A Real Donnie Brasco Situation: An Interview with Shaun Robinson

 An excerpt from this interview was published in CV2 Magazine's Fall 2021 issue


Chelsea Motel - Shaun Robinson

A man on the sidewalk carries a chair on his head 
like a set of cast-iron antlers. It must be nice 
to always have somewhere to sit, though hard 
on the neck. I probably look that awkward 
bearing my clumsy love through all these doorways 
and Tuesdays, trying not to get tangled in awnings. 
If it were fabric, I’d drape it over my arm to save you 
a seat in the restaurant. It’s weird, Chelsea. 
Whenever I text to ask what I should order, 
my phone changes Malbec to becalm, like a bartender 
saying I’ve had one too many. Let’s settle 
for Caesars and hope they don’t turn into race cars 
by the time they get to the table. Back at my motel, 
there’s a sign on the wall that starts a sentence 
with If you discover a fire and ends it with a map. 
As if fire were some new Florida and we were at sea 
on a queen-sized raft. But you can find fire 
anywhere, Chelsea. If you ask at the desk, 
they’ll give you a book of matches. 
And the waiter is moving from table to table 
with a lighter and a candle.

Reprinted with permission from 
(Brick Books, 2020).


Shaun Robinson’s poetry has appeared in The Puritan, The Malahat Review, Prairie Fire, Poetry Is Dead, and the Rusty Toque, and received Honourable Mention in ARC Magazine’s 2018 Poem of the Year contest. Born in 100 Mile House, BC, Robinson has lived in Vancouver since 2006. He studied in UBC’s Creative Writing MFA program, where he served as the poetry editor of PRISM international. He is also the author of the chapbook Manmade Clouds and currently works as an editor for the chapbook press Rahila’s Ghost. If You Discover a Fire is his debut collection.


Rob Taylor: It doesn't take long to discover a fire in your debut collection, If You Discover a Fire (Brick Books, 2020). The book's opening poem features matches and cigarettes, and some manifestation of fire/matches/flames appears in more than a quarter of the poems (yes, I counted!). What is it about fire, and the potential for fire, that keeps you returning to it? Are you part moth?

Shaun Robinson: Fire is both completely common and kind of magical, which is what I'm aiming for in my poems. I'm thinking in particular of the free books of matches you can get at a hotel or restaurant or gas station—it’s a minor miracle that a little strip of paper with a few chemicals on the end can turn into this tiny jewel of flame, and then flame can light a cigarette or candle or campfire or barbeque, or light up a dark room, or burn a letter, or start a forest fire. Fire is a very powerful force that many of us carry around in our pockets without giving it a second thought. 

RT: You certainly give it second, third, fourth, fifth…. thoughts! One of your “fiery” poems, "How Soon, How Likely, How Severe," jumped out at me when I read it in ARC, and I selected it for inclusion in Best Canadian Poetry 2019. In your author’s note at the back of BCP 2019, you write that you were required to take a Forest Fire Suppression course while working on a tree-planting crew. How did that experience—both the training and the working all day in a tinder box, planting new little matches—influence how you wrote about fire?

SR: I think they're different kinds of fire. The fire in most of my poems is a metaphor or a turn of phrase—the title of the book, for example, comes from the emergency maps posted in apartments and offices and hotels. This was more of a work poem than anything for me. I was interested in the jargon, in the concrete images I came across doing the work, in what it was like to get through a fifteen hour work day or a fourteen day shift. In what you have to shut down in yourself to get through that. 

RT: Getting through long days of manual labour features in a number of your poems: at one point in If You Discover a Fire, you describe your years of tree-planting as carrying "a tiny forest in a pair of bags / on my hips, wandering through the aftermath of catastrophe, wondering where I should put it." It's tempting to draw comparisons between tree planting and poem writing—placing and placing these little possibilities in the ground and hoping they'll grow—but in other ways, of course, they are wildly different. Did you write much while you were tree planting? 

SR: I would write almost nothing in the course of a tree-planting season. On a good day off I might take down a few lines in a notebook, but in general I've found that manual labour makes impossible the kind of sustained attention that allows me to produce poetry. 

RT: Though you didn’t write, did you learn anything that has proved useful in your writing life?

SR: The valuable thing I got from bush work was time. When I was younger I could make enough in four or five months to take the rest of the year off. I had much more freedom in the off-season to pursue my art than I would have in a normal profession that required year-round attendance.
RT: In "The Future Lives Here" you write:

I couldn't believe I'd moved to the city
to be trapped in a truck
with this Prince George hick,
a dead ringer for every man I'd known
in seventeen small-town years.

You were raised in 100 Mile House, but have spent most of your adult life in Vancouver. What parts of the region do you miss and desire to hold on to? Like the guy in his truck, what elements of small-town life in the Cariboo can you not quite escape?

