2. Robin MacArthur
Marlboro, Vermont // March 2016
Robin MacArthur is a writer and musician who lives in a house she built with her husband, the musician Ty Gibbons, on a plot of her family’s land in the middle of southern Vermont. Robin’s writing is powerful, interesting stuff – much of it is deeply grounded in the Vermont landscape, and to my mind there’s hardly anyone who writes with more emotional specificity about this unique part of the world. I wanted to talk to her not only about what it was like to distill a place into a fictive setting, but also about what it was like to consciously decide to come back and make her life in a place where generations of her family had been before. The deliberate way in which she and her family have made their lives amid the woods and hills up here seem to me to speak to some important elements of what makes Vermont what it is.
We also talk a bit about her grandmother, Margaret MacArthur, a folklorist and performer who came to Vermont in the mid-twentieth century and collected folk songs from around the area. Robin and Ty rerecorded several of these a few years ago with a fellowship from the Vermont Arts Council, on an album called Your Name In Secret I Would Write, which they released as their band, Red Heart the Ticker. It’s a fascinating project and an awesome album, and you can find it in most of the places where music is. RHTT have three other albums out there as well, and I think their latest, Tigers of the New England Forest, from 2015, is especially beautiful.
This interview took place about one millisecond before Robin hit upon some considerable and well-deserved success: shortly after we talked, her short story collection Half Wild was released, and it quickly went on to win critical acclaim and prestigious awards. It was followed within a year by her debut novel, Heart Spring Mountain, which is similarly great and has been similarly received. Both books hit on something very essential about life in rural Vermont, and she alludes a little bit to the first book in our talk here. More about Robin's work is at her website, here, and you can see a schedule of her upcoming readings here.
One – ahem – special feature of this interview comes from the fact that I inexplicably stopped recording, for no apparent reason, just before the best parts of our conversation occurred. So the final part of this transcript comes from a voice memo that I recorded immediately afterwards, in which I tried to sum that last bit up for the record. (This was an early one and I was still getting the hang of this, okay?)
Anyway, the area where Robin and Ty live is just a dozen miles or so upland from Brattleboro, the southeastern Vermont city on the Connecticut River. Brattleboro isn’t far away at all from the region where I’d grown up, and I’d spent a lot of time there, which is why this conversation begins with the three of us raving about a local coffee shop.
- - -
Robin MacArthur: Yeah, we were just reading about Mocha Joe’s, actually – I used to work at Mocha Joe’s all through high school, but they're like worldwide now. They have this whole Asian boom, right, Ty?
Tyler Gibbons: Yeah, this is crazy– apparently now you see fancy cafes in Tokyo serving Mocha Joe’s!
Ben Cosgrove: What, seriously? They just ship it from like, Brattleboro to Tokyo?
TG: Well, as it turns out – I found out just this morning – one of my students, my former songwriting students, is the one making this happen. He's from Japan, and he approached Mocha Joe’s and said… well, he comes from this big business family and he said...
BC: “Would you like to start a global empire?”
TG: Yes – “If you want, I can make this happen,” and I guess they were like “OK.” So now it's happening. [laughs]
BC: That’s wild. Is there even a second Mocha Joe’s location? Or is it just that one downtown, and then this intercontinental coffee pipeline?
TG: Ha! Hm, I think –
RM: I think they used to have one in Keene, years ago. No?
TG: Oh did they? Huh. But I mean they sell a lot. Or do they? I don’t really even know…
RM: I mean, I guess sometimes you see it in the Berkshires. Like you know, somewhat regional…
TG: Somewhat regional. The Berkshires and… Tokyo.
RM: Are we recording now?
TG: Okay, bye guys.
BC: Oh yeah, sorry, we’re recording now – fortunately we caught all the Mocha Joe’s material.
RM: Ha, phew, that’s a relief. Do I need to be close to the microphone? Close-ER to the microphone?
BC: I don’t know… this microphone is new to me, but the lines are jumping up and down when you speak, which is promising. I think it ought to be good.
BC: So – I guess here’s a good place to start: where are we right now?
