from The Missouri Review, Winter 2009
Pattiann Rogers has written eleven collections of poetry. Many of her most enduring poems were published in the early collections, which include The Expectation of Light (1981) and The Tattooed Lady in the Garden (1986). Firekeeper, New and Selected Poems (1994) was recognized by the Academy of American Poets as one of the finest books of poems published in that year. Her most recent book of poems, Wayfare (2008), exudes her love of the natural world, of the language of science and of the rhythms and tones of music.
In 1999 Pattiann Rogers published her first book of prose, The Dream of the Marsh Wren: Writing as Reciprocal Creation. In the eighteen essays that make up The Grand Array, her new book of prose, she reflects on her career as a poet and on the inevitable distinctions between poetry and prose as well as on the poets, notably Walt Whitman, who continue to speak to her.
Wayne Zade and Carolyn Perry conducted this interview in July 2009 in Champaign, Illinois, where the poet and her husband, John, had traveled from their home in Colorado to visit their son, daughter-in-law and grandson.
ZADE: Pattiann, you mention in an interview with Brian Doyle (2000) in The Grand Array that you have only written essays in response to a request, with an established purpose and audience in mind. Is that still true?
ROGERS: I have thought for many years that the audience any creative writer imagines has a great effect on what gets written. For most of my essays I've imagined—not for all of them because they've been written over a span of years—a searching audience, one that is curious, a questing audience willing to attend to a voice suggesting a slightly different way of approaching our passions and our griefs and some of our central dilemmas.
My envisioned audience for many of these essays has included biologists, natural historians, environmentalists and all those who simply feel a kinship and care for the life of the earth. Also, I imagine an audience of other poets and creative writers, demanding the most excellent writing I could manage to produce. Many of my audiences have come from a religious side of society. Three of the essays in this book were published in U.S. Catholic. I am not a Catholic, and the editors of that magazine were not interested in my writing essays containing a doctrinal outlook. They wanted other issues addressed, and they sent me lists of six or eight topics and said, "Choose from these topics. You pick what you want." The editors were easy to work with, and I felt comfortable with those audiences, and so I wrote for them.
Brian Doyle is the editor of the magazine Portland, at the University of Portland, and he is a marvelous essayist—the most lively, energetic writer—and he has been a prime supporter of my essays. Early on, he requested work for Portland. That's the background of my beginning to write essays.
PERRY: You say for years you were a poet, and you wrote nothing but poetry. And you never thought about writing essays unless you were approached to write them. Now that it's becoming more spontaneous, do you find yourself wanting to write essays?
ROGERS: I've spent much of my life being attuned to watching for an image or a phrase that can trigger what might be a poem—could become a poem. What triggers a poem for me is not the same as what triggers an essay. My mind is geared now to looking for, or to watching out for, the image that attracts my attention or the phrase or the strange juxtaposition that strikes me bodily, or an odd question or supposition. If I'm excited by something bodily, and curious about it, I generally want to delve into it and explore it with poetry. That's the way I ordinarily watch the world around me.
In prose, I'm talking. In poetry, I'm singing. And I don't mean singing in terms of simply praising. A lamentation can be sung. Prayers are sung. The devotion and passion of love are sung. Grief and frustration can be sung. Poetry uses language to create a music borne inside human experiences and emotions. And when the music created by the sounds and ordering of the words matches the thrust of the meanings of the words, then a radiant state of awareness can occur.
ZADE: Doesn't Dickinson say "takes the top of my head off"?
ROGERS: Yes, that's when the poem is terrific. But the poetry/prose issues are big issues with me right now because I had a strong belief early on—some twenty-five or thirty years ago—that poetry was a major art form in the culture and that one of its functions was to keep the language lively and growing and fresh in enlightening, insightful ways. With the advent of the Internet and the proliferation of new ways to communicate—
ZADE: Text messaging?
