The People Still Need a Poet

Sandburg Writer-in-Residence Tony Robles goes rogue

The Good Fight: Tony Robles’ childhood hero was Muhammad Ali. Photo by Will Crooks.

The deep fryer is fertile ground for poetry.  While tending to chicken thighs churning in hot vegetable oil, part-time deli worker, part-time dishwasher, and “people’s poet” Tony Robles writes. He writes about peach cobbler and green beans, about snapping turtles marooned on Greenville Highway. He writes about racism. But mostly, Robles writes about people. 

“I write about people, their contradictions, and their laughter. The poet sees things most overlook,” says Robles. “That’s the manifestation of where poetry has taken me.” 

Robles’ ability to immortalize ordinary life earned him the honor of the 2020 Carl Sandburg Writer-in-Residence. Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, his tenure in the Flat Rock estate’s dark green, 19th-century farm-manager’s house would have run in late March and early April.

“A few days before the statewide stay-at-home order, I was prepared for the residency,” he says. “I was at Ingles getting ready for work when I saw one of the managers cordoning off the public dining area, moving chairs, etc. I knew at that moment that the residency was likely to be postponed.” 

During a party and reception at Sanctuary Brewing a week prior to his residency date, he learned via email that it was cancelled for spring.

“But poetry doesn’t end,” says Robles, who began documenting the crisis, through poetry, posting his work on his website and on Facebook.

The Friends of Carl Sandburg at Connemara launched the writer-in-residence program in 2010. The program is designed to carry on the legacy of Sandburg, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who moved to the rural Flat Rock estate in 1945.

Sandburg was known for his plainspoken, populist verse. After his death in 1967, Connemara was dedicated to the public by Sandburg’s widow, Lilian Steichen Sandburg, who sold the property to the National Park Service.

The farm-manager’s house has been updated and simply furnished. It overlooks Connemara’s barn buildings, home to the descendants of Mrs. Sandburg’s prizewinning dairy-goat herd. The modern essentials— Wi-Fi and a coffee maker — are also available.

Resident writers once culminated their three-week seclusion with a finished work. The program has since evolved to include a ten-hour-per-week outreach component.

“Some years we have writers who thrive working with education groups and schools. Other years, the writer is really interested in working with adult writers and writing groups. One of the greatest successes is creating new partnerships each year with groups the park has not served in the past, which are only possible through the writer-in-residence program,” says Sarah Perschall, chief of visitor services and administration at the Carl Sandburg Home. 

Because of COVID, Robles’ residency at Connemara was postponed, but Carl Sandburg’s documents and personal effects endure in the house that has been curated to protect his legacy.

Robles is the nephew of the late poet Al Robles, a prominent housing-rights activist (he is the subject of two documentaries) and one of the founders of San Fransisco-based Asian American artists collective Kearny Street Workshop. Like his uncle, Robles is an anti-eviction advocate; his book Cool Don’t Live Here No More: A Letter to San Francisco (Ithuriel’s Spear Press, 2015), a hybrid of poetry and short stories, addresses that city’s overwhelming gentrification. Fingerprints of a Hunger Strike (Ithuriel’s Spear Press, 2017) was inspired by the Frisco Five hunger strikers, whose protest against police brutality and racial bias led to the resignation of San Fransisco police chief Greg Suhr.

Robles moved from San Francisco to Hendersonville last year, looking for change and to be closer to his family, including his mother, African American writer Flo Mayberry of Bat Cave, who co-founded a hiking group for people of color.

He journeyed by train, subsisting on turkey jerky and nursing a stomach bug. “By day two we had plowed through Nevada, Utah, Iowa — it was all a blur — actually, a blur that revealed glimpses of stolen land with clarity in landscapes, breathtaking mountains and rocks carved by the elements over infinite millennia, in whose presence I occupy a space and time equivalent of a firefly colliding with a windshield,” Robles writes in a blog post titled “Aviator.” 

Once in Western North Carolina, he took a prep-cook job and rang the holiday bell for Salvation Army. He’s embraced the rhythm of his new home by volunteering with Friends of the Henderson County Public Library and Meals on Wheels. “I want to give something to this community,” he says, “not just settle here and take.” 

But time is also spent capturing the cadence of Hendersonville. A poem titled “Mike’s on Main” describes the diner that is a downtown cornerstone. A jukebox trills the raspy chords of Chuck Berry while reflected light from the milkshake machine casts a literal rainbow on a diner’s shoulder. 

Another piece, “Cloggers,” details an undeniably Appalachian tradition: “Feet in rivers lost / Exposing Church legs.” 

“What it filters down to is finding grace in these moments, and illuminating the grace,” says Robles. “It’s redeeming.”

The spring residency at Connemara would have provided time and space for Robles to work on a novel in progress, Fillmore Flip, based on his family’s life in the Fillmore District of San Francisco. 

Before the pandemic, he had community-outreach initiatives planned, including workshops at local schools. But the crisis hasn’t stopped his activism — Robles volunteers with True Ridge, a local nonprofit that serves the migrant community. “They are facing many challenges,” says Robles. “I connected with a woman named Ronnaliz, who works for a sewing company who is making masks for front-line ‘essential’ workers. She kindly donated masks that I distributed to True Ridge and to some of my co-workers at Ingles.”

Robles has been talking to a  publisher who is interested in releasing Fillmore Flip, and he takes part in poetry readings via Zoom, including a late-May reading with local poets Glenis Redmond and Eric Tran. Robles also shared work in a group reading, “Feast of Filipino Poets,” centered around a food theme, and appeared at Love Hendo’s Open Mic, sponsored by the Henderson County Arts Council, where he read part of Sandburg’s poem “The People, Yes.”

Like Sandburg, who was called a Poet of the People, Robles is particularly sympathetic to the plight of blue-collar workers, perhaps because his uncle built a legacy fighting gentrification in San Francisco.

“My boyhood idol was Muhammad Ali,” says Robles. “When they stripped him of his championship [for refusing induction into the military on religious grounds], they started calling him ‘The People’s Champ.’ And to me, that just means more.”

For more information on Robles and his current work, visit tonyrobles.wordpress.com. For more information about the Carl Sandburg Writer-in-Residence program, see nps.gov/carl. 

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