Rainer Maria Rilke, from Letters to a Young Poet (“Letter 8,” 1904):
But only someone who is ready for everything, who excludes nothing, not even the most enigmatical, will live the relation to another as something alive and will himself draw exhaustively from his own existence. …How are we to forget all those myths at the beginning of all peoples, the myths about the dragons that at the last moment turn into princesses; perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps every terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants to help us (pg. 52).
I love these letters. They are such an incredible inside look at the indestructible positivity Rilke carried with him throughout his career. Here he’s basically telling his young correspondent, Mr. Franz Kappus, that there’s no need to panic; we are all, at times, stricken with torment and doubt (about our lives, about our crafts), and, although we can never alter the past, we can always alter our perception of the past as we move forward into the future. Rilke is instilling the next generation with realistic optimisim.
“But only someone who is ready for everything… will himself draw exhaustively from his own existence.”
Exhaustively. The word itself seems to tempt one into it;
I dare you
to draw yourself,
your own existence.
As I consider today’s interview between Elizabeth Robinson and Travis Cebula, I find Rilke’s haunting notion to be the perfect introduction. These two poets are some of the most inquisitive and prolific writers I know. The two descriptions – 1.) Inquisitive and 2.) Prolific – both require a certain curiosity that “excludes nothing.” Elizabeth is the author of 12 collections of poetry, most recently Counterpart (Ahsahta Press). She has taught all over the country: the University of Colorado Boulder, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the University of Montana, and she founded (with Colleen Lookingbill) EtherDome Chapbooks and (with Laura Sims) Instance Press. Travis’ second full-length collection of poetry, Ithaca was recently released from BlazeVox Books. He has founded Shadow Mountain Press and in 2011 he received the Pavel Srut Fellowship from Western Michigan University. Travis also teaches at the Left Bank Writers Retreat in Paris (avec moi). I love how both Travis and Elizabeth make a point to comment on each other’s generosity throughout this interview. As Elizabeth says about Travis (and, in my opinion, about people in general): Confidence = generosity.
With that, I gratefully share the stage.
Sarah Suzor: How did you meet? And how long have you known each other?
Elizabeth Robinson: Travis was a student in a remarkable graduate workshop I taught at Naropa University in the Spring of 2008. I looked forward to going to that class all week long and when I arrived, I’d just feel such gladness and affection for the students. As writers, they were so dissimilar, but they read and responded to each others’ work with real insight and respect. Travis threw himself into the experience. He gulped down contemporary poetry and poetics, he became an expert reader of his peers’ works, he experimented voraciously as a poet. Later I got to work with Travis on his M.F.A. thesis. I think the poetry part got written pretty fluidly, but he also had to write a 30 page essay, and I continually challenged him on aspects of what he wrote. He had conceived of a really interesting approach to poetics, but I just kept returning and suggesting changes here, pressing back on ideas there. I thought he’d eventually want to throw me in front of a train. But no: each iteration was cheerfully revised within a week or so. If he was ever frustrated, he didn’t show it.
Since then, though we both seem to be in transit quite a lot, Travis has been an endlessly prolific writer, an attender of readings, a respondent in a writing group, a recommender of books, an occasional shoulder to sob on: in short, a friend.
(He’s also a terrific cook, and my kids are wild for his peanut butter brownies, though I think his blueberry coffee cake is to die for.)
Travis Cebula: I’m pretty sure our paths first crossed in January of 2008. It was definitely my second semester of graduate school, which means I met Elizabeth on the first day of a poetry workshop she was teaching in the MFA program at Naropa University that semester. We may have strolled past each other on campus before that, but that was the first time we spoke.
She walked in the door of our classroom in the historic (and historically clanking and smelling) Lincoln building. I remember initially being a little frightened of her, which seems a bit silly in retrospect, but it’s true. In addition to her obvious competence and intelligence, which are evident at first glance, she had a strong no-nonsense air about her on the first day, probably to make sure we were focused. Understandably. Students at Naropa have a tendency to lose focus for a number of reasons. Her demeanor was a little intimidating, because none of the other professors I’d encountered at the school up to that point had taken anything quite so seriously. The pedagogical tone was normally much more laissez faire, which makes perfect sense if you know anything about the philosophy or history of the institution. But Elizabeth made it clear right off the bat that she had higher expectations for our class. I remember thinking, “I really don’t want to be around when she gets angry. I really don’t want to be the one who makes her angry.” It might have been her mother bear side showing on the first day, just so we knew it was there. That can be scary.