ROGERS: Yes, text messaging. Of course, it's succinct, all right. It has that in common with poetry. The new vocabulary and the mode of writing that's come with the Internet, text messaging, e-mail, Twittering, tweeting, all the shortcuts and abbreviations with language, these are fresh and new, no matter what else you may think about them. Some writers make use of that vocabulary the way I've wanted to make use of the expanding vocabulary science is creating. I still think the language of science is highly lyrical and evocative and an important part of our lives in many ways.
PERRY: Do poets have a responsibility to articulate their thinking about their work or about the nature of poetry in general?
ROGERS: I don't know if responsibility is exactly the right word, but from the beginning I felt that I didn't ever want to leave the impression that the process of writing a poem is totally mysterious. I couldn't explain everything that went on in the creation of a poem, but I could try to explain as much as I knew. I thought readers deserved that. I didn't want to set myself apart as being someone special.
But sometimes, as in an athletic event where everything clicks, inexplicable things do happen. Learning and practicing an art or a skill has always been part of the success of the goal. And occasionally that practice and training result in facets of the work coming together, seemingly without conscious effort. When a fielder catches a ball he isn't consciously thinking, "Now the wind is blowing this fast from that direction and the ball is arcing at a certain height and beginning to fall to the right of second base into center field, and I need to run on the diagonal so that I can arrive at such and such a point just as the ball reaches my glove, which is held at this angle." He's practiced enough to be able to calculate where he needs to be to catch the ball without "thinking."
I'm all in favor of poets telling about the process as much as they can. And many do. It sounds old-fashioned to say these days, but we have some kind of purpose for being here, not poets or writers, but all of us humans. I used to think that everybody felt that to some degree, that at some point, at least once, everyone asks the question, "What's this all about, in the end?" And there is an end. The end and its anticipation is one thing that motivates the question. What in the world is the point? Not that poets can answer that question—or theologians, or scientists—but all of us together at least can manifest the fact that we asked. I went through college during a time when it was assumed that the function of literature was to question, "What is the good life?"—good in all ways. To ask that question and approach it from many directions and perspectives—that's the source of the obligation that I feel in the overall effort of my work. Writing about my craft is one tiny part of trying to meet that obligation.
PERRY: As a writer, then, you feel a responsibility to seek the right questions, ask the right questions.
ROGERS: I needed to formulate the questions first for myself. It's not like I knew them and put them in a poem for other people. The poem is a process, a way for me to discover questions, to ask them clearly or to discover the results of certain suppositions. Suppositions are a form of questioning. "Suppose your father was a redbird" is, actually, the question, "What would it have been like if your father was a redbird?" I wrote a poem to find out what that might be like.
PERRY: In essence, you're not trying to provide answers, you're just trying to help with the questions?
ROGERS: No, not answers, and not exactly help them with the questions but, for myself, experimenting with language and putting it together in different ways around a central image or experience just to see what happens, what tiny ray might suddenly illuminate something heretofore not acknowledged. Language can be creative in that way. And also by having fun with language and its sounds, playing with it, letting it go in odd directions. A new question, a new supposition, may arise. Many of my poems, in my mind, end with a new question to investigate.
PERRY: You talk in your writing about the need for investigating the mystery. Is this investigation better served by poetry or prose?
ROGERS: I'm primarily a poet, so I'd have to say in my case I'd investigate the mystery in poetry in a different way than prose might investigate it, in a way that includes the power of the music of language and maybe more imaginatively in poetry, but I don't really know about better or worse. I guess it depends on the writer.
PERRY: What is it about poetry that makes the investigation easier?
ROGERS: I like poetry because poetry—even in free verse—is formal, and it has to be very concise and packed and rich, and I like the feeling of having to do that, having to make the language tight and still free, as if the deepest freedom is created by the restrictions. Though it seems contradictory, there's great freedom in poetry, freedom and whimsy. In poetry I can let the language go, allow an image that seems out of place to enter and see what happens, always listening to the music that's being created, just like the world around us, never predictable, always shifting and intertwining, reflecting and echoing itself. Poetry in its language and music seems just like the world to me in that way.
ZADE: It's like a puzzle.
