my grandfather built when he came to America with his grandfather. It plays an important role within the narrative, which is kind of fun—it’s setting, it’s family, it’s U.P.—and like all of those things it too is falling apart. I knew I wanted that photo for the cover of my book before I knew I had a book to cover.
Three word book summation: Bring a chisel.
What were you trying to achieve with your chapbook? Tell us about the world you were trying to create, and who lives in it.
I feel like the subject matter chose me. Or it was in me and it had to live. Or maybe I had to let it go. The Upper Peninsula of Michigan was very much part of my childhood—a place we would vacation because we had some ancestral roots planted there—but as I’ve grown it's faded, gone away, and become not just a place no one ever visits, but now it’s associated with a side of my family that no one gets along with, speaks of—I think I’m the last person that was up there and that was a good three or four years ago. I know I’m the last person that’s spoken with the final family member who still lives there.
Anyway, I think my own familial narrative very much follows along with the Upper Peninsula’s story. People are leaving. The economy, long ago driven by mining and more recently by tourism, has all but dried up and gone. And sure, those things are all unique to my family and to the U.P., but I think they’re all symptoms that are spread across America today, that a lot of people feel that way right now—the best is behind and we’ve got whatever we have.
Can you describe your writing practice or process for this collection? Do you have a favorite revision strategy?
For me revision is the fun part. I dread writing. I clean the house, walk the dog, think about taking smoking back up again (maybe briefly do), trim each individual hair in my beard, and do anything I can to get away from it. I love writing, but it’s hard. It’s scary! I always want my writing to be worth something. I’m always a critic, a skeptic. I’m a worrier of the worst kind and that anxiety comes out in my writing process. Once I do work up the nerve to sit down and get something going, it's always worth all that work. It’s instant, total relief. For me the process doesn’t really start until after I’ve done a lot of writing and I’m deep into revision. That’s a lot more fun for me—that’s the artistic process, I suppose. I often find that my poems take a long time to “become”—I write great big chunks of text and then I chisel away. And then I implement the only real revision or writing strategy that I know: Time. Time to actually write. Time to chisel. Time to let the Earth settle. Time and courage to go back down and mine.
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?
Ordering this book took a while. I wanted all of the section breaks, the text at each of the three acts, to carry or open up some overt themes and for the poems to follow those themes. Each choice was deliberate. Slow. Linking. Recently, I’ve found that ordering books can be easier (just finished my second manuscript), but at the time it was a tedious process. I would lay everything out, print and reprint, and make a huge mess. It’s easier now, less arduous, but maybe just because I’ve done it once before.
What do you love to find in a poem you read, or love to craft into a poem you’re writing?
I never know what I’m about. Instantly, my instinctive answer is to say simplicity. I like to read poems that are welcoming, but still rich with wordplay and imagery—I have a deep want for poetry to be inclusive. Inspiring. And also, very sad. I want to share poetry. But I also realize that art can't always be that way and the asshole in me likes that too. I like to be challenged as I get older and I like to challenge. While I try to craft a lot of my of writing so that folks can come on in easily and accessibly—especially for my friends and family who don’t read much poetry—as I’ve gotten a bit older I do find that I like to revise, edit, and write for weirdness. I enjoy the oddness of obstruction and off beats and trickles of unexpected spacing and wordplay—things that keep the reader on their heels. I’m always at odds with my writing and with poems, I think, because I will always feel self-conscious and inexperienced. There are so many great writers.
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?
The excerpt below is from my poem “Awake” and I chose it because my book is so carefully concerned with setting and place and I think this piece lays out a lot of the layers of sediment that cover what my poems are trying so hard to get at—ancestry, inevitability, and the slow crumble and bury of both of those things. For my money too, this poem is one of the pieces that I read and reread and over and over again find hope, no matter how bad.
Another reason I (selfishly) chose it is for the odd and only recently realized fact that, even though much of the narrative is concerned with my family, this is the only poem in which my wife makes an appearance (though indirectly and not in the excerpt below—you’ll have to hunt down the poem in entirety to find her).
Fresh flowers are fleeting
and white near my grandfather’s house:
carnations. To act courageous,
any act or any struggle
must be entered unwillingly and thus
this daughter named Wakefield--
she is no heroine of mine, least not
in a tale such as we have here
when matter, what is densest
huddles naked, rattling in car
that is conducted by windpipe.
