THINGS WE’RE DYING TO KNOW…
Let’s start with the book’s title and your cover image. How did you choose each? And, if I asked you to describe or sum up your book, what three words immediately come to mind?
My husband (also a poet) read the manuscript and selected two lines from the poems that he felt would be striking titles. I have been reading chapbook manuscripts for Black Lawrence Press and I’m always drawn to titles that are odd—either long or very short or strange in some way. I picked this title because 1) I thought it would stand out in a list of submissions 2) it matches the prose poem format of the collection and 3) it contains several ideas that are significant to the book (defense, imagination, landscape, domesticity).
The cover is the work of the marvelous Kristen Radtke (managing editor at Sarabande). Originally, I submitted a few collagraphs by Michael Crouse who taught printmaking at University of Alabama in Huntsville, which were beautiful, but not quite what the press had in mind. Once these ideas were turned down, I was totally open to what Kristen would create. I love how timeless the cover is and how the shapes, colors, and arrangement work with the poems on the inside. I’m super-excited to have such a beautiful book!
In three words: conflict, magic, geo-political.
What were you trying to achieve with your book? Tell us about the world you were trying to create, and who lives in it.
I live in this world. My two daughters live in this world. Many of these poems were sparked by an experience with my girls or something my oldest daughter (who just turned 5!) said to me about death (Close your eyes momma. Just close your eyes. You are dying.) or life or how the world functions. I wrote these prose poems starting after the birth of my first daughter, so many of them deal with the conflicted experience of being completely relied upon by another human being and also knowing that we live in a world where other human beings are being blown up, tortured, and piled into mass graves. I am interested in the surreal state we have to put ourselves into so that we can get out of bed in the morning—who could really walk around “normally” if they actually faced the terrible ways humans treat each other and the rest of the planet.
Can you describe your writing practice or process for this collection? Do you have a favorite revision strategy?
I wrote these poems while my daughters slept, nursed, were trapped in the walker or bouncer, went to the store with their dad, or later—while they played together in the next room. I think this time constraint is why I have a collection of prose poems. The fluidity of this form, the narrative, the ability to get a draft or idea down quickly without getting hung up on the line break—I joke that I can write a prose poem in the time it takes for someone not to die in the next room. I write in our laundry room, which is right next to the kitchen—so I’m off to the side of being in the middle of the domestic action. I just kept writing a poem here and there and putting them in a pile on my desk until it seemed like maybe there were enough for a book.
I have to print everything out and revise by hand; the screen is deceptive for me. I also read everything aloud as part of my revision process (although I am notorious for putting words that I can not pronounce into poems).
How did you order the poems in the collection? Do you have a specific method for arranging your poems or is it sort of haphazard, like you lay the pages out on the floor and see what order you pick them back up in?
I re-read Jeffery Levine’s “On Making the Poetry Manuscript” and then I waited until my daughters were at preschool, so that I could spread everything out on the floor. I first sorted the poems into thematic piles and then I started picking poems up as I saw connections, in a sort of collage format—not too much of this or that in a row, poems that touched on the same idea but from different threads, etc. My book begins with an apology poem, which I did because it’s the poem that best introduces the threads that run throughout the book, but also because I teach composition and tell my students never to begin with an apology. When Sarah Gorham called to tell me that my book had won the Bruckheimer, she mentioned that it was “intelligently ordered” and I am deeply proud of this compliment because for years I believed that I was not good at ordering my work.
What do you love to find in a poem you read, or love to craft into a poem you’re writing?
I love a poem that can jump—that can move a great distance in short space; whether this is by image or by going from the large idea to the small or small to large. I love poems that feel “true” in terms of their insight about the human experience (think Ross Gay, Ruth Stone, Kay Ryan, Nikky Finney). I’m not a fan of artificial poems or poems that are overly abstract; the poem must come back to connect with me—it can’t just be sound or image or striking line breaks.
Can you share an excerpt from your book? And tell us why you chose this poem for us to read--did it galvanize the writing of the rest of the collection? Is it your book’s heart? Is it the first or last poem you wrote for the book?
