Form as a Metaphor for Fatness: A Conversation with Stephanie Rogers

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Fat Girl Forms, the latest book of poetry by Stephanie Rogers, explores an intersection rarely seen in literary circles: the experience of fatness portrayed through the lens of poetry. I discovered Rogers on Instagram when she posted a cover image of her new book, and an investigation soon made it clear that her work bears less of a resemblance to “Instagram poets” such as Rupi Kaur, and more to the poets you’ll find published in journals such as Ploughshares, Copper Nickel, and Salamander. Rogers says she writes for an audience that doesn’t necessarily read poetry, but it’s clear that editors of more traditional journals find her work compelling as well. She uses simple language (including unapologetic f-bombs), but also works her craft, especially in this book. As the title implies, all the poems are written in received forms.

Fat Girl Forms is the second of Rogers’s books to be published by Saturnalia. The first, Plucking the Stinger, came out in 2016. She grew up in Middletown, Ohio, the same steel town portrayed in the book and Netflix drama, Hillbilly Elegy. She attended The Ohio State University and University of Cincinnati, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Georgia ReviewPloughsharesTin HousePoetry NorthwestShenandoahNew Ohio Review, and elsewhere. She lives outside of Nashville in Lebanon, Tennessee.

I spoke with Stephanie via email and Zoom and found her a kind and friendly correspondent. We spoke about her book, about what it’s like to live as a fat person, and about how she found her way into poetry, in spite of a rocky introduction.

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The Rumpus: Tell me about your new book.

Stephanie Rogers: Ultimately, Fat Girl Forms is a book about the vulnerability of living as a fat woman in a culture that openly despises fat people, particularly fat women.

In some ways, it’s a “fuck you” to that culture. I’m also trying to understand why it’s acceptable for a culture to treat an entire group of people as unworthy—of romantic love, respect, even basic health care—merely because of their body size.

So, I’m covering some ground here, writing in form as a kind of metaphor for fitting something into a tight space. I joke with friends that writing in form for me is like trying to squeeze my fat body into an airplane seat.

Rumpus: Yes, “Fat Girl Ballade” is actually all about flying while fat. Did you choose to write in form to create that tension, or does your interest in form predate your choice to write about this topic?

Rogers: Both, really.

I first learned to write in form when I took an undergraduate poetry workshop with Andrew Hudgins, who taught me how to write in blank verse. It took me a while to get the hang of it, but one day it clicked, and I loved the weirdness of the poems I wrote in form.

Writing poems that follow a set of rules puts me in a place where I’m manipulating language in a way that doesn’t happen when I write in free verse. I can’t explain why, but I’m able to access a different part of my brain when I write in form, and exploring that tension in the language is often a thrilling experience.

So, writing about fatness using form seemed like a no-brainer to me; what better way to convey how fat people feel constantly pressured to conform their bodies to a particular mold?

Rumpus: I’ve heard other poets say similar things about writing in form. Tracy K. Smith said that it distracts you from paying attention to content and allows for surprises to emerge.

Every poem in the book—more than 85 pages—is a different form. How did you learn about all of them? Are they all traditional, or did you invent some of them?

Rogers: Wow, I love that Tracy K. Smith snippet; it’s so true!

Regarding the various forms in the book, I found most of them from a website called Shadow Poetry, and they include both traditional forms and those invented by others. I tried at several points to invent my own forms as I wrote, but they all seemed contrived and boring to me. I gave up after the extreme failure of “The Rogers Sonnet.”

Lewis Putnam Turco’s The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics Including Odd and Invented Forms, was also an invaluable resource, and I had so much fun going through the book, examining each of the forms I wanted to try. Turco includes examples of most of the forms too, which I found immensely helpful.

Rumpus: You mentioned that you learned to write in form during an undergraduate poetry workshop with Andrew Hudgins. Was that your first experience writing poetry?

Rogers: Well, my very first experience writing poetry occurred in my angsty teenage years, of course. Holy hell were the poems bad. But, looking back on them, I realize how much I enjoyed playing with sound, the way the words crashed together when I read them aloud. My friends and I bound our first chapbooks with staples and shared them only with one another.

In my senior year of high school, the English class brought in a young college professor to teach a course on poetry. I remember how excited I felt—we were going to write poems for eight weeks!

And then he hated my poems.

Okay, that’s extra, but it certainly felt like he hated my poems or, at the very least, didn’t take them seriously. (In his defense, I used the “chiller” font on my poem titles, fake blood dripping down the page.)

Discouragement followed. I kept writing, though, even through my brief stint as an oboe performance major when I was an undergraduate at Ohio State.

And then I applied to grad school for an MA in English and Comparative Literature. I adored my program at University of Cincinnati. They have an esteemed PhD program in poetry there, and I got to take poetry workshops with many PhD students who had already published books, or had books on the way.

I can’t tell you how much I learned from them, and I guess that’s when I started to feel like a “real” writer. People in my workshops took my poems seriously.

Rumpus: How could you tell they were taking your poems seriously?

Rogers: They started talking about my poems, going kind of hard on them.

