An Interview with Barbara Rockman, author of Sting and Nest (Buy the book)
I met Barbara Rockman in the spring of 2012 when, hoping to connect with other poets in Santa Fe, I took her poetry workshop class at the Santa Fe Community College. The class was packed with both new and returning students. Everyone loved her class and her way of teaching (and preaching) poetry. I had such a good time, I signed up for the class again this spring. It's been a treat being her student and getting to know her and her poems.
Barbara Rockman was raised in western Massachusetts. After many years working as a drama teacher, artist-in-the-schools, arts education curriculum consultant and director of arts programs, she returned to an early love of writing. At 48, she earned her MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and has taught poetry for the past 15 years. Her poems appear widely in journals and anthologies. Her book, Sting and Nest (2011, Sunstone Press), received the New Mexico-Arizona Book Award and the National Press Women Poetry Book Prize. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico with her husband, Rick.
Mary: I’m working on the idea of tagging books of poetry by subject and doing this as a way for new audiences to find books of poetry more easily online. If we were to tag your book, what subject would you choose? My guesses would be: motherhood, daughter-hood, grief, nature, home, marriage—what would you subtract or add to this list?
Barbara: I think your subjects are great. Maybe add: women’s voices.
Mary: I love how your book tackles the very thorny topic of mothers in conflict with their daughters. The mother/daughter dynamic is very emotional, multi-faceted and full of power yet I feel this is a largely untapped topic for most women poets, as if the sometimes-crazy relationships we have are too hot to handle or we’re afraid to talk about taboo feelings. And your mother’s-point-of-view poems refreshingly avoid reading as “precious.” Does your relationship with your own daughters influence this way of approaching the topic?
Barbara: I am glad that you read these poems as unsentimental. It continues to be a fine line for mother poets to walk. I want my work to be as brutally honest as I can bear because those are the mother voices I need to hear. Clearly, Adriennne Rich, Sharon Olds, Rita Dove, Sylvia Plath, Alicia Ostriker and others are great inspiration. We mother poets give each other courage and permission.
Oh yes, my relationship with my daughters has a huge influence on my work, but it is important to remember that the poem takes on a life of its own and is not autobiography. A lyric poem, at its best, is a heightened and brief experience of emotion, music and narrative. And I will say, I have always been very close to both my daughters. We talk about everything and they teach me a great deal about the world and about myself.
Mary: You are very honest in your portrayal of how the mother/daughter relationship moves from a God-like sense of influence over them to when daughters break away and disagree, when they move into a state of becoming unique people: they get tattoos (and I like how you describe how this feels for you, like they are walking away from their selves), they “go without their given names.” You talk about “swift erasure” and loneliness. The poems “Bonds” and “Daughters” felt like the touchstone poems for these particular emotions. In “Cottage, Mid-Season,” I love all the meanings available to the lines “My daughters return from countries/I’ve not visited.” So there seems to be two issues here: one of a daughter separating from the mother and a co-dependency that dissolves that is painful to experience; two that daughters in many cases live lives that seem almost alien to their mothers (“the dark dangerous hallways of their lives”)—and it takes a good deal of effort to relate to that for a mother. Does that come close to explaining what is going on?
Barbara: I think you understand what I am reaching for in exploring the inevitable separation mothers and daughters experience as they move into young adulthood. Now that my daughters are in their twenties and living in cities far from mine, living their new and challenging lives, I am increasingly aware of how we raise and then release these beautiful, complicated, mysterious and yet familiar beings.
What I find interesting is that you interpreted the subject of the poem, “The Emptying,” and the phrase, “swift erasure” to be about my daughters’ leaving home. I wrote it after we moved from one house to another and was impressed by how whole lives and stories evaporate as we remove our stuff and the histories that occur in a given place. Poof! This was the scene of meals, arguments, celebrations, and conversation and then it is stripped and put in a van and no one will know what took place. What I realize in your response to the poem, is that when a subject, such as motherhood runs through a collection, it becomes easy for the reader to radiate that theme into many poems. Good information for anyone building a manuscript!
Mary: You also tackle the particular relationship between daughter and father, particularly having a father who is also a writer. In “I Was the Poet’s Daughter,” you talk about “his replacing/yours with his big words” and finding your own creative identity outside of that, a “clamoring down into language” that was yours. How did this vocational relationship with your father both create obstacles for you and add to who you became as a writer?
Barbara: My father and I were close. He was a physician and a writer. He encouraged my writing when I got my first creative writing assignments in seventh and eighth grade, but as the poem indicates, I was susceptible to his criticism and ideas. There were times I threw crumpled pages at him! Of course, he meant well, but it took me years to shake the sense of his hovering over my shoulder. Writing that poem, addressed to my young self, was healing. Sadly, my father did not live long enough to share in my career as a poet.
Mary: You deal briefly with your childhood in New England which transposes nicely with poems about your life now in New Mexico (I love the poem “The Last Havoc of Color” talking about the desert and ending with “a drawer full of ash.”) How does a sense of place work into your poems? What are the symbols or visuals of place that are meaningful to you between Massachusetts and New Mexico?
Barbara: I often begin any given writing by setting it in its natural place. That may or may
not remain in the poem, but I need to be grounded in the natural world, in a state of witness. I may start by describing shadow on my stucco wall or snow in the crook of a tree.
The New England landscape remains my touchstone. I spent hours and hours alone in the farmland, meadows, woods, swamps, streams and lakes of my childhood in western Massachusetts. It was my entry into a contemplative life. As much as I love New Mexico, nothing will replace that intimacy.
