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?
I had a surprisingly difficult time coming up with the title for my book. I’ve been working with this manuscript for about five years, coming up with one title after another before discarding them. Then when it was almost finished, I chose one of my poems, “Spelunking” as the title. However, when I tried it out on people, I had to explain what it was, repeating the word, often having to give a definition.
Then last November I went to a Tupelo Press writing conference. Introducing my work, I announced the title again. Jeffrey Levine asked everyone sitting at the table to raise their hands if they liked it. Almost no one did. When Jeffrey Levine questions my title, I take notice. So I went back to the drawing board.
It took me about eight more tries before I finally found Always a Blue House, a line from the first poem in the book. As soon as I chose it, I realized that it had been waiting for me all along. I just wasn’t paying attention. I had to dig harder to articulate for myself what is the essence of my collection, what I am really trying to say with these poems.
Luckily choosing the cover image was much easier. I have been fortunate to work with what you might call a micro-press. That means that I was able to be involved in every step of the publication process. The press’s designer, Don Mitchell is a talented photographer. When I finally had a title, he sent me a huge file of possible photographs. The image of the stone on a porch rail struck me right away. Even though the blue house of my childhood didn’t even have a porch, this image conveys the emotional quality I was seeking.
Three words to sum up my book: grief, journey, growth
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?
Just as with my title, I struggled long and hard on the order of these poems. I searched the Internet for advice, and found the book, Ordering the Storm: How to Out Together a Book of Poems, edited by Susan Grimm. It contains essays by poets giving advice. I read the whole thing and marked several passages. I pondered over all the different permutations in which my book could be gathered.
Then I took all my poems and laid them out on the floor in three piles. After that, I read each poem again. It was only then that I truly noticed the weaker poems that needed to be weeded out.
I barely did any reordering after that. I didn’t go back to the advice I had read or try to follow any of their ideas. I just let the poems talk to each other. When I sent it to my publisher to edit, she made very few changes.
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?
-- After the painting by Marc Chagall
Beside the open window,
she floats free, right hand over her heart.
Mouth open, an ecstatic sigh, she gazes.
Flowers burst open, deep indigo in their vase.
Her hair waves like a fish tail,
white wings like fins signal her advent.
A dress of water breaks from waves,
sparkles into the blue, blue world.
In a dream-swim under three crescent moons
a house is floating or sinking or settling
into sediment on the sea floor.
It is a blue house; it is always a blue house.
She is my angel and no one else's.
I can keep her my secret or let her free
into the world. I don’t care whether
she has flown in the window or out.
This poem, “Blue Angel,” is the preface to my book. I wrote it two years ago, but had been unsure of it, didn’t know if I should include it. Even so, a poet friend who read my manuscript suggested I start the book with it. As soon as I to put the poem at the beginning, I knew my friend was right. Somehow it needed to stand alone, waving its wings. It became the book’s heart.
If you had to convince someone walking by you in the park to read your book right then and there, what would you say?
Read this even though its poetry! Honest, I promise you will really be able to understand what I’m trying to say.
For you, what is it to be a poet? What scares you most about being a writer? Gives you the most pleasure?
To be a poet means I am paying attention to every moment, vigilant for images to rise up in me. And then taking the time to sit down and write. This is what gives me the most pleasure, to tell my version of the world in words, to express what it means for a human being to live right now.
What scares me most about being a writer is that my words might not be good enough to express what I want to say. Also that horrible, cold fear that when one piece is done I won’t be able to think of something else to write! So far the well hasn’t dried up but as with many writers, that’s always in the back of my mind.
Do you think poets have a responsibility as artists to respond to what’s happening in the world, and put that message out there? Does your work address social issues?
I do think artists have a responsibility to respond to the world, but that can take many forms. I don’t write what I call political poems but I do think my poems address many of the issues facing women today. Our society still dismisses women’s lives as trivial and insignificant, and the larger publishing world follows suit. And because I am a woman living in a rabidly sexist society, I feel it is my responsibility to give voice to women’s lives. When I read your interview with Stephanie Rogers, I was glad she brought up the old feminist adage “the personal is political.” I think in our political climate today this still rings true. It is my political responsibility to give voice to what is personal to women.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a series about my fractured relationship with my father who now suffers from Alzheimer’s. I had never written much about him until he became ill, until his mental decline became severe. When I realized I would never have the opportunity to mend our relationship, I began to mourn him even though he’s still alive. It’s a strange feeling and one I’m still trying to articulate. There are several poems in Always a Blue House about him, but I’m not done grappling with this issue yet.
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.
Purchase Always a Blue House.
Nicole Rollender is a poet, editor and seeker.