Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Guest Blogger Nicole Rollender on Necro-poetry and Memory

Since joining a Facebook page where local writers gather, I’ve discovered many more Garden State writers, including Nicole Rollender. A 2017 NJ Council on the Arts poetry fellow, she is the author of the poetry collection, Louder Than Everything You Love (Five Oaks Press), and four poetry chapbooks. She has won poetry prizes from Gigantic Sequins, CALYX Journal, Princemere Journal and Ruminate Magazine, and her work appears in Alaska Quarterly Review, Best New Poets, The Journal, and West Branch. Nicole is associate editor of THRUSH Poetry Journal, and holds an MFA from the Pennsylvania State University.

Please welcome Nicole Rollender.

Have you heard of micro-chimerism, where a mother holds her children’s cells in her body – in her brain, hand, foot, even floating around, for her whole life? It’s an amazing concept, that our bodies are part of other bodies. That’s how I look at poetry – my words becoming part of other people’s memories, part of their bodies. In this way, I know why poetry is important and essential.

From a young age, poetry stirred something inside me – I felt excited, alive, tingling and connected while reading and writing poetry. I was obsessed with its technicalities: enjambment (line breaks), slant and internal rhyme, caesuras (internal line pauses). I devoured every poetry book I could find, looking at how poems were made, how I could poach that technique, that angle, and make it my own. How I could make my own poems sing and become a plank a reader can walk across (echoing James K. Baxter who says the poem is “a plank laid over the lion’s den”). I wanted to make poems to help other people feel less alone. I wanted to become part of other human beings.

Matthew Zapruder calls the poem a machine. The poem’s also a room, a house, a country, a world, a space of encounter as tiny or large as the poet or you, the reader, want it to be. Poems are meant to be read and passed on, and when you read a poem it’s easy to imagine the poet is speaking to you or for you, or writing you a letter from far away. Poems can also bring us news from a vantage point in the past or future, or from another continent. And, you don’t have to know exactly what the poet meant when writing the poem – the poem’s meaning is what you need in your life at that moment.

Aren’t we all afraid to die? Poems can help us come to terms with death. Heavy stuff, right? Many poets, including Robert Lowell, say  their initial encounters with poetry  occurred when facing a human or animal death for the first time. The poem was a way to make sense of the experience. “Necro-poetry” is also about elegy, memorializing others. We can go to a poem when we want to remember or celebrate someone who has passed.

Max Ritvo was a 25-year-old poet who died of cancer a year ago. Much of his work documented his battle with Ewing’s sarcoma, which he contracted at 16. He extended his cancer narrative into a larger compelling collection of work about the body.. He lived his life with such a visceral intimacy: a bowl of blueberries was holy; he’d breathe air in a church, feeling in instant communion with those who’d worshipped there before him.

In his staggering poem, “Afternoon,” he writes, “When I was about to die / my body lit up / like when I leave my house / without my wallet. What am I missing? I ask, patting my chest pocket.” He also writes: “I’m missing everything living that won’t come with me/ into this sunny afternoon.” This poem is filled with a sadness and longing for connection with what Ritvo won’t be able to connect with, what he’s going to leave behind.

In a New Republic interview, Ritvo said this about what good poetry does to you: “When your memories, things you’ve never disclosed to anyone, start appearing in your mind as you read the poem. When you discover that a poem links up to a chain of images from your own life like a song links up to its music video.”  In this way, Ritvo wrote his own elegies.

In Jim Harrison’s short poem, “Sister,” he writes an elegy for his deceased sibling: “You were buried at nineteen/ in wood with Daddy. I’ve spent a lifetime / trying to learn the language of the dead.” Those hard-hitting lines are followed and juxtaposed by this gorgeous line: “The musical chatter of the tiny yellow finches / in the front yard comes closest.” We can hear that gaggle of loud finches; we can hear his sister’s voice. We know we don’t mourn our dead alone.

I’m fascinated again and again by memory’s power to let us mingle again and again with the dead, but also how it teaches us how quickly our lives move away from the current moment.

