Interview: Emily Rosko

Emily RoskoEmily Rosko is the author of two poetry collections: Prop Rockery, awarded the 2011 University of Akron Poetry Prize and Raw Goods Inventory, winner of the 2005 Iowa Poetry Prize and the 2007 Glasgow Prize for Emerging Writers from Shenandoah. Recipient of the Stegner, Ruth Lilly, and Javits fellowships, she earned a MFA at Cornell University and a PhD in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Missouri. She is the editor of A Broken Thing: Poets on the Line (University of Iowa Press 2011). She is assistant professor of English and Creative Writing at the College of Charleston and poetry editor for Crazyhorse literary journal. (Bio from Rosko’s website). 

TCJWW: Prop Rockery is defined in this collection with a quote from King Lear: “a looped and windowed raggedness.” How did this come to be the title of your collection, and how does this idea hold the poems in this collection together?

Rosko: I found the title—Prop Rockery—entirely by chance. When I was a Stegner Fellow (back in 2003-05) in order to make a little extra money, I freelance edited a few Stanford doctoral students’ dissertations. One dissertation, by a comparative literature student, focused on productions of Shakespeare’s plays in China. He kept using the phrase “prop rockery” to describe a set used in King Lear. In this one production, the fake rocks were the main prop on the stage and were incorporated in many of the key scenes—Lear’s mad rants on the heath, Gloucester’s torture where his eyes are plucked out, and Lear’s death after he carries out Cordelia’s body. I not only liked how that phrase sounded—its pop with the ps and os—I liked thinking about those prop rocks as fakes and as unwitting characters in the drama.

The phrase “a looped and windowed raggedness” is from Lear’s mad speech on the heath—one of my favorites—where he is railing against the storm, and, for the first time, he is able to understand the condition of others; that is, the common people he once ruled:

Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,

That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,

How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,

Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you

From seasons such as these? Oh, I have ta’en

Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp.

Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,

That thou mayst shake the superflux to them

And show the heavens more just.   (Act 3, Scene 4, lines 28-37)

As with the phrase “prop rockery,” the aural quality of “a looped and windowed raggedness” drew me to it. But, beyond that, the phrase poeticizes the threadbare clothing that the “poor naked wretches” wear—clothing not of nice quality (“looped) and full of snags and holes (“windowed”). Lear identifies with this condition of poverty and vulnerability, and he begins to tear apart his own clothing, “Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel.” While this is the literal action behind this line, the symbolic freight of this moment is utterly profound: Lear becomes someone new, by taking on a new garb, by putting himself in the shoes of the other. Isn’t this what good poetry does? Through the empathetic imagination, lyric poetry can take on new and different perspectives, voices, contexts, and identities. It blurs the boundary between self and other; between “I” and “you.” Throughout Prop Rockery, I am very much wearing a version of “a looped and windowed raggedness” through the use of persona, of taking on the voices and situations of others; although, it’s not an airtight disguise—it never is—and pieces of my own skin poke through the costume.

TCJWW: The title poem “Prop Rockery” and its reprise are in first person plural. Who is speaking in these poems?

Rosko: My intentions with the poetic voice in the title poem “Prop Rockery” go along with much of what I said above—how I liked thinking about the prop rocks on a stage as unwitting characters, as imitators. What would they say if they could talk?The prop rocks, then, are the communal, first person plural voice of the poem “Prop Rockery” and its later reprise. Arthur Rimbaud’s famous saying “I is someone else” got stuck in my head after composing “Prop Rockery.” Poetry’s most powerful capability, I think, resides in its possibilities of voicing—how lyric utterance can allow for multiple subjectivities: the speaker of a poem can be both parts “I” of the poet and the “non-I” at the same time. In writing, this is best achieved through the rhetorical trope of prosopopoeia (a more complex term for persona).Paul de Man has argued that prosopopoeia isthe “master trope of poetic discourse” because it makes language a face or voice. Another theorist, Pierre Fontanier, has claimed that the use of prosopopoeia has potentialities beyond personification or apostrophe because it is the“staging [of] absent, dead, supernatural or inanimate beings made to act, speak, answer.” These more theoretical ideas about voicing inspired my thinking for the manuscript, but only after I wrote “Prop Rockery.” That poem, at first, was an experiment—one with a good result because it gave me a blueprint: it set the foundation with its style of dramatic voicing and of having things or characters, who exist in more marginal spaces, speak. In other poems, for example, speakers include: the trees (“Timbered”); the messenger (“[The nature of bad news infects the teller]”); the outcast (“Mare’s Nest”); and the villain ([“Let me be thought too busy in my fears”]).

