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Interview with Erin Robinsong

Erin Robinsong is a poet and interdisciplinary artist working with ecological imagination. Her debut collection of poetry, Rag Cosmology, won the 2017 A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry, and she is the author of Liquidity (House House Press, 2020) and Wet Dream (Brick Books, 2022). A PhD student at Concordia University, Erin’s research-creation work focuses on ecological imagination in contemporary poetry.

            Imagine my surprise when Erin Robinsong offers up her home for our interview, or when she shortens “evening” to “eve” in our email chain. Wednesday eve I stand outside a beautiful home and imposing stairs in Mile End. I won’t describe Mile End to you. Just know it is autumn in Montreal, and the ground is orange and crunchy. The texture of the season.

            Erin Robinsong answers the door with an easy smile. Her apartment consists of a long hallway, leading to a variety of rooms. We start in the kitchen. There is a big pot brewing. So far, I’ve found Montreal pleasantries involve a lot of culinary discovery. I try pea milk and reishi mushroom tea. It’s delicious. Robinsong seems to fit perfectly into the scene. She tells me she always loved making potions.

            This isn’t surprising. There is an entrancing quality to conversing with Erin Robinsong. Over the next hour, I attribute it to both her soft voice and those searching eyes. Robinsong does not shy away from the eye contact I insist on. In fact, her eyes move through my face, enough that at first I wondered if the new exfoliator I tried the night before had broken me out or something. This woman is reading me, I think. Like a paragraph. It is lovely.

            When had she encountered A Room of One’s Own? Erin Robinsong was about nineteen or twenty, taking a class on women’s literature. She was studying on creative writing and anthropology, and defines detailed attention to Woolf as an “opening up.”

            ER: It was a kind of opening up of what I understood as literature, the conditions under which literature is made… as a first year student it just completely opened up my brain. I don’t think I’d thought that much about gender and writing until that point.

            Robinsong remembers the genre-bending, rhetorical style the most. Content-wise, we touch on Woolf’s claim that a woman needed five hundred pounds a year and a private space in order to write. In the front room of Robinsong’s apartment, I ask her to tell me about her writing room, halfway down the hallway.

            ER: I would first of all say my writing rooms- they change a lot. For instance the room here, that is my quite opulent room at the moment. Opulent because it’s so huge. For years it has been my roommate’s room; I’ve been writing in there since I haven’t had a roommate. Which of course is a money thing, which is also what that book [A Room of One’s Own] is about, that £500 a year. It’s the most bare room in the house and there’s something about that I really love. It almost feels like stepping out of my house when I go in because I haven’t put my things in there, I haven’t kind of claimed it. It’s sometimes rented to other people. So I love writing in there for its spaciousness.

            We abandon our mugs of steaming mushroom tea to go take a look. Robinsong’s description is accurate. There is a desk by the window, facing the door. A mirror. A plant. It’s remarkably devoid. She continues, as we move through other rooms, including a cluttered small study with a balcony that couldn’t be more unlike the last room.

            ER: The quality of my thinking changes depending where I work and that’s one of the reasons I like to change locations, I think. I’m not like, ‘oh I must work somewhere else’ – circumstance means that I end up working in different spaces depending on, you know, if that room is rented out or where I am. I spend a lot of time in London because my partner lives there. So when I was there I wrote a lot at in British Library or the Wellcome Collection reading room.

            Robinsong seems to think about physical spaces a lot. Originally from Cortes Island, I ask about the Geopoetics Symposium she organized there.

            ER: The Geopoetics Symposium was a symposium and then a residency that brought a bunch of scholars and writers, mostly poets, activists, place-based educators together to think about what it means to create and think with the more than human, in the context of settler colonialism and the sixth extinction – very much engaged with the kind of conditions under which we find ourselves ecologically. That was an amazing experiment, bringing people together from quite different communities. There were a bunch of poets living on the West Coast like Rita Wong, Stephen Collis, Cecily Nicholson, Sonnet L’Abbé, Hari Alluri… They’re incredible poets who are also community activists, anti-pipeline activists. It’s something I really notice and admire about many west-coast poets, all the way down the coast, is their commitment to activism. A number of Montreal poets and artists were there as well, David Bradford, Michael Nardone, Megan Gnanasihamany, Nadia Chaney, and many others, and place-based educators from all over (I could go on – take a look here to learn more about the symposium). At the core of the gathering was the place itself, what the land, the water, the creatures, the weather, had to teach us. So much more than just being inside, listening to lectures… That’s why we did it on Cortes because it’s just an incredibly wild and alive place and it’s also where I’m from, so I had connections to Hollyhock where we put it on. It was an amazing gathering for sharing knowledge, giving workshops, talks, walking, being down by the ocean. A lot of meetings, a lot of fertile meetings.

