Nicole Rollender’s poetry has always fascinated us. There is something sublime about the raw smell of secret emotions that it unearths from our souls with its bare hands. A synthesis of poignant linguistic parables and imagery that deftly meanders through various aesthetic spaces, her poems are bold, universal and unforgettable. Her work has appeared in The Adroit Journal, Alaska Quarterly Review, Best New Poets, The Journal, Memorious, THRUSH Poetry Journal, West Branch, Word Riot and others. Her first full-length collection, Louder Than Everything You Love, was published by ELJ Editions in December 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 Journal, Ruminate Magazine and Princemere Journal. She is editor of Wearables magazine and executive director of professional development for the Advertising Specialty Institute; she holds a bachelor’s degree in literature from Stockton University and an MFA in creative writing from Pennsylvania State University, where she taught rhetoric and composition and creative writing courses for several years.
Interview by Shinjini Bhattacharjee
1. Louder Than Everything You Love often undertakes an expedition back to the past. How would you describe your poetic journey from the point of its origin?
Oh, the first word I thought of when I read this question was home. Poetry is home to me; it’s the fire I sit beside; it’s the mother in whose lap I lay my head. But I always knew it could consume me. In one of my favorite books, The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath wrote, “I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet…” And so I have these two branches, my quotidian life, my husband, my children, my cat, our new house that we’re turning into our home, but also the poem: the realm where I create, where I compose, where I make artifacts of my life on earth. My children and my poems will both bear me forth even when I’m no longer in my physical body. All these things are home, what I’m always longing toward and back toward.
2. One of the poems in Louder Than Everything You Love, ‘Pilgrimage’, ends with a hauntingly beautiful line- “This is my body. These are my falling bones.” I feel that these two lines stunningly capture the soul of the entire book. There is a deep, meditative quality about the poems that desire to pull the primal, ancient, sacred world inside their very beings. Did you ever feel intimidated experiencing such spiritual moments?
I grew up with a maternal grandmother, daughter of Polish immigrants, who was very religious (Roman Catholic), but also superstitious (she believed in hexes, threw salt over her shoulder). She also saw the dead, a skill/blessing/curse that I’ve inherited. I firmly believe in an afterlife that co-exists very close to our physical reality because of my experiences. So the idea of mortality isn’t foreign to me; I probably think about it more than I should. That’s where the meditative quality comes from, I think. Also, the idea of lineage, that we come from somewhere, and then we push that line forward in whatever way by simply living our lives and leaving a mark here. I don’t know if I feel intimidated, since this kind of thing is normal for me, but I will say that since I was a kid I felt different from other people; I’ve been called dark, intense, depressive, brooding, deep, whatever the negative connotation of the words are, and sometimes I’ve wished I was less like I am. Now in my late 30s, I am grateful for the life experiences I’ve had because they are my own. I do have lots of regrets, but I’ve done things and lived, and I mine the things that hurt to make them shine in my poems.
3.The title of the book, like the titles of many of your poems and other poetry collections, is steeped in a ritual that penetrates the body of a female and femininity. How do you finalize the titles of your work?
I was afraid you would ask me this question. I’m semi-laughing, but the reality is writing titles are one of my least favorite or least formulaic parts about writing poems. But thank you for calling it ritualistic, which I think it is – there’s a moment in the writing of every poem, and then collection, where the title strikes you. The title is the entryway into the poem or the book: You need to mesmerize/intrigue readers right away. That’s why I agonize (maybe even overthink) when it comes to titles. With Louder Than Everything You Love, it came from an unlikely source: A friend read one of my poems “Psalm to Read While My Daughter Considers Her Ribs” (Rogue Agent, April 2015) online, and she said that the last clauses, “these doves rising out of your throat/ are silent: yet they’re louder than everything you love” really hit her hard. She sent me a message like, “That’s your book title, Louder Than Everything You Love.” When I re-read my manuscript, I realize she was right. And so, my book title arrived to me as such an unexpected gift.
4.You have published two chapbooks, Bone of My Bone (Blood Pudding Press) and Absence of Stars (dancing girl press), before Louder Than Everything You Love. Another chapbook, Ghost Tongue (Porkbelly Press), is forthcoming in 2016. Did you imagine your poems as specific collections while writing them, or did the individual poems beckoned you to bring them together as a cohesive whole?
