Interview with Ed Roberson
LFC Lit Fest Tues Feb. 28th, 2:30pm
Author Interview: Ed Roberson
I Grew Here Too
CM: I just have a dozen questions, and most of them are actually more than one. Some of them may be repetitive of the informal interview and things you’ve talked about before. My first one is, what brought you to writing in general and environmental writing in particular?
ER: Writing in general? I like to read. I like to draw, making marks on paper, taking notes—and not a real formal journal, just writing things down—I began to make sense. Then when I began to really write poetry, it was a “let’s try this” kind of thing. I just tried to learn the formal qualities of writing. Sonnets first. I was amazed. They had all these little patterns and things that actually work together. Little machines that actually made meaning. I was so fascinated by metaphor, by formal conceits. I was really fascinated with the way they were set up, with the order. So that’s one of the things, the formal qualities. The visual thing came later. I had a real love for surrealism. You know, when you first start to draw in Jr. High school or high school. I had a real fascination with surrealism because it was so odd. The idea that you could actually make that kind of mystery with words also. It got my attention quick.
CM: And so was the environmental writing just the aspect that fit into the poetry?
ER: The environmental writing came a little later. I worked in undergrad as an assistant, and so I went on these expeditions or these collecting tours I’d sort of just make notes to myself about what I saw. I began to turn it into writing. I think really what I’m saying—and I’ve said this before—is that I started at the very beginning at nature writing, because I was taking notes of the mountains and the things where we worked.
CM: Okay, thank you. My second question is how would you classify your writing and your style as a writer? Do you have a single or a multifaceted voice, and how would you define your voice as a writer?
ER: Oh, boy, that’s hard. It’s hard in one way, but it’s easy in another way for me. I always liked the choral voice. I always called my voice—the voice that I wanted to write—a choral voice. So there’s more than one person speaking. There’s more than one idea. It is larger than just myself. It had a polyphonic music, not a single authority in the music. There were voices that pulled back or syncopated, as well as a voice that moves straight forward. So I used to, at the beginning, call it a polyphonic voice. I had a polyphonic voice, or I was trying to create a polyphonic voice. It’s a little more than that now. I’m not exactly sure what. It’s just more.
CM: Okay. My third question is then; do you differentiate between writing and environmental writing? Then, what’s the difference? Do you view yourself as an environmental writer or a writer who happens to write on environmental topics?
ER: You know, the way you frame that up, it used to be—this is a new term, for the second question. I started out as a nature writer not even thinking I was a nature writer. That’s what I was looking at. That was what I was doing. That’s what I was interested in. So, you bring up the question, when did I know that? That question is very much like when people would come to me back in the 60s and the 70s and say, “are you a writer, or are you a black writer, or are you a writer who is black, or a black who is a writer?”
CM: They would ask, how you would define yourself?
ER: Yeah. That’s the way the question you just made to me—it’s exactly the same kind of question. I answered that question by saying that I would be what people read. I would be what people saw. So people would call me a black writer and I would say, “well, that’s nice,” but is that what black people call me? It was important to me that I didn’t call myself a black writer. And—I’ve said this in other places—I could answer questions, interview questions, in a way that would hit the moment. But the fact of the matter—the truth of the matter—was that I had a private deal going with myself, that I would be a black writer, and black folks recognized me as a writer, which would be black folks saying “you’re a good writer and you’re one of our writers. We want to read you.” So, it became a point. I won an award actually from the Gwendolyn Brooks Center, the International Hall of Fame for writers of color, and, if there was a point where the question had answered itself, that was the moment. So when you’re asking me, am I an environmental writer or when did I think I was an environmental writer, I can say, along the same lines, that I haven’t felt myself to be an environmental writer because I’ve just been writing, and whether it’s nature writing, I haven’t been calling it that. It’s been writing to me. And it’s writing that comes out of my life. I write about mountains, but there was a period in my life where I was very much interested in climbing in the mountains. For years I haven’t been in the woods with birds, but I still have that unbelievable attachment to birds. You know, that kind of thing. The first time I saw a loon, I was staring, a kid from Pittsburgh staring across a Canadian lake, and all of a sudden this bird that’s sitting right there disappears. “Wow, wow, wait a minute.” Is this a rock sterling? What’s going on here? Then suddenly it hit. Oh, it’s a loon. It’s a diving bird. That kind of learning; I just love to see them do whatever they do. Gulls, starlings—nasty starlings. We have—up on the fifteenth floor of a twenty-two-story building—a red tailed hawk that I watched grow up and he is so good. Crows after him, every day crows come after him. He is so good. I actually saw him, he was flying right towards the window, and crows were diving at him, and he made a roll, a complete roll without ever losing a beat. Came up through the building. Saw us. Crows stopped.
