The Mutability of Time and Language: An Interview with Alison C. Rollins

by    /  October 16, 2019  / Comments Off on The Mutability of Time and Language: An Interview with Alison C. Rollins

When Alison C. Rollins visited City of Asylum last month to read from her debut poetry collection Library of Small Catastrophes, she sat down with Sampsonia Way to chat about her writing and how her career as a librarian has shaped her poetry. Among the many things we spoke about, our conversation touched upon the purpose of poetry and how language can reveal more about ourselves than we expect.

The acclaimed librarian, poet, and educator was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri and currently resides in Colorado Springs where she works as the Lead Teaching and Learning Librarian for Colorado College. Rollins is a 2016 recipient of the Poetry Foundation’s Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg fellowship, a 2018 recipient of the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, and has been awarded support from the Cave Canem Foundation and Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop. Her poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Black Warrior Review, and Poetry, among others.


I.  From Outside the Canon

So to start this off simply, how are you doing? 

I recently moved to Colorado Springs from Chicago, and it’s a very different type of city to live in. It’s at a 6,000-foot elevation, and it’s surrounded by mountains, rather than a lake, so I’m still getting acclimated to the place. It’s also near the United States Air Force Academy, so there’s a high military presence —  which I’m not particularly used to — in a region of the country that I have never lived in before. So traveling from Colorado Springs to Pittsburgh feels really nice. It feels like coming home. As a Cave Canem Fellow, I’ve come to City of Asylum three separate times in the past, and this space holds very fond memories for me. 

Oh yes, you recently became a graduate fellow of Cave Canem! How do you feel the experience has shaped you? 

I’ve met incredible people through Cave Canem. I don’t have an MFA, so I’ve never — at the graduate level — formally studied poetry. I think the retreats gave me a structure and a chance to interact with top, genius-level faculty and other people practicing and growing in their craft. Of course, it is kind of sad when you make it to your third year and realize that you won’t be able to participate in the same capacity ever again, so it was very exciting to come back and be able to read again. It’s very transformative and I feel very blessed to have had the experiences I did through the retreats. 

Is the second poem that you read during the rehearsal new? I don’t think it was in Library of Small Catastrophes.

Yes! It’s called “Before the Beginning and After the End,” and it’s a piece that I’m working on for my next  project. It’s based on, or in response to, T. S. Eliot’s book Four Quartets, which is a series of four longform poems. 

I find that really interesting, especially since you included the poem Self Portrait of Librarian with T. S. Eliot’s Papers in your first book, and now you’re writing about him again! 

T. S. Eliot, for me, personally, signifies the literary canon. And as a black queer girl growing up in the Midwest, I’m very interested in ways in which my work disrupts, challenges, grows from, and sits on the outside of what our understanding of the canon is. In the way that people think about Shakespearian sonnets as being “true poetry,” serious poetry, or high art, what does it then mean for somebody on the margins to speak to that tradition, to reform and change it? What does it mean for my poetry to enter into this ongoing past, present, and future conversation with a canonical figure who shares the same geographical roots as I do, who also grew up in the same city of St. Louis, Missouri, as I did? 

I’m fascinated by this mental image of your work juxtaposed with that of historical, canonical figures especially considering that you have, in the past, tweeted a picture of your face photoshopped onto an image of Thomas Jefferson!

Yeah, that image was a little jab at Thomas Jefferson. In Notes on the State of Virginia, he reviews Phillis Wheatley’s published book of poetry and writes, “Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry. Among the blacks is misery enough, god knows, but no poetry.” In these sentences, it’s as if he has determined poetry to be the highest form of art, and the ability to create this highest form of art to be a marker of a person’s humanity. It’s as if he’s saying that misery is necessary to create art, and there’s plenty of misery in black culture or in black people, but certainly not the signs of what it means to create this art, to be a poet. This “marker of humanity” could have been any other art form like sculpture or oil painting. But no, it was poetry.  Jefferson was so keen on the importance of poetry. 