            Talking to people has a way of expanding the definition of a room. It used to be four walls and a lock. But Erin Robinsong uses the word “fertile” to describe oral exchanges. Erin Robinsong is barefoot, like the first time I saw her read at Anteism Books. Erin Robinsong’s plant brushes my shoulder the entirety of the time we spend on her couch. I tell her, what she’s saying incorporates nature and community into conceptualizations of what a room or a space is.

            ER: That’s really beautifully put because I think that’s a big part of my practice, being outside, and engaging with the city, with birds, whatever. Often I’m interested in something in particular –  for a bunch of poems in my last book, for instance, I gathered material very early in the morning outside, in my alley, and sitting on my porch, writing with birds, bird utterance. To your point about these different kinds of rooms, the trees are part of that room with no roof, you know. So I would gather all this material outside and then come in, into the room with a roof, and then I have a different kind of focus. It’s like an aperture. I think that spaces and rooms affect so much what can be thought for me, and so I engage with that. That’s why I can only gather certain things when I’m outside, where unexpected encounters are more possible, and then bring them inside to think them differently. That movement is compelled by which kind of thinking space I’m ready for.

            You may have noticed the phrase “ecological imagination” in Robinsong’s blurb. Maybe hearing her speak, like me, you’re starting to understand what that means.

            ER: I’m really interested in the ways we conceive of ecology. Obviously how we conceive of the world shapes the world, we can see that so clearly with what’s happened to the natural world, the social world, since the Enlightenment. We’ve completely changed the weather and the climate, through many other forms of violence that both enacts and comes out of the idea that you can separate spirit and matter, that you could have a hierarchy of being which allows for some people to be more or less human than others, so you can have slavery, so you can have extraction. In this imaginary based on separation and hierarchy, animals are separated from humans, sentient from insentient matter, all this separation; that’s a certain ecological imagination that has gotten us to where we are now.

And although this way of imaging the world casts itself as universal, of course it’s not. Among traditional cultures the world over, white Eurocentric vision is the anomaly. And even then, in Europe there were, and are, lots of earth based knowledges, traditional knowledges, that were also subsumed by that Enlightenment imagination of the world: scientific empiricism, survival of the fittest… these imaginaries that we end up living inside of whether we want to or not. So I’m really interested in how, especially in poetry, other kinds of imaginations come forth. I’m also studying a lot of feminist environmental philosophy, but I’m ultimately really interested in how ecological imagination shows up in poetry because of the way language can be bent, remade and intuited there. Poetry is a space where language can have more creative freedom, to be as animate as it is, and not beholden to “Truth” or backing up statements with facts and bibliographies… it has a different ethics, a different logic that has more to do with magic and resonance. I’m deeply interested in what other conceptions of ecology there are than the ones I’ve inherited, that emerge from poets, especially poets inside empire, and my research is about that.

            Erin Robinsong has thought-out answers to my questions, and the eloquence to communicate them elegantly. It produces the sense that she’s someone with a lot to say, which is good for a poet, but also, I’m guessing, difficult. I’ve always admired how poets cut down their meaning to the barest of bone. How does that work with what Robinsong just said to me, activism, and the political power of poetry?

            ER: On the one hand I think that poetry can seem, in this capitalist context, almost the farthest thing from the political realm. And yet, there’s a lot of very political poets, I think most poets are very political…There’s so much resistance there, often through naming and reimagining of the situation we find ourselves in, which is untenable. Untenable in so many ways, but usually stemming from the same source – colonialism, imperialism, extraction, and so on.

One of poetry’s powers is that it’s so outside to mainstream culture that there’s a lot of intellectual freedom on the margins, where most people aren’t really policing or paying attention to poets. Especially within capitalism, which really wants to capture our attention and propose certain kind of life – a consumer’s life – it’s political to be a poet, if you’re really thinking and working, because in my experience at least, you come up against all the places where you have to liberate yourself in order to just think and write something that feels true, because there’s so much recycled rhetoric. So I think that poetry is a practice of political freedom whether or not it actually achieves political power. But it definitely can!

