A Conversation with Rebecca Hart Olander
Rebecca Hart Olander is a mother, wife, teacher, writer, and director of a small poetry press. Having earned an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, she writes in Western Massachusetts and teaches at Westfield State University. Olander won the 2013 Women’s National Book Association poetry contest, and her first chapbook, Dressing the Wounds, has recently been published by dancing girl press. Senior Editor and Literary Reflections Editor Libby Maxey spoke with her about the book, the experience of publishing others’ books, and the many elements that comprise a writing practice.
Libby Maxey: Dressing the Wounds isn’t a collection of poems about mothering; rather, it’s a collection about marriage, which includes motherhood, as well as memories and ruminations about what it’s like to be a child. Childhood seems a likely place to go in search of keys to help us decode our adult selves and relationships, or to imagine the possibility that our lives could have been or still could be different. I especially like “The Root,” in which you imagine the experience of a second-grade boy losing a spelling bee on the word “heart.” How is childhood a way in for you, as writer and as wife/mother?
Rebecca Hart Olander: I do tend to mythologize childhood, as a terrain to visit in search of understanding. I think this comes from my obsession with time. I want to arrest time, to harness it in the body of poems, and when I look to childhood for keys to how adults act in the now, I go searching with a measure of both envy and empathy. It’s not that I want to be a child again (even the romantic part of me remembers how hard growing up can be), but the spirit of that time—especially in girls when they are less self-conscious, and in boys when they are “allowed” to retain their sweetness—is worthy of emulation. So, yes, childhood does speak of possibility for me. At the same time, I don’t want my work to be saccharine or sentimental. The dark tinge that rears its head in many of my poems comes from the fact that the poems are chronicling loss, but also showing the darkness in myself—in, say, that very envy, or in that impossible desire to stop time.
LM: Many mother writers find it increasingly difficult to write about their children as the years pass. We feel awkward about using our children to write about ourselves, or imposing our imagination on their identity, or simply using them for art without their knowledge or permission. You’ve recently become an empty-nester. At different stages in your life and theirs, have you found yourself more or less inclined to write about them?
RHO: This is a great question! When my children were younger, I wrote about them more often, actually. They were easy inspiration; they took up more of my whole world so it made sense for them to enter my poems. I didn’t necessarily have the distance, however, to avoid that sentimental aspect I mentioned earlier. Then, for a time, I shied away from writing about them, and motherhood, confusing treatment of a subject with the subject itself. I worried that it simply was sentimental to write about my children (it’s not!), and I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a woman poet or a mother poet.
Now I feel more confident in wearing my heart on my sleeve while making sure I don’t slip into the sappy realm. This came with gaining maturity, both as a person and in my craft as a writer. My children are the lights of my life, so it would be ridiculous if they didn’t appear in my work! And when I do write about them, it isn’t to tell their truths for them. The poems in this book in which my children appear in any kind of revealing way were written either at a time when I could let them see the work (so that I feel settled about the question of knowledge or permission) or were written in retrospect (so that a necessary distance had been gained between the catalyst for the poem and the poem as a piece of writing). That said, poems that include my children are not always about them, which could also be why they feel permissible to me, as poems.
With that empty nest you mention, I’ve gotten some space back for other things in my world, and my children are more in their own worlds. When I write about them now, I’m usually just grateful for the spark because it probably means I was spending time with them, which is a gift. I also wonder if the new poems I write that include them are more interesting because they are more formed as people. In other words, the poems aren’t centered on me gazing in wonder at their tiny ears or something, but feature them as humans in their own right. Part of my development in this area has come through reading the work of other poets who are also mothers and finding exemplars in their poems: Catherine Barnett, Eavan Boland, Amy Dryansky, Marie Howe, January Gill O’Neil, Betsy Sholl, and Jennifer K. Sweeney, to name a few.
LM: You really do wear your heart on your sleeve in this collection. Some of these poems feel so intimate, so much like private communications. They ask for openness, and they do it in good faith, opening you up wide in the process. I wonder how it feels to let such poems out into the world.
RHO: This is an emotional collection—no two ways about it! What’s tricky is letting myself wear my heart on my sleeve while trying not to air or wear the hearts of those I love in a way that would cause them pain. Much of the book is about living and loving through a long marriage, which is not without thorns; while it’s my perspective captured in the poems, I don’t intend to harm anyone in the making of them, so to speak. I hope the book feels true, like a love letter but not an uncomplicated one, and one that doesn’t paint an unreal portrait of marriage. By default—as my side of a shared story, and as a mere chapbook—it arrives at best as a partial truth.
So, to return to your question, letting these poems into the world is not as hard as letting them into my own little sphere. It’s not hard to write them (well, craft-wise, yes, but accessing the emotional zone is cathartic and necessary); but to give them an audience is another thing. I assume that what I wrestle with is also what others wrestle with, however, so I hope to find readers who feel I’ve put into words some of what they’ve felt, and, in my wildest dreams, to make them feel heard or reflected. I hope readers recognize themselves in these pages, in this mix of gratitude, questions, solitude, fidelity, anger, awe, tenderness, and desire.
LM: You’ve touched a little on your writing process, on the labor of craft. Are you a regular writer, putting in steady hours on specific days, or do the poems come in fits and starts of inspiration? What’s your relationship to revision?
