Robyn Schiff is the author of three previous poetry collections: Worth (University of Iowa Press, 2002), Revolver (University of Iowa Press, 2008), and A Woman of Property (Penguin, 2016). Information Desk: An Epic was released by Penguin in August 2023. A professor at the University of Chicago, Schiff co-edits Canarium Books, an independent small press dedicated to publishing exceptional books of poetry, and was the recipient of the 2023 Joseph Brodsky Rome Prize at the American Academy in Rome.
Keith Kopka: I think a great place to start talking about your newest collection, Information Desk, is by taking a moment to focus your categorization of the collection as an epic. This is an interesting and almost taboo categorization in our “postmodern” poetic landscape of broken cultural narratives. However, through its ambitious scope, I see how Information Desk works within the tradition. Still, the epic form carries all sorts of political and cultural baggage, so I’m wondering how you see this tradition as an essential element of the collection and how you see the book challenging and/or engaging with the form?
Robyn Schiff: Thank you for starting with this rich question! My attraction to the word “epic” as a subtitle begins with the very absurdity of the gesture. I associate traditional epic with grandiose, violent, and presumptuous claims, and even as I’m drawn to the beauty, formal ingenuity, narrative drive, and sheer confidence of the genre, writing an epic is indeed a ridiculous thing to do in the 21st century—and I suppose that’s why I did it. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is itself an epic gesture; object by object, one confronts extraordinary, jaw-dropping beauty and spiritual force, but taken as a whole, the very fact of the Met has everything to do with the violence of capitalism, colonialism, myth-making, and empire. It seemed to me that a poem that attempts to express the complicated scope of the collection and the intensity of the objects therein needed a complicated, intense formal commitment. What really interests me, though, is a subcategory of the long poem I’ll call the “feminist epic”—extensive poems that use conventions of epic as social critique and critique of the genre itself: works like Gwendolyn Brooks’ Annie Allen or Midwinter Day by Bernadette Mayer. Information Desk has more in common with works like these, 20th-century domestic confessional poetics, and a quasi-documentary mode shot through with an “I did this, I did that” New York School casualness than it does with Virgil…and yet Virgil’s in there too. I wanted to make a poem with the dangerous epic sweep of the Met that is nevertheless earnest and replete with conviction.
KK: You definitely achieved that goal! Speaking of the epic sweep of the museum, the central poem of Information Desk seems thematically and narratively centered on the growth of its young protagonist, who is coming of age while working at the Met. At other times, the protagonist takes a backseat to the art within the museum itself. The museum space, patrons, objects, and the overarching narrator’s reflections come together to become the thematic focus that allows readers to move across time and space in ways that feel more global than the protagonist’s coming-of-age story. The tension between these micro and macro narratives is part of what makes the collection so interesting. How do you see the thematic structures functioning within the collection? And how are you able to sustain narrative momentum in a poem that is so willing to wander?
RS: I strove to bring to the poem the sheer joy of wandering that museum, which at its wondrous best feels like time traveling. It is thrilling to enter that museum space and move according to my whims, opening myself fully to the extraordinary objects that call to me and to the complexity of the route; thrilling, but terrifying, too, because being true to the scope of that collection is to acknowledge the violence at its core, and to confront the instability of authenticity and authority. Even my own. Thus recreating the sensation of wayfaring that space meant allowing for unresolved digressions, disorientation, backtracking, and vertigo. As I was writing, I didn’t think about narrative or thematic arc in a cohesive way; rather, certain concerns kept surfacing, and I submitted to repetition—sonic, narrative, imagistic—as one submits to a whirlpool. Being as true as possible to the experience of navigating that building meant being simultaneously in the present and the past; alone and in public; distracted and focused. It means picking up a narrative for the length of a hallway and dropping it; it means running into the same coworkers coming and going; it means returning to the same exhibit on a different day in a different mood; and it means carrying the memory of that artwork into my life, and my life into my art-viewing. The momentum of the poem is dependent on pushing all narratives at once—mine, the arts’, the pigments’, the soils’, the insects’, etc. It was the joy of my creative life to set all of this material in motion and keep it spinning. Thank you for seeing narrative momentum—honestly, I’m not entirely sure how to explain how I maintained it except to say that wandering through that building and routing others is an amazing experience, and bringing that maze-ing into the syntax was my goal.
KK: Well, I think one of the ways you maintained it was through masterful organization. One of my favorite elements of the collection was the way in which three major sections of the books are introduced by stand-alone poems you call “invocations.” Each of these invocations conjures a new type of wasp. These shorter, self-contained lyrics seem to gesture towards larger themes contained in the other, longer, sections of the collection. How do you see these shorter poems operating in the collection? Is each wasp poem a “muse” or compass rose for the themes within each section of the longer poem?
RS: Thank you! And I love your term, “compass rose.” You’ve given me such a useful way to think about those wasps, and it’s especially wonderful to consider each as a literal figure on the floor plan at the heart of the poem, radiating its themes.