ROGERS: Well, it's like a very intriguing puzzle. I don't know what the "assembled" puzzle I'm working on in poetry is going to be. It's not like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, when one has seen the final picture. I don't actually know what I'm aiming for. That's one of the intriguing parts of it and why the puzzle or mystery keeps drawing me back.
And also I love the language. I'm just totally fascinated by the sound and the look of words and the kinds of cadences you can create with them, the various kinds of music. Poetry is so close to music, not just in cadence and sound but in silences. That's why, to me, I can't talk about prose poems. I can talk about poetic prose. But for me, prose is never a poem. Because with prose there are so very few tools to create the music. And one of the most important tools missing is the ability to create silences, as you can in poetry by how you fashion the lines and breaks within the lines and stanzas.
ZADE: Many of your essays are rich with quotations from or allusions to other writers of literature and other intellectual fields, particularly the sciences. Do you keep a day book of key passages and develop ideas for essays among connections you make? Or do you proceed deductively, meditating on an idea and seeking out supporting passages? I should have added "or both."
ROGERS: There's the word right there. Both. It happens both ways. Often I'm struck by something that I read; then I go and research it a little more, especially if I begin a poem, and I find out that I need to know more. Then I usually get intrigued and excited about whatever it is I'm writing about.
A wonderful thing happened to me recently. There's a poem of mine, "The Verification of Vulnerability: Bog Turtle," in The Tattooed Lady in the Garden. I received an e-mail from a woman just last week who is doing her Ph.D. dissertation. She does research and works with bog turtles, which happen to be endangered. She said she had clipped this poem some years ago, and she wanted permission to use it at the beginning of her dissertation. The poem starts with a description of the bog turtle and the details of its home ground and ends with this stanza:
Maybe I can imagine the sole intention present
In the steady movement of turtle breath filled
With the odor of worms this morning, stirring
Clover moisture at the roots. Maybe I can understand
How the body has taken form solely
Around the possibility of its own death,
How the entire body of the bog turtle
Cherishes and maintains and verifies the existence
Of its own crucial point of vulnerability exactly
As if that point were the only distinct,
Dimensionless instant of eternity ever realized.
And maybe I can guess what it is we own,
If, in fact, it is true: the proof of possession
Is the possibility of loss.
I just love the fact that this poem is being used to introduce a Ph.D. dissertation on the subject of the bog turtle because one of my aims very early on was to have my poetry read by people who are doing work in science and with the earth. When I wrote the poem (around 1984) I had no idea that the bog turtle was endangered. It may not have been at that time. I did a little research on bog turtles and intended it finally to represent not only itself but all life. We're all vulnerable in our various ways, and what we are physically, our bodies, is what has developed with the goal of keeping that life safe and intact, at least until we have procreated. That's what our bodies are, the protection of life. That view is what eventually emerged as I wrote the poem.
PERRY: In your essays, the words of individual poets are a regular presence, as if in dialogue with you. How would you describe the effect of this dialogue you create between your prose voice and the poetic voice of your favorite poets?
ROGERS: I like that question because I do love writing prose interspersed with the poetry of other people. Their rhythms break into my prose and create a connection. "Rain" is an essay I never mind rereading because I want to get to the little snippets of poems. I like the movement of that essay a lot. Inserting short pieces of poetry within a prose piece also happens in "Surprised by the Sacred." People who are afraid of poetry, if they meet it inside prose in small pieces, might reply and say, "Oh, that's all right."
With regard to my essays, they seem a little easier to write than poetry but still a lot of work. I mean the intensity of the work. The intensity and energy that it takes to write a poem are exhausting, the effort to be truly original, using the imagination to a great degree, not depending on stock phrases or clichéd thought, reconsidering every mark on the page, every line break. Is every word in the poem needed? Is every word that's needed there? The essays demand another kind of energy, creating a recognizable coherence and a pattern of thought that the reader can grasp and also being original in thought to a certain extent.
ZADE: Your outlook in many of your essays is reminiscent of Whitman—indeed, you mention him in several essays. Do you have favorite poems or prose works of Whitman? What valuable things does Whitman have to say to readers today?
