Interview with American Poet, Nicole Rollender

Photo: Nicole Rollender

Photo: Nicole Rollender

Brief Biography:

Nicole Rollender’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Adroit Journal, Alaska Quarterly ReviewBest New PoetsThe Journal, Memorious, THRUSH Poetry JournalWest Branch, Word Riot and others. Her first full-length collection, Louder Than Everything You Love, in which “How to Stop Drowning” appears, was published by ELJ Publications in 2015. She’s the author of the poetry chapbooks Arrangement of Desire (Pudding House Publications, 2007), Absence of Stars (dancing girl press & studio, 2015), Bone of My Bone, a winner in Blood Pudding Press’s 2015 Chapbook Contest, and Ghost Tongue (Porkbelly Press, 2016). She has received poetry prizes from CALYX JournalRuminate Magazine and Princemere Journal.

Geosi Gyasi: How much effort did you put into the writing of “Rise Up”?

Nicole Rollender: “Rise Up” is actually a very special poem to me, so thanks for picking it out. I wrote it about a woman mentor of mine who passed away suddenly. I had called to tell her that I was pregnant with my son and was told that she had unexpectedly died from a massive heart attack. It was such a final moment. “Rise Up” was my attempt to recreate some last moment we might have had, where she tried to give me her thoughts on dying well. This poem won CALYX Journal’s Lois Cranston Memorial Prize for “Rise Up” in 2014, which was a huge honor.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have a strategy by which you start a poem?

Nicole Rollender: It depends, but a common one for me is word, phrase and image gathering. I keep running lists (things people say, words in other poems, words on the news, well, words from anywhere really. My kids, even. The other day I wrote down a magical phrase from my son that will appear in a poem). Once I have enough of a list, and when I feel that something is unifying them, I’ll start writing a poem. I also will write a poem and then break it apart later into other poems, or scrap it entirely except for one phrase that will make the new poem.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you plan the endings of your poems?

Nicole Rollender: Pretty much never. They’re a surprise to me too, until they happen.

Geosi Gyasi: Does one require a special gift to be a poet?

Nicole Rollender: I think anyone can write a poem and they should. Everyone should write poems as a form of self-expression. Can everyone write a poem like Ocean Vuong? Of course not. Like any other art, people are born with varying levels of skill and talent, and of course you can continue to hone your craft and read masterful poets and improve your work. I’m always on working to get to my next level.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you do much edits before you send your work out for publication?

Nicole Rollender: Usually, yes, I go through many, many poem drafts as do many of the poets I know. It’s rare that a poem comes fully formed. I have a habit of emailing myself my poem drafts over and over, as if they’re coming to me from an old friend faraway. I read them and if I hit on a word line that I change, I send myself a new draft. Sometimes in one sitting, I can send myself between 30 and 50 emails.

Geosi Gyasi: How did you feel when your poem, “Necessary Work” was chosen by Li-Young Lee for the Janet B. McCabe Poetry Prize?

Nicole Rollender: I had been away from writing for a few years, with working and having my first child. I wrote “Necessary Work” about the experience of my daughter spending time in the NICU after her birth. I entered that particular poetry contest because of Li-Young Lee; I love his work. When he selected my poem, it was an astounding and humbling moment. It was a moment that galvanized me forward, back into the writing life – and it’s led me to publish three chapbooks and a full-length collection since 2012.

Geosi Gyasi: I’m so much interested in the title of your book, “Bone of My Bone.” Could you give me a brief synopsis?

Nicole Rollender: I imagine these poems occurring in a bombed-out cathedral, under cover of darkness, maybe some otherworldly light edging the sky. The narrator is many: women who talk to the dead, mothers who “plant skulls in soil and grow sunflowers,” women suicides, women who cradle premature babies, women who prepare the bodies of the dead, women who exist between the “reliquaria of childbirth” and saints’ incorruptible bodies.  These women also live inside themselves, contending with the “wolves within,” asking: “How do I measure the body’s gardens from within its bone fences?” The dead and what is the divine inhabit this collection – they’re looking for kinship, for remembrance, for some kind of communion. They recognize the living as embodied spirits, a type of mirroring. And the narrator, the “she” in many women, goes many places in these poems, even to an uncharted space where the divine’s “name becomes a hand leading me to a place/ where even your name I-am-all-that-is can’t be.” Where does she end up? Existing between this life and the next. She may not have found peace, but she has tried to catch God whole, and let the dead close enough “to smell her mouth’s chancel.”