I’m glad she did, though. Everything turned out perfectly, and it didn’t take long at all for her to warm up to the class after she determined we were serious. I’m grateful to my program advisor at that time, Todd McCarty, for suggesting her class to me. Suggestion is a bit of an understatement. What he actually said was, “You NEED to work with Elizabeth.” He was absolutely right, and not just for me. The few people who were fortunate enough to be in that workshop together are still friends, in close contact, and every one of us is still writing on a regular basis. We go to each other’s weddings. We read together. We collaborate. We publish each other’s work. Seriously, how often does that happen? An entire workshop? Elizabeth started all of that.
But, don’t get me wrong, I still don’t want to be around when she gets angry. That would suck.
SS: What about your writing career would be most noticeably different had you two not met?
ER: My life in Colorado has often been difficult and estranging. Travis is a generous, dynamic, and enthusiastic colleague. I think I would find myself more isolated at this point if I had not met Travis. He is a staple participant in my life as a writer in Colorado. Because of his travels, his writing, and his general inquisitiveness, he often brings news of books, presses, and communities that I’m glad to learn about.
TC: I know a few people, including myself, who unabashedly refer to Elizabeth as our “Poetry Mom.” I hope she’s comfortable with that. Does that answer the question?
I think that if I hadn’t met Elizabeth I wouldn’t have a “writing career” in any kind of recognizable sense. I don’t mean I wouldn’t be writing right now, which I’m pretty sure I would be, but rather that my development in the other aspects of a writing life would be stinted at best. A career is something more than just work (or a job); it entails building relationships, a broad engagement with community, and responsibilities that extend into the world, into time. I think I’d still be trying to teach myself what to do in that regard, how to get to that next level, and asking myself questions like, “How do I submit work to a journal?” “What should I be reading?” “How do you write a book review?” “Are these poems a book yet?” “How do I know if there’s a reading to go to this weekend?” “Who can I talk to about what I’m writing?” “Who do I want to talk to about what they’re writing?” And many, many more.
Now I think of a writing career as a collage: the community, the conversation, the teaching, the publishing, the reviews, the support, the readings, the late nights spent talking, the love, the friendship, the editing, the sequence, the ups, the downs, the offers of and reception of support, all in turn. No, I wouldn’t have a gestalt of all of that yet if I hadn’t met Elizabeth. That’s an easy conclusion to arrive at. My life would be very different without her. I am a little curious if, conversely, the more recent part of her own career might have been any different had we not met. I wonder, have I offered her anything in return? I suspect the answer is, “Perhaps, but not nearly enough.”
SS: Travis, if you had to pick, which of Elizabeth’s books is your favorite?
TC: I hate questions like this, if for no other reason than it’s always impossible for me to give a straight answer. I love all of Elizabeth’s books, and for different reasons. Not equally, mind you, but to narrow my list of favorites down to one is challenging. They all offer different perspectives on life and the human experience, and they all carry what I believe to be astute and beautifully written perspectives on different aspects of life. Which is to say, she has successfully avoided the trap of writing iterations of what amounts to the same book over and over again. Asking me to pick a favorite book of hers is like asking me to pick a favorite part of life….
Actually, that might be easier. In that case, at least I could throw out junior high school. I’ll offer Harrow as my favorite, for the simple reason that it’s the first one I read, and thus the first one I fell for. The trauma she weaves into that book while avoiding even a hint of melodrama is breathtaking. Barring that, I would choose “whichever one I’ve read most recently.” So, Counterpart is making a strong case for itself at the moment, which may disprove one of my earlier statements. Her descriptions of devils and hell are strongly redolent of my experiences in junior high….
SS: Elizabeth, what has been most rewarding about watching the evolution of Travis’ writing career?
ER: I think Travis proceeds pretty fearlessly. It’s always really exciting to see someone who has been your student get published, whether discrete poems in a periodical or in book form, but Travis approaches writing much more expansively than that. He is traveling, meeting new people, finding out about contemporary presses. I guess what I find rewarding about observing Travis is that he understands so many ways of writing (that is, he can be very stylistically diverse) and participating in a writing life through friendships, projects, reading. When I work with people, I understand that they might not write poetry forever because other commitments and projects will come into their lives, but I always hope that they will really stick with it and find out what writing will yield in their lives as an ongoing adventure. Travis is one who has made that commitment and I am grateful that I can continue to be in conversation with him as a poet.
