published in Volume 3, Issue 3 on July 8th, 1996
Pattiann Rogers is one of those poets who's hard not to run into inside of classes like poetry writing workshops as her poems are so vivid and funny and enlightening that good teachers know there's so much you can learn by seeing what she does and how she does it so succinctly and seemingly perfectly. So my getting a chance to see and hear her read at this past spring's Grand Forks Writer's Conference made the 8-hour drive from Omaha seem more than worth it. The reading was, of course, excellent, and since North Dakota isn't a state teeming with roving packs of interviewers, Morpo was able to con a quick talk with her afterward.
Morpo: In your poetry, there's a lot that's scientifically precise biologically botanically, zoologically, astronomically, anthropologically, everything. What do you think science has to offer poetry?
PR: Well, I guess I can't answer that for poetry in general; I can answer it for myself. Something that I said on the panel today is that I like the vocabulary of science for one thing. The words are interesting and evocative and beautiful and lyrical, especially names of flora and fauna and even words dealing with geology. I had a geology major who was talking to me today, and he loves the words associated with that science. It's really a massive vocabulary that has come through scientific research and study and it's continuing to grow; and scientists are imaginative about the words they give things, names like quarks and charm and subatomic particles, the names of constellations and processes. It's just a very wide range of vocabulary that isn't only words and names, but it's when you get them all together you begin to realize what a world we live in, how massive and full of infinite variety and detail; the study of one snail can occupy a lifetime, so I think that's all affirming and sustaining.
The process of science is exciting, and then on top of that is the story that science tells about who we are and the description of the physical world we live in, and I don't think that science is ever going to solve all the mysteries and I don't think scientists want to or believe that either, the best scientists, so there is still the spiritual side of our experience. I think that science for me is not a dead thing, and it's nothing even very certain because it's always changing, depending on new technology that allows experimenting in new areas, and I think that's an exciting thing too, that this story is constantly adapting itself, constantly opening up to include new information, then adjusting itself, so it's kind of like a living body of knowledge. Anyway, I don't know if that answers your question.
Morpo: Oh, definitely. And with all of that that you bring into your writing, the terminology and the precision of that, do you spend a lot of time researching poems or do you just run across things or do you just know this?
PR: I don't just know it.
Morpo: It'd be pretty amazing if you did!
PR: I wish I did, but I always like to make it clear that I'm not a scientist, and if I have something wrong in a poem--as far as factually correct goes--I like to be told because I don't want to be putting misinformation in my poems. But I did have a minor in zoology and I had this astronomy course that was very thorough and of course now there's a lot more information in both those fields than I studied as an undergraduate, but those courses gave me a grounding and gave me a sense of where to go to look for information if I needed it. So a lot of the poems do come from research. And then some do rise out of just coming across something either in a book or on television.
Scientists are making a bigger effort to write books that laymen can read, and that's just come about in the last twenty years, maybe, that we have a lot of books that are easy to read about research that's going on. So I think scientists realize the limitations of their research, that they are only dealing with very specific slices of experience and that art has always been the element where human beings try to fix some kind of meaning to our existence or our activities: what does this mean that we have a telescope orbiting the earth that now can see billions of new galaxies? What does that mean? Scientists can say, "Yes, this is what's happening and these are the new galaxies we've found," but what does it mean, and that's always what we crave as human beings, to know the value of what we're doing in a spiritual sense.
Morpo: In your poems, there's a lot of the sensual, the natural, and not as much intrusion by the man-made world--cars, automobiles--so what do you perceive, or do you perceive, technology offering your poetry, be it as a tool, as a subject matter, or does it at all?
PR: You know, I think about that quite a bit. I wish I could, I wish I could include the tools that we use in the 1990's in our daily lives, automobiles, microwaves, refrigerators, stoves, the whole thing, computers. I wish I knew how to do that. I don't know how to do it. I heard a writer say we write about what we can write about, and I think that's in some sense true. I did have one poem about computers in my first book. Another thing I can't write about is my children; I don't know how to get the stance I need to do that. The final questions I always come down to in my writing are why are we here, is this an accident or is there some purpose that we need to come closer to understanding, and that's the focus I try to get to. The natural world for some reason is a conduit for me to consider those questions. It's the arena in which I can best formulate those questions, and so that's where I go. And I guess any artist or musician, visual arts, or writer has a vision of the human experience, and whether it's Van Gogh or Georgia O'Keefe or Stravinsky or Tchaikovsy, we recognize their voice, their perceptions of the human experience. And it's individual and it's not in some ways all-inclusive. All artists have had to focus on what's to them most pertinent and most accessible.