RM: We’re in Marlboro, Vermont. My grandparents bought this chunk of land in 1951. And it was -- they got 300 acres for like twenty five hundred dollars or something. And so their farmhouse is up the hill from here. My mom's farm stand is right around the corner; my parents live through the woods in that direction; my aunt and uncle live through the woods that direction; my cousin lives that direction; my aunt and my brother live up the road. So basically, my grandparents bought this piece of land and most of their kids stuck around and homesteaded here. And so far, three of us from the next generation are doing that too.
BC: So the land that this house is on was forest that you knocked out to… or was this an existing building?
RM: Yeah – no, we built this – so this cabin, when I was 16, this was just woods and my dad and I built – do you see that cabin that’s over there in the woods now? We built that right where this is. So we just cut some trees here. That one, that cabin, it was just standing on some birch stumps and some piled up stones. And so that was my cabin when I was 16. I would come home from college and stay there, and I would live there in the summers. And then one time, Ty and I, when we were like 25, we built what’s now our living room. It was a one room insulated cabin with a loft and we lived there for many years.
BC: Whoa. That living room about five feet from where we’re sitting. So those were exterior walls?
RM: Yeah! Yeah. This is – what you're what you're standing in is three different additions morphing...
BC: A room slowly metastasizing into a house.
RM: Ha! Yeah, exactly, it grew in chunks; with every new child we add a new wing. But, you know, it's as big as it's getting. This is the -- this is the addition that we built when we were pregnant with our first kid, our daughter. And we spent that entire year putting in running water and building ourselves a septic system and building a house.
BC: Wow. What a layered – so were you – I mean, you have lived other places at various points though, right? I mean you went to college elsewhere…
RM: I went to Brown and then Ty and I lived in New York for a while. We lived in Philly…
BC: So how long was your period of -- like, your rumspringa period of living, you know, places that aren't on this one dirt road?
RM: Ha. So we were in New York for two years and we were in Philadelphia for two years and then I've traveled – I lived in Tucson a fair amount and off and on, and traveled various places, but I always come back here. You know, even when I was living in New York, I would kind of cravenly get in the car any chance I could and come back to this cabin and collapse.
BC: Ha, I can totally relate to that experience. But this was always the plan, though, for you to come back here and make your life on the land you’d grown up on?
RM: Oh, no. It wasn't my plan when I was a teenager. Although when I was a kid, you know – not as teenager when I was like “great, I'll go live in cities and be urban and whatever” – but when I was a kid I would spend hours in the woods looking for house sites and thinking about what kind of house I'd like to build and where in these woods I’d do it. It's just kind of what my family does. So you know, the house in the woods here on this land – and this is my parent’s land; we don’t own this land – it feels correct, you know? The reason, you know, is that my family is incredibly self-reliant. If there's any religion permeating my family, it's self-reliance. And so nobody in my family has a mortgage because they all just built their houses themselves on land that my grandparents bought back in the 50s.
BC: I mean, an interesting thing is that the fifties are still kind of recent. It's really satisfying that your whole, you know, empire here has developed in that time.
RM: Oh yeah! Yeah, definitely. We’re not – we're not eight generations back or anything. But land was really cheap in the 50s in Vermont. Lots of abandoned farmhouses…
BC: I guess it would have been just before the whole Back to the Land movement and everything too. Kind of a different Vermont then.
RM: Yep, for sure.
BC: But your – your grandmother was from Vermont too though, right? I just recently realized that I had your grandmother's record, that Folkways one –
BC: -- but I somehow didn’t put together the connection until like last week. Yeah.
RM: That’s great! Yes. So she recorded that in the kitchen of the farmhouse right up the road. I can take you up there. We have a caretaker there, but we're in the process of making it into... well, one of my many projects that's leading to burnout is trying to turn that into an arts/creative space – her house.
BC: What kind of arts/creative space?
RM: Oh, I would love to have workshops and residencies – it's a small house, but it's a beautiful house. Wait until you see it. It's just gorgeous. And everyone who walks in wants to make art there… you know. It's got this wonderful wooden vibe/vibration thing happening.
So anyway, yes, she recorded that album there. She is originally from – well, she really grew up all over the country. Her stepfather worked for the National Forest Service, so she grew up in the Mogollon Rim of Arizona, and in southern California, and in the Ozarks of Missouri, and–
BC: Huh – where in Arizona is the Mogollon Rim?
