If Once You Were German


Published in The Gordian Review

and in We Knew No Mortality

If Once You Were German

If once you were German, you are now my piece of history.

You floated in the streets of Berlin before it became a nouveau-riche haven,

and you threw hollowed out bricks

into real glass windows

and broke the rules.

You tell me how fragile your childhood experience

how happily you called out to Father Christmas from the porch stoop
as Father Schweizer crept sideways with

his tar-black boots and cheap presents.

You wrinkle your eyebrows, your whole face wrinkles,

pursing up like a very sage walrus with yellowed tusks and soft skin,

and you say it again, how fragile your childhood,

when you walked onstage and dropped the armful of plates.

If once you were my heroine, you are now fine China on a shelf

not an exotic land none of us have ever seen—

inside a lacquered cabinet, unable to collect dust, as is natural.

I wonder what it would be like to polish your broken tusks, lather up that pruned face,

and take you out for one more whirl about the town, hot-and-scanty, we!

Would you remember me

as my Volkswagen turned about the familiar streets where once

in dreams you sauntered?

Once you were historical, but now we are a history

as we float through the streets of Godland: one hand on a cane, one hand on the earth.



Published in Water, Water, Everywhere


I turn my palm up in air.
One, two drops.
My soul is water, also.
Can I evaporate?
You are a solid made of liquids.
A solid liquid gas.
Drop kiss me.
You become air.
Dream, hazy, deferred, my first memory of love sitting on a park bench in a downpour, you teaching me to French kiss. What mistake was there?
I do not remember
whether you found me
or I found water
Thirst, quenched.
Gathering you with the same palms
that water grazed—
chasing fog.
We hid in your van even as we knew it was ending. Pattering drops lazy on the hood. You telling me: it was alright.

Continued in Water, Water, Everywhere


Mistranslation of Dante’s Inferno

Published on Columbia Journal, August 2017

A Mistranslation of Dante’s Inferno

amidst walk our life
I discovered myself through a dark wood
for the True path was lost
when to speak is hard
full trees strong dense unquantifiable
renew thought renews my fear
little more bitter death
but to try the good out I search
I speak of other things seen



is it most unclear whether one or the other is better?
let Us try again.
in the Spanish earth
i find him moldering
beneath a pine slat
as if someone recently moved the body
and he clawed to life
imp word creature
who ended dead dude
ended homophonic
and we decided idoled
and thus it became
both ends burning
their ro(o)ts

Published in Verde Que Te Quiero Verde, 2017

Poems after Federico García Lorca


Four Poems by Lorca

Four Poems

Published in The Adirondack Review, 2017


Sleepwalker’s Ballad

By Federico García Lorca 


green I want you green
green wind                                                                                                   green branches
The boat about the sea
And the horse on the mountain.
With her shadow at her waist,
She dreams on her railing,
green flesh                                                                                                                 green hair
With eyes of cold silver.
green I want you green
Beneath the gypsy moon,
Some things are watching her
And she cannot watch them.

Continued in The Adirondack Review

with “Narcissus”, “Nueva York: Office and Denunciation”, and “Adam”

Ekphrasis of Sia

“We were shocked one weekend not long ago

by the upload and viral spread of a new music video by Sia; a new single, dropped. (Mic, dropped). This video features, in no small way, the violent act of applying rainbows to one’s cheeks, of empathizing with and creating dialogue around and inciting to the ‘violence of the blank page’¹ those who are victims of social and political acts of war.”

published By Punch Drunk Press, 2017

“We live in a volatile era in the history of our country, whether we choose to believe it or not.

We live in a time when our words are more misconstrued than before by our electronic distance from one another, by our reliance on text. Do not misapprehend me; I will also be talking to you about this. I will be relying on you to make your own informed decision about action and inaction that I am currently placing before you, on a platter.

I will force you to choose.”

Activism and the Beats

Click here to download the printable, distributable pamphlet!

