Lummox Press/Journal | Kell Robertson Interview

Editor’s note: I have been aware of Kell Robertson for a few years. The idea for this interview came from my visit, in April (2000), with Todd Moore, in fact it was Todd’s suggestion. This interview was conducted via letters and was published in the Lummox Journal in July of 2000.

KELL ROBERTSON | “Wild Dog of Poetry”

RD Armstrong: You are a COWBOY POET. A teller of tales and singer of old songs, right? What does that really mean? Was there a single point/event that inspired you to take up this life, or was it a slow process of transition?

Kell Robertson: I am not, and never have been, a cowboy poet.

RD Armstrong: Sorry.

Kell Robertson: I don’t know why Lawrence called me that on the blurb for my book. When I was a kid I worked on ranches but I did a lot of other things to make a living too. How about a dishwasher poet? A carnival poet? A tramp-poet? How about just a guy with an eighth grade education who fell in love with poetry and music out on a highway somewhere poet? I hate these categories anyway. Mostly I guess, according to my close friends, I am an outlaw. That’ll do.

RD Armstrong: How did you get started and how long have you been pursuing the craft of poetry? Were you inspired /encouraged by any one person to pursue this craft?

Kell Robertson: When I was a kid in Louisiana my mother took me to see Hank Williams at the Louisiana Hayride. He was drunk and he knocked over the microphone but when he actually started to sing, he just reached out and laid all that loneliness on everybody. I decided right then, I wanted to do something like that.

It was my mother who turned me on to reading. She was a farm girl who married a sax player named Kell Robertson, Sr. He ran off and left her when I was maybe two years old. He played with a couple of swing bands and gave up music entirely when he joined the army. Anyway. Mama had two sets of books in the house. The Collected Works of Zane Grey and The Collected Works of William Shakespeare. That, and a dictionary, was my early education. Of course I got a lot of things wrong but that was ok. Anyway, she married a gambler and a rounder who pretty much hated my guts. He hated the fact that I actually read books and loved school. They were on the road a lot so I don’t remember going to any one school more than three months at a time. They dropped me off at Grandad’s farm a couple of times and I went to school there for two years, the sixth grade and the eight grade. Graduating from the eighth grade was a big thing in the Kansas of the time. Most kids went to work and never went on to high school. I was a freak. I loved books. I loved the very process of learning. Jesus, I wanted to explore everything. They thought I was crazy. I was obsessed with things that most folks around me never to even think about.

Upshot of all this is I was thrown out at 13 in New Orleans LA by my step dad because he figured it was time I get away from all that book learning, get a job and be on my own. Looking back on it all, I ain’t sure how I got through those years. If it hadn’t been for the creative arts I wouldn’t have. “The only defense against life is the creative act.” Dylan Thomas said something like that. So did Charlie Parker. And Faulkner said, “I write to say no to death.” All I can say is it’s kept me alive for a lot of years through a lot of shit.

RD Armstrong: People often expect a writer to be authentic, that is to say, they expect you to “live the life” that you portray in your work. How much of what you write is based on factual experience and how much is based on empathetic experience?

Kell Robertson: All of what I write is based on my life and the perceptions I have of other folks, and what’s happening on this planet. There are poems based on ideas but they generally come from life as I see it. I read a great deal. Everything except self-help books. I am fascinated by the various ways that people approach things in their writings. I love science fiction, fantasy, philosophy, mysteries, historical books, first person accounts of events, essays on anything, good poetry (which is rare these days) and just about anything that rattles my cage, makes me want to sing or laugh or cry or tells me something I already knew.

RD Armstrong: When you sit down to write a poem, do you have a topic in mind? Or is it more evolutionary? Sheer dumb luck? Describe this process.

Kell Robertson: I write every day. Keep a journal of daily drivel. Once in a while a good line comes out of it. It often takes a long time to get a poem the way I want it. I revise a lot. Readings help some. I often change poems when I read them aloud. I was a performer, a folk singer for a long time, so that influences how the final draft of a poem comes about. A balance of what appears on the page and the way it’s sung.

RD Armstrong: Everybody has their own way of doing things… their own routine. Tell me about your own creative process. Does the way it works ever surprise you? Do you find that it’s easier or harder to “seize the moment” when creativity strikes? How do you capture and retain these inspirations?

Kell Robertson: I am always astonished when a poem comes out right. I look back at some of the songs and poems I’ve written and wonder at the guy who wrote it. Sometimes it’s fine and sometimes it’s shit, but I do wonder if it was me at times.

RD Armstrong: From what little I know about you, it sounds like you’ve been kicking around the mythic landscapes of the American West for a long time. Has it been worth it… do you feel like you’ve gotten the respect you deserve?