Geosi Gyasi: Tell me about your time at Pennsylvania State University?

Nicole Rollender: I went to Penn State right after I completed my undergraduate degree in literature, to earn my MFA in creative writing (I concentrated on poetry and nonfiction). I was really young, 21 years old, and it was an exciting experience to pretty much be immersed in poetry all the time. I had the opportunity to work with poets Robin Becker and Cecil Giscombe, and see lots of visiting poets read. All of us were young, in our 20s and early 30s, and we were teaching, writing, staying up late, workshopping, staying up late. It was kind of a shock leaving a place where we were surrounded in poetry and by writers and then going out into the 9-to-5 job world. Luckily, with social media, you can be part of a writing community from anywhere.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you tell me the work you do at Wearables magazine?

Nicole Rollender: Sure. This is a B2B trade magazine that goes out to people who commercially decorate apparel and those who sell it. It’s service journalism at its best, and we have a diversely cool gamut of topics: from the hottest apparel and embellishment trends at New York or Paris Fashion Week, to how to screen print or embroider a hoodie, to how best to promote your business on social media. We run decorating contests and work with local art colleges to promote their apparel and textile design students’ work. We bring in consultants to make over struggling businesses. Our readers are very passionate and involved in what they do, and we interact with them regularly on social media. I’m proud that my team has brought home more than 40 journalism awards, including several Jesse H. Neal awards, which I’ve anecdotally heard called the Pulitzer Prize of business reporting.

Geosi Gyasi: How do you find time to write?

Nicole Rollender: That’s the age-old question. It’s not easy, between work and family responsibilities. That’s really no different than any other writer though, so it really comes down to just having this intense desire to create and then taking whatever time you can to devote to it. I read a lot of poems on my phone, so that lets me immerse myself in others’ work throughout the day. I have a new manuscript that I’m working on, and I leave it open on my computer. When I have a few minutes to spare I hop into it and see what I can do. When I need longer stretches of time, I tend to do it after the household is in bed – when it really will stay quiet for a while.

Geosi Gyasi: What do you do to relax?

Nicole Rollender: I don’t have a lot of downtime, but weight lifting, walking in nature, listening to music, reading, writing, all these things relax me.

Geosi Gyasi: Who is/are your favourite poets?

Nicole Rollender: I have a lot, but here are some that immediately come to mind: Jennifer Givhan, Lucille Clifton, Stevie Edwards, Louise Glück, Kaveh Akbar, Ocean Vuong, Traci Brimhall, Jessica Goodfellow. And many more.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you engage in poetry readings?

Nicole Rollender: Yes. I actually did a number of them this past spring and summer after my first full-length poetry collection, Louder Than Everything You Love (ELJ Editions), was released. I’ve read in small cafes and bookstores and some larger venues as the featured poet. It’s always sort of nerve-wracking before you get up, as you shuffle through your poems reworking the list of poems I’m going to read. The experience of reading to an audience though is exhilarating, especially when people connect with your work. I’ve had the pleasure of reading alongside some great poets as well.

Geosi Gyasi: What advice do you have for budding writers?

Nicole Rollender: The most important thing I can say is to not give up, or stop. Writing is a solitary thing. You have to do it alone, and you have to motivate yourself to do it. Many good writers I’ve known have stopped writing for various reasons, like fear, not having enough time, etc. So if you don’t write, you won’t get better and you won’t get published. Don’t be afraid to write bad drafts; we all write them. It’s in reading others’ work (this is key) and cultivating your own regular writing practice that you will grow as an artist.


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