SS: Travis, if you had to guess Elizabeth’s favorite color you’d pick?
TC: Well, my first guess would be blue, probably since I’ve been reading a poem in Counterpart over and over, “Man Facing Southeast,” where the color blue appears five times in three pages. I’d guess blue—not just any blue, but the deep grey-blue of the open sea. However, I suspect that blue might actually be off the mark. My more considered is that her favorite color is green. It’s not that she wanders around draped in it like a wood sprite, but Elizabeth has shared with me on multiple occasions that one of the aspects she misses most about her home state of California is how easy it is to garden there, how easy it is to make plants to grow and thrive. Colorado, by contrast, spends most of its time well inside the brown end of the spectrum. So, green is my answer. Verdant.
UPDATE—It turns out her favorite color really is blue. I just asked her. Because with a mentor you can do stuff like that.
SS: Elizabeth, your favorite color?
SS: What do you two think is the most important aspect of a “mentor” role?
ER: Probably the most important thing a mentor can do is be a giver of resources. I’ve had generous mentors who have written voluminous reading lists for me, for example. I think good mentors think creatively about how to connect the people they’re working with to a greater community in a way that helps the writer develop and sustain his or her writing. That might happen any number of ways, depending on the writer in question: writing recommendations, making introductions, forwarding announcements about residencies or open submissions at a publication or maybe just going out with a bunch of people after a reading so that they get to know each other.
TC: In my short experience as a writer, all the best things about being a writer begin and end in community, and my answer here is no exception.
As I see it, the primary role of a mentor is that of ferryman or, in this case, ferrywoman. When I think of the many ways Elizabeth has affected my life, and other young lives, I can best sum up their cumulative impact with an image of Charon ferrying passengers across the River Styx—only instead of dead Greek heroes she’s carrying poets on her rocking deck. Elizabeth paddles back and forth from one bank to the other, avoiding rocks. I’m not speaking of a literal transition from life to death, of course, but rather another journey of deep significance: the voyage from a student-identity to an identity as a full-fledged member of a creative community. A writing community is a much more preferable destination than Hades, though (for the most part). There are so many metaphors for transitions like this that they’ve become desperately cliché… Spread one’s wings and fly! Learn to swim! Etc., etc., etc., ad nauseum. However, there’s a reason people have talked about the process enough for it to become overwrought: it’s always been difficult to know how to find one’s own place in the world, or to know when one has truly joined a peer group, and most likely it always will be.
Historically, there were guild systems established for craftspeople, wherein an apprentice would work for years with a single master, or mentor figure. It was clear how one fit into that scheme: work, learn, grow, create a masterpiece, and finally strike out on your own once you’ve gotten official permission that you’re ready to do so. Now we have universities, and the situation is more muddled. A degree isn’t necessarily a well-defined end point (or starting point) for an artist, especially when even the idea of a “terminal degree” seems to change from year to year. MFA, PhD… How should a writer or sculptor or painter know when he or she is done becoming and has become?
Granted, some people just know, but not all. And those people tend to be insufferable. For the rest of us, without a little guidance we might get stuck perpetually in a hierarchical relationship with the world, a relationship wherein everyone gets categorized as a professor or a student—a real artist or an artist-in-training, a real something or a lesser-than. In a community where a lot of folks teach at one level or another, it’s bound to be problematic to maintain one’s own sense of dignity and autonomy long term if one hasn’t been freed from that old student role at some point. Elizabeth guided me safely through some social rapids and made sure that when I arrived, safe, sound, and more or less dry on the other side, I was a responsible and dedicated member of the writing community.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that she helped make me better at my craft, and still does, but I think ferrying people into the real world is a particularly vital and often-overlooked vocation, especially when it comes to educating young people into creative endeavors. I don’t know where, exactly, Elizabeth learned how to do this. She’s hinted to me that Keith and Rosemary Waldrop had a great influence on her, but I think she may just be a natural. It’s a gift she has, and she gives bits of it away all the time.
