The Canadian poet and surfer has ridden a wild wave from loner iconoclast to ‘woman of distinction,’ influencing dialogues young women around the world are having with one another. Her collection This Is for the Women Who Don’t Give a Fuck has been a clarion call for kindred spirits. Benito Vila spoke with Janne Robinson for PKM.
“Walk Tall.” That’s how Canadian poet Janne Robinson signs off on her emails. It’s a simple statement and clearly it has meaning for her. I’m sure it pisses people off. A lot of what Robinson writes, says and does gets people all riled up. When you google her, you’ll find as much why-listen-to-this-self-involved-skinny-idealist-white-bitch shit-talking as you do links praising her writing and her habit of standing up for herself and other women.
I came across Robinson (who pronounces her first name “Ya-na”, true to its Greek roots) in 2015. Her poems, “This is For the Women Who Don’t Give a Fuck” and “I am a Woman of Distinction” and her essay, “Aborting Shame: One Woman’s Experience Within Abortion”, made an impression on me, each one bluntly conveying viewpoints that men typically can’t get to on their own. As #MeToo became a statement in 2017, I saw Robinson take her poetry to another level, transforming “This is for the Women Who Don’t Give a Fuck” into a social media powerhouse, complete with posts featuring like-minded women and a product line of T-shirts and coffee mugs. She suddenly became a celebrity “influencer” with a 100K following.
Robinson has gone on to create more than just a following; she’s become a herald for women for whom the phrases “walk tall” and “take up space” are multi-dimensional breakthroughs. Her poetry blends aspects of Allen Ginsberg, Mary Oliver and Anaïs Nin, combining social commentary with natural images and matter-of-fact sexuality. Like Ginsberg, Oliver and Nin, Robinson pointedly expresses disdain for conformity and she champions the individual confronting personal traumas. What would Ginsberg, Oliver or Nin have done if Instagram were “a thing” in their day? None of them had the pressure of “posting the right thing”, or the brand-minded 21st-Century need to demonstrate “multi-channel engagement” as a measure of success.
Robinson has a driving need to share her vision of her past, her present and our collective future, and she’s finding as many platforms as she can to do it on. Despite her California-surfer-cool, Robinson runs scalding hot when it comes to how women are treated and how uptight society can be. She gives a fuck, no matter what she says, and, if you’ve drifted off to the mind-numbing tones of here’s-the-latest-celebrity, her directness is a welcome wake-up call.
We should wipe our asses with those
selling crap to those who will eat it
seek company that makes you rich
are the real celebrities
PKM: Do you remember the first time you stood up to “authority” or defied the norm?
Janne Robinson: [Laughs]. In grade two or three, I had a Tigger outfit that I wore every day to school. My mother let me.
In grade seven or eight, I got put in detention after telling a creepy googly-eyed teacher that I wouldn’t abide by his “no jackets” policy in class. Mind you, I grew up in Edmonton, Alberta and it was fucking cold. I think he had that policy just to look at our bodies and breasts. One day, he asked me to take my coat off, a little Adidas shell, and I said, “No” and let him know his rule was stupid. I got sent to detention. That was the first time I remember saying “no” to the system and getting in trouble.
PKM: How did you fit in, or not fit in, growing up? What was different about you?
Janne Robinson: I’ve always been a bit of a lone wolf. I had two moms in a kind of closed-minded place. I had to answer a lot of questions; there was teasing from kids who were afraid and who couldn’t understand what “gay” meant. At home, I had two amazing, loving moms and every topic was open and out on the table: sex, condoms, everything.
In terms of school and friends, I floated from group to group; I wasn’t part of one social scene. I loved my alone time; I was definitely in my head a lot. I’ve been sensitive, emotional and intuitive my whole life. Those strengths, the ones I commit to my work now, were real weaknesses then, especially in high school. Simple social interactions would suddenly become way too loud. Reading and imagination were much more for me.
I’ve always found a creative release in being on my own. As a kid, from age four to about age ten, I had this game I called “Glass Animals”, that I played with these little tiny glass animals that came from an Asian market. I made fruit and vegetables out of Play-Doh and painted them; I created whole societies, love stories between families of glass birds, pigs and dogs.