When I first joined the workshop, writing incredibly shitty poems, the other poets in the class didn’t seem to want to engage with them in real, concrete ways. I felt like a baby, a fledgling that no one wanted to hurt.

But as I challenged myself, worked harder, read more poetry, carefully considered the poems people brought into workshop, my poems improved, and I started hearing more thoughtful critiques of my work.

Rumpus: It’s impressive that you persevered at poetry in spite of a lack of initial encouragement. Was there a particular moment of clarity when you realized that you were writing better poems?

Rogers: Luckily, my early teachers encouraged me to write—I’m talking elementary school and middle school teachers. I can’t tell you how important that was to my believing I could grow up and be a writer if I wanted to. So, when I started thinking seriously about writing poetry as something beyond putting it down in a journal, I remembered that early encouragement.

However, I come from a working-class background. One of my first jobs was making air compressors for cars on an assembly line at the local factory. My mom worked there, too, and my dad filled vending machines for a living.

I say this because when I think about a lack of initial encouragement, and perseverance in general, I think about class privilege. I was a first-generation college student. I didn’t grow up with many of the same opportunities my fellow college students did, and that gap widened even more once I began working toward my MFA in poetry.

If anything, I realized I liked my poems much better when I was writing stuff my mom was interested in, my sister. I started not caring so much about what my peers thought; I wanted to write for an audience that hadn’t necessarily spent a significant time studying poetry. I didn’t give a shit about the canon. I wanted my high school friends who still lived in Middletown, Ohio to feel proud of me for getting the hell out of there.

This is a lengthy response to say I realized my poems soared when I stopped caring so much about impressing people who grew up surrounded by walls of books. I wanted to write poems for people who might not have grown up in homes that valued art, in homes where the focus was often how to get the next meal on the table.

Rumpus: It’s true that it’s easy to get caught up in trying to please or penetrate particular literary circles. There are definitely poets—such as Diane Seuss—who identify with a blue-collar background, though. Seuss calls her aesthetic “punk-rural.” And I’ve heard of poetry programs that specialize in blue-collar poetry. How did you learn to discern whose feedback was important to you, and is there something you do now when writing to ensure your poems will resonate with your chosen audience?

Rogers: I absolutely love Diane Seuss’s work! I’m currently obsessed with frank: sonnets. What a collection!

In terms of feedback on my work, I send my poem drafts to my sister, my husband. I send them to my poet friend, Kerri French, who I met in my MFA program, and I trust her completely. Because I no longer have connections to academia, I sometimes even still take online poetry workshops, just to stay connected to a larger poetry community.

I also think it’s important—and difficult—to find the right readers for your work. There are some people who just aren’t going to get what you’re trying to do, and that doesn’t necessarily mean the work is bad; it might just mean those readers are coming to the poems with a different aesthetic.

I received a rejection from a journal once, and—without revealing the editor or journal name— I’m going to leave it here:

Thanks for trying us with these poems, but none of these quite seduce my attention; there’s a gap between the emotions and situations they are trying to convey and the basic language, and it’s into that gap I keep falling.

I was incredibly pissed when I got this rejection. The poems I submitted, which are about my brother-in-law’s suicide and appear in my first book, Plucking the Stinger, certainly deal with complex emotions and situations. But this particular editor didn’t like, or even understand, the juxtaposition of the “basic language” and that emotional complexity.

This made me doubt my work, even my approach to writing poetry. Am I allowed to use simple language to talk about multifaceted circumstances? Should I elevate the language to appeal to a larger audience, specifically other poets with advanced degrees in poetry?

I admit I still struggle with these questions. I mean, more people in academia buy poetry books than people in Middletown, Ohio—the place made semi-famous by J.D. Vance in his (crappy) book, Hillbilly Elegy.

So how do I reconcile that with my desire for people to read my work?

Rumpus: That’s a good question for any poet to consider.

I wanted to circle back to the idea and experience of fatness, which is so central to your book. Let’s talk about the word “fat.” Why do you use it instead of the euphemisms favored by some—words like “curvy” or “overweight”?

Rogers: To me, the word “fat” acts as a mere descriptor of my body. It’s a reclaiming of the language used to demean people who live in larger bodies. Using the word “fat” is the opposite of an apology. It’s in-your-face, a refusal to allow a word often hurled as an insult (ever hear someone call a larger woman a fat bitch?) have so much power over me.

I didn’t grow up fat, and it took me a long while to accept my body once I started gaining weight in adulthood. Of course, at first, I preferred “curvy” as a descriptor, which seemed innocuous enough, maybe even an asset in some ways.

But as I learned more about the fat community, fat activism, HAES (health at every size), and even the racist origins of the BMI (see Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia by Sabrina Strings), I began to feel uncomfortable using words like “curvy” and especially “overweight,” which implies some ideal weight exists for everyone.

I remember a particular family holiday visit when I overheard a cousin say to another cousin, “Oh my god. Have you seen how much weight Stephanie has gained?”

I felt horrified, my eyes welling up. And I suppose, after so many experiences like that—the judging of my body by my family, by society, even my friends (who do it under the guise of “but I’m worried about your health!”)—I finally wanted a way to push back.

