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Poet Emily Rosko: 'The distillation of a difficult state of mind’

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FINDING words for what is not easily said is the task of poetry, defines Emily Rosko.

A formidable challenge, for sure. Yet Rosko has managed to fill pages—books, even—with her lyrical discoveries. The winner of the 2006 Iowa Poetry Prize, the 2007 Glasgow Prize for Emerging Writers and numerous fellowships, Rosko is the author of two poetry collections, Raw Good Inventory and the award-winning Prop Rockery, with a third in the works.

In between parsing her own perfect phrases, the Cornell-educated bard is an associate professor of English and Creative Writing at the College of Charleston and the editor of the literary journal Crazyhorse.

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After Hurricane Matthew stymied her scheduled appearance at Foxy Loxy Café last fall, Rosko will finally read her rhythmic craft aloud this Thursday, March 2 as part of the 2016-2017 Visiting Writer Series sponsored by Armstrong State University’s College of Liberal Arts.

The series returned last year after a four year hiatus, once again giving students the opportunity to workshop with accomplished writers, many of whom serve on the faculty of nearby MFA programs.

The events are also a chance for the rest of us to get academic without the tuition. All events in the series are free, open to the public and held in a hip, off-campus location in an effort as described by ASU English professor Dr. William Belford “to cultivate both a student and a local culture around this series so as to enhance the university’s cultural profile through serving the Savannah community and thereby ensure the series’ longevity.”

We caught up with Rosko to find out more about her Shakespearean influences, the value of poetry in a 140-character economy and why the weather can be more inspiring than motherhood.

You write that poetry is “the remains of some struggle (internal or external) swelling up; it is what is able to be articulated in the hopes of communicating that pain, astonishment, or beauty of the experience.” What experience has been the hardest for you to capture with those “hard won” words?

Experiences of joy are the hardest for me to capture. Funny how that works, isn’t it? It’s always easier to write about negative experiences and feelings, but happiness ... happiness has that danger of coming off as too saccharine, too boring or cliché.

Janet Burroway, a fiction writer known for her pedagogical essays on the craft of prose, warns us, “In literature only trouble is interesting.” This holds up for poetry, too, I think, despite the long tradition of poems of praise, celebratory odes. So, for me, the most difficult topic to write about is becoming a mother and my child.

In another interview, you explain how the title poem of Prop Rockery contains several threads back to Shakespeare's King Lear. What other poets besides Shakespeare influenced the collection?

Shakespeare's plays and poetry are definitely the primary inspiration, but a few other Early Modern poets had some influence as well—Christopher Marlowe and John Marston, for instance, and overall, the cultural history of the sixteenth-century informs the work as well.

Beyond this, John Berryman’s Dream Songs inhabit the background of Prop Rockery—mostly, his sense of the fractured self and the general tone of grumpiness as Berryman’s speaker rants about his “plights & gripes as bad as Achilles.”

How does living in the South influence your current work, or does it?

It’s starting to. It takes me awhile to digest and fully reflect on things that happen in my life—whether it’s moving to the South or having a child. The southern landscape, flora, and weather are certainly there in my newer poems and maybe, too, the feeling of being an “outsider.” I’m still trying to figure out how to write about this region.

Charleston, of course, has a tremendously difficult history, alongside the recent tragedies that have happened in just the past few years. Living in Charleston, I’m very aware that my house, for instance, is on a plot of land that used to be part of the orange groves of the Lowndes Grove plantation (built 1786). I’m still learning and processing.

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As you’re working on your third collection, Weather Intentions, what are your thoughts on the last year of flooding, hurricanes and unrelenting heat?

Weather Inventions will never be 100% complete, there is so much material to write about! I am deeply concerned about climate change and about all of the new findings and warnings scientists are presenting to us. I'm equally troubled by those who try to deny climate change and who try to deny that human activities are not responsible!

Extreme weather events are now the norm—we see this more and more, each season, across the world. It’s not something we can dismiss as simply “wacky”—it’s reality. Natural disasters and extreme weather are going to become an even bigger part of our experiences, and I feel very pessimistic about our planet’s future—and all of its multitude of species!—given the warming climate.

Your reading is part of a series conceived to make poetry more accessible to the masses—or at least bring it out of the classroom. Will the masses ever accept poetry as valuable, and how do you “sell” it alongside 140 character tweets?

You know—and, apologies, I’m not trying to be crass—I do not really care if the “masses,” as you say, accept poetry as valuable. People turn to poetry when they need it, particularly in moments of profound grief as a way to find comfort and humanity. The 9/11 attacks or the shooting at the Orlando club are two such moments when there was a large turn toward poetry as a way to cope.

But the minute you try to make poetry as tidy and accessible as a commercial or a tweet, I think you are diminishing the art form. Poetry is most valuable because it isn’t valued in the larger market system.

Poetry, at its best, ought to shake us out of our habits of convenience and our typical patterns of thought. When I say this, though, I am not saying that poetry has to be highly erudite or has to evade meaning in order to be good. Poems are distillations of difficult states of mind, of complex nets of emotion; and poetry’s task is difficult: to supply words for what cannot be easily said.

There are contexts in which a poem says the very thing we need to hear, makes us feel the way we need to feel—and if that poem goes viral, or gets attention, then that’s a marvelous thing.

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