In the Field: Conversations With Our Contributors–Christine Robbins
In The Field is a blog series devoted to highlighting the writing life and artistic process of our contributors. This week we continue with our series now featuring contributors from our most recent issue, Vo. 23 “Hunger For Tiny Things”. Vol. 23 is now available for sale in our online shop.
Tell us about your poem My grandparents’ house was razed—left in piles of stone, board, and debris in Volume 23. There’s such a delicate balance between tenderness and brutal destruction. Can you tell us how this poem came to be?
I love that you mention the delicate balance between tenderness and brutal destruction. I recognize this in the poem and in my writing generally. I think I’m circling a place where I can rest in the tenderness for a moment without losing track of the destruction. I don’t think one really exists without the other – in part because we are mortal and we continually lose what we love, including time. I worked on drafts of this poem for years, but only the title was consistent.
I’m interested in the possibility of a place being able to hold past time in a way that’s more tangible than memory, and that the past could be reentered somehow through the place. I’m thinking about the hotel in The Shining. And if places do remember, or even keep the past, what happens when the place is destroyed?
I brought these ideas and older drafts of the poem to a weekend-long workshop at Centrum that was led by Maya Jewell Zeller and Laura Read. Writing prompts have never yielded more than exercise for me – kind of like running scales – but Maya and Laura offered these multi-layered prompts as we were writing, and the experience was rich for me. At one point I was given a note-card with the word paramecium on it while I was in the act of writing and it was the right word at the perfect moment.
The house in the poem was an old farmhouse in Northern New Jersey, where my mother grew up. My Irish family came to New Jersey three generations before I was born. I wonder what it would be like to have a home in a place where your ancestral history reaches back for thousands of years. I wonder what it would feel like to return to Ireland especially because it’s the part of my family I know the most about. This house felt ancestral to me, though my family was only there for two generations. I think the oldest part of it, the room with the original stone fireplace, was built in the 1700s. It was a wondrous and slightly frightening house. There was a window you could see on the second floor from the outside, but there was no room there. There was an old stone well and a stone cellar that once had an enormous snake moving between the stones. I was shocked when it was torn down because I thought it had historical significance, but it was only significant to us.
We feel fortunate to have taken the line ‘hunger for tiny things’ from your poem as the title of our 23rd issue. At the time that our editorial board was working hard to select the final pieces for consideration, the pandemic was spreading globally, causing us all to pivot and wade through so many unknowns. We all craved those moments of humanness, of community, of tiny things that we took for granted, and so suddenly your poem, and this line, created a profound shift in how we thought about shaping this issue. What ‘tiny things’ do you hunger for these days?
I’m really moved that the line mattered to you in this way. I wrote this poem before my youngest daughter, Wish, took her life. I haven’t been able to feel much beyond searing grief and longing. Last night I was awake in bed for hours – waking and sleeping are painful these days because I can’t stand moving forward in time. But as morning approached, I thought – ok, I can close my eyes and rest for a few minutes, and then I was able to sleep. No big proclamations. So I’m trying to find these tiny things – the little moments when I connect to the living. I’m also desperate for new evidence of Wish – a thread from her coat, her hair in my brush. Tiny things that let me connect to her in the physical present. I can’t stand to think there might not be new evidence someday. A friend reminded me of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, and I know that’s how I sound. I’m trying to find Wish everywhere – especially in the places that might keep her past time. I want to go get her.
What projects are you working on right now?
I don’t have a book yet. I had three completed full-length poetry manuscripts and a chapbook, but it all collapsed into one full-length manuscript and I’m serious about sending it out right now. I’m writing about Wish but I’m not sharing it at this point. It might not be readable. But I want people to know about her and I want to try to reach the words for something I can’t express yet. I still believe in her, I’m still behind her. I’m still her mom.
Christine Robbins spent her childhood in Northern Virginia and has lived her adult life in Olympia, Washington. She has poems published in journals including Beloit Poetry Journal, The Georgia Review, New England Review, and Poetry Northwest. Her manuscript was a finalist for the National Poetry Series.