SR: It's too long of a story for a literary bio, so I don't usually go into it, but I actually grew up in three different B.C. towns—first 100 Mile House, then Terrace for a year, then Kitimat for essentially my entire adolescence. I also studied English at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops for a couple years before dropping out, spent a winter in hostel in downtown Victoria between tree-planting seasons when I was twenty-one or twenty-two, and moved to the West Kootenays for two years. And even though I've been in Vancouver since 2006, until recently I would spend up to six or seven months of the year in various town in the interior or on the island. 

So I really have a hard time talking about the dualities of city and country, then and now, etc. I will say that I have a much less reverent conception of nature than most of my city friends. I'm aware of how much of what people think of as “natural” is almost completely permeated by human activity and technology, of how apparent wilderness is actually interwoven with omnipresent infrastructure of resource extraction. Environmentalism has made people more aware of how constructed “nature” is, but it’s one thing to know it academically and another to participate in it. 

RT: How do you think your upbringing, and your ping-ponging in and out of the city, has allowed you see Vancouver differently?

SR: I have a completely different class background from all of my friends in the city. My parents and their siblings were loggers, miners, soldiers, truckers, receptionists, mechanics. Some of them made good money at different points along the curve of various boom-and-bust cycles, but as a rule they didn't have post-secondary educations and they didn't have professional jobs. I still have a hard time at dinner parties. We didn't have those when I was a kid—we had huge, messy gatherings, three or four generations of the extended family eating in someone's huge back yard off of paper plates, dogs and babies running free underfoot, the kids sneaking off to build forts or chase cows or get into fights. I am not good at the very subtle war of manners of a middle-class dinner table. It makes me squirm and drink too much and mistime my jokes. 

That being said, I moved to Vancouver when I was 26. I've now lived here longer than I have anywhere else. I have a Master of Fine Arts degree. If there weren't a worldwide pandemic I would drink one to two espresso drinks every day and visit several thrift stores and maybe write a poem. I'm more Vancouver than I am not. 

RT: As a lifelong Vancouverite who’s never drunk an espresso, I reluctant accept that the rest of your description is accurate… 

In "Stereognostic" you write "I want to know [the poem] / the way the kids with sticks know where to swing." This recalled for me Billy Collins' poem "Introduction to Poetry" in which students beat a poem "with a hose / to find out what it really means," though the two are saying different things. Has what it means to "know" a poem shifted for you over the years?

SR: I loved that you picked "Stereognostic" (from the Greek words for "solid" and "knowledge") as a reference point for this particular question. The “knowledge” in question is sensory and tactile, more instinctive than cerebral. I was definitely one of the students Collins was talking about at one point, treating a poem like an archaeological site through which I had to carefully dig for hidden meaning. These days I think of a poem as a vinyl record. The reader's mind is the record player’s needle. In other words, I think that, regardless of the intentions of the author, whatever sensations occur in the mind of the reader when they read the poem are the poem. A poem is a kind of incantation—the words on the page are just words until someone reads them. When you read it, you're casting a spell, and the spell is the poem. 

RT: Your path to understanding the spell of a poem has involved both in-classroom environments—you mentioned earlier your MFA from UBC—and extended periods outside academia. Could you talk about that journey? 

SR: For most of my life I was primarily a fiction writer. I tried to write poetry, and read a lot of it, but most of my models were older: Robert Lowell, W.H. Auden, John Ashbery, Emily Dickinson, people like that. All writers I still enjoy, but not exactly emblems of the twenty-first century zeitgeist. 

The first two contemporary poets I found who really spoke to me were Ben Lerner and Patricia Lockwood. I found some of Lerner's sonnets from his first book on the Paris Review website—they were funny and absurd and played with the vernacular in a way that really appealed to me. I remember one poem of his that ended with the line "The chicken is a little dry and/or you've ruined my life." I loved that irreverence. 

The first Patricia Lockwood poem I read was a very long poem about Popeye called "When We Move Away From Here, You'll See a Clean Square of Paper Where His Picture Hung." It blew me away because of the way she turned the poem's reality on its head midstream, how something that was a metaphor in one line became real in the next. Her poems were like Looney Tunes poems—the Roadrunner painting a tunnel on the side of a mountain and then running through it. 

I have to say that both of them were bad influences on my writing for a long time. I definitely have a couple of poems in the book from the phase when I wanted to be Patricia Lockwood. 

RT: You edit for Rahila's Ghost Press, a Vancouver-based chapbook publisher established by fellow UBC MFA grad Mallory Tater, and you also served the poetry editor at PRISM international. How have those experiences influenced how you thought about your own writing and publishing?

SR: More and more I see literature as the expression of a community's collective activity rather than the work of an individual author. Before I was as close as I am now to the means of production, I thought of books as things that authors wrote and readers read, without considering how they got from one to the other. Now I see it as more of a web—writers are readers, readers are editors, editors are writers, etc.

