Many Edges to Explore: An Interview with Pattiann Rogers
By Tina Kelley
Pattiann Rogers is a crucial voice in the wilderness, crafting innovative and playful poems that explore nature and the marvels of science. I have been inspired by her work since 1983, when I read her first book, The Expectations of Light. I was entranced by her poems that started with suppositions and soared to imaginative heights, and I wanted to emulate her precise metaphors and her rootedness in the vocabulary of natural history. I first met her years ago when she was on the Orion Society’s Forgotten Language Tour, a celebration of nature and place-based writing.
Rogers is the author of numerous books of poetry and two essay collections. She has won two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Lannan Poetry Fellowship, a Lannan Literary Award in Poetry, and Poetry’s Tietjens and Bess Hokin Prizes. Her writing appears frequently in such journals as Poetry, Orion, Poetry Northwest, and Prairie Schooner.
Of her latest book, Quickening Fields, Marvin Bell says, “No one better expresses the sensory world—its sublimity, and the flood of the tactile that so stirs us—than Pattiann Rogers. She is a virtuoso of exactitude, celebrating both the fabric of nature and its spiritual evocations. Her open-eyed love of the physical, indoors and out, is catching.”
Quickening Fields emerged out of Rogers’ basement, as she was sorting through boxes of journals in which her poems had appeared. At the time, Terrain.org’s editor-in-chief Simmons Buntin was teaching her poem, “Finding the Cat in a Spring Field at Midnight,” in a class about poetry and animals, and wrote to her about it. He was surprised it wasn’t in any of her books. She looked at her boxes again and realized there might be a book in there.
Rogers’ poems grow out of a variety of landscapes that she understands intimately. I wanted to know how the places she’s lived in have shaped her work.
Tina Kelley: Have you ever lived in a city?
Pattiann Rogers: I lived in St. Louis one semester when I taught at Washington University. I lived on the 17th floor of a high rise, very close to the Arch and the Mississippi River, and my windows faced that direction. I did love looking out that window. I’d never realized how much traffic is on the Mississippi River, with lots of barges going up and down, railroad bridges across it, trains constantly going back and forth. There were four lanes of traffic on each side of the building where I lived. I did have that experience of not being able to step out the door to the outdoors, of needing to go down in an elevator, and then when I got down on the streets of the center of the city, I had the experience of traffic on the sidewalks. So you want my opinion of it?
Tina Kelley: Yes.
Pattiann Rogers: Well, I would never choose to live that way permanently. I didn’t like it mainly because there was nothing I could easily get to that was not landscaped or controlled. In my room, I could never tell when it was raining. I couldn’t hear the rain on the roof. Rain didn’t hit the windows, unless there was a wind blowing. It just passed me by, and I felt left out of this weather. I couldn’t even see it landing on the ground. I couldn’t hear the sounds or smell the fragrances of nature at all.
I wasn’t inspired by the view, except to admire how much effort is underpinning our comfort, our daily lives. These barges going up and down the river obviously were carrying goods and things one way and the other, supplies of all kinds, and I liked that part of it. I felt there was a kind of beauty to that. The amazing part was how humans can organize and do positive things. This was a complicated system of transportation that involved people with all kinds of skills, part of our financial and economic sustenance, and that was a positive side of the view.
Tina Kelley: What landscape do you consider closest to your heart?
Pattiann Rogers: I grew up and graduated from high school in Joplin, Missouri, the town where I was born, then went to the University of Missouri in Columbia, a five-hour drive from my hometown. Joplin is down in the southwest corner of Missouri, in the four-state area, and you can get to Kansas and Oklahoma and Arkansas from Joplin in maybe an hour. While Joplin is right there on the edge of the plains, the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas are just minutes away—old mountains, not majestic like the Rockies—and there are lots of cliffs, caves, and spring-fed rivers, with a lot of fishing and water sports.
