Rebecca Hart Olander is a poet, teacher, editor, and publisher whose first book-length collection Uncertain Acrobats was released in November 2021 by CavanKerry Press. She is also the author of the chapbook Dressing the Wounds, published by dancing girl press in 2019. In recent years, Rebecca has received praise and awards for her poetry from various journals and literary associations, and she was granted a Straw Dog Writers Guild writing residency in 2019. She is also a member of the English Faculty at Westfield State University, where she teaches classes in composition and creative writing, and she is the Editor/Director of Perugia Press, a nonprofit press that publishes one book each year as the winner of the Perugia Press Prize, an annual national contest for first or second books of poetry by women. Rebecca is the Featured Author for the May 2022 edition of Writers Night Out.
SDWG: The title of your book reminds me of one of the late Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s best-known poems “Constantly Risking Absurdity”, in which he compares the poet to a high wire or trapeze performer, one who is always attempting amazing feats while on the verge of disaster. This is not to suggest that Uncertain Acrobats is topically or thematically similar, but I wonder if you see some truth for yourself and your work in Ferlinghetti’s metaphor.
RHO: Thank you for that question. Ferlinghetti’s Coney Island of the Mind was a book I got turned on to in high school, so he was an early inspiration for me. The poems in my book Uncertain Acrobats describe the high wire of life itself, particularly in confronting life’s inevitable companion experience: death. They enact the attempt to find balance while living through death and grief. Ferlinghetti writes that poets perform their acrobatics “all without mistaking / any thing / for what it may not be,” which in a way does speak to my approach to poetry. I write very much in the realm of what is; I try to address true things in my poems that otherwise may not want to be discussed or are hard to talk about. He also writes, “Beauty stands and waits / with gravity / to start her death-defying leap” – this stance of Beauty, capital B, beside gravity is very much my aim in writing poetry. And poems, even when concerned with death, do defy death as art can, by memorializing the gone and by lasting beyond a temporal moment. I haven’t spent a lot of time with Ferlinghetti since I was a teenager, but I love that you brought him back to me in this way and, yes, he’s there in the fabric of my work.
SDWG: It does seem like there’s a balancing act going both within and between your poems – trying to understand the incomprehensible, or getting one’s spiritual and emotional arms around the infinite and ineffable, yet doing so without trying to limit or diminish it through definition. This seems like a tension in and between many of your poems. I’m thinking of this duality when I compare two poems like “Malum” and “Why I Became an English Teacher”.
RHO: I’ve always been annoyed by being asked to put things in easily classified boxes, or by being told that, say, a symbol in literature can only mean one thing to the writer and, in turn, the reader (which is what “Why I Became an English Teacher” is about). I don’t find intention to be always at work in writing anyway, and I am more compelled by surprise in poems. I love your description of wrapping “spiritual and emotional arms” around what one is trying to capture and understand in a poem. That very capturing runs the risk of missing an essence, I think, which is how I felt literary deconstruction operated when I was first introduced to the practice. Rather than it feeling exciting or stimulating, it felt like it turned literature into math equations and reduced writing not to an essence but to rubble. Instead of widening a lens, I felt it trained it too specifically and burned away beauty. I grew out of that somewhat, but I suppose I do try to resist killing things through writing about them. Maybe what that looks like on the page is trying to not wrap up poems with bows at the end or trying to leave some surprise for the reader or trying not to edit out all the strangeness in poems during the revision process.
SDWG: You said in our earlier conversation that the idea of time has a consistent pull for you as a poet, yet the poems I’ve read don’t seem to speak to this overtly or directly. Can you help me by describing a poem that manages this balance of “dwelling in the terrain of life” as you’ve said, while also addressing the abstraction of time – its laws and imperatives, if you will?
RHO: Many of the poems in Uncertain Acrobats do this work because they are primarily about life with my father, the loss of him to cancer at 68, and my grief in the wake of his death. In “Without You, I’m an Out-of-Work Engineer,” I write, “Memory’s suitcase swells with letters of diminishing graphite and ink, book bindings that disintegrate as I navigate, searching for your hand in the margins.” In “The Acolyte at My Door Asks Me, How Do You Pray?” I ask, “I’m making / a life without, all the clocks ticking the same songs as when / you were alive. How does the world sound the same, / run by its consistent engines, though everything has changed?” It’s a near constant obsession of mine to wonder about time’s passing and how that affects memory, our relationships, and our grasp on ourselves in terms of what alters over time and what remains constant.
