Thursday, October 14, 2021 7:15 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.
Bree A. Rolfe will be reading from her new collection, Who’s Going To Love the Dying Girl (Unsolicited Press, release date September 30, 2021).
Bree A. Rolfe lives in Austin, Texas, where she teaches writing and literature to the mostly reluctant, but always loveable, teenagers at James Bowie High School. She is originally form Boston, Massachusetts, where she worked as a music journalist for 10 years before she decided she wanted to dedicate her life to writing poetry and teaching. Her work has appeared in Saul Williams’s poetry anthology, Chorus: A Literary Mixtape, the Barefoot Muse anthology, Forgetting Home: Poems about Alzheimer’s, the Redpaint Hill anthology, Mother is a Verb, and 5 AM Magazine. She holds an MFA from the Writing Seminars at Bennington College. Who’s Going To Love the Dying Girl is her first chapbook. http://breerolfe.com
CH: What is your first memory of poetry? When did you begin to think of yourself as a writer?
BAR: My earliest memory of poetry is probably in elementary school. I don’t know if I even remember what grade it was, but we read Shel Silverstein and I was completely in love. I think it’s interesting because I started with poetry from a place that was very funny and lighthearted, and I think, in a lot of ways, I ended up back there. In the middle, there were a lot of dark poems written, but I think now my work has a hint of the Silverstein I loved as a kid. I am not sure when I began to think of myself as a writer. I mean I am not even sure I even think that now, but I guess I became more serious, or rather too serious, about writing poetry in middle school. I had a wonderful teacher, Bonnie Staiger, who inspired me to write poems. In fact, I dedicated my book to her because it really was in her classroom that began a “writer’s life.” Since middle school, the poems have always been there for me. Obviously, not as a profession or anything like that, but as a practice or in the spiritual sense. Some people have religion. I have poems.
CH: In addition to your poetry, I’ve had the pleasure of reading some of your non-fiction articles (“Imposter,” published in the journal Lunch Ticket), is just knock-out amazing, imho). How would you describe yourself as a writer? Do you have a “primary” writer identity?
BAR: I’d say primarily I am a poet. Most of the writing I do that feels close to my soul is poetry. I don’t have the attention span required for writing essays on a regular basis. I have done journalism work in the past and I like that work, but it’s not part of my identity. For better or worse, I am a poet, which is frustrating at times because, let’s face it, poetry is not that lucrative or popular.
CH: I understand you were a music journalist before you turned to poetry. How did that experience help shape the work you create as a poet?
BAR: Well, to be honest, music journalism sort of came to me after poetry. I wrote poetry first as a young person. I think I developed the passions for both simultaneously in high school. When I decided on a college major, I decided to major in journalism because I thought it was more practical, which is kind of hilarious as neither pursuit is actually all that practical. However, I took upper level poetry workshops all through college. I just so happened to get paid for writing about music and so that was more of a professional focus. However, my music writing and my love of music has always fed my poetry. My interest is mostly tied up in lyrics, which are a kind of poetry. I love how connected and comforted I have felt over the years by the artists I love. Music is kind of always in the background of my life. I have a lot of musician friends and their work continually inspires me and my own poetry. I use music in writing exercises when I am stuck. It’s shaped my work by being a point of access and a thread that I think reaches out to others who know and connect to the music I love. It creates a common ground. Also, it’s something that is integral in some of the relationships I write about. Growing up, the music of the sixties and seventies was like a religion in my house. My happiest childhood memories involve listening to music with my parents. I feel like when we couldn’t understand one another, we could always connect through music. That was deeply important to me and so it ends up in the poems.
CH: What motivated you to get your MFA? How did you choose Bennington?
BAR: So, when I decided to go to Bennington, I was in a dark place mentally and professionally. After undergraduate school, I sort of just worked corporate jobs and wrote about music on the side and after doing that for like almost a decade, I was over it. I’d been working in the marketing department of a company that manufactured police uniforms and outerwear. It was awful and I worked with a lot of really conservative people and the job was just kind of soul crushing in many ways. I started taking poetry workshops at the Boston and Cambridge Centers for Adult Education. I just got more serious about poetry again to keep from going completely insane. I needed an outlet. Then I had, believe it or not, a LiveJournal friend who had applied to Bennington and gotten in. I didn’t even know what a low residency was at the time, but when I learned about it, graduate school became an option for me. I needed to work full time, so traditional grad school was not even feasible. I went to visit that friend during a summer residency. I met a lot of people in the program and I went to some faculty readings. I chose Bennington because I had experienced the program and I saw Jason Shinder read and he blew me away. I wanted to work with him and so I applied there.