RM: It's in Arizona and it's – man, my Arizona geography is failing me now. I think south of Flagstaff?
BC: Oh like southeast of it, in that area out near...? No worries, I'm sorry – I interrupted you.
RM: No, no, there’s a huge national forest and it's – there's actually a rim, there's like these huge cliffs and little towns on the top of the rim. Really amazing. Anyway, her father worked for the forest service. And so there are a bunch of cowboys employed out there by the Forest Service and they – my grandmother grew up in a tent for these years that they lived there, surrounded by these tents that the cowboys were living in.
BC: Oh! Yeah! You wrote an Orion piece about this.
RM: Yeah! But anyway, she grew up all over – she grew up for some time in Chicago where her dad's family was, and Kentucky, and South Carolina… In all of those places when she’d grown up, there were these really rich vibrant musical cultures. And then she moved here in the fifties or forties with my grandfather who had a teaching job at Marlboro College and she just couldn't find the musical culture of this place. And so she felt really adrift. There was church music – you know, you could go to church and sing – but she wanted like, The Folk Music of Vermont. And so that's how she spent her life, going out in search of that and then performing the songs she collected.
BC: That's interesting – I tend to think of Vermont, and southern Vermont especially, as having a pretty rich culture built around this kind of music. Field songs and dulcimers and that kind of thing. But that’s all more recent?
RM: Yeah but no, no, that's really all part of the Back to the Land movement. That’s part of the sixties and the folk revival. It's not like that Appalachian traditional music which has just been kept so strongly alive elsewhere.
BC: Oh huh, yeah, good point. Man, that’s so interesting.
RM: So yeah when she was here in the fifties, there were some people way back in the woods who still knew these traditional songs but most people were not singing the songs that their mothers had sung to them… and then, you know, they just hadn't… it just got diluted.
BC: Yeah. That’s fascinating. I guess that’s probably true in a lot of New England...
RM: Oh, yeah. Shape note singing, for instance. That left New England and really bolstered in the south and then was brought back up here. But I think – oh, and you know there's a lot of French-Canadian fiddle tunes; that scene, that was still vibrant in the 50s – but yeah I think that as Yankees we're just too busy.
BC: Ha! Yeah, I guess. Maybe it makes sense that folk songs weren’t necessarily that high on the cultural priorities list up here.
RM: Yeah, just go out and work on the stones in the fields, don’t sing songs to each other.
BC: [laughs] Yeah, well I’m glad that we’ve now chipped away at the Puritan work ethic enough that we’re allowed to play music now.
Both: [several full seconds of unintelligible chatter/crosstalk]
BC: That’s cool that you, that you boomeranged back here though. I interviewed David [Berkeley] for one of these as well, and he was saying – so I asked him about growing up in New Jersey, and he said that one of the things that he appreciated about it is that it didn't give him any sense of obligation to go back there. Like, it was great, and he had a wonderful time growing up, but he never felt any pressure to live there as an adult.
RM: They sure have lived in all sorts of wonderful places.
BC: Yeah, exactly. So he was saying like, “it gave me the freedom to figure out where I actually do want to live.” Which I thought was a cool idea.
RM: Yeah it's in some ways it's – I mean, I certainly have no issues being back here. I love it here. I get to raise my kids on a farm without being a farmer, which is a huge piece of my lifestyle. [laughs] That my mom's a farmer, my dad, you know – my parents make maple syrup. And my mom has all these raspberries – huge blueberry and raspberry farm right here. And my kids are surrounded by that, three quarters of the year. And I have to be a farmer and I get to be an artist. And so there was a long time when I felt like I in order to be an artist I would have to leave home; that this was too much of a "work ethic" kind of place, and in order to write about home I would have to leave home. But I no longer feel that's true. I think that you can write about a place with more nuance from within it than without it.
BC: That's interesting. Yeah. But do you think you would have the same appreciation for it if you hadn't gone away and come back?
RM: Definitely not. Yeah I yeah I really needed to leave and I needed – New York was like growing up. It was kind of something that I had to achieve. I had to go try my hand at living in New York and face all my, you know, everything that I had not grown up around was represented by New York City because–
BC: –because it’s exactly the opposite of here?
