Art Talk with NEA Creative Writing Fellow Alison Rollins
As a black, queer poet who did not pursue an MFA in writing, Alison Rollins describes her many achievements as “kind of a Cinderella story. I'm coming from an under-represented demographic. I'm coming from a family or household where this really was a far cry.” In the past few years, Rollins—who has enjoyed simultaneous careers as a librarian and educator—has garnered a Cave Canem fellowship, a Callaloo fellowship, a 2018 Rona Jaffe Writers' Award, and a 2019 National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship, among others. While she noted her success has occasionally been difficult to navigate, Rollins said it has been equally fulfilling to have her voice not only heard, but celebrated—and to have a platform where she can give voice and celebrate the traditionally invisible communities she encounters.
Based in Chicago, where until recently she was a librarian at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Rollins will use her NEA fellowship to support travel for her second book of poetry. While her first collection, Library of Small Catastrophes, explored themes of memory, loss, and the transitory nature of living things, she said her next book will deal with “what it means to resurrect the body or resurrect a narrative; what it means for something to last forever.” We recently spoke with Rollins about her work, her inspirations and influences, and what makes her most proud.
NEA: Did you grew up in an artistic household? Were you involved in the arts as a kid?
ALISON ROLLINS: I grew up in Saint Louis, Missouri. I spent most of my summers as a kid on my grandparents' farm. A lot of my work is what people often term as a southern Gothic aesthetic or a pastoral, nature-related understanding of the world. Much of that comes from spending time in that type of rural landscape, as opposed to Saint Louis.
My father is an attorney and my mom has an MBA and has done a lot of work with banks and nonprofits. So I didn't really grow up in an artistic household, so to speak. My mom was, however, very big on literacy. The public library is one of my favorite places to go. I have fond memories of her reading Roald Dahl novels to us. I loved James and the Giant Peach, The BFG, The Witches, Matilda. So reading was highly encouraged. We weren’t really allowed to watch TV during the weekdays or play video games. So it was pretty much just books as the form of entertainment.
Because I grew up in a black, middle-class household, the goal was for you to be a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer—something more professional. The notion of being financially sustainable or respectable and upstanding in society was not enforced in relationship to the arts. So while I think my parents are fairly supportive and proud of what I've done in the writing realm, there's an attention to professionalization and prestige and financial stability that comes with more traditional fields that are not art-related.
NEA: Is that a stereotype that you encounter frequently in your day-to-day life, about the instability of the arts?
ROLLINS: Yeah. I went into undergrad thinking that I would try to be pre-med. I did a summer bridge program before my freshman year. We had to take core science classes and I didn't do well at those. So I realized, "If I'm not excelling in these required classes to be pre-med before I'm even fully enrolled as a freshman, perhaps I'm not going to make it through that line of study."
So then I decided, well, what's another science that I can pursue? I chose psychology and I ended up minoring in English. I took all the poetry workshop classes I could to fulfill the English minor. And then I realized I really like writing. I could see myself being a poet. So how could I be a professional in that realm? So it was like, “I'll go get a PhD in English. Then I'll be a doctor, I'll teach in academia, and I'll be a writer.” So I immediately went into a PhD program after graduating undergrad. And I just didn't understand what that actually meant. I ended up leaving after I finished my coursework and taking all these random pathways and trajectories towards where I am now. I don't have an MFA; I've never studied at the graduate level creative writing. I've always piecemealed a career path where writing and literature was adjacent and fairly self-taught. I'm still trying to figure out what that looks like, because it's not traditional.
NEA: You mentioned that you didn’t get your MFA. How do you feel like that decision has helped you or hindered you?
ROLLINS: Had I stayed and obtained a PhD, or if I were to have gotten an MFA at an earlier stage in my life, I feel like it would have only bred resentment, especially coming from the subjects that I come from. I'm queer, I'm black, I spoke about my family's reaction to the arts. So if I were to have done an MFA and then not received certain fellowships, or had a hard time placing my pieces or getting a manuscript published, I think it would have perhaps internalized a certain sense of failure. I think it would have created within me an energy of anxiety that would not have been helpful to the work.
