English professor Liz Robbins talks poetry, publishing and truth
It’s hard to define “success” in the publishing world these days. As major publishing firms struggle to turn a profit, it’s more difficult than ever to get a traditional contract. Meanwhile, self-publishing companies – which let anyone print their work, for a fee – are rapidly expanding. But the books they publish sometimes reach just dozens of readers – as opposed to, say, a million.
Flagler Assistant Professor of English Liz Robbins is finding success somewhere in between those two extremes. Her first full-length book of poetry, “Hope, As The World Is A Scorpion Fish,” was published by small, Nebraska-based The Backwaters Press in 2008 and has sold more than 1,000 copies.
One of the poems, “Studio,” was recently selected by Garrison Keillor – the famed American author and radio personality best known for his Minnesota Public Radio show “A Prairie Home Companion” – for national radio broadcast on “The Writer’s Almanac.”
Robbins’ book also received praise from David Bottoms — poet laureate of Georgia and editor of the literary magazine “Five Points” — who describes Robbins’ poems as exploring with “unflinching courage the human need for love and meaning. They are born out of that mysterious and painful tension between the hopeful heart and the world it must confront.”
For Robbins, success has more to do with creating, improving and sharing her work than with fame or money. She nurtures a similar approach in her creative writing classes at Flagler.
“I knew I wanted to teach, and I knew if I wanted to teach writing, publishing in a traditional way would be connected to that,” she said. “But I think also there’s so much rejection in sending out your work … that you absolutely have to be driven and passionate about it.
“I think different poets have different reasons and have different ways of writing … For me, it’s always starting with a puzzle of one kind or another … I think that we could benefit collectively from more contemplative thinking and inwardness, reflection. And I think actually all of literature plays that role; whenever we read a short story or a poem, no matter what, we’re getting some insight into the human condition and seeing ourselves and the people we know reflected back to us.”
The “Scorpion Fish” collection is hardly Robbins’ first literary accomplishment; she has received the First Coast Writers’ Poetry Award, judged by Robert Bly, and has been nominated for Best New Poets and a Pushcart Prize. Her poems have appeared in “Calyx,” “The Chattahoochee Review,” “The National Poetry Review,” “Natural Bridge,” “Potomac Review,” “Puerto del Sol” and other literary journals.
Robbins has begun working on new projects since the publication of “Scorpion Fish.” Last summer, she received a research award from a Schultz Foundation grant given to Flagler. She used that award to produce roughly 20 poems about Hastings, a rural town near St. Augustine that’s known as “The Potato Capital of Florida.” Four of those poems are already on their way to publication in literary journals.
The award also allowed Robbins to do additional work with Kim Bradley, a Flagler visiting assistant professor of English who runs “Word Play,” after-school poetry classes for underprivileged youth at Hastings’ non-profit Organization of United Resources Center (OUR Center). Bradley mainly teaches elementary school children there. Robbins has assisted with those classes, run a teenage poetry workshop and helped Bradley produce and self-publish “Juice Up the True Say,” a collection of the “Word Play” students’ poetry.
“Once I saw all the good that she [Bradley] was doing out there, I knew I wanted to get more involved,” Robbins said. “I was inspired by the kids, too, and I wanted to capture their experience to some degree [in my poetry.]”
Bradley and Robbins both said the main goal with the Hastings students is to “make writing fun” – a task that is made especially difficult when the children have already been forced to do writing “drills” and follow strict essay guidelines to prepare for standardized tests at school.
“Poetry is such a hard sell,” Bradley said. “So I started to think about why I’m a writer and why I loved the written word as a child.”
Class activities range from playing with magnetic poetry to rapping. Their poetry prompts include giving personality to colors and responding to jazz or photography. Robbins said creative teaching and exposure to contemporary poetry helps the kids better relate to what they’re reading.
“They are so confident about words now,” Bradley said. “They have a command of the language that they didn’t have before. They know how to articulate feelings … I hope that having this ability to explore themselves like this, hopefully it will mean great things for some of them.”
Robbins said it was an invaluable experience to teach students of a variety of ages and socioeconomic backgrounds.
“Those built-in walls for self-protection as adults are not there yet,” she said. “That same lack of defensiveness comes into their writing … In some cases, their word combinations ending up being quite profound. I think even the title of the book, ‘Juice Up the True Say,’ is an example of that. It sort of has a nonsensical feel to it, but it absolutely makes sense … There is that lack of self-consciousness that’s refreshing and exhilarating to be around.”
The most difficult part of teaching in Hastings was seeing evidence of struggle in the children’s lives, Robbins said – and not being able to do much about it.
“It’s a cold awakening to see really young kids, first graders, having such an awareness about, say, a violent home life,” Robbins said. “And being able to speak about it with such frankness because it’s so ordinary to them.
“That’s disturbing … The heart of poetry is truth-telling, and some painful experiences are told.”
She added that a “kind of rawness” is something she seeks in all literature: “There has to be an element of risk, where I get the sense that the writer is revealing something that is information we could not get in any other way, in any other setting – things about the human heart, the nature of suffering, the nature of relationships.”
As an instructor, Robbins said she feels privileged to learn about students’ personal lives and points of view through their creative writing – both at the OUR Center and at Flagler.
“I’ve taught at different universities,” she said. “The students at Flagler, as a group, tend to be compassionate, sweet, self-motivated, modest … Just getting to know them is very rewarding.”Robbins said she sometimes has difficulty making time for both teaching and writing, but she thinks the tasks complement each other.
“I read a statistic somewhere that there are like 200 writers in the United States who make a living off of their writing,” she said. “I don’t think there’s a single poet I know of that doesn’t also teach, and that’s including the ones at the top of the heap.
“But teaching writing helps you become a better writer … and the best teaching requires a profound creativity.”