Rebecca Morgan Frank is the author of four collections of poetry: Oh You Robot Saints! (2021), Sometimes We’re All Living in a Foreign Country (2017), and The Spokes of Venus (2016), all from Carnegie Mellon University Press, as well as Little Murders Everywhere (Salmon Poetry, 2012), a finalist for the 2013 Kate Tufts Discovery Award. Her poems have appeared such places as The New Yorker, American Poetry Review, and The Kenyon Review, and her collaborations with composers have been performed widely. She is the editor and cofounder of the literary magazine Memorious, and she serves on the board of the National Book Critics Circle. Frank teaches in the MFA program in Prose & Poetry at Northwestern University and writes in Hemingway’s childhood attic as the current writer-in-residence at the Hemingway Birthplace Museum in Oak Park.
This interview was conducted via email in November 2020.
Erin Carlyle: I love to hear about a writer’s artistic process. What is your process for writing a book like this? What did you read and research to write this collection of poems? Do you have any rituals? (How did it feel to write “Ode to the Robobee,” and was it any different than writing something like “Elegy” or “The Favor”?)
Rebecca Morgan Frank: My poems lead me to unexpected places, whether they begin with personal experience or with research. Frost says poets get their knowledge “cavalierly and as it happens in and out of books. They stick to nothing deliberately, but let what will stick to them like burrs where they walk in the fields.” I am indeed “cavalier” in my pursuits—I love the freedom I have as a poet to follow any story or discovery or phrase that captures my attention, to see what sticks. I find starting points for poems through reading and through conversations—I am particularly interested in hearing other artists or scholars talk about their work, in following a lead. In terms of “Ode to the Robobee,” I mentioned to a friend that I had just read about robotic bees and was considering a poem about them for the book, and she introduced me to her neighbor, a roboticist working on the robobee. Then he also introduced me to the existence of “soft robots,” and suddenly my book of automatons had expanded to include robots.
I am incredibly fortunate: each of my books has been completed at a residency where I can immerse myself in the last stages of the full manuscript without interruption, and where I can spread the poems across the walls in order to play with the poem order over days, finalizing the trajectory of the book. I suppose you could call this a ritual, as it has often involved returning to my home state of Virginia, with its magical landscape, its mountains that feel like home even though my family is no longer there. I have been incredibly fortunate to have the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts provide me with a beautiful and fruitful place to carry my last few books over the line.
EC: Throughout the book, there is a through line of grief and the need to create something that outlasts the creator. In some poems this longing is mournful, and in some I see an angry confrontation with death. Can you talk a little about how the theme of grief runs through these poems?
RMF: My own mother passed away just as I was beginning this book. I had resigned from a tenure-track job and taken a poet-in-residence position so that I could be near her, and she passed away five weeks before my move. I was devastated. When I tried to write those first poems about automata, such as Self-Operating Machines and Gerbert of Aurillac and the Magic 8-Ball, the poems kept circling back to my mother, and to my own helpless sorrow and anger. The elegiac nature of those early poems set the course of the book.
Grief reflects our limits: we cannot stop death. The makers of historical and literary automata who inhabit my poems attempt to avoid death, try to recreate or protect the dead, and even face death themselves. Our humanity is shaped by our mortality, and so we imagine an automaton or robot that can outlive us. The irony is that while we can try to make the immortal, it will never have lived. This is what makes the automaton such a perfect poetic figure—it embodies both our desire to create and our need to grapple with our limits even as we try to push past them. The automaton as figure can represent the gap between the human-made and nature, between human and gods, between art and life—the list goes on.
EC: Many of the poems feature speakers who create beautiful mechanical humanoids and animals, but then there is a poem like “The Favor,” whose speaker longed to create something flesh from her own body but could not. In this body of work, what is the difference between flesh and metal? Is one more real than the other?
RMF: When I walked into the Robot Exhibit at London’s Science Museum a few years ago, there was an animatronic baby floating in the entrance to the exhibit. The baby had latex skin and could move and “breathe” and, apparently, even sneeze. Dangling amidst neon lights, it signaled its lack of reality, although if you came across it in a baby carriage or someone’s arms, you might have been momentarily fooled. But flesh itself is not what we would most miss if we held that robotic baby in our arms, is it? The boxy “metal” robot we know from science fiction is really a blink in the long history of humanoid robots and automata—consider the medieval Marys formed of wood and lambskin, or the lifelike 18th century wooden automata whose eyes moved as they played instruments and wrote and drew. The question is perhaps not whether robots or automata appear real, or even whether we humans consider robots “real,” but whether we engage with them as if they are.
Perhaps the dichotomy in this book is less “metal versus flesh,” and more “made versus imagined.” Some automata are merely literary inventions, some are rumored to be made, and a very small percentage are surviving artifacts. What’s the difference between a purely imagined automata and one that was made long ago, but only exists for us via words? Is the idea, the imagined, as real as the made? As someone who makes with words and lives in the world of books, I sometimes believe it is.
EC: Motherhood figures prominently throughout the poems. For example, there are speakers who cannot conceive, speakers longing for their mothers who died, a queen bee whose job it is to conceive, and a mechanical copy of the queen bee who can’t conceive. How do you see the role of motherhood in this collection?