Poetry has been hugely mobilizing in other places and times. I haven’t lived in those cultures, but I know for instance in Latin America, maybe you know more about this, I’ve heard stories of poets speaking to stadiums of a hundred thousand people, having that kind of political power. So this is a long answer to say that I think poetry has – in an imaginative sense, which has the power to transform everything – immense latent political power, which at this point in time feels almost like mythical lore. But it’s happened! And at the same time, most people who are not ‘in poetry’ these days and can hardly find it… I remember having a conversation with a cab driver in London about poetry, and he was just like, ‘Tell me five books of poetry that will change my life, I don’t know anything about poetry’ and I was like ‘wow OK.’ Poetry has political power but also it needs to be findable to be part of the culture.

            I have a lot to say about this. I’m from Argentina, and Erin Robinsong is making me think about something I hadn’t before. There are whole generations where “censorship” and “exile” are almost synonyms to “poet.” I had somewhat assumed poetry had that gravity everywhere else. I’m reminded of being fourteen, at customs in California, worrying about whether they’d let me in the country because I was carrying Neruda’s autobiography in my backpack.

            ER: It’s dangerous to write in many countries, as we know. It can get you killed or imprisoned. But I was just thinking, in North American capitalist culture, instead of being killed or disappeared, which speaks to poetry’s power to incite revolution and change, the way that that this culture deals with it is just by almost disappearing poetry, burying it, making it so hard to find. Sometimes I look at a bookstore website, and you can’t even find poetry. It’s not even a section. I was looking for a wedding gift recently in Vancouver and I went into an Indigo – massive, multi-level Indigo– and I went looking for the poetry section, and there was no poetry section… Eventually I did find a shelf of poetry, it just wasn’t marked ‘Poetry’ – it was called ‘Arts & Letters’. I’m not saying it’s some big conspiracy, but I am saying that just as some regimes deal with the poetry’s disruptive powers by assassinating poets or locking them up, I think this culture deals with it by making it so poets and poetry almost can’t exist. It’s a different approach, and I would say it’s probably more effective than assassinating poets in certain regimes, because then everyone knows how actually powerful it is. We get this message that poetry doesn’t matter and that it’s totally ineffectual if you want to incite change, and almost laughable as a career and I think that is another way of hiding its power.

            A fair point. And a perfect transition into talking about money.

            ER: I think the material reality of poetry is such an important thing to talk about. I sustain myself by, let’s see, first, doing a lot of freelance editing work. Before that, I taught composition for five years in a college. I also make performance, often funded by grants. And grants for writing are wonderful when they come in. So I’ve patchworked a living from many different sources. It’s often been very stressful. I’ve been pretty broke most of my adult life and I think if I had children or dependents, it would have been a million times more stressful. Swinging from branch to branch, is how it’s felt. I think that I’m able to do that because if I ever fell, I’m lucky to have a family who would catch me. I think it’d be very hard to live such a precarious financial life if I didn’t have a supportive family. Not that they’ve had to bail me out very often, but just knowing they were there is a certain kind of privilege that enabled me to take risks I guess. At the moment, I’m a PhD student and have funding for a few years and honestly, after being freelance for so long, that’s been amazing. It’s given me space in my own brain because navigating all of the, you know, waiting for this cheque to come in, waiting to get paid from this thing, waiting to hear about grants, all of this kind of constant negotiation just to do what I do.

Money can help or hinder an artist. I think if I always had money I wouldn’t have learned certain things. I learned a lot about the shoddiness of capitalism and that is a pretty important thing to know in this world. It’s a shitty thing to learn about but this is the situation! But I also don’t subscribe to the starving artist trope, like if you’re a poet you have to be poor. In my 30s, I went the route of centering my creative work, and it meant that all my other jobs kind of supported that even if it meant I was broke. So that’s one model.

            The other part that makes up the material reality of poetry is community. I ask Erin Robinsong about any groups she belongs to, and it’s hard to keep track of all she mentions. Several writing communities, artists of many disciplines (especially dance) in Montreal, a collective of poets in London. Mentors like Lisa Robertson and this project’s own Sina Queyras. In her hometown on Cortes: lifelong friends, family and lovers of that place. The one constant is that they are all inter-disciplinary. Robinsong is thinking alongside dancers, cultural theorists, artists, poets.

