Who are you? And also, why do you write? Actually, why don’t you just write me a poem right now?
Poetry is: an artifact of the shining me, the radiant, the torn: the execution of that self: the contending with who do I think I am to live so freely here: walking this riverbed: kneeling in dirt: putting my lips to cemetery stone: loving the glow of metacarpal bones under me, in my stumbling: decay: in my children: their spines: their flows: their jaws: my God, where are you blinking?: because I am among the abandoned: scattered: fragmented: a broken word: do you know what I mean by broken?: because even swallowing: even: broken: witness: heard: any song: any move into slow: the dead hold out their palms: I approach as lamb: for food: for daisies: for slaughter: for an end to thirst: for white blooms on my tongue: for being in a body: disembodied: embodied: an embodied spirit: the intersection: revenant against my teeth: a rosary for sorrow: a litany to see the dead in mirrors: joy in finger bones: if I lay me down: if I lay me down: because I have wished for death: but now I would go fighting: the poem is: my voice: my clawing for light: my internal song/scream/cry: it’s the part of me that will endure: here: can I believe that there is a skyward: that my bones float in it: unsheltered: here.
Why do I write poetry? It’s the part of me that will endure: here.
Well, that was slick. What’s the poet’s responsibility in the world?
I suppose the responsibility part is different for all of us. I use remembering (and also the limitations of recollection) as a tool to retell the stories (of trauma, joys, sorrows) I’ve inherited from my immigrant foremothers – and also, to mine the intimate way memory inhabits the body (in bones, muscles and scars). In my work, poems challenge and explore what it means to go back into our past lives, the lives of our ancestors – and also their bodies, their memories. What’s the narrative that can be created, one that can satisfy our desire for nostalgia, for going home? In addition, we are creating a text of our shared experiences, giving voice to traumatic events and also to what sustains: We’re in a sense writing a space where others can feel less lonely or less alone.
Your book, Louder Than Everything You Love, is in a way the story of maternal lineage, from your grandmother to your mother to you, to your daughter. Does that mean you identify as a mother writer?
Well, I write, always, from a mother perspective: a woman who experiences her own body as a creatrix that gives form to another human being. These babies, born extremely premature, seemed to have died three times while in utero, so there’s a wild vulnerability (a kind of deep scream) in my poems. There’s another layer: I inherited the gift of second sight from my maternal grandmother, who also experienced a life-threatening pregnancy.
The idea of being a woman complicates: mother, artist, mother who must stay on earth to grow her child(ren), seer-mystic-divine seeker who longs to cross over into the next life where the light never ceases. There’s a push-pull between the physical and spiritual worlds. I attempt to map myself, the enormity of the world her body contains: “This is how //the body seems at first, impenetrable – /yet, a woman still sings ghazals // from between your ribs.” My reality is that I exist between earth and the afterlife, and like Anne Carson, I live with this sense of an impending crossing-over, so I try to seize every bit of life from every hour I receive.
Tell me about one of your favorite motherhood poems in the book.
So, just to step back for a second, I published one of my first submitted poems in Alaska Quarterly Review 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 each 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.
A poem included in my book, “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 moment catalyzed me forward in the belief that mother/children poems do have a place in the world, and that’s a good thing because so many of my poems touch on the concerns of motherhood: how the mother-body fails a baby during pregnancy, the mother love and the mother guilt (I’m not doing enough, I want to run away), the immense crippling love we feel for our children. I also write about my mother and my deceased grandmother, and the mothering legacies they’ve passed on to me.
How have reviewers described your book?
That’s fun (and kind of self-serving, so thanks for asking). Here are some snippets that I really like:
1. “The true elegance in the book is in the way it slowly opens, as if Nicole Rollender’s neo-confessional speaker were quietly opening up her chest cavity, so that the reader could see her very bones moving.”
2. “Bones ring out from these pages as bells ring out from a cathedral—beautiful, reliable, ominous—”
3. “The poems within feel to be an almost ethereal ‘product’ of a writer deeply meditative within the world of these poems. It is as if her very breathing were integral to the landscape here: ‘This is my body / These are my falling bones’ ground the reader into a voice assured, confidant of the value presented in the work.”
4. “Nicole Rollender’s poems balance on the uneasy boundary between third eye and communion wafer. Beside an ‘old woman shaking fish skeletons to conjure the dead,’ the poet as body becomes a conduit for the generations in both directions, such that her ‘body is full of holes the dead / look in and out,’ while of her daughter she says, “my ribs / were her scaffolding.’”
