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?