During 2016, we will shine the spotlight of our public esteem & rapt attention on two poets per month. This month’s second poet is Nicole Rollender.
Fox Frazier-Foley: Talk to me about the core of your creative drive and the expression it finds through poetry. There are lots of ways to be creative in this world – what motivates you to write poems, specifically? Additionally, what motivates you to navigate the poebiz landscape?
Nicole Rollender: Probably like many writers, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t tell stories or write stories. When I was a teenager, I really zeroed in on writing poetry, after buying an 1880s volume of Tennyson’s poetry in a used bookstore. I carried the tome (it had a green cover with flowers on it, and was ragged at the seams) around with me, and practically memorized “The Lady of Shalott” and “The Two Voices”—I’d recite the stanzas to myself over and over. The poetic form always felt the most familiar to me—so is being a poet predetermined by our genetics or something else?
After I finished my MFA program and went out into the wider world, it was a different landscape than it is now. Barely anything was online. If you wanted to submit to a journal, you went to your local library, hoping they had a copy of the journal for you to read. Then, everything was also snail mail submissions. I know that’s dating me a bit, but around 2012, when I really came back to the idea of submitting (I had pretty much just been writing alone, not really interacting with the community at large), everything was different. Meaning that most print journals had websites and a presence on social media, there were many, many more online journals so you could actually read other poets’ work from your smartphone, and most importantly, you could connect with so many other poets via social media.
For someone like me, a by-night poet with a full-time day magazine editor job, two small children and an extremely limited ability to travel, I was able to start cultivating a life in the poetry community—reading others’ work, submitting my own work, volunteering my time to presses and journals, and workshopping with other writers. Like most poets/artists, I create work that I want to share with readers, so because there’s now a cyber-element to the poetry world, I’ve been able to put chapbooks and my first full-length collection out there. I want to keep writing, interacting, reading and sharing my work. I don’t ever see an end to it.
I read this excellent quote from Claudia Rankine on Facebook the other day: “The world is wrong. You can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you; it’s turned your flesh into its own cupboard.” That’s where my poetry is rooted—in my body, in my body’s past, in my mother’s body, my grandmother’s, my children’s bodies. I write from my body, and perhaps that gives my poems a neo-confessional feel because they come from so highly personal a starting point even as they spin out into other people’s lives, and other events and topics. There’s also a very otherworldly/mystical element to my poems because I come from two grandmothers who saw spirits, and passed the ability to see down to me: I’m very aware of my body’s mortality and of the thin line between this life/ afterlife. The idea of the female body being a conduit for the living (babies) and also the dead (who go and in out of me at will) figures heavily in my poems for this reason.
FFF: What are your influences – creatively (esp in terms of other media/other art), personally, and socially/politically?
1. Religious iconography, medieval statuary, tomb effigies, saints’ relics and reliquaries
- Poetry by mothers, especially Adrienne Rich, Julianna Baggott, Sharon Olds, Sylvia Plath, Traci Brimhall, Cynthia Marie Hoffman, Audre Lorde, Rachel Zucker, Louise Glück, Jennifer Givhan and Jessica Goodfellow
- The acts of becoming pregnant twice, and birthing two children—watching my body unfold as creatrix, releasing new bodies into the world
- Poets of light: Lucille Clifton, Anne Carson and Louise Glück (again on my inspiration list)
3. Men’s poetry in the vein of Timothy Liu, Li-Young Lee, Mark Doty, Ocean Vuong, Peter LaBerge, and of course, Rilke, Vallejo and Neruda
- Paintings by Frida Kahlo and Vincent Van Gogh; photography by Ansel Adams
5. Music by Nina Simone, Sam Cooke, Keith Whitley, Amanda Perez and Mary J. Blige. Gregorian chants.
- What Audre Lorde said of the poems in her 1986 collection The Dead Behind Us: “Here are the words of some of the women I have been, am being still, will come to be.”
FFF: Describe your aesthetic as a poet. What do you value? What do you try to do with/in your work? What, to you, makes cool art/literature? What’s most important for you in a poem, or in a book of poems – as author and as reader?
NR: I’m an image-based poet who writes loose narratives by leaping images, scenes, vignettes. I gather the detritus around me, the grotesque and the gorgeous. I want my work (and I suppose also the work I read) to:
- scream. It’s probably like the overly passionate lover singing below your window. It’s intense. Like Arthur Rimbaud wrote, “A poet makes himself a visionary through a long, boundless, and … all forms of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he exhausts within himself all poisons, and preserves their quintessences.” My poetry is a love potion (poison).
- be beautiful and arresting. I want it to make a reader feel discombobulated and coming apart, and then coming back together again.
- stain. I want the images to stay with my readers for hours, days, weeks, maybe years, if I’m lucky. If I can ever come close to making people feel like the roof of the room they’re in when reading one of my poems just flew off, then I’ll have succeeded.
- haunt. The dead appear pretty frequently in my poems as they do in my personal life. I’m haunted and so are my poems.
- hurt. I don’t think I’ve ever written a funny poem. My poems come out of places that hurt or have caused scarring: What have I lost? But also, what has replaced what I’ve lost? There’s a story here in the poem—to get to some kind of resolution, there has to be conflict.
- reflect what it’s like to be a mother-writer. Because once another body forms in your uterus, everything becomes different, alien, unmoored. Your body is not just your body anymore—between writing lines of poetry—endless diapers and bottles, all those baby milestones, first words, first days of school, projectile vomiting and falls off the swing set. But also, the type of love that cracks you open and never lets you heal, the small hands in yours. How when you watch them as they run across the yard and you think, “They came forth from my body in a river and now they can live forever.”
