Luke Rolfes: Award-winning poet Richard Robbins is out with his seventh book of poetry entitled The Oratory of all Souls from Lynx House Press. It is a treat to talk with him today about his wonderful new work and current writing projects. Thanks so much, Rick, for taking the time to talk with us today, and congratulations on the new collection!
Let’s start with a wide look. Can you talk a bit about the genesis of The Oratory of All Souls? How long has this project been in the works? As well, I’m curious if recently publishing a “new and selected” book in Body Turned to Rain shaped your overall planning and direction for this particular collection.
Richard Robbins: The poems in The Oratory of All Souls were written between 2005 and 2020, each without any sense of some larger grouping they might someday become a part of. I rarely have a grasp of the core concerns of any of my books—things that might seem obvious to me later—until the months before acceptance and publication, when I steep myself in assembling the poems and testing out different arrangements of the contents. By then, my poems have told me what I have been up to during the past few years. They have revealed thematic, imagistic, structural, and sonic patterns. My job after that is to weave those patterns, finished piece by finished piece, into some larger whole that itself should feel as crafted as a poem.
The new and selected poems, published in 2017, did have an impact on this collection. The bulk of the book was retrospective, of course; I tried to capture some of the best work from each of five previous books. The 40 new poems were pulled from three manuscripts I had been working on, which left all three incomplete after that process. What remained, then, was to tear those books further down for parts: I took the best remaining poems from those groupings, and added newer pieces to the mix, to come up with the poems for this new book.
LR: Your poetic voice in The Oratory of All Souls is distinct, and it rings familiar to previous work I’ve read of yours, but there is a newness to this book. It’s difficult for me to describe. Perhaps it is in the moments of pronounced playfulness? Perhaps small differences in agility in the way you move between images/subjects? Do you see this new collection as a breaking away from earlier patterns you’ve established in your writing? Have your poetry instincts evolved, or is this more so the new content lending itself to new language?
RR: I am always happy to hear when readers think my voice is distinct, even when it is consistent across collections, because that's what you aim for your whole career—to sound original. That said, I think this book does make room for new tonalities, different approaches to line and structure, and, in some poems, more indulgence with imagery, pace, and sound. I don't think of this as breaking away from old patterns so much as pushing the implications of the existing ones. For instance, there are many poems in the book that have extremely long lines that need to wrap around and be indented to stay on the page. And yet I don't think of them as prose poems so much as poems that deal with my evolving sense of line. Most of those, despite their long lines, are seven-line poems, and so I still think of them as poems in seven moves. Elsewhere, there are poems written in voices other than the lyrical "I." Some of these are persona poems, but some simply adopt a different POV. As for movement, I think I do feel freer to make more intuitive leaps from one thing to the next in a poem, the hope being that the reader will follow. This impulse carries over into the sequencing of pieces, where some pieces are next to each other precisely to create a jarring juxtaposition.
LR: This book is broken into four titled sections: “The Blue Houses,” “Disappearances,” “The Oratory of All Souls,” and “That Beach.” Was it always this way, or were the four sections something you decided on later in the process? How did the sections help you in organizing theme/content of this book?
RR: I tested a lot of different arrangements: different number of sections, different sequence of sections, different sequencing of poems within sections, and so on. What guided me after a while had to do with one of the overriding concerns of the collection—personal and community suffering—and also with the more practical business of intermixing certain types of poems in order to maintain interest, attention, and pace. And I did feel the big section of 19 related poems on Stanley Spencer's paintings should go deep into the text, the third section, where a normal reader might have more patience for it.
My ideal structure for a book is that it be symphonic in some way. I don't want the kind of book where all of one type of poem are together, all of another together, and so on. I want different threads of content or form coming into the book, going away for a while, and then coming back again. Over and over. I want the long and the short mixed up, as well as the lyrical and the narrative, the happy and the sad, the poems about me and the poems about others. Books that mix things up like this are the type I like to read.
LR: The pseudonyms/placeholders of “secret father” and “the man” are repeated throughout this collection, not unlike a motif. Can you discuss these identities of “secret father” and “the man” in deeper detail? Do you see them more as characters or concepts with which your speaker can engage?
