Rebecca Hart Olander’s poetry has appeared recently in Jet Fuel Review, The Massachusetts Review, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and elsewhere, and her collaborative visual and written work has been published in multiple venues online and in They Said: A Multi-Genre Anthology of Contemporary Collaborative Writing (Black Lawrence Press, 2018). Her books include a chapbook, Dressing the Wounds (dancing girl press, 2019), and her debut full-length collection, Uncertain Acrobats (CavanKerry Press, 2021). Rebecca teaches writing at Westfield State University and Amherst College, and works with poets in the Maslow Family Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Wilkes University. She is the editor/director of Perugia Press. Find her online at rebeccahartolander.com or @rholanderpoet.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Publishing my first full-length collection Uncertain Acrobats in November, 2021 has led to some great opportunities for me, such as being interviewed by you, for one, and getting to read with some folks I really admire at places at which I’ve been honored to read. For example, last year, the month the book came out, I was lucky enough to read with poets Doug Anderson, Tina Cane, and Rachel Eliza Griffiths at McNally Jackson Seaport Bookstore in NYC. Without a book, that would never have happened.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I’ve been told in the past that I should try writing fiction, but I’m entirely not interested in writing fiction, even though I love to read fiction. I wrote my first poem at seven, so I feel more like I’ve always been doing it than I “came to it.” My stepmother is the poet Christopher Jane Corkery, and so poetry was around me from a young age in a way that unquestionably influenced me.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
It really varies. There are those odd duck poems that arrive fully-fledged and almost ready to fly, but that’s only happened to me a handful of times. But my work also doesn’t come out of copious notes. I’ll either write when inspiration hits me over the head and forces the issue, or I’ll generate a draft through a prompt.
4 - Where does a poem or work of fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I don’t generally have “projects” that would lead to a book from conception to birth. My first book was actually a project book, but it happened by osmosis vs. setting out to accomplish said project. I sort of pine for projects because I think they are cool, but for me I tend to write individual poems over a long period of time and then try to locate their confluences and relationships and work the project shape out of the material at hand vs. starting with a project concept.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love public readings! It’s such a gift to have people come out to receive words I’ve written, and it’s really affirming to be able to interact with readers and also to listen to other writers read their work (so, I’d have to say my favorite readings are group readings). I love the surprise of an open mic, too, when you don’t know who’s going to read or what they’ll offer on a given night. Surprise is so important to good writing, and open mics kind of introduce that element to readings, I think.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
One of my main concerns is the passage of time and what that does to legacy, and memory, and even to living in the present moment. An awareness of transience is important to me, as is a desire to memorialize people and places and moments that have been important to me and that I think will have, or do have, some resonance for readers as well. So, I’m concerned with the tension between things passing and wanting to hold on to them. Hmm – for the last bit, do you mean what are the questions of the day, or what are MY current questions? I guess, either way, I believe in trying to be kind to others and affirming and inclusive when writing. So, good questions to ask ourselves when writing/publishing/performing would be who is being heard and who is being silenced? Who is being celebrated and what is being revered? What is being diminished or seen only partially or misunderstood? Generally I like playing with rhetorical questions when I write, and I do employ a lot of questions in my poems, but these are not rhetorical questions. These seem more necessary to ask and to answer when striving to be an ethical writer.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Writers can ask those hard questions, and others, and model doing so through how they share their work. Writers can encourage empathy, by expressing stories that widen perspective and understanding. Writers can bring joy by reminding us to feel joy and gratitude, or by distracting us from the mundane. Writers help inspire imagination and creativity. They can foster community by inviting dialogue and voicing what is necessary and hard to say in other ways/spaces.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Essential, absolutely. Sometimes I have to sit with edits before embracing them, and sometimes I don’t take editorial advice, but for the most part I only feel deep appreciation when someone reads my work on a cellular level and wants to help me make it the strongest manifestation it can be.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Persist! Uncertain Acrobats was submitted something like 60 times before it was accepted. If I’d let rejection get to me, I wouldn’t have published this book, which is all the stronger for having been revised and reshaped over the course of those many rejections, and many years.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to short stories to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
