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Sunday, September 13, 2015

Interview with Nicole Rollender

Today I'm thrilled to interview Nicole Rollender, a prolific and talented poet who has not one but two new chapbooks recently out, Bone of My Bone (Blood Pudding Press), and Absence of Stars (Dancing Girl Press). She also has a full-length book coming out by year end, Louder than Everything You Love (ELJ Publications), and another chapbook, Ghost Tongue (Porkbelly Press), forthcoming next year. Read about how she manages to be both so prolific and so otherwordly in writing her gorgeous work.

JG: You have two chapbooks coming out this summer, Bone of My Bone (Blood Pudding Press), 
and Absence of Stars (Dancing Girl Press). What are the themes of each, and is there overlap? How did you decide which poems belong in each collection, or were they separately conceived projects from the get-go?

NR: Each chapbook was actually rooted in the birth of each of my children – Absence of Stars primarily for my daughter and Bone of My Bone for my son – and they started with poems about each of those experiences, although poems about both children appear in each collection. However, the poems that grew around each of those experiences did evolve into different concerns, and different collections. Interestingly, some of the poems are quite old and some are quite young, but I put together the collections about six months apart. Absence of Stars contains 13 poems and is a more delicate collection, centered about what it means to be a first-time mother of a girl born with severe intrauterine growth restriction, and the guilt of the mother-body betraying the child. It’s also about memory, and how experiences become part of physical/spiritual selves and how in a sense we live those memories alongside our current lives (it’s also possible to live others’ memories). Bone of My Bone is grittier (there’s suicide, death, torture) – the narrator has a fraught pregnancy where three times it seems as though the child has died and then is born nine weeks premature. The poems are also concerned with discovering what is the divine and interrogating it about what our purpose is, and how we live as embodied spirits.

JG: There is a marked transposing of the spiritual and the physical in Bone of My Bone; the title of nearly every poem in the collection either names a body part/physical act or a religious term (i.e. bone and tongue / vespers and vigils). The first poem “Lauds” has these two striking lines: “I cry for you, God, who has no / hands or feet on earth anymore.” There are sinners and apocalypses next to metacarpals and phalanges. Are you addressing the duality of spirit and body, or using the tension/energy that comes from examining such a duality in your work? Or is something else going on here?

NR: Bone of My Bone evolved into an exercise of trying to understand how to live in this world, with the knowledge that there’s also this afterlife-world that co-exists with the plane we inhabit. I like what you said about the poems using the tension/energy that comes from examining such a duality, because when I write I feel that tension physically inside my body. I think, how do I harness this tension, how do I translate this struggle, this what feels like angst dancing a jig on my ribs, into visceral poems? I’m Catholic, so I was raised with the strong sense that we’re both spirit and body, and we co-exist with the afterlife that’s inhabited by spirits. And we deal with this, when someone dies, when we’re depressed and contemplate leaving our bodies, when we have a miscarriage. When I write, I feel this whole gathering of things around me, memories, objects, words, things that are beautiful, other things that are grotesque. It’s this chaos, all these voices, so the idea is how do I inhabit multiple places, the earth, the afterlife as this creature who has a dual form? I think most people struggle with what their life on earth means. In this chapbook, there’s a reflection of that real questioning, and how we’re never really sure of anything—our place on earth, salvation, the meaning of suffering. It’s an ongoing internal struggle.

JG: There is a lot of intergenerational interplay in both chapbooks—the speaker and her premature baby, the speaker’s dead mother and grandmother, the grandfather. There’s also a repeated concern about entering heaven. Is the reaching for connection throughout generations a kind of insurance against being forgotten, against not entering heaven? And does this extend to the two writers whose lines are listed in your notes as being used in some of your poems, Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath? Are they part of the lineage invoked?
NR: Yes, what was interesting to me was that the deceased grandmother and premature children inserted themselves quite often into my poems – until they became familiar characters. Two things that I’ve often thought about as keeping someone alive and rooted to the earth are their bones and words, so the grandmother whose body created the narrator’s mother, and Woolf and Plath who left their words, are still here with us. There is definitely a fear of both being forgotten and not entering heaven that the narrator in these chapbooks concerns herself with – and that’s complicated by the fear of dying young and leaving her children. The idea of having a female lineage that goes back and forward is part of the way of having both a history to root oneself in and a way to live, perhaps forever, on both earth and in the afterlife. The dead grandmother often haunts my poems, seemingly as an archetype of this dead/but still living source of history, wisdom, comfort and also mischief.

