I first met Jennifer in 2019 when I asked her for a review copy of her second book, Earthquakes in Candyland (Fungasm Press). We met at a now-closed bar in downtown Portland and immediately started talking about Anais Nin and the writing life. I remember she asked me things like, “Is this what you thought being a writer would be like?” and I said, “Uh, no.” Reading Robin, following her career, has shown me a path for being a writer that falls outside the typical grad school > lit-mag > book deal trajectory.
Her latest book, You Only Bend Once with a Spoonful of Mercury (Far West, 2022), is a collection of dream vignettes and flashes. From her dream journal to Facebook to Far West press, the stories in You Only Bend Once blend Robin’s penchant for the bizarre with an irresistible musicality..
With an extensive background in DIY performance art—often reading her work with no prior rehearsal and accompanied by local experimental noise musicians—Robin persistently leans into the unknown as an artist.
I met with Robin at her apartment to talk about dreams and dreaming, forms of publishing, resisting categorization as an artist, and the transition from writing in the short form to the expansive, oceanic space of the novel.
Lily Blackburn: I came to discover your work through other people recommending your books and telling me to read your Facebook page. This made me curious about your philosophy around publishing and sharing your work.
Jennifer Robin: I’ve been a complete anarchist for as long as humanly possible. And I really come from much more of an experimental performance art, do-it-yourself, indie-art world.
When I first moved to Portland and even before that, I was drawn to be on stages and do cathartic performances that would incorporate text. So I’ve always felt writing is musical composition. I never saw writing as the only discipline I was involved with and I’d always been deeply suspicious of proper pathways. And I always felt that my species were a bunch of barbarians ready to eat each other alive at the first opportunity. I think more people listen to you when you’re speaking from your unique life’s experience.
I didn’t want to be identified as a certain kind of writer like, “I do autofiction.” Or “I’m the poet of drunkenness and despair and you can rely on me for another story about blacking out.” Instead, I felt like, oh, for this couple of years I’m writing science fiction, and for this couple of years I’m writing about an energy vampire. And for this five years I’m doing blog posts about my eccentric mother and a lot of bizarre relationships where I dated what most people would consider the undateable. But that’s because I feel like I’ve always had a high tolerance for eccentricity, and once again, distrusted the idea of the normal and the pressures of the normal.
LB: It does seem like you’re always writing something that only you could write in that specific period of time. And I think that that comes through, but maybe that always poses the risk of losing people along the way. Maybe that’s inevitable?
JR: Even if your audience is online, it feels like online dating to an absurd degree. And you realize there’s some people who come and go every three weeks, but other people who have interests as broad as your own. They like something about your spirit or your ability to musically compose with words or to capture something existential about anything. Whether it’s a cup of soup, or the line in Safeway, or something that’s considered a deliberately more profound topic—there are people who stick with you and I’ve come to cherish them. It might be five people, it might be 500 people, but they exist and I’m still writing for them, while at the same time, I’m writing to fulfill my own fantasy needs and masturbatory needs and existential needs. As artists, we’re all weirdly selfish and selfless at the same time.
LB: Like if we don’t follow what we desire, what we’re obsessing over, then, like, what are we doing? Then you’re just writing what someone wants you to write or—?
JR: And that’s a prison. That’s a hideous prison.
LB: Speaking of writing what you want, I was just rereading your published collection of dreams, You Only Bend Once with a Spoonful of Mercury over the weekend and I was curious about your process for that book. A collection of dreams, relying on dream logic. Usually that would not be something publishing is eager to take on, I would imagine. So what was the process of compiling the dreams for Far West? And do you keep a dream journal?
JR: I often type out my dreams now. I’ve been recording dreams since I was a child. By the time I was three, I knew I didn’t want to be in the regular human world. I could feel that there was a lot more that I was missing and right on the edge of having access to. If I could train my mind to follow these little tantalizing glimmers and glints, I could get to the world outside of the ordinary human consciousness. As a child, I would lie in bed often with one eye open and one eye shut. Somehow that would keep me halfway in.
With You Only Bend Once…those dreams were all written live online, especially during the period when so many people were on Facebook. (And a lot of people still are.) But this was in the heavy concentrated teens of the 21st century. Yeah, I guess this is the 21st century. I don’t want to adhere to time.