I really love the idea of hybrid texts, so I think experimenting with writing different genres helps breed that eventual hybridized result. I no longer write book reviews because I don’t have the time—and I would write them with a LOT of care and time—BUT, writing them and getting inside the books of others in that critical way helped my own poetry writing without a doubt. When I have moved between creative genres, it has been less traditional genres. For example, I like to create collages with visuals and text, and I like writing in epistolary form and exchanging that writing. If I ever do shift genres, it feels fun and fruitful all at once. And I love collaboration as a method of creating. The appeal of that is the emphasis on play, community, and surprise, and it’s an avenue to openness.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I don’t have a daily routine. My routine is more dictated by the seasons. Since I teach, I tend to have more time between semesters and in the summer. That’s when I make a point of creating routines so that I can milk every moment out of the possible time I have available to me.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Reading poets I admire is one steadfast answer. I also love traveling to new places, even local places I haven’t seen. Something about seeing new things tends to inspire me. Prompts also really work for me – I don’t tend to get stalled as a stop to my writing as much as I can’t find the time because I am otherwise over-committed. But when I have the time and want to write, I make it happen by going out in nature, reading, or responding to a generative prompt.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
My original home is Gloucester, a small coastal city north of Boston, MA. So, when I smell salt water, especially the ocean, it always reminds me of home and also relaxes me and brings me joy, two feelings that, if we are lucky enough, are associated closely with home.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Yes, this brings me back to my other answer about inspiration. I also love going to museums and writing ekphrastically, and sometimes science inspires me if I hear an interesting radio piece and learn something that blows my mind and makes me think about the world in a different way.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Even though I don’t write fiction, I think I get the most pleasure out of reading fiction vs. any other genre. I love the feeling of getting lost in a great novel and never wanting it to end and being totally absorbed in it. I can’t really read that way during the academic year while I am both teaching and running a small press, so those moments are saved for summertime and January. The writers that are most important to me are the ones I share writing communities with – the Perugia poets I publish, and the poets I am blessed to share writing groups and friendships with. It’s the sharing of work, but also the sharing of the writing life, that sustains me.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
My first thought is travel to places I'd like to see that I haven’t: Greece, Turkey, British Columbia, and some of the states and places I haven’t seen here in the US, like Hawaii, Montana, New Mexico. I’d love to walk the Camino de Santiago in Spain/France/Portugal. It would be cool to snorkel, and ride on a glass-bottomed boat. I’d like to be a grandparent. I’d like to publish another book.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I have two jobs besides being a writer now – being an editor and a teacher. I don’t usually think of writing as my occupation, but I also don’t think of it as a hobby. It’s my life, the way I breathe. I’ve always loved libraries and bookstores, and I dig organizing things, so maybe owning a bookstore or directing a library. Or something to do with travel.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
There’s not an option – it’s how I navigate the world.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The last great book was Anthony Doerr’s latest: Cloud Cuckoo Land. I loved it in a deep, abiding way and it felt necessary, enjoyable, enriching, surprising, and sustaining all at once. I watched some pretty great films online in the “virtual cinema” hosted by my local movie theater during the pandemic. I really enjoyed Karen Dalton: In My Own Time, Beans, and Hive. Based on those picks, I guess I prefer protagonists who are women and girls, stories that are based on true events, and films that teach me something new.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’ve just launched the annual contest for Perugia Press, which invites submissions of first and second full-length manuscripts from women-identified poets. We’re also about to release this year’s book, American Sycamore by Lisbeth White, so that’s exciting! I’m prepping my fall courses as I’ll be back teaching in a couple of weeks. For my own poetic work, I’m looking forward to going back at revising my second full-length collection, which I hope to submit for publication this fall.