A less poetic way of characterizing that sort of mentorship could be put in terms of socialization. Being “a part of the conversation,” as Elizabeth calls it, has a lot of largely unwritten rules and customs that go along with it. There are two parts to this kind of socialization, which I think she values more or less equally. First of all, for the sake of the person being socialized, the mentor must pass along the rules that govern how to behave as a responsible and successful member of a community. That’s a minimum of what a young poet needs to be happy and fulfilled in the world, not counting some technique, passion, and ability at their craft. Second, the mentor has a responsibility to make sure that they’re not unleashing a total ass-hat onto their friends who are already out there. Both of these goals can be achieved simultaneously, if one is skilled.Lastly, looking back on my answers to earlier questions I’d offer one other observation on important mentor-roles: a mentor should provide a good example to follow. As the old saying in ethics goes, “What ought I to do?” I look at what Elizabeth has done, and is doing, and I hope that someday I can come close to writing as well as she does, to being a member of the writing community as openly and generously as she has been.
SS: Elizabeth, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve received from Travis?
ER: Don’t let the clown farts get you down.
SS: Travis, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve received from Elizabeth?
TC: Are manuscript edits considered advice?
In my relationship with Elizabeth she has never really operated from a platform of advice. I love that. And by “platform of advice,” I mean I don’t go to her asking tons of questions framed as “What should I do?” And, in turn, she doesn’t have to tell me, “Go do this, “ or “Go do that.” I think that advice is often something that’s given with an expectation that it will lead to tangible benefits. Elizabeth tends to be more focused on less tangible (but just as real) outcomes. Thus, she hasn’t really offered me much advice, per se. Instead, she shares what she’s observed of what successful writers do, and lets me decide whether or not that’s the right thing for me to do. By “successful writers” I don’t mean ones that sell a lot of books, but ones who seem to lead fulfilled lives to one degree or another, behave responsibly within the community, and are doing interesting work. I would compare the experience most closely with cognitive behavioral therapy. She knows exactly when to ask exactly the right question.
And, I’ve said before, she also models good writerly behavior: she crafts amazing books, teaches, mentors, writes reviews, generates blurbs, hosts readings, performs, writes recommendation letters, publishes books, promotes those books, encourages friends, reads incessantly, makes a point of getting to know new writers, and still manages to find time to keep a home and raise kind and beautiful children. Why would I need to ask for advice? Most of the time, all I need to do is just sit back and watch.
Our relationship has been defined, to a degree, by what it’s not about. It’s absolutely not about personal taste. Period. It might seem strange to an outsider, but I have no idea if she actually likes my poetry or not. None. The subject has just never come up in conversation. I think she might, I hope she does… But, the fact of whether or not she does has had no discernible effect on her enthusiasm for helping me make my work as well-made as it can possibly be within my own vision. Taste just doesn’t matter. Everyone else I’ve talked to about this subject agrees that she has a supernatural ability to work with other writers and other poetry on their own terms.
Of the many lessons I’ve learned from her, though, the most valuable is that it’s okay to be genuinely and earnestly enthusiastic about other people’s work and successes; poetry doesn’t have to be a competitive endeavor. I’m not a naturally competitive person, really, but I have seen competition a lot in the writing, teaching, and publishing worlds—and I was taught the rudiments of the game when I was first starting to write during my undergraduate program. It’s liberating to know now that I’m not making a mistake when I’m happy and excited for others. I choose not to compete wherever I can reasonably do so. Life as a writer is incalculably more rewarding with that mindset.
SS: Elizabeth, what’s the most difficult part of offering guidance in this “industry?”
ER: When I was in college and then in graduate school, I was firmly affiliated with what was then considered experimental writing and I felt this was very much the endeavor of an outsider community. In that sense, I feel I was in excellent company, but also that it was unlikely that I’d get published much or, if I was, only by the smallest presses. Overall, I’m happy to see that, now, varying communities of writing are intersecting and a broader range of writing gets published. But the career part of this is a drag. Reading tours, book sales: blah, blah, blah. I just want to enjoy writing poems and talking about them with interesting people.
Maybe the most difficult part of encouraging other people in this process is that one must come to terms with the fact that “success” in public terms isn’t necessarily merit-based. Some people are much better at marketing their work, and they will consequently get more recognition. That doesn’t mean that the people who get recognition aren’t fine writers, but it’s also the case that loads of fabulous writers don’t get published. There is competition and we are always working in a variety of ways with straitened resources. I’ve been lucky in terms of publication, but I still have to contend with large amounts of rejection. It’s extremely important to stay focused on the writing itself and those few people who you really trust and love in conversation.
