I first read Robyn Schiff’s work in an undergraduate poetry workshop in 2010, and, I remember, struggled to articulate its effect on me. This was a poet who seemed to treat language first and foremost as a material, stretching it like a jeweler with a gob of molten silver, deploying long, sinuous, many-hinged sentences that shifted register and tone in each new clause. Often the poems used invented syllabic forms, their technical prowess and almost legalistic precision counterpoised by a sense of imaginative wildness, even danger. They could make almost anything happen, I thought.
I wasn’t alone; it turns out Schiff enjoys a kind of cult status among readers with a taste for poetry that combines complex social critique with groundbreaking formal rigor. In class, we read her second book, Revolver (2008); since then, she has put out a third, A Woman of Property (2016), which investigates maternity and domesticity in an age of consumerism and, relevantly enough, contagion. The Yale Review published an excerpt from Information Desk: An Epic—a book-length poem in progress based on her time working in the Metropolitan Museum of Art—in our latest issue.
I met Schiff at The Yale Review Festival at Yale University in February, where she spoke on panels about contemporary poetry and writing in a time of political turmoil, sharing insights as unsettling and bristling with detail as her poems. We corresponded afterward over email.
Maggie Millner What do you see as the social dimensions of your work? Do you feel yourself writing with more of a social impetus in this manuscript than in your previous books, which were written during previous presidential administrations?
Robyn Schiff This is a fascinating question, and I think often about how especially the tone, and certainly the policy and politics of any particular epoch, form and inform the aesthetics and content of lyric expression. I grew up a trickle-down child of Reagan and George H. W. Bush though, and made my first aesthetic convictions under the administrations of Clinton and George W.—not Obama.
Honestly, the memory that stays with me most from my formative grad school days at Iowa in the late 1990s—where we might beautifully dispute a single word in workshop for an hour—was the post-workshop postmortem with my friend Lana while we watched the Monica Lewinsky testimony coverage together. “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is” is a line of Bill Clinton’s, not Gertrude Stein’s. What poet could resist this meditation on grammar and time and syntax to either truth-tell, or lie? Or the literal material evidence in that case—the presidential-semen-stained blue dress!? There under the light of CSPAN, I forged a new syntax for myself to write a book about power, capitalism and intrinsic value, violence and misogyny, named Worth, for the nineteenth-century dressmaker. That’s my origin story.
From there, I trained myself to double-down on the intricacies of syntax to enact the convolutions of American violence in resistance to the agrammatical barrage of bullshit Bush the Second spewed after 9/11. Responding to the dumbed-down sound-bite patriotism of the political rhetoric of that era, which I see now as an unbearable prelude to the insidiousness of Twitter either as a political, marketing, or self-fashioning tool, really inspired a commitment in me to value depth and argument. I wrote Revolver, which is about how America represents itself to itself as Americana, under that moon. A Woman of Property is a little different. It was written under the tone of the Obama era, but I never bought the calm America was trying to sell to itself then—how could we, knowing both that the backlash to Obama’s brilliance was coming soon, and that what looked like collective dignity to ourselves at home, was just off-shore looting and murder by remote control, just American cognitive dissonance, as always? Tonally, the poems I was writing then pitch toward the coming inevitability of Trump. I think they came off “paranoid” or anxious; but there’s a Jewish child in the book (my child) who is cast in shame as the boy who cries wolf, about which I write (crassly quoting myself here, with apologies), “It [the wolf] was coming, but it was not the truth yet. Do not hire a prophet to do nearsighted work. It’s not the boy’s fault you’re not ready for him.” And here we are, having elected that wolf president! The children knew this was coming. That’s how the playground works! The book I’m writing now, Information Desk: An Epic, is full-on planet-is-on fire, monopoly-economy Kavanaugh-is-the-judge invective against everything I hate about American swagger and money.
MM In a panel at the Yale Review Festival, Cathy Park Hong commended your long, syntactically complex sentences as stays against our shortening attention spans. You replied that those sentences in some ways misrepresent your own short attention span, though; your sentences are in fact crafted over many months or years. How might poetic form, for you, be an extension of social or sociopolitical concerns?
RS I love this question. Thank you! I therapeutically use the long sentence and formal patterning like some people knit, count the rosary, or lay sand mandalas. I find it meditative, grounding, useful, and essentially spiritual to slow down and count my syllables as I choose them, and to craft a single sentence over the course of a long period of time—yeah, sometimes a year. I’m very often a syllabicist, and I shape stanza lengths for arbitrary, absurd reasons. The poem I’m working on now is comprised of 6-line stanzas that all contain the number of syllables coinciding with my age. Although the line lengths differ, the stanzas all add up to first 45, then 46, and now 47 syllables, as I age while the poem is in progress. In this sense, I’m always reckoning as I write, and thinking about the relationship between accounting in the narrative sense, accounting in a financial, receipt-keeping sense, and the accountability of a poet holding herself to the kind of complicated, sometimes convoluting high standard of accuracy in self-expression that confuses the tea party when Alice, the Rabbit, and the Mad Hatter get into it over the difference between saying what you mean, and meaning what you say. I’m very actuarial and lawyerly as a writer, and I feel an intrinsic relationship between language, accounting, accountability, soul work, and truth. Something about this is, yes, sociopolitical, too, as you put it, for reasons that have to do with being a woman who refuses to be silenced, I suppose; and certainly, as we talked about in your last question, a US citizen who is resistant to being spoken for and to in over-simplistic double-speak. And yet, something about the scale of the long sentence as an extreme unit is absurd—and I’m increasingly interested in absurdity as an aesthetic mode to enact our national moment.
MM You refer to “Information Desk: An Epic,” in your introductory note to TYR’s recent poetry Folio, as a poem “that has novelistic sweep, but is nevertheless factual.” What does “factuality” mean to you as a poet in 2020?
RS I strive to sing a new song about America with veracity, accuracy, and precision simultaneously in two voices: one of my voices is a fact witness, the other an expert witness. Or if this were a football game, I’m both the play-by-play guy, and the color commentator. I think precision is the most sacred value in all writing. This is a political and moral imperative. Sometimes, where imagination is concerned, that means being true to the world of one’s making—nothing vague, nothing undercooked; where nonfictional writing is concerned, that means striving to be true to the world as it is. No exceptions. I quoted Clinton on the verb “is” earlier, so I’ll continue on that riff to say that to know what “is” is, and deny it, is a betrayal of the art form. For me, poetry is somewhere between nonfiction and imagination—so it has to be true both to is and to if.
MM Did you always feel you would excavate the experience of working at the information desk at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in a piece of writing?
RS Since the first moment I sat down in my little spinning chair behind the information desk at the Met, I have been excavating the experience. I knew immediately that I was in the thick of it there, and information took on a new meaning that felt from the first question posed to me to be inherently the stuff of poetry.
MM Going back to the subject of length for a moment, I wonder if you set out to write a long poem, or if Information Desk began as a shorter poem and just kept growing. Which is it?
RS I intentionally set out to go long. It was a little feminist joke to self about what a man of my age and ambition would do next: obviously, write an epic. I think the word “epic” is grandiose, hilarious, arrogant, and self-important. When I stopped laughing inside, I took a deep breath, and said, “Okay, it’s on.”