Interview: Jennifer Robin on politics, mothers, and mortality

In a time of political unrest, Portland-based author and local literary visionary Jennifer Robin gets candid about her past works, what keeps her writing, and the current state of our society

As one of Portland’s most prolific writers, Jennifer Robin has presented work across a myriad of platforms since the age of 18. Robin is an unapologetically authentic literary voice. Her long and eccentric history includes reading alongside electronic musicians Spirit Duplicator and The Dead Air Fresheners, and a 10-year career as the booker and host of a live experimental music and text radio show on Portland’s KBOO radio.

Robin’s most recent published books, Death Confetti: Pickers, Punks, and Transit Ghosts in Portland, Oregon (Feral House, 2016) and Earthquakes in Candyland (Fungasm Press, 2019) are down-to-earth, intimate, and surreal examinations of the individuals who make up the complex stew that is our society, in turn initiating a whole new group of adoring fans into Robin’s already devoted assembly.

Jennifer Robin’s down-to-earth, intimate, and surreal writing examines the here and now. Photo: Kenneth Barton

I met Jennifer Robin roughly six years ago through a monthly independent reading series that took place in various cafes and minuscule bars across the Southeast Portland area. The first time I heard her read—or rather, saw her perform—her work, I nearly fell off my bar stool. “This is what he did!” she sang into the microphone, her ultra-thick eyeliner, pointedly swaying body language, and commanding tone sending the room into a trance. Within seconds, I was hooked. Hooked on her words and on her candid storytelling; on the beauty she created from the mundane and the grotesque, enough so that I found myself in an online search after the show that eventually resulted in Jennifer Robin’s Facebook page.

While continuing to dazzle audiences on her Youtube channel and newly found Medium platform, Robin seems to have had most interaction with her readers through her Facebook page, where for years she posted captivating character vignettes, larger-than-life tales of her mother, and political stances, all of which broke the usual trend of humdrum Facebook content. Posting stories, book snippets, and even late-night musings into the sex-lives of her neighbors, Robin has been a wealth of contemporary, and sometimes controversial, literary material—sparking discussions, epiphanies, and arguments among her followers.

Having been witness to both the new and the ‘old Portland’, Robin writes about its inhabitants like she knows them, as though she’s been each one, stepping in and out of their shoes if only long enough to jot down their unique and often heart wrenching tales. As a voice of ‘the now’, Jennifer Robin sees the world of nuance in our ever-shifting societal structures. Rather than shying away from their complexities, she chooses to harness both the horrors and the ecstasies of existing in a modern world, placing them gingerly into her writing.

Artswatch: At the start of Death Confetti you write, “You could call it a Catholic upbringing, but at times I felt as if I was studying life from a space lab, trying to figure out what people on planet Earth did—with shaky evidence and a lot of curiosity.” Do you still feel this way or do you think you’ve fully managed to infiltrate the ‘way of life’ on Earth?

Jennifer Robin: I don’t know if I will ever feel inside. I’m restless and I have too many scars.

How would you describe your relationship to your mother? When you write about your mother she often comes across as wide-eyed and almost alien in nature. You recently described her as “an opiate for the masses.” Can you expand on what makes her a universal and unifying figure for others?

My relationship with my mother is that of a human-infinity hybrid who calls her very Catholic septuagenarian mother at least once a week to listen to this mother talk about corrupt priests, long-dead Hollywood movie stars, groovy male stalkers in bellbottoms, and cameo appearances of her gynecologist who murdered his wife. “He’s in the news again! He has a new trial.”

My mother reacts with outrage whenever I tell her what I have chosen to do with my life, so I mostly serve as a listening ear. In at least one election she voted for Trump while calling him her “least favorite celebrity.” She lives in a time capsule; honestly doesn’t function as if it is 2020. She is prone to conspiracies, and believes her phone has been bugged by a network of Communists, lawyers, and Mafia figures who have plotted to ruin our family.