It’s a very raw book with very little editing. I would literally wake up and go, oh, this is a good one to share with people. How much can I capture this dream? And some of them are really short, like flashes, so between five minutes and an hour I would quickly write those online and press “post” and see what responses there would be.
And that was also part of the live experiment, it felt, for the many years I was writing live online every day for over a decade, usually multiple times a day. It felt like a real experiment in my consciousness and in a hive-mind kind of interaction, an electronic Ouija board.
And so that energy [of not knowing] is very much in the way I’m relating these dreams.
Far West deals with a lot of pop cultural subjects, and has a West Coast psychedelia, rock and roll feeling that they project. So I picked more dreams that had pop cultural references, celebrity and apocalypse. I’m always pretty much exclusively dreaming about apocalyptic situations anyway.LB: As I was preparing these questions I thought, yes, dreams=fiction. But then as soon as I said that…I thought…are they? Did you approach them in the way you write fiction or like your other books, like more nonfiction or absurdist journalism?
JR: I don’t like to say certain things are real and not real. I view my dream experiences as an important extension of my life and adventures and the entities I get to know and rub against and learn from and observe. I don’t like to interpret life through one filter or one kind of mind. So there’s so many times in my life where I’ve gone, “I’m empirical,” or “I’m atheistic to the core,” but I’ve also been a person who’s felt like I’ve been a conduit for massive energy surges since I was a toddler. I just like to interpret things in whatever mind is most enjoyable at a certain moment in time.
There was a period of time where I couldn’t access my dreams as well and I was so depressed. I could feel how much I needed access to that part of myself and whatever that reality is.
LB: I feel like we all go through those dreamless periods and I wonder, do you feel like the more that you record your dreams, the more you dream?
JR: Yes, and the more I strengthen that memory muscle to access them. It’s very much tracing a thread backwards. It’s the finest thread and it’s so easy to lose hold of it. But like remembering a dream, having an orgasm, same thing, right?
LB: Totally! But yeah, I do feel like whenever I’m reading about dreaming it can start to wake that part up.
JR: I felt like I was in a dream world more than a physical reality for the month I was sorting through them.
LB: And so how does it feel now to be working in the long form (on multiple novels) after three books of flash/vignettes?
JR: Working on a novel is very much like what many people who love the ocean talk about.
In some languages, ocean and mother have the same etymological roots. I hear about these ocean lovers and how it’s like entering a womb, and that there’s a sense of security even though there’s also a lot of danger that can be encountered in the ocean. On all my visits to beaches, I’ve definitely felt the different quality of the air and the brininess, how it settles over your skin like an extra membrane, and how the sounds of the waves do something to the brain waves that’s soothing in a very specific way and blocks out the rest of the world.
And maybe this is the case with being on any kind of edge, whether it’s an edge of consciousness or a boundary between whatever. Where you come from suddenly loses its relevance, which can feel very liberating.
I feel like it’s [the novel] a very vast, heavy, soothing landscape where you can just journey in and say “I’m going to edit this dialogue,” or “I’m gonna lose myself in this scene.” And you’re accepting your role as a conduit, where you’re learning more about your characters, but you have to allow them to show themselves to you, and it takes time and patience. And it’s intoxicating.
I clearly am endowed with an ego, but I love getting away from the public ego that I started to feel imprisoned by, the public ego I think every writer and artist in general starts to feel imprisoned by, once they start getting an audience and start supposedly, heavy air quotes, going somewhere. Where is that? Is it where you really wanna go? I question it all the time.
LB: I like what you said about the ego and the novel, and it sounds like it’s kind of a process of letting go of control.
JR: You literally cannot know what it’s supposed to be in a week. Or a month or a year. Some novels take decades for people to understand what it’s really supposed to be.
LB: Which is really beautiful. It’s like your/a life’s work.
JR: It is. One of the novels I’m working on right now, I’ve been working on since I moved to Portland. Since I was 23. And I feel like I’m really gonna have it done by the end of this year.
I never thought it was abandoned. I would always come back to it every few years in between other projects. And every time I did more work on it, I truly strengthened it and learned more about that world and those luscious, luscious characters there. But I’m so happy it’s finally gonna come out next year.
LB: Are you referring to Ballad of Ecto-Five?