FFF: Tell me, if you’re willing, about something – an experience, a piece of art, anything really – that has fundamentally moved and/or shaped you as a person. What was the experience? What was it like? How did it shape you as an artist/poet?
NR: This is how it was: I never really thought about being a mother—or looked forward to it, or dreamed of it, or even longed for it. My husband and I were married for five years when we decided to see if we could have a child—and the next month I missed my period. The truth is, I was terrified out of my mind. I thought I had done everything wrong up until I peed on the stick—ate rare steak, went tanning, had a glass of wine. I was totally unprepared.
But then, I was more unprepared for the way the pregnancy unfolded: at 35 weeks, one of the ob/gyns in the practice I visited told me my stomach was measuring too small, and told me to go to the hospital immediately. While getting the ultrasound, the room was silent. A doctor came in and ran the wand over my stomach again, telling me that my baby was only 3 lbs., because I had an abrupted (half of it was decayed) placenta, and that the child hadn’t been getting the right levels of nutrition and oxygen—and that she would be very small (severe intrauterine growth restriction), might have brain damage and would definitely be spending time in the NICU. Despite hearing this—this baby had kicked me in the ribs so strongly for weeks—that in my gut I suspected that she’d be OK, but I wasn’t prepared for how traumatized I would be by the time she got home.
Because I had a placental aberration the doctors tested my daughter (and me) for all kinds of things, including a CMV virus (that if contracted during my pregnancy could render her deaf at around nine months) test that I didn’t get the results on for three weeks. After almost four weeks, my tiny daughter came home, and we learned that the doctors could find no reason for the abrupted placenta—including CMV. (And as it turned out I would have a history of defective placentas, and two children who had no side effects from their complicated births.)
During that time, it was painful to do so many things, including write. I finally wrote a poem called “Necessary Work” (you can read the poem here) that went through many drafts. I carried a sense that my body was broken, that it could not do the necessary things that would get a child here safely. The poem was rejected from several literary magazines, and then after another rewrite, I submitted it to Ruminate Magazine’s Janet B. McCabe Poetry Prize – and as if in some bizarre twist of fate to me at the time, I won.
The judge, poet Li-Young Lee, chose my poem as the winner and wrote in part about it: “… Among the many virtues that recommend it are the vivid images, as well as a complicated music arising out of a deep unconscious word-counting and word-weighing. One can sense the poet sorting the music of thinking and feeling from the chaos of an outsized undifferentiated passion. But above all, it is the passion that I love about this poem, and how that passion is canalized by discipline to create a work of profound beauty.” And so, winning this contest galvanized me in a way that I hadn’t felt previously to believe that my work had value—that it could speak to others, that it could make them feel some deep emotion. This poem, in a way, saved me—and it’s still awe-striking to me when I read it and someone tears up, or someone I don’t know writes a blog that she taught the poem to her poetry class.
FFF: Name a book or two that you think everyone should read, and tell us a little bit about what makes it/them so mind-blowingly awesome.
NR: Hands down, Audre Lorde’s Our Dead Behind Us. Like the poet, these spare poems are woman-warrior fierce and unapologetic. Lorde’s work focuses on difference – between groups of women but also of conflicts within the self: as Marilyn Hacker has written, “ … none of Lorde’s selves has ever silenced the others; the counterpoint among them is often the material of her strongest poems.” Lorde’s work speaks to me especially because recently, I described the poems in my full-length collection, Louder Than Everything You Love (ELJ Publications, 2015), this way: The narrator in these poems is many: women who talk to the dead, women who mourn dead mothers and grandmothers, women suicides, women who’ve been raped/escaped rape, women who cradle premature babies, women who suffer depression, women who prepare the bodies of the dead, women who exist between their children’s bodily needs and saints’ incorruptible bodies. Lorde is many women within herself—her poems celebrate and confront those differences.
Also: Cynthia Marie Hoffman’s ridiculously amazing poetry book, Paper Doll Fetus (Perseus) is a collection of haunting poems about pregnancy and motherhood, and the history of obstetrics, from medieval midwives to early doctors who were pioneering the field. There’s an unusual cast of characters who speak in this collection, like a deformed ovarian cyst apologizing to the woman in which it grows, or a phantom pregnancy speaking to a nun who wanted a child. Since so much of my work does center on pregnancy and motherhood, themes that also figure in this manuscript, and the role this act of creation within the body plays for women in different time periods, I was happy to encounter this book now. I have a review posted on LiteraryMama.com, if you want to learn more.
Nicole Rollender’s work has appeared in The Adroit Journal, Alaska Quarterly Review, Best New Poets, The Journal, THRUSH Poetry Journal, West Branch, Word Riot and others. Her first full-length collection, Louder Than Everything You Love, was published by ELJ Publications in 2015. She’s the author of the poetry chapbooks Arrangement of Desire (Pudding House Publications, 2007), Absence of Stars (dancing girl press & studio, 2015), Bone of My Bone, a winner in Blood Pudding Press’s 2015 Chapbook Contest, and Ghost Tongue (Porkbelly Press, 2016). She has received poetry prizes from CALYX Journal, Ruminate Magazine and Princemere Journal.
Fox Frazier-Foley is author of two prize-winning poetry collections, Exodus in X Minor (Sundress Publications, 2014) and The Hydromantic Histories (Bright Hill Press, 2015), and editor of two anthologies, Political Punch: The Politics of Identity (Sundress Publications, 2016) and Among Margins: An Anthology of Critical and Lyrical Writing on Aesthetics (Ricochet Editions, 2016). She is founding EIC of Agape Editions.