Rebecca Hart Olander’s poetry has appeared recently in Crab Creek Review, The Massachusetts Review, and Tinderbox Poetry Journal, among others. Collaborative work made with Elizabeth Paul has been published in multiple venues online and in They Said: A Multi-Genre Anthology of Contemporary Collaborative Writing (Black Lawrence Press). Rebecca is a Women’s National Book Association poetry contest winner and a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee. Her chapbook, Dressing the Wounds, was published by dancing girl press in 2019, and her debut full-length collection, Uncertain Acrobats, is forthcoming from CavanKerry Press in 2021. Rebecca teaches writing at Westfield State University and is editor/director of Perugia Press. Find her at rebeccahartolander.com and @rholanderpoet.
Your new collection of poetry is Dressing the Wounds. Tell us about the project and how it came into being.
The new collection is also my first collection, and it came into being in kind of an unusual way, at least for me. In sum, I created it with a specific press in mind, and I didn’t get feedback on the manuscript as a whole before submitting it for consideration. To explain further, in the summer of 2018, I was feeling pretty discouraged by the lack of success I was having placing my full-length manuscript. I had finished my MFA program three years prior, and each year I was having a steady incline in individual subs being accepted, but lots of rejections (and a nice bunch of semi-finalist/finalist nods) for the book. I felt like it was high time I had a book in the world, and it began to seem silly that I hadn’t even had a chapbook out yet. Even students of mine were publishing chaps, and I was feeling like I’d skipped a step trying to go from individual publications to placing a full-length manuscript.
I started by looking at the individual poems that I’d been getting published; none of those were in the FL book I was sending out. I reasoned that if these pieces were strong enough to have been accepted by journals, perhaps they could have a wider audience. Then I looked to see if there was a common thread that might hold those poems together as a collection. It turns out that many were about marriage in some way, either mine, or the concept of marriage, or rituals around weddings, etc. Next I combed through my unpublished work looking for pieces to round out the collection. I had also found dancing girl press, and I greatly admired the poets that had been published there, and the fact that they publish a chapbook series annually featuring solely women poets. Kristy Bowen, the editor, does not accept simultaneous submissions, so I kind of made the book just for her, thinking the press was a good fit for my work. I put it together at the end of August, the tail end of her submission period, in the mad dash to accomplish personal goals before another academic year set in and I was back to teaching.
Usually, I would send such a project to my writing groups to be looked at as a whole, but this was a manuscript I put together myself in kind of a fever, selecting pieces, ordering them, and titling the book without getting constructive feedback of that kind. In a way it made the process and product more intimate, more organic, and maybe a little bit like jumping off a cliff! It also instilled confidence in my own instincts, which can get bruised by rejection, no matter our successes.
A number of poems in your chapbook are focused on love in all its imperfections and complications. Can you talk a bit about love poetry and what it means to you?
I guess I think of the love poetry that I like as that which shows warts and all. Often I read poetry to gain something I don’t already have, to step into someone else’s shoes, to be urged into empathy for an experience I haven’t had, etc. With love poetry, though, I think what I respond to most is other poems that also admit to the flaws and snags of relationships. I mean, I’m happy for those who smoothly sail through their romantic partnerships, but since I don’t and am committed to staying in mine in all its truth and beauty, I’m not sure how useful it is to read that other kind of love poetry. I can watch a movie that puts me in that space and not expect more from it, and even get carried away by it, but in poems I want the raw and the real. My poems try for honesty in that they do not portray a Hallmark version of love and instead show that it requires work and patience and flexibility and humility and a whole host of unsexy process words. I write to reconcile myself to myself, and to those I love, and to the world around me, and reconciliation is an active form of living and loving.
The title of your collection, Dressing the Wounds, evokes the forgiveness and reparations of relationships, the healing that occurs for love to continue on. Do you find that the act of writing itself is a way to dress and address your wounds? What about the act of reading of poetry?
Thank you for that description! That is just what I was hoping to evoke, and I do think reading actively achieves that as well, which is partly what I was getting at with my last answer. I worried a little over the title seeming too grim, if people focused on the “wound” aspect over the “dressing” part. There are actual dresses/costumes in the book, so that was a literal aspect I was trying to conjure, but, yes, mostly the title was, for me, about how we move forward by healing and taking care of the places we are vulnerable. It absolutely speaks to forgiveness.