I also feel like with an MFA, your cohort and the faculty becomes your blood in a sense. You have to be sharing space with them and sharing work as a requirement to get the degree. You have to be. I've been able to formulate that cohort or family on my own terms, and in ways that work for me. So I have a chosen family, or I have chosen events and means and ways that I get that stimulation, and I can walk away or create them whenever I want, which is just not the way an MFA works.
In terms of the cons, I really enjoy educating. I really enjoy teaching. The reality is that [an MFA] is the professional credential to teach. Because I have a master's in library science and I completed all the coursework for a PhD, I've been able to do some workarounds in terms of teaching at high schools. I teach at my current position. But I always get an eyebrow raise in terms of, "We'd really prefer you to have a MFA or a PhD in creative writing." I guess that's the only con. And also time. I've never had a two- to three-year span to really focus and devote my labor and energy to the writing process.
NEA: But you have done a good deal of teaching. What's the most important thing that you try and teach your students about writing?
ROLLINS: Critical thinking and nuance, probably, as it would pertain to writing specifically. If we can all embrace critical thinking more, and the nuance of everything, we would be in a better place in every segment of our society, I would argue. I think it's a lazy way of viewing the world and dealing with language to view things in terms of binaries. I think the sweet spot in terms of thinking and writing is to dwell in nuance, and to be able to tap into nuance in a way that allows for complexity, in a way that allows for multiple readings, in a way that is closer to the truth. Anytime I attach language or a word to something, I'm falling short of [its] truth or accurately reflecting it in its entirety and its wholeness. Nuance allows us to acknowledge and be clear and honest about that, rather than thinking and moving through the world in a way that is matter-of-fact, in a way that assigns good and bad or black and white to anything. It encourages critical thinking, asking questions, engaging in introspection, engaging in some type of intellectual rigor rather than just passively receiving and creating content or art.
NEA: What do you love about poetry?
ROLLINS: There's an attention to being economical about language that I enjoy in poetry. There's a reverence for saying something in a very succinct way, and there seems to be this spiritual reverence in terms of what I, with a limited amount of words, can give to you in the form of a very stirring image that a novel may take a whole chapter to do. I'm really intentional and in awe of the power of language and image and sound. I recently read with Michael Bazzett, and he said something to the effect of “poetry is a house made of breath.” I was very intrigued by that. Poetry has this way of utilizing sounds that truly dates back to our early understandings of being human and storytelling and poetic lyric. I think it's unique in that way, and very powerful. And I think there's a way in which I see the world and an attention-paying that lends itself really well to poetry as a genre.
NEA: Can you walk me through your creative process?
ROLLINS: I create forms out of anything, really. If I read a collection of poetry I'm really moved by, or there's a particular poem I like, I will try to create the architectural blueprint for that poem. I'll piece my way through understanding the sound or the rhythm of it, what images are functioning, what words do I like, how does it sit visually on the page. I'll try to create a form or structure that I then mimic or interpret. I think that's the way I've kind of fumbled through developing craft. Then I've done Cave Canem's writing retreat three years. I've done a retreat at Callaloo, Bread Loaf, the Watering Hole. So again, I kind of created this pseudo-MFA through spaces where I've worked with Terrence Hayes, Dawn Lundy Martin, some of the leading contemporary poets in the field in a way that's nurturing. I can take what I want very quickly and intensively and leave what doesn't apply to me. But I'm an avid reader. Almost all of my jobs I've been able to check out 25 poetry books at a time, and sit with them at my desk and constantly be consuming that which I am attempting to make.
NEA: Can you talk more about how has your work as a librarian has influenced your writing?
