TOM ROBBINS speaks with a genteel Southern accent, collects vintage carnival-sideshow banners and is father to a Havanese pup named Taffy. Also he writes beloved American novels like Still Life with Woodpecker, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and Jitterbug Perfume as well as 2009’s “children’s book for adults” B Is for Beer. He is, without exaggeration, an American literary treasure.
TOD MARSHALL was named Washington State’s poet laureate last year. Born in Buffalo, NY, and raised in Oklahoma, Marshall has lived in Spokane and been a professor of English at Gonzaga since 1999. As poet laureate, he’s spent the last year sojourning to the farthest corners of the state, bringing his passion for literature into small and often unsuspecting communities and big cities alike.
In April, Humanities Washington published the anthology 129 Poems—one for each year of Washington’s statehood that Marshall collected from Washington writers professional and amateur. One of those, “Stick Indians,” is one of the few poems Robbins has published.
After a tour of Villa de Jungle Girl, as Robbins calls his home in La Conner, a former fishing village turned retirement community about 90 minutes northeast of Seattle, the pair adjourned to Robbins’ writing room, surrounded by photos of famous friends, original cover-art paintings and copies of Robbins’ books translated into dozens of languages. Robbins has lived here since 1970, over the decades adding two separate wings to the original 1870s home. Outside the door to the skylit, second-floor writing room is a road sign that reads NO TURNING BACK. Robbins says it’s the last thing he sees before he sits down to write—longhand, on legal pads—every day. It’s the last thing we see before diving into conversation.
TOD MARSHALL I just spent the last several months visiting a lot of rural communities and thinking about how the arts might connect with young people’s lives there. As someone who comes from a rural background, what’s your experience in developing artistic sensibility in a place where we don’t usually think of those things flowering?
TOM ROBBINS I dictated a story to my mother when I was five years old, and I announced to her at that time that I was going to be a writer. I fell in love with books at that age. I liked the way they looked. I liked the way they smelled. I liked the heft of them in my hands, and most of all I liked the way they evoked my imagination. So I started when I was too young to know any better.
TOD So it was something inside of you. Did you see that impulse in your peers, or did you feel out of step a little bit?
TOM No, I never really felt out of step. My mother was a frustrated writer, and that’s why she was willing to take dictation. So I suppose I had some of her literary genes. And this was Appalachia [Blowing Rock, North Carolina, to be specific]. In the summer, it was a well-known resort with a lot of wealthy people escaping Atlanta—the Coca-Cola family and the Cannon Mills people all had big homes there. In the summer there were European sports cars and first-run films at the movie theater that was closed the other nine months of the year. There was a dichotomy there of the high life and the low life because the rest of the year it was Dogpatch. People subsisting on what they’d managed to earn catering to the summer people. So I think that gave me a sense of the power of transformation. Because I think of transformation, along with liberation and celebration, being the three major themes of my writing. Of course, this was all totally unconscious. I just wanted to grow up to be Tarzan.
TOD Chasing jungle girls. I think you have one of the most amazing metaphor-generating imaginations that I know of, and I usually connect metaphor with poetry. And yet you both generate metaphors and tell stories. Are those two different impulses, or do the metaphors just naturally unwind as part of the storytelling?
TOM I think they’re inseparable. Any novel that doesn’t have poetry in it is like a swan without feathers: Just another plucked chicken. I think the wonderful thing about our poetic impulse is that it came along at time when all the emphasis was on narration, but at some point in our ancient history a few people began to realize that how you told the story, and the words you used to tell the story, were just as important as the story itself, and that has always seemed completely natural to me.
TOD And yet it seems poets sometimes swerve toward doing one thing and fiction writers swerve into doing a different thing. What do you think causes that divide, and how did you manage to keep a foot in both arenas?
TOM I think it boils down to my love of language.
TOD What are some of your favorite words?
TOM Oh, I don’t think of single words so much as combinations of words, and they come to me as I’m writing. I write very slowly. I only do one draft, but I don’t need to do more than one draft because I try never to leave a sentence until I think it’s as perfect as I can make it; not only the information that it gives about the environment or the story that’s unfolding, but also about the characters. But it also has to hold its own in terms of imagery. I think a perfect metaphor can concretize and eternalize a thought.
TOD One draft? You just keep working on it until it’s perfect?
TOM Well, I set myself a goal of three pages a day, and some days I get more, and some days I don’t get that. But I try never to leave a sentence until I think it’s as good as I can make it. So when I’m done, I’m pretty much done. I mean, I’ll change words. But there’s no rewriting, really, only one draft. And I don’t work from an outline, either.
I was on a panel once with John Irving. And he said that he would never start a book until he knew how it was going to end. In fact, he sometimes would write the last page before he writes the first page. I said, “My God, John, isn’t that like having a job? That sounds like working in a factory.” I couldn’t do it that way. I have to keep myself intrigued in order to keep going. I have to continually surprise myself.
TOD So the book sometimes takes radical turns, or swerves, or U-turns as you’re going along with it? It’s an organic process?
TOM Yeah, it is organic. It goes so slowly that you don’t always notice that there’s been a swerve.
TOD I mentioned that I’ve been traveling around and talking to a lot of students. One subject that comes up is that people don’t read as much anymore. I’ll encounter high school kids who say they’ve never read an entire book! Why do you think that is? Is there any way you think we can change that dynamic?
TOM Not the way that our culture is going. With electronic media, language is becoming more and more an endangered species, particularly poetic language.
TOD Can you remember the first poem that excited you? The first poem that captured your imagination? The first poem that you wanted to memorize and chant to yourself, or share with someone?
TOM At one period in my life I was very much enthralled with Rimbaud.