RHO: I am not a regular writer, which is perhaps the condition of many writers who are also mothers. But I try to keep writing as one of the primary things in my life, in part with the help of a few regular writing groups. These keep me responsible to my writing self by giving me “homework” of sorts: to write and turn in drafts for critique, but also to read others’ work, which, as you know, is deeply important as a reciprocal activity with writing. We feed our own words by example/inspiration.
I’m a night owl, so it works well for me to fit my writing in after others have gone to bed and I have the house to myself, once home and work duties are done. That said, it’s not like I used to have a regular daily writing practice that was somehow hijacked by domesticity. It works for me to find space in the margins. I give myself the challenge every now and then to write more regularly—every day for a month, for a week each month, or during a writing residency—but that works precisely because the challenge is out of the ordinary and so triggers writing in the same way prompts do, by disrupting the norm. I used to feel as if I were an imposter writer if I didn’t do my morning pages or a certain hourly engagement each day, but it only kills creativity to feel that way, and, Popeye-style, I am what I am! There are so many ways to be a writer, and I no longer feel I have to try to be someone I’m not in my practice.
Speaking of prompts, I use them widely and love them deeply. There are times, magic times, when I am visited by inspiration, and that is the best. It’s rare though; more often, I have to force the muse to visit, tricking inspiration into the room by using a prompt to get somewhere unexpected in my work. The pieces that are like visitations tend to come out more whole and realized, whereas prompted pieces might need more work for a spark to catch, but that’s what revision is for.
I love revision! I love returning to a piece, ready to slough off its dead skin and find a new piece within. It’s wild what time can do in terms of gaining perspective on one’s own work. I love discovering that I’m ready to let things go from a piece that I had thought were precious—sometimes, precisely because they are precious! Or because I’m being judgmental, or hitting the reader over the head with something that I should trust her to get on her own. I so appreciate the feedback I get from other writers in my groups, and I usually sit with those comments awhile before revising, so that I can have my head on straight about what I like, or don’t, before making changes. Revision is a great way to engage with the work when generating isn’t clicking, yet I want to spend quality time on my poems. Reading fills this need too, in a different way, but I don’t get as much time for that as I would like.
LM: It’s no wonder you’re short of reading time! You became the director of Perugia Press about three years ago—the second director the press has had in more than 20 years of publishing full-length books of poetry by women. How does your work overseeing a small press bear on your own writing—and also on your experience of publishing your own chapbook with dancing girl press?
RHO: As an editor who also wears the hat of a writer, I try to respond to women who submit their work as I would hope to be responded to as a writer. I know what it’s like to send my work into the world, and at Perugia Press we read with deep admiration and appreciation for the trust that writers show us when they submit.
Before I was the editor of the press, I volunteered at Perugia for about seven years. The work I did reading manuscripts for the contest opened my eyes to the variety of ways one could organize a manuscript, title a book, and frame a collection. It also showed me how many great contemporary writers are out there, creating astounding work. It’s humbling, but it makes me feel in good company with other poets taking their work seriously.
Because I believe in the mission of Perugia, I am drawn to other presses that work to highlight the voices of women writers. I sent my chapbook to dancing girl press for that reason. The press is run by one woman, Kristy Bowen, which also appealed to me. I handle the day-to-day operations of Perugia, so I have patience and understanding for what goes into running a small press. It’s cool to be on the other side of the table for the project of my book, and to have a keen editorial eye help me to make something I’ll love, just as I try to do with each Perugia poet.
LM: We often ask novelists or nonfiction writers, “What’s next?” But it seems odd to ask that of a poet, since poets don’t necessarily embark on specific projects. That said, what are you looking forward to now that the chapbook is out?
RHO: I look forward to having something for folks to take home after readings! I get the chance to read fairly often around the Pioneer Valley, and I’m often reading with friends who have books to sign and offer afterwards. It will feel good to be able to tote my own book around!
As for projects, this is my first chapbook, but as you might imagine, at 48 I’ve amassed quite a bit of work that is also looking for a home. I’m happy to report that my first full-length collection was just accepted for publication in 2021 by CavanKerry, a small press that I love. That book is about my father, who died in 2012, and my grief in the aftermath of his death. I’ve recently put together another full-length collection that is not such a project-oriented manuscript, and I’m revising that book. I also have two other chapbooks I’m sending out. One is a group of poems written for the Plath Poetry Project, which invites contemporary writers to follow along with Sylvia Plath’s writing from the last year of her life, specifically from April 1962 to February 1963. Participants respond in some way to the poems she wrote that year—67 of them!—on the same day she wrote them. I participated in the 2016-2017 cycle, and a little book was born out of my poems. The other chapbook is grounded in Gloucester, Massachusetts, my hometown. Finally, I have a writing partner, Elizabeth Paul, and we’re always revising one of our collaborative projects or embarking on a new one.
I waited a long time for this chapbook, though not as long as some, and I feel lucky and grateful that it’s out in the world at all. It’s so hard to publish poetry, to be chosen from the growing sea of terrific poets writing today. This milestone is one I’ve worked toward for so long, I really look forward to producing new work, whatever that may be, just for the sake of itself for awhile, before knowing what shape another book could take.