Courtesy of Mount Analogue

Published in 2017




the Beats

Also published in Roar: Literature and Revolution by Feminist People, 2017

a talk written for Naropa University

(and edited for publication)

Summer 2017

I want to “state the problem in words as clearly as possible.[i]”
I do not think that to merely be an artist is activism. Activism is rooted in action. To act. To be an actor. Acting upon something. A bit of etymology from the internet:
“activist”, or, “one who advocates a doctrine of direct action”. “Active”, or, mid-14th century “given to worldly activity” (interestingly opposed to contemplative or monastic), “from Old French actif (12c.) and directly from Latin activus, from actus, “a doing”.
Other thoughts: “capable of acting” (opposed to passive), and meaning “energetic, lively.
Poets famously led the vanguard of a South American revolution[iv]. Do you want to be those poets? There are multiple ways to be those poets, to be on the front lines, to be soldiers and keepers of culture. To be the living archive.
Amiri Baraka said something to the effect of “the work…has to do something… has to do anything it has to do.” I’ll make an assertion that we must act to be activists, but I won’t assert what the action is. I’ll leave that for the activists in the audience, for you, to decide.
If you don’t want to publicly protest, don’t. I think we’d all understand. “You speak out, you hurt yourself, you get locked up.[v]” If you don’t want to act, don’t, but I ask that you not call yourself an activist. We’ve been dancing around exclusionary tactics: terminology dividing us, from one another, from other peoples, or from different styles of work. And I think, now, many peoples and individual people are feeling excluded, and we have to fight against exclusionary forces. But we have to also acknowledge systems and misunderstandings within our own midst, and if we don’t, we aren’t doing the work.
But if you are an activist, you do the work. You know when you’re an activist. It may be harder to know when you’re an activist writer. The lines are blurrier, and people are apt to tell you that they’re activists when they’re not acting, and they know it. So use the word as it is intended to be used, and don’t hedge around it. We like to toss around words to make us feel better, but this is not the moment for that. In what ways can we be inclusive while knowing who we are and what we do, how we act, in the world?
Because in the world we are whether we like it or not. Choosing to act is choosing to interact, to be within the world and to own that presence. This is the start of activism. To act alone is just that. By alone I mean truly alone, not lonely, but in a state of being by oneself. Acting could be with other people, or with the natural world, with scientific data, with computers. But there is some interface, some “coincidence” in the sense of “to coincide”, together[vi]. Some way in which the activist is not alone.
And I’ve come around to it— simply being a poet is not activism. Simply existing outside the norms of a capitalist society is not activism. So, writing is not plainly and simply activism. Nor is looking at data, or sitting in a grove of trees, or writing a tweet. What then makes these circumstances active?
I’d say in the interface, in the interaction, of writer with world, in that exchange of contentious ideas, one becomes an activist. These don’t have to be novel ideas, but they need to be interesting ones that challenge people’s thinking. Active. This might mean that my definition is constructed of interactions between people. That I’m not sure of yet. But I am ready to say that interactions between people are the most obvious ways to become an activist.
Creating change is not simple or easy. It’s a long and difficult process, and we don’t get to be part of the change simply by saying, post-mortem, that we “wrote something”. Once that writing becomes a part of the world, is immersed in another person’s heart and mind, we’ve done something. So there is risk involved, great risk, when being an activist, when exchanging ideas. We are asked to go to those “dangerous places” in our writing[vii], or to “evoke a complex truth” as a poet[viii]. The risk you choose to take is your own and no one is here to judge you for that. We’d all understand the choice to not be an activist. It’s not that one wakes up (literally, from bed) tomorrow morning and is suddenly an activist. It involves sustained action. Activism is a continued, not isolated, act. There may not be a realizable or articulable end-goal, or maybe there are many. In activism, the question of “what would a healthy system look like” is continuous and contentious.[ix]
I want to propose some recommendations.