PKM: Two moms?
Janne Robinson: I have a Greek dad. My mom and dad met in India when my mom was 22 or 23. They had a six-month love story in India, Greece and a little cabin in Whitehorse, in the Yukon near Alaska. My mom was a sort of a gypsy after that; we went to Nelson in British Columbia, then Vancouver, and then Mexico and Guatemala. “Home” was a moving entity for me. We moved to Edmonton after my mom met her partner, Jackie, when I was in grade four. It was quite a change, going from hippie beach towns to Edmonton, which is all about oil, hockey and money.
My mom has been an airplane mechanic for a ton of years now. At one time, she was her airline’s only female AME [Editor: Aircraft Maintenance Engineer] in Vancouver. She’s been that, gay, and into shamanism and the spiritual all along; that’s quite an interesting mix within shop culture. I say she was a gypsy because we were traveling around, camping, sleeping in cars, covered in dirt at music festivals.
PKM: You went from that free-spirit life to same-as-everywhere Edmonton? What was that like?
Janne Robinson: I was pretty stoked actually because suddenly I had two brothers and a sister, and was no longer an only child. I’m grateful, I guess, to have grown up somewhere safe [in Sherwood Park, an affluent Edmonton suburb]. It was safe, but, creatively, I didn’t thrive there. The second I left Edmonton I became a very different person.
My life in Edmonton wasn’t really good for me; I was selling condos and bartending. I only felt authentic, aligned and alive when I was on the road, traveling. An artist friend of my mother’s suggested I come out to live in British Columbia, and I did it. I quit my job and moved to a little cabin on the Sunshine Coast [a mountainous island district, north of Vancouver]. That’s where the words started to flow, and now, a little over six years later, I’ve written thousands and thousands of poems.
Everyone’s a fucking blogger
every Dick Jane Harry is a writer
every jack ass with a typewriter app is a poet
every thirteen-year-old who has an iPhone is a photographer
every thirty-year-old white woman has quit her job to become a yoga teacher
every esoteric asshole is doing ayahuasca in Columbia
every feather wearing hippie knows how to do reiki
every ad on my Facebook is how to triple your money to become a coach
starting your own podcast show?
no one’s doing that
lululemon is mandatory for yoga and gluten free is the new Friday
while you’re at it come to my goddess ceremony where women drink cacao tea
we are the esoteric millennials who wash our face with Eckhart Tolle
brush our teeth with Rumi
and wipe our ass with Paul Cohelo
we say namaste without knowing what it means
follow teachers without knowing why they’re on a pedestal in the first place
go to self-growth weekends where everyone is enlightened during the day
and does drugs and fucks each other at night
where founders and coaches try to sleep with their clients
where we slap shaman on a business card
and have no problem sleeping at night.
PKM: What was the inspiration for “This is For the Women Who Don’t Give a Fuck”?
Janne Robinson: That particular poem? In 2014, I was on a music video shoot that took us to Mexico, the Sunshine Coast and Victoria. There was this woman on the shoot who was a photographer, a stylist, a makeup artist, and a single mom. I was so blown away by how multi-dimensional and resilient she was. She inspired me as I first started writing it, and then I started thinking about all of the other women in my life. The poem is an ode to the women who inspire me and an ode to the woman I wanted to become.
PKM: How did other women react to it?
Janne Robinson: It’s become an anthem for women to take up space and to be exactly who they are. It burned like wildfire, and it’s continuing to burn like wildfire; it’s definitely one poem that’s stuck.
PKM: What do you mean by “to take up space”?
Janne Robinson: To take up space is a feeling––it’s having a strong sense of you, your self––that you unconditionally love yourself enough to say “no”, set boundaries, get married, not get married, be able to choose, exist and navigate just how you are. The best description I have of taking up space is: you know when you go to parallel park on a busy road or a highway and it’s five o’clock and there are cars lined up behind you and everyone’s fucking hungry and tired––and you need to park. In that moment, do you make everybody wait and take up space, or do you drive around the block and find somewhere that’s easier to park? Taking up space is about claiming, “I’m actually worthy of making these people wait. It’s okay that I’m here; I have a right to exist.”