ROGERS: I couldn't possibly answer this adequately. Open Leaves of Grass anywhere, and your chances are extremely good there'll be a passage that says something to readers today, probably more than one. I participated in a tribute to Whitman last February at the Lannan Foundation in Santa Fe; Eamon Grennan, Major Jackson and I, and Michael Silverblatt was the moderator. I told the audience that whoever you are, if you go to Leaves of Grass, you will find yourself there, and you may even be mentioned by name. Whitman is known as the first poet writing an authentic American poetry, yet he's not only that—he's a cosmic poet. He includes everybody and every creature and the earth and the heavens and the stars. He mentions everybody in his lists: mothers and the mothers of mothers, and the mothers of men, and sailors and farmers and cobblers, and children, everybody.
What I take from Whitman most in the way of craft is his listing. A poetic list is a talent in itself. You can write a list of things, and it can be boring. The combinations and the ordering of items in the list have to be right.
You just can't take excerpts out of Whitman that easily, although I do it. I have a sentence or two in "Surprised by the Sacred," and a couple of his lines are the titles of essays. But to actually take out five or six lines just weakens the list, even though each item contains an interest in itself. You need that buildup of items in a list to get the full impact. Because of his openness, people can find reprehensible qualities in his personality. But I don't. He addresses everything. He addresses every kind of soil, every kind of human act, every kind of depravity. I can go to him and be rejuvenated with his love of life, even though he has that very short poem about his soul and the things it loves the best—death, night and the stars. So he doesn't exclude death from his list of things to celebrate, in some sense.
PERRY: In many of your essays—I'm thinking mostly about "Born Again and Again"—you unite a very powerful sense of the physical with deep insight into the spiritual. In reading the essays, I found myself thinking often of Yeats and his preoccupation with the connection between the two. Is there a source for this occurrence?
ROGERS: I didn't think of Yeats consciously. That doesn't mean he wasn't there. You know, that happens. Here's where this essay started: I had a phrase that I was beginning with about the experience of being under the water. Every once in a while you can feel a fish hit your leg or a slick weed wind around it. That was the experience. I thought about this in terms of the baptism I experienced. To be honest, I imagined going under in this baptism, opening my eyes and seeing a fish staring back. What an odd meeting, in terms of this ritual I was participating in. It seemed odd and a little funny. I tried to put the experience into that context and describe it in the most evocative words I could. The essay spread out from there in both ways, out to the beginning and down to the end, incorporating the immersion. In the McCann interview contained in The Grand Array, I talked about my parents joining a very fundamentalist religion that led to this baptism.
ZADE: You were in Joplin, Missouri, then?
ROGERS: Yes, I was in Joplin. We had been a very social family and very active in the Presbyterian Church. I had many friends there, and I always felt surrounded by loving people in that church, and safe. We were at church functions three or four times a week. And in school my brother and I were encouraged to participate in all the extracurricular activities. This life and its activities came to a sudden halt after my parents left the Presbyterian Church and joined this extremely small and strict fundamentalist religion. I was thirteen.
Of course, it wasn't funny at the time, but my parents turning to this religion has its rather light side, because they were just frightened, uncertain, middle-aged people doing something rash in a hopeful attempt to grasp the meaning of life and death. There were long debates and arguments all during that time about religious doctrines and Bible verses, mainly between my parents and another family. But as to this essay, we had to be immersed because that's what Jesus said to do. My experience with this religion lasted until I went to college. My brother had already started college before my parents joined this group, which amounted to eight people. I was allowed to go to college, even though it was considered "of the world" and wrong. My parents couldn't actually refuse me, and I had a little scholarship to the University of Missouri, in Columbia.
But there, I was still having to convert anybody I wanted to be friends with. So I converted my soon-to-be husband, who was studying to become a physicist—who became a physicist. He has a Ph.D. in physics. He just went along with it so he could marry me. As I said, this all has its humorous side. I look back and I think, Oh, his poor mother. There she was, a widow living in Liberty, Missouri, and here's her only son with this woman who is converting him to a rather fanatical religion. Anyway, he had to be immersed too. He was as accustomed to swimming in rivers as I was.