Mary: You also revisit the idea grief and the death of parents. In the poem “Daily Bread,” I love the declaration “the verb for death conjugates itself.” In the poem “Early Grief” you talk about your “months circling grief’s/ dark orchard” and about preparing for the inevitable death of a loved-one. In the poem “Soon My Mother Will Die” you do the same, preparing for motherless-ness and acknowledging,
“Like leaves flattened to the soles of my shoes,
the imprint of her long walk presses into mine”
…a line I found to be very powerful and resonant with my relationship to my own mother. How difficult was it to write about parental relationships?
Barbara: The poems about my parents’ and my mother-in-law’s deaths were ways through grief. Just a step, mind you. I am grateful to have poetry as a way to better understand and name such deep emotion.
I do not find the subject of parental relationship to be difficult. The great danger for poets is writing the angry, blaming parent poem rather than the poem of statement and story which allows the reader to bring themselves to the experience. Jericho Brown, in his book Please, has some powerful work on this topic. And poet Li-Young Lee is a master of the father poem.
Mary: You touch briefly on the marriage relationship. The poem “Conditional Love Story” is both cryptic and powerfully emotional. You deal with issues of trust, openness and comfort. But your poems never fall into sentimentality. How do you approach this topic of writing about marriage?
Barbara: There are a few marriage poems in this collection. At best, I want the poem to detail an emotional and physical event, for the images to resonate some emotional energy. I think the marriage poems do this: my husband and I arguing in “Harangue,” is filled with images of travel in a foreign country and daily stuff children play with; his gathering apples in the backyard in “As I Watch, My Husband,” holds the imagery of the Garden, baseball and the iconic screen door through which the wife watches. “Conditional Love Story” was an exercise I gave myself to play with the repetition of “If” as the start of each line. That poem remains a mystery, a kind of surreal dreamscape.
Interestingly, I have a quite a few newer marriage poems that will probably fall into the next book. Marriage is not easy and mine has had many ups and downs. I want to be honest. The newer poems address this as well as the joy of a long marriage that, if you are as lucky as I am, has many sweet and surprising turns. I want to be willing to celebrate the joys as well as honor the hard realities of relationship. My husband is wonderfully willing to be the supposed subject though again, as it is said, as poets “we owe the truth nothing.”
Mary: There are a few references to birds, wasps, elements of the outside. In the poem “In each paper cell” you reference the book title “sting and nest.” In “Snowed In” we see the dramatic contrasted image of one crow in the snow. In “weeping is to pearl as flight to calculus,” I love the image of the “trees arthritic reach for sky.” How did you come to title the collection and do you feel these elements of nature play a symbolic role in the book?
Barbara: The title came from a line in my poem, “in each paper cell.” I suppose I have always been intrigued by the beauty and danger of wasps’ nests. Of course, the concept of nest as home and the “stings” we weather in families feels like my subject. When I wrote the poem I was thinking of none of this. I was imagining and remembering the thrill of encountering and questioning such beauty in the wild.
Mary: I loved your use of good-sounding words that happened to be on your mind like ‘harangue’ and ‘wreckage.’ You also talk about silence. How do you play with sounds in your poems?
Barbara: I love the music that runs through language. I often riff on words and word sounds in my notebook before I start writing just to feel the pleasurable energy of repetition and rhythm. I continue to explore silence on the page, white space and line breaks as ways to quiet and slow or open the poem. There is so much to praise in the unsaid, in what hovers around the clutch of words, in what is between and beneath the lines. This is an increasing act of faith! And the endless exploration of what it means to make poems: the joy and conundrum!
Mary: How did you go about organizing your poems for a collection? Do you organize chronologically or by theme or tone?
Barbara: I struggled for years with the organization of “Sting and Nest.” It was my first book and, at first, I questioned my instincts. I had a terrific teacher, Bruce Weigel, who gave me ideas about how to put it together. Finally, it felt like a cycle of poems that moved through seasons, stages of life and a personal journey. I also played with the idea of images that closed one poem moving into resonant images that opened the next poem. When I read the book now I see subtle energies that move from poem to poem and it’s really satisfying. I think much of organizing a manuscript is intuitive. I think I will struggle less with the next one.
Mary: What books are you reading now, poetry and non-poetry?
Barbara: I am reading Mary Ruefle’s book of essays, Madness, Rack and Honey. She was a teacher at Vermont College and her essays are imaginative, conversational brilliant and unexpected. Just finished Eavan Boland’s Becoming A Woman Poet, A Journey With Two Maps. I need constant inspiration for myself and my students to believe in the value of their work. I am reading poets Ilya Kaminsky and Nikky Finney and the novel, Gilead by Marilynne Nelson. I am always interspersing books and there’s always spiritual exploration. Now I am working to enter the tough but amazing work of Avivah Zornberg in The Beginning of Desire, reflections on Genesis. My bedside table is overflowing.
Buy the Book
You can buy the book on Amazon.com and at Collected Works Bookstore, Garcia Street Books and Op-Cit Books in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and at Bookworks in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
- Poetry Writing Workshop, an 8-10 week generative and craft workshop for poets at all levels;
- Just Write! an 8-10 week workshop to generate new work for writers in all genres at all levels;
- Demystifying Poetry, a 4-6 week class which deconstructs and provides entry into contemporary poetry;
- Women Write To The Edge, a daylong workshop in which women writers embrace the joys of risk and surprise as a route to finding their authentic voice and subject.
Classes are taught at Renesan Institute for Lifelong Learning, Santa Fe Community College and in independent settings. For information about classes please contact Barbara at firstname.lastname@example.org.