Joplin was a town of about 36,000 people, and our street stopped two blocks from my house. We lived on an unpaved road, then the forest started at the end of that. A little creek ran down there, and there were big boulders to climb on. It was hilly. My mother never had any hesitation about letting me go down there and play around, and I was never afraid to go down and play in the woods. Some of my girlfriends, their mothers wouldn’t let them go down. That didn’t deter me either. Every little thing that happened down there was magnified in my mind, and has stayed with me for all these years. Everything about the seasons—the fragrances, autumn and snow, spring wild flowers, frogs and crawdads and minnows—was part of my childhood.
But my mother had a beautiful rock garden, and flowers all around our house, and I had honeysuckle vines right outside my bedroom window. All the various flowers made for a controlled and ordered and organized experience, so the outdoors wasn’t always wildness. I could compare those differences because I was forced between them. It reminds me of Whitman’s poem, “Give me the Splendid, Silent Sun,” where Whitman had this affinity and respect and love of wilderness, but also for the city.
When my husband John was getting his Ph.D. at a branch of the University of Missouri in Rolla, and I was teaching kindergarten, we walked in many forests and parks near us. Maramec Spring Park, with a huge natural spring, was a favorite. John and I had no money to do anything for entertainment, so we hiked around in the forest. The outdoors was a big part of my life, not as a structured event. I was just free to spend a lot of time in the forest.
Tina Kelley: What took you to Houston?
Pattiann Rogers: I didn’t leave Missouri until I was 29. After our first son had been born, I did not go back to teaching school. When John received his Ph.D., he got this position in Houston. We couldn’t afford a house that was in a beautiful area of Houston, so we were living out on the mud flats, where an ancient ocean used to be. There was terrible soil, called gumbo, and if it was wet, it wasn’t ordinary mud, more like a big, thick, black glue that stuck to your shoes. If you didn’t get it off and it hardened, it was like cement. It was very hot, and there were no trees. We were on the plains.
One day after our second son was born and our older son was three, both boys were napping. I was outside in this blistering heat, picking up all their toys out of the driveway and yard, with no shoes on. I came in, my feet burning, and the air conditioner, that blessed thing, was running. I lay down on the bed and thought I cannot live in this. There was nothing. Where was I going to go? We had just one car at the time.
I was lying there, almost crying, and I started trying to recall everything I could about Missouri in the fall, because I love the fall. I started to recall in detail, precise detail in words, the scent of the air sharp and clear and smelling of frost, the oak leaves rustling. Fragrance seemed to play a big part in this memory.
And it dawned on me how powerful language is, because I calmed down, and was almost happy. The words had just carried me out of this state of anxiety and depression, and I realized that I wanted to do something with that power I felt, how that language affected me. It wasn’t a poem, but it was in a way, because it worked like one.
And I got out an encouraging little note that my college poetry professor, John Neihardt, had written, and also a letter another professor had written, and I thought, This is something I want to do. I wanted to do it, I’ve been doing it—writing poems.
The other thing that accompanied this was my older son John, turning 4 or 5 years old. I was watching him very closely to see what he was interested in, so I could kind of encourage him in that area, and I thought, How can I ask my sons to devote themselves to working at developing a talent they have, if I have not done that myself? That’s when I actually made a definite decision that writing was something I was going to work at, not just mess around with.
My husband was supportive, saying it takes at least five years for any person to know if they’re going to be good at any human endeavor, to become an electrical engineer, to be a good athlete, and five years at least to get a Ph.D., so that gave me time. I didn’t have to immediately be a success at this.
Tina Kelley: Did Houston’s natural environment eventually find its way into your poetry?
Pattiann Rogers: Oh yes. Houston is a semi-tropical climate, full of every insect you ever imagined, some that you didn’t know or imagine existed. You walk out the door and they’re all over, all the insects, and that draws all the songbirds, and they draw a lot of birders, so that all was wonderful. I liked that energy, the determined energy of that life.
