Robin Becker’s collections of poetry include The Black Bear Inside Me, Tiger Heron, Domain of Perfect Affection, The Horse Fair, All-American Girl and Giacometti’s Dog, all in the Pitt Poetry Series. Becker has received fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Liberal Arts Research Professor of English Emeritus at Penn State, Becker served as the Penn State Laureate during the 2010-2011 academic year. Her poetry column, ‘Field Notes,’ appears in The Women’s Review of Books, where she serves as Poetry Editor. Becker reviews poetry for The Georgia Review. Recent poems have appeared in The American Poetry Review and The New Yorker.
Previous Featured American Poets
THW9: March 7, 2018
The High Window is pleased to include three new poems by Robin Becker. But here she is first in conversation with Richard Hoffman who was himself our Featured American Poet in THW6: June 3, 2017.
Pattern vs. Disruption: A Conversation between American Poets Richard Hoffman and Robin Becker
RH: Let me get us started by noting that even when your poems are not strictly formal, Robin, there is always the shadow or echo of traditional form behind— either just behind or at a little more distance— your poems. I’ve been reading your work, and hearing you read from it now and again, for many years. I can remember hearing you read, a while back, “The Triumph of Charlotte Salamon” and wanting to see the poems in that sequence on the page to see if I’d guessed correctly that the lines were strictly metered. They were not. In fact the poem, in several sections, is lineated in an unconventional way reflective of its shifts and turns of phrase.
RB: Today, working on a new poem in three-line stanzas, I found myself counting syllables, mindful of where the blank verse line would end and trying to decide on the word (or syllable) on which I wanted the line to turn. Regularity versus surprise; musical pattern versus disruption; these issues ghost my poems. Why? Because in 7th grade (at an excellent girls’ Quaker school) Miss Bickley had us reading Wordsworth, where I heard the music of the iambic pentameter line before I had any idea what the words actually meant!
RH: In the first section of Tiger Heron, you write about losing beloved women, your mother, and, one gathers, your friend and mentor the poet Maxine Kumin. I know first hand the affection you had for Maxine. I could always hear it in the way you spoke about her, and I want to say that you have honored her well in the poem “Hospice,” her no nonsense approach to loving life, the way her poems are hard-edged but never bloodless or cold.
RB: Maxine Kumin had a tremendous influence on me as a woman and as a poet. In contrast to my actual teacher, Anne Sexton, Maxine represented a woman poet who loved her life. I needed that, and I ran towards Maxine and her work when I had the chance. Richard, you use the words “no nonsense approach to loving life” in describing Maxine’s way of being in the world—and I think you got it right. She loved her family, her old farmhouse, her prolific vegetable garden, her many horses, her rescued dogs, her cherished friends, her travels, her poetry. She said on more than one occasion that “form” allowed her to handle subjects that she found too difficult otherwise, that the shaping properties of form “grounded” her. I’ve come to feel much the same way.
RH: Is there a poem of yours that still mystifies you? One that truly “came out of nowhere?” That arrived unbidden, maybe at an inopportune moment, but that would not be denied? The kind where you have to drop everything and serve it?
RB: I would call the poem “Sisters in Perpetual Motion,” published in The Horse Fair, an example of a poem that “came out of nowhere.” The poem concerns the conditions of my sister’s mental illness and eventual suicide. I wrote it in one day during the year I spent as a Bunting Fellow at The Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study at Harvard. I had gone to a lecture by a “Sister-Fellow” (as we called one another in the days when the Institute admitted women, only) who, in her “regular life,” taught law. Shortly after her talk, I found myself absorbed in the language of jurisprudence, and this poem emerged, almost complete.
RH: I had a strange thought reading your poem “Prairie Dog,” — I wonder if there isn’t an element of Ars Poetica in that image of disentangling the poor bloody animal from the barbed wire fence? You can turn away, let it die, tell yourself it’s unlikely to live anyway. I don’t mean to interpret the whole poem that way since it is a meditation on the death of Matthew Shepard, but that image is so resonant that I have carried it with me ever since reading the poem. Am I making any sense? We’re old friends, you can reel me back in if I’ve drifted too far.
RB: I never thought of “Prairie Dog” as an Ars Poetica, but I’m intrigued by your connecting the poor, bloody animal on barbed wire to the wresting of a poem from inside ourselves. At the time of composition, the creature stood for martyrs: Matthew Shepard and the countless others “left to die” and left out, counted out by social and political and economic injustice. That said, poetry, like all the arts, also gets counted out, sacrificed when fear-mongering and scapegoating create a climate in which the powerful make resources seem “scarce.”
RH: One of the things I notice reading your body of work all together is the interesting interplay of lyric and narrative in the poems. You do have this in common with Kumin so I wonder if you think it derives from knowing and admiring her work so deeply and so well. In fact, I wonder if I could get you to talk a bit about your education as a poet, and its evolution because after all it doesn’t really end.
RB: As a kid, I always wanted to write “stories,” and I did so for a long time. I struggled to make “what happened” to people in my stories have some “resonance” or connect to larger social themes. In time, I came to understand that I had no real gift for imagining a “whole life;” my gift was for expanding a moment—through description and imagery—and looking at it from many angles. Eventually, I was able to combine “story” with imagery, coming up with my own type of narrative poem.
