For our second issue, I had the chance to interview writer and visual artist Robin Richardson. I hope you enjoy this conversation and learn from this fascinating artist who does not see the world as terribly foggy. In fact, her artistic mission is crystal clear. #goals
Right off the bat, can you introduce yourself?
My name is Robin Richardson. I am founder an editor-in-chief of Minola Review, a journal of women’s letters. I started off as a poet about ten years ago. I got a few books out and established myself in that… then I got my MFA at Sarah Lawrence College in New York and divided my time between New York and Toronto. Then I settled back in Toronto and started working in visual art and writing essays. I just completed a memoir called Like Father—that’s with Transatlanctic Agency. Now I have a book of poetry coming out next year with Vehicule Press and a book of visual art coming out with BookThug the following year… and I’m working on a screenplay ‘cause I don’t want to be poor anymore.
So that’s all the work summed up.
You’re prolific. You… produce!
Yeah, I’m 9-5. And then when I get home I take a break and then I work some more because I don’t have a family. I have nothing else. I don’t have a full time job. I’m managing to pay my way writing, so I may as well keep producing. That’s all I want to do. That’s all I enjoy doing.
I factor in some social obligations when I have to—
But other than that, you’re working.
Out of joy. I love it.
Marie-Claire and I are always talking about work balance.
I’m not looking to balance the work with anything.
We laugh. Who is this wonder woman I am sitting across from?
I have no interest in ever having a family. I’m not trying to pursue that stream. So this is my baby.
Illustrations by Robin Richardson
Did you see the Georgia O’Keeffe exhibit?
I think there’s a quote of her saying, “A great day is when I work.” As simple as that. Do you measure a day by word count or productivity?
No, no. I’m not monitoring myself. It’s just I wake up and I’m excited to get to wherever I’m going to work and start working. And when I’m done I go home, and I don’t think about what I produced in that time. But generally I produce.
You produce everyday?
Occasionally if it’s a beautiful day, I take a day off. But generally I work all day.
Were you always so disciplined?
Yeah. As a high school student I woke up at 5 AM, made my breakfast, drank coffee, went to the gym, walked to school early, did some reading and then started the school day… and working on becoming a writer that whole time. I would write in my journal “I suck right now, but I know I have to keep doing it because eventually I’ll be good at it.”
You had that vision for yourself in high school?
I had it at 5 years old.
Initially as a poet?
Poetry was a thing that happened for ten years. It wasn’t part of the plan.
Initially you saw yourself as a novelist?
When I was little I was going to write books. I remember the first books that inspired me were Call of the Wild and The Diary of Anne Frank—reading those and saying as a child, “I’m going to write these stories. I’m going to write this survival story”—and I kept working on fiction but I was young and it wasn’t good. So I started writing some poems and everyone was blown away. So I kept doing that. It was a confidence boost and it got me into grad school and it got me some books and I still enjoy poetry, but in the background I’ve always been working up to being old enough to tackle novels and screenplays. I needed to be older. I needed scope and experience. So poetry was a placeholder. Not to put it down. I love it. But it wasn’t the thing I grew up reading.
You felt like you needed more life experience or more technical expertise to write novels and screenplays?
Both. And scope. And I didn’t feel like I could tackle something from page one to page 300 and stay consistent because I was changing so quickly and my ideas were changing so quickly… and I was scared half way through a novel I would go “this is dumb.” Now I feel in my thirties I know my themes and preoccupations and I know how to find a story I’m not going to lose interest in as I grow. That’s what I needed to accomplish.
What are some of your themes?
Hm… well the screenplay is very similar to the memoir and about power relationships between genders. It explores Stockholm syndrome and survival, and how you can recover from subjugation and step into something healthy and then step into something empowered. Big themes for me. And then part and parcel—listening to one’s instincts and operating based on the unconscious rather than the bullshit thinking brain.
So you have a character working through—
All of my characters are somewhere on the range between conscious to unconscious, and the further toward unconscious and primal the more successful that character is.
So you’re always thinking about what we reveal and where we hold back.
…even to ourselves—like what are we willing to be honest to ourselves about.
That’s pretty profound! Do you figure stuff like that out through therapy or is writing your therapy?
I’m just exploring therapy now!
Yeah, finally in my thirties. I am a pastor’s kid and my sister and I always used to say that we were the pastor’s kids that came through unscathed.
No one gets through childhood unscathed.
I was in denial well into my late twenties about how well I had done.
That’s nice to hear.
That’s why I needed to wait to write novels. Most people take their twenties to figure out what their themes are based on what their damage is from childhood—to be frank.
For this issue of She Said Notes we are thinking about how we manage to have eyes wide open to the world, but eyes closed at the same time to listen to our instincts… how do you do that?
I think it’s a difficult balance to pull off. Having your eyes open is being engaged with the world, observing people, trying to understand their motives… but for me that inner voice becomes so strong and so useful and so vivid when I withdraw from people. Sometimes I’ll withdraw and I’ll work and I’ll cultivate that inner voice but then I run into someone that butts heads with that voice, who triggers all my shit, and I am thrown back. It takes away my confidence and level headedness. My instinct says stay away, and the social woman who’s grown up in patriarchy says be nice.
It’s a constant fight!
We talk about the fight for a while and take solace in our shared female experiences. We talk about faith. We talk about my daughter’s heart surgery. I realize I should wrap it up after we’ve been talking for almost an hour, because I told her we would keep it short and sweet! She’s got stuff to produce! But not before she tells me that she didn’t learn to read until age 12. She had severe dyslexia that she finally conquered at 12. What?! “You basically chose the hardest profession possible.” She nods. “Pretty much.” Crystal clear.
Illustrations by Robin Richardson
Robin Richardson is the author of two collections of poetry, and is Editor-in-Chief at Minola Review. Her work has appeared in Salon, Poetry Magazine, The Walrus, Hazlitt, and Tin House, among others. She holds an MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College, has won the Fortnight Poetry Prize in the U.K., The John B. Santorini Award, Joan T. Baldwin Award, and has been shortlisted for the CBC, Walrus, and ARC Poetry Prizes, among others. Richardson’s latest collection, Sit How You Want, is forthcoming with Véhicule Press.