SDWG: The word respect also came up when we were talking earlier. Can you fold the idea of respect into this balance? When one writes about hard things like loss and grief, as you’ve often chosen (or have been chosen?) to do, how does respect, as you understand it, help you do this difficult work? How does one invoke respect for the subject of a poem? Where do you see the results of doing so in the poem itself?
RHO: I think of respect as being involved in tending to one’s grief and paying attention to those we’ve lost. Respect to the processes of loss and missing and grieving. Leaning into that feels respectful in that it gives proper attention to an immeasurable loss and illustrates its gravity. When I think of my father and of me living on in his wake, or of anyone any of us loved and lost, I think that these people that mattered so much to us would want us to live on in their stead, not to be so mired in our grief that we are paralyzed by it. So it’s also respectful to keep engaging in life. But poetry helps us to dwell in the missing while also aiding in the movement through it and toward the other side. Such poems are made in tribute to the measure of a loved one’s meaning in our lives, so there’s respect there. I was lucky enough to have the poet Baron Wormser write the foreword to Uncertain Acrobats, and he noted that when I “confront the ravages of absence” in my poems, this “acknowledgment is part of the respect and devotion due to her dead father.” That meant the world to me.
SDWG: Regarding a more practical aspect of time: you are incredibly busy. How do you incorporate the practice and process of a poet into your other commitments – or maybe it’s the other way around? Do you have a very disciplined schedule for your writing that keeps it from being stalled by your editing and teaching responsibilities?
RHO: No, I don’t have a disciplined schedule and my writing does, in fact, become stalled when I am busy with other responsibilities. I’ve come to understand that writing comes back after lying fallow, and also that there are many ways to feed oneself as a writer. So, if having the mindset for concentrating on generating writing is not possible, I assume my writer self is percolating or composting experiences that will come to the page when ready. Reading is the best trigger for new work, so reading through my work as an editor and teacher certainly feels fruitful. I feel strongly about being a good literary citizen too, so attending readings and reading fellow poets’ new work are important endeavors for which I do carve out time. Then between semesters, when I have more time and headspace to compose, I am even more grateful after having been kept from it for a spell.
SDWG: I’m sure that your roles as teacher and editor also offer nearly constant sources of inspiration and new ideas for your own work. Can you give us a picture of how a class or a student, or working as editor with one of the award winners at Perugia Press has brought something new to your own poetry?
RHO: In the past couple of years in my teaching practice, I’ve gotten more invested in welcoming linguistic diversity and rooting out linguistic racism. In working to create courses that celebrate multilingualism, I’ve curated readings and sparked conversations and retooled my pedagogy to invite the inclusion of languages beyond “standard” English into writing assignments and classroom spaces. In my composition and creative writing classes, there is now a deeper sense that a plurality of languages are valued; this manifests in students sharing their language stories and skills with each other and incorporating multiple languages into their poetry and essays, from Jamaican Patois, to Arabic, to Portuguese, to ASL, and more. This has happened in tandem with the publication of Perugia Press’s last two books, Now in Color and Through a Red Place, which investigate languages through the self-definition and reclamation of Spanish and Mohegan, respectively. And my teaching and editing lives cross-pollinate when planning programming for both the press and Westfield State. For my own poetry, this presently comes less to the page than into my philosophy about language. It reminds me of the beauty of the sound and shape of words at a cellular level. It reminds me to listen with openness and appreciation to others who express themselves differently than I do. And it reminds me that, despite rejections and the marginal nature of poetry in the larger literary world, being afforded the space to communicate and be heard is something I do from a place of privilege.
SDWG: You’ve been involved with a couple of writing groups for quite a long time. How have these commitments helped your poetry? In what different ways do each of these groups help your work? Can you describe an example of a poem which benefited from the input you received from one of your groups?
RHO: I don’t think I can name a poem that didn’t benefit from being read by my writing group mates! In the first place, being in writing groups forces me to find time to do my “homework” – writing, typing, and revising my work to share. If I didn’t have deadlines to be responsible for in this way, I might not write anything at all during the academic year. It’s essential to read one’s work in progress aloud, and bringing my work to my groups provides that opportunity, giving me perspective on what is working or not for an audience. Also, it creates companionship through the writing life, which is a comfort. To spend time with others who are also invested deeply in a creative pursuit is a gift.
SDWG: Your poems employ a really wide variety of forms and styles, and my guess is that you have a tactical approach to them. By this I mean that the poem’s form and style is a result of the poem’s subject and idea, as opposed to trying to insert a poetic idea into a given form. If I’m correct in this, could you describe an example of a poem where the form has evolved in the course of its development?
