For our second special issue on writing from rural America, I talked with Catie Rosemurgy, a poet who understands and writes intimately about the realities of small-town American life. I fell in love with Rosemurgy’s winding narrative collections and shape-shifting characters nearly ten years ago now, and in our conversation I asked her some difficult questions about writing rural in this political climate, the stories behind her characters, and how she constructs the cozy, strange worlds that shape her collections.
RV: I’ll start with the most difficult question — how has writing in and about small towns changed for you over the past few years, as the line between urban liberals and rural conservatives has become more and more distinct in America? Has this political moment been a hindrance for you, creatively? Or are you someone who has been inspired to write more as things have become more politically tumultuous?
CR: I guess I’ve always written about my hometown, a place I’ve always loved and which has always troubled me. But I understand much better in recent years why it’s always troubled me. As my father said when I read him this question: the place we’re from has always been Trump Country. (Oh, how I wish there never were such a phrase as “Trump Country.”) Certain resentments I found very legible growing up–everything new and interesting was pre-ruined because it was no doubt pretentious and “different.” But there was often an edge of anger, rage even, that frightened and confused me. I couldn’t quite read it, but it also shaped me. Especially after the election, it’s impossible to deny how much of that anger is and was white privilege in the throes of mounting distress.
So that horror-movie music I sometimes hear in my head driving the backroads up north makes a lot of sense now. It was just a feeling before, that something was deeply wrong here. But as I’ve gotten older and as I’ve learned how to talk about and see my own whiteness, I know that the terrible thing that happened here is… me. Just the casual violence of calling a place “home” that really is not my home at all. White Americans have no practice at seeing ourselves, our small town American selves, as colonizers. We don’t even do well recognizing our ancestors as colonizers. We are beyond broken, but have rigged it so that our spiritual brokenness is inflicted in a very literal way upon other bodies, other selves.
In other words, yes, I feel what I’ve always felt but more clearly, more urgently.
RV: A favorite few lines of yours come from your poem “America Talks to Me LIke a Mother”:
“Wait awhile in the kitchen, it doesn’t matter whose kitchen,
and let the house absorb the blame.
That’s what a house is for.”
This feels indicative to me of your poetics, in many ways — you seem to be drawn to domestic moments, images, finding quiet characters in their quiet lives. What draws you to write about houses, and their inhabitants?
CR: I think of the kind of scenes one might see on an old jigsaw puzzle, a hillside of little trim houses and a river and horse and buggy. Americana. The house is often a symbol in these scenes of contained, ordered white lives, cozy white dominion. Of course, women are also associated with hearth and home, with the domestic, with the chores and the humming humdrum. This particular poem comes from the book I’m finishing right now, and it’s a book obsessed with the way the daily thoughts and domestic lives of white people partake in the violence of history. It’s a book about white women in particular and their, well, murderousness.
RV: I’m curious about the narratives you weave through your books. Do those places and characters come back to you organically, or is the narrative more intentional than that? How did those manuscripts come together for you?
CR: For awhile I thought I might someday write a book that was a collection of disparate poems, a book that didn’t weave in and out of a larger narrative. I hoped! But now I don’t think I will. It’s just the way my mind works. Part of the deep satisfaction of bookmaking for me is the tension between the part and the whole. Ideally a poem works on its own and also does a completely different kind of work in the context of the book. I often think of the book I’m writing as a novel that I picked up, dropped on the floor, and broke into pieces. Purposely. To see better what it was made of.
RV: In The Stranger Manual you write about Miss Peach, who the neighbors see as strange and ill-made and part animal. Where does she come from? What’s her story?
CR: As a character or as an idea she came together in an instant. I used the name “Miss Peach” as a nickname with someone I was seeing, as a cute nom de plume, a silliness. But when we broke up, she was born. She started off as a receptacle for the uncomfortable, unfinished feeling I had after the relationship ended, but she quickly took on a life of her own. I wrote the book to find out who she was and why. I’d read an article I’ve since lost track of about the downside of community. I didn’t know the article was going to be so important to me so I didn’t hang on to it like I should have. I was quite taken by its thesis–that community is always assumed to be a good thing, a source of belonging and a way forward, and yet it usually leaves people out or asks for compliance. It’s a primal need, though, isn’t it? To be a part of a group? Miss Peach is, like many of us, continually remade by her desire to belong–in her town, as a woman–and her desire to escape the constraints of belonging.
RV: Who do you most enjoy reading? Which poets/poems were formative for you? Have you always found narrative in poetry, or is that something you came to later?
CR: Right now I’m rereading two formative influences, Lorine Niedecker and Muriel Rukeyser. I come back again and again to Anne Carson, Srikanth Reddy, and Claudia Rankine. Lately I’ve been reading poems aloud when I have a knee-jerk impulse to check Facebook. I’ve been going back and forth between amazing books by Rickey Laurentiis, Kiki Petrosino, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, and Joy Harjo.
Re: narrative… I think I responded so strongly to poetry when I first encountered it because it was and was not narrative. That’s probably why it still holds my interest so completely. It is and is not.
RV: This is a favorite question of mine to ask, and I know it’s not always a fair one, but I’ll ask it anyway. Do you have a regular writing routine or process? What does it look like when you sit down to write?
CR: I’m deep diver. I like to write for long stretches. 4-10 hours. It’s like going under, submerging. It’s awfully hard to get that kind of time, though. I can write for a couple hours, but it’s the long writing trances that I really crave. I just need a table, a chair, and my computer. I like it quiet. I don’t write at coffee shops or with music on. I will take walks or take a short nap if progress stalls or I need an idea I can’t reach. Once I have a conversation or otherwise come fully to the surface, the spell is broken. Limiting interruption is crucial to me, even if it’s just for a a couple hours.
RV: And finally, because I am deeply, deeply curious; any new writing projects you’re working on? Or links to recent work that we can read?
CR: Here are some poems, below, but they aren’t exactly recent. I’ve been working on my third book, The Forthcoming Disasters of Gold River, for the last long while. I’m a believer in the slow writing movement, though that’s not really a thing. But maybe it should be? I want to be a different person by the time I’m done writing a book, at least partially because of the book. For me, at least so far, that means hanging with a book for a long time.
About the author:
Catie Rosemurgy is the author of The Stranger Manual (Graywolf Press, 2009) and My Favorite Apocalypse (Graywolf Press, 2001). She is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, as well as the Rona Jaffe Foundation Award. She teaches at the College of New Jersey and lives in Philadelphia.