JR: Yes. And the other one coming out next year is There Must Be An Invisible Leash, with Future Tense. I would call it a hybrid, somewhere between woven together autobiographical flash pieces and a novel. I originally called it “The Relationship Book.” Because it’s eccentric family stories and what some people would call stories of self-discovery. And a lot of bizarre relationships. So it’s a lot of the personal stories that are not in the other books because weirdly, even though people think Death Confetti and Earthquakes are more autobiographical, they’re really about me observing phenomena outside of myself.
LB: Did you see the celebrities (in You Only Bend Once…) operating as archetypes in your dreams? As a reflection of something larger in our collective unconscious?
JR: Well, in a lot of ways, being a celebrity means you no longer control your image. The bigger a celebrity you are, the more a certain kind of synthetic flesh that you appear to wear is owned by vast masses of people, not to mention the syndicates that are making their money off you.
If I die, I’m just nobody. Some people go, oh, she was some writer in Portland. And that memory will be gone in another fifteen years if the human race lasts that long. So even at my level of brief indie literary fame, I’ve already felt like running away from what audiences demand.
There’s a vampiric side and an empathic side to everyone, but not a single one of us can really quantify how much we are of one and how much we are of another. And being even the most obscure literary celebrity on the planet, I have gotten to experience what that means. I was kicked out of literary scenes for a while. I was persona non grata in so many places. I was suddenly considered anti-American by saying, I don’t trust the Democratic party any more than I trust the Republican Party, it’s all a farce. People don’t like to hear these things. And you realize how many fictional versions of reality people are still holding onto. I really started to feel disillusioned about celebrity, but I also ended up getting a lot of love and support and cultivated a new politically active audience of people concerned about the planet.
So, as far as the archetypes in my dreams, sometimes they’re not fully formed and sometimes they’re really comical. Like the Howard Stern dream. Because I’ve never consciously had a crush on him and, you know, and for anyone reading this—Howard Stern proposes marriage to me, but then I have a traumatic jaw injury and I discover he’s also a plastic surgeon, so he promises he’s going to fix me up, but then doesn’t.
I’m always amused by the celebrities in my dreams, but I never think that’s who they really are.
LB: They’re like stand-ins.
JR: Yeah, like a mirror image of a mirror image of a mirror image. They’re architectural elements in our lives. We didn’t choose to have them here. It’s no different than saying I saw a tree in my dream. I saw Tina Turner in my dream. I saw the Chrysler Building in my dream. They’re all just architecture.
LB: So what piece(s) of advice about being a writer/artist has inspired you the most? And who would you say are some of your biggest influences for the novels you’re working on right now?
JR: I remember in one interview Kurt Vonnegut said too many authors are attempting to manipulate the reader to a certain intellectual or emotional conclusion. And if you are trying to do that, even if you don’t think you’re trying to do that, look at your writing and see if you are because the reader subconsciously resents that and often can consciously identify that. No one wants to just be led somewhere by propaganda.
When I was 14 years old, I met this guy in a shopping mall record store. He told me to listen to Peter Gabriel, and he could tell I would love Dostoevsky. As a teenager I was really into Dostoevsky, James Joyce, Dylan Thomas, Flannery O’Connor. I was just enthralled. I was 15 when I started having my southern gothic phase. I loved Flannery O’Connor. She did something. Which is you can mash tones together in a sentence. You can have a single sentence mash together dark and light in such a potent way, that reflects what really is. It has a wonderful jarring quality that really makes someone pay attention to what you’re saying, make someone further immersed in the scene, whatever the scene is, because you’re literally giving them some sort of micro abrasions causing them to have an immune response. All the authors I love do this.
Jennifer Robin is RAW POWER. She is a lawless lone Jane. She has been performing weekly at open mics and with experimental musicians since she was seventeen years of age. Her work has been published by PLAZM, Hobart, Five2One, Vlad Mag, Counterpunch, Ladybox, and King Shot Press. She is the author of the ‘stand-up tragedy’ Death Confetti (Feral House), a book of American self-immolation, Earthquakes in Candyland (Fungasm), and the dream reportage of You Only Bend Once with a Spoonful of Mercury (Far West). A collection of vignettes about foot fetishists, nuns, deranged lovers, French swingers, and her mother, There Must Be an Invisible Leash, will be out with Future Tense in 2024. Her 2024 Oblique Strategies release—The Ballad of Ecto-Five—is an ‘erotic novel of mad science’ featuring Mother Earth’s Avenger and his ‘girl gang.’ It is an examination of what it means to really ‘end it all’ with a garage rock soundtrack.