Photo Credit: Rick Urbanowski Photography
Nicole Rollender is the author of a poetry chapbook, Arrangement of Desire, and is working on her second collection, Necessary Work. She serves as media director for Minerva Rising Literary Magazine. She’s the winner of Ruminate Magazine’s 2012 Janet B. McCabe poetry prize for her poem, “Necessary Work,” which was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her poetry has been published in various journals including Alaska Quarterly Review, The Kenning Journal, S/tick and Thrush Poetry Journal. Nicole, who has an MFA in creative writing from Pennsylvania State University, is editor of Stitches magazine, which won a Jesse H. Neal Award for “Best Single Issue of a Magazine” and the American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE) 2011 Magazine of the Year Award. She's also the executive director of professional development for the Advertising Specialty Institute, where she oversees an industry certification program in which more than 30,000 professionals are enrolled.
I’m writing my way out of chaos. When I write poetry, I’m creating spaces of self-encounter. I contend with myself. I’m not out to be nice. I write about what hurts and what’s hard. And I try to make it beautiful. I want readers of my work to be haunted.
What's a project that has been exciting you lately?
Finishing my second poetry chapbook manuscript, Necessary Work, and looking for a home for it. It’s exciting that I was finally ready to release it for consideration; it’s a manuscript that I’ve been working on for more than two years. It’s a series of poems about pregnancy, birth and post-birth experiences, along with grappling with the idea that we won’t always be on this earth, as we’re in the act of giving birth. There’s a lot of transformative seeking in this work, like how we accept and adapt to being mothers, how we internalize and digest our mothers’ stories, and how we mourn and seek alternate life paths. It’s exciting and frightening to have the manuscript out there – and liberating. Since I’ve lived with this work for a while, I’m thinking about trying ekphrastic or epistolary poetry, forms that I’ve really enjoyed reading lately. I’m also just writing down themes for a longer manuscript. I want to write poems to that theme and create a really cohesive work.
Tell us a little of your motherhood journey.
I was never a person who felt a burning physical or mental desire to be a mother. I became pregnant with my daughter six years ago when I was feeling open to the thought of having a baby. I was terrified, but also elated that I was sort of surprised into this journey. Like my grandmother, I didn’t have easy pregnancies, and both my daughter and son were born early (four weeks and nine weeks) via induced labor due to unexpected complications.
Both births came with NICU stays and warnings from the doctors about potential future issues. My 5-year-old daughter, who was born at 36 weeks and 3 lbs., came into the world with the label of “severe intrauterine growth restricted,” meaning that my placenta had failed and she wasn’t receiving the proper amount of oxygen, blood and nutrients. And, my water broke nine weeks early with my now 17-month-old son. Because he got tangled in his own cord due to the declining amounts of amniotic fluid in the uterus, I was induced, resulting in a 3 lb. 31 weeker.
There was a certain level of post-birth trauma that I experienced with my daughter – visiting the NICU daily, waiting for test results and watching other glowing new mothers leave the hospital with their three-day-old infants and bunches of balloons. When my daughter turned 3 – and it was clear that she hadn’t suffered any of the typical challenging effects of SIUGR, other than being small – I wrote a poem called “Necessary Work,” which won Ruminate Magazine’s Janet B. McCabe Poetry Prize. It was a cathartic act of thanks and self-redemption and at that point, I started writing the poems that would make up my current manuscript-looking-for-a-press, Necessary Work.
When my son was born in early 2013, I was writing and the rock-bottom place I had descended into with the birth of my daughter stayed at bay. During the five weeks my son was in the NICU, I stayed pretty positive, and he came home healthy. Writing through motherhood has added new layers and perspective to my work, adding a certain richness that came from giving birth. I’ve become more spiritual and meditative as well.
What are some crucial elements of your process? How has that changed since having children?
Probably like most other mother writers, the time (and solitude) I need to write is pretty limited. I was a night owl before I had children, and since having a second baby and recovering from the early sleepless nights, I’ve transitioned into an unconventional night writing routine. After the children’s bedtime, I work out either with weights or tough cardio intervals for half an hour, really focusing on waking up my body and shaking up my muscle fibers. That self-engagement with the body after a long day of work and parenting sort of then centers my mind on entering poet mind. Around 9 p.m. I sit down at my laptop and write for an hour. I don’t get as much sleep as my body would like, but consciously using my sleep time to write satiates my need to work creatively.