I do indeed find that writing is a way to confront, to address wounds and reckon with them and try to puzzle out how to feel about them, how to move forward in spite of them. For many people that is a pretty private thing to do, and one reader recently told me the book is “brave” in that it tackles terrain many are familiar with but don’t often share. I was really happy to hear that take on how the book felt to her. My intention was to try to express myself in a way that extended beyond what would matter to me, and I hope that readers find their similar wounds addressed too. I also didn’t want to write a one-sided account that excluded a partner’s experience, though I am not sure I was 100% successful since I, like everyone, have a hard time being objective when it comes to these things. The act of considering both sides and trying to write in a way that avoids judgment is the place I think it is most respectful to write from, so that’s where I aim and where I hope I land most of the time. Certainly time and other readers can help in hitting this mark, so I did have fellow writers, and my husband, read the book after it had been accepted and before the final version was due to the editor.
Are there things you’ve learned as an editor and teacher that have helped you as a writer? What about the reverse?
Great question! I have likely learned the most overall from being a reader, just immersing myself in some of the many ways others write poetry, in both content and form. Before I was the editor at Perugia Press, I volunteered reading contest submission manuscripts for the press. That taught me a lot about the different choices that can be made when structuring and ordering a book.
As for teaching, I generally teach composition courses, which are based in rhetoric and around the ideas of audience, genre, and purpose. It was a surprise to me to see that there are parallels to be drawn between rhetoric and poetry. For example, it is indeed important to think about whom one’s readers are, and which audiences are receiving the poem. And to consider what vehicle is best for one’s words to arrive in and whether that always should be a poem. Finally, it’s not a bad idea to ask of yourself, “So what?” when revising a poem. If the poem doesn’t have a purpose or anything at stake beyond rant or description, it may not be ready for a larger audience.
Some of what I’ve learned as a writer is to be patient with ebbs and flows, to not be completely felled by rejection, to know that with practice and time writing can deepen and grow, and to rely on a community of other writers with whom to share work. These are all things I try to help my students to see also, whether they are taking a comp course or are in one of the rare creative writing or poetry classes I get to teach.
How did you get started as a writer? What keeps you writing?
I wrote my first poem at seven, and I fell in love with poetry by others in high school — the yellow fog and sea-girls of T.S. Eliot and Sylvia Plath’s gorgeous despair and rise from the ashes. Poems that made me feel like their authors were conjuring my life in their lines. In college, I worked as an editor for literary/arts journals and loved collaborating on creating finished products to showcase the great work of others, and I also took my first serious writing workshops as an undergrad. My final thesis at Hampshire College was a poetry manuscript.
After college, and with two kids and jobs drawing me away from poetry to the point where I mourned its absence, I found my way back through joining writing groups with fellow poets. So, community is definitely one of the answers to what keeps me writing. I went back to school after I turned 40 to get an MFA (at Vermont College of Fine Arts), which helped me to take my writing even more seriously and to always make a space for it even alongside other responsibilities and relationships. It also gave me a new way of creating writing in community as I first experienced creating collaboratively at VCFA, and that has been really meaningful and fruitful for me. I don’t write daily, or even regularly, but it is my primary creative outlet and way of understanding my environment, and my place within that. So, the other thing that keeps me writing is both the unexpected beauty and brightness of the everyday as well as the inevitable brinks and plunges into darkness life offers. That seems to be when I am moved to write, either in awe or gratitude for the world’s loveliness — from a state of wonder — or when I feel unmoored and go in search of answers to questions, or at least a place to voice the unanswerable.
Do you feel community is important as a writer? How do you stay connected?
