Rachel Rose has won national awards for her poetry, her fiction, and her non-fiction. She has published poems, short stories and essays in Canada, the U.S., New Zealand and Japan, including Poetry, The Malahat Review, and The Best American Poetry and Rocksalt: An Anthology of Contemporary B.C. Poetry. She is the author of three books of poetry, Song and Spectacle, Notes on Arrival and Departure, and Giving My Body to Science.
In 2011 she was commissioned to write a libretto, working with composer Leslie Uyeda, which will be performed as an opera in summer 2013. She is also collaborating as a poet and songwriter with singer-guitar player Simon Paradis, bass player Jefferson Rose, and musician Tobi Stone.
If we had not spent all this time mouth to mouth
I would not mourn like this, Isabelle
left to myself for a night.
Love between us leaves no space
It leaves no space, we are mouths
upon mouths meeting after the alarm is fumbled
and we struggle apart in the sheets.
What will your day be like?
You ask, as the dog and I walk you to the bus.
I tell you lesson plans, chores and poetry.
How I’d like to show you the hibiscus blooming
but you are home only after dark
When the blue-veined petals have folded
their dusky wings and fallen like moths at first frost,
like the hands of your patients
against the sheets.
Daily you grow more astonished
at the careful rigor of our two bodies,
the way we continue to pulse and desire
independent of light or season.
Coming back alone I clean the house
then rest on the sofa, the dog
curled like a prawn
rising and falling on my bladder.
I read poetry, doze,
push away the hours till morning
when I’m full awake, the day lived without you.
As the atrioventricular arteries arch
Around each chamber of the heart, twist
apart and then anastomose,
so do I always come back to you
and so do you always return to me
Bearing small gifts: winter pomegranates,
fragrant coffee, but also
dark essentials: mouth
to mouth, joined breath.
And in your absence I am no more
than that hibiscus folded in darkness
and no less than that fist of red and pollen
spilt on the cedar floor.
(from “Giving My Body to Science,” McGill Queen’s University Press, 1999)
Melissa Bull: Giving My Body to Science is a book I received as a gift when I was maybe twenty or twenty one years old. I have re-read some of those poems so often that I know them by heart, particularly the poems towards the end of the book, concerning bodies, anatomy classes, relationships, the language of two different lives that co-exist in love’s routines and strangenesses.
Rachel Rose: Thank you for this, Melissa. I appreciate it deeply!
MB: Your third book, Song & Spectacle certainly bears an appropriate title, given the biblical scope of the collection, thematically, and the lauding, celebratory sense of awe that runs throughout the pieces. But I wonder, too, how it might perhaps relate to your experience with libretto. How does song enter formally into your poetry? For instance, I’ve noticed a rhyming couplet happening at the ends of your poems. Has your libretto writing affected your sense of poetry? Are they distinct arts? Or do they overlap, and if so, how?
And to backtrack a moment — could you tell us a bit about how you came to write a libretto?
RR: I’ve been writing in solitude for more than two decades. Even solitary writing is, for me, a collaborative process. I write upon the bones of my foremothers and forefathers. I take their breath into my body and make it my own. But I have always worked in isolation, until I was introduced to Leslie Uyeda by Louise Hager, a woman who has done so much for the artistic community in Vancouver. Louise knew Leslie Uyeda was looking for the right poet to write a libretto for Canada’s first lesbian opera.
But when Leslie first approached me, I thought she’d do better with someone else. I have no musical training: my other artistic love besides writing has always been drawing and painting. I can’t read music, I can’t sing on key, and I didn’t even have a rudimentary knowledge of the opera world. Leslie Uyeda has worked with some of Canada’s most accomplished poets and writers, including Joy Kogawa, and Lorna Crozier. So I was the junior member of this collaborative team, certainly. I think I was actually too ignorant to be intimidated, having no idea what kind of tremendous work writing this libretto would require — and of course, as an artist, I’m always curious, drawn to being a beginner again, to trying something completely new. I did bring to the table a good work ethic, and a deep knowledge of poetry, an ability to write strong narrative poetry. Leslie and I share an affinity for the lyric and the unforgettable in language and in subject matter — neither of us is interested in the prosaic, the pedestrian. After Leslie read my poetry and invited me to work with her, I said, “yes.” That first yes has led me to the some of the greatest joys in my career, and also to some of the most challenging frustrations.
