Robin Carstensen will be the featured reader Thursday, August 8, 2019 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),
Robin Carstensen’s chapbook, In the Temple of Shining Mercy received the annual first-place award by Iron Horse Literary Press in 2016, and published in 2017. Poems are also published in BorderSenses, Southern Humanities Review, Voices de La Luna, Demeter Press’s anthology, Borderlands and Crossroads: Writing the Motherland, and many more. She directs the creative writing program at Texas A&M University-CC where she is the senior editor for The Windward Review: literary journal of the South Texas Coastal Bend, and is co-founding, senior editor of the Switchgrass Review: literary journal of health and transformation in partnership with the Coastal Bend Wellness Medical Center.
CH: What is your first memory of poetry? As a young person, what about poetry engaged you?
RC: Cat in the Hat books, nursery rhymes, jumping-rope rhymes, school yard rhymes, and songs. I think the pleasure in sumptuous language engaged me.
CH: When did you first begin to think of yourself as a writer? A poet?
RC: In my early memory scenes, I am writing short letters to my mother. With as much flair as I can conjure, I am asking for something, inviting some reconciliation. Early on, I felt the power of the written word on my livelihood, on gaining parental favor. I wrote stories, plays, and poems well into the night as my parents and little brother slept. That’s when I knew I was a writer. In middle school, I wrote stories by the light of a tall lamp post shining through the fourth story window of our brick quarters in Germany where my father was stationed. At various jobs in my young adult life, I felt compelled to write lyrical exposés of working conditions or real material lives of the people around me who needed better care, or poetic eulogies for the residents and cohorts at a residential care facility who had passed on. People seemed uplifted or comforted by my arrangement of words, and by my mid to late 20s my clear role as a poet was emerging.
CH: What role has your formal education played in your development as a poet?
RC: Very important role in appreciating and developing my craft, and embracing the depth, breadth, wisdom, and teachings of our diverse poetic roots and influences. My formal education as an undergrad in the mid 90s, after five years in the Air Force and two years at Del Mar college, brought me a dear professor who would become my writing mentor for many years: Vanessa Jackson at Texas A&M University-CC. She introduced me to a luscious sensory world where I fell in love with the Romantics and Wordsworth’s riveting stories in verse in “The Ruined Cottage.” Through other wonderful professors who were expanding the literary canon, I studied poetry. Elizabeth Mermann introduced me to the mind-blowing heart-healing work of Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands/La Frontera, which resonated with my life on the borderlands of heteronormative society. In another class, I was introduced to Audre Lorde’s poetry, essays, and biomythography, Zami, a New Spelling of my Name. Her lyric, sensual description of her childhood and her mother’s embodied force in her community held me from the beginning. I felt a kindred spirit with these writers and many others, and I felt their welcoming me and my unique voice and thoughts.
My doctoral program at Oklahoma State University where I concentrated in poetry was a rich, invaluable time in my life to study widely, deeply, intensely the history and traditions, theory, movements, and authors influencing our diverse contemporary poetry. I learned the joy in received forms, in reaching for and discovering pleasure in the unexpected through structure and pattern. The pantoum and ghazal in their use of recurring lines and refrain enchant me, as well the bending and fusing of received form with our 21st century concerns and expanded imaginations, consciousnesses.
CH: You teach a variety of topics at the college level, including environmental studies, borderland cultures, and gender and women’s studies. How does this work influence your writing life? How has your writing been influenced by the process of teaching and mentoring others?