First, I don’t think an ethical activist is committed to leaving a people behind. By a “people” I mean an entire demographic or population, not individuals. This statement is not about the people down the street you don’t get along with, because if you want to reach out to them, that’s a personal and sometimes painful choice. This is about a whole group, a larger swath of people who, if we are to progress as a society, must come with us. This is where the autobiographical comes in. I come from a family of, collectively, over 100 close relatives who, if I tried, I could mostly name. Out of these 100, about 90% are incredibly conservative. I want to repeat, an activist, an ethical activist, does not willingly leave a people behind. The conservative right makes up a large percentage of the people in this country. Whether we (and I’m using we to mean the assumed majority of liberals reading, whether we agree on everything or not), whether we like it or not, and I’m misquoting from a Facebook post, the states we left behind are a vast part of the reason for the current political climate. Importantly, these are people that we know or knew growing up, however sheltered we were from opposing political ideas. These people do not understand, sometimes, where “we’re” coming from, in the same way that we don’t understand or don’t want to understand where they’re coming from. This misunderstanding is bone-deep. We’re at an impasse, so we call each other names. Activism means discomfort. Activism means discomfort with those we know or love or hate. But we engage, we interact with the discomfort, and we say that a lot, but do we mean it? Do we mean it? Do we engage with situations that make us feel uncomfortable because it is important to do so? Or do we shirk the obligation we have to every creature on this planet (because of our calling in Buddhism, because of our saying we are conservationists, because we are Boulderites, because we are “dissidents to dehumanization,”[x] because we want to seem edgy, out of the mainstream), do we shirk our obligation to living creatures including conservatives? I’ve had a hell of a time convincing my father, college-educated, that climate change is real (we’ve gotten to a soft maybe). Should I leave that battle behind? Probably, it would be easy, and healthy, for me. But I’m not ready to leave it yet. I’m not ready to say “fuck you” to the rest of the world that doesn’t share my views. I want to interact with them, to interface with opposition. And not to militarize against the opposing view, but to listen. Buddhism indicates that we ought to listen to ourselves; what about our self in another human?
Second, stand up. Stand and be counted. Activism is risk-taking. Exchanging ideas is risk-taking. If you want to exchange that idea, you need to own it. You can’t jump on when the wagon has left; when the battle is over. Is it time? Stand up and be counted. Take a risk, however small and insignificant you think it is, take it, because it may change you. It may change someone else, something else. This is an action.
Third, and most importantly, do what you said you’d do. You said you are this, or that, so be it. Act it out. “Every gesture we make as a poet is a public gesture,”[xi] and we know there are enough other poets in the world who don’t do what they vouch for in their poems. There are enough politicians who do that. We, the we in this world, need people to stand up and do the thing. To ease the pain of living! But this is more complicated than quoting that, this is a call to action. Do you want to be the poet who said one thing and did another? What would our poetical ancestors think? This is not a guilt trip, and if you feel guilty for not being an activist, don’t, because perhaps you don’t feel called to be one. Not everyone has to be an activist. But if you are, or if you feel that this speaks to you, do what you said you’d do. Go to that reading. Stand up at that protest. Write that epic. Because only you can do it the way that you will. No one will do it for you, either. If you say, I want to act, I want to activate, to be active in the world, then do the thing. There’s no other way around it.
I’ve taken my own risk in trying to articulate a definition for you. This is just one version of activism, of my own activism. You have to find your own way to act, if you choose to. And know that you are not alone. You are not alone! “We are all we have”[xii] to save the planet or save ourselves. I want to think that we are doing right by our ancestors, those poetical political lunatics, our community, when we do the thing, when we do what we said we’d do. Because we are the storm. We are stronger together. Activism does not exist in a vacuum. And whether we make it outside our bubble or not, we are doing what we said. Constantly fighting to have the conversation. Because activism, being active, is a dialectic. And that dialogue, between my father and myself, between writers on the green, or between social media gurus, that is the success. That is the thing of activism.