RM: EXACTLY the opposite of here. Ha. Yeah. So I had to go try that out and push myself in that way.
BC: Where did you live?
RM: We lived in Crown Heights for a while, one year and then we had a sublet in the East Village the other year.
BC: Ha, that’s weird -- I just came from Crown Heights yesterday. What years were you there?
RM: Yeah! It's different. Crown Heights was… very different then. [laughs] It was like 2002?
BC: [laughs] Yeah, seriously – but the thing… what’s amazing is that that really wasn’t that long ago.
RM: Right. I know! It's crazy. Crazy how quickly gentrification happens. Yeah.
Yeah. But anyway, I definitely needed to define myself outside of this place and then choose to come back.
BC: I mean, you've obviously found in that a deep wellspring of creative material, no? It seems, at least to me, that most of the work you’ve generated has had something to do with that kind of sense of home and belonging and awareness of what constitutes home ground.
RM: Yeah definitely. I – you know, I think growing up… well, Annie Proulx has this great quote about how post-Freudian literature is very much about the individual and pre-Freudian literature was about individuals in the context of community and landscape and the place where they live.
BC: Ha, jeez, so he really just ruined everything.
RM: [laughs] Right? And I feel like I really, it's very it's, it's… unique the way that I grew up, you know? I mean, or – not necessarily unique because there are plenty of families where all the kids still live on generations-old houses on the land – but not that many people who I’m friends with live on a piece of land surrounded by extended family and have parents who work the land and you just have a very different sense of interconnection. And so my sense of self feels actually really bizarre when I'm not here. You know my sense of belonging is related to being around this extended family and being around farmers who are working on the land. And I do feel that displacement when I don’t have that.
BC: When do you think that you were first able to articulate that… absence? Like when you weren't here and thought –
RM: So the first time I lived away from home – I went to, you know, Brown, and I went and lived in a dorm and I remember this just incredibly visceral feeling of displacement, because... well, it really had to do with resources – my parents live in this house that they built themselves, and all of our electricity came from their solar panels, and they have an outhouse, and the water is from a spring down the hill, you know, with a pump that my parents installed, and the food comes from the stuff that my mom grows. So I grew up with this sense that we are intimately interconnected with the food that we eat and the resources that we consume and the land that we live on. And then I went to this dorm where I had no idea where the heat was coming from and no idea where the water came from. Nobody seemed to care or notice. And it was really a visceral shock to realize that most people live without that connection to the actual land and resources they’re surrounded by.
BC: You're pretty lucky to have grown up with that kind of foundational understanding of how all these systems work – and that understanding, just very basically, of what human beings require.
RM: Yeah, I mean – I’m not saying that living off the land is the only way to live, but suddenly not having that relationship was definitely a shock for me. Just living in a city – or any kind of urban situation – how different, just how viscerally different it is being closer to the land.
BC: So when did you start – you’re an artist of like, multiple types...
RM: Which is why I have chronic fatigue [laughs]
BC: [laughs] Ha, yeah, I'm headed for the same cliff, I'm sure. And you’re like ten years older than I am, so you had a good run.
RM: Ha, well listen, two kids in the mix really puts it over the edge.
BC: Oh man, I'm sure. I guess for me there’s definitely no immediate danger of that. But did you – did you start as a writer? Or did you start as a musician? Or how – I know you paint as well…
RM: So I had always… you know, I've always done both. I always wanted to be a writer. I've always thought that's what I most wanted to be in the world. And so I've always written. I would spend time – we had this little playhouse outside, in the woods behind my parents’ house where there used to be a couch where I would go and I would make tea leaves and water and sticks and bring a journal and write and that's still what I do all day long.
BC: In basically the same spot.
RM: [laughs] Yeah, like across the hill! And now I just make tea and write, all day long. So I feel like that's my nature. That's what I most want to do, what I'm happiest doing.
