Jane Marla Robbins
Hi Jane, can you tell us about what you are up to lately?
I’m working on what will be either a play, or a book of poems, or maybe just one poem, about two famous people; one thirty years old, the other eighty, their famous identities still a secret. Good friends. I’m also giving workshops for veterans to help them ace their job interviews, based on my book Acting Techniques for Everyday Life.
Speaking of, Your book Acting Techniques for Everyday Life teaches people to utilize techniques that actors use to overcome fears and to move past difficult situations that arise in life. Can you tell us a little about how the practice works and how it might relate to poetry?
Acting Techniques: I studied them with over forty teachers, learned some of them just by acting (in over 50 plays and 12 movies) and then I wrote about them. My understanding of them has evolved. They are the basis of my coaching and they influence both my poems and my performing them. How is each coaching session like a poem? I suggest that one of the things a poem sets out to do is somehow change the consciousness of its reader. My coaching sessions aim to do the same thing for my clients. For example, someone may begin a session full of fear; and when he leaves, his point of view, even his psycho-physical wiring, may have become, if not joyful, at least less fearful and he’ll have more clarity.
Many people consider the Bible to be poetry. I go to the First Commandment in the Old Testament, which mentions not only “one God,” but also a God that led his people “out of bondage,” which I translate to mean anything from unconsciousness to unhappiness to despair. And so it is with my coaching sessions: somehow my client and I take that same journey – from a certain lack of consciousness and possible unhappiness into a Promised Land of greater awareness and ideally greater joy. I love that everything could and maybe should be understood and even digested as a poem – from eating a muffin to coaching a client.
Acting techniques have obviously also informed my reading and performing of poems. I’m always intrigued by hearing poets claim that poems should only be read aloud, and not quietly to one’s self. W.S. Merwin, Pulitzer prize winning poet, and twice poet laureate of the United States, emphasizes this over and over. So here are some of my thoughts on the Performing of Poems.
How to read a poem aloud? One could simply read it, only for the words, as most poets do. Or one could “act” it, which I did for my books, Dogs in Topanga and Poems of the Laughing Buddha (the second visible on YouTube). And then there’s the YouTube video of me reading four poems from Café Mimosa in Topanga, which I “performed.” In a way, I “danced” the poems. Each YouTube recording shows a totally different way of performing a poem -- different style, different use of body, voice, feelings. Of course the Café Mimosa reading was done at Café Mimosa: an unusual and thrilling convergence of words matching objects and even people in the room where I read. It is always amazing to me when people who have read my poems come to a reading and hear those same poems read aloud- they invariably think I have totally rewritten them! Because I have added my body, my voice, and palpable emotions. The craft of the actor.
What role does poetry play in your life?
I cannot not write poetry. It would be bad for me, just as it would be bad for me if I didn’t eat or breathe oxygen. I suppose (forgive me) it’s in some ways like physical elimination, as in: I take in life, and something in my DNA, or brain, or wiring, has to let it out in a poem (something beautiful, not toxic). Poetry is in many ways my constant companion. Perhaps, on occasion, my shadow self. Poetry certainly keeps me sane.
Can you remember the first words (ie. poem, story, lyrics) you fell in love with?
No, but I can remember that I got a prize in grade school for reciting John Keats’ poem “A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever.” I’m embarrassed to say some part of me is still hungry for prizes, though I know that ultimately they are not in the least bit important. But the way I was brought up, and/or probably the way our society is structured, the prize was important to me and I never forgot it and I admit I’m happy to receive prizes whenever they show up. (I just received the 2017 Irwin prize poetry for Café Mimosa in Topanga.) Hey, validation is validation. Of course it depends on who and where it comes from. Still, finally my bottom line has to be: what counts is me validating myself. Not always easy to remember. The message of Keats’ poem has never left me. I worship Beauty, understand why he equates it to Truth, and when I am centered or when I remember, I try and honor my devotion. This extends even to the covers of my poetry books, which took months of redesigning, until I was satisfied and thought they were “beautiful.” This is also what I do when I edit my poems.