All quotations not attributed to a text were taken during Naropa’s Summer Writing Program 2017 from speakers and panels.
[i] Margaret Randall
[ii] Sarah Escue
[iii] Sun Yung Shin
[iv] Cross Worlds, edited by Anne Waldman and Laura Wright
[v] Mairead Case
[vi] J. Michael Martinez
[vii] Anne Waldman
[viii] Margaret Randall
[ix] Sun Yung Shin
[x] Margaret Randall
[xi] Eileen Myles
[xii] Lisa Jarnot

Postface as Memory

“I never imagined, as a quietly rebellious child, that I would one day write a ‘quasi-defense’ of small-town America, using Henderson as an example.”

Design by Wayne Yandell; Photography by Sara Shoemaker

“Postface as Memory” published in Barely South Review, 2018

Excerpted from We Knew No Mortality: Memories of Our Spiritual Home, released in March 2018 by Acta Publications.
“We have dragged Christmas trees through the mud with a mule team (wondering, could an 8th grader today do that?); drilled holes in trees to add branches decorated with bulbs or popcorn-and-cranberry strings; we’ve had pink aluminum trees with rotisserie lights, or Douglas Firs; we have revealed the tree with childlike delight, or left the White Room open for visitors; we live, here or there or Anywhere; we retain memory, in our blood, our mind.”

Evanston Now Arts Features

Evanston Now Arts Feature Interviews

Sarah Ruhl
“That separation, between one’s writing and one’s life, is as porous as a sponge, as thin as a petal, as important and reversible as a zipper on a thick coat on a cold day. One needs it desperately. And also, it does not exist. Does that makes sense?” [SARAH RUHL, PLAYWRIGHT & AUTHOR OF “EURYDICE”]

Chuck Mee
“People who believe in God believe that God created the universe; created something out of nothing,” said Mee. “But we human beings start with a world that’s already been created, so we’re born into a world that has civilizations and histories and music and painting and families, so by the time we’re a few years old, we’ve already absorbed a tremendous amount. So we’re not making something out of nothing — we’re remaking.” [Chuck mee, Playwright & Author of “Big Love”]
Greg Allen
“I’m in my fifties, thinking about legacy and mortality, and interested in how we live our day-to-day lives knowing that death is coming. How do we get through, what can we do, what choices do we make when death is looming? Do we live with healthy or counterproductive illusions?” [GREG ALLEN, DIRECTOR & CREATOR OF “TOO MUCH LIGHT”]

Kimberly Senior
“I’ll say, this has to be a moment of confrontation- but it can be a pinch, or a tickle, not the same thing every time…Our knowledge of the play changes. Because we are ever-changing, the work has to be changing…It’s the only profession where we want the professionals to feel terrified.” [Kimberley Senior, Director]

FBI agent Zach Shelton

“I gave the information of Files to a private investigator…got together with a producer in California when I retired, and I interviewed Files from there, and the rest is history.” That history is the subject of “Assassination Theater: Chicago’s Role in the Crime of the Century,” which reinforces Shelton’s claim that the Chicago mob was responsible for the death of John F. Kennedy. [Zach Shelton, FBI Agent]


John Patrick Shanley strums a heartfelt chord with “Outside Mullingar.”


Photo Credits: Evanston Now


Reproduction of a Venetian map, drawn by Robert Eric Shoemaker

“…the sacred level is compromised, my prince; time to look for higher ground.”

Ca’Venezia is an artist book of hybrid writing, to be released by Partial Press in 2021.
This book features two plays-in-verse and assorted poetry and prose circling around Venice, Italy, and climate change’s impact on the city.

“Grand Canal” by Robert Eric Shoemaker, from Ca’Venezia and other tales. Watercolor.

“Laser-Pointer Grid” by Robert Eric Shoemaker, from Ca’Venezia and other tales. Watercolor.

This content is based on my travels in Venice during 2014 on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

“Lolita” by Robert Eric Shoemaker, from Ca’Venezia and other tales. Watercolor.

“He loved Venice, he wanted to be in Venice, there was nowhere else he could imagine himself thriving. I will remember Venice in this way, always: glowing with the quiet rhythm of Roberto’s song.”

“The Portal Shuts” by Robert Eric Shoemaker, from Ca’Venezia and other tales. Watercolor.

