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?
The cover art is a pallidium lustered ceramic mask made by an incredibly talented paper and ceramics artist, Andy Byers (also a top-notch big brother). He gave me a print of the mask a few years ago for Christmas and it’s been hanging over my computer ever since. Consequently, I ended up staring at that mask for extended periods of time while writing and editing the collection. It seemed natural to use it for the cover, and I’m fortunate Andy was happy to oblige.
A beautiful mess…haha. Seriously though, I think the title is a solid summary, which I won’t take credit for: it was my editor’s suggestion and it’s perfect. So, “great and terrible.”
What were you trying to achieve with your book/book? Tell us about the world you were trying to create, and who lives in it.
I don’t think I was trying to achieve anything. I just had these things I needed to get out of me and I wanted to make them beautiful. It’s clearly autobiographical, but with any kind of memoir-ish work, it’s also a bunch of lies. Everything we try to write these days is subconscious lying because we naturally take the opportunity to make ourselves a more romantic version of the truth. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, just something I take note of in general. I mean, even this interview is probably a bunch of lies and it’s a good possibility that I’ll contradict myself in some other interview.
Can you describe your writing practice or process for this collection? Do you have a favorite revision strategy?
Well, the collection is essentially my MA thesis so the process was academic in nature. Lots of “forced” and prompted writing. Lots of “editing” diary entries ten minutes before a workshop deadline. Lots of masturbatory workshops. But, also some really valuable time spent one-on-one with my teachers. I found a really lovely writing family at Missouri State who I miss dearly.
Now that I’m in a low-residency program at VCFA, my process is a little different because I send a large amount of work once a month to my advisor and get an enormous amount of very specific, very intense feedback.
Revising is not my thing. I’m more of a process gal. I find it more exciting to get dressed for the party than to go to it and that motivation crosses over in my writing. I do want a nice product at the end of the day, but I also wanna have a good time. So my process is throwing a bunch of shit on the page and then editing out what’s not working. If it stops being fun, I stop doing it.
What do you love to find in a poem you read, or love to craft into a poem you’re writing?
I love to be surprised and that can happen a gazillion ways. Right now, I love seeing people experiment with clichés, punctuation, pop culture, appropriation and visuals. The Internet has, in my humble opinion, opened massive doors for the creative writing world and I feel like a kid in a candy shop. I love a poem that waits though, too, one that I can fall in love with anywhere in space and time. Great poetry does that. So, it’s like: I’m having lots of fun, Internet, but I worry if our relationship will last. Mostly, I don’t wanna be bored, by my own work or anyone else’s.
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?
You, with all your looks
and feels, gave me a glob who turned
into cells, became eyes, limbs beating
my insides. I puke and I puke for
a parasite so hungry. This fucking
kid pooed in me, came out
screaming, hasn’t stopped.
I haven’t slept in two years. I wish
there was something beautiful to say:
I am so happy and sunshine
and flowers and shit.
There is so. Much. Shit.
Lover, hold our boy, sing, endear
him. Want, don’t want. Want.
I chose this poem because it still surprises me when I read it. I still find it jarring and foreign even though it’s obviously confessional. I wrote this in a generative workshop at a magical writer’s retreat in southern Missouri: River Pretty. *ting* After reading James Schulyer’s “A Stone Knife,” we were prompted to write about gift we didn’t really want. I was terribly embarrassed that something so ugly about my child came out of me. The other students started reading their poems about bad Christmas sweaters and kitschy crafts and I almost threw up. I asked everyone not to hate me before I read. But everyone just laughed and laughed and then did that sigh thing at the end. They all had an involuntary emotional reaction to the poem because it’s true. It’s a completely raw, completely real, as-close-as-it-fucking-gets to my emotional truth as humanly possible. It also hasn’t changed much since I wrote it in that workshop. I’ve considered editing it, I thought about cutting it from the collection, but in the end, I kept it because it so perfectly encapsulates a universal moment.
Are there other types of writing (dictionaries, romance novels, comics, science textbooks, etc.) that help you to write poetry?
I’m an avid reader. Seriously, it’s a problem. But I wouldn’t say it’s other things I read that help me write, it’s everything. It’s life. Art, nature, music, food, people. Falling in love and heartbreak. Making babies laugh and drinking too much wine. Staying up too late and buzzing through teaching responsibilities on a double espresso so I can get home and work on that one line in that one poem that’s been bugging the fuck outta me.
What are you working on now?
I’ve been experimenting with weaved narratives and appropriated texts. I’m working on a much longer (for me) poem that’s written mostly like a screenplay. It’s a persona piece from the perspective of the farmer’s wives in Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. The idea is that there was never a fox, it was just the wives getting sweet, sweet justice for years of patriarchal bologna. I just finished working on some visual poems that I adore. There are eight other masks similar to the one on the cover and I had the opportunity to work with them a few months ago. At first, it was very much a process/performance piece and I really didn’t care if I produced anything. I just wanted to spend time with these beautiful masks, set some guidelines for myself, and see what happened. I’m calling them my “selfie poems.”
What are you reading that we should also be reading?
Lots and lots of Pessoa, Ashbery, Neruda, O’Hara, and Rilke.
Purchase The Great and Terrible from ELJ Publications.
Nicole Rollender is a poet, editor and seeker.