RC: Radical feminism intensely influenced my work before and during my studies in Oklahoma. A few in this long list include June Jordan, Audre Lorde, Mary Daly, Adrienne Rich, Marilyn Chin, Lisa Lewis, Ai, and the lyric poetry in the novels of Jeanette Winterson. They teach me through their poetry, teaching, and lives to be daring and speak my truths. I learned that to create and expand knowledge is to demand and imagine better lives for everyone. It’s worth it to reach for the images, sounds, tone, the shape, pause, space, and breath of a poem to precisely convey our demands as well as our celebrations, to stand up for decency and create momentum that dissolves the rhetoric of fear. It’s worth our lives to know that if language can be used to breed the hate and violence that we see daily manifested in tragic forms, we also have language to imagine and manifest life-giving force. In the poetry of witness and resistance, especially in these borderland regions as we experience harmful political policy and rhetoric, I feel myself a part of a gathering force that is creating urgent change and that will not allow the pendulum to swing into full madness. In the meditative poems and poems of eros, in poems that soothe and poems that disturb, I also find love letters to humanity and am moved to write my own that might comfort, inform, shake someone up, help someone, including myself, connect to loving energy, community, and possibilities.
Teaching college courses and editing two journals especially brings me close to work from new, emerging, and established writers. I find much wisdom and inspiration in students, and am moved by their poems and narratives, which speak to our intersecting lives and complex challenges on a planet heaving through radical changes. I’m encouraged by their higher consciousness, daring affirmation in themselves and faith in better worlds to come, in the beauty they uncover and the love and fulfillment they envision and create.
CH: Tell us a little about In the Temple of Shining Mercy. Over what period of time were these poems written?
RC: These are semi-autobiographical poems that explore the landscape, culture, and history of Oklahoma and Texas. Intimate friendships and solitude help the speakers in these poems confront violence and embrace wild uncertainty. I’d been writing and publishing these poems in individual journals for over a decade, between 2004-2015. Since the full-length poetry manuscript had not found a publisher yet, I decided to try sending a much shorter version to two admirable chapbook series. The 30-page limit pushed me to discover a tighter shape of intertwining themes.
CH: What was your process in selecting and ordering the poems of In the Temple of Shining Mercy?
RC: Finding a story, a thread to pull them together, and which poems seem to speak to one another, and roll into the next pairing, unfolding a new conversation. (Really, sometimes it’s a mess trying to arrange, but in the end, after arranging and rearranging, something comes together that feels whole, and it’s a mystery and a relief!)
CH: What was your journey in getting this book published?
RC: Long journey over a decade. In sending the full length to many presses, I learned to embrace rejection, and to find strength and resolve from that space. I’m learning from wise poets, such as Ire’ne Lara Silva and Odilia Galván Rodriguez, who reminded me during one of her stirring workshops, to keep focused on our writing and not become preoccupied with the fame or status of publication or become disheartened by comparing ourselves with those winning the accolades. From wisdom, I’m encouraged to stay steady on my course. And I learned there are many ways to share our work, which is the whole point of “getting published.” We all want to share our thoughts and ideas, stories, and emotions. In the process, I have joined poets all over Texas and Oklahoma at writing conferences, readings, and festivals. I help coordinate the People’s Poetry Festival in Corpus, with our fearless leader and talented Tom Murphy. I enjoy helping writers find a place for their work in a journal that I co-founded, Switchgrass Review: A Literary Journal of Health and Transformation. I also enjoy leading a team of students to publish a journal of voices from South Texas and the Coastal Bend, the Windward Review. Along this community of energy and collaboration, I gathered the sustenance to continue working on and submitting my book, believing it would eventually speak to an editor who would want to help bring it to a wider audience.
CH: How do you nourish yourself as a writer?
RC: I’m fortunate to have a circle of close friends who are my family and who are each uniquely artistic, kind, and encouraging. I’m also nourished through road trips, reading, music, swimming, watching clouds, movies, meditating in many forms, being with my community of poets who are my extended family, and the beautiful island campus where I get to create new curriculum, and be inspired by students and colleagues.
CH: What three things would you tell someone who is starting out as a poet?
RC: Remember to enjoy doing your art. Be fearless in your writing, leap across chasms. Read other poets and writers across the spectrum.
CH: What is the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?
RC: Michael + Josephine: A Novel in Verse by Jo Reyes-Boitel. An inventive, enthralling lyrical love story, gorgeously written, offering an expansive vision for the many shapes and possibilities of love.