II. The Non-linear Draw

I’m noticing a recurring pattern. You’ve mentioned how your work enters into an ongoing past, present, and future conversation. I feel like there is a similar pattern within your poetry. In your poem Ctrl, the first line reads, “Birthright is a jester sans serif and comic.” I was fascinated by how that line plays with association and meaning. When I read it, I had to go back to the word “sans” in order to get the full context. I feel like the poems in your book are arranged in a similar manner.  It’s as if the poems are speaking to each other and giving each other context, but in a non-linear timeline. Is this a theme that you are trying to explore? 

I appreciate your reading of the order! I’m very interested in temporality in terms of non-linear ways of narrative. I think Toni Morrison, who we lost this summer, is a genius mastermind of the form. I love surrealism and am very invested in concepts that might highlight a sort of “returning to.” Take, for example, the stutter — one tries to speak and find language, and in the process, repeats language because of an inability to move forward. Even in the process of walking or moving our legs, we move them back and forth. They are in contrast to each other, but we need that contrast and tension in order for there to be progress or movement.

Exploring how we make art and beauty and sound out of that contrast is a lot more interesting to me than this Western notion of “the story has a beginning, middle, and end” — this idea that we have to move from A to B in a linear, straight direction. Especially in film! International film is so rich in different types of storytelling. In Western culture, we expect a film to be action-packed with special effects and a high climax, but there are other forms of film, which bring attention to the mundane. They explore the lives of people often looked over, and that’s similar to what poetry asks us to do — to be economical with our focus, economical with our language, and to cultivate a sense of being present. 

I really appreciate you bringing up Western notions of storytelling and film. If I may self-insert for a moment, in the language I speak at home, we use the same word for yesterday and tomorrow, and the only way we can tell the difference is through context. I think it’s amazing how language can influence our understanding of time. We miss out on so many other possibilities when we believe that there is only one way of looking at things, and you speak about this idea in your poem “Library of Small Catastrophes.”  I was wondering, as a librarian yourself, what do you feel, personally, about this obsession, this need, almost, to put a rein on time and language and words? 

To repeat what you said, “We use the same word for yesterday and tomorrow.” That’s like a beautiful, poetic line, right? But depending on who I am and what I value, I will find that beautiful and poetic, or I will find that as indicative of “not-English” or not correct grammar. I can impose a value system onto that which evaluates whether or not that is good or bad, whether or not that is art or a less-evolved form of speaking, right? We have the power to frame how we’re going to view that or see that. Similar to language, the profession of librarianship has a premium on standardization and order, which can be necessary. If books were all over the place, you wouldn’t be able to find them for the reader. So organizing frameworks like the Dewey Decimal System can be a way of increasing access for people. But within that, there are also ways in which various forms of power and gatekeeping are hidden. 

As a librarian, I arguably select what books are ordered for the library, and that power is invisible. You may walk into a library and think, “Oh everything must be here” — when in fact it may be the opposite. You may not really think about what things are not selected, what things are not as prominently displayed, what voices are missing from this collection, how this is reflected in the language we use, and what this communicates about what we value as a society. This is something my book tries to grapple with. Our bodies and minds can be understood as containers, or vessels. They’re storing things, they’re storing memories, or they may be actively trying to forget certain things, withdraw certain items. So when we enter rooms, when we enter spaces, what are the things that we are carrying? What are the things we are always holding and bringing with us? What are the things that we are actively trying to not have be a part of us? And how much can you hold?

In a bookstore, we can hold maybe two thousand books. So are we going to base that on what people come in and request the most? Or are we going to highlight things that are not in Barnes and Noble? What is our commitment, and what is it that we’re trying to communicate? And how do we make those similar decisions in terms of our personhood? For example, if I walk into a room with six objects that really reflect who I am, what are those things? And what are the things that necessarily have to fall to the wayside? 

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