RMF: I wrote this book at the intersection of losing my mother and unsuccessfully pursuing motherhood biologically and through adoption. Yet I could create: I could create poems, and I could re-create automata with my words, following in the footsteps of the many writers and storytellers who have imagined automata before me. Ultimately, in this book I am grappling with what it is to be made and to make, and biological conception is really the least interesting part of that question, I think. This book is packed with stories of men trying to father life through mechanical creations, using clockwork, water clocks, and later, computers. (Of course, the oft dubbed “mother of computer programming” was a woman: Ada Lovelace, daughter of the poet Lord Byron!) None of these inventions were born, but let’s face it, male artists and inventors have always been celebrated for their creations alone, with little to no attention paid to their role as fathers or sons.
The impulse to create life—materially or through words—embodies longing and even ambition, yes, but also can emerge from a quest for answers to a question or problem, whether it is a roboticist wondering how to replicate a bee’s flight or a philosopher trying to deal with the loss of a dead child, as in the story that Descartes made an automaton replica of his young daughter after she died. Gerbert of Aurillac is said to have made a talking head to find answers, one of which was the accurate prediction that he would become Pope Sylvester II! My act of mothering this book is an act of trying to find answers to my own burning questions, which encompass grief and longing tied to motherhood, but don’t stop there.
EC: In “Human Plus Machine” the speaker is tackling their relationship with mechanical/digital/robotic hybridity. The speaker is in essence a cyborg with a dependency on medical aids, cellphones, etc., though it also seems to have a longing or sentimentality for a time before. What conclusions do this poem and the book draw about human dependency on machines? Does the dependency create a new sort of human? In other words, is this a symbiotic relationship?
RMF: The cyborg is not the stuff of science fiction, it is the lived reality of many of us who integrate elements of current technology in our movements through the world, whether through an artificial limb or a hearing aid and so on. At the same time, cell phones have become the center of our lives: they have become integral to ordering a ride, playing your speakers in your own home or car, paying bills, caring for your health. It is getting harder and harder to move through the world without them, which leads to a much different kind of dependency. Evolving technologies can be empowering and provide access, but they also can make us vulnerable, dependent. Yet technologies themselves are neutral: it is what we do with them that matters.
EC: The following quote comes from “The Girlfriend Elegies”: “I now knew what fear was. What it was to be a girl, to always be at risk of vanishing.” I see a theme of vanishing in this book: mothers who vanish, vanishing memories, vanishing friendships. Can you talk about what vanishing means to you and how it relates to the themes of this collection?
RMF: We live in a world where girls disappear. Turn on the TV or stream a film or follow the news, and you find story after story of dead girls, of disappearing girls. This reality runs through your beautiful new book, Magnolia Canopy Otherworld, too, because as girls and then as women we are constantly reminded that we can be disappeared at any moment. “The Girlfriend Elegies” grapples with the many ways in which the lives of girls and women are seen as disposable, from murder, to abandonment, even to lack of research for certain reproductive cancers. The figures in the poem are all girls and women who have “vanished” in my own life; this began as a series of poems about girlfriends but then expanded. The last section I wrote taps into my first awareness of death, which was also my first awareness of gender-based violence, when a school friend disappeared at age twelve. While a man was convicted, her body was never recovered.
Death is a vanishing—someone is there, and in seconds, they are not. When we lose people, where do they go? Grief is about absence, but also about the unknown, the unanswered questions. This is amplified when a life is erased without witness. These elegies in the book live in the space of those questions.
EC: In “Monk Automation, Circa 1560,” the flesh and bone monk is automated out of his job by the mechanical version of himself. Even though “Robots can do almost anything you please,” there’s irony in the image of a human monk violating his value system to build a robot to do his job. As our own jobs get automated out in the real world outside the book, how do you see your poems speaking to those left behind? Is there anything robots can’t or shouldn’t do?
RMF: The term robot, as we use it, was coined by Karel Čapek in the 1920 play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), now a hundred years old; the word “robot” is derived from the Czech word “robota,” for forced labor, and Čapek’s fictional robots looked like humans, but could not reproduce, and were created to work. When one of the characters asks the question of what makes the best sort of worker, he answers himself that they are the cheapest. The worker the robot replaces is disposable.
But 21st century robots aren’t only factory workers. They perform spiritual and emotional labor. The 16th century automaton monk on the cover of my book could provide blessings, as can BlessU-2, a robot made out of an old ATM machine for a Protestant church in Germany. In 2019 we saw the arrival of Mindar, the Japanese Buddhist robot monk at the Kodaiji temple to share and spread Buddhist teachings. Whether you think these are acceptable really depends on your worldview, both cultural and religious. The decades ahead are going to force most of us to ask your last question—is there anything robots shouldn’t do?—as we decide just how much we are willing to hand over further to automation and to AI.
EC: How do you see this book in relation to your earlier work?
RMF: My fascination with makers across other fields and vocations in Oh You Robot Saints! is in many ways a continuation of my second collection, The Spokes of Venus, which primarily focuses on such makers as artists, composers, and choreographers. I am fascinated by the ways in which different creators make something from nothing, and how we communicate that to the world. At the same time, Oh You Robot Saints! extends the elegiac nature of my first book, Little Murders Everywhere, which grapples with loving someone who is dying: how do we handle anticipated grief? This question evolves in Oh You Robot Saints! into my questions about what to do with unresolved grief.
EC: What are you currently reading and do you have any plans for new poetry?
RMF: Right now, I am reading a lot of books by architects as research for my next poetry collection, and I’m enthralled by Juhani Pallasmaa’s The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses. Some of my newest poems are about forensic, hostile, and failed architecture. The latter has its early roots, for me, in my first book with a poem that took shape from a line that rattled around my head for a long time: “we rely on the bridge to hold us up.” Collapsing infrastructures, as real as they are, seem to me to be an apt metaphor for this time.