I interviewed Robyn Schiff at her house in Iowa City—the property at the heart of her latest poetry collection, A Woman of Property—one morning a few weeks ago. She spoke with a measured intensity, animated hand gestures, and so quietly I later had to plug my recorder into external speakers with the volume on high to make out some of her sentences.
Most people do not speak in actual sentences. They speak in fragments, they interrupt themselves, they stop, they start, they leave out verbs and nouns you need to fill in when you transcribe the interview. Not Schiff. She spoke the way she writes: in long, winding, brilliant sentences filled with allusion and fact that seem to lose their way, yet somehow manage to loop back to where they began before reaching the period. Listening to her speak, like reading her work, is akin to watching a trapeze artist perform—the artist jumps—you hold your breath—she’s still in the air—still you hold your breath—still in the air—at last she grabs the bar—and you let out the breath, smiling, ready to applaud, amazed she didn’t fall.
A Woman of Property, Schiff’s third book, was published by Penguin earlier this month. Schiff is also the author of the poetry collections, Worth (2002) and Revolver (2008), which were both published by the University of Iowa Press. She co-edits Canarium Books and is a professor at the University of Iowa.
The Rumpus: A Woman of Property is a fantastic title. Where does the phrase come from? How is it in conversation with the poems in your book?
Robyn Schiff: The title is a nod to the first book in John Galsworthy’s Forsythe Saga novels, which is titled The Man of Property. In that novel, the eponymous “man of property” is having a house in the county built in order to transplant his very reluctant wife from the social life of the city to his newly acquired isolated property in the country. He’s semaphoring his power—the land is his property; the house upon it will be his property; the wife inside the house is his legal property, too. Naturally it all goes tragically wrong, and my title engages with the folly of his failed machinations. There’s also an inside joke with myself to the title that’s not stated in my book—Galsworthy’s man is erecting his country house on a property called “Robin’s Hill.” It’s also a coincidence that my own house was built in 1906, the year The Man of Property was published. I can’t resist a good coincidence. I remember reading the book while pregnant in a room in my house that was then the guest room. In the course of writing A Woman of Property it was transformed from guest room to nursery to child’s room. I suppose it’s made these transformations many times since 1906.
By invoking the problems of “a man of property,” I was thinking about the larger fictions of ownership. I mean, in America, we know it’s all stolen property, so “buying property” is part of a long con. Not only is this not our land to buy and sell—we might as well call it what it is: a multi-generational fencing scheme whereby, as a home owner I knowingly bought stolen goods to sell later at a profit—not only that, but the absolute fiction of the mortgage system. Most people, myself included, don’t own the property they call their own, they’re mortgaging property. Another long con with its own predatory traditions. Within these fictions we determine our “sense of place”—a phrase I abhor!—and to me it’s a very Gothic notion in which our possession of the land and the houses we build upon it is haunted by violence and deceit. The Gothic, as an aesthetic category and literary mode has everything to do with who owns what: what history do we face when we encounter ruins, what past haunts it, and whose property are the ruins on? Who owns that history?
Rumpus: The phrase “a man of property” seems to point to the transfer of a colonial mindset—marked by a desire to put one’s flag into foreign lands—into the domestic sphere. What, then, are the implications of being a woman of property?
Schiff: Putting a feminist spin on a “man of property” is interesting and complicated to me. On the one hand, we live in an amazing time. A woman can get a job, save up a down payment, and invest in her family by buying property, as generations of men have. But as a woman claiming this troubled right, I have a bad taste in my mouth. It reminds me of the new Star Wars guns marketed at little girls. Are we supposed to be excited that little girls are finally invited to play this unbearable, soul-crushing game? No thank you. On the other hand, reader, I signed the deed.
Thinking about one’s own child as a matter of property is also in the title. As a new mother navigating all sorts of bureaucracies and social spheres I must have said “my son,” “my son,” “my son,” fifty times a day. Even all the gendered ways in which “my son” will gradually become “his own man,” are at stake in the book, especially as that relates to violence. I’m a wife and a mother and a feminist raising a son, with the tragic knowledge that male children traditionally go off to war and do so every day. I can’t understand at all how this tradition could possibly have endured. I’m thinking about the Iliad as an origin text. I can’t believe that mothers ever said, ever still say, “Okay. He’ll go. Take mine.”
