I had the honor of sharing a meal with Peggy Rozga a few years ago after our mutual friend Chloe Miller introduced us, and I liked Peggy immediately. She has a heart for justice and a gift for words, and above all, her spirit is kind and generous. Enjoy getting to know Peggy, my friend, today.
Many thanks, Andi, for giving me this opportunity to talk about Justice Freedom Herbs, my book just released. I’m especially happy that “Housewarming Prayer,” the poem I wrote for you is in the book. Actually on the great advice of one reader of the book, it’s the concluding poem so the book ends with the words of the title.
These poems started with journal entries about the small herb garden just outside my workroom window. As the basil grew tall and fragrant, and the cilantro bolted to seed, my observations about this growth seemed to turn metaphoric, suggesting the social justice issues I care about most deeply—civil rights, worker and union rights, peace, the environment. Once I recognized what was happening, and, believe me, that took a while, the writing began to come much more readily.
2. What role, if any, did books, writing, and reading play in your childhood?
As soon as I could print my name, my mother took me to our neighborhood public library to get a library card, a major rite of passage in our family not to be equaled until getting a driver’s license. In eighth grade, I read every Sherlock Holmes story there was. I wrote a ghost story and hid it in my closet, but when my sister found it before I was ready to show it to anyone, I threw it away. The first poem I ever really loved was Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Spring and Fall”: “Margaret, are you grieving / over goldengrove unleaving?” I felt it was addressed to me personally, and I loved its music.
3. What is your writing practice, your writing routine?
Every morning I try to write thirteen observations, the number thirteen suggested by the Wallace Stevens’ poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” The number also helps me be patient when I write what I know to be throw-away items at first because I’ve found by number five or six, I’ll begin to see with more depth and describe more precisely. A poet has to be first a seer, in a basic sort of way, seeing what is actually right in front and all around her. I teach this same practice in my creative writing classes and workshops. When I read students journals I call their attention to lines that seem the start of a poem. When I’m lucky, I find such lines in my own journal.
4. Who are you reading now?
I’m reading Muriel Rukeyser’s The Life of Poetry. If only I had discovered this book earlier in my effort to define poetry for myself. But I’m glad I found it now. It validates much of what I struggled to articulate for myself.
5. What are three of your all-time favorite books? Why do you love those?
John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath has to be first. His characters, their struggles, their courage, are still part of the way I see the world, the way I want to be in the world. I want to have at least some of that impact with my words.
I love Martha Collins’ Blue Front, about the lynching that Collins’ father saw when he was five years old and the questions that raises for her about racial issues in the United States. I learned so much from it about how poetry and history can work together and about how significant sentence fragments can be.
The best book I read in 2014 was Frank X. Walker’s Turn Me Loose: The Unghosting of Medgar Evers. Somehow this book about racism, about the 1963 assassination of Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers, also becomes a book about love.
6. How do you balance “building a writing platform” and the actual writing to set on that platform?
Picture a see-saw. Writing is the heavy weight on the ground, and “building a writing platform” is dangling her feet in the air waiting for that moment when she might touch ground again. Sometimes she gets smart and shifts her weight enough to have her chance. I think I should put my hand on her end of the see-saw a little more often.
7. What is a typical day like for you?
Now that writing is my work, I’m usually up by 7:00 a.m. First things first: I write in my journal. Sometimes I set the timer on my stove for an hour and tell myself I can quit if nothing much happens in that hour. I know I’m having a great writing day if the timer annoys me when it buzzes the end of the hour. Sometimes I quit then, but more usually I take a brief break and go back to writing. Sometimes on the break, the words I need to spur me on just appear. If I happen upon language that seems to want to be a poem, I might write most of the morning.
During the rest of the day, I do household chores, keep appointments, go to meetings, run errands, check on family living nearby, reply to email and Facebook messages, daydream, exercise, and read.
Describe your dream writing space?
My workroom with its garden view has worked well for me. Sometimes a change of scenery, going to a coffee shop, for example, helps shake things up in a productive way. During my Creative Writers Fellowship at the American Antiquarian Society this fall, I amazed myself with what I was able to accomplish in their Library with its helpful staff, comfortable chairs and work tables, abundant lighting, and the energy of others reading, thinking writing. All distractions were miles away so that I could immerse myself in the subject of my next project, poems focused on the life and times of Jessie Benton Frémont (1824-1902). And I did. Actually at night I would dream Jessie Benton Frémont, and wake up with the start of a new poem.
What is the hardest writing critique you ever received? How did you respond?
“It’s boring,” members of a critique group said of a non-fiction piece I wrote. I began to realize that I follow clock time too rigidly when I write in prose about my life. I found ways to skip times when nothing much happened. More importantly, I began to follow my natural bent toward poetry.
What is the best wisdom you have to share with other writers?
You can do it. Read in the genre you want to write. Read as a writer, that is, read to learn how the writing is put together, what its compositional strategies are, where and how the language becomes most powerful. Keep writing.
Margaret Rozga has published three books: Justice Freedom Herbs, Though I Haven’t Been to Baghdad, and Two Hundred Nights and One Day. She was awarded a Creative and Performing Artists and Writers Fellowship at the American Antiquarian Society in 2014 and previously was a resident at the Sitka Center for Arts and Ecology and at the Ragdale Foundation.