TCJWW: Several of these poems take their titles from classic poetry (Shakespeare, Donne, Marlowe, etc). What was your intention in creating this dialogue with the past?

Rosko: Definitely. The language of those authors, their various texts, energized me. That language gave me a garb to slip into: the play with high and low diction, dense syntax and rhetorical constructions, elaborate images and metaphors. The lines, which serve as my titles, from these authors also supplied the ghost-structure of a context and the persona for many of the poems.

I was a doctoral student University of Missouri taking seminars in Shakespeare and seventeenth century poetry when I was writing most of Prop Rockery, and all of that reading and research in the English Renaissance influenced my poems. For instance, “[So that they seeme, and covet not to be]” taken from George Gascoigne’s The Steele Glas, owes a lot to a scholarly article on the material history of glass by Rayna Kalas (an article that I was introduced to by a peer, Katy Didden). So many wonderful connections and collaborations brought Prop Rockery to fruition! I do like to think of Prop Rockery’s poems as imitating Early Modern texts while also renovating that literary period’s classical lyric forms, such as the sonnet, the complaint, and the pastoral. English Renaissance writers themselves were importing, imitating, and re-interpreting works from the great Latin poets—Ovid and Virgil—who preceded them. It is nice to think of one’s writing as a kind of dialogue, across the centuries, with other writers—it makes the work of writing a little less lonely.

TCJWW: Your poetry pays exquisite attention to rhythm. I’m thinking especially of the poem “[I can drink with any tinker].” Can you describe your philosophy on musicality?

Rosko: Thanks for saying this! I wish I could say I had a philosophy… Way back at my MFA thesis defense—the thesis the core of which would become my first book Raw Goods Inventory—my advisors asked me what I would like to improve in my poetry, and my answer was music. At that time, I felt I did not pay enough attention to it, and so I intentionally made sound a priority in Prop Rockery. The music—assonance, consonance, internal rhyme—and iambic pentameter of Shakespeare, especially, was in my ear, and poets such as Harryette Mullen, John Berryman, and Marianne Moore were influences as well. So, I guess that’s my philosophy of musicality—close listening and recording.

TCJWW: Prop Rockery seems to be an ars poetica at times. The poem [But yet I run before my horse to market] seems to exploit the tool of alliteration: “…you misshapen/ mopish malingerer. To have motioned/ the morning’s mirrored minnowing, small/ pond that is your mind. You muck.”  Did this begin as an exercise?

Rosko: Yes, “[But yet I run before my horse to market]” emerged from an exercise. I teach poems from Christian Bök’s Eunoia to my undergraduates, and although, he crafts his poems out of words with one vowel sound, I appreciated the wonderful madness of that kind of constraint. Alliteration is certainly easier than what Bök did! I had Gerard Manly Hopkins’s “I caughtthismorning morning’s minion” from “The Windhover” as a sound bite in mind and that lead me to the [m]. Because this poem’s poetic speaker is, as I imagine, a kind of buffoon, bumbling through his interactions (foolishly running ahead of the horse cart), the [m] sound seemed to capture that vocal stumbling. Lest you think it harsh to call this poetic speaker a buffoon, I also have a lot of affection for him too! He’s a stumbler, yes, but he’s finally able to pull out the long overdue words he needs to say to the overshadowing “you.” The [m] keeps him on track as he summons his courage to launch this complaint.

TCJWW: What are you working on now?

Rosko: A third book, Weather Inventions, which uses as creative fodder the long and sometimes bizarre history of meteorology, superstitions and folklore concerning weather, and technological inventions that have been developed as a way to harness or protect us from the weather. This project developed alongside Prop Rockery, though the Weather Invention poems have an altogether different “quieter” style. I got interested in the rise of the New Science in the seventeenth century; it was a historical starting point where the emerging empirical worldview clashed with long-held beliefs of nature’s capacity to evoke wonder. I am researching and reading a lot for these poems: Richard Holmes’s The Age of Wonder is an invaluable resource, and many other books, one on the natural history of the wind. The hope is that these poems will tap into the mindset of wonder—as any scientist, inventor, natural philosopher might have felt—in the attempt to language what is “new” or unknown.



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