Interview with Chad Lee Robinson, Prizewinning author of The Deep End of the Sky


Biographical Sketch

Chad Lee Robinson was born in 1980 in Pierre, South Dakota and grew up along the banks of the Missouri River. He continues to live there with his wife Kimberly and son, Nathan, and works as the manager of his father’s grocery store.

It was in 2002, Robinson’s final year at South Dakota State University, that David Allan Evans, poet laureate of South Dakota, introduced him to haiku by sharing a translation of Basho’s haiku about a crow on a bare branch. The attraction was immediate, and Robinson has since devoted all of his creative energy to haiku, senryu and tanka. Much of his work is about small towns and the Great Plains.

Robinson’s first chapbook of haiku, Pop Bottles, won the 2009 True Vine Press Summer Chapbook Competition, and was published by the press that same year. His second chapbook of haiku, Rope Marks, was one of eight winners in the Snapshot Press e-chapbook Awards 2011, and was published in 2012. In 2014, Robinson won the Turtle Light Press haiku chapbook award with his collection, The Deep End of the Sky.

Along with his achievements as a poet, Robinson has served the Haiku Society of America as Plains & Mountains regional coordinator (2006-2011 and again in 2014). He is also a panelist for The Haiku Foundation’s Touchstone Distinguished Book Awards. Robinson also edited Gone Fishing, a Per Diem: Daily Haiku feature that appeared on The Haiku Foundation’s website in September 2014.

What’s Pierre, South Dakota, like physically? What’s it look like? I know it’s a city of around 10,000 people but what does that mean? For instance, how far do you have to go to get to farmland? And what kind of interaction is there between townfolk and surrounding farms?

Pierre is situated along the eastern bank of the Missouri River, in a valley surrounded by rolling hills. Its population is just under 14,000, and so it is a very small town. You don’t have to drive far to get to farmland, it’s just outside of town, less than a few miles.

Heading out of town, east on Highway 14, there are fields of sunflowers. Cattle and calves are South Dakota’s top agricultural products, but for crops—they are corn, wheat, soybeans, hay, and sunflowers.

A number of smaller communities are near Pierre: Blunt, Onida, Agar, Ft. Pierre, etc. These are all farming communities. Farmers come to Pierre from all around, from other smaller farm towns, mainly for groceries and supplies.

Do you live on a farm or did you grow up on one?

Nope, neither. But I do have family on my Dad’s side that has farmed the same land going back to my great-grandfather. I remember visiting my aunt and uncle’s farm (on my Mom’s side) near Clear Lake, SD, when I was a kid. I was pretty little then, and so I don’t remember much.

Much of what I know about farms came from driving Highway 14 back and forth between home and South Dakota State University in Brookings. I got to see what happens on farms from season to season. I miss those drives. Many of my early attempts at haiku were written on Highway 14.

Do you write a bunch of poems about one subject at a time – kind of pick it in advance? Or do poems come to you individually out of your everyday experiences?

Most of the time poems just come to me individually, but sometimes what happens is I’ll riff on a certain subject for a while, and then eventually I’ll just come out of that. I try not to be too focused on one subject. I just try to go with the flow; I don’t try to steer the writing in any particular direction.

Sometimes, if the writing has gone cold, I’ll try to jumpstart it by picking a subject I like to write about and just see what happens. Sometimes that works, sometimes not. For instance, I wrote a spurt of poems about the prairie which included poems about horses and the landscape of South Dakota, and out of that came the title poem.

Do you usually write at your desk? Or while you’re out walking?

I don’t have one place that I write or even a favorite place or a set time. I carry a pocket notebook with me most of the time. I have written in line at the bank, in the shower, in the middle of supper, on the road, in the produce department, out walking, etc.

How did you come up with the first poem? What were the circumstances surrounding the composition of that poem? And what gave you the idea to write it vertically? Or did you initially write it horizontally? I love how the prairie is just there waiting for the reader at the end . . .

I don’t remember exactly how I came up with the title poem, but it’s a poem I’ve seen my entire life: the wide open expanse of sky and prairie. Somewhere in the writing I managed to distill it down to this poem.

I never considered writing it horizontally. It has always been a vertical poem. It’s almost like the opening scene to a movie where the camera is fixed on the sky and pans down to the setting—and so with that in mind I thought it was the perfect poem to open the collection.

It’s interesting to hear you talk about how a haiku can be like a scene in a movie. Sergei Eisenstein, a Soviet film director who was famous for his concept of montage – believed that haiku reflected a kind of chiseled, cinematic prose-rhythm. By combining details of a scene, the reader would arrive at something more than the sum of their parts – that is, at an idea or an emotion.

I haven’t really studied the parallels between haiku and cinema, but I know there are essays out there about this very subject. I do believe that if haiku are given a thoughtful sequence that they can gain a sort of momentum and add up to something more than they are when read as stand-alone poems.

The French literary theorist Roland Barthes, wrote a number of essays on haiku in his book, “The Empire of Signs.” In one of them, entitled “So,” he writes of haiku as “a kind of faint gash inscribed upon time.” I love that phrase – and that’s the feeling I get from a lot of your poems. Any thoughts about this conception of haiku?

That is probably the most apt description I’ve ever read about the impact a haiku can have. So often, haiku are passed over for other longer forms of poetry because people tend to think that haiku are too brief to contain anything impactful. This is far from the truth. Truthfully, it doesn’t really matter what form the writing takes, but if the writing is good it can open you up and leave marks.

Additional questions submitted on Facebook from Tom Clausen and Alan Summers


Tom Clausen: When was it in your life that you began to recognize the beauty of your home area and have you ever considered living any other places? If so, where?

This is a great question. I would have to say that I noticed how beautiful South Dakota was when I was a kid. My family went on vacations in the Black Hills/Badlands every summer, and I always enjoyed it there. My love for pine trees and their scent came from those trips. The Black Hills are gorgeous, full of pine trees, red earth, all sorts of rocks, mountain streams, etc.

One memory I have of those trips to the Black Hills is the drive home. We always stayed as long as we could and many times my Dad drove us home in the dark. I loved looking out the backseat windows at the stars. That is one of my favorite childhood memories.

But it was when I was much older that I recognized the beauty of the farm landscape. I mentioned in an earlier interview question that my drives between Pierre and Brookings (where I attended college) on the eastern side of SD gave me many opportunities in all the seasons to get to know the farm landscape and some of the work that goes on there. One thing that I have always loved about South Dakota is the horizon, the wide open sky. Fields of sunflowers that seem to stretch without end, the deep night sky full of stars, the smell of a field after rain.

I grew up in central SD, on the eastern bank of the Missouri River. Living along the river has been good and bad. The good: cool breezes off the water, lots of opportunities to write fishing haiku. The bad: it can change the weather, usually not favorably. The winters are brutal, so are the summers, and sometimes you can catch a nice spring or fall day. The good kind of fall days last about as long as a pumpkin carved and set on the front steps, and then winter sets in. I have lived here my whole life, and while there are drawbacks to living here, there are so many different landscapes to enjoy that it’s hard not to like it or even love it.

The only other places I have ever considered living are Sioux Falls, South Dakota’s largest city, and the Black Hills. I have wanted to live there since I was a kid.

Could you share some of your favorite South Dakota places and whether you have ever been to any ghost towns in SD?

I would have to say that my favorite place in South Dakota is the Black Hills. I love the mountains (they are actually mountains and not hills) and the pines. And while I think Pierre is a nice town to grow up in and raise kids in, there isn’t much to do here for someone my age (mid 30s), so that’s why I can appreciate Sioux Falls.

I have never been to a ghost town (I have seen them in pictures) though there are many here in South Dakota. I think Capa, which isn’t far from Ft. Pierre, was recently added to the list of SD ghost towns.

Alan Summers: How much of your life experiences are covered by your haiku?

Quite a bit, in fact. I’ve written extensively about my childhood. Many of these haiku focus more on the darker or the  sadder side of childhood. A number of haiku in The Deep End of the Sky reference my grandparents, my brother, my parents. I enjoyed working haiku into that collection to show my family’s roots in the land, in South Dakota, not just through working the land but through lives being lived and lost.

My wife inspired a number of my love haiku and I’ve only just started writing about my son who recently turned three. I’ve written some haiku about an old blue car which was a ’57 Chevy that my Dad had restored to all original. He also had a ’55 Chevy and a ’56 Chevy as well, and sometimes my memory of all three cars runs together. One specific haiku that comes to mind is “migrating geese– / the things we thought we needed / darken the garage”.

I wrote that in response to the flood of 2011 on the Missouri River. My wife and I were displaced from our home, living with my father-in-law. My wife and I bought a shop-vac thinking if we got water in our basement we would be able to clean it up. Fortunately we didn’t need the shop-vac as we got no water in the basement. But one day I saw the shop-vac in the garage, unopened on a shelf. It’s a big box that casts a bigger shadow. That life experience led me to write the migrating geese haiku.

While not all of what I write or publish is directly related to my life experiences, I do think that there is a little something of myself in each poem I write. Some of my best work does come from my life experiences, or maybe I should say my most meaningful haiku come directly out of my life.

Alan Summers: How did you (Chad) and Rick work together to bring about this exceptional collection?

Rick Black, of TLP, replies: Once Penny Harter selected Chad Lee Robinson’s book as the winner, we began editing it. I read through the manuscript a number of times, both with regard to individual haiku and the flow of the poems from one to another. Once I gathered my thoughts, I wrote to Chad with my suggestions section by section. There are four sections. I always figure it’s better to do it little by little than try to tackle the whole thing at once.

Mostly, it was the fourth section that needed work. I had a sense that Chad had gotten tired by that time and lost the focus of the ms. in terms of the seasons. Some of the haiku were not as strong, either. Occasionally, I would suggest revisions; once in a while I might say, “No, let’s take that one out and see if we can’t find another.”

Generally speaking, I don’t like to replace more than 10 percent of a collection that has already been judged. That’s a number that I’m comfortable with. The tension is between publishing the best possible book and being fair to the other manuscripts that were submitted and the competitors. In Chad’s case, I don’t think we even replaced 10 percent – so, maybe two or three came out altogether.

It’s my philosophy that this is the author’s work, not mine. So, Chad had the final say on all editorial decisions involving this aspect of publication. My job was to point out places that I thought the ms. could use improvement. Occasionally, I would push back here or there and we had some nice exchanges about various poems. In general, though, it was a very easy edit and Chad was great to work with.

After the text was set, I got to work as a graphic designer. I wanted the book to have a sense of the North American plains – the breadth and scope of that countryside. I also am a great believer in images or some kind of decorative motif accompanying the poems so that they don’t get lonely on the page. The images also help to break up the continous flow of poems, allows the reader’s mind to rest a little. In selecting an image, I usually do not try to illustrate a particular haiku but to convey a general sense of what is being written about, to add to the images of the haiku and the atmosphere of the book.

Subsequently, it was just a matter of selecting the images – which I went back and forth on with Chad, usually – and then of laying out the poems. How many to a page, which ones to feature, etc. And that’s pretty much it . . . !