How’s this for encouragement: the idea of being a famous poet is an oxymoron. We are all going to die and we are visitors on this planet for a relatively short time. That might sound grim, but I really intend it to be liberating. You don’t have to be worried about whether you got a MacArthur genius grant or not. You should be making poems.
SS: Travis, what’s the most difficult part of starting a writing career?
TC: I would be flabbergasted if the difficulties weren’t radically different for everyone. Oddly enough, for me the most difficult part hasn’t been the writing. Maybe it should have been. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that writing has been easy, but it certainly hasn’t been the biggest hurdle I’ve overcome. In my case, the hardest part has always been walking on top of the narrow fence that exists between advocating my work (and trying to get the word out there about it) and being a self-promotional careerist jerk. It’s hard to know how much publicity is too much, how much talking about oneself. It’s hard to flat-out say you’re doing something worthwhile, to proclaim it to the rooftops, and it’s also awkward for somebody with my upbringing to call up bookstores, for example, and ask if I can come read in their space. I’m learning to trust my work and look at it as a somewhat independent agent worthy of my support, sort of like a grown child who’s independent from my authorship and control. I still don’t have a great feel for it. I think that I should probably be using social media more to make people aware of my books, but I don’t know how many times I need to mention them in order to create full “awareness” but not “irritation.”
As a counterpoint, though, I should say that advocating for other people’s work has proved to be by far the easiest part of starting a writing career. I can talk about someone else’s book all day long and never feel an ounce of guilt about it. Elizabeth incorporated that element into my picture of a writing life, and so far it’s proved to be fruitful. For example, nobody has ever said “no” to me when I’ve offered to publish a chapbook manuscript (although I know it happens other places, and will sometime happen to me). I’ve never gotten a rejection letter for a book review I’ve written. Inviting people to read at events tends to be pretty successful, too, as long as a writer’s schedule isn’t already full. So, I’d say that if a person is starting out in a writing career and feeling discouraged, it might be a good idea for him or her to help someone else out with their writing career. It offers a taste of success for everybody involved.
Also, it just occurred to me that I don’t spend anywhere near enough time flabbergasted. It’s far easier for me to write when I’m flabbergasted. Getting flabbergasted on a regular basis can be difficult, too. Thank you for reminding me of that. There’s something insidious and seductive about becoming jaded, especially for writers—that being cynical somehow equates with experience or legitimacy. I don’t think the correlation actually exists, and we should resist the impulse at every turn.
With that in mind, now I’m going outside to stare, in open-mouthed wonder, at a fur-clad woman in a Mercedes Benz (suspended halfway through running a red light) honk at pedestrians in a cross walk. See how her bouffant scrapes the headliner. See how elegant? Her screams are silent and thoroughly contained within her soundproof room. If I squint at her lips just right I can imagine another world, less red, one in which she’s yelling, “Good luck, Yusef!” I can feel the flabbergast setting in already. And thank God for it.
SS: Why do you think it’s important to cultivate these types of these “working relationships?”
ER: I know very well that the people who are my students now will soon be my peers. When you try to help nurture the writing and participation of another writer, you are enlarging your own community and making it more rich and more capacious for a range of writing. I feel so excited that so many of my former students have continue to pursue poetry seriously and my continuing friendships with them are completely sustaining for me.
TC: Ideally, once the mentor relationship has been fulfilled what one has is a friendship—or at least the foundations that allow friendship to begin—with mutual respect, empathy, and most of all trust between the people involved. I think that, over time, these types of relationships might be the saving grace that keeps writers going. I’m thinking of writers I know. I’m thinking of writers I’ve read about. I’m thinking of artists. I’m thinking of the dark times. I’m thinking of that morning you open the twentieth rejection letter in a row and fantasize about throwing in the towel once and for all. I’m thinking about selling peanuts outside the elephant enclosure at the zoo. No, seriously. Right now I’m thinking about that. How much does that pay?
It’s these moments that allow us all to be mentors, in a way, if only briefly. We make phone calls. We write little notes or send a funny photo. They’re all gifts we give to each other, to say out loud that we’re all loved and have the strength and skill to keep going. We all need that sooner or later, in our lives if not always in our careers. The two become intertwined, and sometimes we just need a friend.
