Interview: Robert McDonald

Poetry has Robert starry-eyed. Credit: Shane Khosropor


A poet charges his poetry not by imitating forms that precede him, but by inventing his own.

Such is the case with Robert McDonald, whose work I found in the current issue of La Petite Zine. Though his two featured poems (Postcard Composed in the Barbershop of Candlewick ParkPostcard From Where the River Look Rises) are quite different, they both boast a ‘postcard-like’ foundation.

Indeed, much like a scribbled letter from a foreign locale, each poem is brief, poignant, and distant. Each poem captures a certain mysticism, which, I believe, is increasingly essential to a modern aesthetic which otherwise prides itself on plainness.

More of Robert’s postcard series recently appeared at Escape into Life. Otherwise, his writing has been in a bunch of journals: Elimae, Pank, The Prose-Poem Project and more. He works at an independent bookstore in Chicago. Read his fantastic blog here.

An Excerpt:

The Interview:


A Van Gogh scribbled on a napkin probably wouldn’t bring in 40 million. Still, marketers of the Kindle and Nook tout e-readers as no different from their print counterparts. How does that pass, unquestioned?


I have been a bookseller for 20 years, so I am predisposed to panic at the mention of e-readers.  But really, I don’t have any fears about the survival of the printed word, including the book.  It may be that e-readers will bring some publishers down, but publishing that the mass media pays attention to is all large-scale corporate publishing. 

Some of these publishers will fail to adapt, and crash, some of them put out so much crap in an attempt to find the big hit book that they lose money and so displease their shareholders.

But small presses are alive and well. And the death of Borders makes some room in the forest for small book retailers to grow. I am not an e-book consumer, but I am trying, successfully, not to fear them.


What does an artistic mind prefer: A glut of shadows and latent despair, or bright lights and champagne?


Do I have to choose one or the other?  I can only speak for my artistic mind.  I tend to write from the dark side. If I can write about what scares me, what grieves me, what angers me, I can put it in a form, a box, and at least have the illusion of understanding, and maybe even controlling that fear, grief, or anger.

But I don’t want to dissect happiness, my happiness, and control it in that way.  I am always afraid that if I look too closely at the light side of things I’ll discover how illusionary it all is.  That being said, I like champagne. And it tastes best in dim light that pushes away the glut of shadows.


Jhumpa Lahiri recently wrote a piece for the New Yorker discussing the formative years of her writing life. Did you experience a moment, or pivotal point, when you ‘knew’ you wanted to write?


Other than a brief high school flirtation with the thought of going into horticulture, I think I have always wanted to be a writer.  It goes back at least as far as my memory of reading novels, so back to third or fourth grade. My concept of what “being a writer” means has changed over time.

By now I guess I am a writer. A writer being someone who writes, rather than someone who makes money writing.  I’d love to be the person who earns my living writing, someday.  But that is so rare.  And writing, even for myself in my notebook, so satisfying.


Your pieces in La Petite Zine are both entitled “Postcards…” Indeed, they are brief, poignant, and suggestive of something distant. What attracted you to the ‘postcard’ and its form?


I have a large body of work, but I have been very bad at figuring out how to make a collection, so that any manuscript I came up with was just a “Selected Poems of Robert McDonald” rather than a singular creation, with the feel and tone of its own. I have a series of poems, “The November Letters,” that all begin, “Dear November…” and I’m attracted to the form of the letter poem, the poem of address.

In the past couple of years I recognized that a lot of my shorter poems had a “letter” feel.  But brief, as you say. So a postcard, rather than a letter. And I very much hope that they are “suggestive of something distant” whether in time or place.

In most cases the “postcard” poems were written several years back and only recently got new titles to reflect my feeling that they could be grouped together. It’s always a challenge for me to be brief, and thinking of these poems as related, with their own form, has helped me chop away excesses.


Postcard Composed in the Barbershop of Candlewick Park suggests a bit of Americana, couched in clippings of detail. What notions inspired the poem?


About a decade ago my friend Richard Fox wrote a poem he called “Possible Titles.” It was a list poem, composed of over 60 possible titles for poems.  Among these were “The Iceberg Vacation,” “Northpoint and Muchness,” and “The Barber of Candlewick Park.”

At the time, I was suffering through my first-ever bout with true deep romantic heartbreak, and all the poems I wrote were some variation of oh I am so heart-broken, look at me suffer. Even I was getting sick of them. I’d started looking about for a new project, and decided to write one poem for each of the “Possible Titles.”  (I got Richard’s permission!)

I used a title as a diving board and tried to do the poems in one initial “take”–just jump in, write and see what happened. Other than changing Richard’s original title to the current one (see the question above) the poem was written as it appears now.

I was probably drawing on my memories of old men in barber shops in the small town where I grew up, and also imagining a barbershop somewhere in New Jersey.  I had never been to New Jersey. Is there a place called Candlewick Park?  I’ve always resisted looking it up.


Postcard From Where the River Look Rises gives an impression of rhythm, mysticism and a certain vagueness. This contrasts interestingly with the sharp details of …Candlewick Park. How do you think the poems influence each other?


The River Look poem is in part collaged from The Classic of Mountains and Seas, a classic Chinese text that was written as a geography.  The format, “There is a _____ on this mountain which looks like a _______” comes from this book.

I see it as a surprise love poem. If the these two postcards influence or reflect off of each other it is in their brevity, and their delivery from somewhere “other.”


Describe the room where you write. Is a specific room more conducive to fine thoughts?


I write first drafts anywhere: cafes, the train I ride to work, outdoors.  I revise in a room that is both my dining room and living room in my small one-bedroom apartment.

My desk is cluttered. I have a picture of Frank O’Hara on a bulletin board next to the desk. Also a photo of Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas sitting at home.  And a postcard depicting a Joseph Cornell box. That tells as much about my influences as anything else, I suppose. Not that you asked.


Who’ve you been reading recently ?


I am the Children’s Book buyer for an independent bookstore, so I read a lot of kids’ books.  Just finished a great YA novel called The Scorpio Races, by Maggie Stiefvater. It very successfully weaves the myth of fierce, meat-eating water horses (you capture them via magic but good luck being able to control and ride one) with a contemporary, rural, imagined island setting off of the coast of Ireland. It comes out this fall.

Also loved a 1980’s punk rock/family saga called The Ten Thousand Saints.  And I just today read the last poem in a new book from the late poet Tim Dlugos, called A Fast Life.  It’s edited and introduced by David Trinidad, one of my favorite contemporary poets.  Tim’s poems are amazing.

I don’t know of another poet of his age who uses rhyme (and all sorts of other forms) with such ease and control.  His love poems rival O’Hara’s, but his voice, funny, campy, frank, spiritual, is all his own.  He died of AIDS at the age of 40. I hope this volume brings him more recognition.


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