RHO: The poem “Return to Great Meadows,” the last poem in Uncertain Acrobats, has a physical caesura running through the center of the poem, enacting a chasm on the page, which is evocative of the landscape described in the poem as well as the rent torn into one’s life upon the death of a loved one. My faculty mentor at VCFA, Betsy Sholl, nudged me to lean into the rift on the page in revision. I hadn’t created the poem-long break down the middle of the page, and I didn’t even know the word caesura, but she suggested in an early draft that I widen and extend the gaps I’d begun to articulate, in order to accentuate the emotional core of the poem. But, form has also been clutch for me as a way to get words on the page when I’m struggling to write, most often lately with the Golden Shovel form. Though none appear in my book, I’ve written those more than any other form in the last years, and they often serve to help me approach content that I have otherwise not been able to pin down in a poem (for example, these Golden Shovels of mine published recently in Jet Fuel Review).
SDWG: You’ve mentioned Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and the poetry of Sylvia Plath as major inspirations for you when you were young. Could you name a couple authors who have influenced or inspired your own poetry more recently, and describe how each of them has done so? Are there any poets or kinds of poetry that you’ve “moved past” or find yourself avoiding now? If so, why or how do you think this has happened?
RHO: Eliot and Plath have actually deepened as touchstones for me as I learned later in life of their connection to the North Shore of Massachusetts, where I grew up. Poets who also write in the realm of grief whose work I admire are Deborah Digges (an excerpt from her book Trapeze is the epigraph for Uncertain Acrobats) and Rachel Eliza Griffiths (her recent book Seeing the Body, written in the wake of her mother’s death, is stunning). I’m looking forward to reading local poet Marie Gauthier’s just-published book Leave No Wake as I know I will find familiar as well as fresh ground to spend time with in her pages. I’m blessed to be in writing communities with amazing women poets who have recent books that feature strength, bravery, creativity, beauty, and imaginative leaps in so many inspiring ways. To name just a few: Kali Lightfoot’s Pelted by Flowers, Jennifer Martelli’s Queen of Queens, Adin Thayer’s The Close World, Sharon Tracey’s Chroma: Five Centuries of Women Artists, Cindy Veach’s Her Kind, and Abigail Warren’s Inexact Grace. I am so lucky to get to share work with these women. And I am struck with awe each month when I spend time in the pages of a book by one of the poets we’ve featured at Perugia Press in our “Emerging BIWOC Poet Spotlight.” It’s hard to single out just one or two poets from that series that I admire, so I recommend checking out the archive of posts we’ve published monthly since September 2020.
SDWG: What have you been working on most recently? Are you finding your way toward a second collection? Without a spoiler of course, what can we expect to hear during your reading at WNO?
RHO: Yes, I have a second collection out for submission. It’s also very personal and does tread along a similar tightrope of love and loss in parts of the book. My best friend of 30 years died of breast cancer in 2020, just before the pandemic, so the manuscript has a group of poems steeped in friendship and elegy. It’s also more wide-ranging, from my adoration for the Atlantic coast where I primarily came of age, to motherhood, to the complicated human world we are part of, to the earth we share and affect. For my reading at WNO, I’ll mostly read from Uncertain Acrobats. At each reading, I like to include some pieces I haven’t read before from the book, and I’ll weave in a couple of new poems for good measure.
Readers can sign up to attend the May edition of Writers Night Out (hosted on Zoom, on Tuesday May 3rd, from 7:00 – 9:00 p.m.) here: SDWG Writers Night Out featuring Rebecca Hart Olander
Examples of Rebecca’s poems, points of purchase for her books, reviews of her work, and information about her public appearances and Perugia Press are available on her website: Rebecca Hart Olander
You can also purchase Uncertain Acrobats through CavanKerry Press: Uncertain Acrobats
Dressing the Wounds is also available from dancing girl press: Dressing the Wounds
Interviewer: Mark Luebbers, Straw Dog Writers Guild member
Mark Luebbers is a teacher and writer living in Greenfield, Massachusetts. His work focuses on nature and the environment, the lives of eccentric and creative figures from history, and living in America. Mark has published poems in a number of journals and magazines in recent years, including The American Journal of Poetry, The Journal of Americana, Wayfarer Magazine, Apple Valley Review, Blue Line, and The Hopper. In 2018, Mark was nominated for two Pushcart Prizes. “Flat Light”, his first collection, was published in 2020 by Urban Farmhouse Press. “Citizens of Ordinary Time”, a collection of biographical and ekphrastic poems written in collaboration with Ben Goluboff, is forthcoming, also from UFP.