or, Weldon Kees, Robinson Alone, and What’s in the Pipeline
COOPER RENNER: Hello, Kathleen. I’m so pleased to be having a conversation with you. I must admit I was quite surprised by your book Robinson Alone, as Weldon Kees is not a name that often pops up in literary circles nowadays–or ever, arguably. I suppose I first became aware of him because of Donald Justice’s efforts to make sure Kees’s poetry got read. Could you tell us a little bit about how you came to Kees and about the beginnings of your Robinson poems?
KATHLEEN ROONEY: Thanks so much for wanting to talk with me about Kees–it’s always fun, and relatively rare, to meet and speak with a fellow fan. The way I arrived at Kees, who strikes me as a quintessentially American and a specifically Midwestern poet, was roundabout and unexpected. Even though, like Kees, I spent a significant portion of my childhood in Nebraska, I didn’t discover him until I was 20 years old and studying abroad for a year at Oxford. The poet Kate Clanchy was one of my tutors there, and she assigned me Simon Armitage’s 1998 book Kid. Armitage’s poetry struck me as competent, but what really intrigued me was his poem “Looking for Weldon Kees,” which mentioned how brilliant Kees’ work was, as well as how hard it was, at that point, to find. That combination of difficulty-to-acquire and poetic brilliance naturally struck me as appealing, so when I got back to the States, I tracked down a copy of Donald Justice’s revised edition of The Collected Poems from University of Nebraska Press, and ended up loving Kees’ work even more than I’d expected to. Even though–or perhaps because–there were only four of them, his Robinson poems in particular seemed like an invitation. Like he’d created this indelible alter ego that was unforgettable and distinctive, but also that had enough space left between the lines and in the silences between the poems for another writer to step in and take the idea even further. So I began writing my own Robinson poems in the Fall of 2001 and then ended up working on the project on and off until it was finally finished roughly ten years later, having become a novel-in-poems of about 130 pages which uses the Robinson character as a way to explore the life, work, personality, and of course the mysterious disappearance of the poet himself.
COOPER: That’s very cool that you were introduced to Kees while in another country! Often it seems that American artists in whatever field are more appreciated abroad than here. This seems to be particularly true of musicians, but it was the French, I think, who first really considered Poe a major figure, and if I remember correctly, at least some of Melville’s work was still read in England after he was long-forgotten here, in the final decades of his life. And of course a high percentage of the early Modernists, the generation just before Kees, found their first audiences and made their reputations abroad. Even a figure so “American” as Frost had to travel to England to get noticed. And Kees, as you note, is likewise very American, though in a very different way than Frost. David Wojahn, in his introduction to the 3rd edition to the collected poems, remarks on Kees’s early affinity for Eliot and Auden (the latter just a few years Kees’s elder). I was reading “The Hourglass” just today–the opening poem in Kees’s last book–and it occurred to me that in some ways it is perhaps a rejoinder to the Four Quartets, even in format, with Kees perhaps, subtly, rebuking Eliot’s later faith and (sort of) positivity in a manner that not only recalls Eliot’s early work but arguably reinforces it. Justice’s preface to the first edition calls Kees “one of the bitterest poets in history.” In your initial contacts with Kees’s poetry, did you find yourself drawn primarily to this bitterness and sense of disappointment or rather to the keenness of the language? Or both? The attraction was clearly compelling.
KATHLEEN: I love this question for how it historically situates Kees, because one of the things that attracted me to his work was the way he seems to be a missing link or bridge between the Modernists and the Confessionalists. In fact, I often wonder if John Berryman counted Robinson as an influence on his Henry. His Dream Songs–which I also admire, and actually took as a model for what I did with Kees’ Robinson persona–appeared 14 years after Kees’ Robinson poems. Kees’ precision and wordplay and dexterity with form (like in his villanelle “The Crack Is Moving Down the Wall” and “White Collar Ballad,” just to name a couple) appealed to me greatly, too–he’s one of these poets who makes fixed forms look deceptively easy.
But his emotional register is probably what I admire the most–the disappointment, the bitterness, the resignation, the quiet rage; but then also the humor and absurdity he was able to temper those darker emotions with in order to make them even sharper and more poignant. “Crime Club,” for example, is a hilarious poem. The corpse leaves a note that says “To be killed this way is quite all right with me,” as well as, among other things, “an unsent fan letter to Shirley Temple”–so funny. But then it all builds to the detective–usually a heroic or at least anti-heroically successful figure–“incurably insane” and sitting “alone in a white room in a white gown, / Screaming that all the world is mad, that clues / Lead nowhere, or to walls so high their tops cannot be seen; / Screaming all day of war, screaming that nothing can be solved.” I think Kees’ near-total horror with the mess the world pretty much always seems to be making of itself could not have existed had he not been such an optimist at the outset; he could not have become so disillusioned had he not had such high hopes. And that, to me, is heroic–to look at the world and its shortcomings and not just say “well, this is reality, the world is tough and we have to accept it,” but to criticize it and to want to hold it to a higher standard even as you know you’ll just be let down. That seemed beautiful and doomed and fascinating to me. Also, I love his mustache.