            ER: In my chosen communities, it’s so much about how are people thinking and how are they working with form, rather than disciplinary enclaves. That’s what really excites me and interests me. A lot of my community has to do with conversations around ecology, around justice, and around art and collaboration… I really like moving between communities as much as really belonging in them, I would say.

            In so many spaces and between so many people, there must be different ways of relating to each other. Has Robinsong seen or experienced any power dynamics?

            ER: Yes! I often work collaboratively, especially on dance projects, and I don’t think you can collaborate without power dynamics being present. Especially when there are roles – like, choreographers and dancers. So I’m interested in how you work with these dynamics to create an environment where everyone feels empowered. Collaboration is an opportunity to create a mini-culture together, to try and have a truly collaborative space where we make something together, and what we make depends on the relational space we’re making at the same time. Working with dancer/choreographer Hanna Sybille Müller for several years now, I learned from her that one way to address power dynamics, in really practical terms, is to just pay everybody the same amount of money. Nobody gets paid less. The dancers make the same per hour as the choreographer and the lighting designer, which is not how it’s traditionally been. That’s one of the ways that we’ve tried to address power dynamics, fully acknowledging that they are going to exist. We also have a lot of discussion, and if the dancers are not into what we’re proposing, we change it, or they change it, we change it together. It works best when working with people who are alive and awake and responsible to power dynamics, because egos need to be flexible. The best collaborations I’ve been part of are where people have clear roles, but no hierarchy… how do we create a culture that feels good? And you can feel it, right? I’ve been in other pieces where you feel that people are unhappy and you feel that too. I’ve of course encountered very toxic power relations too, mostly in institutions – classic stuff where the white men have all of the power, the publications, and abuse it. And as much as that hasn’t changed in some ways, we’ve all seen how fast it can shift in recent years too.

            Coming from someone responsible for the building of an environment, the acknowledgment of power dynamics, and the conscious treatment of them, are welcome words. It has me thinking about the mental space of collaboration, where Robinsong seems firmly rooted and most comfortable in.

            My last question is almost antithetical to everything I know about her. What does technology have to do with this woman, so down to earth, speaking so respectfully about nature and people?

            ER: I’m sure that social media is shaping my attention, my desires, in ways that are making it hard for me to read a book from start to finish. It’s definitely attention fracturing. In terms of poetry… We’re swimming in technology. So I don’t think that’s a problem, really, in poetry, except for when I’m distracted for so long that I’m not writing it…Maybe what I’ll say is one of the ways in my practice that I’ve really found to work, that is maybe similar to the movement between working outside and working inside I described earlier, is that I do a similar thing in moving between my notebooks and writing on computer. I think differently when I’m typing. That might have less to do with the computer and more because I’m using both my hands and all my fingers, and can write faster, but again, I see these as different compositional tools that I really rely on to shift states of mind, to think different thoughts. I think if I had my computer taken away and I had to write everything by hand, I would have to adapt, I would have to find new ways, because writing poetry is so physical. And one of things I always think about computers is we can actually write with all of our fingers. Right and left at the same time. That is pretty wild compared to, you know, this little claw we’re writing with the rest of the time. Obviously writing with a pen and a book is another kind of technology, literacy is technology. I’m interested in what each of these technologies allow me to do, allow me to think, and how combining them affords more range of motion for thinking. I mean, I’m not making VR poems at this moment but maybe I will. Despite what I was saying earlier about how no one can find poetry, a lot of people are finding poetry on Instagram and that is a really amazing way, besides buying books, that poetry can move. Not only people posting their poems on Instagram, but also posting old poems, all kinds of poems, circulating, being shared. It’s an incredible medium for the virality of poetry. The popular surge in poetry is not because of social media, I think it’s because people will always need poetry, especially when the world makes completely no fucking sense. When things make no fucking sense, you’re like ‘I need poetry.’ I don’t know what the statistics are, but I know interest in poetry from ten years ago to now is hugely significant. People ascribe that to Instagram and stuff but I think it’s because Instagram is facilitating a way that people have needed, you know, before social media, to find what speaks to them.

            I stand corrected. Then I pull out my phone, and take pictures of Erin Robinsong moving her arms. She relaxes as soon as she’s in motion, fluid. She smiles. I thank her for her time, inviting me into her home, her thoughtful responses. She thanks me too.  Asks for just one more thing to be added.

            ER: A room is an atmosphere. Montreal is a room. A wide room. I can only write what I write because I’m living here.

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