As I immersed myself in the world of music and opera and song, I began to write the libretto for When the Sun Comes Out. I set it in an imaginary country called Fundamentalia (wink, nudge) and it’s the story of a love affair between two women, Lilah, a young wealthy married mother, and Solana, a rebellious outsider, in a country where love between women is punishable by death. Writing a love story that hasn’t been written before has been tremendously exciting, and I feel a profound sense of making history. I’m also extremely relieved that my part in it is, for the most part, finished, as it nearly killed me to write the ending.
While we were collaborating on the libretto, two of my poems from Song & Spectacle, ”What We Heard About Death” and ”What Death Perhaps Heard,” were performed as part of a conference on the subject of Death, called In Passing. They were sung by soprano Heather Pawsey, the pianist was the exquisitely talented Rachel Iwassa, and of course Leslie Uyeda composed the haunting music for these pieces. It was a perfect fit. I had written a whole series of these pas de deux, poems that were, in my mind, choral pieces, made for multiple voices, made to be sung or spoken aloud. However, Leslie asked for a number of changes in the poems so that they would work better for Heather and musically, and that was interesting. I don’t tend to hold too tightly to lines or specific words, when I do, we discussed and debated, and Leslie made me reconsider how I write, consider the feel of words in the reader’s (singer’s) mouth. I grew as a writer from those discussions, thinking of the audience, of the text as performance, as something to be offered up vocally.
Hearing these pieces — poemsongs — emerge from Heather’s mouth that night, the beautiful notes, the care she took memorizing and singing the pieces, hearing the music that Leslie had created, hearing Rachel Iwassa on the piano as she played, was one of the most exquisitely painful experiences in my life. I felt as if I had been skinned — completely raw, all nerves, all sensory response — and simultaneously embraced—that my work was cherished as it had never been before. It was nearly unbearable.
When When the Sun Comes Out was workshopped in Vancouver last summer, I had the same sublime experience, one part agony and two parts ecstasy. To hear my words in the throats of these tremendous talents, Teiya Kasahara, Shirin Eskandani, and Joel Klein, was unforgettable, and to see what the composer, Leslie Uyeda had done with the music — to hear Rachel Iwassa’s creativity on the piano — I was blessed. I thought, as I heard them, “if I have nothing else as an artist, I will have had this night, and when I am an old woman, I will remember this night.” Commissioned by the Queer Arts Festival, I think we all shared the power of knowing that we were making history with this piece. I can’t wait for the premiere shows this August. (For more about last summer’s workshop, and updates for shows in 2013, click here.)
Collaborating has been interesting and mostly quite joyful. I know some poets who have felt that the composer used their words as kind of a salad, picking out the choice bits and rearranging them on their plate as they saw fit. My experience was the opposite. The composer a poet longs for knows poetry, knows how to read it, appreciates and respects the words as the scaffold, the bones of the body of music. I have rarely felt this kind of deep attention, and I would wish that every poet feels this at least once in her career: it’s better than ten years of therapy.
WHAT DEATH PERHAPS HEARD
RACHEL ROSE – AUBADE: GRENDEL’S MOTHER
Now that I’ve had a taste of collaboration, I am hungry for more. I am happy to be part of the art, a piece of the mosaic, if I can rub up against great talents that will never be mine. It’s pure joy.
MB: In Giving My Body, there’s a sense of acquiring a new language for the body, uncovering mysteries of the body. What kind of vocabulary is being explored in Song & Spectacle, would you say?
MB: I know that the villanelle was an important poetic structure at the time you wrote Giving My Body. How did you first encounter the villanelle? What kinds of poetic forms are you working with now?
RR: I’ll half-answer both of these questions at once, I think, as my new collection is a departure both in theme and in form. I’ve just finished reading Jonah Lehrer’s book Imagine. He writes about various aspects of creativity, about Dylan and music and poetry and how the creative mind works. Here he is:
“The constant need for insight has shaped the creative process. In fact, these radical breakthroughs are so valuable that we’ve invented traditions and rituals that increase the probability of an epiphany, making us more likely to hear these remote associations coming from the right hemisphere. Just look at poets, who often rely on literary forms with strict requirements, such as haikus and sonnets. At first glance, this writing method makes little sense, since the creative act then becomes much more difficult. Instead of composing freely, poets frustrate themselves with structural constraints.
