Sarah Rose Nordgren’s debut poetry collection inhabits an uncanny space where past and present bleed into one another. Best Bones moves seamlessly between the present, 1917, early nineteenth-century America, and England in 1790. While time shifts, boundaries do as well, and the body can sometimes be an incubator for others’ children, or a fish, or begin to meld with the house in which it lives and works. The domestic takes on an edge of menace, even on the small scale, as a dollhouse family goes about its dysfunctional life. The winner of the 2013 Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize, Best Bones is a haunting book that draws on a variety of source material to create a parallel world where even science becomes fairy tale. I feel both at home in and unsettled by these poems, and grateful for the chance to move for a while through their world. Sarah Rose Nordgren’s poems have appeared in many journals, including issue 18 of Memorious, and she is the recipient of two fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown as well as residencies from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, and the 2012 James Wright Poetry Award from Mid-American Review. Sarah Rose graciously took time to answer my questions about drawing from source material, writing about the body, and what it means to be a working poet.
I’m interested in the different ways poets go about putting together a book, particularly a first book. Can you explain a bit about your process in creating Best Bones and finding a home for it?
The poems in Best Bones span about ten years of writing. For most of that time, I wasn’t thinking about writing a book, I was just writing poems. Making a book was something I knew I wanted to do, but it was still mostly the vague, far-off idea I’d had since I was a little girl. It was during my first stint as a Poetry Fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown in 2008 that I began to see the body of work I was cultivating as a book manuscript. I strung lines of twine across the walls of my studio, and hung the poems up with wooden clothespins. I lived with them like that for months, and would sometimes go over and rearrange them on the wall to see different groupings. This process helped me to discover relationships between the poems that I wasn’t aware of previously – how the poems were talking to each other across years, how I returned to the same obsessions and concerns.
It was very difficult for me to order the poems into a manuscript, since I couldn’t find a “narrative” that made sense for the book. I would have preferred some kind of three-dimensional arrangement where I could hang the poems in space with lines connecting different clusters, like a brainstorming map. When I did finally arrange the poems into a “finished” manuscript, it took three more years before I got the news that it had won the Starrett Prize from Pitt. During that time I was sending it out to contests, showing it to friends, and every few months or so I’d take it out and rearrange some things, take a poem or two out, put a new one in, etc. In retrospect, three years wasn’t a long time, though it felt so. I’m glad the book was published in the form it was rather than earlier – the three years of periodic revision helped it to mature, and I couldn’t be happier with the home it found.
Many of the poems in your book draw from written and historical source material, either by directly pulling language from a text, as with “A Bathing Gown a Girl Can Make,” or by borrowing titles, epigraphs, or ideas from a variety of sources. How do you see the role of this source material in your writing? In what ways does your reading life intersect with your writing life?
I often become fixated on an idea or story that I’ve heard or read about. When I have the time, I’ll dive head first into reading and learning more about that thing, which always ends up informing my poems in some way, though it’s not planned. I also attribute the close connection between my reading and writing processes to my time on fellowships. When I was given that much freedom that first season in Provincetown, I quickly came to understand that I couldn’t write poems all day every day, as much as I wished I could. I learned that I needed a rhythm of in and out breaths in my day – writing, reading, walking, yoga, cooking – in order to pace myself and stay somewhat sane. Since I was reading so intensely as well as writing during that time, the two actions couldn’t help but interact. Now I’m sometimes more conscious about it – reading books that address ideas I want to write poems about – but poetry rarely conforms to my plans.
I often don’t know why I’m drawn into certain reading and research while I’m doing it – why prion diseases? Why the history of marriage? Why house servants’ manuals? However, if I think about it in retrospect I can sometimes see how the research subject is related to some issue or intellectual problem that I’m struggling with internally. Something more personal than I realize. This is also most likely why I write a lot of persona poems.
So much of the book involves uncanny images of domesticity, femininity and the female body; I’m thinking in particular of “Remarks on the Morning’s Work in Winter,” where the woman seems to become part of the house itself, and “Surrogate,” in which the speaker’s body is an incubator for others’ children. Can you speak a bit about the ways femininity/ domesticity and the female body plays out in Best Bones?
The body is definitely one of my central concerns in Best Bones, particularly how the body conforms or doesn’t conform to the cultural roles and identity that we impose upon it. I think there are two primary ways that this problem plays out in the book – as the examples you’ve chosen reveal. One has to do with power – with the body as well as the psyche’s acceptance or rejection of cultural identity (wife, mother, servant, etc.). The other has to do with the ability to successfully create life – to make another working body – through motherhood or parenthood. In part because my mother gave birth to a still-born baby boy when I was a young girl, I think I’ve always felt very close to and fascinated with the mystery of how life happens, and how it can go wrong. In this way, the female body becomes a kind of human-magic-world-machine in Best Bones. It is at the center of so much beauty and creativity and strength, and is also a container of pain, grief, failure.
In a 2011 interview during your second fellowship with the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, you said that you had a hard time balancing work and writing. Have you found that balance yet? What does it mean to you to be a working poet?
I think when I did that interview I was coming off of a year and a half of working a day job at a publishing house which did, indeed, make writing more of a challenge. Being back on the academic schedule is more productive for me and feels more fertile, even during times when I’m slammed with grading and teaching and other responsibilities and can’t find time to write. There’s always room for improvement, but at this point I’m satisfied with the seasonal rhythm that my life allows. I tend to write most intensely in the summer and often spend a few weeks at a residency for that purpose – that’s when I write the bulk of my new material, though I also try to do a little writing marathon over the winter holiday break. During the school year I write some, but mostly take notes and work to revise my material from the summer. I’ve never been an every-single-day writer, and although I admire (and sometimes envy) those who are, I think I know myself well enough at this point to accept that that’s not my process.
I’m not exactly sure what being a “working poet” means other than the phrase communicating a level of dedication and seriousness that’s potentially important for a writer’s identity. When I say it (if and when I do), I think I mean that it’s not a casual pursuit; rather, poetry is a path, a practice, a way of engaging with the world – that I’m active in it.
What poets or poems do you find yourself coming back to again and again? Has your experience of them changed over time?
There are so many – Dickinson, Bishop, Yeats, Niedecker, and Stevens, to name a few. I love the poems of Tomas Tranströmer – how the strangeness and imagination of the poems’ unfolding creates tension with his spare, bleak landscapes. His poems are still as magical to me as when I first read them, years ago, and he’s one of the only poets who’s written prose poems that excite me (“Below Zero” is one of my favorites). About a year ago I also started reading the work of another Swedish-speaking poet, Edith Södergran. She was a modernist, and an extremely interesting artist who died at a young age. Her poems rival Dickinson and Niedecker in their earnestness and delicacy. I can’t get enough of her, and my copy of her selected works is full of little slips of paper I use as bookmarks.
And finally, what are you working on right now?
I’m now in the editing stages of a book of poems that has arisen from my fascination with scientific concepts as well as the philosophy and history of evolutionary biology. I got a chance to arrange the manuscript this past summer, and am now letting it marinate a little before I look at it again with hopefully fresher eyes. In the meantime, I’m doing some planning for a nonfiction project, and am also developing a performance installation that incorporates digital, “choreographed” poems with choreographer/new media artist Kathleen Kelley. That project is called Digitized Figures, and we just got a chance to premiere a version of it at The Dance Complex in Cambridge, Mass. There’s always plenty to do!
– Christina Rothenbeck is the author of two chapbooks, Girls in Art and the forthcoming Erasing Innocence, both from Dancing Girls Press.
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