CM: Urban hawk.
ER: Yeah. He just petered right off to the side, and just turned the crows into disorder. So you know, I still have that fascination with the nature going on around me. I saw the people, the city people, were posting no-parking signs cause they were going to clean the streets. The crows came along and were untying them.
CM: Crows are smart creatures.
ER: Stealing string.
CM: Thieving then.
ER: They wanted the string. They’d stand there or hang there, and peck on it and pull on it and carry on until it came loose, and then they’d just fly away with it. I sat there and watched them, and they were so patient; just took it apart. So that kind of thing, you know, just laugh at myself and laugh at them. I guess the answer is that I just do not know when I became an environmental writer or a nature writer.
CM: It’s not a label you really give to yourself.
ER: No, it’s not anything I really want.
CM: Okay, number four, another multi-part question. What does environmental writing mean to you? What is an environment, the Environment, is there a difference between environmental writing and nature writing, and then what is your environment?
ER: It’s very hard to know where to begin. When you were asking—I guess the thing I hadn’t really asked myself was what was the difference between environmental writing and nature writing. I would say, that environmental writing pays real attention to picturing and understanding the interconnections between different aspects of nature, and us being one of the aspects of nature. Environmental writing is that interconnection. Nature writing is kind of looking at the whole thing—not focusing on the interconnections, but that sort of “Aha!” moment of wholeness—or the ecstasy moment that Mark was talking about that’s in a piece of work. That ecstasy moment had more to do with the wholeness of the thing than just a connection between the parts. What makes it environmental writing—what makes it environmental, also, even though it’s nature writing, what makes people want to pull it off into environmental—is that you include yourself. I don’t think you should get any real credit for including yourself. I think you should get to the point where you see that, “I’m a lot like a tree; I grew here too.” So being able to accept yourself as “I grew here too” or “this is the kind of soil I need, this is the kind of sunshine I need to grow,” being able to understand that is part of the wholeness. So that’s the ecstasy moment, when you can really see yourself comfortably as part of it.
CM: Okay, great. What do you define as your environment?
ER: My environment? I thought about this in a different way a couple months ago. I had to change my address on all the official papers, and I’ve lived in so many different kinds of places and traveled in so many different places that I really do enjoy being everywhere. I’m one of those few people who like airports. I like when they work. I like to stroll through the airport and see all the people from all the different places—some of them dressed, some of them not dressed, look like they just got out of bed. That mass of folks on their way to someplace with something to do was really exciting to me. Or people just sitting around, waiting to do something is exciting to me. One of my favorite pictures I got in New York in Grand Central Station. It’s a picture of three little brothers and they’ve all got their suspenders on—their long pants and suspenders and little hats—and they’re sitting on their suitcases in Grand Central and you don’t know if they’re coming up from the South or going back down south, you know, but there’s the three brothers. I’m the oldest of five brothers, and that pictures always reminded me of, “okay guys, this is us.”
CM: All gathered and good to go.
ER: We’re all over the country now. One is in Connecticut. Two are finally in Pittsburg. One is out in California. I’m in Chicago. We’re spread out all over. So my environment moves. My environment is on the move. I’m really comfortable when I’m moving. And, you know, I’m moving in relation to a horizon. I mean I like to. I just read this book about humans and how important survival on the savannah was and how it forms basic likes and dislikes for us, and horizon was one of them. Being able to see long distances from up above things so you can defend yourself.
CM: From a prospect.
ER: Yeah, and I was reading that chapter and I was saying, “yeah, he got it right.” This is what I want. This is what I like. So that’s what my environment is, horizon and prospect.
CM: All the answers I’m getting are so interesting. My fifth question then is, what is the purpose of writing to or for you, and the purpose of environmental writing?
ER: The purpose of writing. It’s funny, the questions you’re asking all came up in the last six to ten weeks in this course that’s called—this course at Northwestern—called the Situation of Writing. We’re reading about humans moving from oral traditions to written traditions, and how those different technologies change us. Then I was reading The Art Instinct, the Dutton book that say’s “well, it’s biology,” so that’s come up again. I’ve asked myself “why, why do I keep going back to writing?” And I said the other day, the thing about that my head gets lonely.
