I’m curious: what’s your elevator pitch for your book?
That’s a good question to start with because I actually recently wrote a few sentences about what my chapbook Bone of My Bone is about: Through the half-lit poems in Bone of My Bone runs a troubling line of questioning – what’s beyond this life? – as the narrator contends with death on a very visceral level: “The hip is something/ no longer examined in the light.” In these poems’ rooms, which are like the ruins of a cathedral open to a night sky, the haunted narrator explores the real ways that we take which is ours, both in this life and in the next. There’s a chance to seize at “what is also the divine: There is no saint/without a past.”
How did you come upon the subject of your book?
I was raised in the Catholic tradition and was taught to pray throughout the day – and if you forget, every breath or every heartbeat can be a prayer if you desire. One day, I was reading Blackbird and came upon Malachi Black’s poem, “Quarantine,” a crown of sonnets that follow the 10 movements (Lauds, Prime, Terce and so on) in the Christian monastic prayer known as the canonical hours. These movements follow the passage of one day, so Lauds is a predawn prayer, None is the afternoon prayer, Vespers is sundown’s and so forth. Black calls “Quarantine” a poem “to the possibility of God.”
Black’s poem struck a familiar chord: one of the books that has stayed with me for years is Rainer Maria Rilke’s Book of Hours. It’s wonderful, thinking of the 23-year-old Rilke writing intense love poems to God, incantations coming to him in “an inner dictation,” as he described it. He had visited a monastery in Russia and was moved by the Christian practice of praying throughout the day. It’s a departure from a God of fear (as is Black’s poem) – and I love Rilke’s self-discovery in these poems: “I live my life in widening circles that reach out across the world.” And, there’s a deep, contemplative peace between stanzas.
But, you know, I don’t really experience a lot of peace in my daily life, as probably is true of most of us. And poet Anne Carson said something that makes sense of this disquiet. I’m paraphrasing here, but Carson described the feeling as walking through your life with an inkling of what’s also running alongside you on the other side, the flame of God, the afterlife, the darkness or light. So that sense of mortality, of an internal straining toward something – St. Augustine of Hippo said that our hearts won’t rest till they rest in God, so is that what it is?
I often feel an internal crying out, a sense of loneliness. So I wanted to portray that journey in this chapbook – call it carpe diem, call it searching, whatever it is you need to feel full. But this struggle happens among the quotidian, and that’s where the book is rooted. As in, you’re taking a walk with your kids and you have this feeling wave over you, that we’re together here so short a time, and yet the beyond, eternity, is endless and unknown. Where do we root?
And the title? Sometimes, it seems to me, titles can strike like lightning or can be extraordinarily elusive. How did you go about finding your title?
I wrote the title poem “Bone of My Bone” when I felt un-rooted. So the poem started with me considering maternal lineage, how I can follow my grandmother, who’s now dead, back to her birth more than a century ago. The poem begins:
I’m my own land, unmanageable. There’s a cross
road where my hands and lips intersect
with an illumined city’s open windows …
with an illumined city’s open windows …
I chose Bone of My Bone as the chapbook title because we originate from someone else and we also put part of ourselves forward, whether it’s through our children, our art, our stories. I wanted the chapbook to be about searching for roots, for somewhere to call home.
Tell us something about the most difficult thing you encountered in this book’s journey.
My son, my second child, was born nine weeks premature. I woke up at 5 a.m. to find that my water had broken, so we took this eerie, awful drive to the hospital with my daughter chattering in the backseat. I didn’t feel him move for more than half the trip, and I kept thinking we had lost him. It was surreal and terrifying. Several of the poems in the chapbook are concerned with this – what if I lose a child I had never met?
On the drive, I finally felt a flutter in my gut. He wasn’t gone. My son spent time in the NICU, though, before he finally came home. So writing those poems with the cast of how do I look toward God in this struggle was painful. Here is a part of “Driving to the Hospital After My Water Breaks Nine Weeks Early”: “Hold me, Lord / his face as he dies / his winds shake me / shake me through / my body doesn’t move / while his waters / shake through me.”
And the most pleasurable?
I remember December 19 of last year, reading Bone of My Bone in the evening before I sent it in to Blood Pudding Press’ 2015 Chapbook Contest, and feeling like it was done, that it captured for me the idea of carpe diem – and also of the struggle of being an embodied spirit that’s straining toward your God. When BPP Publisher Juliet Cook sent out the announcement that I was one of the three winners, I was elated – I felt so happy this chapbook had resonated with the press. And then, recently, just before I resent the copy-edited manuscript to BPP for layout, I again felt like it was a complete little collection whose poems spoke to the concerns I was addressing. I feel hopeful that others may read it and find a bit of their own struggle – and maybe some movement toward answers.
