One cool afternoon on the busy streets of Winter Park, Florida, I joined Connie May Fowler and her friend Robert Walker for drinks and appetizers. It was my first time meeting Rob, and I instantly liked him, sucked in by his charming boyish grin and wicked sense of humor. We became fast friends, spending lots of nights talking about stories, writing starts and lonely dead ends, famous writers we rubbed elbows with on occasion, life as we knew it, and love—the good, bad and ugly. Nowadays we don’t see each other, although a summer trip is in the works, but we talk, like most long distance friends, via Facebook and email. I’ve enjoyed the links he’s shared over the years to his published pieces scattered about various magazines and online venues, including a wonderful feature in MiPOesias. When I recently learned about the publication of Rob’s debut poetry collection, The Buoyancy Of It All, I anticipated a colorful conversation focused on his journey as a writer. Along the way, it turned into something a little more, and that gift I share with you here in a candid interview with the talented Mr. Walker.
Life of Riley: Have you always wanted to be a writer? If not, when did you start contemplating that direction? And when did you start calling yourself a writer?
Robert Walker: Always is a really long time, but no. When I was really young I wanted to be an astronaut; I also wanted to marry a girl named Amanda (young me didn’t have the best grasp on who I’d become). I entered college as a Political Science/ Pre-Law student. I enjoyed Poli Sci classes, but I enjoyed creative writing more. Writing was always more honest. I guess you could say I got tired of the bullshit involved in Poli Sci and heard enough people tell me I had a knack for this writing thing that I decided to go for it. I swapped majors and the rest, as they say, is history.
Life of Riley: To get an MFA or not to get an MFA is a hot topic in the literary world right now. You recently earned your MFA from Virginia Tech. How did you make the decision to do the MFA? What was the experience like? And do you recommend an MFA for all up and coming writers?
Walker: I knew I wanted to get back in academia. I love being in that world (the real world just isn’t nearly as fun–far less space for experimentation, thoughtfulness, and ideas). The MFA seemed the logical choice, because I could get back to school by doing something I did anyways. I do have to credit Denise Duhamel for being one of the first people, along with Connie May Fowler, to tell me I should get an MFA. After Denise told me that I went home and Googled “MFA” because I’d never heard of one, LOL. It’s very interesting the way life unfolds. I actually didn’t know about the VT MFA until I met Nikki Giovanni at a reception and she told me to apply. They didn’t accept me that first year, but I applied again and they decided I was cooler the second time around.
My MFA experience was pretty awesome & life altering. I also combined falling in love and shifting my perspective on life with my MFA experience, so, I suppose, my experience is somewhat unique. The faculty at Virginia Tech is truly awesome. They’re all great writers and seem to truly enjoy mentoring young writers. I wouldn’t have written the book I wrote, which I very much love, without my awesome thesis committee (Ed Falco, Erika Meitner, and Jeff Mann–they’re great teachers and I see aspects of each of them & their influence on me in this book).
I wouldn’t recommend an MFA for everyone. If you aren’t interested in being challenged, revising, and learning new writerly tricks you probably shouldn’t go to an MFA. Also not the best place to go if you just want your writerly ego stroked.
Life of Riley: How autobiographical is your poetry? Has it become therapeutic in many instances?
Walker: This is a tricky question. There is a lot of really honest autobiographical stuff in this book. There is also some stuff that isn’t from my life at all. I could never write memoir because I need the space the lies provide in order to tell the truth (perhaps this is some lingering element of the poli sci major in me). I will say my new project is 100% autobiographical. I’ve found myself in a very interesting moment in life and am writing exclusively out of that moment. Is it therapeutic? Yes, in that, for me, writing it down requires an understanding of things. To tell the story correctly I had to understand it and before I could understand it I had to make peace with the truth of it. I suppose that is both therapeutic & liberating. It’s why I think everyone should engage in some type of writing. It allows you a means of understanding life in all its complex beauty that few other activities allow. I’ve been told that Yoga comes close, but I’ve never been flexible enough to truly get the full Yoga experience—one of the burdens of being large I suppose.
Life of Riley: You write a lot about sexuality, hiding and exposing, kind of a see-saw effect. As a gay man in today’s diverse universe have you found that to be true to life? Are you constantly hiding yourself, your sexuality and then exploring moments of explosive exposure? Or did you have this great epiphany or aha moment and embrace the inner you?