In September 2011, I attended the Kentucky Women Writers Conference (which is amazing in itself but also amazing in that my husband came and took care of our infant who I nursed between conference events) and had a workshop with Aimee Nezhukumatahil. In that workshop I shared a brand new poem entitled “A Hundred Miles From the Border.” The reaction of the workshop to this poem told me that I was on to something and I should try writing a few more of these Jesus poems, which became one thread in the collection. The poem first appeared in The Chattahoochee Review in 2012, along with “In the Land of Milk”, which was the first poem I wrote that is in the collection. With some revisions since then, here is how the poems appear now in the book:
A Hundred Miles From the Border
Even Jesus knows it takes three Americans to do the work of one immigrant, so he’s farmed out the labor.
Now poor boys from Mexico City stand on the assembly line, hot irons in their hands, and brand the face of the Virgin onto grilled cheese sandwiches, mud flaps, and the backs of lace curtains.
Soon the new wing will open up and Jesus will expand his operation; he’s slipped St. Peter a little something on the side, insurance against star-chested archangels riding up in a flurry of lights.
Since the installation of the air conditioner, the boys don’t mind being paid in Hail Mary’s and signed notes for salvation. They work mostly by candlelight, branding to the murmurs of Jesus as he works his rosary like an abacus.
“In Land of Milk” has its origins in the all consuming act of breastfeeding—and touches on the idea that in the land of milk the people don’t appreciate what they have—instead, they are just waiting for the honey. The poem lead to the creation of another thread, focused on the American consumer culture and general lack of appreciation for world resources.
In the Land of Milk
Everyone waits for the honey. Mouths are open and tongues dry, even as cream leaks from their lips. Here no lactation can erase visions of thick golden sap dripping from the fuzzy legs of bees. When the mail truck drives through town, people fall to their knees in hope the door might slide back and a soft package, like those bags used to collect blood, will be delivered unto them. In homage, parents name their children Alfalfa, Clover, Orange Blossom, and these children grow like weeds. In school they learn to evaporate. They become obsessed with shelf life and walk home in puffs of white dust. In gym, they load hives of corrugated boxes and then their offering is shipped away, to babies who dream of paper cows filled with powder.
If you had to convince someone walking by you in the park to read your book right then and there, what would you say?
This is a tough one. I might just start reading and hope they stop to listen.
For you, what is it to be a poet? What scares you most about being a writer? Gives you the most pleasure?
I’ve always had this awareness of detail and been able to maintain amazement; the power of language attracted me to poetry—but I think other people who are inquisitive, aware, and amazed function in a similar way to poets. For me the title of poet means a freedom; I can see and create with language sort of outside the “rules”.
I am most scared that I won’t write what I need to write. Also, I worry about the earth crashing into the sun and all the paper in the world burning up. But mostly, I fear my own self-doubt.
I love being able to write a poem that speaks to other people—especially to other people who are not poets. To communicate a shared human experience in written language, to make work that people can return to because it is honest about some aspect of life for the reader—this is when I am most pleased with my work.
Are there other types of writing (dictionaries, romance novels, comics, science textbooks, etc.) that help you to write poetry?
I love nonfiction. I love NPR. I love journalism for the wildness of reality. I also find children’s books to be deeply helpful (as they have always been for me). When I’m having hard time writing, sometimes it also helps me to read fiction; the short story is often a very long poem.
What are you working on now?
Now I’m trying to write one poem at a time and making a new pile of pages on my desk.
What book are you reading that we should also be reading?
I just finished Kirun Kapur’s Visiting Indira Gandhi’s Palmist (Elixir Press, 2015) and was blown away by the voice, variety of forms, and scope of these poems.
Without stopping to think, write a list of five poets whose work you would tattoo on your body, or at least write in permanent marker on your clothing, to take with you at all times.
Five is hard. I have four tattoos and only one of them involves a word.
I can imagine a tattoo of specific lines from William Stafford’s “A Ritual to Read to Each Other."
Then these five poets:
What’s a question you wish I asked? (And how would you answer it?)
What other art forms are you drawn to?
I love three-dimensional art, especially when it incorporates found objects or “domestic” materials. My twin sister is an alternative fiber artist and sculptor, so this is a shared love. I’m drawn to the act of creation—of making something out of something else. I find Joseph Cornell’s boxes compelling.
Purchase The Spoons in the Grass are There To Dig a Moat from Sarabande Books.
Nicole Rollender is a poet, editor and seeker.