All over the world right now there is a shift happening that you can tangibly smell, feel and taste––women are taking up space and harnessing their feminine energy as a power, rather than as a weakness. Women have worn the masculine to survive in this world for centuries, and they are ditching that shell and realizing the power of the feminine, as well as the necessity of that power. I think men are also realizing that to lead our world, they not only need women sitting beside them, but that they also need to connect to the feminine inside of themselves. Our societal evolution will be stunted without this key component in action. Justin Trudeau is a leader in this for me––he elected a gender-balanced cabinet. When the press asked him why this was important to him, he replied, “Because, it’s 2015.” Our work collectively as men and women––in business, in government and in relationships––is accessing wisdom through the connection to the feminine. It’s the energetic change our society needs to re-balance and heal.
PKM: How did you start to write professionally and get yourself published?
Janne Robinson: I took an internship with a filmmaker, a badass woman named Dianne Whelan. Dianne was a journalist in Vancouver when she heard about a mission to the northernmost point in Canada on snowmobile being led by the military. She called the expedition’s organizers and asked to come along. They hung up on her. She called them back and said she’d create a documentary. They asked her if she could drive a snowmobile. She lied, said “yes” and talked her way into being part of the expedition. That was her first film, This Land.
She later went on to document the climbing season at Mt. Everest [the award-winning Forty Days at Base Camp] and now she’s working on her story of walking the 24,000-kilometer Trans-Canada Trail. I met her through my mom, and it was such a gift to work with her. I learned how important it is to honor whatever it is that you need to say and not what the world wants to hear. She pointed out to me over and over that our purpose comes from our heart, that when the world gets loud, and things get thrown at us, that that’s the best time to take a moment and ask myself, “What does my spirit want to do?”
Dianne makes things happen. She had me call up National Geographic to get her an interview; that’s not something I knew how to do. She trusted me with tasks like that, and I gained the confidence that now I put into my art––the confidence to say the things I want to say. I worked with her for a year and a half, and it was while I was with Dianne that I found the courage to publish articles online. I wrote for [consciousness and personal development megablog] Elephant Journal for a couple of years; people also hired me to write cookbooks, website copy, that kind of stuff.
Meanwhile, I started reading Charles Bukowski and loving how honest he was. Like Dianne––he’s spontaneous, honest, stark, no bullshit––and I could relate to it. I’m super black and white; there’s no gray in my life, ever. I liked how his poetry says so much in a straightforward, simple way. I started to explore poetry, writing about things that are personal, putting it down in no-rules, non-linear verse.
All over the world right now there is a shift happening that you can tangibly smell, feel and taste––women are taking up space and harnessing their feminine energy as a power, rather than as a weakness.
PKM: Was there a breakthrough moment for you?
Janne Robinson: After I moved to that cabin, I discovered I was pregnant and I had an abortion. I had been writing things online that were beautiful and prosy, and “light”. Lying in bed the day after the abortion, I wrote this really raw piece; it poured out of me. I wrote about all of the details around my choice––about the people who were not neutral; the different doctors I went to for medical advice who put their personal opinions on me; how I challenged them––really intimate details.
There’s so much fucking shame around abortion. I set the piece aside for a while, making sure I was clear with why I was going to share something like this––that it wasn’t about punishing the boyfriend who didn’t show up for the procedure. Then it occurred to me that I hadn’t read anything about a woman’s emotional experience of moving through an abortion and making their choice, and what swayed them, and what they had to come up against.
When “Aborting Shame: One Woman’s Experience Within Abortion”, published on Elephant Journal in March of 2014, [the blog] had about 17 million readers. After it came out, I was called everything from “Woman of the Year” to “Murderer”––that came from the first man I slept with, who is super fundamentalist Christian. I also got hundreds of comments, messages and emails. One of them said, “My dad dropped me off at a clinic. I was 16. He told me to never tell my mom. You’re the first person that I’m telling.” I was like, “Fuck. This is my why. This is what we want to hear about. This is what we want to talk about. We want to have real conversations.”
