Poetry is Essential: An Interview with Nicole Ross Rollender

Nicole Ross Rollender is an accomplished poet to put it lightly. Her work, as both a writer and a literary citizen, is the kind of work that leaves one in awe of her ability to connect worlds with language. Our Reviews Editor, Michelle Reale, conducted this extensive interview in which Rollender discusses the afterlife, storytelling, microchimerism, the grotesque, and much, much more!

MR:Nicole, your work is haunting and transcendent, rooted in the mystical and the literal and figurative body. I’m very interested to know what worldview informs your poetry, since in your lovely work I find nature, religion and magic, among many other themes.

NRR:It’s funny, I’d probably answer this question 1,000 different ways depending on when you asked and I replied. Here’s what I’m thinking of now: My Polish great-grandmother came to America with her infant son in 1902, armed with Catholic and gypsy rituals, the guardian angels and protection against the evil eye. As a child, she was sent to work on another farm since her family was too poor to keep and feed her—she walked barefoot and pulled potatoes from the soil. Her recipes handed down to my grandmother were peasant fare, so I ate a lot of dishes conceived in famine season. I see myself, my body, my memories as a continuation of these women and their traditions. Their feet moving in my feet, now my feet moving in my daughter’s. I wish it was so simple as to say I write to immortalize what they did to bring me here: my great-grandmother’s mother, Franciszka, riding horses bareback in the farm fields, and her daughter leaving her and the homeland forever. What pain, what sacrifices these women made, what love deep into the bones. And then into the poems.

MR:So you have this worldview, the way you move and live in the world. You’re a mother, a wife and a poet. How important is poetry to you both as an expression of creativity and well-being?

NRR:Poetry is essential: I can’t not write. If I find myself in a fallow period of time where I’m not writing much because of my schedule or I’m in a writing funk where nothing much is coming, I feel like I need to climb out of my skin, or shed it or write a poem. The best part of those quiet periods is that I’m storming inside, and eventually I write a good draft in a short amount of time, and the joy returns, the joy that I can create a poem that sings.

MR:Tell me about your beginnings as a poet; in essence, when did you first claim the mantle of poet?

NRR:I considered myself a storyteller at age 4 (I never stopped talking), and I’ve always written and read. I read a lot of the Romantic poets and lots of Tennyson and Whitman when I was a teenager, and starting writing poetry when I was 13 or 14. I earned my MFA in poetry from Penn State, and became a magazine editor afterward, and have had that type of day job ever since. I mean to say I’ve always identified as a writer, a storyteller, someone who makes artifacts out of words. Everything is so temporal—it’s like capturing your child’s handprint on the fogged mirror in the bathroom. The door’s open, the bath is draining, the air is clearing, but we want to keep that tiny phantom print for our whole lives.

MR:The poem “Fasting” in your amazing chapbook Ghost Tongue (Porkbelly Press, 2016) really, really resonated with me. This poem is so rooted in the body, in the mother and daughter relationship in both a spiritual and almost codependent way. Please expand on the first powerful line, “I hold my mother in my body,” and what follows from there.

NRR:Have you heard of microchimerism, where a mother can hold her children’s cells in her body – they can be in her brain, her hand, her foot, floating around, for her whole life. It’s an amazing concept, to think that in a sense our bodies are part of other bodies. My grandmother and mother passed down stories, superstitions and religious beliefs to me, and like most children, I suppose I internalized those, digesting them and putting my own cast on them. My mother is religious, and I think part of her call as a mother was to ensure that her children embraced, accepted and practiced her relationship with God. Part of that teaching was the idea of self-sacrifice, like not eating meat on Fridays or giving up candy or ice cream during the Lenten season. That was hard for me as a child, the idea of sacrifice, but I inherited that idea, subsume parts of yourself, parts of what you love, to save others, to give them a better life. Or the hope that in the afterlife, you’ll be happy because of how you treated others in this world.

MR:The poem “Depression” in the same collection the line “I am loud as a bell counting hours” is as strong a line as it gets. Tell me what brought you to it.

NRR:In my 20s, I started my struggle with depression and hypomanic episodes. It was a rough period, as I tried to navigate the best way to deal with it, especially as the depressive episodes came on so suddenly, without warning, and essentially paralyzed me emotionally. Many days, it was hard to get out of bed. I wrote my first draft of “Depression” in my late 20s, and the idea was that depression almost became a figure that I had a fraught relationship with – such a constant, so that even when it wasn’t there, I was always looking for her. That line you mention, “I am loud as a bell counting hours,” was both a cry of struggle and of defiance. My depression affected me and those around me – sometimes all I could do to survive was to sit and count back from 100, waiting for the moments to pass.

MR:The last poem “What I Want to Explain is Why I Am Here,” is a sort of declaration that can almost sum up the collection as a way of grounding yourself in the world as a poet. These lines were like a mediation: Here, my hands/pushing yours in the dirt where I buried a poem/about how I finally tired of life, felt water freezing/my marrow, a horse galloping in my heart… Tell me about the origins of this poem and the decision to place it last in the collection, which, by the way, was a great decision!

NRR:In May 2015, a young driver ran a stop sign and T-boned my car, squarely hitting me and thankfully missing my two young children who were in the backseat. From that one moment, I ended up suffering from post-concussive symptoms including aphasia, vestibular problems and ocular migraines for nine months, plus chiropractic care and physical therapy for neck and back injuries for the same amount of time. I wrote “What I Want to Explain is Why I Am Here” as an act of survival, to prove I could still translate the world into poetry, especially since my neurologist warned that I might have difficulty doing things for a while. That wasn’t the case though – my mind still went at 1,000 miles an hour. My body had to catch up, which it mostly did.

