I’ve only been to one, but I can definitely say: an Adam Robinson reading is not a typical reading.
The audience is alert, I promise you, because Robinson has mastered the deliberate pause (even if he announces he’s going to deliberately pause) followed by the punch delivery of a title like “I’m going to have sex with these people” or an announcement like, “Now I’m going to read you some of my racist poems.”
No one is nodding off through that.
Robinson read at York College in the Brossman Art Gallery on October 10, and besides being thoroughly entertained, I picked up both of his books to have the completely different and demanding experience of reading, rather than hearing him perform, his poems.
Robinson has a way of saying something hilarious and then immediately something profoundly sad:
What’s the deal with bottled water
Sometimes as a whole we’re smart
And sometimes as a whole
we’re going to die in four years” (“Adam Robison and Other Poems,” p. 31)
Or of making you laugh at something profoundly sad, that gift that real comedians have, like his statement about the Germans’ loyalty to Hitler: “They wouldn’t leave their insane leader because they liked his mustache / a lot” (p. 37).
The concerns of Robinson’s poems are varied but universal: love, the city, the genius of other writers, the racial and social tensions that seek to divide and conquer us. But it isn’t about content so much as presentation, and Robinson wracks up the originality points in presentation. His pace is frantic but not dizzying; he jumps topics like metro trains, but he’s not trying to lose us.
Indeed, his very conversational tone — especially in “Say, Poem” — suggests that these poems wouldn’t work so well without a reader, an audience, a world with which to interact. He often shows us different drafts of the same poem. Most offten, his segue commentary is the Robison persona breaking through. The best and most innovative art endeavors to accomplish nothing less than to speak to others in a new way, and Robinson’s poems “say duh” to that notion.
I interviewed Robinson shortly after his reading:
SMF: You have two books of poetry, “Adam Robison and Other Poems” (Narrow House, 2010) and “Say, Poem” (Awesome Machine Press, 2010). I’ve read both, and it’s clear that you are a writer who has fun writing. That you love puns and cleverness, but not just for their sake. In the first book, you purposely misspell your last name to denote a change in persona — but only a slight one, right? It’s still you, just the poet you who lives a bit on the fringe, in that position of Observer, as most poets do. The tone of your second book is deliciously meta — you are in conversation with yourself, the characters you speak of, and your readers. More often than not, you are telling yourself how to present the poem(s). Can you speak a bit about these approaches in your writing? How much do you laugh while you write?
AR: This is one of the better understandings of the “persona” that I’ve heard. A lot of people have called it a pseudonym, but the book is written by me. Calling the book “Adam Robison,” though, names the character and gives me a bit of distance so I can feel comfortable saying things I might not otherwise say. I’m not speaking for myself, I’m speaking for Robison. Then with Say Poem, I felt a little detached from the actual poems. Say Poem was the thesis for my MFA, which had to be completed soon after Adam Robison was completed, so I had kind of run out of good work. I had to use B-sides, basically. So putting them into the frame of the reading was like saying, “Look, I know these aren’t the best poems in the world, let me speak directly to you so I can say what I was trying to do with them.” Once I did that, I actually started to like the second book more than the first, even though the poems themselves aren’t as good.
SMF: Tell us all about Publishing Genius: origin, philosophy, your fave aspects, what’s new, etc.
AR: I started PGP in 2006, making chapbooks and just doing weird projects. I really tapped into the vibrant online community that over the years has morphed into Internet hubs like HTMLGiant and The Rumpus. That community is really supportive of quirky, or challenging, writing. I am obsessed with how far away from storytelling literature can get, but still remain relatable and emotional and intriguing. I’m always trying to get further and further away from the typical conventions. Soon I’ll be putting out a totally conceptual book by Stephanie Barber called “Night Moves,” which is just a bunch of comments about the Bob Seger song. And I’ll be putting out a comic book — a graphic short story collection, really — by John Dermot Woods next spring. My philosophy is that everything — life, language, successes and failures — is random, so books should be too.
SMF: “Say, Poem“ is self-published, right? That’s a hot topic in publishing, especially small press publishing, right now. Can you talk about your decision to self-publish?
AR: Yep, it’s self-published. The thesis project at the University of Baltimore, where I got my MFA, is that not only do you write a final manuscript, but you have to publish it too. The objective is to learn about the publishing process, how it’s done, how it makes you feel. I thought, “Dang, I have a book already and I’ve published 10 more through PGP — what’s the point in self-publishing?” I knew I could get a small press to publish it for me, which I thought would be better, make me look cooler, or stand out on my CV more. Boy, was I wrong! I’m so glad I did it myself. Not for the “control” that I got, or anything like that, though that is good stuff too (like, it’s good to be able to get copies whenever I want, and be able to charge only $4 for it). It just makes me feel cool to have a book I’m proud of that was made through a system that some people think is lame. People are afraid of self-publishing because they think it means the book wasn’t “vetted” or “edited” or doesn’t have some “official seal of approval,” but I don’t care about all that. The writing always speaks for itself. Who cares what the business model is?
SMF: What books, authors, presses, and publications have excited you most in the past year?
AR: Seeing all the great books come out of big presses like Harper Perennial has been motivating — stuff like Blake Butler’s “Nothing” and “There Is No Year” — amazing, risky books. I loved Leigh Stein’s novel, “The Fallback Plan.” I’ve loved watching Steve Roeggenbuck this year, too. He’s a young champion of the “Alt Lit” scene that is just totally fun to watch perform. He has fascinating perspectives on what literature should be in our Web 2.0 era.
SMF: Narrow House, publisher of your first book, and Publishing Genius are both based in Baltimore. You recently read at York College and we spoke about other venues for readings in this area. How much of an exchange do you think there is between the southcentral Pa. and Baltimore poetry scenes? How much should there be? The mid-Atlantic region, in my opinion, is teeming with these vibrant little pockets of literary activity, separated only by a bit of geography (York, Baltimore, Gettysburg, Hanover, Lancaster, Harrisburg, Hershey, even DC …) Should it stay that way, or do we have an opportunity to tie all of this together and be one big poetry family?
AR: Well, that’s a great question. In the last year I’ve seen a lot of coordination happening in Baltimore itself and between Baltimore and DC. When I think about organizing readings for PGP authors, I usually think of DC, Baltimore, Philly, and NYC. Having read twice in York now, though, I definitely want to tap into the community more there. It’s such a great town, way different from Baltimore but so nearby. I would love to be poetry cousins! One thing they’re doing in Philly is they have a reading series that just brings in poets from other towns. They’ve had separate readings for Baltimore and DC and Boston. I’d like to put something like that together for poets in York, to come to Baltimore.
SMF: You spoke about a few upcoming titles from Publishing Genius. What about your own work? I have two books out as well, and my feeling in early 2011 was that I needed to take a break, a long one, to explore something different so the next one (speaking optimistically) doesn’t sound like the others. Do you have that kind of concern, or are you plowing ahead with a new project?
AR: I did have that kind of concern after putting out my first books, especially because the voice that I adopted for Adam Robison wasn’t really the way I was writing before. I haven’t been sure how to get out of it, how to care about a new way to write. Finally, I came up with a subject — race issues in Baltimore — that was at least different enough tonally that I don’t have to worry about the voice. And slowly I’ve been figuring out new tricks that I can believe in, have some conviction in. And I’m reading the work of Lucille Clifton and that helps, too.
Thanks, Adam! I for one look forward to your new work, and to checking out some of those Baltimore readings.