COOPER: Is it an Ernie Kovacs mustache, do you think? Maybe, at least in the photo on the 3rd edition of the poems, Kees is a Kovacs look-alike.
It’s interesting that you mention some of the same poems I’ve marked lines from in my copy of the book. “White Collar Ballad” is quite a crack-up, and I can’t help but wonder–now that I’m looking at Kees again, with Wojahn’s comments in my mind–if poems like this didn’t directly or indirectly inspire some of Justice’s work, including poems cast as song lyrics. Kees was amazingly adept at formal poetry, especially the villanelle, though perhaps not quite as nearly flawless as Justice. But the tone, the sort of matter-of-factness of Kees’s voice, is really striking and individual. Louis Simpson was also a notable critic of American life, through more than half a century of work, but his bitterness is nowhere close to what you find in Kees, a kind of philosophical despair. That’s a great insight of yours, that the despair and disappointment must have been rooted in an earlier optimism, an expectation that the world would be so much better than it is. A collapse, maybe, of stereotypical Midwestern optimism. Do you think his experience as a fiction writer coming of age in the ’30s, the great age of Hammett and Chandler and noir crime dramas as well as the Great Depression, helped form his poetic style and content?
KATHLEEN: Kees’ mustache is not un-Kovacs-like, but I think Kees’ is the superior ‘stache. And as a sidenote, lest it seem frivolous that part of what I love about Kees is his appearance (not just the facial hair, but his commitment to being stylish and well-dressed and put-together overall), his style seems very much tied to his substance as both a person and a poet. Another thing I admire about Kees is his civility and apparent belief in the importance of good manners. To make a distinction, he wasn’t into “etiquette” which can be arbitrary and designed to exclude those not in the know or to point out those who lack the privilege of “good breeding,” so to speak–rather he believed that being courteous and polite were important ways to behave ethically and to treat other people with respect. I agree.
As for the influence of noir and crime dramas on his work, yes, their impact is unmistakable. Like that of Chandler, Kees’ work, both in poetry and in fiction, exhibits a weary irony mixed with a contempt for the depraved behavior of those with unfair advantages who seek to abuse their power. One thing I love about Chandler’s Philip Marlowe is what a romantic he is at heart despite his evidently hard-boiled exterior. Unlike Hammett’s Sam Spade (who I also love) who “looked rather pleasantly like a blonde Satan,” and acts like one, too, Marlowe is practically an Arthurian white knight, charging into doomed situations not because it benefits him to do so but because he has this sense of duty, order, and justice that is almost itself perverse in the face of the perversity and decay, literal and metaphorical, he finds all around him.
COOPER: I like that linkage very much: a fundamental human decency expressing itself both in a personal civility and in the humane sentiments undergirding much of the writing. As you note–not the artificial theater of good breeding but a genuine belief in behaving kindly. And this in addition to, or despite, some of the harshly critical, even savage insights of some of the writing. Noblesse oblige, even if one is not by birth noble.
Now what about Robinson specifically: the subject of only four poems, one in his second collection, 3 more in the third and last. Tell us how Robinson drew you in.
KATHLEEN: The poems are like a mystery to be solved unto themselves and I wanted to be their private detective. I don’t mean they are mysterious in the way bad poetry is mysterious, which is to say vague or ill-defined or abstract to the point of frustration. The poems are stunningly concrete, even when what they’re saying doesn’t exactly make easy sense (like what does it mean for trees to be “actual and take no holiday”? I’m not totally sure, but I love that final line of the poem called “Robinson”). I mean they are mysterious in that they suggest and reveal so much while still giving the impression of holding back and having a depth that would reward exploration. Why is Robinson “afraid drunk, sobbing, Robinson / In bed with a Mrs. Morse”? When he says, into the phone “Sunday / At five? I’d love to” who is he talking to and where will they meet? And in the last in the series “Relating to Robinson,” the way Kees introduces an “I” who is tailing Robinson (“I thought I made out Robinson ahead of me”) it’s like we’re in a film noir chase/following sequence and Kees is as perplexed by and curious about Robinson as the reader is, even though Robinson is his/is him. That poem felt like a suggestion that a writer could, if s/he wanted to, step into that spot and follow Robinson around and see where he went. So that’s what I did.