Walker: The hiding & struggle with it in the book are more aspects of young me. They’re reflective of that fear most young queer folks have. It is a fear of rejection and an internal struggle to accept a self that you know society has defined as somehow non normative. There are several poems that explore the idea of a gay man having adventures with women in this book. While I did, once upon a time, take a trial trip to lady-land, those are honestly written out of the fact that I get hit on by women a lot and I always find that funny and thus worthy of poem making (funny because I so fully embrace my gayness that it’s odd to me that it isn’t obvious to others). My sexuality isn’t something I hide to any degree these days. I’m very out. My students know, my family knows, my friends know. It doesn’t define me, but it is a basic elemental aspect of my identity (who are we without our desires?). I’m also very open & strive to be visible as a gay man, because I believe it is important for those of us who can be out & open in all aspects of our lives to do so and serve as role models & mentors for the next generation of queer folks. There is this modern myth that folks no longer struggle with their queerness and that simply isn’t true. To any not fully out queer folks reading this: do the younger generation a favor & get out!
Life of Riley: Do you think you may want to take on an active role as a Role Model/Spokesperson for the Gay Community? It sounds like something you have thought about and maybe even embraced? Because your honesty in your work and conversation speaks, without a doubt, to many, you could really be a difference maker in our society.
Walker: Are you suggesting I run for gay-office? Robert Walker official spokesperson for the Homo-people, LOL, I’ve no desire to run for anything. I tell my truth because being honest seems, to me, to be the only true option we have in this world. That and I’m a dude who happens to romantically dig other dudes (shorter, less hairy, but equally curious about the world ones to be specific) and I don’t see why that’s something I ought not be honest about. People do worse things than fall in love with folks with matching genitals. In all honesty, it took me a long time to make peace with my desires, I hope, maybe, by sharing something of my narrative I can make that peace a little easier to come by for some young queer guy or gal out there. If I could have this book accomplish one thing it’d be that: to help someone claim & make peace with the honest narrative of who they are. Shame & denial are such a waste of energy & emotional resources.
I’m a teacher, well, that’s how I pay the bills (despite what you may have heard this poem making gig isn’t all that lucrative). I’m out in my classes, so I serve as a role model in that space. I’ve had a handful of students comment that I was the first “grown up gay” or the only gay person they’d ever gotten to know. The “grown up gay” comment always seems double-edge—I’m always suspicious that 18yr olds don’t mean it as a compliment. But being the first gay person they got to know is important to me. I think getting to know folks is where understanding begins and understanding leads to changing hearts & minds. We’re all just people. Just trying to live our lives, fall in love, have a comfy place to sleep with the one we love. Folks aren’t all that different and I like to think I live that in my classes. I’m not obnoxious about my sexuality, I don’t have a phallic shaped dry eraser marker or anything; I’m just honest.
Life of Riley: Topics you write about prove unique and wonderful. Where does this come from? Where do you find inspiration for your writing?
Walker: The short answer: life. I’ve been told I see the world in a very odd way and I’m finally starting to suspect that, that is, perhaps, true lol. I really don’t know. The things I connect seem obvious to me. They’re how I understand the world. I find inspiration in things I find odd or that excite me or that I struggle to understand. On some basic level I think poetry is an attempt to, in writing, make sense of that which we struggle to make sense of. I kind of want to give you some angsty writer response like: I find inspiration at the bottom of every bottle or the smoke rings of the peace pipe. I fear I’m growing less angsty in my old age.
Here’s a look at one of the poems, Turning Back Time, from Buoyancy.
Life of Riley: You mentioned that you feel like the older you become, the less angsty you are . . . have you seen your writing grow in the same way? Do you think that’s a positive? How so?
Walker: Wow, the symmetry of life: I was just talking to my aunt recently who recalled my poems from some time ago as, “angry young gay poems.” I was mildly offended. Okay, that’s the wrong word–never offensive when something sticks with someone, but I was bothered. I don’t consider my book or my current project angry. To quote Ani Difranco, “I know what all the fighting was for and I, I’m not angry anymore”—I love Ani. But I write from the gut, so angry work means an angry gut. But a funny thing happened to me on my way to becoming an angry gay poet, I fell in love, I got some perspective—I just got un-angry. I suppose this is a bad thing for folks who dig angry poems, but it’s a nice thing for me. I like this work. I consider it more honest. Anger and angst are kind of limiting & easy emotions (I’m about to have a Star Wars dark side of the force moment). I like the idea of work that marvels at the truly, sometimes painful, complex beauty of life—angry poems can’t do that. I guess, in finding the place to tell the honest story, I realized there isn’t, truly ever, anything to be angry about. Life is just life and anger is, usually, just a mask for fear (and what’s there to fear, but fear itself–this interview is brought to you by numerous clichés lol).