RT: Yes, there’s little linear about it; instead all this talking back and forth and across. Similarly, a poet’s books and chapbooks can talk to one another. I love when a poet publishes a chapbook soon before a book, with both featuring the same poems: it provides so many opportunities to compare and contrast! 

Your chapbook Manmade Clouds (Frog Hollow, 2017) contains earlier versions of 40% of the poems in If You Discovered a Fire (yes, I did more counting!). While you left some of the poems unchanged, you altered many, with the biggest edits coming around shortened line lengths and, most notably, endings. "Tuesday" lost its last three lines (in a fifteen line poem!), while "Your Love Will Help a Child in Need" lost the last two, and a whopping 19 of the final 22 lines in "I Used to Walk Around With a Tiny Forest" up and disappeared. 

Were these reductions (in word count and shape) the product of new thinking about your poetry, or the editorial intervention of your Brick editor (John Barton), or both?

SR: If I recall, I think the edit to “Tuesday” was suggested by Karen Solie, who was my thesis advisor during my MFA. The other big edits were of my own prerogative. I'm a tireless meddler when it comes to poems, which is one of the reasons it's taken me longer than the average person to publish a first book. Some edits were because I was never happy with the poems in the first place but had to eventually let go of them for the sake of the chapbook publication, and some were the natural product of having a poem lie around for several years—eventually you're no longer the same person who wrote the poem, and you try to turn it into the poem the person you've now become would have written. 

RT: I think this is how people end up never publishing books at all! 

Your poems aren’t just written and edited by different people, they are written to them, too: "Tyler," in particular, is a recurring character in If You Discovered a Fire, with three of the book's best poems written to him directly (whoever he is - it's never really made clear). 

Epistolary poems of this type are popular in the UBC-Rahila's Ghost circle of poets, with recent books by Mallory Tater, Adèle Barclay, Kyla Jamieson and Kayla Czaga all featuring poems directly addressed to someone else (and, often enough, each other). What's going on with all these letter-poems? 

SR: I think everyone was reading Maggie Nelson's Bluets and Chris Kraus's I Love Dick, both epistolary books of indeterminate genre. Kayla mentions the Kraus book in one of her Kyla poems, in fact. I was also personally influenced by Adèle's letter poems. I met Adèle right at the start of my MFA and I remember her using the phrase “the poetics of coterie,” speaking, I think, of the New York School poets, O'Hara and Koch and Ashbery. These poets were influences as well, I believe—they also liked to address their work to one another. O'Hara's famous formulation is that a poem is the equivalent to a phone call, but millennials don't like to talk on the phone so they write letters instead.  

RT: Why Tyler, specifically (or could it have been anyone)?  

SR: Tyler came into being when I was taking an instructional skills workshop as a TA in grad school. The instructor was talking about how to encourage students during classroom participation exercises and gave, as an example of encouragement, the phrase, “That's a terrific question, Tyler.” I think “terrific” is a hilarious word—it's very corny and old-fashioned. It sounds like sock hops and going steady. It's a golden retriever of a word. So I wrote the phrase down in my book, and it morphed into the title of the poem “Tyler, You're Terrific.” The Tyler character took on some of the qualities of the word “terrific”—bumbling and overly enthusiastic, trying hard and never quite succeeding. 

The poem was also influenced by the book “Tina” by Peter Davis, especially the exasperated tone of the relationship between Tyler and the poem's speaker. 

RT: You had me convinced he was a real person! 

Despite the omnipresence of fire (and Tyler), at the end of the day If You Discovered a Fire comes across as a general collection. It's also a book that clocks in at less than 70 pages. Both of those things feel rare in our current moment of longer, themed collections. Were both aspects of the book important to you? As a reader of poetry, what do you find yourself gravitating toward these days?

SR: I absolutely wanted this to be a collection of poems rather than a more unified work. I usually gravitate toward general collections. To me, each poem is its own world with its own physics and geography. 

The length of the collection, on the other hand, has more to do with my perfectionism and the glacial pace of my process than anything else. These are literally all the poems that I had in the world that I was willing to include in a manuscript. I do think that these particular poems could have become tiresome if the book went on for much longer than it did—they're not dense, exactly, but they're busy, crowded poems. I'm always afraid of overstaying my welcome. 

RT: Perhaps in line with your perfectionist tinkering, in "Year of the Monkey" you write about a man "sanding a section of awning tube / to make its surface rougher and more adherent." You then later add "The truth is / a certain amount of surface roughness is necessary," alluding, at least in part, to writing. What, to you, is the "surface roughness" in a poem that allows it to adhere to a reader? 

