Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: “At the Psychiatrist’s Office” evokes a strong, personal voice. Can you tell us how you developed the poem? Is it connected to your own experiences, or something else?
Robin Michel: Yes, this poem is intensely personal and depicts a real event. The first two stanzas might be described as simple reportage where the journalist sets the scene. This continues in the third stanza where the popularity and mass reproduction of Starry Night is commented on. The fourth stanza is where the poem takes its turn: not unlike breathing—forgotten—until one forgets / to breathe.
RR: We’re taken in by the detailed imagery in “At the Psychiatrist’s Office.” What is your process to create or craft details into a full and vivid scene?
RM: Vincent Van Gogh and I share a birthday, which helped me develop an affinity for this artist. Also, I have served as a docent for a public schools grades K-6 fine arts program for many years. Van Gogh and Starry Night are included in the curriculum and I have spent a great deal of time talking with students about the painting. It’s marvelous, and as reflected in my poem, loved by so many.
Starry Night is considered Van Gogh’s most dream-like painting, painted from imagination. However, most of the time, Van Gogh painted what he saw. Both artists and poets must train their eyes to see. Poems paint an image with words (think of William Carlos Williams’ The Red Wheelbarrow). My earlier versions of this particular poem had a tendency to become too philosophical, detracting from the images. Still, I was seduced by the earlier language and ideas—I had to let this poem rest a very long time before I could go and scrape away the excess paint to reveal the poem’s essence.
RR: The setting of the psychiatrist’s office is particularly interesting and fraught, especially because mental health has so much stigma around it. Can you tell us about how you developed the setting and its significance in the poem?
RM: As mentioned earlier, the setting was given to me. So, too, the subject of mental health was given. I still remember clearly sitting in the waiting room with my teenage daughter and how I saw Van Gogh’s painting through the open door of a psychiatrist my daughter and I were meeting for the first time. While waiting during their session, how could I not think about the painting’s popularity and how it has given joy to so many? Nor could I forget how the artist suffered his entire life from mental illness. Van Gogh was hospitalized many times, self-mutilated, and committed suicide at the age of 37. And yet he had these moments of brilliant clarity and genius.
My daughter is a gifted photographer, as reflected in the poem’s last stanza. In spite of the challenges she faces, she does see beauty in this hard world.
RR: In the poem, Van Gogh’s brushstrokes become “the giant fingerprints of God.” Do you think of artists as gods of their work?
RM: This is an interesting question. Some artists and writers do create their own worlds, so one could say they are as gods, lower case ‘g’. However, as a poet, I often think of myself more as a conduit or channel through which something beyond my own experience—The Mystery, if you will—is expressed. These are the poems that arrive unexpectedly and begin to flow with such a force that you must stop what you are doing to scribble it down. Does the poem stay in its given form, or does the poet polish and refine it? Even with extensive revision, I would say that I am a servant of the poem, not a god, grateful to be reminded of something greater than my own life.
RR: We’d love to hear about your writing process—what are some of your writing routines? What about your revision process?
RM: I have always—or almost always—loved the revision process. French poet Paul Valery spoke the truth when he said, “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.” This particular poem, which (as I alluded to earlier) was first written many years ago; it has gone through many revisions. I never felt like it was capturing the essence of what needed to be said. I spoke of the philosophical statements earlier that “cluttered up the canvas.” This final version was a result of looking at it again with fresh eyes when considering if for submission to this special “Cosmos” issue. I think I have developed more craft since the initial creation of the poem and was now able to remove the extraneous. As satisfying as it is to find a wall in the pages of the Rappahannock Review upon which to hang this piece, it is all the more gratifying to see the poem reach a state where it is closer to capturing the real essence of what wants to emerge. The poet, the artist, and yes, the parent must eventually let their “baby” out into the world.
Robin Michel’s work in Issue 5.3: