Inside the amazing brains of Robbi Nester,
Bill Lantry, & Annie Pluto
Robbi Nester is a retired college educator and the author of 4 books of poetry. She has also edited three anthologies and currently has three manuscripts making the rounds of publishers. The host of two poetry reading series on Zoom, she likes to talk as much as she likes to write.
BLM: Do you write for yourself or for an audience, and do you feel it’s important to clarify this to yourself?
RN: It isn’t so simple to distinguish between writing for myself or for an audience. On one hand, I of course write to please myself, choosing subject matter that appeals to and interests me and the means of expression most natural to me. But I also love to write to prompts. I have always done this, and have been drawn to journals and competitions that offered this opportunity on a regular basis. But during the pandemic, this tendency came to full fruition when I began to attend generative workshops many times a week. At that time, for me, as for so many others, most other activities in my life fell away. My yoga studio closed, then went online, where it now permanently resides. I began doing most of my shopping online, and even ordered library books from the catalog, picking them up in the library’s parking lot. The one trip I did regularly make was to certain grocery stores with very early morning hours. It felt rather like a dangerous adventure to navigate the narrow aisles of an ethnic grocery store or to inch along with other cars through a drive-through farmer’s market once a week. The synagogue held its services on Zoom, and most are still available there, though I have begun to go back fairly frequently in person.
Besides these limited forays, the most regular part of my life during this time was generative workshops on Zoom, where I became part of a growing community of writers feeling isolated and traumatized. My practice of writing to prompts flourished, and I began to write nearly every day. That’s how I ended up with four unpublished manuscripts, which represent only a fraction of the poems I wrote in these workshops.
One characteristic of this practice of writing to prompts is to take someone else’s choice of subject matter and spin it into my own poem in anywhere from 20 minutes to 45 minutes. Then everyone in the group who wishes shares her poem reads it to the others. It wouldn’t be the same to hear the prompt and leave, writing the poem and only sharing it when it was published, which a number of these poems later were. The group interaction, hearing the others’ take on the prompt and considering my own among them, is part of the joy of this activity.
This reflects my ultimate response to the question. Even if no one else is there and I do not imagine a particular audience for the poem I am writing, the poem is an act of communication. It cannot exist in a vacuum. If it is never published and never read aloud, if no one ever hears it, it loses its meaning, and my joy is diminished.
BLM: What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned about yourself that you wish you could tell yourself as a teenager?
RN: When I was a teenager, I didn’t feel I had a lot of skills. I didn’t do well in some classes at school. I have a learning disability in math and am weak in spatial skills, which has impacted my driving, dancing, athletic ability, and the like. I was the only person in my high school, to my knowledge, to get an F in gym while attending every class. My primary and secondary teachers assumed that because I couldn’t do these ordinary things and consistently did poorly in classes like math and chemistry, I must not be academic material. They advised me not to go to college, and tried to get me to switch to a commercial course. As someone who had read every book in the branch library by the age of 11, I knew they were underestimating me, and I persisted in my pursuit of a higher education.
I blossomed in college, when my teachers in literature classes discovered that I was articulate and intelligent, a perceptive reader and writer. This pattern didn’t end when I went to college though. It has followed me throughout my life. I am still frequently misunderstood, which may have something to do with being 4’10” tall, as well with my evident clumsiness. I have had to be very persistent and patient with others. So if I were given the opportunity, would tell my teenage self not to give up, and to be confident about pursuing my goals.
I would also tell my teenage self to listen when people told me I was a natural teacher. They were right, but I wasted a lot of time thinking teaching wasn’t for me just because I thought it was a job people normally reserved for women, as being a secretary was at that time, and I didn’t want to be pigeonholed because of my gender.
College teaching turned out to be a wonderful occupation for someone like me, at her best when performing and interacting with others. Yes, the job can be difficult and challenging, and in my discipline, not at all lucrative, but it gave me the opportunity to read things that interested me, research topics I wanted to investigate, and spend all my time talking about these topics of interest.
Again, I would encourage my younger self to be bolder and more confident than I was, not to be intimidated by other candidates who had a more traditional academic background when I applied for jobs, and to recognize that my skills would be welcome almost anywhere I chose to go.
BLM: What do you feel is your best or most successful poem and why?
RN: I often collaborate with artists or photographers to write ekphrastic poems, which interpret, analyze, or investigate other works of art. In a variation on this practice, over the past years, I wrote about episodes of two Netflix food documentary series, The Chef’s Table and Street Food, season one. My favorite of these poems, collected in my manuscript Plated, poems on the theme of food, cooking, and eating, is “Second Daughter,” based on a 2019 episode of The Chef’s Table about a British chef, Asma Khan.
I enjoy cooking and eating, as well as shopping for ingredients, and I hope my food poems reflect this, generating an appetite and aesthetic appreciation for this necessary aspect of our everyday lives in the reader as well. I think that this poem most successfully does those things, as well as capturing the character of the chef, based on what I have seen in this episode. Admittedly, I have not been able to go to her restaurant and actually taste the dishes she demonstrates or meet her in person, but I can certainly imagine what that would be like, and try to portray that in the poem.
This is a persona poem, told from the point of view of the chef, as the episode itself was. I enjoy writing such poems, speaking through the consciousness of people quite different from myself. I know this is a controversial practice, but it is one I find invigorating. It is meant as a gesture of utmost respect. I feel both interest in and compassion for the narrators I choose, and hope I have been able to do them justice. In this case, I have the actual words of the narrator, and echo them at times in the poem.
If I have done my job, the poem should make readers hungry as well as curious. They should wish to learn more about Indian cuisine and this chef in particular.
The poem was initially published in Glass Lyre Press’s anthology Aeolian Harp VI.
Second Daughter: Asma Khan
My mother cried. I was her second
daughter, little better than a death.
In India, no parties or celebrations
welcome a girl child. Only slammed
doors, impatient voices. But I come
from a warrior clan. Our family
compound looks down on broken
shanties. Father said I must be mindful
of this accident of birth, must make a mark.
I shout my name from every open
window, demanding to be heard.
To make my mother proud, I earned
a law degree at Oxford, married well,
but still felt empty, alone in a far off
country—until by chance, paratha
cooking in a stranger’s kitchen
summoned me to India to learn to cook.
My mother was angry; she said a lawyer
belongs in court. In her kitchen, I watched
and listened, and she could not deny me,
taught me to feed the spirit with a handful
of flour and oil, to find the rhythm of a meal
fashioned out of onion and potatoes, garlic
and cardamom, ingredients that, with patience
and a practiced hand, release their flavors,
become a symphony. I hear the murmur
of the sauce as it thickens, the rattle
of the stockpot, savor the scent of spices
roasting in the skillet with a bit of oil.
It taught me faith, sealing the pot of rice
with a braid of dough, trusting each grain
would soften and swell like a pearl, yielding
to the steam. At home, in England, I spoke
with everyone who looked familiar, taught
them my mother’s recipes. Soon enough,
I welcomed guests as though they were
God himself. Everyone knows my name.
I owe this to my mother, to the women
standing silent at the stove while I work
the front of the house, sharing the story
of this food, this accident of birth.
The guests begin as strangers, leave
as friends. Back in the village, I unseal
the locked gates, embracing every
second daughter, drying her mother’s tears—
every birth worthy of a festival, a feast,
fireworks lighting up the sky.
When W.F. Lantry’s wife, Kate, was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer in April 2022, she asked him to write one poem a day, to chronicle her journey. He’s kept it up through all the biopsies and ultrasounds, two courses of chemo, surgery, and six weeks of proton radiation therapy. The first volume of these poems, The Cancer Diaries – Book One: Flood Warning appeared in January 2023. His other poetry collections are The Terraced Mountain (Little Red Tree 2015), The Structure of Desire (Little Red Tree 2012), winner of a 2013 Nautilus Award in Poetry, and The Language of Birds (2011). He received a Licence and Maitise from the Université de Nice (now l'Université Côte d'Azur), a Masters degree from Boston University, and his PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Houston. Honors include the National Hackney Literary Award in Poetry, CutBank Patricia Goedicke Prize, Crucible Editors’ Poetry Prize, Lindberg Foundation International Poetry for Peace Prize (Israel), Comment Magazine Poetry Award (Canada), Paris/Atlantic Young Writers Award (France), Old Red Kimono Paris Lake Poetry Prize and Potomac Review Prize. He is the editor of Peacock Journal.
BLM: Congratulations on the publication of The Cancer Diaries. What was the best part of this project, and what was the most difficult? WFL: So, a little background for folks who don’t know the story. There’s a reason so many writers love Kate, and wish they could clone her. On my birthday, about fifteen years ago, she came to me and said, “What are you doing? You’re wasting your life, you’re so involved with your work at the University you haven’t written anything in years! I want you to write something, every day. If you do, I’ll send them out to journals to be published.” And I did, she did. And she wrote notes to the editors, built relationships with the literary community, her success was legendary. When we did interviews, people wanted to hear from her, when we did conferences, she would take over the podium. Everyone wanted to know how she did it. The method was simple: she’d find a call for submissions, on some theme, and then she’d message me at work: “I need a poem, at least twenty lines, on the theme of medieval perched villages. Don’t bother coming home until it’s written, or there’s no dinner for you!” And I would write, and send it to her, and she would send it out before I got home, and every week when something was published, we’d go out for dinner on Friday night. So I was used to her literary requests. And then, last April, she was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer. There’s not a good breast cancer to have, but triple negative may be the worst: aggressive, difficult to treat, brutal. And very early on, she said, “I want you to go back to writing a poem every day. I want you to document this cancer journey. Tell the whole truth. Don’t hold back, don’t leave anything out.” She wanted a poetry of witness. I thought of an old line from somewhere: “…and in this harsh world, draw thy breath in pain / to tell my story.” And so I did. But of course I’d lost my proofreader, my editor, and my agent. It was everything I could manage just to take care of her, and our son, and do the daily writing. I was used to publishing what I wrote, but I had no idea where to send them. I thought of Li Po, who folded his poems into little boats, and floated them out onto the river. I thought of Hanshan, who wrote his poems on smooth mountain rocks, for anyone who happened to pass by. And I started putting the poems up on the public sphere: on Instagram, on Facebook, on Twitter. All the people who loved Kate read them, followed her daily story, sent her kind words of encouragement and little gifts of comfort. That’s a long way of getting to the answer for your question. The hardest part of the project? The diagnosis, the treatment, the suffering. Sixteen weeks of the first kind of chemo, which had to be paused because it overwhelmed her body. Twelve weeks of a second, even rougher kind. Surgery. Six weeks of daily radiation, just finished as I write this reply. Likely another kind of chemo coming up. It’s a long, hard road, and at this point, she’s in so much pain she can barely walk. It’s heartbreaking. The best part of the project? Remember all those people who love her? They followed her story each day. They shared the poems with their friends, and new people started reading and commenting on the poems. A whole community grew up, people who’d known her, but also people who’d known someone with breast cancer, people who’d had breast cancer themselves. Hundreds of people became part of our literary family. Some who had been following her story found themselves or their loved ones with their own diagnosis, and knowing what was coming, no matter how difficult, seemed to give them comfort and strength. The project became a community project, and when it came time to publish the book, those kind people sent so many gentle words of love and encouragement they had to be included as front matter. There are ten pages of their compassion and consolation, before the poems even start. They truly are the best part of this project, and they all share in its success.
Here’s the last poem of The Cancer Diaries – Book One: Flood Warning: Rilke Was Right We lose our voices. If you want to sing sing now. There’s always something else to do some circumstance leading to quietude: stillness or reticence, it’s all the same. Sing now, this moment. Praise the mockingbird outside your window in the early dawn who woke you with a thousand joyful tunes: a symphony perched on a single branch rising and falling on vivacious wings. Rilke missed weddings at his writing desk – worried he’d lose his poem for the day: an unimagined song lost on the wind. “I’ve lost my singing voice,” she said last night, “I feel it leaving me each time I sing.” And yesterday I didn’t write because: there’s always something. Sing now while you can, sing in the darkness. Sing against the storm before the wind takes all your breath away.
BLM: Where were you when you heard the news of John Lennon’s murder? WFL: Fasten your seatbelts, everyone. It’s going to be a bumpy ride! Every detail of my writing life, every small or large success, comes from that evening. How did you know to ask this question? So there I was, minding my own business, being a young poet in San Diego. I’d kicked around a couple years, a little lost, before starting at the University. I felt a tremendous sense of being “behind,” so I threw myself into my studies. One semester I took eleven courses! After a few years, I had more than 130 credits, more than enough to graduate. There was only one problem: they were all in literature. No general education courses, no foreign language, a smattering of art and philosophy. Things weren’t looking bright. But I’d audited Carolyn Forche’s poetry seminar, and she’d shown me a whole new way of writing. I’d started a local poetry journal, and organized a series of readings. And that semester, I saw there was a course on William Carlos Williams, so I signed up. The course was taught by Jacqueline Ollier, a visiting scholar from France. I had no idea who she was at the time, no idea that academic mandarins still existed, that a few words from one could change lives. After a few weeks, she hired me as a reader. We worked closely together all through that semester. About halfway through, she asked for a few of my poems, and I gave her about a dozen. That was just before she flew off to spend a week in Hawaii “with an old friend.” The old friend turned out to be Galway Kinnell. She’d been his student, years before, in Grenoble. She left my poems on his kitchen table, and after a couple days, with nothing else to do, he read them. He said some nice words, he even got out a piece of paper and scrawled some kind words of recommendation. I still have that piece of paper somewhere. When she returned, she asked me to go to the student council and ask for funding to bring him to San Diego for a reading. It worked, and a few weeks later there he was. The place was packed. I was the organizer, getting everyone settled and doing introductions. He was the great poet you’ve all heard about. A very successful reading.
The reception was afterwards, at Jacqueline’s house. The whole literary community was there. Everyone was drinking and chatting, Galway even tried to pick up my girlfriend. It wouldn’t be the last time. And at some point, Jacqueline had me sit down in another room with her, and Galway, and Marie-Helene, a visiting professor from the Sorbonne. And Jacqueline said “Bill, I want you to come to Nice, and teach at the University.” I said “Jacqueline, I can’t, I don’t have the funds, I don’t even have a degree.” Jacqueline said, “Don’t worry about any of that. You must come to Nice.” I looked over at Galway, and he nodded. I looked over at Marie-Helene, and something about her expression told me I should say ‘Yes.’ And right now. So I did.
Every aspect of my professional and literary life, every success and opportunity and adventure derived from that moment. Books, prizes, readings in Paris and Rome and Monte Carlo, four degrees from two continents, professor at twelve universities, everything came from that room, from that short conversation with Galway and Jacqueline.
With my fate decided, we walked back out to the living room. Everyone was huddled around her small television set. I asked what happened. And someone said, “John Lennon’s been shot.”
BLM: What do you feel is your best or most successful poem and why? WFL: I was in Boston, and O! Was it cold! Cold, cold, frozen stuff falling from the sky cold. At that point, I’d only lived in San Diego, and in Nice. I was studying with Derek and George and Rosanna, but I was dreaming of somewhere greener, somewhere warmer. And Teresa said, “I’m going to Houston for a couple days, I’ve been accepted to the graduate writing program there.” I said, “Isn’t that where Donald Barthelme’s teaching?” She said “Yes, I think he is.” It was March, way past the deadline, but the next day I sent off my application. Six months later, I found myself at a reception in someone’s Houston home. I was standing in the kitchen, and Donald Barthelme(!) came up to me and said “Young man, you look like someone who enjoys Scotch.” We drank and smoked and talked, it turned out some people had written to him about me. I told him I wanted to do a double dissertation, one in poetry and one in fiction. He said “You’d have to take all the poetry coursework, and all the fiction coursework. Are you really up for that?” I said I was, and he just nodded, and we went on drinking. That’s how I found myself in his seminar. We all had to workshop three stories during the semester. I was so nervous about my first one. I was just a poet, after all, and this was Don’s workshop! How can I describe that moment? I’ll just say it: it was a triumph. People were literally high-fiving me in the halls afterwards. Unsubdued elation! I wrong footed the second story. And Don saved my third one for the very last story of the seminar. By then we’d all heard the news: Don had lung cancer. This would be his last semester. He wouldn’t be directing anyone’s dissertation, much less mine. We did my story, he said kind and encouraging things. Afterwards, he and I were standing and talking outside the building, and he asked me for a cigarette. What would you do? Yes, he was dying, that was plain. But it was Don. Who could say no? I gave him one, and lit it for him. After a little while, he said goodbye, and walked away. It was the last time I ever saw him. And eight months later, he was gone. Gulf Coast decided to do a special issue, a kind of literary tribute. They asked me to write a poem. How does one do that? How does one write a poem worthy of such a brilliant man? I decided the best way was to simply tell the truth, as gracefully as possible. ‘Many things in few words,’ Don always said. He’d encouraged me to background the essential, and foreground the peripheral. He’d encouraged me to walk carefully, and guide the reader along. I tried to do what he said.
"... and offered the master a fag, the which he took, accepting too a light..."
Henry: 215; 3-4
…blooms near our Southwest fence, smoke-white beneath Clitoria, flame vine, and muscadine fragrant, seductive, strange- Teresa, charmed plucked gazed inhaled once, cast down the spray with her composite grace into the pond.
Morning. Inverted koi, grown weirdly thin form bunched, unstable islands. Thus, the French dry full veined leaves, slice, macerate, then spray for diverse types of vertebrates, or non-, but we, compulsive, self-moved, do the same
alone: my aunt grew thin four years ago, James Wright, before I met him, slimmed and fled, and now, in this year’s canicule, one more of too much loss to name: self-implements. Let’s sing of species lost: Teresa, north
or surfaces unbroken by those koi reflecting cirrus blooms, incarnadine, or wings of herons, pulsing down the wind, at evening, cries of nightjar, fenced-in curves where aphids swarm the corkscrew willow’s leaves.
Anne Elezabeth Pluto grew up in Brooklyn, NY before it was cool. She is Professor of Literature and Theatre at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA where she is the artistic director of the Oxford Street Players. She is an alumna of Shakespeare & Company and was a member of the Worcester Shakespeare Company 2011 – 2016. She was a member of the Boston small press scene in the late 1980s and is one of the founders and editors at Nixes Mate Review and Nixes Mate Books. Her publications include chapbooks: The Frog Princess, White Pine Press (1985), eBook Lubbock Electric, Argotist ebooks (2012), Benign Protection Cervena Barva Press (2016), the edited print edition of Lubbock Electric Nixes Mate Books (2018), a full-length collection The Deepest Part of Dark, Unlikely Stories Press, NOLA (2020), and a full-length collection – How Many Miles to Babylon? – Lilly Poetry Review Press – forthcoming – September 2023.
BLM: Is it easy or difficult for you to be vulnerable, raw, and candid in your poetry?
AP: It depends – vulnerable – yes; raw – yes; candid – when I need to be, angry – often. When I write I’m not thinking about an audience – that comes much later during revisions – I have many, many poems that have never been sent out or shared.
BLM: As a child, what scared you?
AP: This is funny now. I must have seen a movie about Roman legions – could have been an Easter film – King of Kings or Spartacus – Roman soldiers scared me – their helmets – their battle gear – a cross between the ridiculous and the terrifying. I had a big imagination – I could picture them marching into Brooklyn. Fast forward to 2013 – I’m directing Antony and Cleopatra – now I’m fascinated by them – I believe there were 34 legions in the Roman Empire – all disciplined and dangerous – with all sorts of symbolic regalia and their sacred eagles. I went to the Harvard Bookstore and found a book (it was large) that had precise illustrations – and sat there for a few hours with it taking notes. Here’s a fun fact – the Roman soldiers wore leather underwear and wool socks with their sandals. The students had a good laugh. A week later I went back to the bookstore - hoping to purchase the book – it was gone – no one remembered it…
BLM: What do you feel is your best or most successful poem, and why?
AP: “I have been to Samarqand.” If I was a rock star, this would be my encore. The poem is a journey – both for the speaker and her dying father. It’s an odyssey – a war memorial of the father’s World War 2 “story." It’s a poem that weaves together the mystery of holy places – the question of faith and the fearful journey to death. I worked on it for at least two years – many revisions – research.
I have been to Samarqand
~ for my father
Two years ago
May now as you made yourself
ready for death I wanted to
remain, relieve her of her duty
and be a good daughter.
You sent me home
to die with her
I have been to Samarqand
that final time
a journey by water
the dream geography more full
than life, the mosque, the church
the covered women singing
the Stations of the Cross
the goblin boat to take me back
I travel by train, north and walk
to the park, it’s hot and burning
to see the icons at the Met
to look into the eyes of each
and every opalescent Virgin
in the house of the father
she guides the souls in comfort to Samarra.
Her eyes follow
me, at home
I present you a gift
at every house of the father
St. Sophia’s in Kiev,
the Friday Mosque of Tashkent,
the Bucharian Synagogue on Sepyornaya Street
the tomb of the Prophet Daniel where his stolen
bones grow the stops along the bloody way
in Iran, Iraq, in Syria
then Lebanon, in Egypt
in Bethlehem at the Church of the Nativity
where the Ottoman Turks
had made the doorways four feet high
to keep the wild horsemen out
where they meet God as three
a trinity of one almighty
city to destroy the houses of the father
a caravansary on the journey
backwards to Samarra
you put messages in the wall
went into the Holy Sepulcher
and stumbled along the viva dolorosa
saw the dome of the rock
where Mohammed rode
a winged stallion to Heaven
across the Mediterranean
in Monte Casino you protected
then the monastery
and in Rome
lifted your face to the ceiling
of the Sistine chapel.
the word of God
as the pain goes through
you like hot lead
as your bones move
lengthwise into sleep.
I have brought your last book
in prescience and redemption
in secret and in silence
open it, alone
study the compassionate
face of Mary
the distant face of Christ
we cannot escape
imprinted on us since
baptism, I hear you
pray and I pray too
for your life that spanned
let the light hold fast
enter Hagia Sophia
the final house of the father
go then, backwards to Samarra
leave your shoes at the door
see Christ who never was
removed before your destiny
is achieved, explore.
Arise, and go
for the kingdom of Heaven
is upon you.