Valencia Robin earns national fellowship for her work, which shifted after Aug. 2017.
CHARLOTTESVILLE – Valencia Robin’s poems often connect her life to larger moments in American history. “I never set out to write about history or current events; I begin with my own lived experience and it’s through that experience that I connect to our country’s broader narrative,” the Charlottesville-based poet said during a recent interview. So if she’d been living anywhere else in the country, it’s doubtful that she would have written a poem about August 2017.
Robin was in her second year of graduate school at the University of Virginia, new to the city of Charlottesville and the Commonwealth. That summer, she watched as white supremacists marched through the college town in the now-infamous Unite the Right rally. The far-right demonstration culminated in neo-Nazi James Alex Fields, Jr. deliberately driving his car through a crowded street, injuring many and killing counter-protestor Heather Heyer.
“That was a real blow to me,” Robin, who is a Black woman, said. “It was really painful.” She’s currently writing a poem about it and about her complicated feelings for the city.
When she moved to Charlottesville, Robin recounted, none of her friends were familiar with the city. They kept confusing it with Charlotte, North Carolina. After Unite the Right, though, that was no longer a problem. Charlottesville was nationally famous for a horrific event. Up until that moment, Robin had seen the city as a charming, little college town, she said.
“Charlottesville represented an exciting opportunity for me. It’s where I started my life as a professional poet, so I wasn’t really thinking about the city’s complicated history, and that’s what I’m trying to get at in this poem,” Robin said.
Pandemic Spurs Artistic Adjustment
The National Endowment for the Arts recently awarded Robin a Creative Writing Fellowship. In a class of 35, she is the only fellow from Virginia, selected from more than 1,600 applicants. Robin will spend the next two years in the grant-funded position working on her second book of poetry. After the last year of pandemic-fueled isolation and political unrest, Robin said, “It’s a very interesting time to be a poet.”
Robin described herself as “a poet who paints.”
She has painted professionally and worked with studios and galleries in the past. But these days painting tends to be “something I do to take time off from my poetry,” she said.
Circumstances of the pandemic also prompted her to spend more time on poetry, she explained. “While I’m actually having a little more time to paint, it’s a little harder to get my work out into the world,” Robin said. She said she’s taken the health risks of the pandemic “very seriously” and only leaves her house when necessary. She hasn’t been to an art show since last March.
“You can write and publish a poem from anywhere. But for painting, you’ve got to visit galleries, work with curators and mail it; it’s like a part-time job,” she said.
In addition to practical circumstances that make it easier to write than paint, Robin said, “A lot of the poems I’m writing these days revolve around COVID and the pandemic, so my painting allows me to get out of my head and think about something else.”
‘The Personal is Political’
Robin grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but spent much of her adult life in Ann Arbor, Michigan, she said. Witnessing Unite the Right in Charlottesville shocked her, but Robin’s come to realize the event likely could have happened anywhere, including Michigan.
In October 2020, in fact, police arrested 13 men for a plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Hundreds of supporters of former President Trump staged a “Stop the Steal” protest in Michigan’s capital city of Lansing a month later. “Just recently, it happened in our nation’s capital, and to a much larger degree,” Robin said, referring to the insurrection in Washington, D.C.
The partisanship and violence, coupled with a nationwide pandemic that has caused fear and isolation, has consumed all of our lives. Robin said there’s no way to leave that context out of her work. “I think of my poems as tools for self-reflection, as well as tools for meditating on the world around me,” she said. “What’s going on around me and what’s affecting my life—that’s all going to go in there. There’s space for all of that.”
Some people may view this artistic tendency as Robin politicizing her work, but she doesn’t see it that way. Robin said everything about art is political already—including a decision not to write about the government, for instance. “The whole debate about whether poems should be political, I don’t even get the debate,” Robin said. “Everything’s political. Not writing about a particular topic is a political decision.”
Fellowship Provides Welcome Support
In addition to working as a poet and painter, Robin is an arts administrator at the University of Virginia’s Young Writers Workshop. That position has been reduced to part-time status during the pandemic. As a result, she’s been compensating with other temporary work.
The NEA fellowship includes $25,000 in funding to support Robin’s artwork over the next two years. She said this money will help her focus on her poetry without being preoccupied about finances. “The fellowship means I can concentrate more on my second book. I can turn down jobs and have time to just write. It’s huge,” Robin said.
Robin hopes to finish her draft and submit it to her publisher by the end of the year, she said.