Robyn Schiff’s Information Desk: An Epic is “less a poem about art, or work, than a poem about braided time,” writes Ange Mlinko in our Summer Issue. Inspired by Schiff’s time working at the help desk at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it is, as its subtitle indicates, a single, book-length poem, a meditative catalog of curiosities ranging from the jewel wasp to Rembrandt’s “bone black” pigment.
Since 2017 Mlinko has written more than a dozen essays and three poems for the Review. One poem, “A Midsummer Night’s Work,” creates a sense of hushed and urgent intimacy with the reader across six tercets that ask three questions; another, “Naples, Florida,” also in tercets, follows the tense, quiet moments during a Gulf Coast storm. Her criticism has addressed the work of W. S. Merwin, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Charles Baudelaire, as well as new books by contemporary poets.
Mlinko is a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Florida, and I wrote to her in the middle of a stormy, humid week in Gainesville. Our conversation brought us to the professionalization of poetry, the collapse of craft, and the geographic Muse.
Lauren Kane: In two of your recent poetry reviews—on books by Karen Solie, Jeffrey Yang, and Chelsey Minnis—you wrote about the “project book.” How would you define that genre, if you would even call it that? What is its lineage? Would you call Robyn Schiff’s Information Desk a project book?
Ange Mlinko: Traditionally, books of poetry are like record albums, collections of songs, though skilled poets have always used themes and patterns to unify their collections. The “project book” has roots in American conceptual art from the 1960s or 1970s—think of Bernadette Mayer’s Memory or Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee. More recently it has become a way to make books of poetry more like prose books—books with selling points, books that are marketable, and perhaps, ultimately, books that can be hashtagged. It also dovetails with a market that wants poetry to document crises, take moral stances on social issues, and clearly answer the question, “What’s the takeaway?” The project book is perfect for an audience trained on journalism and memoir.
I wouldn’t say Information Desk is a project book. I’d say it is a long poem the way, say, Ashbery’s “Flow Chart” is a long poem, or Pope’s “Essay on Criticism,” or Wordsworth’s “The Prelude.” The project book typically takes the form of a multimedia collage, combining verse and prose fragments and even photographs. Schiff, by contrast, relies on her masterful sentence-building, and the poems are syntactically, cleverly, joyfully propelled rather than collaged. There’s momentum, driven by the continuity of the lines, the unity of the voice.
In your essay about Charlotte Mew and Rosamund Stanhope, you wrote, “We are in dire need of refreshing our relation to language—of rediscovering close looking, close reading, and fidelity to meanings.” What do you think has taken contemporary poets away from those things? There seems to be a general sense that poetry today is a bit lackluster, or that the confessional approach has run amok—do you think that’s true? Are there any trends in poetry that excite you?
In poetry there are never exciting trends, only exciting individuals—the ones who are concerned with “close looking, close reading, and fidelity to meanings.” Confessionalism is certainly one trend. There’s both underreach and overreach—poets who traffic in reassuring, therapeutic platitudes, and poets who think every book has to provide only a sociopolitical critique.
Something is definitely broken, and I suspect that can be attributed to a combination of causes. First, you have the hyperprofessionalization of poetry. There has been an explosion of MFA programs, summer programs, fellowships, residencies, grants, prizes, all involving lots of money administered by institutional gatekeepers. Institutions want to make art useful on their own terms. At the same time, there are no shared conventions, such as we have with prose, or with music. “Craft” is a dirty word; the past is erased.
In the face of this collapse of craft, educators can lose faith. I’ve heard a number of complaints from friends who have done guest-teaching gigs in recent years at top-level programs where the students don’t know what iambic pentameter is, or even what a line is for. The students don’t play with rhetorical devices. The students don’t care about how to punctuate. All that’s required is niceness and earnestness. That’s good for getting a grant, but not for writing a poem that stands up to scrutiny.
Why does this matter? Because I believe there’s a correlation between the degraded standards of discourse in other areas of life—politics and religion, for instance—and the shrinking horizons of my field. It’s anti-intellectualism from top to bottom.
I may be wrong—I haven’t counted—but I have the sense that poets are more frequently the subjects of biographies than other writers, like novelists or playwrights. Would you agree? Have you ever thought of writing a biography of a poet?
You must be right. What is it about poets that seems mysterious and damned? Do poets lead more turbulent lives, or does our short form leave more time in the day for mischief?
I actually have a book coming out with Oxford Press next year about the effect that Florida had on the styles of various poets, notably Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, and James Merrill. I drew on their letters, notebooks, and biographies to explore this particular element of their work, and it was rather thrilling to weave between the life and the poetry. I can see how telling stories about people can be very seductive.
But as for writing a proper biography…you know what Janet Malcolm said in relation to the Sylvia Plath Industrial Complex: “The biographer at work, indeed, is like the professional burglar, breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers that he has good reason to think contain the jewelry and money, and triumphantly bearing his loot away.” I want to say, “Let’s read the poet’s actual work, shall we?” That’s my ideal. But in reality, the poet’s life is also her work, or the two are imbricated in a frightening way. It may be a defense mechanism on my part to say, “Let’s just read the work.”
Tell me about your own work. What is your writing process like? Do you have a schedule or time of day when you compose? What do you do when you get stuck, and how do you know when a poem is finished?
This is maybe the hardest question to answer. My Muse is geographic—ideally I need to be moving, traveling, or at the very least taking long, aimless walks on the streets and through museum galleries. I’m most alive drafting stanzas in some Airbnb in some city. As a poet, one is never not on the qui vive: it’s a chase, a hunt, and the body just wants to move, the eye to rove.
But the reality is, most of the time I’m chained to my desk in a sultry provincial outpost in north central Florida. I’m constrained by school schedules, so typically I read all morning and try to draft some paragraphs or fiddle with a poem by early afternoon. I often read and write next to my large prayer plant—what they used to call a “sensitive plant,” which snaps its leaves at me several times a day (“nyctinasty”)—and I feel like we keep each other company. Bowing to necessity, the writer becomes a kind of plant life. I might as well be Flaubert in Croisset or Philip Larkin in Hull or Wallace Stevens in Hartford.
So yes, it’s easy to get stuck. You’re a hunter with a desk job. When I’m really desperate, I’ll go to a file of failed drafts and see if one can be revived. I make a big pile of all the poetry collections I envy and read them systematically until I feel a thought kindling. I know a poem is done only over the course of several weeks, watching the paint dry and trying to catch the infelicities with a fresh eye every morning.
Is there any way in which writing poetry is like writing criticism?
I love this question! Criticism is easier, because prose is easier and because I have my donnée, courtesy of my editor. But both require compression as well as scope. (In reviewing, one condenses a novel but expands a poem. I love a close reading!) Both are a type of dance. You know that the music will stop soon, so the experience must be intense, but also precise and graceful. Both require control of an inner drama. Both are created for the pleasure of the reader.
Your criticism has such breadth in its interests. What do you reach for when you’re looking to read for pleasure?
Thank you! Funny, I didn’t think I had a good answer to this question—I’m such a magpie—but I do have a bent toward history, particularly the history of art and music. Sometimes natural history, too. I have right here a book about Darwin’s orchids next to a book about Mozart next to a book about Homer. I find I don’t have anything interesting to say about the present unless I’m reading something new about the past.