RR: I noticed when I took stock of my poems from the past decade that many were in some fashion about being a man, but they got at the issue in different ways. The Secret Father character in those poems wonders about his relationship to his children. In some poems, they don't know he exists, or he doesn't know where they are, or they all know of each other's existence and yet Secret Father is still confused about the nature of the relationship and thus is a secret to himself. In the "Looking for the Man" poems, I was trying to capture men in ordinary situations: in a field, on the sidewalk, elsewhere. I wanted to capture normalcy. The poems about my actual father offer up a third type of poem about manhood. He suffered as a child in a way no one deserves, which affected his future with my mother. Since I did not grow up with him, and was never harmed by him, these end up being poems of forgiveness for slights that I myself never suffered. That these poems are predominantly in the third person and not the lyrical "I" probably means that at the time of writing I needed that distance in order to address the issue at all.
LR: Your work is filled with natural images---sometimes wild, sometimes urban. Given the context of the poems, readers will instantly recognize most of these images as profound. Others, it seems, you actually turn our head to a quieter, less celebrated image, as if to say, “Look closer. See.” Can you talk about utilization of image in your work? Do you scour photographs for images? Memory? How do you decide that a particular image is “poem worthy,” so to speak, rather than just a nice view?
RR: As a young person, I lived in Los Angeles and elsewhere in small-town California even as, during other months in the same year, I lived in rural Montana. So the stark contrasts of landscape and their native imageries have always lived inside me, and they fill the "concrete mixer" (as one of my teachers used to call it) out of which come the poems. I don't really go fishing for images anywhere. It's more accurate to say I try to be open to them, and to believe and accept them when they suggest themselves to me, because I know from experience they will usually lead me somewhere on the page.
It makes perfect sense to me that my or anyone's images, as they accumulate in a poem, create a tone, an atmosphere, ultimately a world the reader is invited into. I also think that the images and sounds of a poem can help writer and reader travel across territory that often doesn't have words. Call it mystery. Call it an unresolved question or obsession. I want my poems to be clear, but I understand that they are often not paraphrasable, and so the clarity I seek is at the level of feeling. I would rather have the reader arrive at that point than at some forced summary couplet that tied everything in a bow. I like poems that keep ringing after the last line, often because they have reached a place of truth that, even after the words, may still be without words.
LR: One of the things I’ve admired about your poems over the years is your usage of figurative language. I’m just flipping through some pages here. “Its collapse into the unknown basement of day.” “The architecture of forgiving.” These descriptions are, in a sense, idiomatic in the way that I cannot really picture them, yet, at the same time, I tacitly understand. Can you describe your process with figurative language? How do you keep things fresh for the reader, and, at the same time, maintain accessibility?
RR: These phrases often come as mysteriously as the images themselves, but I think they often come from a place where feeling and thought intersect, and the two are somehow encapsulated in the metaphor. After the fact, I might think, Oh, that's what I meant. So much about writing is following the poem that is trying to get out. Not judging too soon. For the writer, the poem is smarter than you. I want to trust phrases like the ones you mention, even if I can't immediately figure out what they mean or where they come from. The poem knows. I just want to write the phrase down and keep moving. Does this trust sometimes lead to gibberish? Of course, but that judgement comes in later drafts and is not a matter of instant dismissal.
LR: Let’s jump over to section three---the one that shares the same title as the book itself. Part three of the collection features a single ekphrastic poem broken into nineteen sections that correspond to the paintings of Stanley Spencer housed in Sandham Chapel. These paintings, to my understanding, are inspired by the lives of soldiers in World War 1. How did this poem come into existence? What particularities of these paintings compelled you to write this poem?
RR: Now and then over the years, I have responded to other works of art, mainly paintings and photographs, with poems. Maybe 20 years ago or so, I ran across some work by Spencer. I think the first I saw featured St. Francis, the patron saint of animals, leading some geese out of a barnyard. I liked that that paintings and others were cartoonish/non-realistic in manner, they celebrated regular people—his models were often people from the small town he lived in—and they carried some sense of the sacred woven into the daily. Then one year I went to England to see as many of his works in person within a drivable radius from London. One stop included the Sandham Chapel paintings, and when I saw what was inside, I was knocked over.
