An Interview with Robin Ekiss
~ Tomás Q. Morín

Robin Ekiss is a former Stegner Fellow at Stanford and recipient of a Rona Jaffe Award for emerging women writers. Her poems and prose have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, American Poetry Review, POETRY, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. Her first book of poems, The Mansion of Happiness, was published by the University of Georgia Press VQR Poetry Series. It won the 2010 Shenandoah/Glasgow Prize for Emerging Writers, and was a finalist for the Balcones Poetry Prize, the Northern California Book Award, and the Commonwealth Club's California Book Award. She can be found online at
Tomás Q. Morín is a graduate of Texas State University and Johns Hopkins University.  He is the recipient of scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writer's Conference, the New York State Writers Institute, and the Fine Arts Work Center. His poems have appeared in Ploughshares, Boulevard, Slate, Narrative, Threepenny Review, Poetry Northwest, and elsewhere. His website is

Tomás Q. Morin: Let me start with what is probably the most pressing question on your readers' minds: What kind of ham does Al Roker like? It's honey maple, isn't it?
Robin Ekiss: So funny... actually, I think it was straight-up baked ham, a half pound a week. While all my college friends had glamorous summer internships at magazines and book publishers in New York City, I lived at home and worked the deli and meat counter at my hometown supermarket. I had to join the union, which wasn't very "gal" friendly. But my AFL-CIO card is a badge of honor. A lot of poets claim they've "paid their dues," but I really did, literally. I'm guessing there aren't many poets out there who can spit 24 chickens in an hour.
TQM: Only a half pound? I'm surprised. That would've been the hefty Roker, no? When I first read you were a member of the meat-cutter's union, I pictured the meat locker from Rocky: you wearing a bloody white coat, slicing steaks, while Al Roker tried to punch the pounds away on some poor cow.

Where did you grow up, by the way?
RE: I like that image, but there's (sadly) no walk-in freezer or cow carcasses in my past, and all my bloody white coats are reserved for writing poems.

I grew up in Ossining, New York, home of Sing Sing Prison and an historical figure called "The Leatherman," a 19th-century Frenchman who wore a suit patched together from scraps of leather and walked a 365 miles circuit every 34 days, sleeping in caves at night. You can read about him, and see his famous photograph, here:

I think that's where my fascination with the 19th-century began.

In high school, we moved to Croton, down the road a few miles, and I went to school in Montrose. These towns were all what passed for the "underbellies" of affluent Westchester County. We lived a few miles from the infamous Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant. Every year, we'd get a letter informing us that we were located in the blast zone, and that if there was a meltdown, it probably wasn't worth evacuating. There was also a famous mud bog held every year, with monster trucks driving through mud. And it was the locale of one of the largest reported UFO sightings in the U.S., which, I'm proud to admit, I took part in.

Years after I left, I learned that Edna St. Vincent Millay had lived in Croton, and Isadora Duncan's sister had a dance school half-a-mile from my house. Trotsky supposedly visited there. And Gloria Swanson owned a house. Charlie Chaplin stopped by for walks. I'm obsessed with silent film right now, so this fascinates me to no end.
TQM: Wow. With a Leatherman, UFOs, monster trucks, and the threat of nuclear annihilation, Croton sounds like anything but boring.

I wonder what our Age of Distraction would do with a silent film? They'd probably tune out and text because there wasn't enough going on. And yet, in your poem "Contemplating Quiet" about the Dickson Experimental Film, a film containing only the sound of a violin, you show that there is A LOT going on in what are only 15, 17 seconds of footage? What was the genesis of this poem? What other films are you poetically wrestling with right now? And what attracts you to these films?
RE: I find silent film deeply absorbing, especially early silents, which were more about documenting behavior, movement, the energy of life than in establishing the arc of a story. The earliest films were called "actualities," and that's just what they were: short clips -- kind of like the precursor to Flip videos -- capturing people walking down the street, air being blown up a woman's skirt on a city sidewalk (way before Marilyn Monroe). People were compelled by that mechanical reproduction, the two-dimensionality of it. And they weren't really silent films, after all: there was generally a score and a piano player at least, so it was a real communal happening to see one. It still is, if you're lucky enough to see one live these days.

When those films shifted to talkies, their focus shifted too, becoming less associative and more narrative. That associative quality makes silent film close to modern poetry, which I see as having the same artistic challenge, really: the irony of communicating in an era of noise.

Edison, because he was such a pioneer in early film (who was, himself, hard of hearing... another layer of irony in relation to silent film) is a natural case study for these questions. So I started watching his films, and came across the Dickson film. It really captures a moment of unselfconsciousness that's beautiful and rare: two men dancing together at the turn of the century with complete impunity; it just wasn't controversial, as it might be today.