For all of her fears, she is childlike, sweet, and terribly lonely. She is a supermodel-level beauty who lives off a monthly stipend inherited from her parents. She is made of instant coffee, potato buns, and Progresso soup. She has a photographic memory, no friends, and her closest relations are TV personalities. She is obsessed with the show Columbo. She looks 20 years younger than her chronological age, and refuses to wear pants. Her weekly existence would bring Andy Warhol to emit a squeal of joy.

Every time I visit her in New York, she bags and stores the last thing I’ve touched, like forensic evidence. On my second to last visit, it was an empty jar of fig preserves. On the last visit, it was a teacup with a crust of dried milk at the bottom. She bagged the cup and spoon and keeps it in a drawer of her nightstand. This is a very Catholic thing, like worshippers who pray to dead saint’s fingers and vials of saint-blood.

Online readers—I mean punks, angry bouncers, voodoo priests, mothers of six— have clamored for more mother stories. She is a taste which transcends income, politics, or lifestyle choices.

Maybe she is like Magnetic North, the one thing left on Planet Earth that stubbornly does not change. But even Magnetic North changes!

You’ve been a writer for many years. What inspires you to keep going?

We’re like Russian nesting dolls. Every one of us contains our child selves. I was a five-year old who wanted to be the next Truman Capote. I wanted to sit on talk shows and be interviewed about art and outer space. I remember being asked into the counselor’s office towards the end of my year in kindergarten. Walberta Road School, a squat, brick building with a patch of woods in the back which dipped into a valley. If you strayed from the playground you would find stacks of decomposing Penthouse magazines. Kids would run by and whisper that further down, past the nettles, “witches” lived in a shack.

The counselor was nervous. She clearly felt that she was in the presence of an imbalanced child. She said my teachers were concerned because I was obsessively drawing pictures, stapling them into book form, sharing them with the other students. My stories were about a family of fairies who lived in a star above my house. They were chased by cops. One of them loved stripping and jumping naked into a swimming pool filled with mud. I knew this was exciting, but I didn’t know why.

So the counselor asks me, in a very tender sotto voice now, “We’ve been hearing about these books you’re writing…about fairies….are they fairies or are they angels? We’re worried, and wondering….um, can you see them? Do you talk to them at all?” And I looked at the counselor and said, “No. Of course not. I make them up. They’re characters in my books.”

“You mean they’re not real?” she repeated, studying me intensely.

I said “no,” and I kept making books until I was 12 and realized the pictures were slowing me down. I couldn’t wait to hear what the characters would say next.

At this time Cyberpunks and the Mole People were all the rage. By the Mole People I mean the New York City homeless who live in abandoned subway tunnels. They were in articles, books of photography, fetishized on TV. I needed to know them, so I wrote them, the buskers, the people of the street, the night, the edges, the ones in tattered denim and leather, the ones I felt I could understand, and I believed they would understand me. I felt a love for outsiders because I was an outsider.

This is my long way of saying that I would never want to look at my child self, my self in the counselor’s office, aged five, and say, “Oh, by the way. I’ve given up on your dream.” She lives in me strongly.

What compels you to write about politics?

As a child I was emotionally overcome by nature. Everything was new, so full of color and vibration—the shells of insects, sap on a spruce tree, the conical formations of ants. Then came the people, who said it was their right to crush and kill. When they said this, they grew rubbery. I knew they were lying.

It’s a notion. It’s unspoken. All biological life on this planet—the water, the air, every sea beast and bird and insect that we know of—is enslaved by corporations which control nations.

People talk about the search for alien life, but we are surrounded by alien life. Many of us grow up in food deserts, only know the sound of a plastic bag unsealed, treat nature as if it is already extinct, when we have yet to taste it.

Think of fairy tales. The darkest forests full of monsters. The night that was once so mighty; the frost, a matter of life and death. Now those who strive to save a single forest are targeted by snipers.

We have permanent light; algorithms to track our every mood. How can you be a threat to the Machine when it knows you have an addiction to lace underwear and soy cheese? Or a bill to remove your wisdom teeth that’s collected thousands in interest for the past 20 years?

