MTPR

Rob Schlegel: The Poet in the Parent

Jun 20, 2019

With calm abandon, Rob Schlegel stands among the genderless trees to shake notions of masculinity and fatherhood. Schlegel incorporates the visionary into everyday life, inhabiting patterns of relation that do not rely on easy categories. Working from the premise that poetry is indistinguishable from the life of the poet, Schlegel considers how his relationship to the creative process is forever changed when he becomes something new to someone else. "The meaning I'm trying to protect is," Schlegel writes, "the heart is neither boy, nor girl." In the Tree Where the Double Sex Sleeps is a tender search for the mother in the father, the poet in the parent, the forest in the human.

In the Tree Where the Double Sex Sleeps

The following highlights are from a conversation with Rob Schlegel about his collection of poems, "In the Tree Where the Double Sex Sleeps." This program was recorded in Spokane, WA during their Get Lit! literary festival with the generous support from Spokane Public Radio. To hear the full conversation, click the link above or subscribe to our podcast.  

How is this book, as Mary Szybist calls it, a field guide?

I feel like it’s a field guide to my own interior, which is not a territory I was comfortable navigating before I wrote this book.

What’s the dialogue you’re having with nature, specifically with trees?

When a lot of this book was written I was living in Portland, OR and trees are everywhere there. Trees are everywhere where I’ve lived out west, at least. They became kind of ubiquitous, in a sense that they were everywhere and I would fail to see them in the same way that I failed to see people. I realized this last year, as the end of the book was coming together. One of the last poems I wrote is called 52 trees. It’s essentially a catalogue of trees I imagine in some ways represent humans, so I’ve given them human characteristics. The process of writing that poem made me realize I was not seeing the people in my life in ways they needed to be seen, which is to say I wasn’t as present as I needed to be as a father, and a spouse, and a brother, and a son, and a friend. These were all realizations that emerged after slowing down and starting to see people and see these trees as individuals, which I think is something that is easy to think it’s easy to do, but it’s not often.

You write,“The meaning I’m trying to protect is the heart is neither a boy nor a girl.” What’s the conversation you’re having with gender and sexuality in the book?

It feels like a conversation that is very alive within myself as a parent and as a parent of a boy and a girl. I’m seeing how my expectations of what it means to be gendered are having an influence on them, and that means the way my parents thought about what it means to be gendered had a pretty significant influence on me. I just think that everything is over-gendered. I don’t think that’s a radical of a way of thinking, but it can be a little disarming for some people to think that gender is more of a spectrum than we were taught in the 1980s and other decades, at least in the household that I grew up in. With that kind of labeling and excessive labeling of gender, I feel like we can do a lot of damage to young people wandering around in their human bodies.

In terms of your children, what’s the open field you want them to play in?

In terms of gender?

Mmhmm.

I think I’d like for them to feel like they don’t need to be something for somebody else. I want them to feel like they can be who they are and not become something that somebody else thinks they should be, but I feel like the fewer expectations a parent places on a child the better, generally. At the same time, I think it’s useful for kids to have structure and for children to have structure. But I also think that too much of that can be really harmful. I think it can be extremely harmful in some situations where a child is really questioning a lot of their own experiences with their bodies.

You begin one poem with the line, “As a father who wishes to be a mother.” Can you talk more about your experience of being a parent and being a poet?

I feel like this is potentially dangerous territory because I am male, and I identify as male, and there’s a kind of romanticizing of the mother that I’m wary of because I don’t want to . . . I guess that line has the potential to read like something where I’m fetishizing motherhood and I haven’t quite worked my way around that idea yet, but it’s not something I think I’m wanting to fetishize. It feels more like something I want to respect as deeply as possible, as a role that someone might have in a household, no matter their gender. I guess that’s the point I’m trying to get to. The love that Kisha shows our children and the patience she shows them is something that I admire deeply. So on a very personal, local level it’s not that I just want to be a mother as a father. I want to be the kind of mother Kisha is, or I want to be the Kisha-version of the father that I am, if that makes any sense.

About the Book:

With calm abandon, Rob Schlegel stands among the genderless trees to shake notions of masculinity and fatherhood. Schlegel incorporates the visionary into everyday life, inhabiting patterns of relation that do not rely on easy categories. Working from the premise that poetry is indistinguishable from the life of the poet, Schlegel considers how his relationship to the creative process is forever changed when he becomes something new to someone else. "The meaning I'm trying to protect is," Schlegel writes, "the heart is neither boy, nor girl." In the Tree Where the Double Sex Sleeps is a tender search for the mother in the father, the poet in the parent, the forest in the human.

Rob Schlegel
Credit August Sparks Farnum

About the Author:

Rob Schlegel is the author of The Lesser Fields (Center for Literary Publishing 2009), selected by James Longenbach for the Colorado Prize for Poetry, and January Machine (Four Way Books 2014), selected by Stephanie Burt for the Grub Street National Book Prize. His third collection is In the Tree Where the Double Sex Sleeps (University of Iowa Press 2019), selected by Brenda Shaughnessy for the Iowa Poetry Prize. With the poets Daniel Poppick and Rawaan Alkhatib, he co-edits The Catenary Press. Most recently, he has taught at Whitman College, and in the MFA Program at Portland State University.