Interviews

“Even Looking out the Window has Changed”

An interview with Ed Roberson, recipient of the Jackson Poetry Prize.

Poets & Writers awards the annual Jackson Poetry Prize to a poet with exceptional talent. The prize includes $70,000, a sum designed to help poets sustain writing, and it also serves as a gift of gratitude for outstanding contributions to the art. Recipients are first nominated by peers then selected by a panel of judges — this year, Nikky Finney, Anne Waldman, and Robert Wrigley. While mastery of craft is a prerequisite, winners of this award must also be beacons within the poetry community. They must possess a voice critical for our present and a vision essential for our future. 

On May 7th, 2020, Poets & Writers announced Ed Roberson as this year’s Jackson Poetry Prize recipient. For anyone who has been mesmerized by Roberson’s poetry or lucky enough to sit in his classrooms, this announcement likely came as no surprise. Roberson currently serves as an emeritus professor at Northwestern University, and here in Chicago has also taught at the University of Chicago and Columbia University. He has traveled the world, from Canada to Africa to Bermuda and beyond, and he has been generous enough to reflect that world back to us on the page.

In their selection announcement, Finney, Waldman, and Wrigley wrote: “We may be looking into an Abyss or a Reckoning for our Fallen Age. Poetry such as Ed Roberson’s troubles these meditations,  these issues, these apocalyptic queries in innovative expressive ways. He is both scholar and jazz-like innovator.” In his ten collections, including his most-recent collection, To See the Earth Before the End of the World, Roberson writes about nature and its fragility, about the state of our planet, and about his experience as a Black man living on and through it. He captures the world’s beauty without filtering painful, ugly truths. He magnifies life by acknowledging mortality, and balances fear with wonder.

When given the chance to speak with Roberson about his forthcoming collection from Wesleyan University Press, Asked What Has Changed, and his award, I privately hoped his answers would give me the impossible: solace and sense in a time with so little of both. And yet, he delivered these things; not by telling me everything will be OK, but by reminding me there are people in this world, like Roberson, who are brilliant and curious. There are still poets like Roberson who can hold weighty, tangled truths and pick them apart to show us how things really are. That feels like enough.

Jen Cox

I wanted to start by saying congratulations! The Jackson Poetry Prize is an enormous deal. How have you been feeling and processing this experience?

Ed Roberson

I’ve kind of been hiding under a rock. It’s kind of overwhelming. I’ve just been doing what’s necessary to get things done and trying not to stumble over anything. It’s just kind of nice.

Jen Cox

Have you been able to celebrate at all? I know it’s a strange time when we don’t have our normal means of connecting with people and celebrating. But have you found any space for joy in that experience?

Ed Roberson

That’s funny because yesterday I sent a quick email to a friend of mine who has been traveling for a couple of years. When we’re together we have always done little, private celebrations for our successes, we’ll go have a margarita at our favorite place. You know, that little quiet thing that you do. I just sent her an email that said, “Boy, we haven’t had a margarita yet!” But she’s on the other side of the world, so.

Jen Cox

It’s like those little things that we use to mark time and connections and celebrations we’re having to reinvent right now.

Ed Roberson

Exactly.

Jen Cox

I was curious about a quote you gave to Poets & Writers. They asked you what this award means to you, and you told a story of a woman who, during a time of sickness, told you to eat and take care of yourself. You said this award feels like, “Nice work, Ed, we love you, but you need this, to take care of some basic things too.” I was curious about what you meant by that as a poet and a writer during this time.

Ed Roberson

The awards act to keep the artist embedded in the economy of the larger, the higher things. The woman in the story is the late Ifeoma Ukadik. She was an American but was married to an Igbo man and was very much observant of the Igbo tradition of family. When I was sick, her idea of how to get better was to be involved with people, to immerse yourself in the daily things, and to be involved with family. There’s an Indian psychiatrist whose method of dealing with schizophrenia is not to isolate people, but instead to encourage eating and daily immersion in the lives of other people and familiar family. I read that these things as the foundation — along with other schizophrenia treatments — are very effective. I remember Ifeoma’s thing about “when you’re sick don’t go to bed, don’t cover your head.” You need to hang out with folks and talk. She always included me in the family throughout my whole recovery; the funerals, the parties, the dinners. And that kind of thing is good for living, I think, to understand that humans really do feed each other. Not just food, but encouragement, assurance, those kinds of things. People always talk about medicating yourself, but we forget you can medicate yourself with somebody. Ifeoma was originally from Florida/Alabama so she mixed those American traditions with the Igbo ones. Their thought was, “Get in there and be with folks. Eat.” It was a way of locating yourself, and at that time being sick I was not located. I thought I was going to die. And that thing about locating yourself? Writing does that too. It locates you in the family of living things, the family of seeing what’s going on around you. The writing situates you in the world. My writing is abstract and metaphorical, which puts some people off, but it’s still in a way tied down into really seeing things, real lived and done things.

