Desert Companion

Q&A: Poetry in the Vogue

vogues.jpg

Vogues
Photography by Jerry Metellus

A chat with the county’s poet laureate as she looks toward the end of her term

Vogue Robinson, Clark County’s poet laureate for another few months, sneezed this afternoon. “And a booger got in my hair,” she reports, laughing. If you’re a poet, you know what her next thought was: “This is going to make a great f*cking poem!” More laughter. But she won’t have time to write it just yet. A few hours after this interview, she’ll be on the other side of the Q&A format, querying former two-time U.S. poet laureate Natasha Trethewey onstage during a reading at the Writer’s Block — one of many impressive cultural figures she’s met as a consequence of her volunteer gig, which has put her in a constant state of motion, arranging and attending readings, participating in literary festivals, and supporting the city’s poets any way she can. Her two-year term wraps in April.

As she looks ahead from the precipice of the new year, she’d like to help outgoing County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, who, according to Robinson, is trying to get Nevada to reinstate its poet laureate position. “I’d love to see the state have a laureate, and” — she gestures to herself — “duh. Why not?” Indeed.

 

You’ve said that your art these days is focused more on facilitating the art of others.

Support comes from

I lived in San Diego before I lived here. There’s a huge open-mic scene, awesome poets — and there are a couple of people who, at no point, do you feel as though you’re not in their shadow. I was super-quiet, I read every once in a while, I wrote poems, but they were never good enough, to me; I never felt like I was part of the crowd.

So I said, When I go to Vegas, there’s none of this hiding, there’s no “not good enough”; it’s just, here are these poems, and they’re mine, and the people who like them are the people they’re for.

I don’t want anyone to feel alienated. I don’t want anyone to feel like their poems aren’t good enough. Even if I don’t like their poems, even if I think their poems are weird, and I don’t understand them, someone is going to connect to that, and it doesn’t have to be me. We shouldn’t have these barriers around poetry. It’s tough enough being a writer and figuring out what that career looks like for you. I don’t want anyone to feel outcast. I remember how much I hid, and if I can make sure no one does that, the community is better for it.

 

But as in any human endeavor, there’s good poetry and bad poetry; is there any responsibility to offer tough love, to tell people perhaps they shouldn’t quit their day job?

I think there’s a lot of damage that can come from that. In the way that you might have a math class you hate because of one teacher, and, all of a sudden, it’s I hate math, and you have an internal stigma about it. So I’m really careful about that. I’m not opposed to criticism. I’m the queen of, “I need detail here, there are no sounds, there are no smells.” I push people toward detail. If someone’s writing love poems and they’re one-dimensional, I might hand ’em a book of sonnets. My way of editing is to tell people to study more. If I were to tell someone to stop writing poems, who does that help?

 

What’s the most frequent advice you offer to poets who seek out your guidance?

It’s always “Read more.” I’m getting better about being specific about who they should read. And that gives me more of a reason to read, too. You wish there was a magical thing that could help you edit your work and make it better, but you learn by doing. And the more you do it as you’re reading, you see that writers steal, teachers steal, everybody steals from everybody, to find the best recipe. And how do you learn a recipe? You experiment. And I always put a Post-It with the five senses on the upper right-hand corner of the page (to remind herself to include sensory details in her poetry). So I tell them to do that. Those are my go-tos.

 

How do you feel about the end of your term?

Singing in the rain. Dancing in the street. (Laughs) Every Janet Jackson video. What I mean is, I’d like more time to sit down and write. I’ve been focused a lot on facilitating things for others and organizing events. I just want to do two things less, and get more sleep.

(Being the laureate has) pushed me in ways I didn’t expect. Many people believe it’s a stand-and-look-pretty position. But sometimes I think it’s like the women’s-suffrage women — they couldn’t sit and look pretty, they had to find a way to work. It’s like, who works this hard to be allowed to work? (Laughs) Bruce (Isaacson, her predecessor) was a working laureate, and I’m a working laureate. I like that aspect of it. It’s taught me some things about myself as a leader and also allowed me to bring more people together. I think when they created this position, it wasn’t just to elevate one person as the “best poet.” It’s about who will be the best leader and bring everyone else up. There’s an African proverb, “Lift as you climb.” And there’s a community of people here who aren’t afraid to turn around and reach back, or link elbows because we’re walking in the same direction.

I have a friend who asked, “Now that you’re not going to be county poet laureate, what do you want next?” I want state. I want U.S. I want all of them! Grandma said I was the next Maya Angelou, and hopefully grandma’s right. (Laughs)

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