Rumpus: Greek tragedy—and other books with tragic familial relationships—seem to underlay most of the poems in this book. In one poem you’re reading the Oresteia (a trilogy of plays in which father murders daughter, mother murders father, and son murders mother), when: “Don’t read that in bed,” my hus- / band said. Okay, okay, I’ll just / finish Jude the Obscure.” The irony, of course, being that Jude the Obscure isn’t any better: the children end up dead, the parents, miserable.
Schiff: My son said to me recently, “Hate is stronger than love.” I said, “No, that can’t be true, what do you mean?” Obviously he couldn’t articulate it—he’s six—but I think he’s right. We must hate the enemy—whatever and whoever the enemy is—so much more than we love our children. That’s just a fact of Western civilization and its literature.
Rumpus: Well, hate’s a more active feeling. Love can be very passive.
Schiff: Right, and historically we don’t seem able to, out of that love, protect the child, which could be really active. And that’s what led me back to the Iliad and the Oresteia. Here’s what moves me about those stories: the boats are ready to go to war, but the prevailing winds the fleet needs to sail off are just not there. It’s an amazing moment. As revenge for Agamemnon having killed a deer, Artemis demands the sacrifice of his own daughter. No sacrifice, no wind. No wind, no war. Everybody else has sacrificed their children for this war, and, as the leader, he’s called upon to make this sacrifice now. And he does. He sacrifices Iphigenia. Then the winds come and they can go to war—but for what? For Helen of Troy? It’s ridiculous, and it’s the beginning of Western literature! Child sacrifice! And that’s what our wars are, too. It’s all just child sacrifice, over and over again.
What touched me, only after becoming a mother myself, is how desperately Clytemnestra tried to defy Artemis and Agamemnon to protect her daughter. She was powerless; but if she had prevailed, and not the wind, there would have been no Trojan war. No Iliad. No Odyssey! I just keep doing the math, and it seems that Iphigenia’s sacrifice haunts the whole Western canon. And not just the canon; the Oresteia—this masterwork that’s about the beginning of the justice system—is, at its very core, about a mother who could not protect her child. Of course, this is myth; it’s fiction—but her failure to protect Iphigenia is emblematic of so many real tragedies—so many real Iphigenias. That’s the grievance that underlies most of the poems in A Woman of Property.
Rumpus: I’m thinking about the doe—not the doe in Iphigenia—but in the book’s first poem, who comes to protect the fawn, and the buck, who comes too, but only because he wants the doe.
Schiff: I’m interested in patterns of decoy and ambush. It all seems related. The hunter’s call in “Gate”—the real sound of a pretend fawn—that’s the deceit at the heart of history. In one version, it’s told to Clytemnestra, that it wasn’t actually Iphigenia who was sacrificed, but a deer. That comforts her.
Rumpus: As you brought up novels in response to the question of the title, I wondered how they figured into the book as well.
Schiff: Good question! Of course I read a lot of poetry, but my real reading passion is eighteenth and nineteenth century fiction. The novels of Fanny Burney have been extraordinarily instructive to me as an artist interested in expressing power dynamics. Evelina and Camilla and Cecilia are the original women of property. I love following them through absurd social circumstances for weeks or months at a time on a budget that is so fixed it’s basically a plot point. A lot of eighteenth and nineteenth century novels are about cash and credit, property and propriety and primogeniture as moral values. It’s fascinating, considering the history of the novel, to think about middle class reading interests: who’s got money and who doesn’t and how it’s spent and what’s it spent on and the difficulty of holding on to it and how women figure into all of this. Female readership is part of what makes the novel the novel.
I also love a good melodrama with ridiculous twists, the more gothic the better. Ann Radcliffe is a great example here. On the other hand, for the nineteenth century, I think I love Trollope most. I suppose the tension of storytelling in the context of the lyric is something I flirt with in my longer poems.
Rumpus: In “Amerithrax,” you write “medieval / weavers… stitched one inch an hour— / a statistic shared in a source I / consulted to seem painstaking / but feels breakneck to me.” I couldn’t help but read the speaker’s comment that an inch an hour feels breakneck as a reflection of your own relationship to poetic creation. Are you a painstaking writer?
Schiff: Painstaking and breakneck both. I write very, very slowly—so slowly that it feels like revision happens almost before it was even drafted. And then it’s suddenly there. It’s a sensation of simultaneous stasis and warp speed.
