The Mentor Series: Michael Torres and Richard Robbins
Welcome back to the Mentor Series. I know you’ll enjoy this exchange between Michael Torres and his mentor Richard (Rick) Robbins.
Of how they met, Michael says:
I’d heard about Rick as a poet and professor through Christopher Buckley, one of my professor’s at UC-Riverside. They’d gone to school together and so he recommended I apply to the MFA in Mankato where Rick taught and was Program Director.
I wouldn’t actually meet Rick until months after I accepted the offer and moved to Mankato to pursue the MFA, but he was someone who stayed in touch with me while I deliberated about whether or not I should move away for school or stay home. At the time, I was going through a lot of personal/family stuff, and I was pretty conflicted. At some point, I even told Rick I wasn’t going to accept any offer, the few that I had. Of those MFA programs I was accepted to, Rick was the only person who kept in touch and seemed to care about my future—and not just my literary/academic future. That pretty much set the tone for how supportive he and his colleagues would be at MSU-Mankato. Yes, I learned craft, but I also deepened my understanding of a literary community, and how important it is to maintain those writer-friendships long after graduation.
Richard Robbins was raised in California and Montana but has lived continuously in Minnesota since 1984. He has published six books of poems, most recently Body Turn to Rain: New & Selected Poems in 2017. He has received awards from The Loft Literary Center, the Minnesota State Arts Board, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Poetry Society of America. From 1986-2014, Robbins directed the Good Thunder Reading Series at Minnesota State University Mankato, where he continues to co-direct the creative writing program.
Michael Torres was born and brought up in Pomona, California where he spent his adolescence as a graffiti artist. His first full-length collection of poems, An Incomplete List of Names, was selected by Raquel Salas Rivera for the National Poetry Series and will be published by Beacon Press in 2020. Torres is a 2019 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellow. Currently he teaches in the MFA program at Minnesota State University, Mankato and through the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop.
Michael and Richard discuss the mind games involved in finding a writing process, the relationship between writing and teaching, navigating rejection, and more.
– Monet Patrice Thomas, Interviews Editor
Michael Torres: Tell me about balancing your writing life and teaching full-time, because now that I’m fortunate enough to teach full-time, it’s something I’ve been thinking about.
Richard Robbins: All those rituals that you’d set up for yourself, you know, starting to write in the morning at 8 a.m. and writing till noon: that’s out the window. I’m not a get-up-at-3 a.m. type of guy; when I come home at the end of the day I want to watch the news and put my feet up. I had to start writing at night. That was a mild challenge to my writing life, but that’s a small example of what happens later—I mean, bottom line: it’s never easy to write. This myth of the job out there where you can sit and people will pay you to be a writer, and they’ll call you a professor but you really don’t…
Torres: Where you just have one class a year?
Robbins: Yeah, and maybe those jobs are out there but it’s a myth, for most of us… My first full-time job as a teacher in college was seventy-five students, teaching composition, and they’re turning in papers every two or three weeks. So what I had to develop was an approach to that work where I could be a good teacher and a good colleague. But in the back of my head is always this idea of “how do I keep my writing life alive?”
Robbins: One of the comforts that’s always been true for me—and maybe some people think this is a cop-out, but I really don’t think it is—is that a lot of times if you put your whole life into your teaching, that wouldn’t necessarily make you a better writer. But if you put enough and more of your energy into your writing, while also being a good teacher and a good colleague, the time and the energy that goes into your writing does repay you in the teaching world.
Robbins: I guess what I’m saying is: the expending of energy in one direction doesn’t return to the other, but if you expend direction into your writing life, it will return to your teaching. Because what are you doing when you’re teaching writing is you’re talking to students about overcoming their fears, about trying to achieve a kind of excellence, and you’re also very familiar with the mind games that your own mind plays to get you out of writing or to not push through a difficult part of your writing. All that becomes part of the wisdom that you can bring to your students.