The nineteen paintings had all those elements of his work I loved, and more. They neither glorified nor vilified war. Rather, they celebrated in understated ways the daily service work of the orderlies—changing bandages, emptying bedpans, making tea, splinting broken bones—while allowing one central canvas to square all this with Spencer's vision of the holy in the daily. Since I am often drawn, as are many writers, to the presence of mystery in the immediate, and the dignity of uncelebrated people and things, I am not surprised I was drawn to his work.
LR: And a follow up to that one. Do you see Spencer’s murals as companion pieces to the book as a whole, or were they specific to this section only?
RR: Back to the weird way books get put together: That section was put in the book at the last-draft stage. Before that, I wasn't sure the book could support an ekphrastic sequence about a painter not many Americans knew, reacting to paintings not many had seen in person or on the web. When I did insert that section, though, something about the whole book gelled. The book became an oratory, like the chapel, a space where the "songs" of all the people in the book—Secret Father, the named casualties of our nightly newscasts, the men in the field, many other subjects of my poems—seemed at home. Once that happened, Spencer's title for his sequence seemed the perfect title for my book.
LR: Several readers of this book have likened your work to prayer. Perhaps the music of the poems themselves resembles prayerful meditation. Perhaps the content in its reverence to the moment and the miracle of existence. How much (if at all) is prayer an inspiration for the music of your work? Does the rhythm and sound of your poetry come naturally, or is it something you wrestle with on the page?
RR: I do want my poems to have a musical element, some identifiable difference from speech, even when in some poems I am trying to flatten the music in the direction of talk. Other poems, of course, I want the music to be forward and center, even in the absence of conventional elements like rhyme, because music is ultimately the vehicle of feeling.
I think you are right that content and pace will often create that feeling of prayer. Another way of thinking about it is that people pray when they want to praise or face some problem or mystery. I find myself in one or both of those postures a lot when I begin poems.
LR: Another motif that pops up in your poems is water. Rain, streams, currents, shorelines. The book ends with a lovely short piece that describes memory as concave and with tides that rise and fall. Memory doesn’t “need us or our tiny boat.” You end with the line: “Just to wash through and under it toward that beach, that beach.” Can you talk about the motif of water? What is it about the image/idea of water that makes you return time and again?
RR: I have always been drawn to water, but I am also very cautious about it. I grew up near the ocean. I spent summers at a mountain lake. Both locations contain mystery and danger and joy all at once. Both also are the entryways to another life that we do not see under the surface. A beach, then, is the shore between the seen and the unseen. It's stable, even though the mind knows it will shift over time. Many of the book's poems, likewise, are on some kind of margin/shore between certainty and uncertainty, firmness and fluidity, the conscious and unconscious, and so on.
When Minnesota artist Brian Frink had a show of what he called his "Memory of Water poems," I was instantly drawn to some of them. I had memories of water myself, as we all do. I also knew memory could be like water: It could never be fixed. Memory changes slightly with each reconstruction, too. Memory, to be powerful at all, has to some extent be invented to continue. I put that short poem based on one of Frink's' paintings at the end of the book because it seemed perfect: Even with that near flux of water, there is a shore, a beach, that allows us to stand next to mystery and motion and change without being undone by it. I also like the power of ending a poem on an image. The hope is that the image hangs around a little longer in the mind, even after you close the book.
LR: What’s next for you and your work? Any new projects you’ve started?
RR: I can't really say anything about where the poems I'm writing now are going, or how they might fit into a larger book structure, for all those reasons I mentioned in my first answer. As a mid-career poet, though, my continuing challenge is to not repeat myself. If I keep challenging myself to say something in a new way, if I can lend my attention to new subject matter, even if the poems I end up writing tap into concerns I have had my whole career, I will consider that a win.
LR: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us. Congratulations again on this beautiful new collection. A treat to read and think about!
Bio: Richard Robbins grew up in Southern California and Montana. He studied with Richard Hugo and Madeline DeFrees at the University of Montana, where he earned his MFA. He has published seven books of poems, most recently The Oratory of All Souls (Lynx House Press, 2023). He has received awards from The Loft, the Minnesota State Arts Board, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Poetry Society of America. From 1986-2014, Robbins directed the Good Thunder Reading Series at Minnesota State University Mankato, where he recently retired from the creative writing program. He now lives in Oregon.