Rumpus: And how does the form develop? Is it something that clicks into place early on?
Schiff: It does. Form is usually one of the first commitments that I make in a poem. And I don’t just mean received form—I mean all of the ways a poem might have material bearing, including tone. These commitments, for me, are made very early in almost a procedural or operational way. Locking into form is very generative for me, even if it’s free verse; to know what a poem’s proportions are is to know a lot about a poem. Of course there’s all sorts of tension and abandon and rebellion and improvisation struggling against those commitments. To me, that’s fundamental to the writing process. I’m not very interested in poems that don’t make a case for their own shape, poems that don’t seem attached to the emergency of their own utterance. To me that’s where poetry differs from prose.
Rumpus: I didn’t look for syllabics in the poems, though I know you frequently write in them. Are a lot of these poems in syllabics?
Schiff: Thank you for not looking for syllabics! Some poets like to name their poem “Sestina” or “Sonnet” and I don’t have any issues with that, but I don’t mean to draw immediate attention per se, to form. To me, syllabics are generative and often provide profound structural grounding. At the same time though, long sentences interacting with elaborate forms and the pressure of line test how close reason can come to convolution, and the sometimes slapstick plasticity of artifice—the awkward, inappropriate breaking of a word, for instance, is tragic and elegiac for me, like watching Buster Keaton. I’m interested in how form exasperates questions of control by sometimes being “mastered” and by sometimes “mastering” the poems’ unfolding.
What was unusual to me in the composition of these new poems was foregrounding the process in a couple places and speaking within the poem to the act of breaking words, or to the relationship between syntax and meaning. I felt called to break the fourth wall more often in this book than I ever have before. There’s a theatrical sense to the term “Woman of Property” that I didn’t mention earlier. The “property man” in the theater is responsible for all the props; it’s his job to manage their movements on and off stage, whether you see the stagehand, or not. For me, that has something to do with the management of those syllabics.
Rumpus: A Woman of Property is your third book. How do you see it in relation to your first two books? What, in your mind, were you doing—or trying to do—differently in this latest book?
Schiff: As I was writing the poems that came to comprise these books I wasn’t, of course, particularly cognizant of what I was attempting. But at a certain point during the writing of each I became increasingly aware of certain technical problems I was trying to work out.
In the first book, Worth, I was really interested in Marianne Moore, whom I had just recently discovered. In her poem “The Jerboa,” she placed a word on a single line all by itself: “hippopotami.” It seemed to me that her whole enjoyment of syllabics comes down to how profound that line is technically. It seemed to explain so much of her poetics. In the poem, the hippopotami are captive, and there they are, captive in that line, in that syllabic structure, before our eyes. The brilliant wit of it, and also the seriousness of it, is essentially everything I know about Moore. That very particular line, “hippopotami,” is what I was reckoning with while writing Worth.
In the second book, I think the question of craft had much more to do with how syntax interacts with line, and as my muse for many years I focused on the single sentence in Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Cirque d’Hiver,” where the pole goes through the mechanical horse and the dancer. It happens at the end of one stanza and the beginning of another, mid sentence. It’s an amazing moment of craft, to see how Bishop can use the formal structure to enact this impalement, which is both physical and emotional in the poem. Revolver is really referring back to this moment over and over again.
In that spirit, A Woman of Property was informed by the point late in Keats’ poem “Ode to a Nightingale,” when he says “Forlorn! the very word is like a bell…” His imagination is one with the bird until that point, and then his use of the word “forlorn” awakens him to his “sole self” up out of lyric flight, and back into his dying body. It’s a wonderful, eerily postmodern-like, meta-moment that feels very authentic to me, and I experienced many such moments composing A Woman of Property. The poems needed to announce their own coming-into-being, and then find a way to go back under. It felt like swimming sometimes—coming up, going back in. I think it had something to do with making a child, and knowing, as I was writing, that I was making poems instead of making him breakfast. There’s a sacrifice that happens when a woman decides to make art instead of being with her child.
Rumpus: I noticed a number of moments in the book where the laundry or the dishes or other domestic tasks are pressing in on the speaker.
Schiff: There’s a lot of drudgery that is associated with being alive—especially if you happen to be female. One can either deny that in a poem or one can admit it. The chores break the fourth wall in a number of places in the poems, too.
