Our poetry coeditor Aurora Nowak recently had this exchange with Robert Rothman, featured poet for Issue #36. Here’s what he had to say about the eternal life of poetry, his love and passion for the process of writing it, and the inspiration behind some of his poems featured in Mud Season Review.
Your writing style has such breadth. Some of your poems command their audience (“Fording a River on Horseback” and “Mother Tongue”), while others provide sensory and highly tangible imagery (“Blackberries” and “Postcard From the Front”). The voice in your poems seems to change as if different people were writing them. Please tell us about your creative process as it relates to voice.
Before we begin, allow me to go off topic. And I defend my urge, for isn’t poetry the art of surprise and unexplored and unexpected, following the Muse or voice that takes each writer, and then reader, to new territory. I am taken with the name of your journal, Mud Season, that thick mucky time that sticks and releases, that is part ice, part water, part earth. A season we curse and then, when it’s gone, miss. Much like the intensity of living: in the thick of it; knee deep in it; up to the elbows. Much like the art we practice, and from that practice hopefully something rubs off into our living. I like this saying: “the greatest work of art you can create is your life.”
When I write the voice and form comes to me. I don’t choose. Most of my poems go through numerous drafts, 10-100, and often change title, voice, tense, and the end result bears scant resemblance to the beginning effort. I feel it is a privilege to be part of this process, somewhat like falling in love, or being caught in a shaft of light, or bounding like a rabbit, confident enough to leap, having no idea where I might land, thrilling in the lift and soar, and just touching ground long enough to go sky high again.
Do you find it easy to write in different styles, or do you find yourself trapped in one? What leads you to choose one voice/style over others? How does your writing process influence your style?
I seem to be all over the place and always changing. I marvel that any poet can write in the same style and still keep it fresh. I find one of the most difficult parts of writing is coming to an end. That is, not with a poem, but with a certain use of language and approach. For me, it is like a death in the family. I can’t keep writing that way, but I honor and feel sadness when it comes to an end. When this first happened to me, I wondered if I would ever be able to write again. But the end opened into something new, allowed a new voice to emerge. I think that subject matter and language are in a sense one. That is, to me a poem is like a mud season: inextricably bound. You can’t separate the language from the words, the syntax from the sound.
“I am Eve in Eden / standing naked in the Garden, a guilty // pleasure on my lips…” – from your poem “Blackberries.” I wonder if the wine cellar your website mentions was an inspiration for this poem. Would you say these two juicy subjects, being blackberries and wine, serve as an escape or diversion for you? Do you enjoy blackberry wine? And from where else do you draw your inspiration?
Everything we do or love influences. I am sure that wine winds its way into my writing. In the sentence you mention I am not aware of such influence, but juice from fruit—we have plum trees and persimmons on our property and I love digging in the earth—is a lifelong preoccupation, and I know that will continue. Tell me: who can resist a plump blackberry on a summer day? Funny you mention blackberry wine. I don’t drink it, but for years my best friend and I would end up on top of a mountain out here—Mt. Tamalpais—at sunset, the Pacific Ocean spread out below, and drink a bottle (or two) of blackberry brandy and talk about what is real and not, etc. until we would stumble back to our car, blackberry-enlightened.
You acquired your J.D. degree and have been a practicing lawyer. How has this discipline influenced your creative work? Has knowledge of the law skewed your vision of the world, or do you think it has led to a better or deeper understanding?
My law degree and practice has had little influence on my writing, but dealing with the travails of others has increased my empathy for the human condition. These are just words: the impact of watching people struggling through difficult times, making bad choices, good choices, and sometimes going under is a training as if in a monastery of pain.
What was the inspiration behind your poem “May 3rd?” And why this specific title/date?
The day it happened was May 3rd. I walked out of my car and suddenly the sun was loving me so intimately that I forgot myself and must have seemed a fool, moaning and wheeling in the warmth, turning like a dancer to let the sun touch every part.
Your website mentions that you write at 5 AM. Do you feel your best work comes to you first thing in the morning? Do you ever write later in the day? Also, do you ever use writing prompts as part of your morning writing practice?
I feel that I need to give my first and purest energy to what I most love. I walk downstairs to my library and begin. I usually have various poems I am working on or just completed and will work on those. If the well is dry I will read some poem that has attracted me and try to understand why I am so seduced. I love to examine how a poet puts together what she writes and see if I can—like any artist worth his mettle—steal something. Poetry has a certain element of crime in it, high crime for high purpose. During the rest of the day I don’t write, but if something comes to me I will jot down a note. My most active note taking is normally when I am sleeping and a word or phrase or something will come to me and I wake up and write it down.
“Postcard from the Front” is enigmatic. Its meaning shifts and changes in each stanza with every read. You allude to extreme weather events, yet there’s also gunfire, grenades, and loss of life that point towards gun violence and mass shootings. What was your inspiration for this poem? Were the many shocking news events over the past year an influence?
The inspiration was the many people I have known who have died, some at 17, some later, all these lives teeming with promise, extinguished. And all that is happening to our planet. And of course the daily grenades of news dispatches that color all of consciousness. I try not to watch news and just distill it from the written words in newspapers. The last year’s events were not a direct influence.
As writers, we all have areas where we excel and areas where we could use some improvement. What would you say are your strengths and weaknesses? How do you work to strengthen your own writing?
I am prone to generalized statements and philosophy. I have always tried to hone to William Carlos Williams’ statement: “No ideas but in things.” I believe that we all have such different associations that once you depart from the tangible—a tree, the sea, green, white—which already mean different things to all of us, into ideas or feelings, you can lose the power of poetry. I try to reread my poems aloud many times and try to hear them as if another would, to see if, in my inner poem, I have assumed something which is not there. I never finish many poems. I think a poet has to be able to admit that he has gone off track, not followed the Muse, gotten in the way of the poem, and sometimes, despite all your doctorly attention, the patient can’t be saved.
Since MSR grew out of a workshop, we’d like to ask: what is your best/worst workshop experience? What is your most memorable? What is the importance of feedback to you, and how do you incorporate it (or not) into your work?
I am not the person to answer this. I have never been to a workshop. I have a number of poet friends, but generally I stay away from talking shop or joining social gatherings. This is just me, and for others I know that workshops and feedback are very valuable. I work alone but feel others in my consciousness and try to write something that can be useful to other human beings while writing what comes to me—from where I don’t know.
What is your favorite poem of yours that has been published so far? Will you share what you are working on these days?
I couldn’t tell you that. It is like asking which of your children is your favorite. I am always excited when a poem, sent from home in a plain envelope, or transmitted through the ether to a literary journal, is accepted. Just as you want someone to recognize the fine qualities in a child and love her as you do, when a poem is accepted, I feel as if it has found a home and is honored and cared for. The poem is now on its own journey, into the minds and hearts of others, and as each person reads the poem, each with his own associations and history, the reader will take the poem down a different path. In this way, a poem is never finished, never ended. It continues on and is rewritten by each different reader. Such a wonderful sentient adventure.
Since I don’t control the process, what I write is always different. I recently had the honor of being at the unveiling of the Obama presidential portraits. It was one of the most powerful public events I had ever experienced—I was shaking for hours after. From that came a poem. Since I don’t generally write public poems I was surprised. But it has been widely accepted. However, most of my poems come from the quotidian events we all experience. I don’t think there is anything too small or too large for poetry. It is a big tent.