If you keep in mind that you’re only teaching in the first place because of your writing—and that doesn’t mean you can be a crappy teacher and a crappy colleague—but if you just remind yourself that the only reason that you’re here is your writing, and that it fundamentally gives you joy, then if you’re feeding that part of your life, it’s going to feed other parts of your life. And that’s always been an important thing to remember, for me. But also, on a simpler level, it’s a lot like fitness. If you do a little bit three or four times a weeks over a long period of time, that’s better than not doing anything for two or three weeks and then sitting down to write and expecting to deliver, because then—back to mind games—the voice in your head is going to say something along the lines of, Well, you know you haven’t sat down for three weeks, you better deliver now.
Torres: I feel like I have this fantasy sometimes, especially when I get close to a deadline, where I’m like, Okay, if I start something great early in the morning then I can revise it in the afternoon and get the submission in on time.
Robbins: Writing is so full of mind games and self-deception, and part of the whole thing about persevering as a writer is how you can deceive yourself in the act of writing by settling for less when you shouldn’t, but you also deceive yourself, in writing, in terms of how much you can put it on the back burner, how much you cannot pay attention to it before it comes and bites you. And then of course, there’s all those deceptions about fame.
Torres: I remember hearing from a friend who was worried about their writing after finishing an MFA because they’d chosen to do a PhD and their MFA friends were getting a lot of writing done because they were no longer in school. My friend was just so busy teaching and being a PhD student. It seems like that idea of writing is so black and white: either you write or you teach. I find that really frustrating because I love teaching but I have to remind myself that I’m here because I can write.
Robbins: Yeah, everybody’s different. There are people who would you know, prefer eight hours in a busy kitchen and just coming home exhausted. But not having anything before or after that so their writing could fit somewhere in there. Some people prefer that to what we do. For me, I like teaching. At least in this department, I can pick my own books, books I feel strongly about, books we are all introduced to at the same time. You know, we work a little closer to our passion than other people do. Some people want to work farther away from their passion, and that’s the way their passions thrive, by not getting diluted.
Torres: That’s what I’ve been discovering about teaching full-time. Like, if I don’t do any writing in the morning, even five or ten minutes looking at a poem—if I don’t do any of that it’ll bother me and I’ll store that frustration in the back of my mind and take it with me into class. But if I do even a few minutes of writing in the morning, I’ll take that good energy into the class. Like, say something affected me in the morning and I bring ideas into my class, it seems to work and I think part of it is the good energy.
Robbins: No, I get it. In the extreme situation where I’ve gone for a long period without writing then, when I’m talking about writing, I feel more like an empty vessel. But the five or ten minutes in the morning, and maybe there’s some endorphins involved in it, too—but also it’s like: I was engaged in the writing process only an hour ago, and this is somehow informed through random circumstances, what I’m doing in the class now. So I feel energized when that happens too, but I feel like an empty vessel, like I’m talking without any kind of substance when I haven’t been writing for a long time.
Torres: I don’t know why that made me think of a swimming coach who hasn’t been in the water—
Robbins: Oh, absolutely.
Torres: And they’re trying to talk to their swimmers about swimming.
Torres: But if they even go just for a little swim, it’s that feeling of the water on them and their body moving through it that they can then still talk about in class.
Robbins: And you know, if you’re like a sixty-year-old swimming coach, of course you’re not going to have the same level of fitness as the twenty-five-year-old stars on your team. Still, you share this love of water, you share this love of movement, you share this love of having your body do these amazing things. But if you haven’t gotten in the pool for ten years then there’s something missing there.
Torres: Tell me about the notepad you keep in your pocket. I used to keep a notepad but now I keep notes on my phone. How long have you been doing that?
Robbins: Ever since I was an undergraduate, which is why all my shirts have pockets. I can’t stand having a shirt without a pocket; I know they’re kind of goofy looking sometimes. It’s been a place for an image I want to remember or when a phrase comes to mind. When I do go back to the old ones, and go fishing for an idea, I can remember where I got the idea.
Torres: Even though I take notes on my phones now, I have a shoe box with a bunch of notepads and sometimes it’s cool to look back. It tells me I’ve been building something.