Life of Riley: Do you have a specific mantra or statement that encompasses your message to the gay community?
Walker: I was recently visiting with a former professor of mine, Dr. Jill Jones, and she reminded of this line from Tony Kushner’s Angels In America, “You are fabulous, each and everyone.” I guess that’s what I’d say to all the other queer folks out there, well, that and be out, be unashamed, because you’re beautiful (and there is someone out there who will see just how beautiful you are). I’m about to have a Cyndi Lauper True Colors moment, so I’m going to go to the next question now. Oh, straight folks, y’all are beautiful too (you probably have a different set of baggage involved in accepting that, or maybe y’all accept it more easily–I’m not much of an expert on the hetero life experience).
Life of Riley: Music or no music while writing? If music, what do you listen to?
Walker: Usually, yes music. What music varies. Certain projects have soundtracks. Most of this book was written listening to funky electronic stuff: Thievery Corporation, Above & Beyond, Burial, Telepopmusik, Trentemoller, The Postal Service, and several mixes made by various people. The project I’m working on now, which is this odd exploration of what love is within the context of a specific moment of estrangement & separation from the lover, is being written with nothing but Radiohead playing–that could change, but Radiohead is currently serving the tone of the work (well, I’m much funnier than Radiohead).
Life of Riley: Always use a computer or do you write freehand as well?
Walker: I used to do more by hand, but almost all on computer now. It’s just easier. I tend to lose things, so lines written random places get lost. My new phone has a notepad function and I usually have some random lines or bits of poems there. The current project is probably 25% on my phone, 75% on my laptop, and 0% organized–my process is usually messy (this project is messier than usual).
Walker: I wish I had some profound deep response to this question. I feel like I should, but here’s the honest story: my editor sent me a link to a website to select cover art. And, after hours, tears, and three phone calls to mom, I finally found this image that spoke to me. During the third phone call to mom she said the word “buoyant” and that turned into the title. It speaks to how everything floats, I guess. Does that even make sense? I don’t know that I can explain it any better than to say: once I said it aloud I knew that was the name for this book. It just fits.
Life of Riley: So who is your audience? Who is going to learn about this collection and rush out to buy it?
Walker: My mom. I can’t really comprehend anyone else running out and buying this. I realize there is the distinct possibility of that happening and that, in and of itself, is bizarro world to me. When I was, about, 14 I used to stay up reading Nikki Giovanni and dreaming about having my book. Seriously this people buying it thing is too unreal. I hope other queer folks dig it, I hope other folks from rougher childhoods dig it, I hope other folks who have suffered loss or felt the weight of heavy fear dig it, I hope other folks who have had break downs or fallen in love dig it, I hope other poets dig it. I guess there are pieces of all those folks in me, so I hope all those folks with matching pieces out there dig what I’ve said about that thing we share. Does that make any sense at all?
Life of Riley: When you write, do you have a specific audience in mind? Or is your writing universal? Honestly, for me as I read it, I felt it to be universal. It spoke to me on many different levels, which I feel is a huge triumph for any up and coming writer?
Walker: Wow thank you. That’s a very awesome comment. Honestly the majority of the book was written to this boy I kind of sorta have, mildly, a thing for. I think I was attempting, in the weirdest possible way, to explain why I was so weird–that’s good ol’ poetic logic: allow me to explain why I’m so perplexing to you in a series of odd poems–very sensible means of distilling information. Somewhere along the way I realized I was actually talking more to me than to him and that’s when the project took off. Frankly, you’re all eaves dropping on my self-talk. I want to work a Kylie Minogue quote in here, but I won’t (bonus points if you know what song I’m thinking about).
Life of Riley: Best writerly advice you ever received?
Walker: I want to quote Connie May Fowler here, because she once told me I was going to workshop something and wasn’t going to back out and she used the word “Bitch” (she says she didn’t, but I vividly remember that moment–and memory is so not a suspect commodity). Anyway that’s not really writing advice, but it speaks to the reality of writing, which is, at the end of the day you just have to balls up, or ovaries up, and do it.
