Ed Roberson’s poems come to him in fits and bursts, from images of years past and experiences that happened only moments ago. The Chicago-based poet has had a long and fruitful career weaving memory and imagination into verse, and he’s in Berkeley for the semester to instruct students on how to do the same. His first suggestion to new writers is to get a journal and write in it obsessively — a habit he’s never quite been able to perfect himself. Instead, he’ll scribble ideas on receipts or napkins, scratching out sentence fragments to remind him of a fleeting impression. This could be of anything — two lovers or, as he saw recently, a thin spider’s web glinting in the sunlight. The notes stack tall, waiting to be turned into art. And with Roberson, it’s only a matter of time until they do.
The poet, who is visiting campus through an English department residency, sat down with the Weekender to discuss poetry, inspiration and process earlier this week. Answers have been edited for clarity and length.
The Daily Californian: How do you teach young poets to write? Can poetry be taught?
Ed Roberson: Not everyone’s going to end up a writer, but you are teaching what the art is. If you show people how someone tried to say a certain thing, you’ll be at the same time teaching them how to read more deeply what people are trying to say and the skill it takes to do that. Not only the different levels of people’s skill, but people’s originality, people’s variations on those skills. So can you teach someone to write? Well, you teach them what writing is, and if they want to write, then it’s on them. They’ll come up with their own original poems.
DC: Are there rules to poetry? What are those rules, according to you?
ER: Oh, there are rules. And you don’t have to learn them like piano practice; you can get in there and start just about anywhere. But the rules are key — you really need to know what writing is all about, how you control your words. Once you find out that it can be controlled, that it can be organized and intensified or played down — once you realize you can do all that with language, then you sort of figure out, “Well how do I do it?” You pick what you want to do and how you want to do it. Yes, there are rules. You don’t need to know all of them, but you need to know the rules for what you want to do. I’ll go into a class and say, look, I’m not a scholar. I’m the guy you get under the hood with, and I’ll show you how you make this work, how you make that work, and you’ll see how to make a poem.
DC: Is there one principle that you go back to in your own writing?
ER: Being honest. And that’s really hard, because it’s not only being honest in what you have to say. Once you find out that words can do things, that you can manipulate words, be honest in your manipulations. You don’t want to make the words lie, but you also don’t want to make the words go into areas that you don’t know anything about. You can just sort of say in the poem, “I want to say this,” but implying that you don’t know how. I have one poem where I was trying to get people to get a sense of space. And I mean really big space — the space between here and the moon. But how are you going to feel that space? So you just sort of admit, “I don’t know how to do this. I want to say it, but it’s bigger than me.”
DC: And you include that in the work?
ER: I think the way I conclude the poem saying that trying to understand the big space tells you about the space between you and someone that you love kissing them. It’s intimate space, but then there’s huge space, too. Intimate love can make you feel so much that you feel big space.
DC: Do you find a tendency to dishonesty in young writers?
ER: It’s not intentional. You know when you’re a little kid that’s trying to be grown up? Or even when you’re grown up and you see someone that you really admire and you want to be like them? But you do those things until you find something that really feels like, “This feels closest to what I really feel, and not somebody else’s words.” Somebody else’s words is how we learn to write at the beginning, but once we learn how they can manipulate their words, we can find it in ourselves.
DC: How was that process for you? Did you find there was a time when you really came into your own way of saying things?
ER: Well, it goes on, it’s not just one point. It’s still going on in the last poem I’ve written. I learn something from it. At the point when you feel yourself coming into your own, you stay on that point. You’re always teasing and testing that point. For me, the big moment was after my second or third book. By the third book I figured out, “This is me, like it or not. This is me.” I could hear my own voice. I wasn’t quite sure how or why I was doing it, but there were points. It’s exciting when you discover a music like that. For me, it was not that I learned to do it well, but I learned to do it another way, my own way.
DC: How was your process, starting out, of reading things you liked and testing them out in your own writing? Does that still occur?
ER: One of the things that happened to me was (that) the New York Times used to have a whole page spread of music on the radio. They would put the weekly playlists in there, and I would look at the list of songs and some of them had beautiful names. Like “Pacific 231.” Reading this as a kid in Pittsburgh, your imagination just explodes. What could “Pacific 231” sound like? The ideas just began to explode all over the place. I began to recognize that sometimes, words would connect with the mood, and your imagination would just blossom. So I began to play with that chance. I would write down the things that were evoked by just words.
DC: How old were you when you started doing that?
ER: I was in my 20s. I started writing poetry when I was 20. Before, I liked poetry, I read poetry. I had this teacher in the 10th grade who thought that nothing had been written in the 20th century, therefore she wasn’t going to teach it. She didn’t teach the second half of the book. So, of course, I read the second half of the book. And what you found in there was T.S. Eliot. “The Hollow Men” hits an adolescent kid with that loneliness.
DC: That poem ends, “This is the way the world ends: Not with a bang but a whimper.”
ER: How could you not teach that to kids? She was saying poetry had died, and I found out that it hadn’t. I began to read a lot. From then on, I was reading poetry.
DC: Why do you think it took a couple years for you to pick up the pen yourself?
ER: Teachers in school never really expected you to be much. I never even thought of writing poetry. What I really wanted to be was a painter. Writing poetry was a little easier — all you needed was a pencil and a paper and some books.
DC: When did it occur to you that you could write poetry as a profession? Did you have to take day jobs along the way?
ER: I wasn’t thinking of it in terms of selling it, I was just thinking of how to do it. I had a whole bunch of day jobs. I worked at an aquarium in Pittsburgh.
DC: How do you structure your work? Do you set goals for yourself? What’s your setup like when you write a poem?
ER: I have no setup. I have no discipline whatsoever. I just write them when they come up. Or, sometimes, I’ll assign a poem exercise to a class, and I’ll do it myself.
DC: When something happens that you may want to write about later, do you just mark it down?
ER: That’s what I tell students to do all the time: to keep a journal and always take notes. However, I never take my own advice. What will happen is, I’ll keep an idea in my head and if I remember, I’ll make something up. But I’ve never been able to keep a complete journal like that. What I’ll do is write them on the back of envelopes and newspapers and tear it all up and just stack it up on the desk. And at some point, I’ll remember something and dig it out of the pile, but I’m not organized like that.
DC: Is there one year where you’ll write hundreds of poems and the next you’ll write far fewer?
ER: At the beginning, it was like that. At one point, there was a 10-year gap in my writing. It’s all just notes until I finalize it and put it into a book, so there have been big gaps. But the next 10 years or so, it’s gotten really regular. Every five or six years, I’ll realize I have a book. The pile of poems gets big enough.
DC: How do you know when a poem’s done?
ER: You don’t. It isn’t done. It’ll be done when you’re dead. They always bring up a question that needs to be answered with another poem, and usually that’s what happens.
DC: The poems respond to one another.
ER: They talk back and forth to each other. Not just in a book, but some poems will talk across books.
DC: What keeps you writing? Is there a goal?
ER: Poetry gives you a glimpse of things in a way that nothing else does. And I always look for that, I’m always ready to get that again. So I just keep writing.