The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Rosalie Moffett about her new collection June in Eden, writing humor in poetry, using contemporary references, and trying to understand the world.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: About your book—I was really drawn to the title poem for a number of reasons. I’m a father of twins, was raised in an evangelical faith so the Biblical references struck a note with me, and I’m a sucker for less-used definitions of words. So can you talk some about how that poem in particular was born, and how it came to be the title poem for the book?
Rosalie Moffett: My first title was “Gravity Loves Us,” but I was going through a revision—and had just written those poems about my mother and losing words, and I started to notice how often the garden appeared, and it suddenly took shape for me, as a manuscript, that idea of naming, of bringing into being with language, is… I guess it’s almost laughably obvious, that that moment would matter to a poet—but in conversation with this anxiety about my mother losing bits of language—I guess what I’m saying is that it struck really suddenly, where I said, “OH, I see what I’m doing now.” And of course, the role of the human in the natural landscape has always been something I’ve been trying to write about, talk about.
Camille D: How long did that process take? How many of these poems were written while you were at Stanford, for instance?
Rosalie Moffett: I think all of them that feature my mother at all were written at Stanford. Eavan [Boland] succeeded, ultimately, in making me suspicious of “wit” as she called it, and I began to write more “serious” poems—I put serious in quotes because humor, I still feel, is where we do say our darkest things, but I think I was hiding a little, in poems I thought were… sort of jokey.
Brian S: Yes, I’m glad you didn’t lose the humor. Especially now.
Camille D: Ooh. I hope you’ll follow up on that. Do you think you were trying at first to be light and jokey to pull away from the gravity of the book? (Even though you liked the idea of having gravity in the title?)
Rosalie Moffett: Yes! I still love a dark humor, but I think latter drafts let the voice go a little—in the sense that it wasn’t so tightly restrained, so concerned with tucking all the feeling into the joke. And I mean the latter drafts of the book.
Camille D: I mean, you start the whole book with a joke. So clearly you’re interested of the potential of that rhetorical mode.
Rosalie Moffett: Sure—there’s a lot that comedians have in common with poets. And that rhetorical move—the, “here, I’m telling you a joke; you’re about to laugh” move is so much like the way a poem moves, creates, with the line breaks, these moments where you expect one thing and are given another—I think when you expect to laugh, there’s a little door that opens in you, that allows the other emotions in—I think that’s a very powerful thing.
Brian S: Not to mention the importance of both timing and of flipping expectations.
Camille D: Do you have favorite joke poems you thought about as you were working on this book? I’ve got a couple I adore, and I’m always interested in hearing which ones compel other poets.
Rosalie Moffett: Jokes! Hmmm… I just think there’s so much comical about technology.
Camille D: ”I think when you expect to laugh, there’s a little door that opens in you, that allows the other emotions in—” that is such a GREAT way of defining what happens.
Rosalie Moffett: Like, that poem “the new trees,” those are the sorriest, funniest additions to the landscape—I mean, I think they’re hilarious and sad and weird—and so maybe it’s always the world that’s just joking with me. More than jokes I’m telling myself.
Camille D: And, if you’re done on the joke topic, I am also interested in a related one which is the ways you play on language in this book. The definitions that turn and turn on themselves. How did you make sure that you pushed our definitions to places where you thought they could reveal new things?
Rosalie Moffett: I think that’s just a reflex, maybe—I’m not sure “I made sure” I pushed them, but it happens. I think if you spend a lot of time with one word, it just sort of happens. But the flexibility of language, the way it has, built into itself, these little trapdoors with the homonyms and homophones—I am really drawn to that, the way the language can be utterly precise, and also have these little errors in it.
Brian S: Okay, I just realized I must have confused the hell out of you with my first question, because I was not talking about the title poem, but about one where you play with the word “ruth” in the way Camille is describing, namely “Rosalie Ruth Moffett.” Sorry about that!
Camille D: Yes. That poem you’ve got about the Wikipedia post on cellular towers that could be trees. I’d love to talk about the ways that you think about incorporating the now into your poems. People have different opinions about how and why to do such a thing. It seems you are very inspired by the things happening in your present moment.
Rosalie Moffett: Camille, yes, very much so—the year that I wrote many of these poems, I had the news/radio on almost all the time. I was living by myself in Indiana and it was cold and so weird aspects of current events took up residence in my thoughts, I think. I do know there are some people who would never have such time markers—who feel like the poem is a timeless thing dealing with the great subjects of art—and I have more respect for that now than I used to. I used to think that was ridiculous. But, you know, the time markers—Applebees anytizers, the exploding Samsung phone—those are always on my joke/wit/comedic sadness spectrum.
Brian S: I have to admit, I’m way more drawn to poetry that’s concerned with the now than I am for the ones that try to be timeless.
Rosalie Moffett: I think the key word there is “try”; there’s a falseness there, often, a sort of haughty stepping into The Canon that I can’t abide, really.
Camille D: I loved the idea of women being the first 3D printers. That one stayed in my head a long time. (I guess it’s still there now!)
Rosalie Moffett: Camille, that was a gift. It was written on the wall of the bathroom in the coffee shop in Oakland where I used to go to write. I need to find its author and thank them.
Brian S: Camille, me too, especially when I think of the high-res 3D ultrasounds they can take now.
Rosalie Moffett: Brian, I was just saying at a reading last night that there was this fateful cross country drive I took with my father in, I think 2011, where I found out two crazy things: 1) that I was probably a twin, and 2) that my mother, when I was sixteen or so, had been diagnosed with ALS, which she didn’t turn out to have—but she didn’t tell anyone. I only found out from him with I was twenty-four or so—and those two things percolated for about two years before they showed up in any poems—but I’m so fascinated by twins, as maybe you are, having them yourself.
