Robyn Schiff with H.L. Hix

Robyn Schiff

This interview by H.L. Hix is one of a series, many of which will be collected in Alter Nation: America in Recent Poetry, Recent Poetry in America, from Ugly Duckling Presse (fall 2012). Hix loves the interview form as a way of thinking together (itself a condition of democracy, justice, philosophy, and other ideals and practices he values), and as one element in a community poetics. The subject of this interview is Robyn Schiff’s Revolver (Univ. of Iowa Press, 2008).

H. L. Hix: “H5N1” clearly responds to “Ode to a Nightingale.” It seems a complex poem, not to be reduced to one theme, but would I be right to include among its complexities a lament for the loss of conditions that would allow a Keatsian romantic relationship to (capital n) Nature?

Robyn Schiff: Thank you for this question, and for offering this reading to me. The poems in Revolver, and “H5NI” in particular, definitely explore the relationship between Nature and Artifice (indeed with a capital N and A!), but I hadn’t myself considered it a lament—though I think you’re onto something I wasn’t aware of at the time. I guess I don’t read “Ode to a Nightingale” so much as a nature poem as a poem about the creative process and the imagination, and I can’t help but to read it through Stevens’ “Autumn Refrain.” I was definitely feeling “a tragic falling off,” as Robert Hass might put it, and in using “Ode to a Nightingale” and leaning on its armature, I suppose I was mourning that fall—which yes, is a fall from grace, an exile from Eden. But there is something very sci-fi about “H5N1”— and its almost hysterical ‘70s-era disaster movie pitch is quite earnest. But I’ve been sitting on your question for several months now (I’m so sorry!); winter turned to spring, and spring to summer. And here I am at this very moment looking into my garden—a garden I didn’t have in my life when I wrote “H5N1”—with such lament I can barely contain it in a poem. How will I ever express what I feel in that garden? That’s part of the poem too, yes, but I didn’t know it at the time of writing . . . 

HH: The last stanza of “Eighty-blade…” (“… this / era is task-specific. When we use the / tool intended for the job / we are neutral. The right tool for the right / task is objective truth”) and the last three stanzas of “Project Paperclip” (“… there are two names / for my beloved, one on this side of the world and one, / alas, on the other…”) seem to represent at least one of the tensions in the book, something like cold clarity vs. warm mystery. I read the book as advocating the “mystery” side of the tension (or to put this another way, I take as a kind of summation of the book the lines “there was a ghost / before there was a body, it throws its voice”), but that may be projecting my own inclinations onto your work. Do the poems make a value judgment, or are they attempting a more value-neutral presentation of such conflict/tension?

RS: Hmm. I don’t think they’re value neutral, but I don’t think they take sides, either. I think I meant to enact or express the exacerbating attempt to represent the whole truth, which I fall short of doing every time out. These are certainly Bush-era poems—written in response to the frustration so many of us felt about the presentation of facts—but they also explore what we were discussing in part in your first question, a failure to fully express, to fully contain. I guess part of the tension in the book is between the drive (responsibility?) toward full articulation, and the drag of being dumbstruck so much of the time. I’m not on one side or the other in the bout between “objectivity” and “subjectivity” (or truth/mystery; or lucidity/awe)—I’m just reporting on the match-up, but it keeps changing, and the change has to be part of the story, too.

HH: As signaled by the title, the revolver recurs throughout the book. But in each poem there appears to me to be (at least implicitly) a contrast with some other technological apparatus: from knitting needles in the first poem through telephone receivers and Philips-head screwdrivers to paperclips in the last poem. Is the language of the poems (as for example in the use of puns such as “enlisting” on p. 4, “fits” on p. 21, and “mailed” on p. 49) mitigating or exacerbating those oppositions?

RS: Puns are a kind of technology, like all tropes and figures of thought. And like all technologies, their use is open-ended and often has unintended consequences. I can’t say whether language mitigates or exacerbates any more than I can say whether someone who buys a knife will use it to make something or to destroy something. Each technological gadget in Revolver, including the rhetorical turns, has the capacity to make and to destroy. The “psychopath” “arranging implements” in “Eighty-blade . . . ” is both a creative tormentor and, well, a figure of a poet.


Robyn Schiff is the author of Revolver (2008) and Worth (2002), both published by the the University of Iowa, Kuhl House. The Catenary Press recently released her chapbook, “Novel Influenza.” Schiff co-edits Canarium Books.

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