But also, my family members are all musicians: you know, my grandmother is a folk musician and my dad – I grew up with my dad playing guitar around me constantly. And so I learned how to play the guitar when I was 12 and it became this real emotional outlet for me just to make up songs and play the guitar. And I never really wanted to perform, but then I married a musician and we started playing songs together. And so I think I got -- I'm figuring out again… I got swept up in Red Heart the Ticker, you know –
BC: Right! This is really the context in which I first came to know about you guys.
RM: Yeah, we made these albums together, and every show we played, we got offered more shows to play, so it just had its own momentum. But since having kids, I’ve just realized that I need to get back to writing and I can't – I can’t, like, tour, I can't get up on stage anymore… I mean, I do once in a while, but really I just want to write.
BC: How far did you guys tour?
RM: We played a lot in, you know, the places where we were living, and we did a California tour, and… yeah. Southern tour.
BC: Cool. Yeah, I don’t think I ever saw you two perform but I remember seeing your – I think I bought your earliest album at like, Turn It Up, way back, long before I even knew who you were.
RM: Nice! Yeah. Yeah. So I – I love the music that we make together, but it's just not the lifestyle for me.
BC: Right, right. I hear that. We mentioned your grandmother briefly but I did want to ask you about the project you did a couple years ago that connected to her work. Could you explain –
RM: Yes, so we made an album called Your Name In Secret I Would Write, which is – we took a bunch of the songs that she had collected in Vermont when she went around in the early 60s. She was a mother of five so she's also my superhero because she lived on this this farm without electricity, without running water, with five babies, and decided that she wanted to go around collecting folk songs. And so she threw the youngest ones in the back of her Jeep Willy and just went around driving back roads and asking around and finding these people and recording them.
BC: God, she sounds like the coolest person.
RM: And this is also while raising all these kids and having a huge vegetable garden and growing and canning most of their food. And so she's very -- she's, she's a superhero. So we took a bunch of the songs that she had collected, and some of the ones that she had recorded but were from other collections that people had made, and we made our own versions of them. Which was such a lovely way to connect with her and her work. And also it’s what the folk process is about, you know, you want songs to continue to be sung, and modified…
BC: Right, and adapted to new times and places and sensibilities, and…
RM: Yeah! And yeah it's… it’s really sweet. Just the other day, somebody tagged me on Facebook in a video of their two-year-old daughter singing one of those songs from our album.
BC: Ha! Wow, that’s enormously satisfying.
RM: It's enormously satisfying! And a few years ago when the album came out, some other friends of ours sent us a video of three of their kids singing one of the songs that I had grown up hearing my grandmother sing. That's so cool. So you know, it lives on, but it needs new breath in order to live on, you know?
BC: One of the things I always thought about those – right, like I said, I have that original album of hers – I think I found it in college, just like, there in the library – the one that’s just called, you know, Folk Songs of Vermont. They're all – I mean, with a couple exceptions, they’re all solo and a cappella, which makes the whole thing so arresting to listen to – like you stop what you were doing when you hear it. It's mesmerizing.
RM: Ah, but! But the way that that album came into being was… She met… ugh, what was his name?
BC: Some kind of roving ethnomusicologist?
RM: Yeah, yeah – the guy from Folkways, the Smithsonian, that guy…
BC: Not, uh – she’d be too recent for it to be Lomax, right? Or maybe not?
RM: No, no, it's not Lomax. It's all over that CD, somewhere. Anyway, she met him at a house party and he heard her singing and he said “send me some of your recordings, record some of your songs.” And so she went home, and just at the kitchen table set up with this little reel-to-reel player and sat and sang some of her songs – and you can even hear, like, kids in the background. And she sent it to him thinking, “This is a demo; I'll just show them some of the songs that I know,” and it came back as, well…
BC: And now it’s... in the Smithsonian.
BC: Wow, that’s wild. I did not know that backstory.
RM: So whatever his name was, I guess that's how he operated. He just wanted to collect as many recordings as possible.
BC: Yeah, huh. I guess it’s more like a sort of an aggressive museum curation mindset than it is any kind of artistic mindset. That's really funny. But pretty conniving. And sure does explain why those recordings are so sparse
RM: Yeah, they’re very sparse, but her other albums were so different, you know, they were “produced”… I say “produced” but not with, like, technology, but –
BC: Gated synths and stuff.
RM: – she did know how she wanted them to sound on the finished product. And ha, right.