ER: It was a feeling that I had. I have to find a better way to express that. It is a kind of loneliness for ideas, a loneliness for beauty, and your ideas and your beauty. Sometimes I feel that if I don’t write for a long period of time—or sometimes it’s not writing, it’s a feeling or experiencing stuff—if I don’t get that poetry thing—whether it’s on a page or just walking—something’s wrong. It gets lonely. It’s all those. It popped out at me the other day when we were talking, and I had to laugh at myself as I was talking, you know that “my head gets lonely.” It sounds like me. You’re talking to yourself, myself, and my head gets lonely. But that’s true.
CM: That engagement. That intellectual engagement.
ER: So that’s an important writing thing for me. And, why am I writing? Because I also get lonely for not just my own head but—you know how you want to go on a walk in the woods, or you want to go out to splash around in some water, and you want those textures, feel the bottoms and all? It’s the same with wanting to write about things like that. I want to be able to write about my world around me. I think, he (Mark Spitzer) said desire. When we were talking he said desire. He wanted to desire those things, and I want to make my world around me, or make my experience. I want to show the desire that’s there. So that’s part of the reason I write about the things around me the way I do. I don’t know if this is making any sense to you.
CM: No, no. It does. It’s always fascinating to hear authors reflect on their own processes. So the sixth question is then, do you write with an articulated writing philosophy, either internally or externally expressed? If so, what is it? And the second half of the question is how do you approach the page? How do you come to writing?
ER: Get out of the way. That comes from Spicer, Jack Spicer. His thing is that you trust the writing that comes outside you, that there is an outside, and you do talk to the outside. The outside presents you with things, and all you have to do is write them down, but you have to be honest and you have to trust it. I always translated that, when I talk to my students and we talk about Spicer—Spicer is one of those folks that drives people up the wall, so we always get good discussion—one of the things we all boil that down to is “get out of the way of your own writing.” There are a lot of versions of that—people talk about it, teachers have different ways of saying it—but we always work out to, get out of the way of yourself. Get out of the way of your writing. It’s important.
CM: Okay. So you approach writing with much more openness than intention? You more let it happen.
ER: Yeah. I’ll start it out with intention. I’ll get a real visual. I get an image, and I work a lot with images and metaphor, and that’s probably the real basis of how I work. So figures: figures, metaphors or autonomy. So I’ll get this image, then I’ll just start talking to it, and let it begin to repeat me, and sort of respond to what it’s feeding me. I don’t lay that out as a plan where I’m: step one, step two, step three. But I want that to happen; hope that happens when I sit down. It doesn’t always. Writing is real chancy. You don’t know what you’re getting. So it’s not like I know all the time. Nobody really knows. Mark said that he’s gotten to a point where he wants six pages a day, but then he also said that he revises so much. He doesn’t throw them away. So it’s six pages, but that’s not forever. I like that. I like that idea.
CM: That exactitude. So, question number seven. Do you agree or disagree with the following statements: writing is communication, writing is self-expression, writing is art, and writing is a tool? Why do you agree or disagree? And are any of these statements mutually exclusive or mutually inclusive?
ER: I don’t think any of them work on their own. Just expression, you can do that, but that’s what it is. You can put that in a drawer as self-expression. Art is what sometimes happens when you write something and do all this stuff and it just goes out into the public. I think by the time your work is published, it isn’t yours anymore. So in that sense, it becomes art whether you want it to or not. Hoping it becomes art, but it’s out of your hands, and it becomes a community thing, and it has to communicate with another person first before it’s communicated, so all those things have to work together. You have to be clear about your expression, allow your expression, and be honest enough with yourself that the expression is true, and then make it believable to someone, which is your communication level. The teaching thing is that they’re learning something about you. Something is happening there that they didn’t do, so it’s new to them, so they’re learning something. All of that works together, and then when it becomes out-of-your-hands and property of the community, then you can say, “well, now it’s in the hands of art.” So, all-of-that levels out.
CM: They’re all connected to each other. Question eight. Should an author write about what they know, or about their own environment? And, how would you define knowledge for a writer? Is it research and study or more experience?
ER: You want to find out. You want to find out. You want to find what it is in your own words. That’s what teachers say, “put it in your own words.” You do want to put it in your own words, because putting it in your words is making sense out of it. It’s ordering in a way that’s your furniture. Your words, the way you use your words, your furniture of the house of knowledge. You arrange your living room in the way you want to live in it. You’re making sense. The second part of that was?
