Rosalie Moffett’s poem “Petty Theft” (NER 40.4) sparks a conversation with NER staff reader Quinn Lewis, who is struck by both the beauty and the grief in Moffett’s work. Moffett, who grew up in a canyon in rural Washington, believes poems can grant a reader re-entry into their life, and talks about what she reads that gives her that “I wish I could do that” reaction.
Quinn Lewis: One of the things that struck me most in your poem “Petty Theft” is the presence of beauty. Beauty is often a tricky subject, and I love the decision to pair “beauty” with the verb “scavenge.” Can you say a little about the role beauty plays in your writing and in your life?
Rosalie Moffett: You’re right, the word beauty in a poem seems a bit like a person in a play admitting out loud that they are an actor.
I suppose that sometimes in poems I feel like beauty’s PR officer, trying to point out to everyone Look how hard Beauty is working. Look at it keeping its appointments literally everywhere. But of course, in a strip mall parking lot in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Beauty needs a good PR person.
When I talk to my students about what a poem can do, I talk about how it can grant someone re-entry into their life—i.e., a reader, post-poem, is newly able to step back into what they have been seeing or feeling or thinking with an intensified awareness. Poems, I tell them, are anti-numb. And, of course, we are prone to numbness. In so many mind-boggling ways, the contemporary landscape of events demands numbness. To remain feeling, to maintain a connection to self, to the natural world, and to keep the sea of newstwitterhorror from washing over you requires this intensified awareness. The poem is a still corner in which to contend with a crystalline image, unexpected music, an utterance—to have a moment with the kind of beauty that turns up your dials.
So now I am perhaps way beyond your question, except to say that with a particular awareness, with the dials cranked, one is much more equipped to scavenge for what keeps us feeling human.
QL: You mention both the strip mall and the natural world. Images of nature and our (over)developed landscapes intersect in your poem. What particular environments have you lived in, passed through, read about, etc., that have influenced or found their way into your poetry? Is environment central to your work?
RM: The natural world is enormously important to me. I grew up in a canyon in rural Eastern Washington, with two biologists for parents. I spent a lot of time outside by myself. That landscape and its attendant particularities (caddis fly larvae, thistles, wolf spiders, hawks, etc.) show up frequently in my work, as well as the Snake River. The canyon had, once, a town, which went underwater when the river was dammed. The idea of that disappeared place has been a troubling wonder for me for a long time. I think it’s (excessively, repetitively) clear in my work that my urge is to look at the features of the landscape and wonder what interior it’s fostering or reflecting.
So, the strip mall. Of course, there’s no ignoring it. Fostering, reflecting. Of course, it’s got its own magnificence, its own comforts. Nothing is easier than to say the strip mall is ugly and the natural world is beautiful—so that can’t be right. (Even though, yes, raze the strip mall.) Or, at least, there’s something more interesting to say. I mean, what is it to experience your own, precise grief as you stand between Office Max and a Ruby Tuesday? (Versus standing on some remote rock beach.) Since I moved to Evansville this fall to teach at USI, I have been driving every day on the Lloyd Expressway. And it’s such a beautiful word: expressway! It’s creeping into my consciousness, and bringing its (ugly, decidedly) billboards with it. It’s crammed in there with the caddis flies and the rattlesnakes, so of course it’s showing up in my poems.
I’m probably straining at your question’s seams, but “the outside” is central in the sense that I don’t know how to keep it out of my poems.
QL: Grief is certainly in the webbing of this poem, as well as those in your book Nervous System. Anticipated grief, the anticipated or imagined future life—are spun gorgeously together. Who do you look to (poets, artists, thinkers) for their explorations of grief and longing?
RM: My answer for that is Marie Howe’s What the Living Do, which she wrote after her brother’s death, as well as Ed Hirsch’s Gabriel, a book-length elegy for his son. The former for its gutting stillness and simplicity. The latter for its grappling, its casting about for a way to think in that aftermath.
One poem that is so joyful, so wonderful, and so totally underpinned by grief that it took my breath away is “Hammond B3 Organ” by Gabrielle Calvocoressi, from the New Yorker. In one of my poetry workshops, we spend two weeks reading poems on “joy” and two weeks on “sorrow” but the two are—it becomes clear—often inseparable. I’m interested in what our need is for both, or our inability to have one without the other.
QL: Are there any modes or “trouble subjects” for you that make writing especially difficult? When you read others’ work, like “Hammond B3 Organ” by Gabrielle Calvocoressi, are there feelings or subjects that make you think, “Damn, I wish I could do that?”
RM: Oh, there are loads of things that I find difficult to address. Politics. Racism. Whiteness. Gun violence. I’m trying to make inroads into those subjects and the further I get from the sort of sovereign territory of my own interior and into the fraught public space, the harder it gets. (I tried to get into a poem from the fact that the president called the people who brought the articles of impeachment scumbags and all I got from it was a string of my own, italicized epithets, if this gives you an idea.)
I think the times I most have that “I wish I could do that” reaction is with poems that get the complexity of love right. Romantic love is another tough one, I think, and I’ve more or less steered clear of it (as a subject for poetry) and yet, damn, when it’s surprising, and weird, and has a bit of trepidation, it can be superb. I teach my intro students Mary Szybist’s “In Tennessee I Found a Firefly,” which is dark and wonderful. Just a few days ago I read Keith Leonard’s poem “Spratchet” (on Twitter, but it’s in the new Ploughshares) and, yes, it’s got its light, its delight, but something too, unsettling . . . It’s hard to figure out just how to do that.
QL: Among the wolf spiders and landscape of the Snake River, one of your obsessions or flood subjects is the mother figure. What are you working on now, and what obsessions from your previous collections, Nervous System and June in Eden, have carried over into the new poems and/or project(s)? What new obsessions, if any, have arisen?
RM: I recently took stock of my poems since Nervous System and realized how many were obsessively revolving around the processes of the mind and the imagination, around the strange facsimile of the outer world we build for ourselves on the inside. Memory I am still interested in, but what I am trying to explore now is how to conceive of the future—which is where these juggernaut public forces, climate change, violence, injustice, etc. come to bear in the poems. We are asked in America to imagine, even to prophesy, the future in so many odd, impossible ways. I mean, consider how many ill-equipped people (myself very much included) are doing risk-assessment analyses in order to choose insurance plans? Or how many people (young or otherwise) are wagering the future’s odds against art, against literacy and against—here it is again—beauty?
Rosalie Moffett is the author of Nervous System (Ecco/Harper Collins, 2019), winner of the National Poetry Series. She is also the author of June in Eden (Ohio State University Press, 2017). She has been awarded a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, the “Discovery”/Boston Review prize, and scholarships from the Tin House writing workshop and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Her poems and essays have appeared in Tin House, the Believer, Narrative, Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, and other magazines. She is an assistant professor at the University of Southern Indiana.
Quinn Lewis, a staff reader for NER, has published her poetry in Indiana Review, Ninth Letter, and Best New Poets. She was a 2018 Claudia Emerson Scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and has received residencies from Hawthornden Castle and Willapa Bay AiR. She takes care of a horse in rural Pennsylvania.