Morpo: In some circle of poets that I've talked to, we've arrived at a theory that all poets at some point in their lives write about cows. Do you have any cow poetry?
PR: I thought you were going to get to something like, "All poets at some time in their lives contemplate suicide" or something. Oh my gosh, let me think; see, I do love cows; I used to drive back and forth between Houston and Austin, I was teaching at the University of Texas and I loved to watch the cows, and of course in that part of the country they have this luscious deep, rich green grass and I always think, oh, wouldn't it be so wonderful to be a cow and you would just be in this fence and that would be your world and you would have all this green grass and then there's that period of time when all the little calves are born so you drive by the field one day and there's so many cows and you drive by the next day and here are these wonderful white clean little things laying next to their big, fat mothers, and that's all thrilling. And then one time I saw these cows, you know I don't know what happens, but all of a sudden they decide it's time, they're going to go wherever the feed is or something, and here is this big, gray bull with these big horns and he was slowly sauntering along and here's this long line of cows behind him. But anyway, they all decided now's the time and we are going to walk. Well, anyway, those are cow stories. I'm trying to think if I do have a cow in a poem. I don't know, I should. But every poet you've talked to has a cow poem? Hmm. I'm gonna have to think about that, I'll have to answer you later as a yes or no because I can't off the top of my head even think of a reference to a cow. Now that'll ruin your theory.
Morpo: It will. Well, there's still time, you can still write one; you're not done yet.
PR: I'm not dead yet!
Morpo: Yah, it'll come. One thing we get a lot at The Morpo Review, mixed in with the poetry we receive, and the short stories, we get a fair amount of young writers sending us young, rough poetry and stories. Could you tell a little about some of the first poems you wrote, some of the earliest, like where did they come from, how good were they, I guess just kind of tracing a little bit of your development into writing; what were some of those first steps?
PR: Well, let me say first of all that learning to write poems is the same as learning to do anything well. You have to know that you will make a lot of mistakes and that there will be failures, and you have to accept that and you are writing because you love to do it not because you are immediately going to be published in the New Yorker. It's the same if you are beginning to play the piano. You're not going to sit down and immediately play a Chopin polonaise. You are going to work up to this. But you love to play the piano and so the practicing is all right, you love it, you love to do it. And sometimes that's hard because you do want immediate success, you want to be Michael Jordan immediately when you take the basketball in your hands. In my early writing in high school, I had a class in which the English teacher wanted us to write just single paragraphs, and I realize now it was like a form because she wanted the topic sentence, then several sentences following that, and then the concluding sentence, so it was like a little form. A poem is a form. And it had to be concise and tight because what we had to say had to be said in this paragraph, and we had to introduce it, we had to develop it, then we had to not repeat the topic sentence or beginning sentence but have a different sentence at the end, and I loved doing that. And so that was something I found that I loved to do and it was writing and it was trying to write so that I said a lot in a few words which is one of the aims of poetry. Then I had a course as an undergraduate called Verse Writing and we had to write two poems every week in an assigned form, it was either a sonnet or a vilanelle or a sestina, no free verse in that class. And I learned that I could do something that other people either couldn't do or found very, very difficult; so, I not only liked to do it but I found that I could do it and, so those poems were not terrific, but they did teach me a lot about language because I had to scan them and learn how words are falling in accented and unaccented beats and I had to rhyme at the end of the line so I had to, you know, manipulate the language to get something said in rhyme. And so that was a lot of good exercise and study and I actually did get some of those poems out recently and look at them and it's amazing how some of the themes that I'm still working with were there in those early poems--not very well stated and not very well expanded upon, but they're in those early poems. So I don't know if that's helpful, but I think Auden was asked "what is the one thing a young poet must have, what's the one quality a young poet must have," and whenever I ask this of students they give a lot of answers like "imagination," or "some truths they want to tell" or something like that; but the answer is, and it's the right one, they must have a love of language. You must love the language, love words, love the way they sound and feel in your mouth. And if you do love language then you're well on your way to being a good writer.