Interview with: Margaret Rozga
First, congratulations on becoming Wisconsin Poet Laureate for 2019-2020. That title is well deserved; I enjoyed your pieces immensely! I got to read a bit of your biography off of the Wisconsin Poet Laureate website and saw that you have several collections of poems that have already been published, which again, well done! However, no one starts out writing like the Poet Laureate, and I wanted to explore that a bit for aspiring writers/poets who might come across your work and this interview while feeling discouraged about themselves, their writing, and their path. What would be some advice you would give to that person?
You’re right, of course, that no one starts out writing like a poet laureate. Truth be told, even now, as Wisconsin Poet Laureate, I rarely see a finished poem in what I write when I start a new poem. I might take a poem through 6 or 10 drafts before I think it’s working. Sometimes I even wonder if I remember how to write a poem, and that’s because every poem is a new beginning.
Of course, having been practicing the art for more than thirty years, I’ve learned some strategies that help get a poem going. Looking carefully at what I’m writing about is one of them. Recognizing when I’ve hit upon a line that will work as a repeat line is another, as is extending a metaphor. Basically the answer is to keep writing. Keep at the practice. And read. Read other poets, a wide-range of poets, and try for yourself some of what you like about how they put their poems together.
To expand on the previous question a bit, what first prompted you to pick up a pencil and start writing? Have you always enjoyed writing poetry or did it take you a while to find your niche?
I cannot remember a time when I didn’t want to write. I thought it was magic, how these squiggles on paper could make me see and feel, could transport me to what had previously been just beyond my reach. I wanted to do that. I wanted to extend my own reach. I tried writing fiction, but I had trouble with plot. Poetry with metaphor at its heart seems to draw on my natural tendency to see in terms of comparison.
Speaking of feeling encouraged in our writing, what are some sources you tap into when drawing inspiration for your poetry? Do you believe there are several or have you tended to rely on a few while contemplating what to write about when you open your computer?
I do a journal practice each morning, writing down thirteen observations. They don’t have to relate to each other. They don’t even have to be full sentences. My goal is to fill a page, and by the time I get to the 5th or 6th item, I’m usually on a roll. Sometimes one or the other or several of these items begin to seem like material for a poem. This was the case with “You Promise Me a Morning.” Once I begin a series like 200 Nights and One Day or Pestiferous Questions, there are multiple incidents to write about, so the question is not so much what to write about, but how to get into it with the concrete details that are central to a poem. I was able to write one of the poems about Jessie in Pestiferous Questions after I imagined her sitting at her dressing table, looking into a glare in the mirror so she couldn’t see herself clearly.
When writing “For Future Generations, Naked and Bald,” we experience a doll’s journey of being passed down through three generations of women. In the end, the doll is stripped down and her hair unglued by the granddaughter in the poem.
What was the significance of the doll’s journey and where she ended up? Are there certain things you believe are important to pass down to future generations?
Thank you for this wonderful question. The poem began with an anecdote. My mother bought the doll for me because I had a fit in the store about it, and she just gave in. But as past U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser points out in his book Poetry Home Repair Manual, a poem is more than an anecdote. This poem provides one answer to the inevitable question – what is it besides an anecdote?
When my special doll got passed down to my daughters and then my granddaughter, it came with the story about my being, well, a brat, at least at that time in the store. I thought if I owned up to that moment, it might help convey the idea that being naughty on occasion doesn’t make you a bad person. Also it was fun for the granddaughters to imagine their grandmother having a tantrum in a store. Then by the time of Leah, the second granddaughter, the doll needed some freshening up, and that’s all Leah was trying to do when the hair came unglued.
In the poem the doll takes on another level of meaning. Her nakedness and baldness for the next generation suggest a bleak future. Students today face a more uncertain job market than I did. They graduate from college with much more debt, not to mention all the contentious issues facing us. It becomes harder to see a rosy future. I hope for more, not only for my grandchildren, but for all the next generation. Sometimes that hope flickers.
As part of your duties as Wisconsin Poet Laureate, you have really embraced the use of social media to enhance public interest in poetry. You have a very strong online presence on Facebook and Twitter, oftentimes posting events and links to help other writers develop their work and get it published. If you would like, could you tell us a little bit about this choice to engage with readers and writers online?
Facebook and Twitter help me connect with people in communities I will not be able to visit in person even if I travel as extensively as past poets laureate have. My overall goal is to get poetry out there and into play, to become more a part of everyday thinking and conversation. Frequent posting on social media not only gets poetry out there for others, but it also keeps me alert to what’s going on with poetry.
Margaret Rozga has published four books of poetry, including Pestiferous Questions: A Life in Poems (2017), written with the help of a creative writing fellowship at the American Antiquarian Society. Her poems have appeared recently in Presence, Leaping Clear, Mom Egg Review, and in the anthology Van Gogh Dreams. She serves as current Wisconsin Poet Laureate.