- A Conversation with Pattiann Rogers
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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 [End Page 77] 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.
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?
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.
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? [End Page 78]
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.