The power is in our hands to seize. This is the elephant in the room. Perhaps the elephant is the only story to talk about, which is why we can’t. I don’t think our primitive brains have evolved to emotionally deal with saving an entire planet… but this is what we’re facing.

A sub-narrative I notice across all of your writing is one of Time. You’re able to slow it down, pause it, speed it up, and even reverse it for the reader effortlessly and in countless different ways. It appears to me that time plays a huge role in your art, becoming an almighty character itself. What inspires you to play with time the way you do? To what end does your own experience of time affect the way you use it in a story?

Elizabethan poets obsessed over time, specifically, mortality. They’d say the color of a leaf is most beautiful before it falls from the tree, the taste of a fruit most rich before it turns to worm-food.

It never made sense to me to tell a story in a linear way. Our minds are not linear. Our identities are not linear. Truth is not solid, or linear.

I wake with the sensation that I have lived 30 unique lives. Maybe three hundred. Each is so vivid. At moments, I wish I could escape to them. How can we contain so much, and force everything we do to move in a straight line? How can time force us to move in a straight line?

Is someone’s lipstick a berry red or dung-beetle rust? Are her eyes like scarabs or the ink that has bled on antique china? Is a subway car the green of caterpillars that crawled on my grandmother’s tomato plants? To describe something, I often go sideways. Writing is map-making and synesthesia.

Jennifer Robin takes flight. Photo: Kurt Eisenlohr

Do you feel pressure to cater to your audience’s needs and desires?

Oh yes. It’s unavoidable. Being born social animals, we want to communicate to more than our mirror reflections. I get fixated on enigmatic pop cultural figures, like now-deceased fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld. He said, “You owe no one the truth.” I know this is valid, but still feel a pressure: I owe the world a story. A lot of stories.

There are advantages to having no audience at first. No stakes. Everything is ‘play.’

But when an audience grows, it’s like having friends you never had before, communities you never thought would accept you. You find yourself channeling voices, ones you feel your favorite audience members would enjoy. I find this true with both physical and online audiences: it’s a Ouija board and biofeedback loop. When you have a hit, it fills you with a wild energy.

Then you change. Sometimes too much. You reach the skinless stage, a point at which far more successful people shave their heads and have overdoses. You learn the difference between criticism and hate, because you get a lot of both. You simply can’t please all of the people, and why, in an existential sense, would you even want to?

Being a public entertainer sounds like a hideous sci-fi experiment, like being a mother with a body as wide as a continent, feeding a population with the milk of a million cyborgian teats. We see how people treat Mother Earth. She’s a garbage dump.

Jennifer Robin is a captivating performer. Photo: Kenneth Barton

Do you think your political opinions have alienated some of your audience, or do you think you have managed to cross a threshold with your political pieces to open the eyes of individuals with different viewpoints?

In the past two years I’ve alienated half of my reading audience by spending time on political writing, by which I mean lefty/anarchist writing. It was a direction I was naturally going in. I have no regrets about it, but what happened still affects me.

A publisher asked me to write a book about America. It was released in 2019, as Earthquakes in Candyland. I filled Earthquakes with stories of modern poverty. I obsessively researched a section of statistics on genocide, extinction, and corporate grift. In retrospect, I view it as a primer for the summer of revolt that came a year after its release.

Despite the political content, I felt that the book was led by the stories, the people I wrote about. It didn’t get the fan reaction of my previous book, Death Confetti. People viewed Earthquakes as a darker book, not as “fun.” But I don’t know…there’s a scene with a hitchhiker giving a blowjob to an ex-skinhead turned New Age guru named Mondo Ra. There are teenagers who hate Van Gogh, and a woman on a Greyhound who says she’s a Gucci model with a suitcase of 40 wigs. There are a lot of sometimes funny, sometimes tragic people I met and put in the book. Those who leave indelible stains.

Meanwhile, online, my political posts had fans, but I was making enemies. Some privately thanked me for voicing what they couldn’t say at work, in front of their families, not even to their lovers. Others said I was treasonous for daring to suggest that the American two-party system is a corrupt pile of whale vomit.