Brian S: I first heard about the possibility of one twin absorbing the other when the nurse told us my partner was carrying twins. We found out very early in the pregnancy because we’d used IVF, and they were telling us just in case one disappeared in the process. That was a shaky moment for me.
Rosalie Moffett: Yes—so fascinating. Like a backup copy, or something. Now that we have such good ultrasounds, we see a lot more twins that actually turn out to be twins.
I spend a lot of time on Wikipedia—it’s my way of compensating for being the daughter of two biologists. Or, also, I like that level of studying science. I think that’s the whole point of being a poet for me. I mean, you have to sit in conversation with yourself a lot, looking in and asking, “What do I care about today?” which is hard, but you also get to read and study whatever you want, and that’s part of it, which I love.
Brian S: Can I tell you how much I love these lines:
All this I read in the Bible,
which is a kind of handbook
that helps people name babies.
Oh, I died when I read that.
Rosalie Moffett: Yes! I’m glad you liked those lines—I’m glad you didn’t find them overly irreverent.
Camille D: I’m interested in the times you decide to fold the title into the first sentence of the poem. You do it enough in this book that I assume you have some opinions about why to do such a thing and when.
Rosalie Moffett: Camille, you have so much faith in me! I like the surprise of it—I like that move—where you thought something was being named, but then it turns out to be the thing itself. I think there’s something to be gained from that feeling.
Camille D: This is a book that asks us to develop an alternate sort of faith. Yes?
Brian S: Also, these lines from the last poem in the book, “Pastoral”: “Don’t pretend / you would love life in the country / if you really have no idea.”
I like the warning there, the dirt of the country that comes from decaying things.
Rosalie Moffett: And Camille, yes—I think there’s a lot of grappling in this book, to understand how we understand the world—a testing of a faith in science, or in observation, or in… what I guess I’ll call faith-faith, or religion, I guess that’s what people call that. So if not the proposition of an alternate faith, maybe a call to examine how the world can be understood.
Hahaha, and Brian, I think I ended up deciding that that line had the… metaphorical weight I wanted, but, really, it’s just true. I love life in the country. But it sucks.
Brian S: Just as an aside, Camille, I wanted you to know how much I loved/admired that essay that ran at Lit Hub last week, I think. My heart hurt for you in that moment.
Camille D: Thanks, Brian. Speaking of the ways the we think about language differently in the context of poetry and the church…
Rosalie Moffett: Ah! I read that essay, too—
Brian S: Rosalie, I lived for a while in very-—veeeeery—rural Louisiana, and yes, I agree. I had a conversation with a guy at one point about buying a shotgun because of wild dogs in the area, and I decided not long after that I was really tired of the life.
Camille D: Rosalie, what are you most excited about in terms of this book?
Rosalie Moffett: I have been trying lately have confidence in poetry, and I think that work of saying that language matters—that it matters, to quote Solmaz Sharif, what we call a thing—and so that moment I think is such a wrenching one. Always, but especially now, when it seems like our access to the world, which we have through language, is being altered.
Camille D: Thank you, Rosalie. Here’s where supposed to be talking about your book and the conversation landed on my essay. I appreciate living in a community of writers who all seem to understand the value of language, and the need to treat it with care and respect (and a little bit of humor).
Rosalie Moffett: I am excited that these poems are now a physical artifact—I have these audio recordings of my grandfather’s music and—against so many odds—of my great grandfather’s life stories. And there’s something that is so gratifying about a thing that you can pass on.
Camille D: I bet they feel different in a book than on a sheaf of papers. Since so many of them seem to have to do with manifestations of realities, to have this manifestation must feel nice.
Brian S: Can you talk a little about the cover—did you have any input into that image? It’s pretty amazing.
Rosalie Moffett: I chose that image, actually, which I’m so grateful they allowed me to do. It’s by a Swedish digital collage artist I found online, and it so perfect gets at all my concerns—the physical and the technological and the natural world—as soon as I saw it, I was like, “THIS. This is it.”
Brian S: Are you working on anything new yet? And who are you reading right now?
Rosalie Moffett: I actually have something quite different from anything I’ve written before in the works, which is a long, sectioned poem (which for me is very strange—I don’t like to break the barrier at the bottom of the page).
Brian S: Those terrify me, but it feels so good when I get one to work.
Camille D: Interesting. I was going to ask you a question about the length of these poems, their relative brevity. It’s like a delicious tapas feast.
Rosalie Moffett: It takes up these anxieties about my mother and her neurological condition, but it’s also weirdly about spiders and snails… It’s sort of hard to summarize, but it’s starting to look a little like a book. The sections make it easier on my mind—I like to be able to look at the whole thing at once—but yeah, it is, I think technically, a long poem.
Camille D: Good luck with this new project! I’ll look forward to reading it.
Rosalie Moffett: Thanks! Oh! And right now I’m reading nonfiction, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World” by Elaine Scarry.
Brian S: And Wikipedia?
Rosalie Moffett: Always Wikipedia.
Brian S: Thanks for joining us tonight and for this terrific book!
Camille D: I’m all for that. I’m doing a lot more reading of nonfiction, too, with my book coming out. I think the bridge between poetry and nonfiction isn’t a particularly long one.
Rosalie Moffett: Thanks so much for talking with me! It was a pleasure.