I live with a strong sense of mortality that often informs my work, and  I often contend with heavier topics like death, the spirit realm, God, saints and the afterlife. Of course, I experience joy in my life, and that permeates my work. I also have a strong sense that what I have (and who and my own life) can just as easily be taken away, so when celebration does enter my work it’s with a sense of caution (it casts its own shadow). My poems live as artifact: They’re my attempt to create something beautiful from the imperfect and temporal world we inhabit. 

My poem, “The Return,” (it first appeared in Word Riot) was influenced in part by the concerns in Ritvo’s  work. My uncle does a lot of family genealogy and just a few years ago told me my great-grandmother’s name – I hadn’t known it -- was Florentine Bia, a woman who fled Russia in the early 1900s. I wanted to memorialize her, but also share the same air. I wanted us both to be alive in the same poem:

The Return

for Florentine Bia
I’ve imagined my great-grandmother in love,
her hands deep in a pig’s meat she rolled
into sausages. Blood’s aldehydic stench. Large clocks
laughing all over the house. Massive dark beds. Her long dress
licking the top of her foot. She remembered the geese
her mother strangled, the sound a whine just before
the final breath, the first time they made love. I didn’t exist.
I wonder if she felt her own death, her hands limp
on the bed after, the wind pulled out of her,
if when she finally spoke, look at the starlight,
look, her voice meeting that light would carry forward
to this day, when I say aloud, Florentine, Florentine,
we are both alive in this poem, my hands deep in tomato hearts,
the man I’ve chosen to love somewhere in the garden,
his words still vibrating: What you do is wake
the dead. You don’t let them sleep.
Sadness and joy  come and go, but weaving their imagery together  does create something indelible that doesn’t fade or  lose its sharp prick – that I will never know my great-grandmother, that my gardens will bloom, fade and die each year. In this poem, I’m celebrating small miracles of joy in the quotidian. This necklace of memories is what makes me nostalgic for a time and a self and others’ lives I can never return to – each day closer to the end of this life, and closer to the next. Frankly, I’m still afraid of death: The thought of leaving my children makes me shudder. I’d need to be dragged into the next world.

I’ll leave you with Audre Lorde’s point that there are no new ideas. We’re all living the same shared experiences. However, she says, there are new ways of making these ideas felt “of examining what our ideas really mean (feel like) on Sunday morning at 7 a.m., after brunch, during wild love, making war, giving birth; while we suffer the old longings, battle the old warnings and fears of being silent and impotent and alone, while tasting our new possibilities and strengths.”

There’s courage in writing and reading poetry – in building that plank  and also crossing it.

You can connect with Nicole via Twitter and Facebook.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- October 27, 2017 Edition

> Invest three minutes with 19-year-old poet Amanda Gorman, reading "The Gathering Place" at the Social Good Summit recently. She's the first official U.S. Youth Poet Laureate. You'll see why.

> I'm looking forward to reading Amy Tan's new memoir Where the Past Begins: Where the Past Begins, especially after enjoying this interview at Shondaland. (So many of the pieces in The Opposite of Fate: Memories of a Writing Life, her 2004 essay collection (memoir in essays?), are ones I re-read frequently. Especially "Mother Tongue," which I teach from.)

> At Book Riot, Christine Ro explores "100 Must Read Books for the Socially Awkward". 

> Since I am (and so many author friends are) brainstorming future book marketing and publicity ideas -- and not that I have anything near her pull -- it's been interesting to see the #misfitsmanifesto posts on Twitter in celebration of Lidia Yuknavitch's new book of the same name.

>  At LitHub, some of the best writing advice gleaned (and edited down) from 150 authors.

Have a great weekend!

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Memoir Cover: First Peek (Happy Birthday, Dad)

Today would have been my father’s 91st birthday. What do you give a man who, in life, said he never needed anything? How about his photo on a book cover?

I’m pleased that today of all days, I can show you the cover of Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love after Loss.

That’s Dad strolling along the edge, doing something he loved—walking and observing the world around him. He’s on Newport Beach in Southern California, a moment captured during a 1997 trip. Everyone else—my mother, husband, and child—was elsewhere, and he’d offered to stay with me on the beach, the only place I found comfort that summer: I was pregnant and fighting off all-day nausea, vertigo, and an odd aversion to air conditioning.