By calling myself what I am—a fat bitch, thank you very much—I take away the power of that word as an insult.

Rumpus: There’s a lot of controversy over how to relate to fatness in our society. Some consider it a disease that should be eradicated. Some consider it a moral failing. There’s also a growing movement toward fat acceptance and a huge backlash against it. As with most controversy, the voices on both sides of the debate get louder and louder, and the arguments become less and less nuanced. Your book sidesteps the shouting and takes us into the actual experience of a fat woman—as you say, the vulnerability of being a fat woman. Was it difficult for you to sustain that authentic voice?

Rogers: I agree with everything you said regarding the fat acceptance movement and the backlash against it. And I can’t handle the backlash. What that says to me is: You’re fat and therefore not deserving of basic respect.

Even if someone wants to think of fatness as that dreaded medicalized word “ob*sity,” and even if they want to make the infamous concern-troll argument—but I’m worried about your health!—and even if they think fatness is a moral failing, the fact of the matter is that I’m a fucking person.

And that fact in and of itself means I don’t deserve to be treated like shit; my body isn’t a punchline, I’m not some cautionary tale, and I’m certainly not your “before” photo.

I’m a fat person who wants the same access to competent healthcare as a smaller person. I want to walk into a clinic for an OB/GYN exam and not walk out with a prescription for “fruits/vegetables” written in doctor scrawl. (This happened to me.)

At the same time, I’m a fat person who wants her clothing size stocked in stores. I want the most basic accommodations—like chairs in classrooms without arms, like the extension of seatbelts in cars and airplanes.

When I wrote this book, I wanted to highlight as many of my personal experiences with fatness and the way people treat me because of my larger size: street harassment, for instance, and discrimination at doctor’s offices. But I also wanted to showcase some of the internal struggles I still face as a fat person living in a culture that unapologetically hates fat people.

I write about not recognizing myself in a photograph, my insecurities in romantic relationships, and, of course, envy and jealousy—whether it’s over my sister’s smaller body or the straight-sized women riding their bikes down my street. Sustaining that voice felt easy in a way because I tried not to shy away from my genuine experiences of fat shaming.

Part of that, too, stems from an article I read several years ago, called “Everything You Know About Obesity Is Wrong” by Michael Hobbes for HuffPost. Hobbes meticulously breaks down so many of the supposed “facts” about ob*sity, but what stopped me most when I read it were the incredible personal stories from fat people, their struggles coming to terms with their larger size, and specifically how the healthcare industry consistently fails fat patients.

In a way, reading this article planted the seed for Fat Girl Forms. I felt like it gave me permission to put myself out there. As I wrote it, I thought, “Maybe other fat people will want to read this. Maybe smaller people will read it and gain a new perspective. And maybe it’ll click with someone, the way that article clicked with me.”

Rumpus: What does your writing practice look like today?

Rogers: I work a nine-to-five job in advertising, so most of my writing occurs either very early in the morning, before work, or on the weekends. I try to draft at least one poem a week; I find it helps me stay on track and keep momentum, even if I end up discarding it. I often completely throw away drafts instead of revising them.

The fact of the matter is that I hate revising, and I know that’s terrible as many writers would argue it’s crucial to the process. But if a poem isn’t working for me in a big way, and I can’t figure out a way into it, I usually just get rid of it. I guess I’m more of a tweaker than a full-on reviser, ha ha.

I do think that even when writers aren’t necessarily sitting down to write, we’re still writing—whether it’s just paying attention, being mindfully present to what’s going on around us, or simply living, watching films, listening to music, reading, consuming art. That’s all part of the process for me, and thinking that way keeps me out of panic mode if I happen to go a long time without putting anything on the page.

Rumpus: I’m glad to know I’m not the only poet who hates revising. What advice would you give to poets just starting to send out their work?

Rogers: Is it ridiculous to say don’t give up? Because I mean it. When I first started sending out my work, rejection after rejection appeared. And now when I send out my work, rejection after rejection still appears. It’s unavoidable. Perseverance is key. For instance, I had a poem rejected by practically every literary journal in the country before it was ultimately accepted by Ploughshares.

I also think reading lit mags and reading other poets’ work you admire—and finding out where their poems were accepted—is a good way to familiarize yourself with the aesthetics of a journal. Some journals just won’t be down with the kind of work you’re putting out there, and that’s totally fine! Just keep at it and try not to let the submission process—and the outcomes of those submissions—interfere with the writing process.

Good luck out there!

 

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Author photo by David Nelson


Frances Donovan’s chapbook Mad Quick Hand of the Seashore was named a finalist in the Lambda Literary Awards. Her poetry and interviews have appeared in The Rumpus, Heavy Feather Review, SWWIM, Solstice, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in poetry from Lesley University and is a certified Poet Educator with Mass Poetry. Her first full-length collection is forthcoming from Lily Poetry Review Books. She once drove a bulldozer in a Pride Parade while wearing a bustier. You can find her climbing hills in Boston, and online at gardenofwords.com. More from this author →