The journey is the travel and my mouth
is a gas tank. Elsewhere,
love is always grasping, but in Wakefield
my ankles creak on a porch with no steps
and years pass through as the bones
walk down my body.
If you had to convince someone walking by you in the park to read your book right then and there, what would you say?
“Hey, free pizza here!”
And then I would hand them a copy of my book, smile, and thank them so much for stopping in the restaurant. If they asked any questions, I'd say, “Move along, pal!”
For you, what is it to be a poet? What scares you most about being a writer? Gives you the most pleasure?
Being a poet or a writer of any kind means being a creep, a voyeur, an eavesdropper, and in all the worst ways. I think all sensible people are those things, but I think all writers are a bit more—poets might even be those things to an oppressive extent. To be a poet is to be more aware than any of the other creeps. I suppose I enjoy that level of consciousness and the sensibilities that come with being constantly aware and always recording. So many half-heard dialogues on the train, trinkets I’ve found on the ground, and people I’ve walked past on the street or known in a past life have in someway made their way into my writing. What gives me the most pleasure is going back and rereading my work and recalling how that couplet or a certain image came to be.
Are there other types of writing (dictionaries, romance novels, comics, science textbooks, etc.) that help you to write poetry?
When I struggle to write I stop, pull a book off the shelf, and read it. I read the start, some random page in the middle, the immediate end. It doesn’t matter. If reading doesn’t get the hair to stand up on the back of your neck then why write at all?
What are you working on now?
I'm just now starting to shop a recently completed poetry manuscript that I co-wrote with writer, filmmaker and fellow poet, T.J. Peters. My best friend. It's titled, You are both the lion and the tamer, the horn not for honking. Because ain't I a woman, the one with shoes untied, a lover in the streets, a cynic in the sheets, the product of a well-adjusted divorce? So tell me your weaknesses but if we're going to split hairs let us use Occam's razor. Do you feel that, zealot? Pinch it to the listening as there is a tremble on the deck and the storm is a'comin', sets unwonder, unafraid, unbecoming in this a book of bad poems for good people—which we have been calling Bad Poems for Good People (ahem, for short). It has been an interesting process because my coauthor lives in California and I live in Chicago and thus the manuscript has come into being in an odd and lovely manner. We send each other prompts—sometimes very random, sometimes focused, sometimes little blurbs that are hardly ideas. One writes a poem from said prompt. The other will then edit or tinker. Back and forth and so on. At this point it is heads or tails where each author begins or ends. Our intent though was to capture the everyday endeavors that make today's Americans so two-sided a story—angry, but empathetic. As it says in the foreword: "The notion was to examine the internal dichotomy in life that makes us slam fist on table, then love the kiss that makes fist stop hurting. This matters. It takes two mindsets to survive. One that recognizes it is in danger, and another that hopes such danger has a soft side. Fight or flight. Love and hate. The big bad and the lesser good."
Keep a heads-up as a couple of the poems will be appearing in the December issue of The Blackstone Review and Peters and I will be featured on their podcast as well.
What book are you reading that we should also be reading?
We’re all still reading Infinite Jest, right? Kidding. (But seriously, we’re all still trying to read that?)
I’ve been extremely busy this fall reading for all of my lovely students at the University of Illinois at Chicago so I haven’t gotten to do a ton of reading for pleasure, but the last book I read in its entirety was In the Circus of You and it was amazing. You should all read this book. It is insane and dark and beautiful in all the best ways and extremely reread-able. It’s an illustrated novel of poems by Nicelle Davis and Cheryl Gross and published by Rose Metal Press. Pick it up for sure.
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.
Without stopping? AH! Very quickly I can say with absolute certainty that I would tattoo John Berryman and William Blake on my body because I have already done so—I have the end of Berryman’s “Dream Song 14” on my chest (“me, wag.”) and I have Blake’s “The Ancient of Days” on the inside of my left arm. With less certainty, I will answer that the ghosts of poets George Oppen, James Wright, and Philip Levine are all welcome to tattoo any of their work over all the rest of the skin on my body, but only if it’s free because I do not have the cash for all that ink.
What’s a question you wish I asked? (And how would you answer it?)
How much money and pie can I give you right now?
All of it.
Purchase The Upper Peninsula Misses You from ELJ Publications.
Nicole Rollender is a poet, editor and seeker.