The Chat: Trevor Corkum Interviews Damian Rogers

TREVOR CORKUM cropped
DRogers painting by MJanisse

This month we turn to poetry on The Chat. First up, we’re pleased to speak to Damian Rogers, whose second collection of poems, Dear Leader (Coach House Books), earned warm critical praise upon its release last year.

In Dear Leader, Rogers mines the debris and cool detritus of the human heart, picking her way carefully through the long back lanes of memory and their shadowy emotional corners. Praising her work, the Globe and Mail called the collection “poems about the control death has over the realm of the living…death and loss and fear are present, controlling forces all the way through the book.”

Originally from the Detroit area, Damian Rogers now lives in Toronto where she works as the poetry editor of both House of Anansi Press and The Walrus, as the literary curator and co-host of the performance series The Basement Revue, and as the creative director of Poetry in Voice, a national recitation contest for Canadian high-school students. Her first book of poems, Paper Radio, was nominated for the Pat Lowther Memorial Award.

Photo credit: Paining of Damian Rogers by MJanisse

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THE CHAT WITH DAMIAN ROGERS

Trevor Corkum: Michelangelo once said, “Every block of stone has a statue inside of it, and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” As you worked on your collection, what emerged as the statue—the energy, the mood, or the main theme or pressing question you wanted to explore?

Damian Rogers: Because I was working on this book over a period of nearly five years, it is perhaps not a cohesive work in the way a book written over a very focused and short period of time might be. But my interests, preoccupations, pains, and problems were all circling the same landscape. I was interested in power, and dissociation, and the relationship between the two.

As I started to pull things together into a book, the shape of it became more and more clear. From a very early stage I had decided upon some specific structural constraints (like that the book would have four sections of 13 poems each) and as it grew, I thread some nearly invisible echoes of that structure throughout.

TC: Dear Leader is such a great title, capturing the sense of irony and irreverence towards power and power structures evoked in so many of the poems. Several of the poems in the last section are also titled “Dear Leader.” Can you talk more about why this title is important to you, and why you made the choice to subvert reader expectation by layering the last section with these same-named poems?

DR: Thanks, that’s nice to hear. Once I had this title in my mind, it gave me a psychic target at which to pitch. I found it very easy to channel the voice of those poems once I had that epistolary form—focusing that voice toward the target created the tension I needed for her to be real. She existed in relation to that which she desired.

I think we are always, consciously or unconsciously, defining ourselves in relation to that which we see as outside ourselves. Whoever the leader she addresses might be, for the reader, she is the only one speaking, and so she is the one with power.

TC: In many poems, your line is short, tense, fused—with all the explosive energy of a dangerous live wire. Take, for example, these lines from one of my favourite poems, “Sacbe,” which visually mimic the long, coiled, snake-like feel of the poem:

I found
a snakeskin
on the
old road
from Uxmal
to Kabah,
eroded as
the pathways
connecting her
control centres.

Can you talk more about which writers (or artists) have influenced your own creative development with particular regards to structure and form? Has your own work seen an evolution in terms of how you approach form and structure over time?

This poem in particular holds a lot of influences within it. I wrote it during a writing pact with Matthew Zapruder (we have committed to writing daily in response to shared exercises a number of times over the years), and I’m pretty sure the exercise we were following when I wrote this one was invented by Matthew Rohrer. And then, in terms of content, I wrote this poem about a trip I’d taken to Mexico that year to meet and work with Anne Waldman.

I’ve also loved Robert Creeley’s poems for years (I have a poem for him in my first book) and he is known for these very tight, compressed lines that I’m going for here. Bernadette Mayer’s use of form influenced the villanelles in Dear Leader, though I have always liked villanelles (I’m attracted to repetition and circularity as a narrative device).