COOPER: Mysterious indeed. The very first Robinson poem–the one with the “actual” trees–begins, “The dog stops barking after Robinson has gone. / His act is over.” Whose act? The dog’s or Robinson’s? And this is how we meet Robinson–with his disappearance? And the casual reference to the mirror from Mexico–did Kees jump off the Golden Gate Bridge or flee to Mexico? The Robinson poems are so evocative that they invited you in. Tell us more about how Robinson Alone came about. Do you remember which was the first Robinson poem you wrote? Did you know it was a Robinson poem when you wrote it?
KATHLEEN: Great point about the “act”–I always read it as the vanishing act of both Robinson and of Kees himself. The last thing I wanted to do in Robinson Alone was reduce Kees’ life to its final gesture of disappearance and probable suicide, because his life and work are not reducible to any single thing. And that’s how it ended up being so long, for a poetry collection, and taking the form of a novel-in-poems–I wanted to be sure to show a scope and an arc. But certainly, that question mark at the end of his death year–“1914-1955?”–invites speculation, as does the fatalism and fascination with disappearance that haunt so much of his writing, especially the Robinson poems. And yes, I do remember the first one I wrote. I wrote it when I had returned from the UK to finish my senior year of undergrad in Washington, DC, at George Washington University. It was the Fall of 2001 and it was for the poet Jane Shore’s workshop and it was called “Robinson Reads the American Heritage Dictionary” and it was a good way into the project, but extremely far from what the book eventually became after years and years of working on it. I was in the poem, sort of, or my first-person speaker stand-in was, and it was not yet taking Robinson as a Kees stand-in like I would do eventually. I’m glad I wrote it, but so glad the project went a completely different direction the more I got into it. I ended up writing and getting rid of dozens and dozens of poems over the course of the project because it took me a while to find its shape.
COOPER: Was there any particular reason to cast some of the poems as letters from Robinson, beyond giving him a first-person voice to complement the third-person narration? Did you begin the sequence in third person or first?
KATHLEEN: Once I realized early on that I needed to take myself completely out of it and to make it more of a novel, I pretty quickly settled on close third person on Robinson, and on making him not just a mysterious figure, but on making him Kees. So I began the poems which would make it into the actual book all in third person, but as I did so, I was buried in research (which is a phase of a project that I always love) on both Kees and mid-twentieth-century America. I was reading extensively about the period, and in the period, and in Kees’ own work, and as I read his letters, reviews, and short stories in addition to the poems, I realized that his own voice was too distinctive and important to leave out or just make up, so I settled on the centos–aka the letter poems in which Robinson is writing to a series of unnamed others–as a way to bring that voice in in a way that made sense. Kees himself was a wonderful letter writer–who wrote like someone who thought maybe people besides just his stated recipient would read his letters–so in addition to bringing that voice in, it seemed necessary to develop the character as well.
COOPER: You mention here something that most readers will not have considered as part of the writing of poetry: research. And yet, as your intention is not simply an original creation inspired by reality, but also a kind of psychological portrait, even an entryway into a somewhat ignored author, the research makes a great deal of sense. Kees has, in some ways, been mightily lucky in his “afterlife:” the early and ongoing attentions of Justice to his poetry, Dana Gioia’s interest in Kees’s short stories and now, in this millennium, Wojahn’s seconding, if you will, of Justice’s initial impetus and your more creative response to his work. I find such generosity unusual in literary history, and I wonder if you agree or disagree with my assessment, or even if you see it as simply off-base, that is, that something else entirely is at work in the champions Kees continues to find.
KATHLEEN: This is a good opportunity to mention that when I was standing on the precipice of my leap into Kees fandom, I was able to contact Donald Justice who generously pointed me in the direction of Dana Gioia, and that both of them helped me get started on that all-important research phase, and that they deserve a lot of credit for keeping Kees alive in the poetic conversation through a time when he might otherwise have been totally forgotten. It’s inevitable, though, when a little-known literary figure is championed by later poets, that our tendency is to view that little-known poet’s work through the lens of the champions, which is not the fault of those champions. But I think Kees is really multifarious, and one of the things I most hoped to do with my own creative biography was to get more readers to go look at Kees’ work directly.
COOPER: Absolutely! And I think the continuation of the process, if that’s a word that fits here, does what you are hoping–leads back to Kees more and more. Perhaps especially as the champions themselves recede into the past and the generations march on. Kees was only a bit more than a decade older than Justice, but Justice was old enough to be Gioia’s father, and Gioia old enough (I think Gioia’s about my age) to be yours–so Kees’s work is enduring, even if it has not yet quite made it over the wall around the classics. He is saying things, and saying them in a way, that continues to communicate.