RH: You have now published six books with University of Pittsburgh Press. What a great list they have! Can you talk a little bit about working with them? About the editorial process?
RB: I’ve had the amazing good fortune of working with Pitt Poetry Series Editor and poet Ed Ochester, the most gifted and straight-forward editor I can imagine. On more than one occasion, Ed turned back a book I submitted to him, telling me that I could do better. On both occasions, he advised me to take more time, do more writing, put aside the existing manuscript and let myself go. On both occasions he made the book better. Of course I was disappointed, but I’d learned, over the eighteen years we’ve worked together (he chose my first book in 1990), that I could trust his judgement. That he had my best interests at heart.
RH: Your new book, The Black Bear Inside Me, ventures further into ecological, political, and historical subjects. I mean, these have always been present in your work, but there is a fuller development of these concerns here, and maybe a greater urgency. I guess I’m asking you to talk a bit about how you see your work continuing to mature and grow, as evidenced by this new book.
RB: Richard, thanks for asking this question. Your awareness of some new urgency in these poems feels right to me. In this collection, I wed the personal and political in explicit ways, noting the interconnectedness of life on this planet. For example, the title poem asks readers to imagine a “speaking” black bear, explaining, to humans our habitat crisis. Several poems take up the devastating consequences in the USA of unregulated gun access —in schools and in Florida, at the Pulse (LGBTQ) night club. Another poem uses a New York Times article as a starting point for thinking about global capitalism and the fishing industry in Asia. I hope continue to weave the personal and political in meaningful ways—for myself and for my readers.
RH: I suppose we should wrap this up. I hope to see you soon.
RB: OK, Richard, take care. Great talking to you.
And here are three poems by Robin Becker:
As the animal returns on a beaten path
to the den, we go back over the facts
certain we ignored clear signs.
I left for Italy that summer, though
she had quit her job and moved back home.
I knew it signaled a bad turn but chose
the Tuscan love affair in the 17th century
olive mill. We say we survive our siblings’
suicides, meaning we stood with our parents
at the unthinkable graves. In one theory,
the troubled family sacrifices one member,
as plants surrender leaves in times of drought.
The dog I love is turning into my father
an old man I have to humor to get up
do his business he even growls like my father
and gives me the eye I never know what kind
of mood I’ll find when he wakes from a nap
and with stiff joints makes his way to the kitchen
when it rains he turns from the door whining
peckish when it snows he refuses to wear a coat
when people visit he remembers his old
manners and sometimes joins us on the couch
and falls asleep snoring like my father who
never had much use for my conversation
and showed his teeth when I
displeased him collared as he was
and made to heel by his betters
after guests leave he stares at his food sometimes
I ignore him sometimes I plunge my hands
into the smelly stuff and he eats from my palm
SISTERS IN PERPETUAL MOTION
xxxxunhoused and unhinged, they are rapt in
xxxxxxxa perpetual motion of paraphernalia
trundling from Kendall to Central, Harvard to Porter.
xxxxOne in a gentleman’s greatcoat—
xxxxxxxworsted gabardine and fur collar—
holds a sidebar conference with herself, pushes her metal
xxxxshopping cart, argues with the invisible
xxxxxxxcensorious judge of Mass Ave.
Parallel to traffic, she retains a centrifugal
xxxxrelationship to the lanes she occupies, strides
xxxxxxxaway from the main, parent axis of rotation,
abjures public transportation or charity and returns,
xxxxearly evening, cold, coincident with those of us
xxxxxxxnot charged with a dilemma of streets.
She sleeps in undocumented doorways and on grates and
xxxxin neighborhood parks on benches and propped
xxxxxxxon soiled cushions she pushes,
and even her sleep toboggans through the cantonments
xxxxof temporary habitation. I wake in a white Victorian.
xxxxxxxShe wheels her cart in time-lapse storefront glare.
Sponge of pocked foam bedding. Torn lining of a brown coat.
xxxxThus I remember my sister, her unbuilt days
xxxxxxxof compulsive walking before she decamped
to clinics and psych wards. Her walkabouts. Her unfettered speech.
xxxxHer terrorist phone calls and the tyranny
xxxxxxxof her jurisdiction: thus, beleaguered,
she engineered a siege and won. Timber up a frame dwelling
xxxxI said. Explain yourself to yourself. In the end,
xxxxxxxthe cops broke down the door of an empty house to find her.
Richard Hoffman has published four volumes of poetry, Without Paradise; Gold Star Road, winner of the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize and the Sheila Motton Award from The New England Poetry Club; Emblem; and his new collection Noon until Night. His other books include the celebrated Half the House: a Memoir, published in a 20th Anniversary Edition last year, the 2014 memoir Love & Fury, and the story collection Interference and Other Stories. His work, both prose and verse, appears in such journals as Agni, Barrow Street, Consequence, Harvard Review, Hudson Review, The Literary Review, The Manhattan Review, Poetry, Witness and elsewhere. A former Chair of PEN New England, he is Senior Writer in Residence at Emerson College in Boston.