Smile Politely

Get to know PYGMALION poet Deon Robinson

Deon Robinson is a Black man, smiling at the camera. He wears a black polo, gold chain necklace, and has a short afro that is cropped on the sides.
Deon Robinson

PYGMALION is right around the corner, and as I mentioned in my five things in arts this month, there’s plenty to do at the festival even if you aren’t into the music scene. Ahead of this year’s events, I will be highlighting some of the artists and writers who will be participating. MFA candidate in poetry at the University of Illinois Deon Robinson will be taking part in a reading on the last day of the festival. Robinson spoke with me about his decision to become a poet, how familial and cultural expectations influence his work, and of course, what to expect from his reading at PYGMALION.

Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Smile Politely: Tell me about yourself. What’s your connection to Champaign-Urbana?

Deon Robinson: Absolutely none! I heard about the MFA program here from a close friend and mentor of mine. Feeling inspired by her journey, I submitted all my materials and had the best phone call of my life with Janice Harrington, a member of the poetry faculty here. She went through my entire application with me on the phone and made me feel more than ready for higher education. From there, the rest is history.

SP: How did you get started writing poetry? Has anyone inspired you along the way?

Robinson: I started writing in undergrad. I wrote these super cheesy breakup poems from an old fling I was seeing back in college. Poetry became my outlet for a lot of those unresolved feelings. Then I realized I had way more to write about, so I joined a Slam Poetry Club and wrote weekly. I declared a major in creative writing just to take my first poetry class and it was everything I could have dreamed about. It was rigorous. There was no right answer. I wrote a 55-page manuscript in that class. Somewhere along, I stumbled across a Jericho Brown essay titled “To Be Asked for a Kiss.” Brown detailed a life of deciphering, engaging, and creating poetry to dull the stress of this life. I knew then it wouldn’t be the craziest thing to become a poet.

SP: How did you decide to pursue poetry then in graduate school?

Robinson: I used to work at the Bronx Zoo. Most of my day consisted of feeding animals, cleaning exhibits, and instructing guests on proper observer etiquette. It was good work. I loved my coworkers and supervisors. But I was also providing and mediating an increasingly tense home environment. I wanted to pursue higher education because I wanted to do something all on my own. I had lived a lot of my life until college for my parents and family. The MFA was a chance to pick me after two decades of not knowing who I was in the first place.

SP: Tell me about your writing routine. Do you have any tricks for when you have writer’s block? Where’s your favorite place in C-U to write?

Robinson: I may catch some looks for this, but I write/read best when I’m trapped on some kind of moving vehicle. Trains and buses are my necessary muse. Alas, I can’t travel every second of every day. So, my more realistic writing routine happens when I am in ‘the zone.’ Usually, this means I am hyper-fixated and play the same song by any artist on repeat for hours at a time. It allows me to filter out any kind of external stimuli until I can’t remember being part of the world at all. Best trick for writer’s block: consume all other media. Read manga, binge watch short films, play video games. Record what works for you in these genres and bring that back to your writing. Art itself is best interdisciplinary because it reflects the dimensions you have as a person.

SP: I read that your literary interests “lie in the intersection of reformed masculinity, black queerness, Christianity as a cultural rite of passage in low-income communities, and mother-son relationships.” Can you talk more about this? How do these themes come into play in your own work?

Robinson: It sounds so much more intimidating that way! My poetry is about coming to terms with certain aspects of my identity in a time when my own life wasn’t even about mine. My mother was a chronically ill Puerto Rican and central matriarch in my family. But she wasn’t without her faults, mistakes, and most importantly, expectations. The expectation to keep her happy and alive, which for so many cultures is an obligation you have to your parents, but where do you as an individual suffer in the collective? You spend enough time taking care of the symptoms, you forget who you are compared to the disease. It’ll happen that way every time, no matter who you are. What do you deserve when your parents are dying/dead? And is grace possible during a time when so many people have bad blood against their parents? All of this and the medical establishment plays into my work at any given time.

SP: Have you participated in PYGMALION before?

Robinson: I’m excited to be on the outward end of PYGMALION! I watched a performance by Crystal Valentine my first year. She’s a champion in the world of Slam Poetry, so I was surprised to see her on the roster. Every year the third year poets and fictioneers [from the creative writing MFA program] are allowed a reading of their work, so I got to see the cohorts adapt to their own personal aesthetics with each passing year.  

SP: What should people expect from your appearance?

Robinson: I’m reading from the graduate thesis I’m working on at the moment, and perhaps a poem or two from my first year here. Even if there isn’t an official Q+A, I encourage folks that attend to talk to the readers after if you felt particularly inspired or moved. A lot of blood, sweat, and tears went into the work folks will be reading. Everything interrogated, everything intentional, everything made for brilliance.

SP: What do you hope readers take away from your writing?

Robinson: I want them to know that the most courageous thing they can do in their life is be embarrassed or ashamed. But if they work through what they’re not proud of, maybe they can forgive themselves for everything that isn’t their fault and yet became their responsibility. Like how I will spend the rest of my life writing elegies, because my mother told me to be who I wanted in my life, and I would never regret being a son. Not ever.

SP: What are you most looking forward to at PYGMALION?

Robinson: This sounds so basic, but I am most excited for others’ readings. I observe a lot of nonverbal language of folks on stage because I’m incredibly analytical when it comes to that kind of thing. Storytelling is such a dated art form, but it never fails to amaze me what a community can pass on if they care about each other enough.

SP: What’s next for you?

Robinson: That’s the big question! After my MFA, I plan on getting a poetry fellowship anywhere around the country. Lucky for me, I have a partner who is willing to follow me any and everywhere. I have the chance to focus on my writing career and debut poetry collection. But on a more personal note, I want to travel on my mother’s behalf and show her different places through my own eyes.

SP: If someone can’t see you at PYGMALION, is there any other place or other events in C-U where you do readings?

Robinson: No worries there! I have a Voice reading coming up later in the semester and a third-year reading, where you can hear everything that my cohort put together during our time here. There will be more dates coming up as it gets later in the year so be on the lookout!

PYGMALION: Creative Writing Program Readings
Analog Wine Bar
129 N Race St
Sept 23rd
Sa 7:30 p.m.

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