I was thinking back on this immersion, and I realized that I had no memory of what was said at the time, and I had no real ideas about what I should have been thinking about. But I had been very attached to that river in other ways all of my life. It wasn't a big river, Shoal Creek, and it was a friendly river most of the time. I had been to it often, fishing, rafting, swimming. Going under and coming back up was not a new experience, and so the baptism and the memory of it were not really doctrinal at all for me, except that a new vague spirituality had been attributed to it. My memories of the event were almost totally about the physical experience, the river, the current of the water and the summer day, the sounds and fragrances. This allowed me, when I was recalling the incident, to wonder about this element of spirituality and what, if anything, it knew of the life of that river and its surroundings.
ZADE: We touched on this idea of co-creation earlier. In your essays you write often of our role, as human beings, as co-creators of the world with a divine presence and of how poets, musicians and artists participate especially vividly in this "co-creation." I'm thinking specifically of Hopkins and Dickinson. Could you talk a bit about this idea?
ROGERS: The way I have defined what I mean by "co-creation" in a biological sense is two entities—for instance the thumb and the brain, and flowers and their pollinators—driving the evolutionary development and successful survival of one another. By co-creation, I don't mean collaboration or symbiosis. As far as humans perhaps being simultaneously created by and creating a divine universe which is still in an evolutionary process of becoming fulfilled—that's a supposition of mine, a supposition that pleases me and helps me. But I don't assert in any way that it can be demonstrated to be true, of course. My essay "A Covenant with Divinity" focuses on how I'm using and understanding the term "co-creation."
I also touch on this idea in several poems, for instance, in "The Creation of the Inaudible." Dickinson and Hopkins are not as important to me as Whitman; I don't know that I ever attached that term "co-creators" to them, and I doubt that they would have defined that term exactly as I have defined it in this essay. But both of these writers certainly were focused on experiences of the spirit, finding God or Christ in the physical world. I believe it would be correct to call Emily Dickinson a skeptic with regard to organized religion.
Both Dickinson and Hopkins are religious people in the end. And still able to doubt and to ask questions. To me that's the strength of a truly religious person, a spiritual person: to be able continually to ask questions about their beliefs, insightfully formed questions, to keep searching and asking and "knocking."
PERRY: Most of the essays in The Grand Array seem to have been written after you published The Dream of the Marsh Wren, your other book of prose, in 1999. Two collections of poems appeared in these years as well. In working on the poems for these volumes, were you aware of their influence on your essays? And did writing essays have any effect on your poetry?
ROGERS: I really don't think so. This book is only eighteen essays and three interviews. Not that many pieces. There were other published essays and interviews that we didn't include. However, as far as I can tell, writing the essays didn't change the way I wrote poetry. Although the essays contain scattered passages that might be called lyrical, they often contain closed statements of what is only suggested in the poetry. I made a decision very early not to keep a journal. The reason I made that decision is that most often a journal is composed of complete sentences. Closed statements written about events or images seem to lessen, for me, any possibility of the imagination taking the events and images off in other directions, moving them out of one world or reality into the created space of a poem. The event or image has already been captured in words that belong to a place, a stance, an attitude, that does not lend itself to poetry.
Poetry doesn't function by saying things straightforwardly because the language is too imprecise, too limited often, to address the underlying subject of most poems. Even the poet can't do it. Often when I write poetry I don't quite know what I'm saying myself. I mean, I can't restate the poem. The meaning of the poem is the poem. Did someone else say that? When someone tells me what they think one of my poems is saying, I'm always interested and mostly surprised. And I think, "Well, that's all right. It sounds pretty good." But prose is more straightforward, and my object when writing prose is to write as clearly as possible. I think I know what I'm saying in prose, and I want others to understand it and to be able to restate it. That's not the case with poetry.
I remember reading once that the greatest tragedy that can befall a poet is to be praised by being misunderstood. Once, after a reading I gave, a woman came up to me and said, "I really liked your poem about the atom bomb." She was talking about my poem "The Pieces of Heaven," which is not about the atom bomb. That was a small tragedy.