What is your earliest memory of writing poetry?
My earliest memory of having written a poem is only getting it back from a grade school teacher with corrections on it. I didn’t know at the time I was a “highly sensitive” human being, and I felt I had been and done “wrong,” that I wasn’t good enough. I was probably terrified that I would be totally destroyed by the criticism. Thank you, Mother. As a result, it is mainly I who have edited my poems. However, I am happy to say I am beginning to open myself to receiving “healthy suggestions” from people I respect.
Can you describe your current writing process?
I get an idea, I usually write it down with a ballpoint pen, depending on where I am when I get the idea. It could be in a car, it could be at breakfast, you get the idea. Then, I dictate these handwritten poems to an “assistant,” maybe with a few changes, and then we print it out. Then I take the typed version to a safe place (a café or a quiet room in my house) and I do an edit. Then I dictate my changes (I am so lucky to have an assistant!) and we print it out again. And then I edit again. And this could go on for 25 edits. Or not.
Where do your poems come from?
It’s a mystery. Who knows? Sometimes I think stuff gets stuck in our psyches and needs to be reworked, healed. Sometimes a news headline will set me off.
How does poetry connect us as human beings?
I believe that poetry, like theater, speaks of the human condition, the human experience. I believe if an audience or a reader is open to a poem, and may or may not even have experienced the same feeling, or knowledge, or beauty, that The Human Connection is made. And then perhaps we are all connected with anyone who understands it, or anyone who doesn’t. To quote Keats: “Truth is beauty, beauty, truth.” I believe this. So, if a poem is beautiful, it contains truth, and could resonate in all our souls.
As a published poet, is there any advice you might offer to someone interested in publishing a collection of their own poetry?
Push on! There are so many ways now to publish a book of poems. I published my last two books of poetry through Amazon. And then the hardest work (for me) begins: Getting it to an audience. Social media. But also posters or postcards or a PR person – whatever the poet has the energy or inspiration to engage.
How would you describe love?
To me, love is a four-letter word and can mean a lot of things. It can mean “I abuse you” and “I love you” at the same time, but this is not my definition of love. At its best, I believe it keeps us whole and able to do our best. I am touched by how many people say, “Love is the most important thing.” So do I have enough love in my life? I don’t have a boyfriend right now, but surely I have enough love. I just learned that the heart, where people assume our love is centered, where love enters and from which it emanates, I just learned that the heart is so inextricably married to the lungs, that when the blood goes through the heart, it passes through the lungs before it leaves the heart. My conclusion: The breath of life, which lives in the lungs, is married to the mystery of love which resides in the heart. Love seems to be different for everyone. I suppose I could get some from a stranger sitting next to me on a bus, or from the smiling shining person who is typing this at this moment. Or from myself, or from a tree. As I said, I see love as coming in many varieties. I know that when I offer it, and give it away, I always feel wonderful.
How would you describe fear?
The opposite of love. Fear constricts our hearts and our lives, love expands our whole being. On the other hand, the journey of all of my coaching sessions is the journey from fear into love -- or joy, or self-confidence, or feeling great, which I think are synonyms for love. It’s even the story of going from the land of slavery and restriction into the Promised Land – mentioned in the First Commandment, asking us to worship a God “that brought us out of the land of restriction – and into the Promised Land.”
What is your biggest question for the world?
Why can’t people be kinder to each other? I think I know the answer, but it is still for me the most pressing question. Why do we destroy each other and ourselves? In other words, why do we keep making wars? A better question: How can we stop? Where and how do we have to be vigilant so we can stop?
What is your dream for the world?
That everyone could, as the poem goes, sit beneath a bough, with a jug of wine, food and a loved one. You know the quote. He said it better. In other words, that people would live in harmony, with generosity, kindness, and love, and that parenting would result in children who felt so loved they would not need to hurt others.
Who would you like to see interviewed on We The Tender Hearted?
Kelly Grace Thomas. Jack Grapes.