Contributor Spotlight: Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers

Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers’ second collection, The Tilt Torn Away from the Seasons (Acre Books), posits the intriguing question, what would happen if current climate change resulted in humans terraforming Mars? The result is a thought-provoking interrogation of sexism, colonialism, and the current climate crisis, in a collection as healing as it is harrowing. In this attentive and imaginative contribution to ecopoetics, Rogers’ weaves her celebration of earth and its beauty with warnings of the mistakes of mankind. The collection creates a sense of nostalgia for what still is and garners within readers a desire to protect the earth that Rogers’ persona has lost. 

Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers is also the author of Chord Box (University of Arkansas Press, 2013), which was a finalist for both the Miller Williams Prize and the Lambda Literary Award. Her poetry has appeared in The Boston Review, The Bennington Review, Blackbird, The Missouri Review, FIELD, The Journal, Crazyhorse, Washington Square Review, Crab Orchard Review, StorySouth, and numerous other journals, as well as in Memorious. Her nonfiction can be found in The Journal, The Rumpus, LitHub, Prairie Schooner, andThe Hong Kong Review, among others.

This book is written in such a prepossessing and intriguing way that, upon first read-through, one could miss the extent to which the collection comments on our problematic entanglement with the colonialist mindset and the ecopoetic commentary that is happening in the collection. How do you write about these immediate and distressing issues without becoming too didactic or overbearing? How do you balance the urgent call for change with the poetic voice?

Thank you, first of all, for finding the work engaging! It’s a complicated collection that asks a lot of the reader, both in terms of subject and in terms of form. 

The deeper subjects of the book—the dangers of the colonial mindset, the historical problem of “Manifest Destiny,” the crisis of climate change, the ways that environmental destruction are tied to the subjugation of women and marginalized people—these had to emerge slowly after the more superficial subject matter (what would it mean to live on Mars?) and well after the primary craft concerns: sound, form. I can’t really go into a poem with a dogmatic message because I’m setting myself up to fail if I try to control the poem.  The “so what?” of a poem has to emerge through the drafting process. And it must be subtle, and it comes from language and form, not from some predetermined idea I had as I began to write.   

Most of my work is political and culturally critical, but people might miss it because my poems aren’t loud, and because music and form and metaphor are the main vehicles.  In some ways, I’m a formalist, though form can mean a whole host of things to me, and a lot of them aren’t traditional. I do still care about surface polish and elegance in a poem, even if what gets revealed via the subject matter is cruel or troubled.  The tension between the poem’s polished exterior and the subject matter’s messy urgency interests me. 

In your acknowledgements section you mention a love of the earth, which I feel we see clearly represented in pieces such as “Ecopoiesis: Phase IV,” “Amazonis, Mars,” and “The Northern Lights, as Seen from Mars,” among others. What inspired this book? Was it from the love of earth, a fascination with the universe, fear of climate crisis, or something else?

I am terrified of climate change and think about it on a daily basis: the mass extinction and unprecedented shifts we’re seeing, in some way, drive me to elegiac impulses. At the same time, natural world still gives me a lot of energy, is so full of beauty that I can hardly bear it. The first thing I do every day is look at the weather forecast because I’m fascinated by the variety and sudden changes. So, I suppose that’s a form of love!

 Most of my work is very rooted in a sense of place: geography, ecology, history. In my first book, Chord Box, I’ve written about the South of my childhood, as well as the rural area in Shanxi, China, where I spent my early twenties.  But after Chord Boxwent into publication production, I didn’t know what else to write about.  Was I done, I worried, with writing?  I had exhausted my autobiographical subjects in that first book, and I knew I needed to turn away from myself towards something new. I didn’t want to write a second book that was just like the first. 

The very first poem I wrote for The Tilt Torn Away from the Seasons was “The Frontier,” which introduces readers to the surface of Mars, uses the tropes and stock characters of Western films to reflect on how the colonizing impulse is dangerous. Mars becomes a kind of second America where the historical trepasses are replayed. Awful! 

Two things inspired this poem: one obvious, one not so obvious. The first, obvious spark was seeing the first panoramic photos of Mars for the first time, which looks very much like parts of the American West to me: this became the primary conceit of the poem. But the other inspiration, less obvious, was that I had just moved to rural Ohio for a writing fellowship, and I found myself obsessed by my own since of isolation, the supposedly empty landscape, my own inner and outer senses of distance. Even though the landscape in “The Frontier” looks nothing like where I was living in Ohio, the disoriented feeling I had about my new location made it into the poem, if that makes sense. 

But writing about a landscape that was, in a sense, imaginary—the surface of Mars is real, of course, but we only know so much about it—also freed me in a way that none of the poems in my first book had. I realized I was creating a world in which anything was possible. That pleasure was intoxicating, was extremely generative, and thus the rest of the book came to be. 

There is an obvious ecological message in this piece, along with commentary on the colonial mindset. Besides these issues, and besides telling an encapsulating story about terraforming Mars, what other intentions did you have for this collection?