There’s cobwebs on her vagina
the gynecologist replies
removing his head from between her freckled thighs
her mother chokes on the air
It’s from a society that shames women from enjoying sex
one that puts purity rings on their fingers
promises them to the God
away from pleasure
pleasure is shameful
God is the only one that loves you
What if the husband is a jackrabbit?
what if he lacks all there is to know about making a woman moan?
what if she dies not having her soul ripple
her body shake
from the hands and tongue of a man
who has done his work
a lover of all things woman
God, what if he’s gay?
what if he wishes to be making love to a man?
heaven forbid her body is never touched with the tenderness
that we deserve from the moment we are born
It’s from a society that throws half naked sexualized women in sunglasses commercials making us hide our daughters eyes
while the men laugh smoking Cuban cigars making millions
off the easiest marketing idea invented
the female body is the greatest piece of art
Of course it sells
Shame on us for giving it away
then playing the victims
the big bad media wolfs
forcing our hands to paper to sign
there are no victims here
women, are too blame.
It’s from a society that shrieks at nipples
they’re the same as mine
Put them away
I can feel the breeze on my sweltering chest in August
but you must cover yours
It’s from a society that cuts off women’s genitals
doesn’t give them the right to vote
to love who they choose
covers them in clothes
no, not to hide them from the sun
Marries them away at fourteen
to a twenty one year old called Jose
who drinks four bottles of whisky a day
who falls asleep drunk after they have sex each night
with no foreplay
while she speaks quietly into the night of wanting to be a lawyer
of how she would bring justice with all her might
He closes her legs
the mother’s mouth is still dropped
masturbation, 2 times a day––3 if needed
his white coat wisps behind him as the door shuts
the world we live in is changing.
PKM: Did you have a storyline or an experience that you wanted to create with the This Is For the Women Who Don’t Give a Fuck collection? With the book?
Janne Robinson: To be totally honest, I don’t feel like I did. There’s sex, passion, grief and heartache; there’s a calling out of things in society that I don’t like. I knew some people might just open it up and go from poem to poem, but if they were reading front to back, I wanted there to be a flow for them. I spent a lot of time navigating that.
I started reading Charles Bukowski and loving how honest he was. Like Dianne––he’s spontaneous, honest, stark, no bullshit––and I could relate to it. I’m super black and white; there’s no gray in my life, ever.
PKM: And how did you deal with the reaction to the book?
Janne Robinson: Before it came out, part of me was like, “Maybe I’ll end up on Oprah!” Or maybe not Oprah, but I romanticized that it would be a big thing for my career. That wasn’t the reality; it sold like 6,000 copies. I didn’t make Jimmy Fallon either. But then, my book tour events, which I didn’t think anyone would come to, sold out. It’s been a year and a half since it came out and still, every day, there’s social media of the book all over the world––people holding the book; pictures of the cover, different passages. It’s continuing to sell and I’m already thinking of the next three books. I have the material [laughs].
PKM: What else is next for you?
Janne Robinson: I’m finishing a poetry film called, I Will Never Be a Well Behaved Woman. I’m also in negotiations on a 13-episode TV series that could turn into a four-month surf trip––one that’ll take me from California to Panama. The thing I’m most excited about though is going to India in November to write about finding my father. I found him about seven years ago and discovered I have another set of siblings. I’m going with my mom on the November trip, and she’s going to take me where they met. I’m going to hear, taste, smell, touch, absorb where they were. I’m also going to go to Whitehorse and explore there, too. I see this all turning into a book and maybe a film.
PKM: Are you still living in that cabin in British Columbia?
Janne Robinson: No. I live in what a friend called “a little surf church”. It’s a little wooden house, a couple blocks from the beach in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, outside of San Diego. Half the time I’m there writing; the other half of the time I’m out surfing. I love being in the water. It’s like having a direct telephone cord to God or spirit. The other day a humpback whale breached two bodies away from me, and a pod of dolphins came in and around me with their babies; there were pelicans. It was so insanely beautiful, like I was part of another world.
PKM: In one of your emails, you described yourself as a “punk queen”. What is it about punk that you identify with?