ZADE: Many paragraphs in your essays are a single sentence in length and evolve as lists—a technique, if you want to call it that, evident in your poems as well. Do you sense a rhythmic similarity in writing essays, or would you describe it as a difference?
ROGERS: There's a similarity, and when the essays work best I link into and ride that same rhythm off and on. The rhythm is not as consistent in an essay and generally is not felt so strongly because the language is not as compressed and tight as it is in poetry. This may be a bias of mine, but I believe that there are important differences between prose and poetry, essays and poems, and I don't believe it is frivolous to attempt to define those differences. People sometimes think that defining a term is pedantic and useless, but terms need to be defined if they're going to be discussed, even if the terms are only defined for a single conversation. Those involved in the conversation need to know how the terms are being used.
More importantly, they need to be defined when a writer sits down to write. Because in the writing, a writer will strive for different things in each of those genres, and the success achieved will be based in part on the writer's expectation of what each work is to accomplish. I approach writing a poem in a much different state than when I am writing prose. It's almost as if I were working in a different language when I'm writing poetry. The words—what they are and what they can become—the possibilities of the words are vastly expanded for me when I'm writing a poem.
Currently the definitions of prose and poetry are undergoing a change. I'm not saying that's a negative thing, and I don't say "prose poems" are not worthy forms of writing, that they can't be enjoyed, that they don't have their own virtues. But I don't think calling prose writing a "poem" is helpful or accurate. Or if we are going to call poems prose, then we need to redefine "poem." I'd rather call prose poems something else, for clarity—something like "poetic prose," prose that contains a quality of poetry, but not poems. To my mind, most prose poems are more prose than poetry. They don't possess most of the qualities of a poem.
One of the most important differences I see between prose and poetry is the music of the language. I think my prose—mine and that of others—sometimes slips into a cadence or rhythm that can replicate or come close to the music in a wonderful poem, and then it returns to the sound of prose. You find that especially in novels when there's a lyrical description, and then the language goes back to dialogue again or a narrative of action where the language is loose and somewhat expected. That doesn't mean that a particularly poetic section is a poem, because poems are doing other things besides establishing music; they are making a unit of music that is complete in itself, whole within itself. Poems also have silences within them, placed carefully like rests and silences in music. The silences express so much and are so crucial in music, and prose does not allow for the creation of these silences, these white spaces on the page or the computer screen.
Then, poetry is very playful with language. I think all poetry, at its heart, is playful. It's doing unusual and playful things with the language, stirring it up. And prose is not doing that. Primarily it's not attempting to do that.
PERRY: You claim in "What Among Heavens and Suns" that we are "obligated" to create beauty. What is the source of this obligation?
ROGERS: With belief comes the conviction that we have obligations to fulfill—that's the gist of your question. In "Death in the Garden" I wrote, The same silent stars in their grand array of shining hydrogen and helium refer to this. The moon is eloquent on equal justice. The wind passing through rocky, icy gorges is precise on determination. The shadows of winter willows stirred by wind describe grace and serenity. Even in its fleeting gestures the river holds with certainty the noonday sun. We recognize these languages. They reaffirm our sense of obligation. They echo our intuitions. They resound through the most fundamental origins of our art and music and literature. We repeat them in our prayers. We turn to them in our love songs.
That's a response to your question, maybe not an answer. For me those moments come from the earth and the universe. They may come to others through other means, perhaps through art. In "Small and Insignificant, Mighty and Glorious" I write about the arts treating the spiritual yearnings that all human creatures at some time experience. So what is the source? I don't know, but I think we sense it in certain moments of our lives, in certain experiences.
ZADE: Most of your essays tend to push in a single direction—toward praise of the created world. You talk a lot about God, very much in a Christian tradition, but not about "salvation." Is this praise, finally, our salvation?
ROGERS: Oh, yes, I think so. In fact I've said several times in other places—and maybe in The Dream of the Marsh Wren—that there is one thing we can do well, and that is praise. Suppose praise actually makes a difference in the universe, and we're the only ones who can praise. I think in that sense that praise, which could be called the creation of beauty, is a form of salvation.