MR:Bone of My Bone (Blood Pudding Press, 2015) is a gorgeous collection to hold in one’s hand and gorgeous to read and mediate on, as well. I have taken many walks through this collection and found something new each time. What strikes are the themes of hauntings, and again , the physical body, and the relationships that build outposts in our brains, our hearts. One gets the sense that these poems were written together, not just compiled. Am I right? One poem flows right into another. . .

NRR:I remember December 19, 2015 pretty clearly, 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.

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.

So yes, to answer your question, these poems were written together, rather than written separately and compiled.

MR:I’d be hard pressed to choose just one favorite poem in this collection, but if I had to choose, it would be “Vespers.” I love the religious imagery and allusions in your poetry----I can identify both the acceptance, though rigorous questioning of faith---“Is this deicide, undoing your desires?” What part does religion, faith or, as the case may be, faithlessness play in your work, particularly in this powerful poem?

NRR: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?

MR:Your full-length collection, Louder Than Everything You Love (amazing title!) is a tour de force---the collection I carry around with me for its intensity and among other things, some really magnificent prose poems----my favorite form by the way. Nearly all of these poems were, not surprisingly, previously published. How did you come to the decision to compile them in a collection and what was the process like to find a home for them?

NRR:Well, thank you for such a nice compliment about Louder; I often think that the real measure of a poet’s success is her ability to sink her poems right into a reader’s brain and imagination, and live there for a time. Many of the poems were first housed in a longer-than-normal chapbook that ELJ had accepted; at a certain point the publisher had seen some of my new work, which included the prose poem series you refer to (psalms for my daughter), and she offered to review the collection with new work for possible publication as a full length. We worked together on ordering the poems into five sections with two psalms between each. It was a really generous, collaborative process and I was happy that the long chap actually grew into my debut full-length collection.

MR:This book is now being re-released by another publisher. How did that happen?

NRR:Well, I’m so grateful to ELJ Publications for bringing my first collection into the world, and believing in the work enough to do so. Unfortunately, the publisher made the tough decision to close the press, and so my book was in the precarious position of going out of print after only being in the world about a year. With so many good manuscripts out there, many publishers don’t want to take a chance on reprinting one that’s made its debut. I definitely had a couple of weeks where I was really sweating what was going to happen to my book. When I reached out to Five Oaks Press Publisher Lynn Houston, she told me she wasn’t really considering reprints, but said she’d take a look at Louder anyway. Within a short time, she sent a kind note to me saying she loved the manuscript and would be interested in reprinting it. I really admire Lynn and the poets she has published through Five Oaks, so I was excited about joining the press. We’re hoping the book will be reissued by early summer.

MR:Because this collection really fulfills your preoccupation with the mother/daughter relationship, tell me how motherhood informs your work as a poet.

NRR: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. 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.

MR:Tell me about your process of writing in general----what I am curious to know is if your writing is a regular practice.

NRR:Probably like most writers with day jobs and children, I don’t have the luxury of a set time to write each day. My workouts are actually more scheduled than my writing, but I tend to view working out the body and writing muscles as similar practices. I do write as often as I can, generally early in the morning or later at night when the house is quiet. One thing I’ve noticed that I do is email myself drafts of a poem I’m working on as if it’s coming from an old friend faraway – it arrives with a ping and in a different font. I read the poem aloud, and when I hit a word or something that doesn’t quite work, I delete the draft, return to my Word document and then email myself a new draft. In one sitting, I counted 50 drafts that I had sent myself. For some reason, doing this creates a kind of distance from myself and the poem – I view it as a way of critiquing the draft in a more impartial way. Sometimes that frees my mind to do more radical things in my revisions and push the poem further.

MR:Do you keep a journal?

NRR:No. I don’t. Writing mentors (and therapists) have told me journaling would be a good way to document ordinary (and extraordinary) time and to work through various things troubling me (really, it seems a good practice for everyone). Why not? Maybe some unconscious resistance to that regimented or scheduled practice. Really, my preference is to jot phrases and notes down in a notebook or on a computer file: events that affect me, quotes from my kids, quotes from other writers’ work, lists of words and phrases, a place I’ve been. Finally, when I feel there’s enough fodder for a poem, I dig in and start to compose.

MR:What are you working on now?

NRR:My new poetry manuscript, called Glass Bodies. Quick word to describe it: witch balls, noctuary, blessings, omens. Bones.

MR:Describe yourself in five words. NRR:Gothic, empath, mother, lover, magical.

MR:Nicole, you are brilliant! Thank you so much.

To order copies of Nicole's book , please visit her website:


And learn more about Nicole here:

A 2017 NJ Council on the Arts poetry fellow, Nicole Rollender is the author of the poetry collection, Louder Than Everything You Love (ELJ Editions, 2015), and the poetry chapbooks Arrangement of Desire (Pudding House Publications), Absence of Stars (dancing girl press & studio), Ghost Tongue (Porkbelly Press), and Bone of My Bone, a winning manuscript in Blood Pudding Press’s 2015 Chapbook Contest. Her work has appeared in The Adroit Journal, Alaska Quarterly Review, Best New Poets, The Journal, Memorious, Radar Poetry, PANK, Salt Hill Journal, Word Riot and West Branch, among others. She is the associate editor of Thrush Poetry Journal and the recipient of poetry prizes from CALYX Journal, Princemere Journal and Ruminate Magazine. She earned her MFA in poetry at the Pennsylvania State University. She’s the editor-in-chief of Wearables and executive director of branded content & professional development at the Advertising Specialty Institute. In 2016, she was named one of FOLIO’s Top Women in Media. Visit her online at www.nicolerollender.com.