An Interview With Poet Pattiann Rogers

Jeannine Hall Gailey

The poetry of Pattiann Rogers often celebrates the natural world, displaying an intimate knowledge of astronomy and biology as well as an investigative curiosity when it comes to questions of consciousness and the spirit. In all of her books there is a quest for holiness and wholeness, an exploration of our connection to the world—to the lives of animals and plants—and, on a grander scale, to the universe. Rogers is known for her intelligent, highly detailed, exuberant poems that examine the phenomena of science and faith.

After studying English and zoology during her undergraduate years at the University of Missouri, Columbia, Rogers received her MA in creative writing at the University of Houston. She has taught writing at several colleges and universities, most recently the low-residency MFA program at Pacific University, where, in the interest of full disclosure, she was one of my advisors. Rogers has received numerous honors and prizes for her poetry, including two National Endowment for the Arts grants, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Lannan Literary Award.

The author of twelve collections, including Generations (Penguin, 2004) and Firekeeper: New and Selected Poems, originally published in 1994 by Milkweed Editions, and released in a revised and expanded edition in 2005, Rogers's most recent book is Wayfare, which was published in March by Penguin. While Wayfare deviates from Rogers's usual themes in its exuberant celebration of human creations, such as art and music, the poems do incorporate her fascination with the natural world in their examination of that which is contrary to the natural: the artificial and the constructed. As the book’s sections travel through physical locations where humans learn and create—“Concert Hall,” “Art Gallery,” “Symposium Center,” “Sanctuary,” “Theater,” and “Natural History Exposition”—Rogers leads the reader on an imaginative journey through art and exhibition that illuminates the search for beauty and relevance.

Rogers, who lives at the foot of the Rocky Mountains in Castle Rock, Colorado, spoke with Poets & Writers Magazine about the process of writing her latest collection, the importance of investigation, and the pleasure of naming the world.

I write about what interests me, those things about which I wonder and which arouse my curiosity, and I write about whatever I want to celebrate or honor. Some poems are prayers.

Poets & Writers Magazine: The organization of Wayfare is fascinating—almost like a guided tour through a university. Did the organizing structure affect what you wrote?

Pattiann Rogers: My knowledge of this developing organization began to affect the writing of new poems and to suggest minor modifications to older poems. Many other elements and factors were influencing the creative process too, of course, and the poems don’t always explicitly address the discipline of each of their particular sections. Often the specific discipline is a jumping-off point for addressing something else, as poems are apt to do, as we know. The working title of this manuscript was "The World’s Fair."

P&W: Could you give an example of where the work was taken as a result of addressing a specific discipline?

PR: It isn’t exactly a matter of addressing a specific discipline but more of placing a subject within the overall parameters of a creative discipline to see what might happen to it from that perspective; for example, to examine a specific subject within the framework of an opera or within the vision of an artist at work or a retired musician no longer practicing his discipline, or to begin a poem within the framework of a discipline and then allow the poem to move away from it. In the section “Symposium Center” most of the poems are playful examinations of words as symbols with built-in assumptions. Philosophy is a creative discipline, I believe, as is science.

P&W: What were those other influences on your creative process that you mentioned?

PR: These typical elements and factors are always influencing my creative work—what I’m reading and hearing, learning and experiencing; my sense of audience for each poem, whether that audience is one person or many, real or imagined; the images and words I encounter that surprise me, rouse my curiosity or that seem funny or wistful; the questions and suppositions that occur to me; my energy, the strength of my will to work, to experiment and yet to adhere to what I know about craft and to my aesthetic tastes.

P&W: What was the genesis of Wayfare, or how did it start coming together?

PR: None of my other books came together the way Wayfare did. After Generations, I began writing new poems again as usual, about whatever interested me, no particular plan for a new book in mind. Early on, I wrote three poems that addressed the word “concert” in three different ways. I liked the idea of grouping these three stand-alone poems under a single title. I actually thought of them as composing a kind of three-pronged expanded metaphor. For instance, “concert” is like this and yet like this and also like this.

I tried this again with the word “conspiracy,” three individual poems grouped under a single title. The feeling of this form stayed with me even as I was writing single poems. Occasionally, I would notice that a poem I was writing fit as a reflection on a term or a setting or an approach that a previous poem had taken. These poems then became units under a single title, for instance “Garden Colloquy,” “An Art of Interactive Art,” “Blue Series: Into the Deep Beautiful (The Sequel).”

These groupings and single poems seemed to be forming sections addressing, sometimes tangentially, human disciplines—art, music, theater, philosophy, natural history. I wanted to expand the perspectives these sections were taking.

I really liked this process and enjoyed it. I didn’t force a thematic relationship on any poem, but I could encourage a poem in a particular direction if it seemed to be tending that way on its own. This meant, to me, that the new poem could assume whatever thematic strengths had already been established by other poems. I liked the loose intertwining that was happening within and among the sections.

P&W: How is this book new territory for you?

PR: Primarily what was new was in the process. The writing of many of the poems was influenced by my vision of the structure and organization of the book. With my previous books, the vision of the organization came into being after all the poems were written. With Wayfare, I was writing new poems that I could see against the structure of the book, and that structure was not limiting but liberating. It actually felt infinite with possibilities. That knowledge, along with the knowledge of what the previous poems I’d written for this manuscript were doing within that structure, became a new influencing element in the creative process for me.

