On screen this week for Line / Break episode three is Hurston/Wright Legacy Award-winner Alison C. Rollins, who talks to host Laura Buccieri about her dreams of being a marine biologist, how the body holds trauma, and the politics of libraries in 2021.ARVE Error: src mismatch
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We’re back next week with National Book Award longlisted poet Victoria Chang. Stay tuned!
Line / Break is a new interview series from Copper Canyon Press that goes off the page and into the homes and minds of our beloved poets. We’re hungry to see poets on screen talking shop, answering questions, and taking us behind the scenes of how they do what they do. So we’re giving them a call, and bringing those conversations to you. New episodes, hosted by Director of Publicity Laura Buccieri, launch on Fridays this spring.
Laura (00:01): Hi everyone. I’m Laura Buccieri, the Director of Publicity at Copper Canyon Press, and I’m coming to you live from Brooklyn. You are watching our new interview series Line / Break, which goes off the page and into the homes and minds of our beloved poets. I’ve always really had the dream of seeing more poets represented on screen, talking shop, answering questions, and taking us behind the scenes of how they do what they do. So in this episode, we are speaking with Alison C. Rollins. Alison, thank you so much for being here. How’s your day going?
Alison (00:36): My day is going pretty well. Our internets are functioning at the moment.
Laura (00:41): At the moment.
Alison (00:45): So, I’m well.
Laura (00:46): Good, good, good. Me too. The internet, that’s truly the main thing these days. If the internet is functioning, my day is going okay. I would love before we dive in to have you introduce yourself, maybe name, pronouns, where you currently live, and most recent book, and anything else you want to throw in.
Alison (01:09): Of course. So my name is Alison C. Rollins. My pronouns are she, her. I was born and raised in the Midwest, in St. Louis, Missouri, but I now currently reside in sunny, Colorado Springs, Colorado. And my debut poetry collection with Copper Canyon Press is Library of Small Catastrophes featuring the phenomenal visual artist Nick Cave’s “Soundsuit” on the cover.
Laura (01:36): That’s so beautiful. Thank you so much for having a visual up. I love that. Well, I would love to just jump right in, to be honest. I want to start from the beginning almost. And I was wondering if we could go back to when you started writing poetry, and I’m curious as to was there one thing, one poem, one song, one character, one movie, that you identified with, that pushed you to write or inspired you? Or was poetry just something you kept being drawn to and kept coming back to, or how did it begin? I’m curious.
Alison (02:19): Yeah. In the very cliche way, in the very emotional early Alison, past high school Alison. In high school, I think poems just were a way to, on a fragmented sense, get my emotions and feelings onto the page. I was always a kid that had a lot of feelings, loved reading, loved hermit-like existence, curled up with books. And so I’ve figured out early on that the phenomenon of the page, the page paper was a space where I could express myself.
Alison (02:53): That was a container that could hold and archive my emotional register. And it had to participate in listening to me, it didn’t really have a choice. And so for me it felt very soothing and powerful to be able to engage in world building on paper, in a way that I often didn’t find with peers. I was very lonely, I just didn’t have a lot of friends or other people to quite talk to. I’m the oldest of three daughters. So often I was in older sister mode, which didn’t really, it felt like the page was a friend, a non furry critter, but a friend that was going to hold and listen and be supportive, like a really good paper dog, if you can [crosstalk 00:03:41].
Laura (03:41): Paper dog. I love that, you made your own pet.
Alison (03:48): Exactly.
Laura (03:49): Wait. So, then, but it came out, like most people, if I heard somebody saying this, I might think diary, but you went poetry. I don’t know. I find that truly amazing. I feel like when I was taught poetry, it was super alienating and I never found that it was anything that I could relate to or found interest in. So I’m curious, were you just picking up, how did you find yourself within poetry at such a young age then? Were you just reading? Were you’re just exposed to really great poets from a young age? Or was it just like you didn’t know you’re writing poems, but looking back on it, they were actually poems or I’m just very curious
Alison (04:42): Yeah, I think more so to your experience in my formal schooling and an academic sense, I certainly didn’t see poets that looked like me. I didn’t read or understand of contemporary poets. I think my family would give me Langston Hughes collected, and that was the most that I had in terms of even a black poet. But I really loved, I still, to this day, loved Roald Dahl’s work. So like James and the Giant Peach was one of my favorites, The BFG, and maybe I just didn’t have the perseverance to write short stories. I wasn’t really into writing short stories, but I loved the surreal, I loved the notion of there’s this kid, he hangs out with a cockroach and a beetle they’re on this peach they’re journeying around. I think James’ parents die at the zoo or something. So, in a fragmented way, I liked poetry because it allowed me to weave together. I think the surreal and my own experience, building my own type of mythology, but with brevity. I never kept a diary because it felt very overwhelming to me personally, to have to every day documenting. So I just didn’t do that.