SS: Travis, what’s your favorite memory about Elizabeth?
TC: Well, the statute of limitations has probably expired on this particular story, so I can share it. It’s not especially controversial, but it does technically involve the violation of some rules. I guess the folks at Naropa aren’t going to take my degree away and, equally, I doubt Elizabeth would take her job back even if it was offered… not to mention the story is very pertinent to my thoughts about the roles of mentors. So, there’s really nothing to lose.
The MFA program at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics (AKA The Kerouac School) requires all of its participants, whether full-residency or low-residency, to complete two four-week sessions of the School’s Summer Writing Program. Some students complete one session before they begin their first semester of regular classes, and thus graduate immediately after finishing their second year. In my case, I applied late and didn’t get started early. I finished up my second year of traditional schooling, wrote and defended my thesis (for which Elizabeth was my advisor), went through the graduation ceremony, got an empty diploma portfolio, and then had to come back to campus for four weeks of workshops in June and July.
I can say without exaggeration that by the time the last week of SWP rolled around, I was feeling about as ridiculous as I’ve ever felt, and having a fair amount of trouble seeing the point in my attendance. I’m not sure if Elizabeth sensed this in me, or just knew it was happening in general, or if I was special in some way—
but she rescued me. The weekly schedule for the program always placed a student reading on the same evening as a social dinner for the visiting faculty (more or less guaranteeing that no faculty would be at the student reading); and attendance to all readings and other evening events was strictly required for course credit, and thus graduation. On this particular week, Elizabeth hosted the dinner at her home in North Boulder. Earlier in the day she pulled me aside and suggested that I quietly skive off the student reading and join the faculty for the dinner. I did. I still feel a little guilty about missing some of my friends perform, but only a little. On the other hand, it was very cool for my mentor to invite me to break the rules and participate in a faculty event rather than a student one. If I could pinpoint the exact moment where Elizabeth carried me across the river, where I died and was reborn, it was that one. It was like the first time I got to sit at the adult table at Thanksgiving. I was invited to be a writer among writers. I know some of her other students have similar stories.
That was my real graduation ceremony. Elizabeth sponsored me into the community, and to everyone’s credit I was welcomed with open arms. No one asked me what I was doing there, because the time was right and Elizabeth just seemed to know that. In fact, most folks asked me which workshop I was teaching, and seemed genuinely surprised to find out I wasn’t teaching any. It was a beautiful evening. People shared poetry, sipped some wine, ate good food, and gathered together in Elizabeth’s front yard under the stars with her dogs, and birds, and flowers. Wang Ping and I even swapped shoulder massages, if I remember correctly. Sadly, it was also one of the last times I got to share a few hours with Anselm Hollo, who has now crossed a more decisive river.
It was not the first night like that I had spent at Elizabeth’s home. There have also been many dinners since, and many book celebrations, and brunches, and many writers passing through from exotic places. It would take me all day to list the wonderful people she’s introduced me to in her living room over the last few years. But that particular and stolen summer night was my favorite.
We still sneak out of events together from time to time. And, in that, there’s the primacy of trust again. A mentor is someone who asks you to do something and you forget to ask why.
SS: Elizabeth, was there any particular relationship with another writer you feel was incredibly helpful in your development?
ER: Oh, I’ve been utterly fortunate in terms of mentorship, and I am happy that I can still be in contact with many of my teachers. Robert Kelly, Ed Sanders, C.D. Wright, Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop have all mentored me in various ways. Robert Creeley gave me invaluable support and inspiration, and I still have a letter from Barbara Guest in which she wrote that she had confidence in my work and felt that I should commit to writing poetry. I really can’t articulate how fortunate I’ve been and how honored I feel to be welcomed by such poets.
SS: Elizabeth, what do you think is Travis’ go-to karaoke song?
ER: “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” by Fleetwood Mac or “Feeling Groovy” by Simon and Garfunkel.
SS: Travis, your go-to karaoke song?
TC: Oh, that’s easy: “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey. You have to pick that every time it’s available, right? For one thing, if you hack it up nobody can blame you. On the other hand, if you nail it, and I mean really nail it, then you’re a hero and people look at you like you’re Bruce Jenner. They put you on a Wheaties box for stuff like that.
It should be noted within the context of this interview, though, that I have yet to plumb the depth of Elizabeth’s abilities at mentoring in high-stakes karaoke situations.