ROLLINS: It's let me kind of create my own canon. At one of my jobs at a public library, I would go to the new book section for poetry, and I would just check out all of the new books that we got. I wouldn't care who they were by, where geographically they were from, their age range. I would just check out all of them. During lunch, I would look through all of them. So I never have been necessarily assigned to a particular—mentally at least—school of thought. I might be reading a Russian translations book, maybe something from a trans writer in Idaho. I have no qualms about reading literally anything. It's refreshing, and encourages me to be experimental and unexpected in my approach to craft. In my current position, I work at an art and design school. We have huge, coffee table-style art and design books. So I'm constantly surrounded in visual culture in a way that's made me rethink writing and response to visual art and the connection between visual art and poetics. I probably wouldn't have that experience if it weren’t for being in a library.
NEA: In addition to the library, where else do you look for inspiration?
ROLLINS: I think most recently, the archives. I'm a true bibliophile. A project I'm working on right now [involves] pictorial dictionaries. They're dictionaries that explain or demonstrate language through images. I've really been interested in making visual poetry out of these dictionary-type entries that have accompanying visuals. I have become very fascinated with any type of reference books that typically sit on the shelves and don't get used because now we have the Internet.
In terms of other [inspiration], it sounds so cliché, but there's really nothing off-limits. I'm a true lover of language, the ways in which language twists and turns. Cultural appropriations, or culture-specific uses of language, are very interesting to me. One of the poems in my latest collection won the Pushcart Prize. The poem is about the card game "spades." I recently was at a reading and someone asked, ‘What does it mean to make this card game, that's pretty well-known in the black community, into a poem that wins that type of a prize?” I don't think anything's off-limits for me, or too trivial or too mundane to be viewed through the poetic lens and given lyric language to be reexamined or reinterpreted.
NEA: Of your many accomplishments, what are you most proud of?
ROLLINS: My paternal grandmother is still living, and one of the poems in the book is about her. I think it was particularly moving for her to see in print a poem based on a story that she's told me. She was the first colored secretary at a high school in Illinois. She only had access to high-school level education. For her, I think, there is something very powerful and affirming in seeing her granddaughter be able to bring her to life on a page of a book that looks very formal and professional. That was particularly gratifying.
That generation [comes from] fairly humble beginnings. For me, it's the fact that they see themselves reflected in literature; the fact that they see themselves valued and mirrored in a book. It's creating a mirror for a segment of society that was often overlooked, actively, and arguably still is. That, to me, is probably the most gratifying or fulfilling. And the most important, because they really care about who I am as a person. They hold me to a higher ethical standard. I think it keeps me grounded and humble.
NEA: Does that push or influence you in any way, knowing that you are writing about people who for so long were excluded from literature?
ROLLINS: I was thinking through this a lot at Cave Canem—literature often being used as a benchmark of humanity. I ruminate a lot about Thomas Jefferson and his text Notes on the State of Virginia. It talked about the fact that Phillis Wheatley’s work could not be considered poetry, and that blacks were not capable of writing poetry, which Jefferson deemed the highest art form. So to be a black writer in America, you're arguably always speaking to this context of if humanity is defined by the ability to write poems, and by default I am not capable of this art form because of the color of my skin, what does that mean to produce? There's always, arguably, a large amount of weight. Through all of the Black Arts Movement, there's been this debate. Am I free to be experimental? Am I free to create as I see fit? Do I have an obligation to be committed to social justice in my work, to write political poetry? I tried at multiple times in my life to not be a poet, but I literally have no choice. It keeps finding and coming back to me, especially moments where I've actively tried to not do it. So I try to write my truth and I try to be experimental in creating language or ways on the page in which I don't get to live in terms of my experience. I view it as a way to be imaginative.
When you come from a subject group or position in which your humanity was denied on the terms of language, or there were literal laws keeping your racial group from being able to have access to reading and writing, there's a particular relationship that your body and your tongue have to that process that looks different from others.
Meet the rest of the class of 2019 Literature Fellows here: https://www.arts.gov/nea-literature-fellowships/year/2019/poetry