CH: What has been the greatest gift of the MFA? Its greatest drawback?
BAR: The greatest gift of my MFA has been the friendships and connections I have made. Look, MFAs are not cheap and I am not sure if I can say it was “worth” the money in any practical sense. However, you can’t put a price tag on relationships. Also, without it, I wouldn’t still be writing and publishing and I am certain of that fact. I needed the structure. The major drawback for me is that apparently local community colleges don’t like my low residency transcript and won’t let me teach composition classes (even dual credit at the high school I taught at) despite the fact that I have a graduate degree and decades of experience publishing journalism.
CH: Congratulations on the publication of Who’s Going To Love the Dying Girl? Tell us a little about the book.
BAR: It’s a book that is grappling with, what at the time, was a life threatening illness. It is mostly about trying to figure out how to navigate life and relationships when faced with the possibility of dying. That sounds a bit more dark than I think the book is, but it’s essentially about these issues. I think, even more so, it’s about how you decide to carry on and how it changes you as a person.
CH: What did you learn in the process of writing and sequencing the book? What was your process in finding a publisher?
BAR: I learned that I don’t like sequencing books and I have no idea how to do it. I did sequencing by taping it to my walls in my living room and physically moving poems all around. When I finally came up with an order, I decided I needed help. So, I then passed it on to my poetry sisters Judy Jensen & Tina Posner who were gracious and kind and more helpful than I deserved. So, they both gave me some orders. I had longer, full length versions of the book and they helped me cut it down to a chapbook size for a few contests that I, of course, didn’t win. But the “order” was largely their doing. So, I learned to get help from friends. As for a publisher, I sent it to a few contests, but being a high school teacher, fees are a barrier, so it wasn’t a ton. It got rejected. A lot. I was actually about to just give up on ever getting it published. So, I stopped sending it out for a while and then started actively looking again. And honestly, I have no idea how I found Unsolicited Press, but I clicked on their website and it said, “No bullshit. Just Books,” and I knew that was the home for my book. Their submission guidelines and how they presented them were just so much the way I write and think about poetry. I just felt like “these are my people.” I am just so freaking grateful they saw something in my work. I am really proud to be alongside all of the other stellar work they’ve published.
CH: I know your “day job” is as a high school teacher of English and creative writing. How has this work influenced your writing? What have you learned from your students?
BAR: I learn from my students every single day. Their resilience and their strength is often overwhelming. I have had students over the years who have had lives that have been filled with more challenges as teenagers than most people experience in a lifetime. They have reminded me to shut up and stop complaining and live the best life I possibly can even when it’s hard. I have also learned that processing through writing is so very important and so often vital. Working with my students and guiding them through their journeys has been the greatest gift of my life. Helping them find their voices has strengthened my own writing voice. They also have helped remind me that writing should be collaborative and fun. It doesn’t always need to be serious. And to quote my former teacher Jason Shinder, “find what brings you joy.” My writing developed so much more humor and joy since I became a teacher. High school students are always good for making me laugh at myself. I appreciate them so freaking much.
CH: It often seems that by the time a book is published, other items are in the works. What are you working on now?
BAR: Well, I have a full length collection titled The Best Bad Idea You’ve Had in Months (a title stolen from a line from a poem by Jill Alexander Essbaum) that I’ve submitted to a few places. I am still waiting on collecting more rejections for that one. It has a lot of poems that again deal with my fumbling through life making mistakes and there’s an even more obvious thread of music throughout it. After it gets rejected from everywhere it’s currently out at, then I will rework it and just keep trying. I also want to do some found(ish) poems based on this How to be a Lady book by Candance Simpson-Giles. A friend of mine bought it from Brooks Brothers and showed it to me when I was visiting her and I was just so amused by it. So, that’s one of those fun projects that I think I need to get into soon because times are really hard right now for us teachers. I need something to bring me some lightness.
CH: What is the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?
Eileen G’Sell’s Portrait of My Ex with Giant Burrito (note: PDF access generously provided by BOAAT Press). And it is incredible. Everyone should go read it now.