Erin Robinsong actually writes many of our Artist of the Month articles, but she took some time off recently to finish and promote her new poetry book, Rag Cosmology. In it, her lyric is both encompassing and precise, a nearly-sacred text on the virtue of Earth.

In a historical moment where the future seems to be out of our control (has it ever been in anyone’s control?), it’s easy to write about our failure as humans to protect the environment. But this book is nothing if not hopeful.

Never turning away from the “slow-motion accident of climate change,” she moves through halls of objects that point to a larger arc, one in which we can redeem ourselves. This is one of the few books that seriously investigates and questions the difference between the political and the ecological. After we read it, we knew she had earned a spot as one of our Artists of the Month.

Erin Robinsong
Erin Robinsong. Photo credit: Bernardo Fernandez

We spoke with her via email about her poetry, interdisciplinary work, and the future of the planet.

This book talks about nature in an essential way: we haven’t separated ourselves from it, just disrupted our own pieces. How do you see that relationship now, and in the future?

I think that separation from ‘nature’ is not really possible, though rhetoric and urban life can make it seem that way. We talk a lot about being so ‘cut off’ from nature, but I think the really dangerous dimension of this is that it makes nature seem distant or optional or like a regrettable casualty, rather than the most intimate relationship we’re engaged in, now, all the time, wherever we are. The fact that we can sit here, discussing anything is only because a vast community of organisms that we call nature are doing their things: ocean temperatures are regulating weather patterns, forests and phytoplankton are producing oxygen and absorbing carbon dioxide, we’ve been able to access water, food, and the land and the people and animals that produced the food also had access to water, food… and that is only the most obvious macro stuff, all of which breaks down into more relationships, none of which we could survive without, urban dwellers most of all.

When people are alienated from the wider, living world where most of their sustenance comes from, what is core to survival becomes treated as outskirts, wastelands of resource extraction and profit, extraneous, expendable. So yes there is a separation, not from ‘nature’ itself, which makes our lives possible moment to moment, so far, but from the reality of actual places and sources which are being completely undermined. It’s as if you ate at a restaurant for every meal, but you’d never been to a kitchen, never seen or met a chef, or seen food in its unprepared state, and all of these were being dismantled and undermined, just beyond the little swinging door.

Scan of excerpt from Autobiography in Rag Cosmology
Scan of an excerpt from “Autobiography” in Rag Cosmology

I’m very interested in how instead of “the environment” being a problem or an “issue”—by which we mean so many kinds of devastation, extinction, battles, loss of homes, loss of ways of life, loss of worlds—our relationship could become one of collaboration with how the world actually functions, rather than against it. On the one hand this sounds utopian, but it’s more like getting with reality. To continue along with our current idea is very obviously to make life harder and harder and ultimately impossible for ourselves and everyone, as it already is for so many. It’s ridiculous to be at a point where the most commonsense, prudent and logical thing to do sounds like a utopian dream. Could we do it? Of course! Will we? I’m not sure.

On the other hand, the book itself is a type of ecosystem: you quote frequently, and even include citations. Is it a way of building something larger?

Yes, exactly. I think a book is a kind of ecosystem in that it can’t and doesn’t exist alone, it always exists in conversation and relation with other texts, other writers, conversations, a lyric overheard, the weather, the news—you know, all the convergences at the time of writing and everything that came before and probably what comes after too. The poems in Rag Cosmology are threaded through with italicized quotes—not as epigraphs, but embedded and continuous with the poems. I decided to do this because it felt like the most accurate depiction of how I felt myself thinking and writing with others. To leave them out would have felt like I was hiding something. Obviously many people have done this in brilliant ways—like Maggie Nelson in The Argonauts—and this was just the way I decided to do it in this book. For example:

What shall I do with my information
I’m an animal in an animal in an animal
I’m a poem of objects that live by magic
I’m every idea I ever had, I’ll just stay here
as a person. I have a photographic mouth

(Italicized line: Anna Mendelssohn)

Cover of Rag Cosmology, by Erin Robinsong

The chapter most gripping to me is Dog Milk. Those particular poems whip back and forth between lyric and manifesto. Could you talk a little about where these came from?

Dog Milk is the last section of the book, and contains the oldest and also the newest poems in the book in terms of when and where and how they were written, but perhaps what they have in common is their concentration or urgency vis à vis: shapeshifting, weather, critical thinking (which I talk about in terms of music), the polymaths of the body, the importance of being a loon, of loving in odd formations, when the hour is late, and your life is a loan in the universe—all of these urgent matters! I think of this section as being like extracts or tinctures of what came before in more concentrated form. Like a medicine kit as opposed to being out for a walk, noticing and noting—now comes some telling, some praying, some distilling.

There’s a very specific and rare quality of humor in your poems: I’m thinking of pun lines like “pine fir yew.” Some feel like jokes that don’t want to be funny as much as light.

Thanks! It’s funny how homophones and homonyms (like the trees mentioned above) are often pun materials. I mean they are basis of most puns, because they can mean two things at once—sonic twins. At one point, the entire book was built around these: words like balm/bomb, mine/mine, prophet/profit… I find their doubleness so revealing and exciting and generative, (and so does the psyche apparently—dreams frequently make use of homonyms as Freud pointed out). In the end I left out most of that work, but the poems in “Polygon” do employ a lot of homonyms, not as a joke, but as a way to use words that mean multiply at the same time in fascinating ways—like the trees pine, fir, yew.

You’ve also done a lot of dance work with Andréa de Keijzer, and you frequently play with the layout of your poems. Do those spatial arts come from the same place?

Oh! I’d never thought of that, but yes I think they are related. A page is kind of like a room. It’s a bit boring and militant to always line up against the left wall!

You’ve continued to expand your interdisciplinary practice into the realm of dance, theatre, and games, and now you’ve got a full poetry book out. What’s next?

I’m doing a bunch of readings from the book in the next few months: in Dublin, Ireland; Cambridge, England; various places in British Columbia (where I’m from), and New York. Apart from that, there’s a little pause after being too busy for too long, so besides write, which I always do, I’m thinking about starting a business that sells ephemeral things with my friend and longtime collaborator Andréa de Keijzer. For years we have made performance together—most recently Facing away from that which is coming (that showed at Tangente Danse in Montréal in March) and This ritual is not an accident, a performance that looks at the slow-motion accident of climate change. We’d like to show or tour these again soon, but for our next project we wondered what if we applied the skills we use in making performance—all manner of figuring and problem solving and intuiting and making and grant writing—to a different medium? I’m the furthest thing from business minded but in that way I think it could be an amazing art project that is also real. But mostly I just want to write, and I’m also doing a collaboration with British poet Florence Uniacke for a manuscript of hers which I find incredibly exciting.

Erin Robinsong is a poet and interdisciplinary artist thinking about ecology, interventions, and pleasure in her work. To learn more about Rag Cosmology, and to read samples from the book, head to Book Thug. To learn more about Erin, go to her site.