But that’s precisely the point. Unless poets are stumped by the form, unless they are forced to look beyond the obvious associations, they’ll never invent an original line… And this is why poetic forms are so important. When a poet needs to find a rhyming word with exactly three syllables or an adjective that fits the iambic scheme, he ends up uncovering all sorts of unexpected connections; the difficulty of the task accelerates the insight process.” (p. 22, 23, Imagine)
This is exactly true to my experience, and to that of so many other writers, poets and songwriters. It’s the frustration of the form, the grappling that occurs, wrestling with the demonic angel, that allows the powerful mystery of juxtaposition, of new association, to happen. So in this collection, I invented a form that I call pas de deux, paired polyphonic poems that speak to a particular subject. They are able to contain the contradictions and disparate opinions within their music, I believe, and it’s been particularly meaningful to me that other writers, such as Susan Olding, have published strong pas de deux poems. Of course, I hope other poets will try their hand at my form. Pas de deux consist of a pair of poems that analyze and debate a subject. They allow for opposing and contradictory points of view, and support a multiplicity of voices. In art, this form would be a collage, in science, a symposium, in tragedy, a Greek chorus, in philosophy, a dialectic and in dance, a pas de deux. This form traces its aesthetic lineage to Walt Whitman, in that I wanted a form that would allow me to contain multitudes, to contradict myself, to hold the complexity of human experience in a single pleasing container.
At the same time, I’ve been opening up poetically, reading more experimental work, work that derives its energy through linguistic innovation rather than formal constraints. I’m always ready to be surprised, and in order to be surprised by poetry, I have to cast a wide net. I’m currently reading Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (1648-1695) and enjoying her immensely, though I wish I could read her in Spanish. I look at the Spanish as I go through my translation, and it gives me a taste of what I’m missing.
What the Universe Perhaps Heard
What the Universe Perhaps Heard
Beluga banter, tongue of stars
white noise: wonder what we are.
No atmosphere, clouds undone,
the fire-pop plasma of newborn suns.
Silent vacuum, blush of snow
hush now, thrum light undertow.
The nurse pulled the curtain
around her bed, and I held my newborn, her eyes
still glistening with erythromycin, small white bonnet
pulled over her wet hair, and only a thin curtain
separated me from the mother whose baby had died:
I don’t mean a metaphorical curtain. I mean a thin
green hospital curtain on a metal track.
I wished to, but dared not, pull it back.
(from Song & Spectacle, Habour Publishing, 2012)
MB: How do you approach your collections thematically? Do you know from the onset what kind of project you wish to make?
RR: Sometimes I know before I’ve written much what I’ll be writing. I prefer that to wandering in the wilderness, but that way works, too. It takes longer, but it works. I just have to remember to stop and ask for directions. My goal is to have a map before I set out. A map, a compass, and supplies make wilderness travel easier.
MB: This, your third book, concerns motherhood, questions of the universe, but it’s a universe considered via various narrative threads: biblical, eastern-Asian, sexual. And sexual not just in a romantic way, but in a co-creator with the universe way. How did you get to thinking about this myth-making stuff?
RR: I’ve never not considered this myth-making stuff. It’s the stuff of culture, infinitely fascinating, infinitely diverse. Our myths justify our prejudices, our control of the natural world, our domination of cultures not our own, of women and children, our myths teach us how to make war. Our myths teach us ethics, how to live in this world, how to endure grief, how to deal with injustice, how to honor courage and beauty and love. What writer doesn’t want a hand in writing the new myths? What could be more important than that?
MB: Let’s talk about the strong sense of narrative in your poetry. In a poem like ‘Delivery Room Under Renovation’, as much as Giving My Body to Science’s ‘Abalone Dives’, and many more, there is a strong sense of a story being told.
It seems to me that Song & Spectacle considers how we are made, by whom we are made, as much as how and by whom we are seen, or witnessed. This is very big picture stuff. Is it hard to wrangle with such a vast undertaking? Or is poetry its natural vehicle? Why poetry?