Another aspect that interests me is the fact that upwards of 90% of all silent films are lost, mostly because the nitrate stock they were recorded on is so flammable and degradable, but also because of neglect. That's a human condition too, and one that sparks my imagination. It's tempting to re-imagine what's lost. It's the work of poetry, really, whether we're talking about relationships, history, or memory. So that's what I'm currently working on.

I'm especially interested right now in the kind of opposing impulses of Chaplin and Keaton. (It's like American poets choosing their loyalties between Dickinson and Whitman, or Williams and Stevens.) My husband and I recently gave our infant son the middle name "Buster," so I think you can guess where my sympathies lie.
TQM: "Actualities." I like that. I think it could very easily be applied to many of the poems in The Mansion of Happiness because there are actual "things" happening in your poems. Not only that, things are being done by people that are not you! Do you remember when characters actually made regular appearances in poetry--you know, way back in the day. Like the 1950s. What I find so compelling about your work is this dramatic action, which has been largely missing from American poetry for quite some time.
RE: It's really true. So much of contemporary poetry has been confessional -- even and especially the current vogue model that relies so deeply on associativeness and disjunction (and purports to be anti-confessional). Is there anything more inherently confessional than a stream of consciousness? It's hard NOT to confess when you're writing, particularly when identity is so closely tied to poetry, but I'm also interested in the uses of fiction, and the way in which we construct realities (like history or memory) through rhetoric and storytelling. Every poem tells a story, ultimately, about an emotion, even if there isn't an overt plot. The drama of history might be regret. The drama of memory might be reconciliation.
TQM: Edison and his work are obviously important to you. Who are some of your other influences, whether they are writers or not? Who are your masters and why?
RE: s it fair to say I'm fairly impressionable? I'm continually inspired by Elizabeth Bishop's restraint, Marianne Moore's rhetorical mind, Dickinson's tension, Stevens' inventiveness. When I need to live awhile in something surreal and grave, I look to writers like Yannis Ritsos, Mahmoud Darwish, or Adam Zagajewski. I'm also inspired by visual artists, who seem to me to convey through their work the purest distillation of lyricism. Two of my favorites right now are artists I met as a resident at the Headlands Center for the Arts in Sausalito, California. David Maisel makes these arresting large-scale photographs with real historic and social consciousness. For instance, for one project, he photographed x-rays of antiquities from the Getty villa, bringing out their ghostly inner essences. In another, he documented a series of decaying canisters that contain cremated remains from a closed mental hospital. There's something really beautiful, dark, and terrifying in there -- and I find that inspiring. You can see his work here:

Inspiration is a two-way street for me. I recently collaborated with another artist from the Headlands, Vanessa Woods, a filmmaker who shares my sensibility. She's made a series of short, stop-motion films inspired by my book, some of which manipulate the text, but mostly are just impressionistic explorations of the ideas. They have a kind of Victorian knowledge that is very appealing to me. I'm hoping we'll be able to get out there and show the films and read the poems together at some point.
TQM: Thanks for the introduction to Maisel's work. Wow! I like your use of the word arresting to describe his art because it's a word I would use to describe the experience of reading many of the poems in The Mansion of Happiness. For example, I'll read something like "The Lady Vanishes" and unlike with some contemporary poems by the time I get to the end, I can't immediately move on. Instead, the poem detains me, reads me my rights, and then sends me back to the beginning to start over. I think all good art creates this experience for me for a couple of reasons. One, all good photographs, songs, or poems contain more feeling and intelligence than can be absorbed on the first pass. And secondly, on a purely visceral level, it's just so damn enjoyable to experience that art again and again.

What was your experience like getting the MOH ready for publication and its big debut after having worked on it, like most writers I'm sure, for many years prior to receiving the good news from Ted Genoways and the folks at Virginia Quarterly Review?
RE: That's nice to hear, Tomas. I like the idea of detaining a reader, but thank goodness we don't have to produce a warrant! There’s nothing illegal about poetry, well, yet.

I worked on the book for roughly ten years on and off (mostly off), and went through 82 versions of the manuscript. Believe me, I’ve counted. There was a lot of moving the furniture around, so to speak, trying to nail the order and organization, and every time I changed it, I’d learn something new about the poems, saw more clearly what was missing or extraneous. So I took poems out. I wedged poems in. It was like playing Tetris. Eventually, everything fit snugly. When I started to write poems that felt tangential to the project, I knew I was done with it, even if it wasn’t done with me!