They had no clear streams near us, but they did have little drainage ditches. We lived on the edge of an old cotton field, and one year there were so many toads you couldn’t even walk down the sidewalks at night. The kids were enraptured, collecting all these toads, so there was this sense of the overwhelming vitality of nature that truly affected me. My poem, “The Power of Toads” had its origin in this experience.
My older son especially loved to go out in the fields, the old drainage ditches, and bring home some creature. The ditches were full of creatures. You can reach down in that ditch and grab a handful of mud, and have four or five different living things inside it. My kids liked the ditches better than the clear, spring-fed streams they visited in Missouri.
He would send his friends back home to me if he had something he couldn’t carry. Once he had a large snapping turtle, and the kids said I had to come get John’s turtle. By this time we had a VW Bug as a second car. He had the snapping turtle in a bucket, and I had to put it on the floor of the front seat. I had on sandals, and the turtle was trying to get out of the bucket! I went through a couple of stop signs on the way home. We would watch these animals for a day or two and then take them back.
And I had never seen the moon rise out of the horizon—I had always been in the forest, with tall trees—so that was kind of amazing. They do have beautiful skies there, and wonderful thunderstorms and gorgeous blossoming gardens… magnolias and azaleas and oleander.
Tina Kelley: What was it like to move after 20 years?
Pattiann Rogers: Everybody in Missouri thought I was crazy for not being happy to move to Denver from Houston, as Colorado and the Rocky Mountains are such a beautiful part of the country. But we had many friends in Houston and so did our sons, and we were not eager to leave. Now we really love it here. The climate is close to perfect. The seasons are very distinct in Colorado, with many, many sunny days, even through the winters, which are lovely. Many winter days I wear just a sweater outdoors. The air is so light, it’s hardly ever heavy and humid. Many people living here are very active outdoors, hikers and skiers and bikers, plus many walking and bicycle trails along the Highline Canal. We live about a mile from the site of Kit Carson‘s last campfire. It’s near Daniels Park which is the home of a small herd of buffalo.
From the cliff above a vast valley there we can see all way from Pike’s Peak to the south to Long’s Peak in the north, and the great clouds of the mountains beyond. You can see so far in Denver because you’re looking at those mountaintops. It’s not only horizontal but vertical distance. You can see a long ways.
The first night we lived here several coyotes passed through the field behind us. That was the first time I had really heard coyotes howling. It was much, much more than “yip, yip.” My poem “The Passing” is my description of experiencing that sound. “For the Moral of the Story” is my poem about all the rocks and ledges and cliffs and the mountains I’m surrounded by in Colorado. Lovely. And talk about insects! We never see a live roach here! We’ve been here 30 years, and the only roach we’ve ever seen is a dead one that happened to come with us from Houston. There are 30 species of roaches in Texas. Roaches are the epitome of survivors, having endured on earth for 320 million years. They can live without a head for up to a week. They can eat almost anything, even the insulation around electronic wires, and I was once told they can live on dust. Amazing. It’s true… I always feel inadequate when I think about roaches.
Tina Kelley: In many of the places you’ve lived, you’ve gravitated towards an edge—of a forest, a cotton field, the plains. Is that on purpose?
Pattiann Rogers: Both of the houses we’ve owned were built on the edge of whatever town we were close to, because the houses there were less expensive. You could get more house if you were out on the edges. But edges are important to me, often where opposites meet. Edges can be barriers. Is an edge keeping you from doing something, or is it an opening to explore something else? Are you going to keep yourself inside one specific area of study for example, or are you going to try to explore outside of that barrier, or fasten yourself to a dogma, like an edge, that runs up against other dogmas, or other perspectives, lives, and values?
I was going to mention other edges and barriers, not related to the land particularly, but to my parents. Our family was very, very active in the church. We were there three or four days out of the week for some activity, but my parents also had a group of friends they played poker with, and bridge, and had formal dances. You never met the church people in those places. And my mother was the director of a nonprofit, integrated daycare center in the African-American community for 17 years, and I worked there for two years when I was in high school. So we had friends in that community, as well as this church community, and the more social people in our town.