There are insects all over the book, really—wasps, cockroaches, beetles, lice—they constitute a subterranean strain of information coursing along with human history, but those parasitic wasps, and the invocations to them, occupy a special place for me structurally, and yes, really helped me organize the book. They entered the poem strangely, slowly, and perfectly naturally—which I suppose is how they operate in general, so their arrival in Information Desk was true to their usual behavior. Here’s how it happened: early in the composition of Information Desk, I encountered an article by Christie Wilcox in Scientific American about an aspect of the behavior of jewel wasps that was so extraordinary to me it catalyzed a profound shift in my knowledge of the universe—and thus the possibilities of what poetry might express, and how it might accomplish its expression, shifted too. But I wasn’t aware how the poem that became the invocation “To the Jewel Wasp” would fit into Information Desk until I watched the confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh in a state of disgust and despair and experienced something of an aha! moment in terms of what I’ll call the theater of power. At this point, I realized that the jewel wasp was like a superhero of amazing feminist force, and she immediately became my muse and helped me maintain focus during the horrors of that period. She seemed to have it all. A patient strategist, despite being a fraction of the size of her host, she uses precision and relentless generative drive to accomplish her procreative goals. But even as I sought to channel her ingenuity to reach my artistic goals, when I learned about other parasitic wasps (her sister muses, so to speak), my overly-simplistic notion of feminist-wasp-against-the-world absolutely shattered—these female wasps prey on and totally undermine and overpower other female wasps. Deep into my epic project, as the pandemic raged and the 2020 election season loomed, I watched the Amy Coney Barrett confirmation hearings and came to understand the complicated relationship Information Desk needed to have with its “muses.” I wrote the next two invocations, “To the Oak Gall Wasp” and “To the Cuckoo Paper Wasp,” fully aware that the success of these wasps depends not only on the destruction of others—this is an obvious point about a parasite—but weirdly also on the work of other mothers. The procreative force of wasp ingenuity came to disturb me. It seems to me disturbance is more important than “inspiration,” and the invocations are an acknowledgment of extraordinarily elaborate power dynamics at work; my appeal to these parasitic wasps as muses is for the fortitude and craftsmanship to express it.
KK: This is very interesting because I’m sure there could be any number of animals or insects that would have succeeded in these invocations. Still, to me, the wasp seems particularly connected to the violence you’ve mentioned is simmering beneath the surface of the collection. There are themes of assault and quid pro quo throughout the book, and, as you said, it felt important to you to acknowledge the violence at the core of the epic form as well as museum curation. However, there are also moments where the violence seems much more personal. Do you see violence as something that is, unfortunately, essential to any story in which a young woman begins to understand the patriarchal structures that she is learning to operate within? Or is this violence essential in another way?
RS: Unfortunately, yes, violence is certainly central to these structures, and that’s part of what I needed the wasps to help express. But I also get something else out of the wasp I couldn’t quite get out of other animals. Some wasps are pollinators, some are paper-makers, some are neuroscientists, and some are sculptors; as a species, they are ridiculously creative. I’m not just writing about violence but about creativity. This isn’t in the poem—some things need to go unsaid there, but I’ll say it here—oak galls are an ancient source of ink! Wasps are central to the history of writing and drawing!
KK: Wow, I had no idea that wasps were such an integral part of human history. And now that you’ve articulated how the wasps embody creativity, I can see even more clearly how essential they are to the book. This collection is a wonderful expression of love for art, creativity, and how art and poetry, as well as the practice of making each, are intertwined with each other and with whole cultural histories. Since so much of Information Desk focuses on art, it would be easy to label this poem as ekphrastic. However, a label like that would oversimplify how you connect visual art to the narrative threads throughout the book. Still, no matter the label, it is clear to readers that Information Desk is an incredibly detailed love letter to art in all its forms. Could you speak a little about how you approached the task of writing about art and what is vital to you in this collection concerning the intersection between visual art and poetry?
RS: Poetry is in beautiful collusion with all the arts. It’s music. It’s theater. But I suppose poetry has a special relationship with visual arts for me because of the primacy of image in the poems I love most. Moreover, in addition to the visceral power and soulfulness great visual art is capable of, it also has an obvious relationship to capitalism and possession, and it’s never been my interest to just describe the beautiful world; I describe its systems, and the overlapping ecosystems of visual art allow me to usefully surface the dynamics I aspire to express. James Schuyler says it very succinctly in his poem “Back” about The Frick Collection in NYC, just a short walk down 5th from the Met: “It was nice / to see the masterpieces again, / covered with the strikers’ blood.” It took me about 100 pages to say as much!
KK: By the poem’s end, the museum is closing for the evening, and time and space seem to be folding in on themselves. In the final gesture, we see the museum, its patrons, its employees, and the hopes of our speaker/protagonist preserved in a moment of unraveling and unresolved imagination personified through the kick line of the Rockettes. You write: “…They would and would have danced. / But of course they would not; and did not; / and still are.” This is a beautiful moment, but it doesn’t ground readers in a conclusion like a homecoming to Ithaca or the death of Turnus does. However, the poem seems interested in something other than this kind of resolution. Instead, the journey goes on. Could you speak to what you hope your readers will take away from this lack of a traditional resolution? In other words, where would you like your readers to arrive after our epic journey with you?
RS: Thank you for this great question. In the course of writing Information Desk, I continuously passed back and forth through the revolving doors between artifice and the natural world, imagination and memory, and history and the present tense. Rather than a sense of resolution, I wanted the poem to engage the ongoing simultaneity and circularity of artmaking, art-viewing, living, and remembering. The ending gesture isn’t a conclusion but an acknowledgment of poetry—and all art—as a perpetual motion machine. I’d like the poem to still be spinning even as a reader closes the book.
KK: Thank you so much for your time, Robyn. It’s a stunning and ambitious collection.