This month's featured poet is Gretchen Rockwell, whose "Party Conversations: A Quarto" and "Under the Skin" you can read here. Join Jacqueline as she talks to xer about slippages of language, doubleness, a writer's changing relationship to language in the midst of trauma.
Jacqueline Boucher: I have a deep passion for the intersection of medicine/biology and poetry, which was on display in full force in “Under the Skin.” The diction in that piece is striking. Can you speak a bit to the creation of that piece?
Gretchen Rockwell: I also have a deep passion for that! If you like that kind of thing, you may also like my microchapbook Thanatology from Ghost City Press’s 2020 Summer Series, which is all about forensic anthropology, biology/history, and what we learn from the (dead) body.
When I sat down to write “Under the Skin” in late 2019, I was thinking about poems that have a sudden turn in their last line, such as Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” and Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.” So that was actually where the poem started, with me wanting to write a poem that did the same thing.
I wasn’t sure where to begin, but as I started thinking about things I like to write about, I realized I’d written multiple poems about disease and death and moved from there. I just let myself write and play with words, sound, and phrase while drafting before coming back to polish it—though when it started taking shape as a prose poem, I knew I really had to be precise with my sonics and diction, since that’s a fundamental component of prose poems to me.
JB: “Party Conversation: A Quarto” is ambitious in the way that its form allows for multiple readings, which does amazing things to bolster the anxiety in the piece. What role, if any, does the slippage of meaning or unsteadiness play in your writing?
GR: A poet friend once described my writing as having a lot of duplicity—in the original sense of “doubleness,” or multiple meanings—so yes, shifting of meaning plays a major role in my poetry. I care a lot about line breaks and being able to read lines in different ways—I like when a poem gives me that fluidity and duality as I move through it, both as a writer and a reader.
While I think my writing frequently takes a declarative or informative tone, I always want there to be some nuance or mutability in it, and that almost always comes through in the lines and form of the poem. My quarto form is the pinnacle of that, really, as it’s written to be read four ways.
JB: Obviously, this winter is unlike anything we’ve experienced before. How has your relationship to writing and creativity changed in the last year?
GR: For one thing, my letter-writing has really flourished! It’s strange because this year, I’ve done the most poetry writing I’ve ever done, including two poem-a-day months—yet at the same time, I’ve felt absolutely uncreative and have been suffering from what I’ve been calling “goldfish brain,” where it feels like I can’t hold onto a thought for more than a few seconds, much less write anything.
While the poetry has cumulatively added up, it’s been extremely hard to write anything day by day, and I often feel totally unable to write, read, or submit work. I’ve frequently had to remind myself that not everything I write has to be good, and more importantly, that my identity and accomplishment as a poet does not lie in being able to continually produce and present poetry.
JB: What are you reading right now that excites you?
GR: I’ve been reading a lot of classic sci-fi in preparation for graduate school, but for poetry, I’ve been working through Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas, and I’m so excited to take my time continuing it. She just does such amazing and creative things with form. I’ve also been reading Chase Berggrun’s RED, a book of Dracula erasures that is fantastic and inspiring. Finally, I recently read Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s beautiful essay collection World of Wonders and thoroughly enjoyed it.
JB: What’s your favorite bone?
GR: I like the phalanges of the hands, not only because they are useful but because I love that the etymology is connected to the word ‘phalanx.’ There’s probably a poem in that.