I was content to sit in the sand, relief washing in on every ocean breeze, and was not in a mood to talk. Dad was typically taciturn and, as usual, only able to sit for a few minutes before he began walking, back and forth along a quarter mile of beach—but always within eyesight. I remember his glancing back every few steps to check on me.

I’m biased of course, but I think the art department at University of Nevada Press did a terrific job. I love the cover for the way it treats light and balance, color and feeling. But I also love it for the way he is halfway-off-the-frame, and in a kind of slow motion; that captures something the story inside tries to tell—about the way he proffered protection, punctuated by our mutual tendency to always be moving near one another, but never fully.

Happy Birthday, Dad. Hope you like the gift.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- October 13, 2017 Edition

> A fan of Ove Knausgaard? Watch his keynote lecture, "Why I Write,"  given last month at the Windham-Campbell Prizes at Yale.

> My former student, current friend and colleague Ryder Ziebarth, with wise words about fewer words, over at Brevity's blog.

> Speaking of eliminating needless words, at Hunger Mountain, Pam Houston talks (quite briefly!) about how weeding out "widows" sharpened prose in her new book (and if you're even a little bit of an old-time-journalism-lover, you get this).

> At a literary journal blog, I like good questions but shortish interviews, like this one at Barnstorm with Devin Murphy on his debut novel, The Boat Runner.

> But on the radio (or podcast), I prefer a longish ramble, like when Leonard Lopate, on WNYC, talked with Jennifer Egan about her new novel Manhattan Beach, (and a little of what she likes and doesn't like about how long it takes to write her books).

> It was fun to be interviewed, along with several other memoirists, in Andrea Jarrell's reported essay, "Shaping a Memoir from Essays" on the Proximity blog.

> I'm beginning my long-range book marketing/PR planning (six months and two weeks till launch day), so I'm bookmarking articles like this one at SheWrites, with 30 tips (mostly for indie authors, but plenty are useful for all authors).

> Finally, all that great advice about how to get the writing done when you have a job, kids, blah blah? One advice-giver admits, it's harder to follow than dole out.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Writer Gatherings: Planning Way Ahead and Afar, and also Right Here in Good Ole New Jersey

This week, I'm spending time wrestling a few proposal/ applications to events I hope to participate in next spring, summer, and fall. Typing "2018" so many times has me thinking about how quickly time moves, and sending these missives off (to conferences, book festivals, and the like) to far-flung locations also reminds me that much sooner, and much closer, I've got a few things percolating right here in my home state.

So, this one's for my New Jersey (and nearby) writing friends, a quick note about two upcoming events that might be of interest: staying still...and getting things in motion.

When it comes to getting things in motion, I'm talking about moving your work out into the world. Summoning up the courage and pressing SEND, to take all that fine writing and yank it out from your computer and on its way. To see what happens when you submit your writing. When you venture closer toward the great big world of getting published, whether for you that means an essay or short story in a journal or on a website you like, an article in the local paper, or your book manuscript on a shelf. Some days, it's all about faking confidence and saying what the hell. But first, you need tools, resources, tips, and tricks.

This weekend, I'll be presenting a two-hour program, "Ready, Set, Submit" with The Writers Circle in their Summit location. It's part lesson, part practice, and all brass tacks. If you're here at the blog often, you already know that I'm a no-B.S. person: I'll give it to you straight--and equip you with what you need to build and maintain a submission strategy.

This one's coming up quickly, but we still have a few slots left. Join me Sunday afternoon, October 8. Get all the details here.

Next up for Jersey writers: staying still on the page...well at least long enough to bring to your creative nonfiction work a strong sense of place, of where your story takes place, of setting and context surrounding where it all happens. 

Along with the new Cedar Ridge Writers Series, I'll be working with about 12 writers at -- where else? -- a stunning location for this event: Cedar Ridge Farms in gorgeous Somerset County. There, our senses will be stimulated as we work inside a spacious renovated farmhouse, outside among glorious fields and gardens, all the while thinking about and writing the physical world into memoir, essay, and other forms of CNF.

It's a full day to explore an aspect of craft and story that goes way beyond description, in the company of a small group of like-minded writers.

The one-day intensive/workshop takes place on November 4. Get all the details here.

Questions? Email me!

Hope to see you at one of these...or something else in the future. I love meeting my blog readers in person!