Because of where I am in my life, I love reading poems by women who’ve had children. I notice that that work often has a certain intensity even when it’s not necessarily about the child, because the heightened determination and concentration within the vortex of the strict time management it takes to get that poem done are palpable.
Rumpus: How did becoming a mother affect you as a writer?
Schiff: I finished my last book Revolver over eight years ago. Afterward, I didn’t write that often. Sometimes one is asked, as a poet, if writing every day is important; I don’t write every year. I tremendously value patience and silence; they are part of the process for me. When I experienced new motherhood, I felt an extreme urgency to write in response to that adventure, but there was hardly any time to do so. The creative act of creating human life just usurped the creative act of making art. It started to feel like the making of all art was just a metaphor for the force of life. At the same time, it also occurred to me that literature was just complete bullshit. I didn’t want any part of it. My husband once said, summarizing some of the problems I was having representing my life under the circumstances—I don’t know if he was quoting someone— “We invented art to memorialize our conquering.” It was hard to try to write about the experience of “my son” in the face of that truth. Again: I didn’t want any part of it.
Rumpus: Your poems are filled with fascinating and arcane facts; are all of them true?
Schiff: I want my facts to be true. Sometimes I make mistakes, but never intentionally. Once, after publishing a poem online, two different poet-friends wrote to me with two different fact-checking issues. One of them said to me, “You might be taking poetic license here, but…” and continued on about how I’d referred to plague in the Elizabethan Age incorrectly. I knew immediately I had to cut the line, which I did, but it took a long, long, long time because the poem is in syllabics and thus I had to restructure so much of that stanza, which was interconnected with the ones before and after it, etc. It was a good puzzle, and I enjoyed the formal challenge immensely, and I was of course very grateful for the tip, but it was unnerving to discover the mistake. Inaccuracy comes from arrogance. It’s not expressive. Though I think there might be places where there are different kinds of truth, maybe, in a poem, places where singing and telling might touch awkwardly. That can be exciting, I suppose. But that’s not really what you’re asking about. You’re asking about facts, the warping of which is deceit. It seems to me, having come of age as a poet in the Bush years, that hyper articulation and precision are moral imperatives.
Rumpus: Do you research for your poems?
Schiff: I’m reading all the time, and when I’m writing a poem am driven to occupy the poem’s world, which may lead me on errands to unexpected places. I like the process to feel as searching as it is researched. Searching is a quality of soul, and researching is a quality of mind. Both have a place in this kind of poetry, but one without the other is heavy-handed or graspy.
Rumpus: Your poems feel deeply American to me. Not only are they full of Americana—the Colt revolver, Rubbermaid containers, the MetLife stadium—they are also engaged with the components of the American Dream—consumption, choice, ownership, property. Do you see your poems as overtly political?
Schiff: I do. And you beautifully name why. Thank you! Yes: consumption, choice, ownership, property. I also think of them as feminist.
There’s probably an obsession, when I think about my whole body of work to this point, with elaborateness and luxuriousness and how close those come to violence. This has something to do with what I was describing earlier in regard to form and syntax. I’m really interested in how close reason and convolution are. Hypotactic syntax can be very convoluted and yet perfectly “correct,” simultaneously. That border interests me, and I find a sweet spot there. I try to find a place in the syntax where it almost falls apart, where it’s as extreme as it can get, really, before it breaks. That’s a place of deep expression for me. There are plenty of places where the copyeditors have come in and asked, “Don’t you want to shorten this sentence? Take a semicolon out, add a period, and a cap?” But my resistance has to do with time, and space, and sprawl.
Rumpus: Which is itself a feminist statement.
Schiff: Right, it is. And it goes back to my interest in accuracy—emotional and factual. Sometimes accuracy requires breadth and depth. A long sentence pushes against closure-for-closure’s-sake. The idea of “closure” as an emotional state was a destructive phenomenon in the 1990s, especially as it was applied eventually to the Bush-Gore election in 2000. Perhaps as a response, my poetic sensibility is anti-closure. That can take a lot of forms, mine is the filibuster.
Rumpus: Where do you look for inspiration?
Schiff: I don’t really believe in inspiration. Which isn’t to say that things don’t move us all the time— but I don’t think that makes very good poems, necessarily. Vision makes poems. And I guess by vision I just mean the combination of sensibility, facility, and audacity.