CM: The second part was how would you define knowledge for a writer? Is it research and study or experience? Or a combination?
ER: You’re writing to find out. You’re constructing your knowledge from the world around you. So, I think your personal research or you emotional research is as important as hitting the dictionary—getting the right spelling and all that—because you’re actually hitting the question to find out whether that response or emotion is true or honest and what it means to you. You’re doing more research than library research. I tend to handle it—I kind of respect people who handle writing that way. Poetry is your search, you know.
CM: So do you see knowledge and writing as having an reciprocal relationship? Writing feeds into knowledge and knowledge feeds into writing?
ER: Yeah, oh yeah. Yeah, oh sure.
CM: Number nine—which is the last of the general questions—is, if you had one piece of advice for aspiring environmental writers—
ER: Oh, no. Don’t ask me that question.
CM: A take-home message, a one-liner, the quote-we-can-keep-for-the-rest-of-the-lit-fest, what would it be? If you don’t have one, that’s a statement too. If there’s not one take-home-message, that’s also a message.
ER: Yeah, that’s it. There isn’t one take-home message. It’s very different for everybody. Writers will tell you all kind of different things.
CM: I guess if you don’t have any advice or take-home message, what has worked for you to be an affective and prolific writer?
ER: Friends and readers. Yeah. Friends and readers. I kind of didn’t—mine was an unusual situation because I didn’t belong to anybody. I wasn’t in the academic thing because I was an administrator. My boss in university administration, my dean—I was his assistant—my dean was a musician, so he was an artist himself. He was always on me about not writing. “You have to keep your art.” He was always on me about that, keeping the art, getting better. Keeping writing, make sure I was writing. He was on me. There were even times—you stay up all night with a poem and you get crazy, so you come in to the office—he took a hold of me and said, “go into your office and close the door.” He actually said that to me. “Go into your office and close the door. Go into your office and close the door and calm down and get ready.” “Okay, I’m ready for the first student.” What he did was understand people. Having people who understand and appreciate art. He was a musician, and I’m not sure he said he read my work. After all these years—twenty years—I’m not sure he reads my work and understands it. I think he reads it just to hear Ed. But he sure knows his music. He’s a good musician and that’s the other thing too, he taught me a lot about music.
CM: About rhythms and such.
ER: Yeah, so the music that comes into the poetry, I have to attribute to him. So your friends, your readers, and someone who understands what you’re going through. And lots of reading. Lots of reading.
CM: Great. My last three questions are more book specific. The environmental writing class read City Eclogue and, as the author, are you writing for a particular audience? Who is your intended or expected audience? Do you view your work as accessible and is that a desirable trait in writing?
ER: I might have mentioned that these three books actually started out as one book, and they kind of fought each other and distilled each other out.
CM: Into three separate books?
ER: Into three separate books. I think I started out in the direction of To See The Earth and ended up instead—because I got sick and because of the World Trade Center, the September thing—that’s what brought City Eclogue out first. Yes, it was that stuff indeed, about the towers falling, but all the stuff in the middle is about the land being messed up, and business and loosing hunks of Newark to development, and that kind of stuff. So the loss is what makes City Eclogue come out first. Then I tried to go back to what I had in mind for what it was going to be like with To See The Earth, and, because I’d dug so deep, a lot of really personal stuff was coming out. It was really fighting, and it didn’t fit in any book. Some of those things I tried to fit into even earlier books and hadn’t been able to finish them, still couldn’t fit them into either of those two books, so that middle book fought its way out on its own. That book is really loose, the middle book, Labyrinth. Really, I had no choice but to let that book go crazy. It was.
CM: Labyrinth, did it maze?
ER: Yeah, I let it go crazy. Let it say all the wild things you aren’t supposed to say. Remember all the things you like to forget. Talk about being on medication. Talk about illegal medication. All of that stuff you know that was—I don’t want to say hurting—but all of that stuff that was not allowed, that didn’t allow itself to be expressed, suddenly decided that it had company.
CM: There was enough of it.
ER: Mhm, and it came out as a single book. What was interesting—which I hadn’t experienced before—some of that stuff I’d started years ago, and it’d never been able to talk to other poems, and that’s real important to me, that poems talk amongst themselves. A lot of the stuff in Labyrinth had not had anyone to talk to; any other poems to talk to. I think Labyrinth allowed them to talk amongst themselves, made that separate book—that separate kind of book. Then the leftovers, by that point on—writing To See The Earth—was easy. All I had to do was fill in the spaces. All I had to do; it was easy at that point. But that was seven years.