Life of Riley: Worst advice?
Walker: I can’t answer that without throwing someone under the bus. I can’t be that guy in an interview–but call me (for all folks reading that, I’m kidding). I don’t believe in bad advice, just advice that doesn’t fit. Sometimes that happens.
Life of Riley: All writers hold very strong opinions about the workshop experience. Obviously you’ve participated in numerous workshops while earning an MFA. What’s your view on workshops? What works? What doesn’t? And so on.
Walker: I miss workshop. I know some of my peers would look at me like I’m nuts (wouldn’t be the first time). I think, especially in the MFA setting, it can get tedious & routine (you’re always with the same folks), but the environment and having that space to share is really a cool thing. It reminds of me of show & tell day at school. What works, to me, is when people make an honest attempt to understand the writer’s project and give feedback from that space. What doesn’t work? When people don’t try or aren’t honest–or are too afraid to say something that might sound mean (honestly best thing you can hear in a workshop is what’s broken about a piece).
Life of Riley: We hear stories today about MFA students landing book deals while still completing their degree. How did the book deal happen for you?
Walker: Do we? I haven’t, but I’m not the most informed guy on such matters. Honestly I owe my book being alive to Jeff Mann. He was my thesis director, and a damn fine mentor, and he offered to put in a good word with the press, they liked what they saw, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Life of Riley: After completing The Buoyancy Of It All and finding a publisher, did you immediately start working on your second book? And how hard is it to make something fresh and new without peeking over your shoulder at your first accomplishment?
Walker: It’s hard right now, because I’ve been editing Buoyancy recently, so it has been kind of all up in my face. Not complaining. I really like this book, but it has been weird interacting with it and trying to write new stuff at the same time. I started a new project right as I was submitting this as my MFA thesis. It was a completely different, far less personal project using all these circus folks as vehicles to explore the human condition. I think that was an attempt to move away from what I did in this book. I recently put that on the back burner to work on a different project that is a lot more similar to Buoyancy. This one is all about love and the hardness of it and all its complexity–oh, crap I may well be writing the same book lol. Both are still very much in progress. We’ll see where they go, but I do hope this book is the first of many. I’d like to think I have more poems in me and room to improve craft wise.
Life of Riley: Who are your greatest supporters in life? The people you always turn to never questioning whether they have your back or not, because you have complete and total faith in them.
Walker: My mom, my younger sister Michele, and my dad. I know they’re always on my side. We may not always agree, but they’re always there. I have some amazing & wonderful friends in this world and am blessed to know them all, but there’s just something to be said for the people who have witnessed every phase of your life. They just know you (sometimes better than you know yourself).
Life of Riley: Where do you see yourself in the next five years?
Walker: Alive. Ain’t that some grand life goals? Writing. Having some sort of adventure (I’m pretty good at those). I wouldn’t complain if that adventure included a ruggedly handsome co-star (okay, a twinkish* & cute co-star–I’m rugged enough all on my lonesome–I like a little yin for my yang). I mean there are lots of possibilities, but having adventures, sharing said adventures with someone awesome, and writing about it all is more or less my basic life goal. I’m kind of making the rest up as I go along, but that’s worked pretty well thus far–if it ain’t broke.
*For the straight folks reading this use Google or urban dictionary to figure out what “twinkish” means. It is a play on the world “twink.” See this is one of those gay dude & straight folks bridging the understanding divide moments 😉
Robert Walker began writing poetry while playing bass in the cover-band ManHole (an all male group that played songs originally recorded by Courtney Love’s mid-90s band Hole). After ManHole split, sighting artistic differences, Walker enjoyed a brief solo career opening for Ru Paul. After a scandal involving George Michael and a public restroom forced him out of the music business he became a High School teacher in rural Florida; where his colorful tales of life on the road lead to him being known as the “eccentric” English teacher. Robert is a graduate of the Virginia Tech MFA program, and his poetry has appeared in or is forthcoming from Ashé: The Journal of Experimental Spirituality, Knockout, 5AM, Limp Wrist, Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, Mipoesias, Pearl, Specs, and Poet Lore. The Buoyancy Of It All is his first collection of poetry. Robert claims no responsibility for any historical inaccuracies in this biography.