SS: Elizabeth, what do you find most inspirational about Travis’ writing?
ER: Travis inspires me by his confidence. As I said before, being a poet often means dealing with a lot of rejection. Travis, however, always seems buoyed by the practice of writing—and of reading others’ work. Even when he was in graduate school, Travis seemed confident of what he was doing and that confidence meant that he could venture many different kinds of writing experiments fearlessly. From that I’ve learned that confidence = versatility. But confidence also means that Travis has been able to go out and get involved, not just in the evolving life of his poetry, but in teaching, getting published, publishing others, and just participating in the life of the community. Confidence = generosity, both in the work and in a participative ethos that is beneficial to everyone who encounters Travis.
SS: Travis, what do you find most inspirational about Elizabeth’s career?
TC: Maybe I’m not inspired by the usual things. Maybe it’s a good thing I’m a writer.
I’ve always been amazed by how little Elizabeth’s career looks like a career, or at least my prototypical image of one. I know that’s a bold statement that needs some unpacking, but that’s the simplest way I know how to state it. When I think of a career, I think of long-term intention and effort that is in some way progressive, goal-driven, and geared towards some sort of personal reward, even if that reward is a long quite distant... retirement, awards, accolades, money—all of those things people tend to work towards. In Elizabeth’s case I’ve always known she worked tremendously hard and that she has been gifted with supernatural intention (I often have no idea what she has in mind until, seemingly by magic, everything she planned comes together like a well-made jigsaw puzzle—and I’m deliberately vague here, because this magic happens so often in so many different ways). She teaches brilliantly. She writes lovely books and manages to get them published. She publishes other writers she admires and supports other folks with their own publishing endeavors. She brings people together. She wins awards.
All of these activities should, on the surface, come together to form something that resembles the Platonic ideal of a writer’s career. For me, for some reason, they don’t. Why not?
This is what I always come back to, the critical piece of human motivation—the “I’m going to X because Y”— that directs one towards personal gain seems to be missing with her. She doesn’t get particularly famous, not like she could be, anyway. And certainly she doesn’t get rich from her work. On the contrary, Elizabeth does what she does because that’s who she is, not because that’s what she’s chosen to do for her job. I’ve seen her job suffer from her doing the right thing. And I’ve seen her suffer, personally. My impression, though, and I admit it could be flawed, is that the traditional idea of a career doesn’t enter into her decision-making process.
Sometimes I catch myself asking, “Is that the right thing to do for my career?” rather than simply, “Is that the right thing to do?” I don’t believe she qualifies her choices that way. It’s all her life, and unified, not her life as differentiated from her career. Her long-term goals are focused on others, or the good of the group. I love that about her. I admire that, and hope to emulate it. I’m still working on it and trying to learn from her example. I guess that’s why she’s a mentor.
either— Somebody used a hi-liter in the library book. Let’s suppose we were to discard all those small attempts at courtesy because such things were patched up with yellowed tape. Courtesy yellowed, and therefore well-owned, and therefore— Fundamentally, describe a story torn loose from its spine. And weren’t you feeling brave? Just then? And not just because they hadn’t learned better yet— Somebody used out-of-fashion slang terms, with the effect that son-of-a-gun-we’ll-have-big-fun lost its impact like a book pulled randomly from any shelf then put away without being read. Like manners are all subject to rearrangement every few years or so, depending on colors or fashions of the time. Thus, white surfaces turned less so with age. or— A bicycle turned to heap—it toppled, audible in the way a voice makes sound even in a sore throat. Once read, the post office’s bones shone white. The postal rate changing along with the voice. I will not forgive this pile of duties, tourist brochures, banana peels, sunshine woven in grass. It begins to grow like a fingernail grows, slightly chipped, brandishing its sharp edge into her own weight. To own the weight of rain is lifting in the way the U.S.P.S. offers us “forever” stamps, each emblazoned with a face, with eyes blinked. Except for a tickle blown in birdsong —in other words, a retraction, an exception made neither for us nor in ignorance of the sounds the ear can just barely make out over rain, crashing bikes, the slap of mail on the floor, the throat responding to the lozenge.
Elizabeth Robinson & Travis Cebula
Here is a link to Elizabeth’s book, Counterpart:
Here’s a link to Travis’ book, Ithaca: