I meet poet Robert Tustin in the coffee shop at Barnes & Noble as agreed. I am early. He is earlier. He is waiting for me at a side table with several poetry books and a yellow notepad with a list of poetic influences written in neat, concise print. We are friends immediately, talking as if we’ve known each other for years — an easy sing-song conversation about our shared love of words, lines, and stanzas.
Robert speaks in soft, quiet tones with an open and deliberate demeanor. He is invitingly eager to discuss his passion for poetry and his earnest desire to see poetry become a “connective” experience; one which brings the people of his community into a deeper conversation with themselves and helps them to create a stronger connection with others in the world.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview. Can you give the readers some information on your background and explain how you came to write poetry?
I was born in College Point, Queens, New York to a working class mother and father, a Catholic and an Episcopalian respectively — parents who saw fit to send me and my two brothers to a private evangelical Lutheran school up until eight grade. Hallelujah! Praise the Lord! We come by our eccentricities, as they are, quite honestly. Following that, I attended the local public high school in Flushing. It was a rude awakening and I was a quiet, awkward, and shy C student.
Everything changed when I was a Junior in high school and took Mrs. Aronaeur’s English class. She was a very patient, enthusiastic, and caring instructor. I was introduced to Shakespeare, and Macbeth in particular. I was hooked and my C’s became A’s seemingly overnight. By and large it was Shakespeare and his poetic use of language in his plays that brought me to write my first poems at the age of sixteen.
What three poets do you consider most influential to your growth as a poet?
Obviously Shakespeare was my earliest poetic influence in my late teens. In my early twenties I experienced my first breakup with a girlfriend. Almost immediately after that I borrowed (stole may be a better word for it), Bukowski’s book, Love Is A Dog From Hell, from my older brother, John. It ushered in my second phase of poetry, which sought to use free verse to subvert romance. The influence of Shakespeare was still there but to it I added a more contemporary voice.
For the third influence I went back a bit to William Carlos Williams and his little polished gems. In my thirties my poetry took on the quality of a passive observer recording seemingly mundane experiences and through language transforming them into something, at least for me in writing them, approaching the Divine. I sought to capture moments in time and by doing so, claim them and whatever wisdom the held as my own.
What other disciplines, beside literature, or areas of interest inform your writing?
I have always been a student of history and mythology. Classical and Medieval history along with Greek and Norse mythology frequently find their way into my poetry. Art, particularly sculpture, is also an area of interest that informs my poetry. I always try to convey history and mythology through a very contemporary lens to show that times may change but people, by and large, remain the same. People like to think, even in their lifetime, that the kids coming up are somehow different, less civil, more this, less that … The ancient Greek had the same sentiment three thousand years ago.
At what age, during what period of your life, did you first know you wanted to be a poet?
I knew I wanted to be a poet when I was sixteen. At first my poems, like many young aspiring poets, resembled song lyrics. As I progressed and the influences began to truly impact me and inform my writing I dabbled in writing sonnets (a form I still love to write in) and, of course, free verse.
What are your thoughts on the current poetry scene and the utilization of poetry in our country?
Poetry on social media is encouraging more young people to put their poetry out there. I think this is a good thing. I see young teens devouring the latest books by R.L. Sin, Rupi Kaur, and Lang Leav. If this inspires them to go home and write poetry this is a good thing. I also hope this sparks in them an interest in and appreciation for the poets of the past.
What do you hope to accomplish with your writing? Is there an objective?
I think poets write with the expectation of someone else seeing their work, whether or not they actively seek formal publication. I believe, even in writing for ourselves, we are writing for an audience. I hope to always write to the best of my ability and to create art every single time I type words on a screen or put pen to paper. My objective is always to create a thing of beauty for the eyes and ears.
I wanted to do an Open Mic because I think people need to hear poetry read aloud and not just see it on their computer screen or on a page. Poetry should be a live experience. The process of writing it can often be a very lonely endeavor. Poetry is a living thing and needs to be given breath.
What does the term poetry “in everyday life” mean to you?
I think most, if not all, poets are passive viewers of the goings on of their contemporaries. Watching a young girl sobbing on a rusty swing, a black and white terrier chase a yellow leaf swirling in the wind — There is poetry everywhere waiting to be captured by a poet’s imagination. The poet also has an inner landscape they often love to share. Poets are sometimes at their best when they look critically at their own inner workings.
We all share the same emotions as human beings. Read a poet like the Roman, Martial. Most of his epigrams seem like they could have been written yesterday. He was a Roman citizen writing very raw little epigrams about everyday life in Rome. His poems display humanity in all its beauty and ugliness too. His writing takes what might have seemed ugly at first and makes it something quite beautiful. Language has the power to do that. There is poetry absolutely everywhere for the poet willing to look.
If you are in the Myrtle Beach, SC area, please come out and share your poetry or support local poets by listening to them read. Robert hosts the Poet-To-Poet Open Mic Poetry Experience the second Thursday of every month at 7 pm, at the Barnes & Noble in The Market Common. For further information, or if you have questions or comments, please leave them in the comments section below. Your feedback and participation are greatly appreciated.