Works with Soul: Nicole Rollender

Works with Soul: Nicole Rollender
We recently spoke with Nicole Rollender, our 2012 Janet B. McCabe poetry prize winner about the cycles that make up our lives. Her poems “Necessary Work” and “Prelude” are published in Issue 25, Unraveling the Dark.

RM: Destruction and creation twine their way through your work, and often, destruction appears to be not only an immediate precursor to creation, but inseparable from the creative act. I’m thinking particularly of the line “My hands are afraid to break apart/this bloody meat, to mingle my fingers with warm sinew and tendon,/ to pat spice and salt into flesh.”, where the fear of destroying an ingredient precludes the creation of a meal. What role does destruction or deconstruction play in the creation of your poems?

NR: You’re right — that kind of continuous circle of destruction and creation does figure largely in my work, and it was actually a theme that crept in quietly. I’m obsessed with the body, especially the experience of the female body, of menstruation (the letting of blood) and subsuming oneself to grow a new life and give birth. There’s this legacy, or heritage of story, of literal and figurative birth and death that’s handed down from grandmother to mother to daughter. As women, we kill or suppress the spirit at different times in our lives to conform — or to save ourselves from self-ruin. Sometimes, we do both: Harm the spirit and the body. However, sometimes we’re able to rebirth both body and spirit. It’s those cyclical mini deaths and rebirths of the self that I explore and celebrate in my work.

From a religious perspective, you learn that until death the spirit is truly intertwined with the body. Even Jesus — his body underwent immense destruction and anguish before he let his spirit go. But the rebirth was his body reuniting with his spirit — the body restored, except for select wounds that remained to remind. As a female poet, my body is like that, scarred and imperfect, having suffered some destruction and giving birth. It’s painful sometimes, to really live and experience in a body that’s informed and shaped by emotion. But in the poem, creating that space of encounter with the self is where you learn more about your personal deaths and rebirths, and how to not be afraid to die again. Plus, you bring others in to share that universal experience of recreating the self.

RM: Encountering the self is a practice our culture doesn’t encourage often enough, and I love the idea that the creative process requires the artist to examine and explore the self and its relationship with the world. From the inside, from a life that you’ve been present in, that examination can be difficult to carry out consciously – as C.S. Lewis said, “…we do not write to be understood, we write in order to understand.” Along those same lines, Mark Strand writes “What I want to do in a poem is to discover what it is that I have to say.” How does writing poetry bring you to a better understanding of your ongoing recreation?

NR: A book on the craft of writing that I like talks about writing as a way of healing, or of a way out of chaos or grief. I think, whether consciously or not, we all are writing to understand our life experience, and as we hone our craft over years, we also hone our understanding of the journey that we’ve taken — and are taking — as individual selves. When I write a poem, there’s a dual experience I have in mind — of the spirit/body — that sparks the writing. The writing itself, both the narrative and the form the poem takes, is a separate manifestation or interpretation of how this life experience means to me. What I’ve noticed, in terms of me understanding my ongoing recreation, is that some of this “understanding” always happens subconsciously, meaning it develops as the poem develops. It’s sort of something that’s separate from my conscious mind — I believe every poem has an element of uncontrolled self-discovery and recreation. Every poem, whether it becomes “good” in the end craft-wise, has that leap-of-faith moment, where you have to let go, and let your self meet your self. In those wild spaces of self-encounter, the best art happens.

RM: Beautifully said. Your work appears in an issue Ruminate dedicated to the darker spaces that occupy our lives. This line from “Prelude” stands out in its defiance of the dark: “Whatever my last act of being – it will be a bursting open into brilliance…” How do you see the relationship between light and dark, as they play into and against one another in our lives?

NR: With the idea of light and dark, you can risk getting too cliché in writing. However, if you have a comfort level with the relationship between “light” and “dark,” how those shifting experiences inform our lives, you can harness in your writing the knowledge they bring. As people who are ruled by their emotional states — more often those who deal with depression for example — the dark period is something powerful and all-encompassing, a state that steals in surreptitiously and then seems to have no end. As we document our life experiences through writing, we witness the interchange: how dark destroys the light, but then the light re-shines on a self better informed by the dark. The more we accept this cyclical intensity of being human, the easier it is to both defy and welcome the dark, and to redefine a self that does burst into a new brilliance, so to speak.

Despite the knowledge that the dark will pass into the light, and the beautiful light will always be overtaken by the dark, it’s hard to be mindful of that continuum during painful phases. That’s why so-called confessional poets like Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath and those who have followed after, who wrote with an uncomfortable truthfulness in their work (the poem’s “I” wasn’t just a persona) about personal struggles, family issues and more, resonate with many readers. To find a space where a poet who is an alcoholic, has lost their faith or has been unfaithful, comes clean and shares that experience of the worst of times and the best of times is cathartic. And, for the writer immersed in life, that interplay between the dark and the light, rocks the spirit and creates, sometimes, gorgeous art that heals souls.

Thank you for speaking with us, Nicole!

Nicole Rollender’s poetry and nonfiction have been published in various literary magazines, including Alaska Quarterly Review, the strange fruit, Literary Mama, Salt Hill Journal, and Creative Nonfiction. Her poetry chapbook Arrangement of Desire was published by Pudding House Publications in 2007. Nicole, who has an MFA in creative writing from Penn State University, is editor of Stitches magazine, which has been nominated for two Jesse H. Neal Awards and won the American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE) Magazine of the Year Award in 2011. She lives with her husband, daughter, and two cats in Southern New Jersey, on the edge of the Pine Barrens. Nicole loves exploring Civil War battlesfields and re-reading her very-tattered Agatha Cristie mysteries.

You can read other interviews from our Works with Soul series here.

Keira Havens
About Keira Havens

Keira Havens graduated in 2004 from the Illinois Institute of Technology with a degree in molecular biochemistry and biophysics. Currently employed at Colorado State University, she has been involved in non-profit marketing and outreach as a volunteer since 2008 and joined Ruminate’s team in 2010. Keira lives in Fort Collins, Colorado.

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