TOD Because of the lifestyle or the poetry?
TOM Oh, both. [laughs] I mean, I can only imagine the lifestyle. And then the Beat poets, of course. They interested me. But I’m not a poet, you know? A New York writer who wrote to me once described my novels as big jangling poems, and I really love that description. But I’m not a poet. I don’t ever sit down and say, “I think I’ll write a poem,” or “I have an idea for a poem.” Occasionally, one will come to me, but the poetic impulse in me is relieved through my particular approach to prose. But this morning, I wrote a poem because I knew you were going to ask me. [laughs] I think you said you were going to ask me, “Where does a poem come from?” Well, I can tell you where poems come from. The stork brings them, though sometimes they’ll leave them in the cabbage patch. But I was also thinking that I read somewhere that all poetry evolved because of human beings’ desire to find new ways to talk about the moon. You think that’s true?
TOD I think that makes a lot of sense.
TOM So today I thought, “Oh, I’ll sit down and write a poem about the moon.” Let me see if I can read it.
Get out of here with your fake news about vodka and green cheese
The Devil drinks only Shirley Temples, and always asks for two cherries
While the moon is made out of damp panties[laughs]
TOD A stork brought that?
TOM Yeah, a crippled stork.
TOD I like the idea of the poem as this gift that comes in a sudden rush. But there are lots of poems that poets work on for long, long, long stretches of time, too. I think Elizabeth Bishop worked on her poem “The Moose” for 26 years. Just kept laboring on it and laboring on it and laboring on it.
I want to come back to the students because I’m hoping to gather some wisdom from you. How can one instill in young people the importance of how the arts, poetry, literature can help one lead a richer life? Because I see that as the mission that I’m involved in—trying to tell people, “If you don’t read, you’re not going to fully experience the world.”
TOM I think that’s true. I think only people who read understand life. I mean, it may be a mirror of life or an improvement on life or a distortion of life, but through that verbal experience, I think that’s how we start, by osmosis, learning what life is all about.
TOD And so how do we get that message across?
TOM I guess that’s why I’m not a teacher. [laughs]
TOD Okay. I mean, I wish I had a great idea because this morning I was despairing a little while talking to a group that seemed absolutely uninterested.
TOM Well, I think it’s becoming more and more difficult because we’re becoming less and less of a verbal culture. You can’t really call tweets verbal communication. I mean, they’re using words, but in a way that’s so abbreviated and so juiceless that even though it’s supposedly good for direct communication, I think it ends up falsifying reality. That’s what’s missing in social media. It gives a lot of personal information but it isn’t revelatory.
TOD The one message that I try to convey to these high school and middle school students who exist in very cloistered communities is you need to cultivate an inner life. There’s nothing more important. I tell them to memorize poems, memorize the Bill of Rights or memorize speeches that matter to them. Have words inside of you that matter to your heart.
I wanted to ask you about your other creative impulses besides writing. We’ve seen around the house works in different mediums. How often do you pursue collage work or painting or photography?
TOM: Never photography. Never attracted to that. I’ve painted occasionally, though I’ve never considered myself seriously a painter.
TOD Do you have any musical talents?
TOD Never an instrument?
TOM The only instrument I ever played was the typewriter. [laughs] I am, however, right now working on a musical. I’m not writing the music, although I have written some of the lyrics. Do you know Ben Lee? He’s an Australian rock star. He had a big hit in America, a record called Catch My Disease. Well, I wrote a children’s book about beer and we’re trying to make a stage musical out of that: B Is for Beer. And he’s writing the music and most of the lyrics, although I’ve written some of the lyrics. And I’m writing the script, or what in theatre is called the book. I turn 85 this July and I don’t know if I have the physical energy anymore to write another novel, but that creative impulse that has been bugging me since I was five is getting some satisfaction out of writing dialogue and writing scenes for this play, which may never actually be performed. Who knows?
TOD Is that 80 years of making? That’s amazing.
TOM Yeah, 80 years of dancing to that strange music of the imagination. The first story that I wrote when I was five that I dictated to my mother was about a pilot whose plane crashed and he parachuted out and landed on a small desert island and the only other occupant on the island was a brown cow with yellow spots. And they learned to live together in a symbiotic way. Where did that come from? I don’t know. I didn’t get that from a Tarzan movie or from my kindergarten picture books.
I made a note here when I wrote that little poem this morning, if I can read it without my glasses: “Poetic language has the ability to transform the drab background of existence by ripping open the printed page to let the marvelous rush in and inviting an ecstatic participation in a divinely animated universe.”
TOD That’s very Walt Whitman-like. Were you ever a Whitman fan?
TOD I love Walt Whitman. We need a Whitman of our age to somehow rouse people awake.
TOM We need to find a new way now of interfacing with the Mystery. The capital-M mystery. I think that’s missing from our culture now.
TOD What’s in the way? What’s stopping our connection?
TOM Well, we have [connected] as a species at various times throughout history. I’m sure that there were challenges in the past just as there are today. I mean, the Mystery didn’t change. We have to change. I don’t think evolution stopped with the invention of the cell phone. It’s maybe hit a wall, but there will be cracks in that wall. In the ’60s, psychedelics made big cracks in the wall and allowed and propelled a lot of people to interface with the Mystery who had never given a thought to the capital-M Mystery before. And it’s possible that something like that will happen again. There could be some electronic device that allows people to have a transcendent experience.
TOD I hope so.
TOM Something cosmic.
TOD Even if it just allows the cultivation of comfort with uncertainty.
TOM We’ve had dark ages in the past.
TOD Does it feel like a dark age to you?
TOM It’s starting to feel that way more and more, but my porchlight is burning night and day.