In an engaging interview with Win Bassett, multiple award-winning poet Joshua Robbins talks poetry, parenthood, and how a good man is hard to define.
Joshua Robbins published his first collection of poems, Praise Nothing (University of Arkansas Press, 2013) in February, but he’s seen nothing but praise for the past few years. His poems have appeared in numerous journals; he won the James Wright Poetry Award and New South Prize; the Best New Poets anthology featured his work; he earned multiple Pushcart Prize nominations; and he received the Walter E. Dakin Fellowship in poetry from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. When Joshua doesn’t write, he teaches others to write—previously as a lecturer in English at the University of Tennessee and now as a visiting assistant professor at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Texas.
Before he does any of this, however, he’s a husband and father to one (soon to be two). I spoke with Joshua about developing his personal and spiritual life as he earned his M.F.A. from the University of Oregon and Ph.D. from the University of Tennessee, balancing his passions and commitments to family and writing, what is means to be a good man in poetry and the academy, and how his verse might speak of a greater Man. A condensed, edited version of that email conversation follows.
Why poetry? Why not the work of your father, your father’s father (assuming they weren’t poets)?
This morning, my oldest boy and I made the monthly pilgrimage to Costco. Pushing our cart between the compact stacks of jeans and beige slacks, I overheard another father say to his young son, “Nothing’s free. If everything was free and nobody had a job, then we wouldn’t have anything to do. God gives every man a purpose.”
Costco Dad’s unstated equation of “job” = “purpose” was deeply unsettling. Just think of this lesson’s implications for how his son may go on to think about labor, or how he might come to value the guy on the inventory crew who stacked the pants, or how he might respond to the man on the corner outside the store holding the sign, “Lost my job. Anything helps. God bless.”
My dad’s job was, and is, “lawyer.” (He’s semi-retired now.) He spent the first part of his law career in private practice, and then practiced environmental law for a major oil company. Before these jobs he taught high school history and cut wood at a lumberyard. Like many of his generation, he felt his reason for existence was to provide his kids with what he’d never had. Dad’s job was not his purpose.
If family and life circumstances had been different, I think my dad would have been a folk artist or some kind of craftsman. And this is why I am thankful for his example and for the fortunate reality that my job complements my reasons for existence as a father and husband and poet. My job is teaching writing and writing poems, but I think my purpose is the same as my dad’s: doing whatever it takes to take care of my family.
At what point in your education did you start sharing a life with your wife, and how did you balance your studies in the academy with your devotion to her?
We met as undergraduates and were married right after graduation just before I began my M.F.A. in creative writing, but “sharing a life” didn’t happen until several years later. That my wife stuck it out in those early years is a testament to her strength of character and commitment to me. Don’t get me wrong: from “I do” on, I was devoted and faithful, but it did take me several years to become a “husband.” In our salad days, balancing marriage with academia wasn’t even an issue because I didn’t realize our lives could get off kilter.
Twelve years later, I can’t say I’ve found equilibrium among academics, writing, and marriage. My wife and my sons take priority over anything else. Always. I don’t “balance” poetry with devotion to my wife and family. Would it be devotion if there were balance?
That said, I still approach writing the same as when we were first married: every morning I pull myself out of bed hours before my family stirs, and I work on the poems. I make sure there’s time for poetry. Always.
Where were you in life when you and your wife had your first child, and how did it change your writing?
It took us four years and a battery of doctors, medical tests, and procedures to get pregnant with our first child. (That we now have two boys is a statistical impossibility.) At the time our first boy arrived, I was finishing my dissertation, applying for tenure-track jobs, and submitting my book manuscript. Plenty of writing got done, but not a whole lot got finished, which used to stress me out and to make me question my “writer” qualifications. But then I’d think of poets whose circumstances were so much more complicated and difficult than mine, especially a poet like Lucille Clifton who managed to write so many moving and politically relevant poems all while raising six children. “Get back to work” became my mantra.
I don’t know that having kids has changed my writing as much as it has opened me up to other possible modes and means of expression. I find I’m drawn to prose more and more, though I haven’t yet been able to tease out whether that’s a direct consequence of having kids. The disjunctive and nonlinear qualities of the lyric essay seem to fit well with the topsy-turvy unpredictability of day-to-day parenting and writing. In terms of my poetry, having kids has ratcheted up the urgency I feel to write poems that matter, poems that can affect change in the world, poems that can address issues of faith and doubt in new ways, and poems that my boys would be proud of in twenty years.
