If I Am Burning (Main Street Rag, 2011)
What’s your chapbook about?
Certainly, these poems explore femininity, femaleness, women’s experiences, social justice. But ultimately, I hope the chapbook is about finding compassion, even for others we don’t like or understand, even if we feel broken apart and angry. I have never believed that poems are private. A poem is, by definition, a public utterance—it has a social function. We sing to others, not to ourselves, not in an echo chamber. So, as a young poet (25 when this chap was released), I wrote these poems to call out, to see who would call back.
What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
I’ve never asked myself before, but the oldest poem here is “Avignon” (excerpted below). Although this chapbook contains only 16 poems, they span a wide range of perspectives; many are wholly imagined, some historical narratives, some a hybrid of personal experience and a voice for social justice. “Avignon” is actually a personal lyric written for my sister, who was assaulted on her 21st birthday, while studying in France. (She is also a brilliant advocate for women and gave me permission to publish the poem and, now, these words about it.)
I had never thought of “Avignon” or the story it tells, the voice it inhabits, as a catalyst for the poems I would write later. But in fact, this poem brings into sharp relief the ideas and the politics that shape the rest of this collection and my work in general (even now). The lens is small and focused, but the story is, I hope, universal. I wrote the poem to reach out to a woman I loved, to understand her better, to help her understand, and to offer what I could, anything I could. Ultimately, I don’t want my poems to moralize. I want them to tell some truth, to start a conversation about the ways we have been harmed, but also how we might begin to change everything.
Describe your writing practice. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it?
In my daily life, I manage a non-profit organization serving people with ALS/ MND and travel frequently. When I feel the pull to write, I do it where and how I can—on planes, trains, and buses, late at night or early in the morning. I go through long stretches of writing daily; then I go through spells of generating a draft only once or twice a month. I’ve always been that way.
I used to experience intense anxiety about my routines, feeling that I lacked discipline or structure, that I wasn’t consistent enough. I especially felt that way when I was a student in MFA and PhD programs. But on the whole, I think my anxiety was useless and misdirected. (We’d do much better, in my opinion, to feel anxiety about the poems we’ve already written and sent out into the dark wild than to worry about poems that don’t exist yet.)
One day I decided: I am a poet when I take a shower, when I eat a banana, when I clean the tub, not only when I am scribbling in a notebook. For me, being a poet isn’t about how many poems I write in a week, or how many hours a day I spend writing—it’s about how I see and feel the world and how I choose to talk back to it. No matter how busy or hectic my life becomes, eventually, a poem always finds its way to the surface.
How did you decide on the arrangement of your chapbook?
This bite-sized book actually underwent several revisions. I knew, basically, the poems I wanted to include, but I had tremendous difficulty finding an order. The breakthrough came when I brought the manuscript to my loved poet friend (and one-time classmate), John A. Nieves. John read aloud the first and last line of every poem (but nothing in-between) so that we only heard the transitions, the way one poem bled into the next. We cut these lines out and arranged them on a table. In this way, we came to write a whole new poem, and we wanted it to make a strange and important sense. I knew we had the right order when the book opened with the line, “I am the match you can’t light for the wind” and ended on “the night we drifted through the door like ghosts.” I’ve come to love and cherish this method of arranging poems. Thank you, John, wherever you are!
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
I was fortunate to work with a publisher who was entirely open to my input on cover art. With my editor’s support, I contacted a friend, Jen Julian, a gifted fiction writer and visual artist. Jen told me she was struck by competing images of light and dark, violence and softness. She wanted to paint something with sharp edges and lightness at the same time. She sent me pictures of the wetlands of Eastern North Carolina (where she grew up), where there are miles of dead pine trees along the road, “spindly, branchless sticks” against a soft, pale landscape. When she sent me her painting—tall, stylized black trees against the suggestion of an orange-white sunset—I was sold. I know how lucky I am to have original artwork on my cover; the painting hangs on my wall, and I’ll always love it.
Does the chapbook form have an impact on the politics of the poems that appear inside it?
I love the chapbook for the same reason I love the poem: it’s controlled, compact, intense. It’s a shot, not a cocktail, in its way. The chapbook is potent. I think form and function are always married—hell, I’m a poet. In the brief space of a chapbook, you can escape, I think, that old wisdom about too many “high-pitched” poems in a row. There’s no filler in a chapbook: every poem can pack punch and power in this hermetic world you make. And it’s just short enough that the reader doesn’t have time to feel that exhaustion, to run. Great chapbooks are short enough that they leave you wanting more.
Rachel Marie Patterson is the co-founder and editor of Radar Poetry (www.radarpoetry.com). She holds an MFA from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and is a PhD candidate in English and Creative Writing at the University of Missouri. She is the winner of an Academy of American Poets Prize, and her poems have been nominated for Best of the Net, Best New Poets, and the Pushcart Prize. Her recent work appears in Smartish Pace, The Journal, Cimarron Review, Parcel Magazine, Thrush, The Adroit Journal, Nashville Review, and The Greensboro Review, among others.
That boy was taught
See only what
you want, know only
how to get it.
My sister’s body
was as bright
as a star, as sleek as
a moving river. At night,
I hear the nervous
tick of her heels,
the frantic tinny click
of her key in the door:
in a woman’s mind
when she learns power
Our mother cries;
our father says
A lesson learned.
All over the city,
in their sneakers,
count their own bones.