Head: Writing The Poem: The Region Is You

Photo by Oscar Keys – https://unsplash.com/oscartothekeys

Since my first full-length poetry collection, Louder Than Everything You Love (ELJ Publications) has just been released into the world, I’ve been in the position (slightly uncomfortable for me as a poet) to start promoting myself—and one way most poets do that is via interviews about their latest book or chapbook. (I’m also on the other side of this, as I interview poets via my Carpe Noctem Interview series). Among the first questions poets get are: What’s your work about? Where does it originate from? And answering those questions can be difficult for me, depending on the day. Depending on if the shadow of doubt is crossing my desk.

This quote from Richard Hugo resonated with me when I was writing responses to an interview about my book:

Everybody’s a regional poet to some extent, but the region from which you write is merely the lens. The real region is you.

My poetry isn’t political; it doesn’t pull from pop culture; I most often describe it as being from the body, my body, that is. An embodied poet. I also write toward a home—back to my actual birth place, that house I first lived in, back to my mother’s womb, even back into my grandmother’s. My work is matrilineal; there’s a yearning toward time on earth that’s already been lived. That may be a thing not popular in poetry these days, the idea of nostalgia, wanting to relive our lives even if through the imperfect lens of memory via our words. Or veering toward narrative, or confessional poetry, populated by my memories, which might be less popular these days.

I read a lot, and I gather a lot. This exercise helps me settle into who I am as a poet, into a better understanding of the place I write from – and to accept it as, “This is the poet I am.” But the truth is, I’m drained out after writing this book. I’m feeling barren. So I did what I do when I’m tapped out, this gathering from other poets on how to view the body as source for writing poetry:

  1. Your body is a conduit for turning your life experiences into your art. Bonafide Rojas, who’s author of three collections of poetry (Pelo BuenoWhen The City Sleeps, & Renovatio), recently talked with poet Fox Frazier-Foley at TheThe’s Infoxicated Corner about what inspires him: “…listening to Jimi Hendrix & The Beatles the first time, it really transformed my perspective in many ways like experimentation, boundary pushing, being vulnerable enough to show emotion in art.” So, the way the music crosses the cochlea into the brain, the way it stirs memory, the way its rhythms then flow down into the fingers and inform, in some way, the new poem. Rojas also talks about the idea of lineage: “The birth of my son changed me, made me think of legacy, made me comfortable enough to think of the future, what will i leave behind twenty, thirty, forty years of work, this art i’ve cultivated has never been for instant gratification.” That act of passing on part of your physical self into another being who is physical, but also spiritual, inhabited by his/her own memories, and the poem that springs forth from this type of creation.
  2. The body can root you in your life when you’re spiraling out of yourself. Touch things. Poet and essayist Marcelo Hernandez Castillo wrote in his powerful short essay “Place, Origin and Stalks of Corn” about how exhilaratingly painful it was to return to Mexico after 21 years of living undocumented in the U.S.: “There was nothing closer to ‘origin’ that I could think of, other than my mother’s womb, but somehow the idea of origin always escaped me, somehow it still didn’t feel like I completely belonged to it because I was removed for so long. But I did feel a sense of largeness that I had never felt before. I felt that I extended outward for miles. I wanted to take my clothes off and lie on the dirt. I wanted to touch every adobe brick with every part of my body.” We can try to root back toward a probably moving target, the dark space of our origin. And conflated with that is the physical now, everything we touch, everything our skin absorbs. So our origin poem is the past/present/future life.
  3. You can find a way in and out. Ada Limón, the author of four books of poetry, including Bright Dead Things, wrote an incredible essay, To What Do We Owe This Pleasure: On the Value of Not Writing, which you should read now. I earmarked so many paragraphs to return to, but have chosen just one passage to share here: “When I was five years old, I got locked in my grandparents’ chicken coop with my brother. We yelled and yelled, but no one could hear us. It wouldn’t have been that bad except for the vicious rooster charging at us over the hot canyon dirt of Orange County. When I calmed down, I realized my wrist was so small that it fit through the chicken wire. I unlatched the door and we were out. Later, I found out my grandfather on my father’s side lived in a chicken coop as a child when he first crossed the border. I suppose anything is possible if you can eventually find a way out. When we are not writing, we are calming ourselves down enough to pay attention to the exits and entrances and connections. Perhaps we can even unlatch the door on our own.” When we’re dry, we can start to look for connections, as Limón says: One memory leads to another, and another, and patterns form. Also, we can think about the moment in which we’re remembering as its own unique entrance point that can’t be replicated.
  4. The body as conduit, again. From the late Tomas Tranströmer’s “Vermeer,” “And the emptiness turns its face to us and whispers: ‘I am not empty. I’m open.’ ” What appears in the emptiness specifically for your gaze? When you turn your attention that way, on a white wall, what types of colors and shadows appear? Amazingly, emptiness isn’t something to fear: It’s fertile ground for your words.
  5. Go where the poems take you. Listen to the songs. Just a bit more from Limón’s essay: “When I start poems I don’t know where they are going. I want to try to be truthful, but I also want the song to emerge. I can still hear the sound of the Southern Pacific train go by like it was progress. I can hear Ella Jenkins singing on the record player in the background.”As you mine your memory and life experience for fodder, certain things will emerge, sights, sounds, songs, moans. Let those details inform your work; as they tingle your spine in recognition, so they will tingle your reader’s.

Poet Nicole RollenderNicole Rollender’s work has (or will shortly) appeared in The Adroit Journal, Alaska Quarterly Review, Best New Poets, Memorious, Muzzle Magazine, The Journal, THRUSH Poetry Journal, West Branch, Word Riot and others. Louder Than Everything You Love is her first full-length poetry collection (ELJ Publications, 2016). 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. Visit her online at www.nicolerollender.com or www.facebook.com/nicole.rollender.