How poet Robbie Coburn makes it matter
At the young age of 22, Robbie Coburn has startled the literary world with the rawness and power of his words. Having published his first poem at 17 in anarchist poet Pi O’s literary magazine, Unusual Work, Coburn already has his own published collection of poems, ‘Rain Season’ (Picaro Press, 2013), as well as several chapbooks and pamphlets. His second full-length collection of poems, The Other Flesh, is in the making. In this interview, he talks about his love for poet Allen Ginsberg, as well as why he’s now working on a novel about sex.
How do you give it mouth?
I write honestly without censoring myself, regardless of how painful and confronting that might be.
I think it was Ginsberg who said that poetry should be the last thing someone thinks about before they go to sleep at night … it’s the articulation of the most private and intimate thoughts. Obviously I believe the work of the poem is the most important thing. It’s so innately linked to human experience that no good can come from censoring it.
Do you say something just about yourself, or is it broader than that? Because poetry is more than simply individual revelation, isn’t it?
Of course. Poetry gives voice to universal human feelings through the experience of a single person. And it’s never a matter of one person’s experience really. As a poet, more than anything, you’re giving voice to broad human experiences.
If we take Ginsberg as an example again, and we look at something like Howl, I mean that is at once Ginsberg’s personal pain as well as a devastating and gut-wrenching critique of society isn’t it?
Absolutely. Ginsberg was one of the first people I ever fell in love with completely. And that’s because regardless of the impact it would have, he says so many things so many people identify with at the cost of his own – I don’t know the best way to put it really – but it’s so raw in the way it’s given to the reader. He talks about things people hadn’t really spoken about before and I love that, that resonates for me … the fact he was willing to just lay it all out.
And put himself on the line for a greater good. So in that way poetry has a great capacity to give it mouth doesn’t it?
Yes, it’s potentially the ultimate medium for giving it mouth.
But it’s not one people automatically think of, true?
No and that’s unfortunate. But I feel like it’s tapping into something that’s there for everyone to access. It’s a shame more people don’t.
Tell me a little bit about the role of the body for the poet. What is the relationship between the corporeal body and this kind of abstract almost other-wordly thing you create called the poem.
The body is the landscape you’re given naturally to express experience and the body passes through everything in a physical sense. From a personal perspective in terms of writing poetry and the poets I identify with – Plath Rimbaud, Sexton – the body is the physical articulation of emotional experience because the body is almost a means to express something that you can’t from a psychological perspective. With a lot of my work the body is often a metaphor to articulate dark and disturbing experiences that can’t really be articulated in any other way. Everything manifests physically, doesn’t it? So when it comes to something like self harm, that is a result of emotional turmoil but it manifests physically. You’re taking something internal and making it external through the poem.
That’s interesting because I was actually thinking about that question in the inverse…that the body has sensual experiences, whether pleasurable or painful, and these then manifest in the abstract form of the poem. Do you do any body work to harness the sensual aspects of your experience?
But having said that I think everything experienced through the body can be channelled into poetry. So I can definitely see where you’re coming from in your conception of the link between the body and the poem.
Tell me about the new novel you’re working on, ‘Conversation With Skin’. Again, we’re back to this idea of the word and the body. Is this your first novel and why did you decide to move from poetry to the novel?
In a way it’s to remove myself from the equation. This novel is something I can’t articulate from a personal standpoint – it’s not about me. When you write fiction you can remove yourself completely, even though you do draw on personal experiences. With poetry you’re embedded within it, whether you like it or not. Especially in confessional poetry you’re always there. I mean, it’s ironic because this novel is written in first person. It had to be because it’s very emotionally driven. And so I couldn’t write it in a second person narrative.
But it’s risky because I don’t want readers to assume the main character is me.
And so what’s the novel about?
It’s based in a futuristic, dystopian Australia where sex has become the only currency. It’s supposed to be a critique of misogyny and the sexual objectification of women. But it’s also a love story, where love erupts in a space it’s not ‘meant’ to.
You’ve mentioned a few of the poets who’ve influenced your poetry. Who influences your fiction.
Ballard for his disastrous futures. But I’m also heavily influenced by Miller, Nin, Camus, Sade, Rimbaud. But Ballard is my greatest influence structurally.
You currently work in an administrative role full time. How do you make that switch to creative work when you need to write?
I like the work I do for money because it leaves me space to be creative. I feel terrible if I’m not writing. I write quickly, but then I’m very meticulous when it comes to editing. I spend more time editing than writing.
And I spend more time reading than anything else. If I could, I’d just read all day.
How do you think this novel will impact on your daily life? I mean, Sade went to jail for 26 years for what he wrote…and you’re in quite a conservative work space…
I don’t think many of the people I work with have read my poetry, and I doubt they’ll read my fiction. But it’s something I do think about and it’s a little bit of a concern. Though my work is not nearly as transgressive as Sade’s. I think the book will be controversial though, so it’ll be interesting to see how that goes.
I don’t write for anyone except myself. I write about topics like self harm and anorexia, so I have a lot of people say it connects with them. Maybe that’s because not many people are talking about these things. So when I hear my poems resonate with certain people, I’m pleased, but it can also be dangerous.
Yeah, I don’t want to glamorise self-harm. I mean, I’d give anything to not be in the position to know so much about it. And I think self-harm is associated with a phase…just ‘teenage angst’. And I’m hardly a teenager. So I think someone needs to be talking about this.
Anyway a girl wrote to me to say she’d read my work because her lecturer at uni had said there was just no good depressing poetry. So she showed him my poetry and fortunately he agreed there was good depressing poetry. And she told me she found great comfort in reading my poems because there was someone speaking her experiences.
Do have any advice for young writers? Because you’re the youngest published poet I know. What an incredible career so far…
Read. Just read.
How can you write poetry if you don’t read it?
I had a wonderful literature teacher who was very passionate about poetry. I dedicated my first chapbook to her. We studied Gwen Harwood and William Blake, both of whom I still love. But I was actively seeking to know more and to learn more. And I would recommend anyone else who wants to write poetry to do the same.