Jen Cox

Absolutely. And along those lines, right now it’s difficult to connect not just to other people, but also to the earth. You write so much about nature and how we situate ourselves in that space. Are you able to find that connection right now?

Ed Roberson

I live on the 8th floor of a high rise a couple blocks away from Lake Michigan, and Monday, the swallows returned. So I’m sitting here talking to you and watching the sky full of these crazy ass swallows. You know how these swallows fly?

Jen Cox 

I don’t think I do. 

Ed Roberson 

It’s this zigzag path; they’re following bugs. They’re eating. It’s not like gulls who have to get from one place to another so they make this nice long, smooth flow. These swallows are chasing bugs so they move like bugs, how bugs fly. These swallows with their funny shaped wings are able to do that. They fly like they’re crazy, like they’re spastic. And I love it. Every now and then I’ll look out my window and I’ll see the geese fly past. They’ll be in nice solid lines chugging along like a commuter train, the gulls come swooping by like skateboarders, but these swallows, they’re just crazy. There are connections of all kinds. Connections are all over the place. No, I can’t get out and walk by the lake and watch them, but I can sit here at the window and talk on the phone and watch them go crazy in the sky at the same time. Connections are always there.

Jen Cox

So true. I’m from New England originally, but Chicago is my chosen home at the moment. I’m curious about your connections to Chicago. I know you lived in Pittsburgh and probably elsewhere, so what makes Chicago home to you?

Ed Roberson

I tell this story all the time: I said for years that I would never live in Chicago. I would come here for conferences or to give talks and I always said I would never live here because it seemed like every time I came to Chicago I’d run into some really unpleasant racial situation. One time I came to the University of Chicago with Nate Mackey, Claudia Rankine, and a few others and we gave our talks. A friend of mine came to the talk and afterwards she took us out to hang out. And I had a wonderful time. I told her that I never enjoyed Chicago and she said, “Oh, but Chicago’s really segregated. You have to know which Chicago.” That had never occurred to me before. You have to know which Chicago to live in. So when I got the offer to come to Columbia College soon after that for a semester, I had just retired and was on recovery from cancer, and I said, “Let me try this. Let me just see what it’s like.” I came here and I haven’t left in fifteen years. I was really welcomed when I came. When I went looking for an apartment for that semester, folks said, “Don’t go looking down the South Side.” Typical me, I always go look at what I’m not supposed to look at. So I did. I hopped in the car and I rode down to the South Side. I’m coming down King Drive, and I saw this group of buildings that I thought I recognized so I just turned in. When I was in college years and years ago, I was taking an architecture course and I’d done a paper on Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and their introduction of international style to the United States. I thought I recognized the building, so I turned in and said, “This is it.” I parked the car, walked around, and discovered these were apartments for rent. I went into the rental office and asked, and I’ve been living in the same building, Lake Meadows, for fifteen years. The South Side was so welcoming. I just didn’t look at all the places people told me to look. I looked at a couple up north but, on that day, when I came down here, I didn’t even ask anybody. I just walked in the office, talked to someone, and signed on the dot.

Jen Cox

You found your Chicago it sounds like. 

Ed Roberson

Yeah, exactly. Exactly what happened.

Jen Cox

I’ve read that the way you think about language is that you’re not creating anything new, but that you’re trying to “un-White-Out the one we’ve got” and reveal the truth of the world. I’m sorry I keep referring to this current moment in time, but it does feel momentous, and I feel too that everything terrible that is happening is not new. COVID-19 is, in a lot of ways, exposing so many things that have been present for so long. When I read your published work, there’s so much advice and wisdom for this present moment. What you have already written gets at the truth of today’s world. I was curious if you agree with that.

Ed Roberson

I always talk about how you have to live with the definitions of the times. You have to live with it. You don’t have to believe it; but, you have to accommodate the untruth in order to get your feet on the ground and say this is not true. You have to accommodate it to be able to say, “I have my feet on the ground, and I can tell you this is not true.” Some people haven’t had their feet on the ground for a long time. They’ve been living on top of other people. People have got to see that they have to have a little bit more of a sense of responsibility for the stuff that they do. It’s like if a grifter or a shark comes into town and there’s lots of excitement and everyone runs out into the pool hall and watches the games and everybody starts betting. It’s not natural, but the shark comes in, sets up confusion and excitement and that excitement generates money. He collects his money and leaves town, and the people have to live with what the shark has done. There may have been some friendships lost. There may have been badly made bets. And Mitch McConnell made some bets, and he’s going to have to pay. He’s got to pay. And the people who voted, they’ve got to pay. That’s always been the case. People have to think about responsibility to other people. Responsibility to the long-distance thing, not just the immediate problem of the shark. People think OK, I made money off the shark so now I’ll buy a house. But if you buy a house, how are you gonna keep it up? You have to live in that house afterwards. You have to think about the long haul and a lot of times, in this country, it’s about the quick money, the short money, the getting over. People thinking about themselves and not about anybody else.

Jen Cox

And do you think that art in some way can combat that or work against that?

Ed Roberson

No, because there isn’t a culture of experiential thinking here, so people don’t think they have to have their ass whipped in order to change. There’s an ass whipping coming. It’s already here and has been for a lot of people for a long time, but I think it’s going to spread around pretty badly this time. I don’t know if people’s minds will change while their asses are getting beat. My mother used to say, “A hard head makes a sore behind.” Americans have been consistently hard-headed about what they have done to race relations. Even in the ‘60s, people were saying that this constant attack on Black people was an attack on themselves as a people. It was undermining the most basic beliefs of the system. I’m waiting on a book, American Poison: How Racial Hostility Destroyed Our Promise by Eduardo Porter, that a friend says outlines how every attempt to perfect the system for everyone is consistently loopholed and undermined by the attempts to exclude Black people from the benefits by the ongoing racism. The result is this ongoing ineffectiveness we are constantly facing. It is the American mindset that works against everything American.

Jen Cox

To pivot a little, I wanted to ask you about your forthcoming collection, Asked What Has Changed. It will be published in 2021, is that right?

Ed Roberson

Yes, they are choosing the book cover and they’re going into production and it should come out the first of the year.

Jen Cox

That’s so exciting. What can readers expect from this book that maybe they’ve seen in the past or maybe they haven’t seen in your work?

Ed Roberson

I’m writing all the time, but in February of 2018, Northwestern brought the William Blake engravings to the museum and they asked Reg Gibbons, Rachel Jamison Webster, Parneshia Jones, and I to take one of Blake’s nature poems, and the theme of the earth as a garden in his work, and respond. At the same time, I got a request from John Bloomberg-Rissman for an anthology of ecology poems, The End of the World Project, and in the request, he wanted us to send poems that responded to questions. The first question was: In light of things happening with climate change, what had changed in our work? I think they expected everybody to give this some great thought. It was no problem for me. I said, “Everything’s changed.” I sat down and the poem that I wrote is actually the title poem of the book, “Asked What Has Changed,” and it states that even looking out the window has changed. Before, you could rest your eyes on nature and it was something you thought was timeless or calming. Even if it wasn’t calming, it was magnificent in a thunderstorm. With climate change, when you look out the window you think, “Oh boy.” Are these endangered species? Are these trees going to last? You start thinking about what’s going to happen. It’s the middle of May here in Chicago and it’s cold as shit.

Jen Cox

It’s snowing some days!

Ed Roberson

Yeah! So, there’s no longer just a simple thing like being able to sit at your desk and innocently peek out the window, rest your eyes out the window at something calming and idyllic. The calm has an undertone with what’s going on. From there everything has changed, and so the book just goes through Blake’s garden, it goes through the cities, it goes through all of that. And all of it’s changed. 

POETRY
To See the Earth Before the End of the World
By Ed Roberson
Wesleyan University Press
Published September 19, 2017

About Jen Cox

Jen Cox is a Daily Editor at the Chicago Review of Books and has work in Gigantic Sequins, The Rumpus, and F(r)iction. She is working on her novel about two girls in love at the end of the world. Find her on Twitter: @jencoxshah.

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