Q&A With Orange County Poet Robert Milby
The widely-published poet Robert Milby waxes lyrical about his chosen calling
Robert Milby, a self-proclaimed grassroots poet, has traveled near and far, interacting with audiences, giving lectures, and visiting the hometowns and graves of some of America’s most treasured poets. The Orange County native has been writing since he was in high school, and has been reading his work for 20 years. He hosts poetry series at several venues around the Valley, and, he says, is one of the highest-paid poets in the region for his individual readings. He has written for several publications, including the Delaware and Hudson Canvas and Home Planet News. His work consists of many political and social subjects, including war. In honor of National Poetry Month, Milby will appear at Mount Saint Mary College’s April Poetry Series on April 14, where he will read samples of his and other poets’ work. We sat down with Milby to find out what makes the Florida resident tick and pen his prose.
Tell us about yourself. When did you start writing poetry?
I was born in Goshen and I’ve lived in Orange County my whole life. I was always interested in writing. I learned how to read when I was four. I started writing poetry when I was in high school in the 1980s, and honestly it was because I had picked up a copy of the literary magazine at O’Neill High School in Highland Falls and I thought, “I can do better than this.” So I started writing and I haven’t stopped. I’ve been on stage reading in public about 1,200 times and I’ve read in six states; I hope to be reading in Minnesota this summer. I’ve hosted 27 poetry series since September 1995. In short, I went to SUNY Orange and that’s the only college I have. But I also teach creative writing workshops, and I work with people of all ages. I’m involved in many different aspects of creative writing, not only poetry, but also fiction and expository writing.
What made you fall in love with poetry?
It’s funny you should ask that. Recently, a friend of mine, a woman, said, “Well, Robert, you’re in love with poetry.” But I don’t remember ever saying that. I love people; I like poetry. Now, Edna St. Vincent Millay, she was a Vassar girl, I think she had a great love affair with poetry. She was such a romantic. Her life is just completely inspiring. I think that every young writer should read a poet like her. I think poetry is underserved today; point is, young people are not reading poetry. And they’re not being taught to love it. Personally, I think poetry is a way to freedom. It stimulates a desire for a woman or a man to be able to think for themselves.
Any writer’s block?
I was very sick for two and a half years with chronic Lyme Disease. I’m a hiker; I take poets all over the Hudson Valley and we hike here and there, and I was bitten by probably more than one deer tick. I’m completely over it now; I’m very fortunate, but during that time, it manifested in the brain and I wasn’t able to even read. I couldn’t make sense of anything; it was really disturbing. But I healed and now I’m back writing again. I think I’m the luckiest man in the Hudson Valley for that reason alone.
I think when it comes to poetry, if a person is true to themselves, they will explore all different types. Now when it comes to hip-hop and slam poetry, I don’t embrace that. I don’t shun it, but I don’t practice it. I’m largely free verse, so I have a modern style. In terms of rhyming and traditional poetry, I study it. I have written rhyming poems before but I don’t always read them in public because a lot of people want more modern-sounding, conversational free-verse poems. I am considered a radical poet because of my political and social commentary, and I’m very class-conscious.
I’m very inspired by a lot of different poets. It all depends on the time period. I’ll have a friend who says, “What about African-American poets?” And I’ll say, “What do you want to know?” I can lecture on them, gay and lesbian poets, political poets, colonial poets from the 1700s in America. I know medieval and renaissance poets from England, and French symbolist poets, whatever you need. It’s not something that people can develop overnight; it has taken me 26 years to develop all of this.
Favorite poem you’ve written?
To be honest I’ve written more than 2,000 poems, and I’ve had over 220 of them published; I have a book of poetry out in smaller collections, and two spoken word CDs. Every October I work with a theremin player — a theremin is like an early synthesizer; you wave your hand over it and it makes these high-pitched sounds and low moans. I write a lot of ghost and gothic poetry, and we travel all over the Hudson Valley performing as a duo. We’re called Theremin Ghosts and we have a following; it’s really exciting. We do coffee houses and libraries and all that. So, one of my favorite poems is about the ghost of Edgar Allen Poe, and it’s called “The Roses and the Cognac: Poe’s Ghost.” The title has to do with the fact that every year down in Baltimore, where Poe is buried, a man wearing a suit, a trenchcoat, and a fedora pulled down to his eyebrow level, would sneak into the graveyard and place a half a bottle of Martell’s cognac and three roses on Poe’s grave. Then one day it stopped. He just disappeared.
What will you read at MSMC?
It’s the day after the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s birthday; he died in 2013, so I’m going to read some of his poems. I’m going to read a memorial poem I wrote about him. So they’re going to hear some political stuff, some social stuff, some poems about ghosts, and a poem about Newburgh, which is one of my more powerful ghost poems, entitled, “Newburgh’s Secret History.” You can imagine what that’s about.
Can you give a quick sample of your work?
I wrote a winter poem in January. It’s about looking out my bedroom window. It’s entitled, “Omen on a January Morning”:
He arrived at dawn / To speak with a silent coven / Atop the grand Victorian building on Main / A large, angry pickup / Blew through the ice stern street / Like a troubled autumn leaf dislodged from my thoughts / Aurora’s disciples did not flinch / At his warm chimney pulpit
Most memorable poetry reading moment?
I’m so lucky; there have been so many. I loved an experience I had at Vassar College a few years ago at an event that was called “Do It in the Dark.” The students were very cool; they turned off all the electricity and we read by candlelight; it was a blast. There have been some bad ones, too. Once, somebody in the crowd yelled, “You’re going down!” I thought he was going to attack me.
I have another book coming out, hopefully this year. It’s called Victorian House: Ghosts and Gothic Poems.