Kell Robertson: Yeah. I’ve been around a long time and I’ve been in some crazy scenes. A loner, I never cared much about being a member of anything except maybe, the human race, which I can’t help. I realize that I am a part of a group of folks across the world who care about more than the usual trades of man. A map of friends as my old friend Ken Irby used to say.

I remember my last trip to the east coast with my friends we stopped in this little town in Kansas. Bumfuck Kansas from the outside, yes. Met this cat in a bar and showed him my book. Great guy. Invited us over to his house. Wife, kids, tractor, farm machinery and a fine old house and inside, pictures of Woody Guthrie, Billie Holliday, Jesse James, and Emiliano Zapata on the walls. Little statue of Buddha sitting on the edge of an ashtray. Beer and homemade apple pie his wife made. Books on the shelf from Kerouac to William Butler Yeats with Robert Service and Dostoevsky in between. A TV with dust on it. Records. No CDs. Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, Webb Pierce, Lady Day, John Coltrane, The Grateful Dead, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Woody, Slim Whitman (yes), Kerouac reading with Steve Allen on piano, Bill Monroe, etc etc… In the middle of Republican bible belt Kansas. His wife a waitress, he a farmer, and an old house full of stuff that would blow your mind there.

The thing is. Folks like that still exist. A quiet and loving revolution out there. I got respect from them. That will do.

RD Armstrong: Recently, Thunders Mouth Press published The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, a hefty tome that was portrayed as a definitive representation of the “State of the Art.” Yet, there were many notable exceptions (and some questionable inclusions). You were not among the Outlaws, yet your writing/life style is very much “of the life.” Is this a typical response to your poetic wanderings, to be ignored? Or do you always, as a loner, by definition, travel down a lonely trail?

Kell Robertson: Yeah. I heard about the Thunder’s Mouth Outlaw Bible of American Poetry thing. Like all anthologies it is certainly not a definitive representation of the “state of the art.” They wouldn’t know an out law if he came up and bit ’em in the ass. As an old friend might say, real outlaws don’t advertise. They certainly don’t go around telling the posse where to find them. It’s a silly thing and so are my remarks I guess. It [Outlaw Bible] was at the library down here. I thumbed through it. A few of the people in there are folks I know so I’m always curious. But then I gently put it back in the shelf.

I’d hoped for something better.

Was I sorry that I hadn’t been asked to contribute? Maybe a little. Hell, I wrote this stuff of mine to be read so I want to get it out there where folk can find it. Will I let it bother me? Years ago I would have. But if I start worrying about that old shit, I’ll be cringing in the corner and never get any work done. Hell, maybe they read my stuff and figured it didn’t qualify. That’s alright. I know a bar-maid in Texas who has memorized most of my poems. That’ll do.

RD Armstrong: Do you think that creativity is something that needs to be addressed in the new century? Do you think that it is part of a healthy mental balance, to have a solid creative foundation on which to work, and more importantly, is it an issue that is being addressed sufficiently by the American people? (I know this is a big question, but it’s important).

Kell Robertson: The big question, as you put it. Yes it is. You also use words like “a healthy mental balance.” Jesus! What the hell is that? Without creativity we’re all dead. Put us on a microchip and file us away. Society has always fought the creative impulse. Creativity is always dangerous. Always will be. But without it we’d be truly dead in our hearts and souls. We’d live in a dead place with other zombies. Which is what most of society here in America seems to want to do.

Old amigo, now gone alas, Jack Micheline used to sing in desperation: “It’s the dead, it’s the dead, it’s the goddamn dead that rule this world!” Build another McDonalds on the corner along with a Burger King and a Walmart. Put another piece of merchandising shit on the Internet. Put profit and loss up as what is the most important thing in life. Of course the creative spirit is going to go mad in such a world. If anything this society tries to smother the true creative spirit. Always has.

Einstein was a creative spirit. Look what they did with his theories. Built devices that could burn the world down. Hiroshima, Nagasaki, monuments to “freedom and democracy.” But somehow, the creative spirits always stumble through. It’s harder these days maybe but those traces of magic they laid on the world still hum in the corner of that room full of vapid machines. I rave on. You ask questions, my friend, that would take centuries to answer.

RD Armstrong: Have you made a living (modest) from your chosen brand of artistic expression? Or have you had to rely on outside jobs to get by? If you had it to do over again, would you “live the poet’s life,” or would you look in another direction?

Kell Robertson: I have not made a “living” at this stuff I do. I made a few bucks when I was a country western singer (which is basically what I’ve always been) and I got paid for a few readings. I sold a few books. Traded them for a meal, a beer, a kiss, a smile, a song, a place to lay down, a poem, some friendly time with a lady, and now and then even a few bucks.