30 Days Dry

Day one.

*Viciousness in the bedroom! I am as good as my clock.

Sleep beckons: there is room here.

Purchase on Amazon
News Release

30 Days Dry
From the book flap:
In his first poetry collection, Robert Eric Shoemaker delves deeply into the darkest haven, a rift filled with addictions of harmful and placid varieties many are familiar with. Over the course of a month the writer’s attempts to remain sober and clean of all contaminants demonstrate an on-going internal battle, studded with triumphs and failures, moments of insight and moments of pain. Shoemaker’s language brims with the electrical quality of one on the edge, living as best one can under societal and artistic pressures, as well as personal demons. Shoemaker’s story and poetic voice are empathetic to the plight of multitudes. Sparkling with hope dipped in chaos, “30 Days Dry” proclaims with gusto the possibility of a future free of abuse.

Day thirty.

I think I understand this time.

“You are blessed to hold in your hands Robert Eric Shoemaker’s vivid and charming first book of poems, composed as a “doctored prescription”: to refrain from boozy spirits, and to instead partake deeply of art making, the impetus for this lucky trade being a genuine display of paternal concern and love delivered in an American chain restaurant… In the realm of Shoemaker’s multi-tonal, plural “instants,” the “greens grow like spread seed,” and the poet finds the way beneath the various shades and arcs of one’s life, the buoyant rainbow in continual and generous burn and shatter to light up the city.”
—Jessica Savitz, author of Hunting is Painting 

Dropping a coin into a boiling pot of water

“As amulet against the parched interior, 30 Days Dry wards off temptation with strongly worded texts and letters to a “mirror-me” we all recognize in one another. Round and round we go, cheering for a speaker who can spell out rightful histories in a luxurious aftermath of new grass growing.”
—Catherine Theis, author of The Fraud of Good Sleep

doesn’t make an impression.

“Like any self-help book addict waiting for the guru to publish the next volume, 30 Days Dry will make you thirst for more.”
-Jeri Frederickson, Literary Manager at Irish Theatre of Chicago & Freelance Writer

Can you spell history?

“Shoemaker squeezes the juice out of his thirty days.”
-Troy Cabida, Author of Lost in London

I can.

“I’d read more self help books if they represented honest, complicated journeys like this one… Robert Eric Shoemaker might be an undercover prophet.”
-Melissa Kiefer, Writer and Educator

We Knew No Mortality

Featured in We Knew No Mortality: Memories of Our Spiritual Home. Curated by Sara Shoemaker.

“They knew the rain was coming; the shadow had fallen over Old Kuttawa months ago.”

We Knew No Mortality: Memories of Our Spiritual Home, released in March 2018 by Acta Publications, represents six years of writing and over 100 years of family history.
Purchase on Amazon
We Knew No Mortality review at Something on Paper
We Knew No Mortality Purchasing Sheet
WKNM @ Acta Publications

Featured in We Knew No Mortality: Memories of Our Spiritual Home. Curated by Sara Shoemaker.

“We Knew No Mortality is a memory quilt sewn with spells, floods, and pink wounds. Shoemaker’s words shed to reveals themselves like a creature in crystallized grass-flats. This book is more than just a book. It’s a shared cigarette behind the boiler room. It’s a song for America-forgotten.”
— Sarah Escue, editor at The Adirondack Review 

Featured in We Knew No Mortality: Memories of Our Spiritual Home. Curated by Sara Shoemaker.

“As he attempts to collage the past to retell his family’s multilayered history, Shoemaker reveals that you, reader, are the sum of our environments; you are a collage, a fractal, an assemblage, a mosaic of filaments, known and unknown. You, too, originate from mud and shared blood. Along this journey of rediscovery, Shoemaker encounters dirty habits, penguin-like nuns with slapping sticks, and old winding back roads. In a way, he resurrects his past and his longing for a now distant childhood of rolling and running in the bluegrass with bare feet…We too experience a longing for home, a sanctuary filled with bluegrass and open ceilings. He tills memory and recites his dead; he sings hymns of ‘am’ and ‘am nots’: ‘I am not an architect, / I am a song.’

