Tuesday, February 11, 2014

My First Interview

Interview with Poet Robin Smith-Johnson by Dell Smith (from Beyond the Margins website:

I was raised in a house full of books and writing. My parents wrote novels and kept journals, and so it was natural that my three sisters became writers as well.
My sister, Robin Smith-Johnson, has been writing and publishing poems for years in journals like The Aurorean, The Larcom Review, Sandscript, and Yankee Magazine, and has just published her first collection called Dream of the Antique Dealer’s Daughter. Robin’s writing is informed by her life on Cape Cod, her family, and growing up as the daughter of parents who collected and sold antiques and rare books.
Robin Smith-Johnson sits down with BTM (and her brother) to discuss how she approached structuring her poems into a book, balancing a busy home, work, and writing life, and her influences.
Dell Smith: Congratulations on Dream of the Antique Dealer’s Daughter.  I found reading this collection emotional and very rewarding. You blend lyricism and naturalism seamlessly. Many of your poems include striking descriptions of nature, landscapes, and atmosphere. Does this infusion of the natural world come from living on Cape Cod, historically a naturalists’ paradise? How much did our father, who painted Cape Cod landscapes and wrote about nature, inspire you?
Robin Smith-Johnson: I think growing up on Cape Cod influenced my poetry and my way of looking at the world. It is a rare opportunity to live in a place surrounded by water. I have always loved walking the local shorelines and this is a theme running through my poems. For example, my poem “My Son at Four, Walking the Beach” describes my young son collecting shells. “No one had to show him/the art of discerning/one from another:/conch, razor, slipper shell.” I also think Dad’s love for painting Cape landscapes was a subconscious influence as well. We always had his paintings scattered around the house. It seemed natural to express myself artistically because I had artistic parents.
DS: The antique dealer of the title is our mother, who began collecting and selling antiques when we were all very young. How did our mother and her antiques inspire you?
RSJ: Some of my favorite memories are working in the Incredible Barn (the antique shop our parents owned on Cape Cod) and seeing all the wonderful, whimsical things our parents would bring home from their many antique buying trips. In my poem “Discovery, One Spring Morning,” I paint a portrait in words of an old sculpted head that Mom had in her shop for years. “Over my head/I see the face, perfect like a lily,/singular and white, staring from the shadows.” Also, the title poem – Dream of the Antique Dealer’s Daughter” – tells the story of my relationship with a mannequin in our shop. A local artist, Robert Vickrey, eventually bought her to act as a kind of scarecrow to scare the ducks from his dock on Crystal Lake in Orleans. “At twelve, we wore the same size./Faded skirts, lace dresses,/old petticoats.” It really was a charmed childhood and I wouldn’t have traded it.
DS: How would you describe your poetry? Autobiographical? Fiction? Or is poetry in general a combination of the two?
RSJ: That‘s a tough question! I think many of my poems are autobiographical or slightly disguised fiction. Of course, some are from my imagination; for example, I include some of my fairy tale poems in the section “Once Upon a Time.” Lee Roscoe, in her review of my book in the Barnstable Patriot wrote, “These days poetry often serves autobiography, and has to be judged as such, rather than as poetry per se. Robin Smith-Johnson’s well-constructed poems are a memoire. She travels through youthful nightmares, to adulthood, the external world, and even the next world, in seven sections …” So, yes,  I definitely think many of my poems are personal and explore themes that relate to my life.
DS: In your book you break the poems down into thematic sections, including a series of poems based on fairy tales and a section focusing on your three sons. How did you approach this structure?
RSJ: When I first decided to put together a collection of my poems, I found that not much had been written on the subject. Michael Bugeja, in his book Poet’s Guide, has a chapter on “Assembling chapbooks and books” that was helpful. I also studied books by other poets to give me a feel for how poetry books are constructed. Since my poems span thirty years, I decided to have a somewhat chronological organization; therefore, I cover poems of my childhood, love and relationships, my children and life as a mother, travel poems, nature poems, etc. I couldn’t leave out my fairy tale poems, so I placed them after the section about children. The last part  is a miscellany of poems that didn’t fall naturally into any of the other sections. My friend and poetry mentor, Sheila Whitehouse, has a wonderful collection called Flint and Needle. She used lines from her poems to use as titles for her sections, so I did the same in my book.
DS: You play piano in a couple of bands on the Cape. How do you compare playing music to writing, and does one creative outlet feed the other?
RSJ: Playing in a band is a highly social, collaborative, and even athletic endeavor. When I play rhythm keyboard with Polka Dan’s Beetbox Band, I’m using every ounce of energy in my body. I think writing poems is more cerebral and intuitive. And, writing is more solitary. The two artistic forms feed different parts of my psyche (one dramatic, one more inward). I love writing poetry, but I love playing music, too. The two art forms complement one another and enrich my life.
DS: You also write stories and novels. In your writing life, do you consider yourself primarily a poet? Did you always want to be a poet?