JG: Resistance is a strong presence in these books. In the title poem “Absence of Stars” we read “As a means of resisting, I knead bread, close my eyes and wash my face with tumbling waters.” In “If Every Sorrow Was This One,” the speaker intones: “sun don’t go down / let’s not grow old, // bone is forever”. There is a lot of language about throwing things in Absence of Stars, including “people fling apples, / kites …”, “I fling apples into eternity, // homesick for flying.”, “I throw salt at night’s terrors,” “the sinner flings happiness into fire.” Please tell us about how resistance plays a role in both of these books, and if you can, say something about these impulses to throw. Do they have similar impetuses, or not?

NR: A woman in my family birthed her only child when she was 40, and because of complications, her doctor advised her not to have any more children. She told me how there was this tissue or membrane that descended from her vagina, and she had to push it back in – she did this in secret, in the bathroom or bedroom or wherever. She had a similar story about how when she started menstruating, she thought she was dying because her mother hadn’t told her what the bleeding meant. There are these moments where the body betrays us, and so then we start to resist what else is to come, further births, our own deaths. So the resisting, the guarding of our bodies, but then also the pushing out further, flinging salt to repel spirits, a woman throwing offerings up into eternity in the hopes there’s a place for her there. So yes, the resistance and throwing are both forms of self-preservation.

JG: Despite the resistance and tension in these books, and the straining against death, which “is everywhere”, the final poem of Absence of Stars ends with the hopeful lines “I will walk with you // to eternity, its immensity / of yes, of life after / all our meaningless gestures // that mourn.” Is this uptake in mood because the premature baby is strengthening? Is there another source of this hopefulness that the reader should recognize?

NR: There’s definitely a hopefulness attached to parenting (especially a first-time parent), that as tiny premature babies strengthen, grow, come home for the first time and then continue to grow that’s reflected in these poems. Even for someone who suffers from depression there are these moments of joy, small miracles, the idea that the future brings some kind of hope for a positive evolution. When writing these poems, I found moments of calm and happiness among the chaos, some sort of order that also must exist alongside the maelstrom. Parenting, in the same day, the same hour, even the same five minutes, brings intense highs and lows. We struggle to make meaning of the seemingly meaningless or repetitive tasks (changing diapers, sweeping another mess off the floor, writing just one line of poetry in a sitting), but the tasks add up into the passage of time, which yields a growing child, a poem, a book of poems, a child that your body formed and grew and now speaks and breathes in the world.

JG: You have had a very prolific past year or two (or three), with two chapbooks Absence of Stars (Dancing Girl Press) and Bone of My Bone (Blood Pudding Press) having come out this summer, and your first full-length Louder than Everything You Love (ELJ Publications) coming out at the end of the year, with another chapbook Ghost Tongue (Porkbelly Press) forthcoming in 2016. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such publication productivity from a single poet within such a short time frame. What has propelled you to publish so much at this time? Is it the subject matter that pushes you to be so prolific, or something else? Or, is this a backlog of work that just happens to be coming to publication fruition all at once?

NR: I read this interview recently with poet Cecilia Woloch where she said something to the effect that she had really been writing for decades and then all at once, it seemed like the poems came and assembled themselves into chapbooks and books. I published one of my first submitted poems in Alaska Quarterly Review in 2001 right after I finished graduate school, and then my first chapbook came out in 2007. And then I didn’t really publish anything until 2012. During that five years, I had my first child and I was writing, but not actively focused on getting the work out there. My daughter and son were born four years apart – I had difficult pregnancies with both; both were born early (my son nine weeks) and spent weeks in the NICU. Those experiences seemed to catalyze my writing, which contained love, grief, vulnerability and the desire to create art, since time had become so scarce and precious. So to answer your question, I’ve written many poems along the way, and it seemed that in 2014, after workshopping with other poets, the manuscripts started to assemble in front of me. I had years of writing and cultivating and honing, and then something shifted and I was able to put together collections. One other thing that I wanted to mention is that a poem, “Necessary Work,” that I wrote about my daughter’s time in the NICU, when I was just frantic with worry, won Ruminate Magazine’s Janet B. McCabe Poetry Prize in 2012, and was selected by Li-Young Lee, a poet I admire so much. That was the moment, I think, that put me on the track to focusing on getting a second chapbook out.