While working on this book, I was reading a lot of Joanne Kyger, Hoa Nguyen, Charles Olson, James Schuyler, Alice Notley, Anne Waldman, Robin Blaser, Ed Sanders, Burroughs. And I will say, too, that when I was a bit younger, I read everything by W. S. Merwin, Mark Strand, Anne Sexton, Plath. When I first started reading poetry as a young adolescent, I was reading people like Ferlinghetti and lyrics by the kinds of songwriters featured in hippie poetry anthologies from the early 1970s. So I’m interested in experimentation with formal structure and how different containers shape the material you pour into them.

TC: One of the other frequent themes in your work is family—both as a generative source of support and emotional and psychic power, but also as a closed container for our experience, or a sometimes suffocating bond. Family is both a source of mystery and veneration, but also skepticism and distance.

I’m thinking of this great line from the poem “Meet Me At The Famous Kiwanis Peach Festival:

 

"You’ve been thinking your parents aren’t the geniuses they once
were."

 

Familial relationships are always so fraught—so great ground for poetry. Can you talk about the role of family in your work? Has family played an important role in your development as an artist?

My family definitely played an important role in my development as an artist, in the ways my mother and grandmother encouraged me as a child toward creative pursuits and also in the ways in which their inability to meet their own goals within their lifetimes also inform both my doubts and ambitions. (My mother dreamed of being a professional artist and my grandmother aspired to be a published writer.)

I’ve been open about the fact that while writing this book I was dealing with both the diagnosis of my mother’s dementia and also with the process of starting my own family. I’m a member of what has been coined the “sandwich generation,” people who are responsible for raising small children while caring for aging parents at the same time. Mothering became the hinge of my experience.

I’ve been open about the fact that while writing this book I was dealing with both the diagnosis of my mother’s dementia and also with the process of starting my own family.

That line you quote, I almost cut that poem, because I wrote it before my mother was diagnosed and I had no idea that she was suffering from early-onset frontal lobe dementia at that point. It felt so cruel later. But it was a moment in time, filled with confusion and frustration and a kind of sad acceptance of decline within intimacy. And my own sense of time started to collapse, so the importance of memory, however slippery and broken free from linearity, became one of my central concerns.

TC: Finally, still on the creation theme—do you have any rituals or superstitions involved in your writing process? Or do you generally follow a fixed writing routine?

I am very interested in daily practice, in the creation of routine. I’m not a naturally disciplined person—I have a restless mind and my attention is easily captured by new ideas, projects, people. It’s been a long road for me to get to the place where I put my own work at the centre of my life, rather than at the edges of it, and I have to constantly question how I’m organizing my time and energy. If I’m disconnected from my source too long, then I become lost.

It’s been a long road for me to get to the place where I put my own work at the centre of my life, rather than at the edges of it, and I have to constantly question how I’m organizing my time and energy

On the one hand I’m drawn to a life filled with lots of noise—my husband recently said, “You have a different relationship to talking than me.” I will talk to someone for hours, no problem. I’m good to talk, as they say. No matter how many times I vow to streamline my activities, I’m magnetically drawn to that stimulation of engagement with others. And then I hit a wall and I have to retreat and isolate myself completely. I’m currently canvassing Facebook for an apartment to hide in for a few days to try to meet a writing deadline. I might rent an apartment on Airbnb in my own neighborhood. Going into a cave is part of my process, it makes it possible for me to go deeper, to be still and listen.

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EXCERPT FROM DEAR LEADER

Used by permission of the author

 

Dear Leader

As you know, I did not join the Hole in the Universe Gang
or follow Father Yod of the ridiculous robes. I flowed
through my crises beautiful as a bruise, and alone. A man I loved
drove his motorcycle off the fat lip of Big Sur into glittering
oblivion. A new nation of Penelopes practiced the art of the loom,
planting a never-finished forest in which wildflowers bloomed
on the backs of jean jackets and hand-sewn throw pillows,
while I waited for you to choose me. The waitress at the health
food restaurant was a lemon-scented sun to my Death Valley
moon. I swooned as out the window your dark cluster rose
in the sky. How glorious was your shining forth from the horizon
when you detonated the Two Lands with your terrible rays!
I starved till my bones shone, and your voice rang in my ear.

 

 

—Damian Rogers

February 11, 2016
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