SR: I gravitate to the inelegant in a poem. I like the pathos of a metaphor that swings for the fences and doesn't quite connect. I like a poem that deliberately misunderstands a phrase or contradicts itself or forgets who its speaker was. “It's important to get things wrong,” according to my poem “Trivia Night.” By which I mean, partly, that I'd rather be rough and messy and adventurous than small and tidy and perfect.  

RT: And yet you say you’re a perfectionist when it comes to your poems! Do you see a contradiction there? Or is there such a thing as a perfected imperfect poem?

SR: I've definitely been guilty of spending too much time trying to manufacture elegant imperfections. It usually doesn’t work. I think the productive imperfections tend to come in the early drafting process, and part of what I'm doing in future drafts is trying to preserve those imperfections while strengthening the connective tissues and tightening the seams. Editing is kind of like restoring a heritage home—I don't want to get rid of what makes it special, but I have to make sure the house doesn't collapse. 

RT: I love that idea of sheltering certain necessary imperfections away from the brutalities of the editing process. It’s no easy feat to pull off. Speaking of poems-as-construction-projects, in an interview with Kevin Spenst on Wax Poetic Radio, you described your compositional process as assembling "piles of metaphors [you] found in different places." Can you talk about that a bit more? Your poems generally hold together with a linear narrative, so how do you go from the piles to the linear poem?  

SR: This might be one of those things that has more to do with the process than the product. I have some poems that begin as narratives and stay that way, but more often than not they begin as images or phrases in a notebook, and at some point I conceive of some kind of formal or narrative framework as an excuse to string them together. There are a few poems where this is more obvious, like “Tyler, You're Terrific” or the book's final poem, “Transactive Memory,” but I think in other cases there's a real Donnie Brasco situation where the poems have been living undercover for so long that they start believing their own lies. As I said earlier, I don't believe the author's intent is important, so this statement is more about how the poems come to be than about the final shape they take in a reader's mind. 

RT: Ha! May “Donnie Brasco situation” enter the editor’s lexicon! You often had me laughing while reading If You Discovered a Fire, though the poems, generally speaking, are serious in nature. Could you talk about the role of humour in your writing? What does the addition of a joke do to an otherwise serious poem?

SR: The essence of drama is that every word means something, every action has consequence, and our choices matter. I don't believe any of that. I think like itself is essentially comedic—it's absurd and incomprehensible and riddled with failure, but sometimes its failures rhyme is a way that's absolutely hilarious. I think humour can help you get closer to some very dark subjects. There's something life affirming about certain kinds of black humour—Samuel Beckett, for example—where for the sake of a joke you can gaze longer than normal at human misery, in a way that would be unbearable with a straight dramatic tone. 

RT: Your poems carry a flaneurial, funny, subtly surreal energy reminiscent of Frank O'Hara and James Tate. You mentioned O’Hara here earlier, and James Tate elsewhere, as influences. Could you talk about the impact their writing had on your own? Who would you point to as other major influences?

SR: More than either O'Hara or Tate, I'm influenced by writers I think of as having descended from them, such as Lockwood and Berman, who I mentioned earlier. I think the influence of Tate is very obvious with both of them. Berman even studied with him. And I think someone like Richard Siken, who was a huge influence on me, has a lot in common with O'Hara, from the preoccupation with art to the casual diction, though Siken's tone has a much more emotionally intense register. 

I like how O'Hara engaged with culture—he had contemporaries that might as well have been in ancient Rome as far as their images and allusions were concerned. O'Hara has paintings and oceans in his poems, but he also has Coca-Cola and newspapers and Billie Holiday. He lives in the same world as his readers. 

RT: Another artist whose work was filled with Coca-Cola and newspapers was the photographer Fred Herzog, who captured scenes of Vancouver street life in the '50s and '60s. If You Discovered a Fire features a poem about him entitled, "The Man Who Took Photos of Windows." Would you consider him an influence, in line with the others?

SR: I saw a display of Herzog's photos at a gallery probably about ten years ago and I loved them. I do think that there's something of a shared aesthetic between his photos and my poems. Street photography is an acquisitive practice. You're walking around and picking things up, images and signs and buildings and people. It's very much the flaneurial poem. 

RT: As you mentioned earlier, you've been at work on this book for a long time (references in some of the poems seem to place them pre-2010). Not to rush you, then, but do you have any thoughts towards what you are going to write next?  I'm certainly looking forward to whatever it might be.

SR: It has been a long time! The oldest poem in this book was written for Rhea Tregebov's poetry lecture class in the fall of 2012. I've been trying to piece together some new poems in the last few months, and I'd really like to write more about work. There are a few work poems in this book, but I think I have more to say about work and class and money and gender that I couldn't quite express in this book. 

RT: Whenever that new work (on work) arrives, I’ll very much be looking forward to it.


You can relish all those years of making by picking up If You Discover a Fire at your local bookstore, or via the Brick Books website or, if you must, from Amazon.

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