Laura (05:55): Me too. I have the utmost respect for diary people because I’m like, I would be writing down every single thing, “Had a glass of milk, it was almond milk. I hated it.” I would feel like I had to like go through everything. So I totally feel you on that one. I love that you went to, I think of James and the Giant Peach as a kid’s story. And I mean, maybe I think that’s how others view it but maybe not, but that’s so interesting to think of. You’re right, even Dr. Seuss or something is technically poetry. I mean, not technically, but it almost is poetic in that rhyme and in that, how it moves and you reference James and the Giant Peach as surreal and wild in that imagination kind of sense. And so maybe we were all exposed to poetry from a really young age and just didn’t call it that. So that’s kind of interesting. I’ve never, maybe other people think this all the time, but that’s the first time I’ve thought of that before.
Alison (06:58): If not poetry, then at least maybe imagery that there’s, when you become an adult or an intellectual, you no longer read picture books, you no longer read aloud, but I think one of the beautiful things about poetry is the richness of imagery of building visual, mental pictures with words. And I think those are the moments in poems that resonate or continue to ricochet through my mind and body after I’ve set down the poem in a way that maybe doesn’t as often happen or in quite the same way as in prose.
Laura (07:38): Oh, wow. That’s yeah. Yes. A hundred percent. Yes. To that. Yes.
Alison (07:45): Yeah. We all enjoyed that, we all hopefully—
Laura (07:48): We did.
Alison (07:49): Enjoyed even children that are not quite formally literate yet, telling a story with the pictures or looking at the pictures, we all typically have a good feeling about that. And it’s unfortunately when formal schooling happens that people feel really not great about poetry, poetry often we’re taught it’s to make us feel insecure. We don’t understand, or—
Laura (08:13): Like above us, yeah. That’s so true. We, yeah, who didn’t want to be read aloud to? And have pictures tell the story in that sense. I remember when I was a kid, I picked up a book and I thought it was in English and it was in Spanish, but it was in front of the whole class. And I remember I had to read it. It was like in preschool or something or kindergarten, I don’t know. And I just like decided to make it up because I was in front of the whole class. I was like, “Well, this is about,” I was just going off of what the pictures were, but it was so fun. I remember that to this day, I was like, that was the most fun I’ve had reading and I wasn’t even reading. It was… So anyway, I hear that.
Laura (08:55): Well, I’m curious then if we could fast forward or maybe it’s actually at the same time, maybe there’s no fast forwarding that’s going to happen. But I wonder if there is, when you started thinking of yourself as a poet? Did it happen when you had a book out in the world? Did it happen when you were writing that first poet as a kid? Has it just not happened yet? Should it happen? I don’t know. I’m just, I’m curious on that mindset.
Alison (09:26): Yeah. I think for me when I was in high school and when I was in graduate school, I had two English teachers, professors who I showed my work to, which to be honest, probably was not very good at all, but I trusted them and I respected them. And so it meant something for them to validate me. Or in some sense also give me permission. When they said, “These are poems or I can definitely see you’re a poet.” I think hearing that for me, affirmed, “Oh, I am this thing. I’m this type of person.” And as I’ve gotten older, I think I’m more skeptical, and often when I teach, I’m skeptical of telling students to give that power to someone else, allowing someone else to validate or give you permission. And so I think for me, it’s more so I think of poets as lifestyle, lifestyle choice.
Laura (10:26): You’re so right.
Alison (10:27): Yeah. It’s a way of being, and seeing and moving through the world in a way of a lens, if you will, like a set of binoculars through which I examine my lived experience and I examine the world around me and try to give language to the world around me. And so in a formal sense, I’m not going to lie, especially as a black queer woman, it really meant a lot to have a book because at least that’s something I can point to that is a credential, a professional validation. So that feels good. But I think more so I like to think of it as a way of being, we’ll say that.
Laura (11:07): That’s not what I thought you were going to say when you were saying lifestyle. And I like your version a lot better because I thought you were going to go towards most poets, at least that I work with they have other jobs besides putting a book out. They’re running around doing events or maybe not running around now because we’re on Zoom. But putting effort into these events, they’re giving lectures, they’re doing signings, they’re, you’re doing a million things, they’re editors for other journals they’re doing. So truly I do think you’re right in the way that I’m a poet. It does mean I wear 10,000 hats and all at once and all at the same. So, but yours sounds much more poetic. And so let’s go with your version of lifestyle better. I like the lens. I like the lenses much better than the hats. So, but yeah, no, I mean, I guess speaking to that, I’m curious, how do you, being a poet, being, you’re also a librarian, you’re still correct? A librarian now?