JG: Is there any poem in your repertoire that you think hasn’t gotten the attention it deserved, or that you would like to highlight? If so, please tell us about why it is important to you.

NR: “Labor” is an important poem to Absence of Stars. This was the first poem I wrote about my son, and it took a long time to find a home before it appeared in Stirring.


Pears, immortal fruit, comfort me. How in Chinese, li is pear separating.
Corn husks, our bodies against.

Bees humming, my water broke nine weeks early, and the baby came.
For a woman

whose labor is long, for her exquisite ache, midwives spoon
sugar and aged

vinegar into her mouth, sweet brightening the sour. Or, they call out
to Margaret,

as if the saint of childbirth will place a hand on the locus of pain. Shhhh,
this is why

a baby is born now, to teach me about the forms resistance takes. Just as you,
stone, shone on the first

angel, a midwife strokes sard on thighs to make the baby come, so a child comes
forth a shining person.

Is there consolation in this suffering, as light falls between sycamore branches?
Does the flock

that leaves one drowned in the river ever forget its black wings and shimmering eye?
Things are always

happening in the forest, flashes of feather and fur. We fail into departure,
such graceless creatures

carrying broken teeth. Yet, a singing through fontanel.

JG: You work full-time and have two young children. Yet you are so prolific. Do you have any advice for working parents who aim to have creative lives? Does your professional life feed your poetry life, or deplete it?

N: I remember at a recent doctor’s visit, I complained that I was always so tired, and had been tired for the last year or so. And the doctor laughed and said that every patient of hers who is the parent of young children and works full time says the same thing. So this is just another rite of passage in raising children that the body and mind must endure and survive. Honestly, the best advice that I have for writing parents is to just make time to write: For months on end, I sat down to write after my children had gone to bed, and that’s where a lot of these poems were written, in that space before my sleep. So you have to commit to that, but also commit to your own sleep and self-care. My day job as a B2B magazine editor doesn’t have a direct effect on my creative work either way; however, I will say that because my day job is editing and writing, I’m more in that mode when I come home to do more editing and writing. Yes, so my most common answer when people ask, “How are you,” is “I’m good, but so tired.”

JG:  In addition to the impressive list of your own books, what else do you recommend readers read?

NR: I have a rotating stack of books that I keep near my laptop, so right now I have Ariel by Sylvia Plath, The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers by Bhanu Kapil, Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds, Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being, Louise Gluck’s Faithful and Virtuous Night and the Women Write anthology, edited by Susan Cahill.

JG: What are you working on now? Or are you taking a much deserved break?

NR: No breaks for me yet. I’m working on the final editing and ordering of my first full-length collection, Louder Than Everything You Love. It’s amazing how bodily I feel this work, that I have such a strong stake in sending the best collection possible out into the world. The next step will be sending it to several poets who’ll write blurbs – that will be my first glimpse into how this collection will impact readers.

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Nicole Rollender is editor of Stitches. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Adroit Journal, Alaska Quarterly ReviewBest New PoetsThe JournalRadar PoetrySalt Hill JournalTHRUSH Poetry JournalWest Branch, Word Riot and others. Her first full-length poetry collection, Louder Than Everything You Love, is forthcoming from ELJ Publications. She is the author of the chapbooks Arrangement of Desire (Pudding House Publications), Absence of Stars (dancing girl press & studio), and Ghost Tongue (Porkbelly Press, 2016). She’s the recipient of poetry prizes from CALYX JournalRuminate Magazine and Princemere Journal. Find her online at

Where to get the chapbooks

Title of chapbook: Bone of My Bone
Name of press: Blood Pudding Press
Year published: September 5, 2015
Ordering link  

Title of my chapbook: Absence of Stars
Name of press: dancing girl press & studio
Year published: 2015
Ordering link

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