SMALL PRESS SPOTLIGHT: ROBYN SCHIFF

by Rigoberto González | Dec-22-2008

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Revolver, University of Iowa Press, 2008.

Robyn Schiff is the author of Worth (Iowa, 2002). She is an associate professor at the University of Iowa, where she is the director of the undergraduate creative writing program. She also co-edits Canarium Books.

Can you speak a bit about the genesis of Revolver and how you conceptualized this book? There are many levels of inventions engaged here: the patented products, such as the sewing machine and the revolver, mainstays now slowly becoming archaic; merchandise such as furniture and silverware that’s inextricably bound to its legendary manufacturers (Taylor & Sons, J.A. Henckels); and then there are those fashion industry icons (Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein) whose commodities are popularized by more contemporary mythologies of beauty and desire. Each presents a history that spins outward into other compelling human stories. How did you begin to gather all of these different objects and how did you evaluate whether or not they would be compatible in this community of poems?

The question of compatibility is a great way for me to think about my curatorial instinct in Revolver. Initially I set out to write about objects that were on display at the Great Exhibition of 1851— a sort of Victorian world’s fair—and I thought the book would be encyclopedic and touch on absolutely everything in the 1851 illustrated catalogue. The objects on display at the Great Exhibition were not chosen for their compatibility, but rather, the only thing they supposedly had in common with one another was their level of innovation and artfulness. It was an industrial fair, after all, and it was meant to show human progress and in particular British domination. But with just the tiniest bit of scratching at the surface of any of these weird objects, they began to display all sorts of unintended affinities: unfathomable violence, fierce issues of control, a nearly fetishistic interest in portability and adaptability that seemed to be in conversation with colonialism and Western expansion. As I started to discover this, I also began arbitrarily researching items related to 1951. It was no surprise that the vapor trails these newer objects left were as bellicose as the others; they weren’t vapor trails, they were warpaths. That made me a little dizzy. And I started to question my own encyclopedic urge, which was coming to feel really overwhelming, really wrongheaded. In the end, I evaluated what could be in the book based on the physical sensation I had in my body when I started doing the research. I remember, for instance, watching old Calvin Klein commercials on YouTube, and in one a young Brooke Shields is whistling “Oh My Darling, Clementine.” The vertigo of associations I felt fluttering within me, and the sheer empathy I felt with my whole body toward the material made me write the Klein poem; if I don’t have a physical sensation like that I don’t attempt a poem. As a result, I don’t write very often.

I noticed that you have an affinity for the lengthy sentence that weaves into numerous lines and stanzas, more apparent in such poems as “Project Huia” and “Project Paperclip.” The breadth of these landscapes is admirable since you cover plenty of territory. The layers of information keep the threads going and word play (like the use of alliteration in the second poem) injects fresh energy into the language at key points. How challenging was it to find a satisfying close to these longer, multi-layered poems? Who are some of the poets you read that helped you understand the nature and demands of the long poem?

My attraction to both the long sentence and the long poem comes directly out of my aversion to the sound bites and the mangled syntax that were hallmarks of the political language du jour while I was writing these poems. It seemed to me that I had a responsibility, in order to restore to language its ability to tell truths, to be as hyper-articulate, as hypotactic, as thorough, and as exhaustively expansive as possible, even as I aspired to fidelity in image and precision in word choice. Of course this is nuts. So the long sentences, snaking through the weird forms (the two long poems you mention in this question are both composed of stanzas of 42 syllables each, for reasons having to do with procedural obsessiveness and crack-pot numerology on my part) come to express the frustration of not being able to say it all. Of not being able to get it all down; of not being able to talk forever. The poems take place on the DMZ dividing clarity and convolution. There’s a terrible spiritual frustration in coming up against the ultimate endstop without having wrapped it all up, without having actually concluded. Instead of saying it all, the poems are ultimately enactments of my desperation over not being able to express myself… So yes! absolutely! ending the poems comes with a lot hair-pulling and fretting. I worked on Project Paperclip for two years, and was really on the verge of throwing in the towel, when one wonderful crisp early spring day I sat down in my backyard and read a profile of Tom Ford in the New York Times in which he’s quoted as saying “‘On Sept. 11, 2001, I was in New York, the YSL store was supposed to open. On the day the planes went into the twin towers, we received 42 calls from customers looking for the purple peasant blouse.” In that moment, I had a vision of the threads of the whole sloppy poem coming together in a pattern different from what I could ever have anticipated, could ever have invented. I was able to finish the poem in a few short weeks after that. I guess in finishing a poem I’m waiting to see the threads of the piece realign of their own accord. I have to ease up a little on the reins for that to happen. I read a lot of long poems—I much prefer them to short lyrics—and one in particular that influenced my own work is David Trinidad’s “Poem Under the influence,” at the end of his recent book, The Late Show. I read it in-progress in a chapbook published by A Rest Press in 2005, and it’s been something of a shadow behind my poems since. But Schuyler, Niedecker, Hejinian, Schnackenberg, Graham, and especially Marianne Moore are in there too.

Curiosity certainly plays an important role in the explorations found in this book, but also humor—the poet is as eccentric of a visionary as those who developed a number of these inventions. Some of these funny lines are found moments like in the poem “Colt Rapid Fire Revolver” which opens with the story of Elizabeth Hart Colt’s wedding cake “trimmed with sugar pistols/ with revolving sweet-tooth chambers with gears/ that rotate one position over.” Others take the entire journey of the poem to close with a chuckle (but without resorting to punch line), like in the poem “Silverware, by J.A. Henckels,” that ends with: “Friends, I only serve six of you now/ that two of my forks are gone.” When did you realize that entering this world would result in such comic moments without becoming absurd, that the encounter between a poet and this landscape was such a perfect match?

It was the syntax itself that put me in such a punchy mood. And moreover, syntax’s relationship to form. I guess it’s the same principal that works in slapstick: the will of the thinking man with his tragic little motives violently coming up against the limits of his body and of the material world. And then the exasperation of the reader—the vaudeville audience in this metaphor— facing that violence, maybe even inciting that violence. Writing the really long sentences and the long poems in Revolver, with their contorted syntaxes and their bare-with-me conspiracy theories and convergences straining and, well, deforming the plasticity of the forms that shape them, I pictured the hooked end of a cane just off stage, visible to me, but not yet to some implied audience, about to enter stage right. That’s the moment of tragic humor I was trying to sustain.

(Author Photo: Anna Knott)




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