Maybe not saving us from death—I don't know about that. I don't write or think too much about the word "salvation." I might; I probably should. We are such needy creatures, needing to be saved, to feel we are saved or might be, however we define ourselves, however we define that word. Frost has that very short poem, "Dust of Snow":
The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree
Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.
There's salvation—there. It's a different kind of religious salvation. I think parts of my soul have been saved by my writing, not in the sense of escaping death, but escaping the death of the moment, perhaps. Those are different ways of looking at the word, and if the poem is a poem of praise, it brings the salvation of escaping the death of the moment, saving the moment—saving the day I might have rued.
ZADE: Another ongoing theme in your essays is perspective, something akin to Woolf's statement at the end of To the Lighthouse that "so much depends upon distance."
ROGERS: Perspective is very important to me. I took an astronomy course at the University of Missouri, and that is where this all began, I believe. Also in my zoology classes we studied the structure of single cells and DNA—that's another sense of perspective. You can go into the microscopic or out to the macrocosmic. This astronomy course was the first time I had a sense of the universe, and I'm sure it's not an adequate sense, but at least I had some sense of the size and scope and age of the universe in which our earth is immersed. It was not all that many years ago when the Milky Way Galaxy was considered to be the only galaxy, and now we know that there are billions of galaxies. I can't understand why this stunning, shocking revelation, which we have photographs of, isn't the focus of more writers, more writing by poets and other creative writers. To me it is absolutely so important. "Who are we?" is simply the question, over and over again. And what are we about, here? Are we nothing? Are we everything? Is the question irrelevant?
The results of scientific investigations have impressed me with this idea not only of perspective in distance but also in size, and length of time. Remember that quote from Bertrand Russell in "Twentieth Century Cosmology and the Soul's Habitation" in which he lists all the sacrifices, all the glory, all the noble actions of humankind that are destined to die with the death of the sun and the collapse of the universe? And you think, "What does this mean:''' He says you cannot call yourself an educated person if you don't know that these things are almost certain. So where do we begin? It's by building the habitation of what we know is part of our experience—what we call a soul, what we call our spirit. The perspective that science has given us of the physical world is crucial. It is just crucial, in my opinion, that it be absorbed and built into our consciousness and that we address it head-on and find or create the spiritual aspects of its story. We must because we accept the tenets of science and the cosmological story it's telling in a thousand ways every day. We demonstrate our faith in this story by the way we live, the decisions we make, the tools we use, the images we recognize and the way we understand the physical world around us. We cannot shut that story out of our spiritual lives. To do so means to weaken and diminish the magnificence of the story and to weaken us spiritually.
PERRY: In "Death in the Garden" you spend a lot of time contemplating beliefs, specifically about life and death, and you claim that beliefs are constantly being revised. Have your views of death evolved since you wrote this essay?
ROGERS: I'm just totally honest in that essay about how one single image or event will bring back all those questions again. Here was this mother mutilated by her own people and her baby killed—why? Why? Did it mean nothing—their lives and their suffering? If God or a Creator or a spiritual presence is all-good and all-powerful, as we often posit in the Judeo-Christian tradition, how can suffering of the innocent occur? It's an old, old question. Archibald MacLeish put it like this in his play J. B., based on the story of Job: If God is God, he is not good. If God is good, he is not God.
But what I did write here is that when beliefs evolve, grow, expand or modify, the original belief is always there in some form; its contribution is not lost but retained. I think I'm right about this even in science. Although Newton's discoveries are seen in a new way today, they are present, not only as remaining applicable in some circumstances but also as a history of how we got to where we are in our investigation of the universe. They are like a strain of Mozart's music still heard or affecting a contemporary work or the echoing strains of Latin remaining in our language. In one sense, we are hearing the Romans speak every time we speak English or Romance languages. So a belief that does not seem completely adequate currently is not useless or wasted, and it weakens us to attempt to hold on to beliefs that can't help us act bravely and with compassion and help us make decisions in our contemporary world.