Sarah Escue, for Something on Paper

“You are the sum of your environments,

and no more.

Be light as feathers

and full in the belly,

put your hand into yourself and stir—

can you pull yourself out?”

“As the first section of We Knew No Mortality suggests, in these poems, at once elegant and welcoming, there is a recurring theme of the latent emerging, the ghost manifesting. Memory—inherited and personal—overlays the present, Jesus returns to wash us white as snow, capitalism reaches its culmination and fails. But latent potential and promise also surface and are realized, or at least the reader hopes for this. And hope matters, as any tender boy from a small town will tell you. The poems travel in a steady pace from Henderson, Kentucky, to Rome, to Chicago, and all the while we are reminded by these varied yet centered poems of how home is always present, even as the details of one’s life shift.”
— J’Lyn Chapman, author of Beastlife

Featured in We Knew No Mortality: Memories of Our Spiritual Home. Curated by Sara Shoemaker.

“In We Knew No Mortality, Robert Eric Shoemaker travels back to his “ole Kentucky” town with Wally World and walks down memory lane. Here, family yarns of money buried in fruit jars and crucifixes sacrificed to storms coexist with a drug trip, retreat to Italy, and return to a sanctified self. With compassion and insight, Shoemaker considers his heritage and landscape, the “comfort and problems peculiar to the rural,” and the nature of spiritual homecoming. He writes: “I wipe my face in the mud. I can see my reflection.” Read this book and follow his lead.”
— Gabrielle Civil, author of Swallow the Fish


“This gifted poet reverently unwinds the tight scroll that is like the tree trunk of a family tree, unrolling this sacred scroll that reveals living map, hymnal, inheritance of memory. Opening and opening to find the deep core “in a solace of pine,” as mythic charms like old family story go chiming through the blood in song. Such spells of dry earth into songs of water! The family story Shoemaker is remembering, is in his blood that is like a song in the body, “a spark that fell out of a bonfire.” Not within the cage of a photograph can one locate the nature of self; rather, here is the breathtaking primer for reading one’s history by “earth-light”: “I wipe my face in the mud. I can see my reflection.” It is in the fountain erected in his hometown where Shoemaker will frolic at the source: “I remember this fountain / Going up / The first time / And playing in it.” This collection is meant to be sung! In the root dreams of the tree that was and the tree that is still becoming, and down deeper still, in the “stream beneath the water,” the underground waterfall of family music where it issues forth from the tap of a cistern, the underground reservoir concocting legends of love and sorrow—I shall never tire of visiting this sacred place. In my very favorite poem, I hear in the flood of folk song the voice of the immortal family, from family grove to groves of antiquity, come to serve us mirth, lullaby, and compassion: “You’re swimming with me in Kentucky / as I drown in the sediment of an ancient suburb. / I am drowning while you fight through bluegrasses. / I am drowning when you get to my side, breathlessly. / You gather me in your arms.”
— Jessica Savitz, author of Hunting is Painting

Featured in We Knew No Mortality: Memories of Our Spiritual Home. Curated by Sara Shoemaker.

“Basketball dreams, / Or grander, even, / Leavin’ plows for town, / leavin’ empty silos,” Shoemaker closes the poem titled “Corn Festival, 2015” in a tone characteristic of We Knew No Mortality. There are blues in the grass of this Kentucky landscape, and there are blues in the speaker’s throat when he leaves it. An “outsider, an outlier,” he becomes strange to himself in pursuit of grand dreams, even as those left behind become clearer with distance, including Sammie-Jo, presiding from her couch throne, and Carl-Ra, burying fruit jars full of money. Memory inhabits the present in these poems, even as it suggests a new way to exist in it.”
— Amy Wright, author of Cracker Sonnets and Everything in the Universe, Nonfiction Editor, Zone 3 Press

“but my soul grew up on Graham Hill,

my feet treading snakes in the grasses so flaming.”