Absolutely. Community is key. It’s what brought me back to being an active writer, it’s what keeps me going and gives me perspective. I think of community first as my dear friends I write with and exchange work with. But community in writing is so much bigger. It’s about being a literary citizen, showing up for each other’s readings and reading each other’s books, sharing the rare joys of acceptances and the landslide of rejections. It’s about feeling there are others who get you and to whom you don’t have to explain yourself in terms of why writing matters to you. I have two regular writing groups, and an intermittent online writing exchange, and I try to follow fellow writers I admire on social media and come out for their events and shout out about their work. It’s so humbling when someone does that for me, and I love to try to do the same. Through my work with Perugia, I find myself in community even more — with the poets we publish, with the women I meet at book fairs who are curious about the press and/or have supported our work by sending us theirs or buying our books. That’s humbling too! I feel really lucky to be able to meet the fellow writers I meet and to have such dear friends in poetry.
What are you currently reading?
I’m reading mostly Black women right now, but also I’ve been engaging with Ibram X. Kendi’s nonfiction book How to Be an Antiracist, which I’m reading in community (important as a reader as well!) with the Perugia Press board and also a group of colleagues at Westfield State University, where I teach. I just read the novel An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, as I’m interested in books that illuminate the underbelly of the criminal justice system (and of marriage!), and poetry books I’m spending time with recently are Mend, by Kwoya Fagin Maples, 1919, by Eve L. Ewing, and A Wreath for Emmett Till, by Marilyn Nelson. All three of these poets blend story/history/poetry in profound and compelling ways. I am struck by their work, that resonance you feel when poetry grabs you, and I also learn from the terrain it explores. In their prefaces, both Maples and Ewing explicitly ask readers to pass on to others what has been read; Nelson’s book is intended to educate as well, having been made particularly for young people. I appreciate so much the work that went into making these books and the hope implied in passing on the word about these story-poems.
I met Kwoya Maples at AWP a few years ago and she has been supportive of Perugia and is a stellar literary citizen. Mend is rooted in the experiences of enslaved women upon whom gynecological experiments were performed, but it asks us to link these roots to the inequities Black women still face today in health care. I came to Eve Ewing through her nonfiction work Ghosts in the Schoolyard, about racism and closures in the Chicago Public Schools, and her poetry is stunning and necessary. 1919 is a story in poems (and some photos) about the race riots of that same year in Chicago, but also about what led to them and what branched out from there afterwards. She writes, “I like to use poems as what-if machines and as time-traveling devices.”
Marilyn Nelson’s book I got last summer at the Poetry by the Sea conference where I was presenting for Perugia. It was run by the incomparable Kim Bridgford, who recently passed from this world (though her presence lives on in the poetry community she helped to forge). She was a champion of formal verse and women poets especially. This crown of sonnets by Nelson is a moving book for all readers, exquisitely illustrated by Philippe Lardy. A Wreath for Emmett Till also uses the past to speak to the present, with Nelson’s dedication reading: “For innocence murdered. For innocence alive.”
Name a poet (or two) you would like more readers to know about.
Well, I’ll mention that all of the books we publish at Perugia Press are first or second books of poetry by women. So, these are emerging poets, and I think folks should know about all of them! Our new website (perugiapress.org) is a great place to check out who we’ve published, and our annual contest is open until November 15, in case women readers of this conversation have a first or second full-length book that is looking for a good home.
I’ll specifically mention our latest book, Now in Color, which is available now. The author, Jacqueline Balderrama, is a Mexican-American poet who writes about the multigenerational experience of immigrants, touching on family mythos, history, Hollywood, the border, water, ekphrasis, self-expression, language, lions, and so much more. It’s a beautiful, important book, and I’m so honored to have worked with Jackie this spring and summer to bring this collection to the world.
What can the world expect from you in the future?
I’m deeply happy to share that my own first full-length collection, Uncertain Acrobats, will be published by CavanKerry Press in the fall of 2021. I also have another full-length and several chaps I’ve worked on, though none of those are slated for publication yet. I hope to spend more time on collaboration and collage, as well. Right now I’m focused on getting ready to teach remotely again in the fall (in a more intentional, prepared way than I was able to in the spring), on launching Perugia’s annual contest and promoting our new book, and also on taking a more active stance against racism, violence, and oppression in tandem with the organizations I work for (my school and Perugia Press). I’m quite disconnected from my own work right now, but it feels good to focus outward these days. Writing will keep and will return when the time is right.