition into Coltrane actually came through Alice Coltrane, his wife. Someone took me to hear her doing a concert. She was not only playing the piano, but also there was a full, auditorium organ there. So she got up from the piano, walked across the stage, and sat down at this organ. To me, it was totally unexpected. I mean she just hit these notes, and the whole place just lifted off the ground. I thought that I had better look this stuff up. So I started listening to her, then discovered John.
You know, one of the things that gets me when I look back and sort of assess whether I did things right, is . . . well, don’t you wish you had paid better attention to stuff? I was just going along as if looking at the birdies, just collecting what I wanted. Not a directed research. I was just sort of enjoying whatever.
LM: Are you talking about birds? Real birds?
ER: Well, I had a housemate, Darrell Gray, who knew birds. It was the first time I had ever seen, you know, the identifying book the birders use.
FWJ: A field guide to birds, like Peterson’s?
ER: Yes. Darrell had two of those things. One Saturday we jumped up and ran up to Lake Pymatuning, which is a wildlife preserve near Lake Erie, north of Pittsburgh. And it was just beautiful. And all of a sudden, Darrell whispers, “Look!” And a heron came by out of the fog, and I had never seen a heron. You know, with the neck furled back and this beautiful soar? Your breath just stops.
FWJ: So you remember when you were introduced to things like that.
ER: I’m a birder. In that way, I study the lake birds.
FWJ: As in “Air Mail”?
ER: “Air Mail”?
FWJ: You know, your poem in this issue of FWJ. [Reads a bit of it.] I love this poem.
ER: Of course. I’d forgotten about that. But I don’t remember the poem. I write them and forget them. [Laughter] I guess I don’t pay attention to what I’ve written.
FWJ: Well, you make other people pay attention.
ER: I’m paying attention to trying to get it into words and get it out, and sometimes that’s not really the same place as the public’s poem. Where I am when I’m writing, it’s like an interrogation; sometimes it uses torture to get the truth.
FWJ: You haven’t seen these poems yet, Lisel. They are so distinctive and have such a wonderful line. There’s “Air Mail,” and the fine, metaphoric “Slow Moon.” “Under the Influence” is such a graphic poem with etched references, quite different from the other poems.
LM: “Under the Influence”? What are the references, the influences to that poem? Would you read it to us, Ed?
LM: And this is based on reality, I assume.
FWJ: Lisel is persuasive. Could you read “Air Mail” for us?
FWJ: Where did you see those snakes?
ER: Those are the Asian flying snakes. There’s a filmed study of how those snakes glide that way. It’s similar to how the cobras’ necks flatten out. And they manipulate their body like the wing of a plane. They just sort of glide through the air.
What I saw in South America were the coral snakes and a kind of puff adder. I nearly stepped on one of those things in Ecuador in the Amazon. They make a sound with their tail in the leaves. Our guide called out, “Danger! Danger!” When I looked down, I saw this blast of yellow, and then it was gone.
FWJ: There’s a whole community of writers whose principal subject is natural history. I would say that some of my favorite poems in To See the Earth Before the End of the World, a book just brimming with compelling poems, remind me of the best work of Gary Snyder.
ER: Well, yes. I really admire Snyder, too.
FWJ: I don’t mean to suggest that I see echoes of him in your work, though.
ER: Well, when I said that my friends were passing things around for me to read, Snyder is one of the ones I was handed. And I’m sure I picked up a sense of certain things from Snyder. I take the comparison as a compliment.
FWJ: So many of your poems are about humans as a part of nature. Is this a conclusion you drew from your science training and your interest in limnology?
ER: People would say we don’t need nature poems. And my reaction is that humans are nature. Nature is us. Nature is not a separate thing.
FWJ: You started off as a scientist and with teachers who brought you deeply into their work and field experiences.
ER: When I was an undergraduate, Drs. Richard Dugdale and Vera Dugdale-Alexander packed up the lab into two outfitted VW buses and drove from Pittsburgh up the Alaska Highway to Anchorage, then flew us from there out onto the islands. But Anchorage was our base and we were always passing Portage Glacier up top of Cook Inlet. Then a year ago I read a New York Times article about global warming that said glaciers were melting so fast you now had to drive back up into the valley to get to Portage Glacier. I remember it right there off the side of the main road, and now you have to take a drive up the valley. That really shook me, and I wrote the title poem. Other poems that I had lying around then fell into place, and the manuscript started to take shape.
FWJ: So a lot of what’s happening to the natural world influences your work.
ER: I didn’t want to write something that was just pretty. I wanted to write something not just because of the sound or the beauty thing, but because of something that was reaching much farther. The world setting is much bigger than one person. I was raised in a church, a Southern African Methodist Church with all the emotional trimmings. I was never a real believer. But what I did believe in was what music of the stories allowed people to feel. What the musical structures of the religious allowed you to think or feel. How it could give you the experience of things so deep that you would break into tears. Whereas, sitting in a bar, the stories don’t move me that way. Communal as they are, those experiences don’t go beyond the bar. So, what I always wanted to do was not write the stuff that’s pretty but write the stuff that cut way deeper, that was almost terror to deal with. Was hard to look at. The things that scare you, that were hard to look at or listen to, that described those parts of the day when you just sort of sit down and have to shut up. It’s best for me when I am humbled into writing. Or look at it, be silenced but enabled to stand up to it and write a poem that says here’s a response to the call of that moment, that music. It will make you think. I remember those sung sermons, the sermons of the black southern preachers.
FWJ: That language is in your poems. You also have street language. And then there’s this interesting syntax. Here and there, you drop a verb; you drop a preposition. They are just not there, and as a reader I’m looking at these words juxtaposed and I’m thinking, yes!
ER: You know, a sculptor once told me it had to do with the speed, that my words go so fast you have to read slowly, then again out loud. I sometimes don’t take time to put in the prepositions, the connectives, and just let things hang together in time, in the music. As he says it, “Ed just doesn’t have any patience.” It’s not that I don’t have any patience, but it’s that I want people to hear the alternate sentences, both languages. Sometimes the connection that’s supposed to be in there is so tight that it doesn’t allow you to hear other layers or voicings. I want people to hear of them separately as lines in a chorus. Does that make sense? And I want you to be able to hear this sentence complete and that sentence complete. And I want you to hear them at the same time. Two voices. And to put that preposition in there actually takes away from that. So yes, I’m not patient, because I want you to make that leap, and I’m not going to make that leap for you. You can hear both of these ideas going at the same time. It’s the way they are working against each other, fighting against each other, and creating an impossibility that actually resolves itself.
LM: When I read your poems I’ll have to think of that.
FWJ: Sounds as if we’re back to Thelonious Monk.
ER: Well, that all comes into it.
James Ballowe, FWJ advisory editor, is Distinguished Professor of English Emeritus at Bradley University. His biography of Joy Morton, A Man of Salt and Trees: The Life of Joy Morton, was published by Northern Illinois University Press in 2009. In 2010 the University of Illinois Press published his anthology, Christmas in Illinois.
This interview appeared in the Fall 2011 Issue 9 of Fifth Wednesday Journal. To purchase a copy, please visit our Store.