I really have never done project books or written poems with the intent of hanging them together. Putting them into manuscripts has happened along the way. I had written a longer chapbook manuscript called Necessary Work that was declined by a few presses; with that in mind, I reduced it to just 13 poems and overhauled each poem I chose to include: The theme or story that emerged were my daughter’s earliest years, and my learning what it meant to be a mother, to carry another’s body, then to grow it into adulthood. With Bone of My Bone, I had written a series of poems based on the liturgical book of hours, a searching for a God who could be both terrifying (a wolf or a tiger), but also a baby who needs us to rock him. That series became the chapbook’s backbone, and then into that I weaved poems about my son being born nine weeks premature, and this resulting complete helplessness, and my crying out to God. I wrote Ghost Tongue right after a car accident (from which I sustained a concussion and other injuries): These poems I wrote specifically around the theme of I’m here. I’m here. Can you hear me? It’s a book about defying death, about defying disappearance. And finally with Louder, I had about 100 pages of poems in a file around themes of living in a female body, living in a body that has borne children but also sees the dead, seeking the Divine (what really is the afterlife?), seeking the past (ancient words/wisdom, what did my grandmother leave for me?). My generous publisher at ELJ Editions, Ariana D. Den Bleyker, helped me to order the poems I selected into sections that follow the speaker’s transformation; these sections are separated by a series of prose psalms that I wrote for my daughter.
5.Your poetic language is fueled by an intense, vivid imagery and your word choices are often personal and evocative. Are there any poets whose works inspire your writing? How you converse with them while writing your own work?
My favorite, go-to, spiritual mentor poets are: Rilke, Anne Carson, Neruda, Louise Glück, Plath, Lucille Clifton, Ocean Vuong, Li-Young Lee. And there are others of course, but these are my constant companions. I read their work often, dog-earing my copies of their work. I’m drawn to them because their work exists in a realm that’s not quite this world and not quite the next all the time; their poems float in a unique space. I read their work so often because I love it, but also to drink in what it means to be a poet who explores the dark, the sublime, the afterlife, the before life, and the whole cavernous world within us.
6.How do you want your readers to interact with your work?
I don’t want to tell anyone how to respond to my work, because that’s such a personal thing. But I write my poems from a place of deep emotion and intensity – I think that kind of thing could turn some readers off, because my work is personal, sometimes confessional, sometimes rooted in the traumatic (I try to find what’s sweetest among all the rotting). So I want readers to enter the poem and feel a connection to its tiny world and leave transformed in some way. I’d like them to carry the poem (or some words) with them for a time, and live with them a little. I want my readers to feel less alone.
7. The world isn’t as introspective as it used to be. There is too much noise and chaos that overwhelms us. How do you enable your aesthetic energies to return to silence and focus? Are you transformed in the writing of a poem?
I recently had the privilege of taking an online one-week intensive poetry course with Ocean Vuong about memory, about the ways that we mine our own memories for the content in our poems. He shared with us his great piece on memory called “I Remember Anyway,” which essentially started with his single memory of a table. And the beauty that sprung forth from that, I’m blown away. He writes, in just one section:
“I remember the table, which is to say I am putting it together. Because someone opened their mouth and built a structure with words and now I am doing the same each time I look at my hands and think table, think beginnings. I remember running my fingers through the edges, studying the bolts and washers I’ve created in my mind. I remember crawling underneath, checking for chewed gum, the names of lovers, bits of dried blood. I remember this beast with four legs hammered out of a language not yet my own.”
It’s this idea of building the poem quietly inside yourself like a table or a house, but with memory and words. It’s studying your memories, touching them, listening closely, observing, learning. It’s us but it’s also something just out of our reach. We are our own teachers and our own students. It’s that duality that I remind myself of, when I sit down at my desk to write. I turn inward and consider what’s there.
8.What do you hold the most sacred in your life?
In my past, I’ve suffered from some very deep depressions and some self-harm situations. I wake up mornings grateful to be alive, grateful to have a family who accepts me, a God who resides within, and the unbelievable, humbling gift of being able to create art. To have a second chance to really live is what I hold most sacred.