But I feel like I’m writing all the time, in a way. I carry copies of my poems with me wherever I go in case I want to make notes. I read them and read poetry books that are stuffed into my bags. I’m always on some level considering how to make my poems more true. One thing that I’ll add is that I more often feel a longing toward writing. I want to be locked in a room with my laptop to create. It’s like I’m having labor pains and I need that space to write. Often, I don’t get that space when I need it. So it’s looking after a lover who’s gone away, and you’re not sure if and when they’ll return. It’s bittersweet.
What are some of the ways your family and your art interact?
My daughter naturally has gravitated toward art, mostly painting and sculpting. Because I’m also an artist, it made sense to me to set up a large work area for her with all kinds of art supplies for her to explore and use. It’s in a converted sun porch that’s painted bright yellow and has lots of light, and is near where I set up my laptop to write. There’s lots of her art hanging on the walls as well as other inspiration pieces, so I feel like even in the daily grind of life with a full-time job and kids, there is an artistic oasis feel to our home. My husband isn’t a writer, but has listened to and read my work for years, and he has a pretty good sensibility about when a poem is working or is not. I’ll read drafts to him and he’ll give me pithy, honest feedback. My daughter has recently started to understand that I write “stuff that gets printed in magazines and books,” and I’ll read her lines of poems. She also understands that I write about her and her brother – she seemed touched that I was writing “lullabies” for her. Whether she’ll feel different as she grows older or if I’ll write less about her is something I’ll need to navigate.
Do you find your attitude towards your art might be different because of your parenting / has it changed since you became a parent?
I view my art as more important and something to nourish because I don’t have as much freedom to create it. I want to cultivate it. But I also see the importance of giving myself the time and space to work. I’m a more fulfilled person, and I think, a better parent. My daughter knows that I identify as poet, someone who writes words on paper. Words that you can share with others, and maybe change their lives.
Are your children ever subjects in your art?
Aside from the obvious need of more time, what has been one of the most difficult obstacles you’ve had in regards to parenting and your art?
Losing the moments of self-encounter that you find in true solitude. Before I became a mother, I often felt restless and lonely when I had long stretches of time alone. Now, I realize that to write, I need to enter a separate, quiet space where I can sit with myself and “cross over into the mind of poetry.” So now that I rarely have that, I feel like I struggle to write well. That’s why I started the night writing practice, which actually has become easier now that I work out before I sit down to write. It’s an act of self-love, working out my body and letting my mind go free to write, that I’m finding is making me a better, more patient parent.
In turn, what are some of the saving graces?
Aside from the unconditional love I feel for these independent beings who grew inside me and then literally rocked my world, I feel more in tune with the act of creation since pregnancy is a supremely physical act of creation. As writers, we’re always creating. Writing down what we take in and canalizing it into something others can experience. I also take myself and my life’s mission perhaps more seriously: I take care of myself better so that I can be a foundation for my children’s lives. I also take my writing more seriously: It’s a practice that I will be faithful to, as I’m faithful to diaper changes, bedtime stories and time in the park.
How do you escape?
I don’t think there is an escape. My ear is always listening for a child’s voice or cry. Even outside when I hear a bird or a distant voice, I’m alert to whether it’s one of mine calling for me. Motherhood is now another function of my body and another layer of my identity. It’s a filter through which I write. We’re entwined. But in the practical sense, escape for me is really that nightly exercise of the body and mind. And also, getting near water. There’s a lake I go to, where I smell and hear the water. It’s very soothing and transporting. It frees my mind temporarily. So a water feature in or near my home is also key.
What advice do you have for expectant mothers in your field?
My best advice is to focus on your own journey and not compare it to others’ life paths. My pregnancies were difficult and I didn’t have stereotypical, happy birth experiences. I felt peevish as I looked at other women who seemed to have better or more joyful experiences. And it made me unhappy and unsatisfied with my life. I also worried about every one of my daughter’s milestones until she turned 3. Then, I made a conscious decision to not compare and to let things be as they are. My daughter has grown into a lively, smart, artistic child and my nine-weeks-premature son is walking and starting to talk. The same goes for you and your work. You don’t have to lose all the pregnancy weight in three months or even a year. You don’t have to write at night between feedings. Follow your own gut instincts of what is right for you. This very day, I feel that things have coalesced more than they ever have before, in terms of a harmonious family life and my ability to find time to write. And hopefully it continues that way as much as it can. Motherhood and family life is never easy, but accepting and embracing your reality will guide you into a more peaceful way of living. And, of writing.