So I saw it was possible to have affinities that might appear to be opposites, and I think that may have played into my not seeing a problem with addressing science in poetry.
I think edges have been a focus of some sort in my life, and in determining how I proceeded and what I worked on, what I felt was important.
Tina Kelley: It reminds me of how, when you go birdwatching, the experts usually take you to edges, because you’ll see more birds where a field meets the woods or a swampy area.
Pattiann Rogers: I guess they find their food there, and it may have something to do with security, to get back into the foliage.
Tina Kelley: So did you go in to explore science and then back to writing about it in poetry, because that was your habitat?
Pattiann Rogers: I think that’s right. To me, there’s such beautiful vocabulary attached to science. It’s exciting on its own, and I would find new words and like the way they sounded, the way they looked, and how they would fit in. I never wrote outside. I always came back from wherever I’d been and if I needed to go to books or field guides, I did. I tried to make the poem as scientifically accurate as I could. I’d usually begin the poem with a question or a supposition, and I never got an answer, though sometimes the poem continued on in another poem with more and different questions.
Tina Kelley: That’s the scientific method, right? Start with a what-if?
Pattiann Rogers: When you listen to scientists talk, they talk that way, when they’re talking about what they’re working on.
Tina Kelley: Did John talk a lot about science with you?
Pattiann Rogers: When we first dated, he would tell me stories about earlier scientists working on various mysteries of nature, the step-by-step discoveries. The stories were like exciting adventures. And the hypothesis, the “what if this is what is happening?” was always a big part of the story, the history. The questions scientists were asking were intriguing to me and full of passion and an immense respect for nature and a questing for understanding that I admired. My son is also a physicist, and so is his wife, and I could listen to them talk, and I’d listen to Carl Sagan and Jacob Bronowski and Steven Jay Gould and read their published work. I do like to listen to them talk, even if I don’t always understand what they’re talking about. I like their attitude, because they always speak in the plural. The whole community of scientists will question and test a new theory. I like that because it’s so different from the language you hear with politics or religion.
Tina Kelley: Which landscape has had the most influence on your poetry?
Pattiann Rogers: When we were in Houston, John only had two weeks of vacation a year, and we went back to Missouri anytime he had a vacation, as we had to see the grandparents. It may have been our first trip back—we went in the fall because it was cooler. Our sons were not school age yet. I remember walking down the sidewalk in Joplin near my childhood home. And I looked down and saw the shadows of the oak trees on the sidewalk. I used to walk to school, or ride my bike, so I was on the sidewalk a lot during the fall. It was as if I had never noticed those leaves until I’d been away from them and come back. It just struck my heart to see them. I realized if I had not been away and lived in Houston, I would never have seen them, actually seen them. With all the memories and feelings that the vision of the leaves brought back, I realized the landscape of southwestern Missouri was part of who I was, really part of my body, the way it reacted to the shadows of the oak leaves and also the calls of the birds in that region and the feel of the weather.
Tina Kelley: Are there ways the built environment, or particular architecture, have ever inspired you poetically?
Pattiann Rogers: There was one thing an architect said that influenced me, and I still love it and I think of it. He liked to ice skate, and the lines his skates made in the ice affected his artistic vision as an architect. I loved that idea because for a while, I tried to think deliberately that way, to look at the shape or structure of an object, not just of a man-made thing but of anything. I looked at living plants and how the vine will curl around, how the dandelion seed looks as it blows away, not just to describe it as a physical object, but its motion, to affect the motion of the lines in the poem. I don’t know that I ever did that successfully, but it was something I used to think about quite a bit.
Tina Kelley: That reminds me of your motoring and music poem, which first appeared in Terrain.org and is in your new book, about how music can be indistinguishable from motoring cycles.