Alison (12:18): Well, I go back and forth between either full time librarian, full time faculty, half librarian, half faculty, one fourth library. So right now I’m not working in the library. I’m a visiting assistant professor, but I’m never not a librarian in my mind.
Ooh, wait, what does that mean? Is being a librarian, a mindset too? Take me through it.
Alison (12:41): Yes thank you Laura, yes. We’re going to affirm all of these things in an anti-capitalist way. Yes. So I have, again, a formal, I have a Masters in Library and Information Science, which is the terminal degree to be considered a librarian. So I do have that, but for me again, since I was a little kid, I just really enjoy collecting. I don’t know what it is. I really enjoy archiving in a very, just general sense if it makes sense.
Alison (13:16): I grew up, my mother’s mother, my maternal grandmother had Alzheimer’s when I was in high school. And so it became an obsession or love project to just try to document as much as I could. Writing on the back of photographs, the names of people, writing down stories, trying to hold and preserve her legacy, her memories that were slipping away. But if it’s even not just memory base, but in terms of objects or things, I have hoarding tendencies, but I really just like ephemera. I like nostalgia. I like collecting and curating and holding things. So yeah, I think the librarian in me in that way never leaves even if I’m not formally working in one.
Laura (14:01): I hear that. I mean, as a collector myself, I was the kid with a bunch of, a stamp collection, the coin collection, it was a lot of collections, it was too many collections. Each corner of the room had a collection and it was, it’s too much. But it is funny, that neither of us wanted to do diaries because I feel, now I actually understand why, because we’re too, it’s like a collection of the day’s memories and we can’t collect them all because you can never remember them all. And so now it makes sense why we’re not diary people.
Laura (14:39): But, no I’m interested in the fact that the degree has the word science in it and not art. I guess that makes sense because in science you have all of those categories that you’re grouping, plants and animals and all that into, but did you feel, I assume there is also an art form behind it though? Am I wrong about that? I don’t know. In terms of being a librarian?
Alison (15:07): I think so, but then that’s maybe the poetry juices seeping in.
Laura (15:13): Let them seep.
Alison (15:14): Yes, it is. Also all of my degrees are actually in science. So because there’s a catalog, there’s a formal cataloging system. There is theory that surrounds various processes of information, literacy information, circulation. So there’s also a critical shift that happened in terms of library schools turning or taking the terminology of information science schools. So it being a management type notion or science to the organization of information, rather than such a library censored focus, if you will.
Alison (15:52): But I think that there’s so many aspects of, there’s politics to it, there’s policy to it, there is an art I think. You’re curating in a way, you’re building a collection, you’re determining what’s on the shelves. What you think people will want. You’re also communicating whether it’s to the general public or to an educational setting, what we value as a culture, what is important, what it is that we think is worthy of being put into the public domain and circulated and shared and enjoyed and read and learned from. And so to me, that’s a lot of cultural capital goes into that.
Laura (16:33): It’s a lot of pressure. That’s a lot. I mean, I love that though. And I mean, I guess as a kid, I would love going to libraries for story hour and more community things. And then as I got older, it was more to use the computer, to print something out, are you still seeing, when you are, have your library hat on, are you still seeing, are people gathering? Are people, are story hours still a thing, are people still coming in to, are there regulars? There was always regulars in my library. I’m curious, what is the library, physical space at least post COVID, take COVID out of it. What is that these days? How do you see?
Alison (17:24): Yeah, I think the library is one of the last shared economy spaces that we can all for the most part, I won’t say at all, I shouldn’t use exhaustive terms like that, but most of us agree on. We believe it is a public good. And so in that sense, when I worked in public libraries, you do have the intersection of families with their small children, maybe adults that haven’t been in the library in decades that are now returning with children for story hour. It’s also a community space.
Alison (17:53): I was really torn when I went back to graduate school to get my library science degree. I was torn between doing a social work degree because I also felt like it was a space where there’s people seeking public health needs. There’s people seeking just safe climate controlled shelter. People need a space to feel safe, to have a decent temperature, to feel even sometimes using the bathrooms, public restrooms, as a way to clean, clean off, to use the restroom, to use the internet, as you mentioned, to use a computer to apply to jobs. So it does a variety of different things for different needs. Often throughout the day in communities, people from all different types of walks of life are intersecting in this communal space, unlike any other, [crosstalk 00:18:40].
Laura (18:39): No, absolutely. That’s crazy. You name all those things, what other singular place is doing all of that?
Alison (18:48): Exactly.
Laura (18:48): I don’t know. I don’t know.
Alison (18:51): Exactly.
