Thursday, February 10, 2022 7:15 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.
Features KB Brookins and Renée Rossi will be reading to celebrate their recently-released titles from Kallisto-Gaia Press.
Renée Rossi’s chapbook, Motherboard, was selected as runner-up in the 2021 Saguaro Poetry Prize contest. Rossi has published the full-length poetry collection, Triage, and two additional chapbooks: Third Worlds, and Still Life, winner of the Gertrude Press Poetry Prize. A native of Detroit, she currently divides her time between the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont and other places she finds compelling.
CH: What is your first memory of poetry? What draws you to it?
RR: My first memory of poetry was really in high school English, and it was mostly formal poetry (aka Emily Dickinson) and, also, I would read Kahlil Gibran. As a kid, I read novels and Scientific American, and other arcana. I love the use of imagery in poetry, but I also am really drawn to all the moving parts that happen simultaneously in good poems: syntax, diction, imagery, meter, sound etc., and that it is a venue for the creative expression of feelings.
CH: When did you first begin to think of yourself as a writer? as a poet?
RR: When I was practicing in Boston in the early 90s I was able to take some night classes in essay writing and poetry. I was also writing some technical medical articles at the time that for medical journals. I have always written in personal journals, and sometimes it’s just snippets of images, found language from reading, or overheard conversation bits. I see myself more as a creative person than anything. I also love the art of collage making and really began to see poetry making as a type of collage making.
CH: I understand you’ve had a career in medicine, and I know that puts you in excellent company (I’m thinking here of Dr. Rafael Campo and William Carlos Williams, among others). How would you describe the intersection of your interest in human health with your interest in poetry?
RR: I practiced surgery (Otolaryngology) for many years, but I also pursued a master’s degree in Ayurveda (one of the oldest forms of holistic medicine) so there’s an “integrative” bent. I have always been interested in how illness can be a manifestation of the mind (particularly in holistic medicine) — Hippocrates famously said “look not at the disease a man has, rather the man who has the disease.” I also believe my work serves as an investigation of our transience. In medical school, they told us we would be adding 20,000 new words to our vocabulary…how could I not use some of those Latinate words in my writing? I think it’s kind of magical to weave medical terminology into poetry…sometimes, it almost feels like code switching.
CH: I understand you received an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. How did you decide on that path? How did your studies there affect your writing?
RR: About 20 years ago I had a near death experience in a rollover car accident right after my mother’s death and I had to take a year off from working because I couldn’t fully use my arms. That didn’t work for a surgeon! I started writing in earnest and was involved in a community writing center, the Writers Garret, in Dallas. The late Jack Myers suggested I think about VCFA. I think more than anything the opportunity to attend the low residency MFA and engage with serious writers from all genres was an absolute gift, and so inspirational. We would be immersed together in writing, attending lectures, reading our work, etc. for ten days straight twice a year and it was a chance to dig deeply into the writing life and to have a vibrant exchange of ideas with others that just doesn’t happen in everyday life.
CH: Your chapbook, Still Life (Gertrude Press, 2009), was the winner of the 2009 Gertrude Chapbook Poetry Competition, and your chapbook Third Worlds was published by Finishing Line Press in 2011. Please tell us a little about these earlier chapbooks. What changed for you in collecting Third Worlds? What was the same?
RR: While at the Writers Garret I took a class on making chapbooks with Joe Ahearn which was fantastic. Though I scrapped my first chapbook, I really found that the chapbook length was ideal for selecting poems thematically and practically for organizing. I know some writers write thematically from the start. I don’t. I let the ideas come to me organically for the most part. Both of the chapbooks were generated mostly from material after my MFA. The first time I sent out Still Life to contests, it received a few finalist nods. I kept revising it and sending it out again. Finishing Line Press also accepted Still Life, just as I was about to withdraw it. They asked if I’d send some more work and that ended up being Third Worlds, so the work in those first two chapbooks evolved simultaneously.
CH: Your full-length collection, Triage, was published by Lost Horse Press in 2016. Please tell us a little about this book and how it came about. What did you learn from the process of putting together this full-length collection?
RR: About half of the poems in Triage came from the first two chapbooks and the rest was newer material. The word triage comes from the French verb trier, to sort. But it also has the connotation from WWI battlefields in its current usage in western medicine –which is to triage patients into three groups: those who will make it without any intervention, those who will not make it regardless of intervention, and a third group who will make it only with intervention. To triage basically was to identify that third group and prioritize helping them. I think it also works for poems! I put the book together keeping in mind the concept of three thematically and ended up intertwining or braiding when I put the poems together: medical poems, origin poems, abstract poems, etc. Only selecting about a third of the poems I had on hand! I remember having printed poems all over the floor for awhile in the living room and just moving them around to braid them. For Triage, I sent out the manuscript to several presses cold and a couple contests. I really liked how Christina Holbert at LHP put together her books—it’s an art form for her, and I appreciate how the book came out aesthetically.
CH: Congratulations on the publication of Motherboard, runner-up for the 2021 Saguaro Poetry Prize. Tell us a little about this new work. What was the inspiration for this collection? Over what period were the poems written?
RR: The poems for Motherboard were mostly written after 2016, however, a few were older. I think the inspiration for this work was a meditation on the concept of “mother” in a universal sense, and I started to see poems with that theme aggregating. Everyone has a mother, and most animal species do as well. But, I didn’t start thinking of it that way originally— it came about organically as I have “phased out” of motherhood (my sons are both in their 20s now!) and am entering the crone stage of life. Being a mother was singularly the most important experience in my life and I wanted to pay homage to that from the ground up in all its joy, trauma, trials, and beauty. During the pandemic, I had some extra time to work on revising the poems for the manuscript.
CH: How do you see your development as a writer over time?
RR: I see it as an evolutionary process and for me, being true to voice seems to be most important, whether I’m writing a narrative, figurative, or persona poem. Writing has been a way for me to try and understand the ineffable in life, to have a conversation with the universe. To send a postcard to the universe.
CH: What are you working on now?
RR: I have become more interested in writing persona poems, ekphrastic poems, and honing the image narrative. I think it’s a real challenge to write a persona poem that maintains the writer’s voice and doesn’t sound like it’s been misappropriated or disingenuous.
CH: What’s the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?
RR: Devon Walker-Figueroa’s Philomath, which won the National Poetry Series award. It’s a wonderful figurative rumination about a ruined place. I adore the title and its double meaning; the name of a town which is anything but “a place of learning” as the place one hails from.