Since I have no degree and few skills, I’ve always worked at menial jobs to get by. Lady’s on food stamps. Uh huh. Bartender, farm worker, laborer, carnival jointy, card dealer, magician, coyote, and maybe quite a few things the government frowns on to get by. On the edge. What Gino Clays called “the wild dogs of poetry.” I am one of those I guess. Thing is man, I couldn’t live any other way. It’s what I am. Would I change if I could? Of course not. For what? No matter where I’m at under a bridge or in a fancy cocktail lounge, I can hear Hank Williams, Beethoven, Dylan Thomas, Shakespeare, Woody Guthrie, my first lady standing barefoot in a ditch in Kansas smiling like an angel, my child in my hands from between her thighs. To me, it’s all been one amazing gift.

I see things, do things, become involved in things that most folks just drive by on the freeway. I am glad I’m here and have been given the chance to do all these things. In my movie, Lassie always comes home – but she’s always hungry.

RD Armstrong: What do you think about the current rise in interest in poetry in this country and beyond? It seems like everyone wants to become the next Bukowski or make a million bucks doing poetry on MTV.

Kell Robertson: “The current interest in POETRY in this country.”

It’s a magic word and a magic thing and it’s been overused, abused. I hate seeing the word to describe a bunch of shallow shit or a raving diatribe by some fool who has no idea how to construct a line so it sings. I mean, you’ve got these folks who have learned the technique of verse, who write little poems about abstract crap about nothing and these folks who just yell and scream anything that comes to mind, some of them skilled as stand up comics and somewhere, somebody is reading Shelley for the first time.

It’s become a group thing. My god man, there are thousands of people who join a group and call themselves poets. They have readings which are essentially circle jerks. I guess that’s alright. It’s just something I’ve given my life to. I don’t like to see it denigrated. Bukowski. Hmm. There are actually people who want to be another Bukowski? Get on MTV? Be stars? What the hell has that got to do with poetry?

RD Armstrong: What the fuck is going on in NM?

Kell Robertson: Well, we have mountains and sky and a stark hard-edged beauty. Some people can take it, some people can’t. I intend to die here.

Aside from that, Taos has a poetry circus every year. Albuquerque has a big poetry slam scene. There are a lot of good writers here but they keep to themselves mostly. There’s a great jazz scene that lots of folks don’t know about. It’s a beautiful place. Lots of outlaws in the hills.

RD Armstrong: What about the Internet? Sites like PoetrySuperHighway (and others), Amazon, MP3 and bulk electronic mail are making it possible for writers/ poets and musicians to reach literally thousands of potential fans/buyers with the click of a button…do you see this as “boom or bust”? What about you, do you have a site or webpage on the net that our readers can visit?

Kell Robertson: The Internet? Well, I’m not on it. No webpage, no dotcom bullshit here.

Like most “technological advances” it’s been touted as some sort of amazing thing that will put pull us all together in a world wide family at peace at last. And you won’t have to go to the store anymore. Just push a key and by God you can buy anything. Whoa! I like to go to the store. I like to walk around libraries and bookstores. I like to sit in a cafe or a bar and meet people. Talk to them face to face. Shake their hands. Sure, you can get information quickly on the Internet. But WHAT information? “Information is not knowledge” (Elliot, I think).

There are a lot of things the computer could do for me as a writer but I love doing things for myself. Writing it out longhand, revising and revising again, on my portable manual typewriter. Thinking it through again and again. It’s lovely hard work. Aside from that, most of the people I know can’t afford the stuff you need to get on the Internet. Hell, many of them don’t even have phones. I suppose I sound like an old codger. That’s alright. I am. I don’t have a credit card or a bank account. But I like it over here. I ain’t saying it’s a bad thing, all of this high tech gimmickry, and if folks want to put my poems or songs on the Internet, what the hell, go ahead. But I like this world of mine. It’s real. Not virtual.

RD Armstrong: Who do you draw inspiration from these days? Got any new projects planned?

Kell Robertson: After almost seven decades on this planet I think maybe I’m beginning to realize how amazing it all is. All the stuff I’ve taken for granted all these years begins to come into focus.

I’ve got a new collection of poems that some people in Oregon are putting out. I’m working on a play I started 20 years ago and may never finish. Huge hunks of unpublished prose. A friend and I are putting together an evening of work by Thomas Hornsby Ferril for the local theatre. Ferril was a great unrecognized poet of the twenties and thirties. Lived to be 90 something. Fine work. I have some gigs coming up in Colorado (June) and I write all the time. Play my guitar. Have a garden and some chickens. I rarely have any money. But I’m still riding and I know how to shoot.

It’s all a vast mystery. I’m still trying to learn.

Sometime we’ll get a twelve pack of beer and sit down and talk about it all. Maybe burn some beans and cowboy coffee and really talk about it all.