Laura (18:52): That’s crazy. Wow. Well, I wonder then, so your book is called Library of Small Catastrophes. I wonder if we could circle back to maybe your work and talk about… So it is some, I mean, I think the library, the cataloging aspect is very much in your work. I’m curious if you could just talk about the book about that process a bit.
Sure. Yeah. So the book is trying to catalog if you will, trauma, I think. Or I think often about the psychological texts, the body keeps the score. So there’s been recent movements in mental health work that suggests or understand that our body is actually recording or on a cellular level, on a physiological level, it’s keeping track of the traumas that we are experiencing.
Alison (19:51): And so in this collection, I tried to catalog both on the individual level, but also on the cultural, on the national level catastrophes, if you will, and give them language in trying to make sense of them. Trying to world build, document, to bear witness to a variety of different things that have happened to me both personally, but also on a larger scale. So from the micro to the macro and back and forth, and that’s what it ended up being I supposed. Yeah.
Laura (20:24): No, it definitely ended up being that. As somebody who’s read it multiple times. I can tell you that that was indeed accomplished. I like how you even brought science into what you just said too. In terms of the body, of the scientific evidence of your body holding trauma and how that influences how your body works or doesn’t work I guess. I never realized how much you hold both science and art so in tandem, so continuously, that’s amazing.
Laura (21:07): Well, I wonder since we’re speaking about your book, I wonder if we might end with you reading something that you’ve written, maybe either giving a shout out or reading something from a book that you’ve been loving lately. Does that sound all right?
Alison (21:23): Sure. I can do both or?
Laura (21:25): I would love if you did both. Would that be okay?
Alison (21:27): Sure. Yeah. Yeah. I’m teaching this spring a course called Black Environmental Literature at Colorado College. And I’ve decided that I want the class to focus on water. And so we’ll be reading a variety of texts, but I just finished Sarah M. Brooms’ The Yellow House, which is absolutely, absolutely phenomenal. So we’ll be looking at this. And I just started, I’m one-third of the way through Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake. And this book I was reading last night, I really wanted it to be a marine biologist, Laura.
Laura (22:04): Oh my God Alison.
Alison (22:07): I just wanted to be with the manatees particularly. I loved manatees. I just love marine animals, aquatic life. So I have all these books about like eels, cephalopods, so octopuses, squids, et cetera. And so I’ve been thinking a lot about water. And so I’m going to read from the book, a poem called “Water, No Get Enemy.” And this takes its title from the Nigerian musician, Fela Kuti, one of his songs. And I wrote this a few days after my mom’s birthday. And it was actually Dr. Seuss’s, we were celebrating Dr. Seuss’s birthday—
Laura (22:47): Oh my God.
Alison (22:48): My mom’s birthday. And then I heard the news of an indigenous natural resources, activist, Berta Cáceres, who was assassinated in Honduras. And it was the night before her birthday, I believe. And she was murdered in her home, in her bed. And so I started writing this poem, which takes its opening and closing lines from Carl Phillips’s work, who is the St. Louis legend at this point. So I thought I would read this one.
Alison (23:22): This is for Berta Cáceres, assassinated March, 2016, La Esperanza, Honduras.
“Water, No Get Enemy.”
I swam the field.
Her body everywhere- blue corn flowers.
A dam of rocks:
clattering at her feet, seashells
of bullets, collected from her hair. I sing
the body, hydro electric, if you wan to
go wash, na water you go use, blue
and damned, standing at the bank of the
Gualcarque River, telling it
to keep her name out its mouth.
The men came in the night:
the coffin of a constellation
on their shoulders. Sky full of five
pronged nails- dull and glimmering
at the same time. Trigger fingers
groped threats, unruly eyes
mirrored dark hands soiled with
terror and riddled with history’s teeth
Yellow thumbnails, smudged memory.
The men own even the rain:
Even the wet body, found with head full
of black curls rippling like waves. No need
to roll the stone away, these women
don’t rise on the third day, blinking in
the moonlight, wrapped in invisible
wire, like something beautiful
is gonna come.
I sing the body hydro electric:
if water kill your child, na water you go use.
Her flightless voice written on the sound
of water running, the sound of gunshots
pattering feet upstream. The blood
the last thing to come rushing, begging
to be taken back home. Flag hung.
The ribbon cut. Her lips aboard a ship
the sky rocking her broken hips to sleep.
The shore – hard and unforgiving.
The field lies down before us.
The morning sun-a mistaken flame.
Laura (25:56): Wow. Thank you so much. That was beautiful. I love the repetition in that. And yeah, just all the natural elements that, they’re just beautiful. Thank you so much. Really, thank you for being such a great guest. I really appreciate you being here and thank you everybody for watching. We will see you next time and do check out coppercanyonpress.org for all the other episodes. Thank you so much. Thank you, Alison. We’ll see you soon.