Yemassee Interview: 5 Questions with Rebecca Hart Olander
1. How would you describe your journey as a poet?
I’ve been writing since I was a child, and writing poetry avidly since I was an undergrad. But I couldn’t claim I was a poet without qualifiers till I went for my MFA. It wasn’t about the degree as much as the community I found through my program. I remember standing up to introduce myself on my first day at Vermont College of Fine Arts in the summer of 2013. As first-semester students, we were each asked to say our names and genres; saying out loud that I was a poet was like a twelve-step-meeting stage toward owning my truth. It was also just regular, like my name, or the fact that I have brown eyes, which was actually a radical feeling. There was something so powerful about hanging around with other writers in an intense way for a couple of years that really altered me. I’m less apologetic now, and more serious about my craft, and yet play and experimentation were also big aspects of my work there, which may not seem to go hand-in-hand with seriousness, but they do. Reading more deeply than I ever had, both poetry and about poetry, also contributed greatly to my growth as a poet during my MFA program.
2. What kind of poems/poets are you most drawn to?
Women poets top my list (though I wouldn’t want to try to start naming favorites because that feels like picking teams for gym class). That’s partially because I am the editor/director of a press that publishes women poets (Perugia Press), but it’s also because the work of being a woman in this world is part of what I am engaged in as a person and in my writing, so I gravitate to others trying to voice that as well. I like poems about motherhood that aren’t sentimental but also aren’t trying to avoid feelings like joy. And I appreciate poems that let inherent darkness and shadows show, alongside beauty. Questions are big for me in poems, too. They lend energy, expanse, and humility and leave room for the reader.
3. Has there been a particular something (idea/image/phrase/quote/obsession) knocking around in your head lately?
The latest words and images that have found their way onto scraps of paper and napkins in my jacket pocket are “trine” and “musth” from a Boggle opponent; those white marks some people get on fingernails which my son told me he always thought of as clouds; and some nautical terms I talked about with a guy working at the tire shop after I got a flat the other day. I like mining the etymology of words, and I love writing ekphrasis. I’m a big fan of prompts because they get me generating and going to unexpected places in my work. I often get inspiration from the newspaper and NPR stories. Something I hear will remind me of another thing and begin to make a potential metaphor.
4. Can you talk about your poem “Seneca Deer” and how it came to be?
That one came from a newspaper, actually. I’m often attracted to things that don’t chime, but rather clang in juxtaposition. I thought it was so interesting that where war was once the work of an area, there had been a rebirth, but even that new life was kind of haunting in its imagery. The poem is in part about healing, but it’s also an open-wound poem, written in our time when fear is running loose and wild. When I was younger, I spent some summer times with my paternal grandparents by a lake in the Adirondacks. There was a white deer there that I’ve tried to write about since. It was near mythic and captured my imagination as a girl, and these Seneca deer also reminded me of my old touchstone.
5. If you could share one piece of advice with your fellow poets, what would it be?
Collaborate. Poems often happen for me when two images come into alignment that weren’t before, so two minds relating in a creative way is also a fruitful way to produce poetic sparks. There’s a democracy in collaboration, and unexpected ways of stretching, and a hearty dose of fun. If you can find a partner to make work with regularly, it can help you to be more responsible to your writing because someone else is anticipating your work. It can also help you let go of being precious about your work because you are usually showing each other fresh-made poems. I think of translation, and ekphrasis, as forms of collaboration as well, that can produce a similar energy to what I’ve found when producing work with a partner, so those are ways of making that can be employed even if you don’t have another person to write with at the moment.
Rebecca Hart Olander’s poetry has appeared recently in Brilliant Corners, Naugatuck River Review, and Silkworm, and her critical work has appeared in Rain Taxi Review of Books and Solstice Literary Magazine. She was the winner of the 2013 Women’s National Book Association poetry contest, judged by Molly Peacock. Rebecca lives in Western Massachusetts where she teaches writing at Westfield State University and serves on the board of Perugia Press. You can find her at rebeccahartolander.com.