What’s the most annoying things people say when you tell them you have a book of poetry alive and breathing out in the world?
Probably these two: “Oh yeah? I could totally do that. I have a book in here somewhere. I just haven’t written it yet” and “Oh, that’s nice. Is it self-published?”
Any family members say those things to you?
What’s your favorite word?
Enigma. Before you think, oh, cliché, when I was in high school, at the end of my sophomore year, my French teacher went around the room telling each of us (in French) what she thought of us. There was Michelle, la fille belle, basically the prettiest girl in the class. There was Mike, the class clown, si drôle. Then there was me, l’énigme. The teacher’s point was that I never truly revealed myself to her – there was something about that for me. I can reveal myself in my poems, however much or little I want.
What else about this book might readers like to know?
More than anything else, Louder Than Everything You Love is about transformation. The narrator in these poems is many: women who talk to the dead, women who mourn dead mothers and grandmothers, women suicides, women who’ve been raped/escaped rape, women who cradle premature babies, women who suffer depression, women who prepare the bodies of the dead, women who exist between their children’s bodily needs (“this body-psalm of need the only holiness I know”) and saints’ incorruptible bodies.
These women also live inside themselves, contending with the wolves within, asking: “How do I measure the body’s gardens form within its bone fences?” The dead, the living and the divine inhabit this collection – they’re looking for kinship, remembrance, for some kind of communion. The poems in Louder Than Everything You Love are about the struggle of living in a body, being a parent, trying to find the balance between what our lives on earth mean/what it means to come to terms with dying.
Basically, many of my poems contend with these concerns: motherhood, seeing, seeking, trying to catch God who is asking us to love him, unawares, to see who He is. The story is always layered, complicated and pairs images that are visceral, body-focused and often grotesque, with moments of beauty. There’s this lean toward the sublime, to drink in some type of otherworldly light. I write poems meant to haunt.
Yeah, you write about ghosts. A lot. Like, they’re looking in and out of most of the poems in the book. What’s that about?
My grandmother and my great-grandmother saw the dead. From the time I was 3 years old, I remember also seeing the dead, but not knowing what these beings were – but assuming everyone saw them. When I was about 7, I made the connection (that these were spirits), and also learned about the ability to see in my female lineage. When you see people in their next form, it takes away doubt that there is an afterlife – it also highlighted to me at a young age what my next life is, and that it co-exists in a way next to our earthly life. I’m also a Catholic, and it’s strange how the ability to see doesn’t quite jive with a religious point of view. The focus on mortality in my poems is me trying to reconcile that we exist in two forms on earth (body and spirit), and there is a tension there. Also, I think in the stories of Catholic saints, the telling is that they can’t wait to die to be reunited with God, but I haven’t evolved to that point. I’m rooted on earth because of my spouse and children. My time here doesn’t feel close to done. In one of my poems in Louder I write that we’re here together so short a time, and without getting overly poignant, that’s the feeling I often have. Things are fleeting, rushing away; the poem becomes an artifact of our joys and sorrows.
What books or poems have you recently read that haunt you?
I wrote down rapidly the poets/writers/mystics/books that have most influenced me and added in that I could possibly have these writers’ tattooed on my person or sublimated onto my garments so I’d have a physical representation of their influence on my writing psyche. So: The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself and also Teresa’s Interior Castle; Jon Anderson (In Sepia); Audre Lorde (Our Dead Behind Us); Ada Limon (Bright Dead Things); Molly Peacock (Take Heart); Mark Doty (School of the Arts); Anne Sexton (Love Poems); Meg Day (Last Psalm at Sea Level); Burghild Nina Holzer (A Walk Between Heaven and Earth); Lucille Clifton (The Book of Light); Theodore Roethke (his collected poems); Natalie Goldberg (Old Friend From Far Away); Lauren Berry (The Lifting Dress); Bhanu Khapil (The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers); and Ocean Vuong (“Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong,” The New Yorker).
What are you working on right now?
My second full-length manuscript, called Glass Bodies for now. Quick word to describe it: witch balls, noctuary, blessings, omens. Bones.
Favorite places and times of day to work.
Near my kitchen window so I can watch night come in, with candles, my cat and music from Enigma or Prince (this is after my children are in bed).
What do you carry in your bag all the time?
Gum. Juice boxes for my kids. My phone. One poetry book or another. Right now it’s Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude and Lucille Clifton’s The Book of Light.
Are you happy right now?
Surprisingly, yes. That feeling is such a gift.