A writer who needs no introduction wrote, “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” How do you know a good man when you see it? How might you find a good man in the poetry world?
I suppose this answer is contingent on one’s definition of “good,” right? For me, one of the primary reasons Flannery O’Connor’s short fiction continues to resonate, aside from its gorgeously distinct prose and, at times, darkly comic vision, is its emphasis on shared humanity—what she called, I think, “religious consciousness without religion.” By the end of the story you mention, the word “good,” thank God, has been stripped of its normative so-called “moral” significance and we are, as readers, left rung out and confronted by humanity’s common, raw potential to receive grace. I’d say my definition of “good” is buried somewhere in that rocky ground.
But in terms of being able to locate “the good,” to identify this man as such and this man as not, I don’t know if that’s entirely possible. To a certain extent, we can evaluate actions and everyday behavior patterns, but I think even that’s circumstantially unreliable as an arbiter. And that idea is also, I think, the argument posed by the final scene of “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” When The Misfit talks about the old lady he’s just murdered and says, “She would of been a good woman…if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life,” we’re forced to ask ourselves, “Is what’s good really good if its existence emerges out of a place of fear or in response to a threat?” I doubt it.
I don’t know that Flannery O’Connor and David Foster Wallace have a lot in common—that’s something I’d need to think about more—but Wallace’s 2005 Kenyon College commencement address comes to mind. In his remarks, Wallace argues that attentiveness and awareness give us the power to experience the common, menial, and everyday blah-ness of life as “not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.” It’s hard to disagree with that, right? But he doesn’t end there. He concludes his exhortation by saying, “Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it.”
I believe empathy is the spur of the imagination, that writing well creatively and seeking after the “good” is contingent on one’s willingness and effort to identify with others’ day-to-day circumstances, suffering, and isolation, and that doing so requires an awareness of the human condition. This is, hopefully, a “good” principle, and it’s one I try to live by. I think empathy facilitates the possibility that we might find the “good” in everyday situations and people. And, yes, that’s a principle that applies to the poetry world, too.
I discovered you and the rest of your work after reading, “Collateral.” I can’t shake the image of a drunk man snapping a 2×4 across the back of a dog in an alley, and the moment “was / as if this world had never been / more pure” for the narrator. Perhaps more remarkable is the narrator then believes nothing matters. From where and what did you create the narrator’s state of doubt?
“Collateral” is an amalgamation of memories and was written shortly after my wife and I were told that we had a “not quite 0% chance of getting pregnant.” In that moment, doubt overcame, but in the writing of the poem, perhaps due to a sort of catharsis, I started to think of my writing as a way to regain my footing on faith’s shaky ground. And so it’s interesting to me that you see the speaker in that poem as believing that nothing matters. I’ve always thought of the poem as, in a sense, a statement of faith that, even in the face of doubt, or especially in the face of doubt, everything matters. And maybe there’s a connection back to O’Connor here, too, since my work (only partly because of “Collateral”) has been regarded as “violent,” a label that still strikes me as odd. But whatever appearance of violence there is in my poetry, I think it comes from an exploration of longing after the possibility of meaning.
In your poem, “Less Than Ash” you write, “I’m beginning now / to hear the voice that sings / Just beyond memory: heaven-flung / and not quite an afterthought, / Something settling on what / shifts in the heart.” What is this voice?
This is the voice of the dead, the voice of the forgotten and those we’ve tried to forget. It’s the voice of ghost pains and divine absence. It’s the voice of aching for divine presence. It’s the voice of oblivion. The poem is not a via negativa in the strictest sense, but the concept of “nothing” in this poem and throughout the book is certainly influenced by apophatic theology.
After Praise Nothing received the praise it deserves, what’s next?
I’m working on a new manuscript of poetry that engages theology and theodicy, even as I continue to explore themes from Praise Nothing: faith and doubt and our broken connection to the transcendent. I’ve also got a few other projects in the hopper: a book of essays on fatherhood and marriage, collaborating on two poetry anthologies, and co-authoring a book of poems. Of course the main “what’s next” is trying to become the best daddy and husband I can be. That’s the tops.
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