I didn’t really intend for the whole book to be about Mars, honestly. I WILL NOT WRITE A MARS BOOK I told many people I know, thinking that a “MARS BOOK” sounded cheesy, trite. My original vision was to have part of the book focus on this imaginative version of Mars, and a large (separate) portion of poems to focus just on climate change and destruction on earth. 

Ultimately, though, the “set on earth” poems got reduced to a smaller fraction of the entire manuscript: the Mars poems were just so much more engrossing, more strange, more complex. They were the ones that always got picked for publication, the ones people remembered.  I decided to have the “earth” poems function a series of flashbacks, making readers imagine what their own planet had become in the face of climate change. 

You do some interesting things with formatting in this collection. Specifically, I am thinking about pieces like “Red Planet Application,” “Lost Exit Interview,” and “Fugue for Wind and Pipes,” among others. How did considerations of formatting affect your poems and your poetry, in this collection and in general?

Form obsesses me, and I’m always trying to invent new physical forms for my poems so I don’t get too bored or stuck in my ways. “Red Planet Application” and “Lost Exit Interview” mimic the styles of an application form and an exit interview, respectively: forms that we encounter in our everyday lives in late capitalism, but don’t think of is inherently poetic. Both of these are question-and-answer documents, which we do see in poetry from time to time, and which allow multiple voices to coexist in the same space  

I’m also a big believer in using the whole page like a canvas. The poem is a visual body, one that moves, not just something pinned to the left margin. But I also believe that poets should be intentional about how they disrupt expectations about where and how text is placed on the page. My graduate school advisor, Alice Fulton, is the contemporary poet who made the use of the right margin and right justification possible, drawing the reader’s attention to space that is usually left blank, its presence often invisible. For Fulton and her readers, this choice is also rich with its political implications: Fulton has used that right margin to draw attention to the lives and experiences of the oppressed and historically silenced, women in particular. It’s a brilliant formal choice and one that is tied directly to the poems’ content. I love Alice’s work, and it has definitely influenced my own.

When I wrote “The Frontier,” the first poem in the book, I decided that a poem about the surface of Mars should look different than one about the surface of earth. What would it mean, I wondered, to have the poem not move from left to right, but right to left, using the right margin as the point of origin? This right-justified, right-to-left movement in the poem does a few things: it disorients readers a bit, mimicking what it might feel like to live on another planet; it draws the reader’s focus to places on the page that aren’t usually seen or considered; it gives the poem an off-kilter sort of elegance, which, in my mind is perfect in a poem about Mars. It also pays homage to Alice Fulton’s use of right justification, especially because my poem is concerned with how the colonial mindset leads to oppression and erasure. 

This style of “The Frontier” ended up working like a signature for the Red Planet, and I used it again for other poems in the collection I discuss the landscape of Mars.

Thinking of “Fugue for Wind and Pipes,” sonnet crowns seem to be a rather unique style of formed poetry, yet you have several throughout this collection, such as “Fugue…,” “Deep Space Crown,” and “Backflash: Seven Catastrophes.” What is it about sonnet crowns, specifically, that drew you to the form for this particular collection? How does writing in form affect your writing—either process or content-wise? 

I am drawn to the sonnet crown because it’s so generative: the last line of the first poem because the first line of the next. Generative forms are good for those of us who have a lot of anxiety about writing. I love sonnets in general—so much tension! So many moves! Now, the volta!—and the crown is the most excessive form of the sonnet. There was a way, too, in which the sonnet crown form, with its use of repetition and circling-back and cyclical feeling, was a perfect vehicle for talking about the qualities of outer space and the universe.

 For the last section of the book, I wanted to challenge myself even further by having a big sequence that was a sonnet crown but also mimicked a musical fugue.  I’d had two sonnet crowns in the book already, so I sort of needed to up my game for the last one, doing something that was formally new.  

In general, it’s hard for me to ever divorce form from content in my work, or say which came first. What would those Mars landscape poems be without their weird, floaty, right-to-left movement? How could I ever write about sound, echo, and distortion without the repetition and overlap in “Fugue for Wind in Pipes”? 

Finally, this collection is filled with lovely and powerful pieces of poetry. Do you have any favorites? Is there a piece you’d like to expand on?

I’m definitely not expanding on anything in the collection! I’m done with all the poems here. Otherwise, I couldn’t publish them. 

But my favorites are definitely the long poem sequences: the sonnet crowns, and “The Northern Lights, as Seen from Mars,” which is a tribute to Wallace Stevens’ “The Auroras of Autumn.” In a long poem, anything can go: it becomes a kind of rhapsody for your obsessions, feels freeing in a way that a page-long poem never could.  I also love the last poem in the collection, “Agnus Dei: Mars,” which is the closest thing I’ve ever written to a prayer. 

Interviewer Shay Hawkins is currently in her second year at BGSU’s MFA program for poetry. She obtained her MA in Rhetoric and Composition from Appalachian State University and plans to continue on to a PhD. in Rhetorical Studies. Her research interests are in the history of rhetorical theory and classicist poetics. 

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