But Robinson Alone is, at heart, your work, your creation, not a traditional work of scholarship, but a reinvention and reinvigoration, carefully constructed over quite a number of years.
Before we move on to what’s on your desk at the moment, is there anything else you’d like to say about Robinson the character or Kees the man?
KATHLEEN: I suppose if there’s one more thing to say about Kees, it’s that he was the first author to teach me the immeasurable value and power of being a “minor” poet, which has nothing to do with being “less good” than “major” writers or those who have, as you mention, made it into the pantheon of “classics,” and a lot more to do with the ungovernable vagaries of taste, time, luck, and the “market place,” the latter of which is in no way guaranteed to reward talent or quality. Minor poets (and artists of all types) are exciting because they are under-rated and waiting for discovery. Like, I love Shakespeare, but who doesn’t? My love of Kees is more personal and has given me more than lots of more “famous” authors have
COOPER: That’s an important observation, that the label “minor” has nothing to do with quality. It seems also to be true that the amount of time “outsider” or otherwise minor poets spend in their isolation is much larger than our commonplaces want to make it. Publishers, heirs and nowadays universities have a great deal to lose if the reputations of one generation’s majors fade too quickly in the following generation. And given that the canon gets passed down principally, at least initially, in university courses, there is always a limited number of authors who can be read in a semester. Sixty years after his disappearance, Kees is still outside. Forty-five years after her death, Lorine Niedecker is still outside. But the winners of the Pulitzer and the National Book awards are firmly lodged, mostly, it seems to me, for sociological reasons, reasons of content and politics, rather than fineness of writing.
For the time being. My hope is that, eventually, “talent will out.”
Now tell us something about what you’re working on now. Robinson Alone had such a lengthy gestation. Are you embarked on something likewise intensive or–
KATHLEEN: I’m working on a bunch of different projects right now, some poetry and some prose, but the one I’m most excited about is a novel based on the life and work of the poet and ad copywriter Margaret Fishback. And it actually is a similar situation to Robinson Alone in that I first heard about her back in 2007 and have spent the past eight years (on and off, with a lot of off) learning, and thinking, and writing about her. In the 1920s and 1930s, she was the highest paid female ad copywriter in America and a renowned writer of light verse, and yet nowadays she’s almost completely forgotten. I like people like that: talented, important, wonderful, and obscure. Again, it’s like being a detective–like finding a missing person and bringing them back.
COOPER: I don’t believe I’ve ever heard of her. It sounds very cool. I wonder if you are at all attracted to Justice’s other “rescue,” which he shared with Robert Mezey: Henri Coulette.
KATHLEEN: I know of Coulette–thanks to Justice and Mezey bringing out his Collected–but haven’t had a chance to spend time with his work. For what it’s worth, a friend of mine, the poet/writer Dan Nielsen, recommended Mezey’s Naked Poetry anthology (from 1969, co-edited with Stephen Berg) and I’m a big fan, though to my chagrin, they took Kees out for their revised edition, The New Naked Poetry.
COOPER: I probably at least had a look at that anthology back in the ’70s, but I can’t remember for sure. It may have been another that Berg worked on. Coulette has some very interesting poems, and he shares with Kees and Justice an interest in noir-ish devices. His first book was called The War of the Secret Agents and Other Poems!
I’d like to thank you again for agreeing to take part in this conversation, put up with my questions and let me and our readers have a look into your interests and processes. And I’d like to invite you to close with a poem, if you’re willing, something from Robinson Alone if you like, or something newer you’ve been working on.
KATHLEEN: Thank you so much for the thoughtful questions! As for a poem, here’s one from Robinson Alone.
ROBINSON’S FRIENDS TAKE HIM TO A WESTERN-THEMED BAR
though he’s come from afar not to be near the West.
The marquee horse jumps the neon fence
& saddle-shaped barstools line the natural-stone bar.
Robinson addles his head with whiskey.
Jack Delaney’s Steak House is lousy with horses—horses, horses, everywhere horses.
Everyone looks risky when the lights are so red.
The sign on the men’s room door says: Colts—Geldings—Studs.
Which one is Robinson?
A wild night out, a wild night to be wild.
Robinson’s friends are high mild questioners
& he listens to their non sequiturs, their sine qua whatevers:
Why do you always want to fuck when you’re drinking?
& In vino veritas
& That’s a big knife & those girls are really drunk.
He could be home with his Smith Corona.
Instead, he’s drinking a Smith & Wesson.
The nags on the walls seem to nag in his ears:
It’ll be a bad night unless you call it a day.
Remember, when you fall, you never fall halfway.
Something’s being learned here, but not a lesson.