“People say why do you write poetry. What’s the point, why do you do it? When I was young, I read a lot of Rainer Maria Rilke’s book Letters to a Young Poet,” Rollender explains. “And the younger poet asks, ‘Well, how do I know that I’m a poet?’…Rilke says, ‘listen it burns in your soul, it burns in your heart, it burns you up. You can’t not do it. If you wake up in the middle of the night because you need to write, that’s how you know you’re a poet.’ And that’s how my life is.”
Rollender, an editor of several magazines and author of several chapbooks (smaller 12-24 page books of poems), started writing poetry when she was 15.
“I remember being in high school and going to a used book store, and finding a Tennyson volume, probably from the 1880s,” Rollender recalls. “I was captivated by what poetry could do and how it could engage with me. And that point I started writing.”
Though she, like many poets, thought her early work was not very good, she has won multiple awards for her poetry, including the Ruminate Magazine Janet B. McCabe Poetry Prize in 2012 for her poem, “Necessary Work.”
The poem and Rollender’s new collection, Louder Than Everything You Love, focuses on the themes of motherhood and family. Becoming a mother changed Rollender’s poetry, but especially the moment that was the inspiration for “Necessary Work.”
“My first child was born early, she was in the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit), it was a fraught pregnancy, so we didn’t expect her to be born under the circumstances she was born under and for a while I didn’t know if she would be okay,” Rollender explains. “So I ended up writing this poem called “Necessary Work” about the time she spent in the NICU and the vulnerability I felt, the helplessness, all that kind of thing.”
The recognition for “Necessary Work,” which was picked to win by one of Rollender’s favorite poets, Li Young Lee, validated the importance of motherhood poetry because people can connect to it.
After reading a selection of poems from Louder Than Everything You Love, and another collection still in the works, she answered questions from the audience, but ended on this note.
“I always say to people, you know what’s crazy? You think your whole life, ‘I want to be an artist’, and then suddenly you are,” Rollender explains. “It’s like a dream come true, it so hokey, but it really is amazing.”