Carmine Starnino talks to Robin Richardson about her new book
WELCOME TO THE fourth instalment of The Pitch, a new series on Partisan in which writers come clean about their works-in-progress—and share an exclusive excerpt. This week, Carmine Starnino catches up with Canadian poet Robin Richardson, who opens up about the collection she's working on, entitled, Sit How You Want.
Tell me about your new book.
The collection—my third—is mainly about power and sex, with a slight political preoccupation. If you want comfort, these poems probably aren’t for you. They’re accounts of a life spent grappling with terror, anxiety, and submission. The voice grows bolder as it goes, gaining strength through experience until it rises up from the shit into a state of freedom in which awe and independence begin to seem possible. Though if I put it that way, it sounds like a happy ending. And really, there’s little happiness about it. The line between autobiography and absurdity thins so drastically I can no longer tell where I end and the fantasies begin. My speaker is a masochist, a child, a whore, and a goddess all at once. No one facet of her being feels any less real or ridiculous than the other. This book scares me.
How does Sit How You Want fit with your ideas of the unsympathetic voice?
The unsympathetic voice is about intent: who are you writing for? It’s what separates the likably mediocre from the uncomfortably moving. In writing this collection I let go of any notion of being liked or admired, of fitting safely into a nook within Canadian poetry. I wanted to write the kind of poems I wanted to read. It’s that simple. And the poems I want to read are scary, true, imperfect, and deeply vulnerable: utterly unsympathetic.
How does the book differ from your first two books, Grunt of the Minotaur and Knife Throwing Through Self-Hypnosis?
They are all drastically different books. I wrote Grunt of the Minotaur in my early twenties. It’s a sort of lyric trek through a bewildering world with a dim-lit torch. It’s mythical, Victorian, and written in a romantic daze as I tried to find my footing. Knife Throwing Through Self-Hypnosis is a catalogue of sorts, taking in the world through the filter of my twisted ideas. I conceived of poems then as recycled objects ready to make new use of their subject matter. Sit How You Want takes a drastic departure from the other two collections, pulling less from external fancies and more from the inward and experiential.
What are some of the formal features of the poems that stand out to you when you’re reading through it—anything that surprises you?
Sometimes I tell myself it would be nice, maybe seem more mature, if I could cut down on the internal rhymes, alliteration, assonance and so forth. You know—practice more restraint. But these poems need this kind of music. It creates a sort of trance state in which I enter into difficult truths. I think of Cab Calloway singing scat about Minnie the Moocher being seduced by a coke dealer into an opium den. It’s the rhythm and rhyme, the slow cool build up to a frantic “hidee hide hidde hi” that takes us from observer to participant. I want my poems to operate similarly. They aren’t to be read, dissected, and understood, but to be felt. Music is one of the tools I use to lift a thing from artifact to experience.
What surprised me? My raunchy humour. It’s cathartic to write about something I consider so unspeakable or shameful only to find myself turning the whole thing into a dirty joke.
He Named Her That Way
Sometimes she thinks about her mouth
under his boot. Kate, he calls her. My Kate. My ass.
Though once asleep she shifts from cattle to the god she was
before de-winged and left for human. All the other gods
watch as she’s withered to the lip and showing ribs. My rib,
he says. She starves so he can track it.
There are plays about this. Plays we fought through
until I no longer loved you. Only, damn, I dig your hands
around my neck. The blue-faced raving of this feminist
who fails every time you get too close. If Christ is God
embodied Kate’s the bony ass of cosmos come to earth to learn
subjection has its perks. It feels good to give up, don’t it?
Like the addict’s final relapse: ecstasy and old coke
stirs the primal from her slumber and a lifetime’s
learning’s burned off with each calorie until expired.
I won’t go there. Only know that when you pin me
to that unswept floor of yours it isn’t love that keeps me
cumming. It’s the way we fluctuate between our base
and better selves. My consolation Kate, he adds, and with that
I’ve identified myself out of existence. Kate, all Kate,
no Katherine, nor the author of this poem. Now reduced to
need for you, my opiate, my master. You who aren’t complete
until I’m spent. Now whittled to a woman’s smooth externals
where we’re beaten to a sigh. We’re sexy while surviving.
Bluebeard for Beginners
It was love at gunpoint. It was cuffed, diamond-studded-ball-gagged,
that I found my strength. You follow? Break to rebuild better
like the hero in a DC comic’s bludgeoned to the point of brilliance.
Blood’s the best incentive, said the dove, slayed, laying in the hooks
of her beloved. Bellevue mid-march making plans with our hallucinations.
We were stylish in our shared delusion; rings were not enough
we went for ink and more. I can’t complain. It is the thrill of ruination
makes us innovate. I do my drugs, my lovers, with the discipline
of Kung-Fu film star choreography.
CARMINE STARNINO is Partisan's Senior Contributing Editor, Poetry Editor for Véhicule Press, and Non-Fiction Editor for Porcupine's Quill.
ROBIN RICHARDSON's latest book is Knife Throwing through Self-Hypnosis (2013).