PERRY: The working title of your collection of essays and interviews, The Grand Array, comes from "Death in the Garden." What is the connection between this essay and your sense of the collection as a whole?
ROGERS: That essay is about death and the ideal, about Paradise—the idea of a paradise, a garden. Those elements are part of the grand array, the universe. I don't know that that's the only connection, of course, but this essay is dealing with one of the core questions of the human dilemma. What is death?
PERRY: I think the real question here is how you choose a title. And in this case, how did this title emerge?
ROGERS: The Grand Array. To be honest, I just grabbed it to use as a working title. And I did like the sound and sense of it. As I worked I kept alert for anything that I might like better, but nothing else ever came along. Barbara [Ras] said that she liked it. And so it became the title.
I didn't know much about putting together a book of essays, especially essays written over a twenty-five-year period. Barbara has helped me a lot. Ordering is very important with essays, even if a reader doesn't read the essays or the poems in order through the book, and when Barbara explained to me her suggestions for how the essays should be ordered, I could see that her reasoning was right. But these essays don't appear to me as I see my poems because I see my poems as interlinked. No poem gives an answer. It may offer other questions, it may instigate other questions that then become poems. So they are linked in that way.
PERRY: Can you think of a question you wish we had asked you about The Grand Array?
ROGERS: Yes, I do have a question. What do you think this book, The Grand Array, will add to the body of my work in poetry? What does it contribute? Or does it contribute anything? I wish you'd answer that instead of me.
ZADE: I hope we answered this with all our questions. The idea of a reflection, a retrospective, a commentary. As a student of poetry for so many years, I've always been curious to know what poets might say outside their poems.
ROGERS: In these essays I don't talk a lot about my poetry or my process. I guess "What Among Heavens and Suns" is the closest, maybe, to talking about process. I didn't write these essays to a literary audience alone. I had in mind too an audience who didn't know my work.
PERRY: I see The Grand Array as a confirmation of the heart of your poetry. It expresses in various ways how poetic expression is an act of praise—an idea you emphasize often. And praise is an act of creation. It gets at that sense in all your poetry of the creative energy of life. You can't stand the static; you love the constant unfolding of life, and you love to express your appreciation of and excitement over that movement—that's what comes out in the essays. The two fit very nicely together because the prose confirms the core of the poetry.
ROGERS: I thought this interview would be good because it gave you the opportunity to ask questions that hadn't been asked by other interviewers. I'm happy to be able to say something myself about the purpose—as I see it—of the essays. I have thirteen books, and this will be the fourteenth book—maybe the last book, I don't know. I think the prose has a place in my body of work. That's my reason for having it there. Some people will never read the poetry. But they might read this book of essays, and maybe it will bring some of them, out of curiosity, to the poems. But even if it doesn't, maybe some readers will be interested in the questions I've asked in these essays and what they imply. And also what I have affirmed, about praise and the wonder of life and its tenacity. Maybe some readers will ask more refined, more original, more probing and more perceptive questions than I have. I hope so.
About the Interviewers
Carolyn Perry is the Dean of Faculty at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, where she taught English for sixteen years. Her publications include The Dolphin Reader (coedited with Doug Hunt), Southern Women's Writing (coedited with Mary Louise Weaks) and The History of Southern Women's Literature (coedited with Mary Louise Weaks). With Wayne Zade, she has published interviews with Scott Russell Sanders in the Kenyon Review and Image: Art, Faith, and Mystery.
Wayne Zade teaches creative writing, American literature and jazz studies at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. He has published poems in Poetry, American Poetry Review, Antioch Review, Notre Dame Review and Shenandoah, among others. He is a regular contributor of jazz essays and interviews to All About Jazz, Belles Lettres and Jazz Tokyo. With Carolyn Perry, he has published interviews with Scott Russell Sanders in the Kenyon Review and Image: Art, Faith, and Mystery.The Missouri Review
University of Missouri
Editor: Speer Morgan
Associate Editor: Evelyn Somers
Poetry Editor: Mark McKee