Janne Robinson: [Laughs] In grade nine, I wore bright red lipstick, fishnet stockings and listened to Atreyu and other hardcore music. I wrote emo songs. That only lasted the year, but it definitely came on strong.
I don’t think of myself as “punk”, but for me punk music was about making music that isn’t always pretty. It’s about being yourself, speaking your mind. I have a bold writing voice that I’m still learning to embrace, just like I’m learning to deal with the backlash against what I have to say. I express my truths even though I do definitely give so many fucks; I’m really sensitive. Like a lot of artists, I need something to squeeze when people are eating me alive with their opinions––I should keep one of those little squeeze trolls around.
I know my writing is different than “me”. Like a piano player at the piano, those fingers are different than what comes out. That, I can own. We are each in our own dream. People react strongly when the things in their dream aren’t anything like the things in mine. It’s like it doesn’t feel safe for them that someone is saying something different than what they believe––or that there may be a new road for them to go down, a radically different truth for them to explore. I keep having people resist, fight and attack what I’m saying. Is it because my dream is different from theirs? So what?
I don’t think of myself as “punk”, but for me punk music was about making music that isn’t always pretty. It’s about being yourself, speaking your mind.
PKM: [Laughs] People get mad when you wake them up; especially if you’ve spoiled a dream they’re really into. So, there are times when we all have to conform––for example, when you’re surfing, you don’t want to “drop in” on whoever has the wave. When else do you conform?
Janne Robinson: With my taxes, I definitely play by the rules there, because that’s what you have to do. I also play by the rules on immigration stuff. Later this week, I’m applying to renew my visa to stay in the U.S. I just went and bought a conservative turtleneck and a suit to wear to my immigration interview. If I were being “me”, I’d be wearing a rose linen jumpsuit with pink sneakers. There’s about two percent of my life where I think it’s important to play by the book and appease the system to be able to continue to live on my own accord. Immigration and taxes are definitely in that two percent. That, and I try not to drop in on anyone.
I will never be a well behaved woman
I would rather pass my days lying in the middle of dirt roads, staring at the full moon with a bottle of summer red in my palms.
I would rather have kids when it suits me, not when society expects or throws shoulds.
I would rather live in a hammock on a beach for six months, and write like my soul means it.
I would rather be horribly broke at times, than married to a job because a mortgage payment has my ass on a hook.
I would rather own moments, than investments.
I would rather eat alone, than sit with women who bore me at “Wives’ Night.”
I would rather swim naked with bioluminescence, have it fall like fireflies from my hair, my breasts, my back.
I would rather do handstands naked in the moonlight when no one’s watching than pick bridesmaid dresses.
I would rather drink seven-year old rum from a sandy bottle, smell of smoke and ash than sit in church.
I would rather learn from life than rack up debt, in a desk.
I would rather drink the ocean, again and again—celebrate being madly alive.
I would rather my love be defined by love itself, and nothing more or less.
I don’t need a ring on my finger to prove that I am in love.
I would rather take the chicken bus, than spend useless money in safe gated communities.
Sit beside a goat, listen to reggaeton and eat green mango with sugar in a plastic bag sold from the woman who harasses the bus each time it stops.
I do not need a degree to prove that I am intelligent.
I do not need to own a piece of earth with some wood on top of it—to feel successful. No one truly owns the land, anyway—we just think we do.
My savings account has diddly to do with my richness.
I would rather sprawl my single ass out like a lioness each morning and enjoy each corner of my empty bed.
I will take a job I love and freedom over a pension, any day.
I will not work and work and work to live when my body is old and I am tired.
Stocks are for people who get boners from money.
Not everyone should have kids, and my eggs aren’t expiring.
I will not drink the societal Kool-Aid on a bus, nor will I drink it on a train.
Not on a plane, with a goat, in the rain, in the dark, in a tree, with a fox, in a box!
I will not jump through societies’ hoops and red tape, the treasure hunt in the rat race we chase.
If we must have milestones—mine will be measured by how much joy I have collected at the end of each day and how often in this life I have truly, deeply, opened.
Seek, see, love, do.
[Previously published on Elephant Journal, presented on PKM by permission]