So I got trolled— by former fans and complete strangers, like one night when a gang of libertarians from Utah viciously speculated on how loose my vagina must be because I dared write about America’s obsession with guns. I acted tough when it happened, but inside, in my guts, it felt like a rape. These things really start to get to you after a while.

Americans treat their politicians like superheroes. Like athletes, messiahs. Yay, we voted for so-and-so, but we don’t have to demand anything of them, or even watch what they do while in office! We defend our teams, and lose all reason.

The people who got Earthquakes really got it. As for the people who wish I would go back to writing about sex, my mother, and mysteriously appearing beehives, well, I always do.

We contain multiples. The selves we contain do with us what they must.

In Velvet Armour from Death Confetti you write, “By isolating death into a spectacle that we never really get to taste but always fear is around the corner, death has been turned into pornography that we must pay for, in a rainbow of media peep-shows. This cannot be sustained.” You wrote this in 2016. How much more severe is the current media fetishism with death now? How, if at all, can we come down from the spectacle?

I wonder if death can ever escape being a pornographic subject. Physically, because of its grisly details, and existentially, because it’s a borderline, a threshold to the unknown. The ultimate dissolution!

In your quote I was talking about how America deals with death. It’s an aggressive place. You feel it like a hum under the concrete. You feel it when a stranger blinks. Sink or swim! Running parallel to this aggression is the obsession with leaving no traces— we must be deodorized, redeemed. No nipples, please! Our religion and industry blend together into a national philosophy: The citizen can be re-built. There is so much fixation with being reborn, finally finding the “right” person to be, the right position, the final position.

I think of my mother, who gets a steady diet of teen-abductions, autopsies, husbands being drugged, bodies dissolved in lye. For such a sweet person, she can’t get enough of this stuff. She grew up believing the news: If you watch these shows about death, you will understand it, even escape it. It’s better than leaving home.

Depending on where you are born and the color of your skin, death is an active rather than fetishized presence: Nuclear war. Eviction. A Second Great Depression. Medical visits no one can afford. Our lovers are addicts. Boys and girls grow up with cops pointing guns at their heads while they walk home from school. Someone killed, with a face that looks like you.

I think of the video games where a kid can kill a thousand people in an hour. Or a million. A lake of blood! Why do Americans so love guns more than learning how to plant seeds or build houses or sing? To demonstrate that you can deliver death, that you are training for a glorious showdown, it’s a dream of catharsis.

Enter a plague. Its presence has been used as an excuse to let millions of small businesses fail while the government bails out airlines and banks. In a lot of cities you can’t walk down a street without seeing someone in a tent village about to shoot up.

Why are our destruction myths more powerful than creation myths? How do we leave a society of spectacle where war is glorified, and quick, clean hits of death are dangled like treats?

Have a media for fallen soldiers. Hear their regrets. Have a media for the victims of police brutality. Have a media for the homeless. If we had an openness to discuss the reality of sex and death, we might be a saner nation.

I’m not against porn or cage fights, but the thing is, who wins when a living being tries to become porn and cage fights? Not the living being.

Can you tell me about your upcoming publications and their catalysts?

Icons Falter is a novel about a psychic vampire. She gets hallucinogenic hits near human death. She is raised by a human mother and hides her abilities until she runs away from home. She gets lost in a cult, searches for her father. Many experiences and characters in this book are taken from my travels, so it’s in some ways a surrealist autobiography.

The other book—I personally call it The Relationship Book, but haha, the publisher and I are discussing whether this title will change. It features stories I wrote for a live audience on Facebook, and for shows—about lovers, butter, French mythology. A trip to Morocco where I met a hotel manager who said he rented a room to William Burroughs. As far as guests go, he said he preferred Benny Hill to Burroughs. And of course, my mother.

I’m working out more details with the publishers. For the moment I’m sworn to secrecy. I shall only whisper: Between 2021 and 2022, they live.

Comments are closed.