I intentionally wanted to concentrate on human creativity in this book to a greater extent than I had in the past. The structure of the book as it developed aided that intention. It gave me a place to do that.

P&W: How do you feel your style has developed or changed?

PR: I write about what interests me, those things about which I wonder and which arouse my curiosity, and I write about whatever I want to celebrate or honor. Some poems are prayers. I want to create writing that pleases me, from which I learn something, and in which my imagination is at play to a high degree.

My process of investigating a question, a hypothesis, a supposition, or a subject through poetry has not changed much since my first book, and thus the form has not changed to any great degree. The form is a tool, part of the process. It helps me to work through the question or supposition I’m addressing. It’s a simple form for the most part that helps me to establish clarity.

P&W: Repeated themes of yours, besides cataloguing scientific phenomena, include perception and consciousness, especially consciousness of humanity among animals or consciousness of the spirit. How do you feel poetry works as a descriptor for different kinds of spiritual consciousness?

PR: I believe poetry functions in ways very similar to music. Poetry doesn’t lend itself to verbal analysis or explanation, as we know. Whatever poetry evokes or conveys cannot be separated from the sound and movement of the very words by which it was created and in which it resides.

P&W: Your love of music really comes through in this book. Did you study music or have a background in it?

PR: Music was a large part of my childhood. My older brother played the piano, the clarinet, the violin, and the baritone horn. My mother paid him a nickel to get up and practice the piano before school. He had a big jar full of nickels. And I woke up many mornings to the sound of a Chopin Polonaise or “Rhapsody in Blue” or “Claire de Lune.” I played the piano and the flute, but not so well. I took tap dancing and ballet, but was not so great. But I was a good, strong singer. I could sing harmony, the alto parts. I was one of three children chosen from my elementary school to be in the All City Chorus. I attended that chorus practice and our church choir practice every week. I sang and sang and followed the instructions of music teachers. I learned about counting sounds and accented and unaccented notes and the effects of various rhythms and tones, and numbered beats to a measure, major keys and minor, verses and choruses, repetitions, rests and silences, crescendos and diminuendos. Just like poetry. All the elements of poetry. Music always convinces me that human beings, all of us, are redeemable, capable of love and righteousness.

P&W: While you definitely have an “I” in your poems, they don’t tend to be first-person narratives about your life.

PR: I never wanted to write directly about my personal life. I knew that almost from the beginning. I felt it was extremely limiting as a subject. The world itself seemed much more fascinating and exciting and worthy than the details of my own personal life in it. And I simply loved the sound, the look, the feel in my mouth of the words about the world, the universe, the life processes of other forms, and I liked where those words, put together in certain ways, could take me. I loved their places and their structures and their being. I still do. And those words have been very good to me.

P&W: There seems to be a proliferation of new poets who aren’t afraid to include science in their work. Do you have any favorites you’d like to mention, or any you feel are particularly interesting in their use of scientific language and imagery?

PR: I’ve come to feel that “science” is not an accurate word to use in regard to my own work. What interests me is actually cosmology, the story of the physical world, the entire universe, being told by scientists. It’s a story most of us accept and base decisions and actions on, and it is a story that affects our definition of spirituality and what being human means. A great deal of Albert Goldbarth’s work contains a cosmological view, and A. R. Ammons’s work also does. And I come across individual poems in the work of many poets in which I feel our contemporary cosmological story has played a part, “Solo Native” by Thomas Lux, for example.

P&W: You’ve been described as an environmental poet, a nature poet, and a spiritual poet. Would you like to address these labels? Do you feel they are limiting?

PR: If my poetry is placed in a category, it is only limiting to me if I accept the categorization and attempt to conform to it. If my poetry is introduced to a reader as belonging to a category, then it can limit the poetry for the reader who believes that categorization. It’s too easy then to see in my poetry only what fits the category and nothing else. And that has happened more often than I would like.

P&W: Ecstatic listmaking—which recalls Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop’s intricate detailed descriptions of animals and phenomena—is key to your work. Whether your fantastic imagery is of jellyfish or stars or one-celled creatures, naming the organisms and their surroundings seems very important. What do you think?

PR: Watch young children outdoors. It’s very rare to find a young child who is not enthusiastically curious about the life around him, whatever form that life takes. I was just with my two-year-old grandson this past weekend. A stroll around the yard with him takes a while. He points to a butterfly with great excitement and wants the name and tries to repeat it. He brings a very tiny golden-bronze seed to me to hold and keep. And treasure. “Bug” was one of his first words. He can watch a trail of ants with an enduring focus. “Moon” was an early word for my sons and my grandsons, too. The sight of the moon always occasioned joy and rapt attention. And dandelions, even to my five-year-old grandsons, are amazing and beautiful. And they are right to be so amazed. The life forms on our earth are amazing to children, and they remain amazing for many adults. The more we learn about them the more amazing and mysterious they become. The same is true for all the stars and cosmic bodies existing in the heavens. The universe is overflowing with passion. For my own sake, I try with words to tap into that passion, that intense will-to-be, the tight hold against oblivion, the yes-power existing within all the manifestations of light.