I’m only interested in big issues as a writer, really: how to live, how humans interact, what our myths mean to us, how cultures clash and what faith means. I’m not a poet interested in the particular moment, the slice in time, unless there are other layers of meaning, social commentary. This has nothing to do with length, of course: look at the wonderful haiku by Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902)
shitting in the winter turnip field—
the distant lights of the city.
So this poem, while not narrative, pleases because it is both a moment in time and social commentary, compressed to the utterly essential.
I suppose I am an amateur anthropologist, and I’m currently doing courses for a MA in psychology, so the human condition is of deep and abiding interest to me. Narrative moves these poems forward, but allows me to play along the way.
”Why say one school knows what true poetry is? Poetry doesn’t care… We don’t need to play well with others, we poets: we don’t need playground monitors. We need to read widely, read what we don’t crave as well as what we are naturally hungry for.”
Why poetry? Well, on the one hand, poetry has always tackled big subjects: that’s what epics and ballads and librettos are all about. On the other, poetry’s marginalized status would seem to encourage moving to other genres for big issues. I won’t argue how, or whether, poetry should gain a wider audience. I will say that I’ve always written non-fiction and fiction as well, but poetry will always be mine, and I will always belong to poetry. It is the most generous and flexible of genres, astonishing in the many ways it can be shaped by form. My poetics is an omnivorous one, and I read widely, though I am, more and more, drawn to the sound of language, the music of it, which brings me back to writing in form. I don’t like jigsaw puzzles, but I love the puzzle of a Ghazal, the riddle of a rhyme, the vex of a villanelle, the tight beat of a blues ballad. Nothing more satisfying than getting it right, though of course I always only get it almost perfect; there’s always a flaw.
Why poetry, though: I had a brief but interesting online exchange with the poet Jonathan Ball recently, whose work I stumbled upon as I read an online critique of Carmine Starnino’s criticisms of the avant-garde. (More about that later. Just kidding.) My discussion with Jonathan (whom I’ve never met, but such dynamic discussions are wonderfully possible now, thanks to the internet) was around the avant-garde’s distrust of emotion as being too easy, too accessible, as pandering to the audience on some basic level. I have been drawn to improv and stand-up comedians (there are certainly a number of writers who have dipped into these worlds, my favorite among them poet and novelist Sherman Alexie). I’ve learned from them, and I think their work is some of the most exciting and experimental out there (along with graphic novelists) and it’s all about breaking taboo and exploring emotion, disarming the listener through laughter, and then transgressing. Does it want what will make for an easy laugh? Not anymore. Comedy isn’t even necessarily funny any more — it’s risky, it’s courageous, it’s unacceptable. But it does explore the world through the emotions, and that’s what I want to do poetically. So I acknowledge the avant-garde’s impatience with a poetry that seeks to hit easy emotional scores with reader. But there’s nothing new about avant-garde poetry any more than there is with confessional poetry or nature poetry; generations have been experimenting with linguistics, with free verse, with word play, just as they have with lyric poetry. So if nothing’s new, then everything is up for grabs — it’s up to each poem or poetic project to justify the space it takes up on the page, and I am sure there are many possible and fascinating justifications.
At the same time, those deep emotional truths are literature’s wisdom. This is what myth teaches, this is what I turn to literature to provide. I suppose there is a continuum in poetry, between those who explore emotion through lyricism and those who are more interested in language experimentation, in linguistics, in narrative. I’m fascinated by the poets who are playing the continuum like a flute, making poetry that is linguistically challenging, but also speaks to the heart. I think the squabbles are annoying, really. What is good in every genre rises to the top, and delights and informs. Why say one school knows what true poetry is? Poetry doesn’t care. She is vast, she has room for everyone. She is able to hold the contradictions in her apron. She can watch her practitioners squabbling in the playground and throwing apples at each other, and she can gather them in at night and clean the gravel from their knees and love them all equally. Of course she can. We don’t need to play well with others, we poets: we don’t need playground monitors. We need to read widely, read what we don’t crave as well as what we are naturally hungry for.
Lorca knew this: “Beneath all the statistics/there’s a drop of duck’s blood.” We are looking for the prayer, the litany, the poem to teach us how to make it through hard times and how to live well. We are also looking for the trick, the thrill, the unexpected shock, the juxtaposition that makes us see differently, see better. Every week I come across such poems, and I praise them.