BC: Man, I’m sorry. I feel so misled in that case, because that is – truly – all I've heard of her music, is that album. But I can tell you, for what it’s worth, that I really did find all the sparseness super evocative, and powerful, and effective. How weird that it wasn’t intended.
RM: Oh yeah, I’d give you one – I wish I could say that I have extra albums of hers, but I really don't. I'm sure that it's out there, and that you can – or anyone can – buy most of them from the Vermont Folk Center.
BC: In Middlebury?
RM: Yeah, and I think it’s online.
BC: Oh, cool.
[shuffles papers and suddenly becomes frantically concerned that too much time has gone by]
Okay. Man, I’m still new and pretty ungraceful at this, but I just try to make a list of all the things I want to talk about… so that I don’t forget all of them…
RM: No problem!
BC: Actually… unless you have any parting thoughts, I think we’ve hit everything...?
RM: I mean – [laughs]
BC: Thank you very much for doing this!
RM: Thank you for coming! So where are you headed from here?
BC: I'm going to Maine tonight, so –
[END OF TAPE]
Postscript: I have absolutely no idea why I stopped recording so abruptly right there, but it was obviously a dumb decision, because a lot of what I felt were the best parts of our whole conversation happened more or less immediately after that. So here’s an addendum to the whole thing, in the form of a directly transcribed voice memo that I recorded in the car on my way out of Marlboro:
Ben Cosgrove: “Okay. So... RIGHT after we turned off the microphones, we actually started to talk about some really interesting stuff, so I'm going to try and summarize some of it here. I asked her whether she thought fiction or nonfiction was a better instrument for expressing place, because she’s about to publish this collection of short stories [NOTE: That's Half Wild, which I mentioned in the introduction] that all take place in this fictional town in Vermont. And she said that they get at it in different ways: nonfiction she liked because you can express a particular type of what she called "Capital-T Truth" that comes from... you know, you know it’s true because it’s your perspective and your experience. But you’re also limited to that. Whereas in fiction, it's different – this book she’s about to publish is all of these linked stories from all these different perspectives of people who all live in the same place but see it in different ways. And she was saying how being able to enter into those different perspectives allowed her to express a place more completely, because after all, there is no one definitive identity of a place; it’s sort of the average of what all those different perspectives add up to.
And then we were talking about – she had this beautiful painting in the living room, and when I asked about it, she revealed that she had made it, and we talked a little bit about how necessary and helpful it was to have a couple of different mediums that you work in so that… well, I was talking about my experience, which was that I would be a musician all the time, but I get tired of having to engage with things so abstractly, so it’s helpful to have a writing… thing where I can sort of grapple with ideas more directly. And she said it was just like that for her – she was painting primarily at first, I guess, and thought, you know, “ugh it’s too abstract,” so she started writing song lyrics, and she – I guess she was writing throughout; she wrote essays, and short fiction… and she sort of pivots between them as necessary to keep from getting "sick of herself," which I thought was a really interesting idea and a good way to put that.
And then finally, we were talking about, you know, being settled in a place. She was asking about how I would settle down, or if I would, and, and I was telling her in response how I felt guilty about not having done so yet… how it sometimes feels like I'm [unintelligible] getting away with something by not having done that. But to that, she said something unexpected and helpful, which was that it’s easy, if you live somewhere, to become sort of staid and stagnant and stodgy, and she said, and I want to get this right: [pause] “we need some people, like you, who are sort of carrying information around – bringing things and stories in between places and people.” Which I thought was great; it assuaged my guilt a little bit. We also talked about how there’s a clarity of vision that comes from approaching places and not staying there for a long time – you’re sort of forced into appreciating them in a… well, I mentioned to her that when you drive to Ohio and you’ve watched Pennsylvania morph into Ohio, then Ohio looks a lot more interesting than if you’d just plopped into the middle of it. Or if you’d been there for long enough that you’d forgotten what those changes look like. I guess if your frame of reference is broader, you can – I don’t know, I think it’s sometimes easier for a traveler to see the good in some places.
Anyway, again... this all happened right after we stopped recording. Which is frustrating. But hopefully I can work this in somehow.”
[END OF TAPE]