What’s the best and / or worst piece of advice (writing or publishing or similar) you’ve gotten?
The best? Imitate, and then don’t imitate. You probably remember an early writing class where the teacher read you a poem or two, say by Emily Dickinson, and then said, “Write a poem as if you’re Emily Dickinson.” And then you clumsily (or maybe not so clumsily) wrote a poem after Emily. And that advice is good, when you’re a starting writer, to find poets you like and to try out their styles or how they construct a poem. I wrote some pretty awful poems while trying to imitate some good poems – Jon Anderson, Lyn Emmanuel and Jane Hirschfield among them. When I guest-edit or read from a journal, I sometimes come across these types of imitative poems, that of course, give homage to the poet in the title, the first line or an epigraph. But most times, these poems are at best imitative. The other side of this advice is to stop imitating. At some point, your voice arrives. You write a good poem, and then another. They get accepted at some good journals. And people tell you that they can recognize your work. So when that happens, start trusting that voice and honing it. Of course, read other poets voraciously, but don’t rely on that crutch of imitation. Jump into your own abyss.
Here’s the worst: When I was in graduate school, at one of my end-of-year conference with my poetry professor, a widely published older male poet, he told me that except for one very talented woman in our class, he didn’t expect anyone else to publish books. He was right – in the short term. This woman poet in her late 20s did go on to win a large poetry prize for her first book and then publish a second book relatively quickly. However, what I’m seeing now is that many of the people I wrote with back then are really coming into their own as poets in their 30s, publishing their first chapbooks or books in that decade. The point is that developing a voice can sometimes take longer for one writer than for another. It’s a very real thing, writing out all the bad poetry before you can start to create good art. I published my first chapbook at age 27, and now in my mid-30s, have three chapbooks coming out and a full-length collection later this year. So persevere and keep writing, right? Because the best work is to come.
Tell us one of your favorite books you’ve discovered recently and say a little about why.
Oh, I’m so glad to mention a poetry book that I love right now. Cynthia Marie Hoffman’s gorgeous poetry book, Paper Doll Fetus (Perseus) is a collection of haunting poems about pregnancy and motherhood, and the history of obstetrics, from medieval midwives to early doctors who were pioneering the field. There’s an unusual cast of characters who speak in this collection, like a deformed ovarian cyst apologizing to the woman in which it grows, or a phantom pregnancy speaking to a nun who wanted a child. Since so much of my work does center on pregnancy and motherhood, themes that also figure in this manuscript, and the role this act of creation within the body plays for women in different time periods, I was happy to encounter this book now. I have a review posted on LiteraryMama.com, if you want to learn more.
Can you share an excerpt from your book? Give us a taste.
Sure. This short poem is part of the Christian daily movement of prayers. I wrote all of the prayer poems in the sequence, but only selected certain ones to appear in Bone of My Bone. They still do reflect the passage of a day, or of the way an individual searches continually for a God – and is that God a loving deity, or a cruel one?
Question: If you can’t enter yourself, what makes you think you can enter heaven?
Answer: There are wolves within me, creatures I’m afraid to name.
Answer: I’ve spread blood on my mouth’s lintel. Death can’t enter this way.
Answer: I hang skulls in the trees. They clink in the wind, death’s sturdy music.
Answer: The resurrection plays over again every night. The stone letting you in and out of the tomb.
What’s a question you wish I asked? (And how would you answer it?)
How about: What does your poetry attempt to do? I’m stealing this spot-on line from poet Amber Rambharose: “A mentor of mine told me that a successful poem is ‘someone in trouble singing.’” When I write, it comes from a place of chaos, a place of many whirling and disturbing things. Many disparate things. And I try to make music, a song, from the chaos, joining together the grotesque and the gorgeous. The visceral and the sublime. The dead and the living.
OK, we’re smitten. Where do we go to buy your book?
You can purchase Bone of My Bone from Blood Pudding Press. This chapbook was one of three winning manuscripts in Blood Pudding Press’ 2015 Chapbook Contest.
Nicole Rollender is editor of Stitches. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Adroit Journal, Alaska Quarterly Review, Best New Poets, The Journal, Radar Poetry, Salt Hill Journal, THRUSH Poetry Journal, West 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 Absence of Stars (dancing girl press & studio), Arrangement of Desire (Pudding House Publications), Bone of My Bone, a winner in Blood Pudding Press’s 2015 Chapbook Contest, and Ghost Tongue (Porkbelly Press, 2016). She’s the recipient of poetry prizes from CALYX Journal, Ruminate Magazine and Princemere Journal. Find her online at .
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