Robbins: I have a drawer in my desk with notes on matchbooks, torn off pieces of newspaper. It’s cool to look at it and think, That’s what I did. Of course, maybe one of three hundred ideas will work itself into a poem. Again, it’s one of those mind things where you get an idea and it’s a good idea, and part of your brain says, Oh, I’ll remember that.
Torres: Oh, no way.
Robbins: And how are you going to tell your brain that you’re serious, and how are you going to tell your imagination that you’re serious, and thank you for the gift of that image, unless you write it down or speak it into your phone. In a way, it’s acknowledging the gift, I think.
Torres: Oh, I think so, too. I would hate when I would be falling asleep and something comes to me and I would say, “That’s so good. In the morning I’ll write that down.” Then in the morning I’d be so upset because I could only remember that I had something good to write down.
Robbins: I sort of developed a little law for myself that if I got to three lines in a poem as I was falling asleep I had to write it down on a notepad next to the bed. And I’d write it in the dark.
Torres: I don’t know if this changes over time but I want to know what the idea of rejection means to you?
Robbins: I think of it in the generic sense. I got rejected from a magazine, okay, so… I don’t take it personally. And I know a lot of young writers do. I think, again, because the writing life is full of self-deception and many occasions for self-pity. I think as you kind of grow older, some people really take personally that they’ve been writing for thirty or forty years and they haven’t won this prize or that prize, so that’s rejection for them, and that’s rejection with a capital R.
I’ve reminded myself that I’ve had a pretty good job in the poetry minor leagues and I’ve won a couple awards and I’ve been happy. It’s a privilege to be in the minor leagues. You know, I’m never going to win the Pulitzer Prize, never going to win the National Book Award, and I’m just happy that generally I can get a book published. I like the idea of: the book gets published and now those poems are behind you. And even though you’ve been writing new poems, you can kind of move forward.
There are occasions when you can feel sorry for yourself because you didn’t get a grant or you came close at getting published some place. But I don’t think I think about rejection as personal or anything like that. I know for a lot of young writers that’s kind of one of the first things they need to navigate. Because if you think too much about rejection, especially if you think about it as personal, then you’re never going to get your work out there because your ego is always involved. So the answer is get your ego out of it. It’s just business. That’s been an important thing over the years too, for me, to remind myself: that there’s writing. And there’s the work. And there’s the business. And I don’t say business pejoratively, because if you want to get published you have to have interactions with publishers and if they publish you, you have to enter into business arrangements with them. And that’s fine, but there’s very little passion in that part of it. It’s like, the relationship between writing and teaching: writing is where the passion comes from, and writing is where the business part of writing comes from. You wouldn’t have the business part if you didn’t have the writing. You just got to keep your eye on what’s important.
When I lived in Oregon, three or four years out of graduate school, I saw a reading by William Meredith. And in the course of reading his poems he took some time out and he talked about how his vocation all these years—and he was about sixty then—how he knew, realized, his vocation was to be a minor poet. You know, because we all want to be a major poet. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting to do that. But he said, “The generation before me was Yeats. Am I going to outdo Yeats?” The way that he put it was: Yeats broke all the molds and developed new ways to talk about things and he said: “Us minor poets, we kind of work in their shadows and we do our best. And if every once in a while the language is good to us and we don’t screw it up, and we get it down on the page, we’re lucky. It’s a privilege.” I think that’s a real healthy way to think.
Torres: I like that, because I worry about worrying about who’s listed on a list or who gets what. And I don’t want that because I know that will take away from my own writing.
Robbins: And it’s great if it happens, but it’s nothing necessarily to aspire to. And of course, if your name gets on a list—which, again, is great if it happens—then not you, and maybe not the other people on the list, but everybody else starts comparing, and ranking and rating. And that sort of stuff is deadly too. So, those kind of reality checks, or when smart people say really wise things, when they hit you at the right time in your life it can have a lot of impact. That was an important one for me.
Photograph of Richard Robbins and Michael Torres provided courtesy of Richard Robbins and Michael Torres.