Interviewed by Chad Christensen – April 2019

How did your book Mass for Shut-Ins come about?

Several years ago, Greg Kosmicki, founder and editor of Backwaters Press, said he’d like to publish my next book. I held him at bay for a time, knowing I didn’t have enough poems of note to hold a collection together, but the last four years have been an unprecedented period of creativity for me (inspired by a garden-variety midlife crisis and subsequent sobriety), and when his new editor Michael Catherwood asked for a manuscript, I wasted little time sending him about fifty pages of what I thought were strong poems. He asked for everything I had that wasn’t terrible—about forty more pages—and we winnowed that down to twenty or so, then we picked the combined mess over and over and over again. Mike’s a great poet, reader, editor, and friend—it was a profound pleasure to work with him and the other sages over at Backwaters.

The book’s title comes from a weird old public access show I found intriguing as a child, Mass for Shut-Ins, in which a priest and an altar boy would perform mass in front of a camera for people who couldn’t make it to church. I always wondered about those shut-ins, about the strangeness of that phrase, about the quiet lives they must have led, their dusty homes filled with the clutter of long lives nearing their vanishing points. And of course the phrase has profane resonance to counter its sacred overtones: for me, the rituals of addiction and attendant isolations are masses for shut-ins. Two lovers rapt in one another are shut-ins, television and other screens can be masses for shut-ins. I wanted that title to strike at the depths of sadness and exhilaration resounding in every heart.

What does writing poetry mean to you?

Writing poetry is the single best practice I engage in: it slows me, stills me, sets me searching the world without and the world within. It triggers memory and meaning, it frees me from the nagging distractions that plague my days and gets me closer than anything to what T.S. Eliot called “the still point of the turning world.” Of course, it isn’t all transcendence and gratitude: writing poetry also means struggle, self-doubt, frustration, envy, and all sorts of other sicknesses. But time and again it offers me succor and solace, giving shape to the mysteries of being, investigating and honoring the practices that do healing and do us harm.

What do you hope readers get from reading your poetry?

I hope they hear something that makes them feel less alone. I hope they don’t think I’m a total noob at words. I hope they feel their own plight and wonder echoed in the mind-space of another. I hope they see that honesty isn’t just a kind of bravery, but an all-important gesture of solidarity. I hope they see that poetry has many modes, that they chuckle and sigh, that they feel enlarged and understood.

Has working for UNO’s Writers Workshop affected your writing? What are some other influences?

The Workshop is such a vital space for writing, reading, talking, and thinking, it makes me want to stay vital, to keep learning and seeking. My fellow professors are such creative geniuses, they can be a little intimidating, but above all they’re students of the art form, which makes me want to be a better scholar. Our students run the gamut from polished MFA-ready dynamos to kids who aren’t sure who they want to be, and I feel like I understand both of those extremes, and inhabit them myself. I learn so much from the people who walk our halls—new writers, evergreen subjects, life stories, intergenerational cohesion… I’m so lucky to be there.

What do you enjoy about reading poetry and what kind of poetry excites you? What are you reading now?

I enjoy being moved, probably most of all. I used to really like intellectual, philosophical poetry, but now I really want honest poetry that takes some risks in its revelations, but also has a pleasing cadence, that takes the unexpected turns that somehow feel like the best—maybe only—moves that make sense. Reading poetry, like writing poetry, slows me down, sends me somewhere still and profound and fully felt. I awaken at the end of a good poem into a revelatory state, a grateful haze.

Last night, unable to sleep, I read Amy Plettner’s Points of Entry (WSC Press, 2018) in its entirety, just rhapsodizing at her ability to conjure place, people, rhythm, and purpose. I was in the hands of an adept, massaged into a wakefulness I haven’t felt in some time. What webs she weaves of the lives she’s known. What vulnerability and resilience. She speaks for the natural world most of us ignore, or at best lament. She speaks for generations of women, their grace and turmoil. She speaks for the people of our place, their smallness and their big-hearted grandeur. I was borne away on her cadences all night long, and feel newly aware and awake after that night-long journey.

What do you like to do when you’re not writing or teaching?

Brood, read, walk, juggle, dance, cook, eat, cuddle, recover, stare, talk, games, etc.

What advice would you give aspiring writers?

Read, babies! What better teacher than a poem, a story, a novel, an essay, a play? Read widely, read often, read carefully. Annotate, even! Attend readings, not only to support your peers and “swell a progress” but to be ignited. Subscribe to a magazine, to keep print venues alive. Buy books from independent bookstores. Keep some kind of writing practice up. Try new genres, experiment, journal, find someone you can share your work with, and be sure to read their work, too. Get up on stage, feel that jittery charge. Buy—and read—your teachers’ books. Give yourself writing and reading deadlines. And eat your vegetables!


TODD ROBINSON’S second book of poetry, Mass for Shut-Ins, was published by Backwaters Press in August 2018. He holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and has taught for twelve years in the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. His poems have appeared in Cortland Review, Canopic Jar, Sugar House Review, Midwest Quarterly, Superstition Review, and A Dozen Nothing. He once recited a Star Trek love poem to Neil deGrasse Tyson and twice took short naps on Ted Kooser’s couch.