The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers about her new book The Tilt Torn Away from the Seasons (Acre Books, March 2020), sonnet crowns, formal experimentation, the Mars rover, and getting enough sleep while parenting a young child.
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. Upcoming poets include Eric Tran, Mary-Kim Arnold, Ariel Francisco, Heather McHugh, and more!
This Rumpus Poetry Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: So Elizabeth, we have a member who can’t be here tonight but who was interested in what sci-fi you read, and how you researched Mars for this book, and that seems like a good place to start to me, too.
Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers: Okay, I’ll start with the sci-fi. My answer may be a bit of a disappointment, but I don’t really read it! But that may change now that I’ve written this book…
Liz: You seem to read a lot of other things, though? You referenced so many other writings in the collection.
Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers: I think a lot of writers across all genres are interested in speculation and dystopia, and I guess this book falls into that vein. But the Mars setting, it was a surprise to me, too. I resisted it for a long time.
Ren F: I couldn’t stop thinking about Kim Stanley Robinson’s book Red Mars, and its sequels, while reading this.
Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers: That’s very cool! There are, in fact, a lot of other poetic voices echoed in here. Agha Shahid Ali, Linda Bierds, Wallace Stevens, Whitman, Bishop, are quoted directly or indirectly. In terms of research, I will say I followed the Curiosity Rover and all its findings as I was writing. I also read a bit on terraforming and the like.
Liz: Your reference to Chile mentions the canyon—I went and read it thinking it might give more insight into the canyon you bring up in response to psychological fitness…
Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers: Well, there are lots of canyons on Mars. So the landform comes up a lot—
Liz It was powerful imagery; you have a lot of it. You said the Mars setting surprised you, so what drew you to it?
Brian S: Side note: there’s a replica of the Mars rover at the Children’s Science Museum here in Des Moines. Some of the work done on it came from Iowa State. It’s way bigger than I thought it would be when I imagined it on Mars.
Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers: So, the very first poem I wrote for the book was “The Frontier,” which describes the first 360-view photos of Mars, and that was my entrance into the subject matter.
I started with trying to describe what it looked like, what it would feel like to be there. And I kept thinking of sets in Western movies with that whole red desert landscape. Which led me, of course, to the thornier subject of colonialism and expansion. And that’s kind of how the book was born. I kept writing all these poems set in different places in this Mars world. Mars became a kind of vehicle to talk about the trespasses of Western history, climate change, stuff like that.
Liz: You also write about the female experience throughout—was that intended when you started?
Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers: Well, I would say I’m interested in women and nonbinary people’s experience in most of my work. Yeah, gender features prominently in the collection. That was true of my first book as well, which had a lot of discussion of sexual violence. Some of that definitely carried over into this book.
Liz: I enjoyed the juxtaposition of a planet that is seen as so masculine with the feminine and power.
Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers: Thanks, Liz; I hadn’t thought about it that way before. Brian, I need to make a trip out there to see that rover.
Ren F: This might be kind of a big question but what thought did you put into the ordering of the poems? Were there intentional shifts in style as the book progressed?
Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers: Oh man, ordering was really hard. It always is! So, I think of “The Frontier”—with its subject matter, but also with that weird right justification and right-moving stanzas—as kind of the pole poem, the prelude that explains how to read the rest of the book. I couldn’t imagine other poems coming first.
I also put “Red Planet Application” early on so that we might start imagining what kind of person or people would be living in such a place, but mostly I go for formal variation. I don’t like poems that look exactly like to be beside each other. You need a change of pace, so to speak, while reading.
Brian S: Have you read Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars?
Ren F: Oh man, I love all of Mary Roach’s books.
Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers: I have not! Putting it on my list.
Ren F: For me, the beginning of the collection had almost a myopic feel, almost like you were looking at something just on the other side of your space suit and talking to yourself. And the end had a more open, conversational feeling, as if you were looking out over the horizon and talking loudly to a group. Claustrophobic and hostile versus open and comfortable, maybe.
Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers: The first part of the book is focused on travel and expansion and world-building, I would say, and yeah… the second part is maybe exploring the consequences of the first half a bit. But the second half also has more formal experimentation in some ways. I also had to figure out how to incorporate the backflash/flashback poems.
Ren F: Interesting, yeah.
Brian S.: Can you talk some about that experimentation?
Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers: Sure, Brian. There are multiple sonnet crowns in the book, sequences of sonnets there are overlapping and circle back, using repeated language. “Fugue for Wind and Pipes” is a variation on a sonnet crown, but I wanted to push myself a step further by having some lines you could read all the way across the page. Man, that one was hard to format.
Brian S: I feel like I’m seeing sonnet crowns a lot more lately, just in the last year or so. I’ve never been able to pull one off.
Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers: They are super hard. My sonnets are “smashed”—they don’t have rhyme and the meter is loose.
Ren F: That poem is beautiful!
Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers: Thanks!
Liz: With “Fugue,” how do you intend it to be read? I was trying to imagine two voices reading at once the overlapping lines.
Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers: Yes, I imagined it as two voices. Or maybe more than two. Another experiment in the last section was writing a mega-mega poem, i.e. “The Northern Lights,” and also using the exit interview as a form for a poem.
Liz: The reorienting of Goodnight Moon to the earth was attention-grabbing for me.
Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers: Ah, nice catch! That was one of those inspired moments; I’m not sure where it came from. That poem is so long that I basically put everything I could think of into it.
Brian S: Goodnight Moon is of those books I’ve read so often to my twins that I know it by heart at this point.
Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers: I have not read Goodnight Moon to my son yet, which makes me feel like a terrible parent. He has a lot of other books, though.
Liz: I think of Goodnight Moon as so soothing, and you wrote this story of a place that is so harsh and is looking back at this other place which has become so harsh of our own doing.
Brian S: I’m kind of surprised that more kids’ books references don’t pop up in poems, honestly.
Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers: Yes, Liz, maybe I was trying to have some calm variation in there. My book is very sad, overall.
Brian, this sounds like a fun prompt. My kid is nine months old and is finally paying attention to books, which is cool.
Brian S: Yes, let’s leave it as a prompt and not an idea for a new journal lol.
Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers: LOL
Ren F: Hahaha
Liz: Do you read your son your work?
Brian S: Oh wow, yeah, nine months is a busy age.
Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers: Not usually, Liz. There hasn’t been a ton of time for writing since he was born. But I do read him other people’s poems from time to time.
Brian, yes, we are dying from exhaustion.
Liz: How long from when you completed this book until publishing? Was there any pushback on the formatting from the publisher?
Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers: Oh man. This book was completed years ago, maybe around 2015/2016, and then it went on to be a finalist in a bunch of contests but never landed.
Liz: Oh wow!
Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers: And then it was under contract with a press that had some problems, and I had to pull it out. Lots of drama. I was so lucky to land at Acre after that. No pushback on formatting—the weird forms are the signature of the book!
Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers: Faylita is awesome. Acre is very open to experimentation of all sorts—it’s their jam.
Ren F: To what extent, when you finish something like this, do you stay invested and engaged with the subject, and to what extent do you feel like you move on? Like, I can imagine being kind of consumed by various parts of the aspects of Mars and settlement, etc., for a time… Did you stay interested or peter out on the subject?
Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers: Well, Ren, I would say I definitely have no more Mars poems in me!
When a book is done, I usually move on. It’s a long period of time before I find another subject that interests me. I miss writing about Mars a little because it was a whole world I got to imagine and ask questions about. Such permission.
Ren F: Do you feel like you had any specific other reasons for getting invested in this topic? You mentioned the Curiosity rover and a few other things but I wondered if there was some inciting reason for this topic.
And yes, that’s how I feel about sci-fi in general—a whole other world to imagine.
Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers: Well, when I first starting writing the book I think I was living in the rural Midwest for a bit and feeling kind of isolated. I had this wonderful fellowship at the Kenyon Review, and there was time to write and explore and I think something about those first photos of another planet—well, Ohio is not Mars, but emotionally I was interested in this sense of isolation.
Ren F: I get that. Might as well be in a space suit.
Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers: I wrote the rest of the book while living in New Orleans, where I was always thinking about climate change and devastation.
Brian S: Oh, I grew up just across the lake from there. It’s like this book was written to be injected straight into my veins.
Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers: I didn’t write directly about the places I was living, but the feeling of both those places made it into the book, if that makes sense. I also never intended for the whole book to be about Mars, btw.
Ren F: I’m not sure there’s really a right place to drop this, but we are acquaintances. I believe we met in your first year of Cornell MFA. You were writing a lot then about your time in China. Was that kind of your previous obsession before this one? And are there threads/themes you felt like you kept between those obsessions? If I remember correctly, where you lived then was fairly rural.
Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers: Place is always an obsession for me, yes. And living in rural China got me thinking a lot about environmental devastation. I was living in a very polluted province. Those poems are all in my first book, Chord Box. But there is one China poem in this book, too: “The Pool at the Prosperous Hotel.”
Ren F: Oh yeah, makes sense.
Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers: In the collection, that poem functions as a kind of portrait for what life is (was?) like on earth, and my persona is kind of divorced from it. If that makes sense. It could be anyone, the speaker.
Brian S: I imagine you haven’t had as much time to read as you would normally, but who have you been reading lately? And is there anything we should be looking for?
Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers: Brian, you are right. It’s been a terrible year for reading, but I’m trying to get back on the horse. For ecopoetic and environmental stuff, I am obsessed with Brian Teare’s recent Doomstead Days. I’ve been carrying it around in my backpack for weeks even though I finished it in 2019.
Also, something to look out for: Benjamin Garcia’s Thrown in the Throat, out in August from Milkweed. Ren, you will remember Ben from Ithaca. I write a lot of essays, too. Jaquira Díaz’s Ordinary Girls is terrific, came out in the fall I believe.
Ren F: Oh wow, yeah, I need to catch up on Ben’s work.
Brian S: What are you currently working on?
Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers: Honestly there hasn’t been a ton of focused writing time with the new babe, but I do have two strands of poems—one about environmental change here on Earth, and one about the science of fertility/parenting, since we were consumed by that process recently. I also have an essay collection I’m shopping, exploring the agent process, trying to figure out what to do with the manuscript. You’ll be happy to know none of the essays are set on Mars. The spring will be mostly consumed with traveling for readings and stuff like that.
Brian, tell me I will find the energy and time to write again? OMG.
Brian S: I mean, someday? Yes. The best thing I can tell you is that you can’t force it.
Ren F: What if you have to force it lol.
Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers: Okay, that is good advice. I’m forcing it a lot. So tired.
Brian S: And there may be times when you think you’ve gotten regular time to write and then the kid develops a new talent and it’s gone, and it can feel like you’re losing ground, but you’ll hit a balance point again. Just try to be patient with it.
Seriously, at this point, it’s more important to sleep well than to write. You can’t do the latter well if you’re not doing the former. Took me a long time to accept that.
Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers: Thanks. I lock myself in a library room a few times a week, but recently things have just been super chaotic. Yes, we are not really sleeping much right now. I have to remind myself that writing isn’t about high productivity all the time.
Brian S: Sleep makes everything better. I try not to be an evangelist, because I grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness, but I will preach the value of good sleep from door to door if need be.
And with that, thank you for joining us tonight and for this wonderful book.
Liz: Thank you! It was a pleasure to read your book and chat with you!
Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers: Thank you, Brian! Thank you, everyone! If you like the book, tell your friends.
Photograph of Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers by Sarah J. Newman.