RSJ: I do consider myself as a poet first. I started writing poems at a very young age and always considered myself a poet. The young adult novel I’ve been working on for several years is more of a hobby. It may never be published but I enjoy stringing words together to tell a story. The act of writing poems is more like breathing. I have to do it to make sense of my life.
DS: You lead a busy life, teacher, musician, and you work as the reference librarian at the Cape Cod Times. Not to mention you raised three sons. When do you find time to write?
RSJ: I mostly write in spare moments. Many of my poems are written on my off days while sitting at the kitchen table. When I sit down with pen and paper, my body relaxes. I’m giving myself permission to write. Often, a poem will have been rattling around inside my head. Some poems come in a torrent. When my son, Neil, came home from his month’s trip to Moldova several years ago, he talked for two hours non-stop, then announced he was going to bed. There was no way I could go to sleep so I sat down and wrote the poem “Souvenirs from Moldova” which ends “the young man wakes/not knowing what country he is passing through/or when he can go home again.” I hadn’t planned to write that poem; instead, it found me.
DS: Who are your favorite writers?
RSJ: I grew up loving Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay. In college, I read Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, T.S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats. I also read A.R. Ammons, Denise Levertov and Carolyn Forche. Over the years, I’ve dipped into books by Linda Pastan, Jane Kenyon, Mary Oliver, Mark Doty and others. For fiction, I love the novels by the Bronte sisters (my all-time favorite book is Jane Eyre), Willa Cather and Rumer Godden.
DS: What would you say to a young poet just starting out? Or to an aspiring writer trying to decide which type of writing to try?
RSM: I think the best advice to a young poet or aspiring writer is to read widely. Peruse the shelves of a local library or bookstore. Ask friends for advice on good books and authors to read. Subscribe to literary journals and see what the current trends are. Find a poetry mentor to work with. Sign up for classes at a local college, join a poetry group or take advantage of the many writing conferences available. For example, the yearly Grub Street Conference in Boston is the Muse and the Marketplace. Then, experiment with writing. Keep a journal for ideas, quotes, lists of characters, etc. I think most writers find early on what they have an affinity for, but sometimes it expands their creative minds to try something different.
DS: I write fiction–short stories and novels. I read very little poetry (outside of yours of course). I know I should read everything, including poetry, but I have to admit I don’t always ‘get it.’ What advice can you give a struggling poetry reader?
RSJ: Dell, if you want to expand your poetic horizon, try going to websites that post a new poem each day. My favorites are Poetry Daily and Verse Daily. These sites feature the best contemporary poets and will give you a taste for different types of poems being published. I also visit Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac which features a daily poem, too. Try checking out the poetry section at Barnes & Noble or the library.
DS: The cover of the book works well to convey the themes of your poems. Full disclosure: my wife, your sister-in-law, Liz Smith, designed the cover. Liz says:  “I wanted a person picking up Robin’s book to get a feeling from the cover about what was inside, I wanted the cover to evoke an overall feeling that accurately represented the contents. A close reading would reveal the correlation between certain poems, lines of poetry to the various symbols used in the cover image, like a little treasure hunt, a puzzle solved.” Tell me a bit about that process of working with an artist to represent your work.
RSJ: When I read in my book contract that I could supply the cover art, I immediately thought of Liz. I approached her and she was very enthusiastic about doing this. I think her original idea was to work from an old photo of our parents’ antique shop, but after reading the collection, she came up with a collage form that incorporates themes and images from the book. The whole project took about three months since Liz was working in a form she hadn’t tried before. When I finally saw the finished cover art, I was astonished by its beauty and close attention to the themes in my book. It was a great collaborative process from start to finish.
DS: What’s next for you? Will there be a sequel to Dream of the Antique Dealer’s Daughter?
RSJ: I would love to try a chapbook next rather than another full-length book. And, who knows, maybe I’ll finish my young adult novel. For now, I’m enjoying being a first-time author.
DS: Robin, thanks for answering my questions! Good luck with your book.
ROBINpictureRobin Smith-Johnson grew up in Orleans, Massachusetts where she honed her love of reading and creative writing. She has degrees in English from Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts and Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Her poems have been published in various journals, including The Aurorean, CapeWomen, The Larcom Review, Sandscript, Voices International and Yankee Magazine. Currently, Robin works as the newsroom librarian at the Cape Cod Times and teaches at Cape Cod Community College. She is also a co-founder of the Steeple Street Poets of Cape Cod. Robin lives in Mashpee with her family. Dream of the Antique Dealer’s Daughter is published by Word Poetry press.
Robin previously wrote a guest post for Beyond the Margins called Becoming a Poet.

1 comment:

  1. Thought it was a great interview. Thanks for opening up and being candid about your process. Good stuff!