CM: So do you see your work—all three or City Eclogue—as accessible and is that a desirable trait in writing?
ER: I know what you’re asking. When I first started writing I was fascinated—I liked art. I liked art that was edgy art, experimental art, surrealism. I remember the first time I saw a Francis Bacon. Pittsburgh has the Pittsburgh International, I think, every four years, and it pulls work from all over the world. Since I was in junior high, we’d go to these international things, and we’d see new art way before it hit the newsstands. I saw Warhol early, Wesselmann, and I saw that stuff real early, and I remember seeing the famous Francis Bacon diptych that was there. I remember walking into the gallery. It was to the left. I walked into the gallery and was, “oh my gosh. Wow!” It was right there. I’ve always loved the stuff that would just back you against a wall. I thought writing should be that too. I was not afraid to experiment. I really was not afraid to play with different kinds of writing other than the straight farm, New Hampshire narrative that a lot of folks were doing. I was not afraid to play. So the question of accessibility was something I was always teasing. I was always fusing, trying to push that line much farther than folks were just willing to take when they pick up a book. I think I’ve gotten more accessible as I’ve gotten older, but that’s not an aim of mine. The things I do with the syntax are outrageous.
CM: Fascinating, fascinating.
ER: Thank you, thank you.
CM: You actually already addressed this next one, talking about the three books. But, City Eclogue is not your first or your most resent book. How does it fit into your career as a writer, your writing arc, and does it reflect you as a writer today?
ER: The order of publication is City Eclogue, The New Wing of the Labyrinth, and To See The Earth. The way that I had started—I’d started trying to write To See The Earth. What happened—like I said, the Towers—I ended up doing City Eclogue. City Eclogue was the first one published, but it distilled itself; it was sort of a sidetrack. Then I tried to finish—after City Eclogue—tried to finish the book that City Eclogue had interrupted. That’s when the middle book pushed its way out. So the chronology there is all messed up. It really was working on three books at one time, even though they were published all helter-skelter, I was working on all three of them because they talked back and forth to each other. I really do think—if I sit down one day with all three of them—there’s probably a couple poems with different versions of the same poem in each book, because that sounds like something I would do. I need to have a minute to sit down and do that. That was a weird experience.
CM: The pushing out of poetry.
ER: Fighting, the whole way.
CM: Then my final question is just, would you comment briefly on the work and writing you are doing and pursuing today? What you’re doing in Northwestern, your most recent body-in-progress.
ER: I usually sort of go into withdrawal after I do a book but with these three I didn’t get the chance to go into withdrawal after each of them, so I’m trying to back off from the three of them all at one time and let that new material come in. Or to get a new interest, a new charge, or a new something that wants me to talk about it. So I’m kind of waiting. Even though I’m writing, I don’t know exactly where the writing I’m doing now is fitting in. It’s smaller. For the first time in a long time I’m doing short poems—small, short lines, no more than twelve, fourteen lines. They’re small like that, and the last two have been riddles. literary riddles, and I haven’t done that in a while either.
CM: That’s great. And how is your artist in residency at Northwestern? You’re teaching a class down there?
ER: Yeah, I have undergraduate and graduate students, and I have folks in the English department, and I teach a class in the African American Studies. I like the mix. It’s just wonderful, a lot of really good students. Smart students. And they’re really laid back. That’s really important to teachers, folks that can be laid back while being interested. These folks are laid back but still…
ER: Yeah. I’ll mention things in class and discover that somebody in class has actually gone and looked it up. It’s not an assignment—I’ve just mentioned it—and somebody’s actually gone and looked it up. So that’s nice. I guess what I’m calling smart students is really students is who are actively learning, actively engaged, and going out and doing their own learning. Don’t depend on me to pour it into their heads. You get questions and people go out and look things up and I like the idea that they are actively learning on their own. It’s a kind of a culture there, in the last couple of bunches of students. I’ve heard people talk about it, “oh, this is a different bunch.” I guess what I’m saying is, it’s a very comfortable culture for me. It has to do with being in the Midwest too, about being from western Pennsylvania—which is not the East Coast, we sort of think of ourselves as East Coast but we’re actually Midwesterners—and discovering how comfortable Chicago-Midwestern mind is to me. Northwestern is just a good example of that Midwest culture.
CM: Well, that’s it for my questions. So thank you very much for being willing to talk to me.
ER: Sure, sure.