All this time, I’d been in some form of denial, sending the book out like a carrier pigeon or a message in a bottle — hoping to get a nibble, some feedback, a bit of validation from the outside world. When Dickinson wrote “hope is the thing with feathers,” I think she was talking about a manuscript entrusted to the U.S. mail!

The first year, it was a finalist for the Whitman, judged by Henri Cole. At that stage, the book was a long way from done. But that was all the validation I needed. One year it was a finalist for the National Poetry Series, another for Persea’s Lexi Rudnitsky Prize, another runner-up for the A. Poulin Jr. Prize from BOA. One year, it was a total wash. All that time, I continued to tinker and test its boundaries. The great irony is, I submitted to 64 contests, but it wasn’t until Ted Genoways solicited the manuscript that it found a publisher. I can’t describe that sense of elation; maybe marathon runners feel this way about crossing the finish line? It’s thrilling to finally find a reader who believes in your work and is willing to support it. It utterly erased any frustration I'd had about the process. In a very rare occurrence, I found out the book was being taken in person, when I was attending Bread Loaf; I was standing on the lawn with a gin and tonic in one hand. Email and phone calls be damned: all writers should find out their books are being published this way.

Having it out in the world is a strange feeling: a sense of accomplishment mixed with intimate fear. But hearing from readers who find something sympathetic there is humbling and gratifying. And seeing my book’s spine cozied up next to T.S. Eliot’s on the bookshelf — a happy alphabetic coincidence — gives me enormous pleasure.
TQM: Well, on behalf of all your fans and readers, thanks for persevering through 82 versions and ten years. Truly! I'm sure lesser spirits would have thrown in the towel after year five or six. Do you have a sense of the next book that will keep Eliot company or the direction your post-MOH poems are taking or is it too soon to make out the handwriting on the wall?
RE: Never too soon! A few years back, I started indulging my interest in silent film, and began writing poems that explored that. I'd originally wanted to meditate on certain lost films, but that's morphed a bit, and I've become much more interested in the period of transition from silent to sound film. The poems arising out of that are definitely taking broader strokes: grappling with silence in a general sense, and what might be called the dark artlessness of life. I'm really quite far away from a completed manuscript, but there's chicken scratch in the paint, if not writing on the wall. A filament in the bulb?
TQM: I can't wait to read those poems. That sounds like incredibly rich subject matter.

So that you can get back to writing more fantastic poems for us, I'll wrap up our conversation by asking you some short questions in my best James Lipton impersonation.

What is your favorite part of speech?
RE: I like interjections. Ouch! And nouns are always nice. But I'm most comfortable in conjunctions. It's hard to write rhetorically without them.
TQM: What is your least favorite part of speech?
RE: It would be impossible to be a poet and dislike any part of speech. But I have been trying to go cold turkey on adjectives. And you can't go cold turkey without cold.
TQM: What image do you love?
RE: Anything that genuinely surprises me. There’s an image at the end of a Yannis Ritsos poem (“Vulnerability”), for instance, of a frog smoking a cigarette that kids have shoved into its mouth. It’s shocking. But I can’t stop thinking about it, and I love that (not the grotesque act, but the moxie it took to craft it).
TQM: What image do you hate?
RE: Pink hearts, orange stars, yellow moons, green clovers, blue diamonds, anything magically delicious. Also, poems that employ long lists of exotic spice names. Those bite.
TQM: What art form other than your own would you like to attempt?
RE: I’d love to play gypsy jazz. When I was young, I played classical violin, but was never very good at it, and gave it up. I regret that. Family folklore says I’m related to the violinist Jascha Heifetz, but if so, those genes didn’t transfer. Coincidentally, Heifetz's wife was a silent film actress, Florence Vidor, who’d previously been married to the director King Vidor. (Obsessed much?) Other than music? Filmmaking and glassblowing, in that order. Also, canning. I wish I could make jam.
TQM: What art form would you least like to attempt?
RE: Ceramics. No interest in making pots or throwing clay. Too close to the whole “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” thing for my taste.
TQM: What do you prefer: hardcover, paperback, or e-book?
RE: Any port in a storm. But seriously? Letterpress printing with moveable type. I’m an old-fashioned girl. I just like to feel the pages turning in my hands.
TQM: What writer should we be reading next?
RE: I’m risking broken-record territory here, but if you haven’t read Ritsos, I’d definitely recommend it. How can I describe his work? It’s like the bastard child of Adam Zagajewski and Magritte. Grave, measured, and surreal.
TQM: Yeah, Ritsos is great. Well, this has been a blast. Truly. See you around the old poetry block.

Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761