Pattiann Rogers: I think that is an interesting thing to do with language—apply terms you typically use with music to something else that is moving in the same way but not exactly the same way and how each affects the experience and definition of the other. It was fun to write, too.
Tina Kelley: You do a lot of poems with wide-spreading metaphors, like “The Importance of the Whale in the Field of Iris,” among others.
Pattiann Rogers: If you can make a connection between two different things that are alike in some ways, it’s kind of a revelation. There’s this whole idea that’s developed over the past few years, that everything in the universe is connected in some way, and if you can find and describe that connection you’ve added something to our perception and experience of the universe.
I don’t know if I said that very well, but it is a fun thing to do. I heard of a poet who once told her students, “If it’s not fun when you’re writing it, nobody’s going to have fun reading it.” Not that it’s not work—but it should be work you enjoy. That’s a gift that not all people are given.
Tina Kelley: That reminds me of one of my favorite quotes of yours. Can you talk a little more about this theory? “Maybe the existence of divinity in the universe depends in part on us. We may be the consciousness of the universe, the way by which it can come to see and love and honor itself. If this is so, then our obligations are mighty and humbling. We are co-creators. We are servants.”
Pattiann Rogers: That is a statement nobody can prove, but I think it is a good way to believe, as far as acting from a mode that seems positive. A lot of people say, “What’s the meaning of everything, of the universe?” If there is meaning, we may be the only conduit for it. If we want our physical universe to be invested with spirituality, with divinity, with purpose, then maybe we must invest the universe with those characteristics ourselves. We can invest it with meaning.
The universe is so in flux, so active. Maybe it’s in the process of creating itself, and we are a part of that creation, an agent of creation.
We know that our bodies react to things without our express intention, not regulated by the intellect. And if you are hating someone or something, then something terrible happens to your body. It clenches in, and tightens up. Love is the very opposite of that. Love is an expansion, a lightness, a giving that is reciprocal in some ways. It strengthens the body and radiates outward.
Recently I read two articles, one titled “Is the Universe Conscious?“ and subtitled “Humans evolved and the universe woke up.” It addresses the theory that electrons appear to know what other electrons in the universe are doing, no matter the distance between them. So some people have extrapolated that this is a type of consciousness the universe possesses, that everything is connected, and what you do and how you behave affects everything else in some way. So we may possibly have some responsibility for how the earth, the whole creation, develops during this process of creating itself.
Or, as Thomas Palmer put it more simply in an article, “The Case for Human Beings” in The Atlantic Monthly, “It was as if Nature, after wearing out several billion years tossing off new creatures like nutshells, looked up to see that one had come back, and was eyeing her strangely.”
These are simply suppositions, not scientifically established fact. We don’t know what’s out there. But most of us, I would venture to say, have at some time or other had a feeling that something was present beyond our traditional senses, something without a name, not specific nor particular, but thoroughly present in a manner inexplicable, very near and very far away, beyond our current ability to explain. This feeling comes to me unsummoned, always on its own, outdoors in a rural or wilderness setting. I’ve written a few poems attempting to evoke these experiences: “The Background Beyond the Background,” “A Very Common Field,” “Supposition,” “The Word, Sun After Rain,” “Knot,” and others.
Tina Kelley: So could that “something beyond us” be the consciousness of the universe, or the presence of a creator, or both?
Pattiann Rogers: Who knows? But it’s exciting, isn’t it? I find great beauty in a quote from Stephen Jay Gould: “Something unspeakably holy—I don’t know how else to say this—underlies our discovery and confirmation of the actual details that made our world and also, in realms of contingency, assured the minutiae of its construction in the manner we know, and not in any one of a trillion other ways, nearly all of which would not have included the evolution of a scribe to record the beauty, the cruelty, the fascination, and the mystery.”
There are many edges here that I want to explore.
Read two poems and an essay by Pattiann Rogers appearing in Terrain.org.