Pattiann Rogers has published sixteen collections of poetry and two book-length essay collections. A longtime friend of Orion, she spoke with us about her new book Flickering, the pleasure and surprises that came with collaborating with her physicist son, and the thrilling connections existing between science, spirit, and poetry.
Katrina Vandenberg: I have lots of your books in my house and at my office at school, and I have always loved your dedications, which are varied and surprising and full of gratitude. But this is the longest and most exuberant dedication I’ve ever seen you write. More or less, the book is dedicated to, well, everyone, though you don’t say it that way at all. And this dedication is followed by a beautiful fourteen-line poem, “For the Song Delivered and the Moments Left.” Can you talk about how you decided to write this dedication and include the poem?
Pattiann Rogers: This is my last book, and I wanted to write a dedication different in form from any of my other dedications. I wanted to acknowledge and include everyone that has a role in bringing a book into being, including those constructing a book and delivering it into the hands of readers, all being recognized and appreciated.
I wanted to note the various ways and places of reading books, how the book is approached, the different settings, the weather outside, inside, the sounds of music in the background, how the book feels in the hand, the touch of the paper or the digital device. . . .
I wrote the short poem, “For the Song Delivered and the Moments Left” (many, many drafts) to suggest the approach to the book, Flickering, which is actually the question lying silent, morbid in the last line of the poem: “Understood what?”
For the Song Delivered and the Moments Left
Once I watched a flame flickering in a fire
circled by rocks. It was singing in a melodic, foreign
language. The humming cadence of its quiet sizzle
sounded occasionally as the flame was swaying,
dimming, uttering a soft, breathy click, one castanet
tap, then a rush of light, golden and alive with intention.
A spark, a tiny sun flew into the night. I watched
the gestures, listened to the words, the flame
faintly flickering still, becoming smaller, weaker,
nearer to earth, transforming itself into a blue pearl
shining in ash at the root, not dead, not alive.
It shivered once, shook itself into breath and out
again into silence and disappeared, and I said
I understood everything.
From Flickering by Pattiann Rogers, published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group,
a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2023 by Pattiann Rogers.
KV: You’ve now published fifteen books of poems and two books of essays. What’s special or different about this particular collection, for you?
PR: Well, in the beginning the circumstances around Flickering were very different from any of my other books. Or maybe I was the one who was different, not the circumstances. I wanted to attempt to write a book of poems in collaboration with one or two people who had been educated in different fields, like a poet and a physicist. Luckily, I have a son, John, who is a research physicist, and a husband and a daughter-in-law who are educated scientists, and I had an editor, Paul Slovak, who was interested in my goals, and even designers of the physical book who were interested enough to join us in some of our ideas. But this book was going to be different. It was not going to follow the familiar pattern of a typical book of poems. I knew it was a risk, and it might not hold together at all without the normal structure to guide us. It might feel like building a bridge across a canyon step by step, uncertain about the strength of the next step to hold up.
KV: I found that breaking of the familiar pattern of a book—of one of your books—to be pretty thrilling. How is writing an eighteenth book different from writing a first one, or fourth one, or tenth one?
PR: I felt too much competition with my early work. I have almost always had the feeling that my recently written poems were not as good as the poems I wrote years before. I became captured, at times, by that thought. One of my early teachers of creative writing said, “Imitate the writing of anyone you want, but don’t try to imitate yourself.” I don’t want to repeat myself or copy my style, my stance, etc. As a result, when I begin a new poem, I enter a competition that I fear I will lose.
KV: You also break, a bit, from what I think of as your style in this book. There are a surprising number of sonnet-size poems, or poems that are even shorter (as few as six lines)—especially in the section “The Best of Bones.” I always associate you with longer poems and long, expansive-feeling lines. What was it about the writing of this book, and maybe its subject matter, that called you to shorter forms?
PR: Originally, the short poems were placed as stanzas in one long poem titled “The Best of Bones.” It was my editor, Paul, who wanted each stanza to have a whole page to itself, no matter its length, and all of them to be presented in a section of the book with the title “The Best of Bones.” I thought it looked better too, more welcoming, in that arrangement. And most of the stanzas were actually complete poems in themselves, anyway. The change of arrangement gave more space and time to each one and allowed me to add more poems to my section on bones.
This arrangement of short poems is present in small ways throughout the major portion of poems in the book. My haiku/one-image poems also arose from this suggestion. I wanted a small, flickering poetic presence in John’s section of the book. John agreed and selected three of the haiku-like poems from the nine I had written to be placed at the end of each of his texts describing and explaining the images of his microscopic photographs.
KV: I’ve heard you talk about your son John for so many years. How did you and he decide to collaborate on the book? What was working on that together like for both of you? And what did you learn about each other—maybe regarding the ways you think, or your senses of humor, or something else—that maybe surprised you in the process?
PR: Interacting closely with John again, I was reminded that as a child, he always sought correctness and precision in his schoolwork, in his toys. As he grew older, the first time I noticed him truly satisfied and fully involved in what he was engaged with was one evening when he was doing his chemistry and math homework. He had discovered an endeavor, science, an activity of thought and action that demanded sharp precision and correctness of imagination and mathematical talents.
I struggled with this book a little more than with any of my other books, but not because of the collaboration with my son or others. He was compatible, and he contributed new suggestions about what we were accomplishing. I wasn’t sure how the project would evolve or how it would be received in the literary community. I just thought it was important to try to bring poetry and science together, hopefully to demonstrate how similar our creative work is when revealed side by side. And this felt like my last chance to at least establish the idea of how these two ways of creating are similar. This thought is presented again in more detail by the four accomplished scientists I quote in my essay included in this book.
At the beginning of my career, I was inspired by science and scientists. I didn’t want to be a scientist, but I was excited and amazed at the way they worked and talked together and inspired each other. Inspiration is physical. It is felt in the body in the way a good poem is or a wonderful aria or a breakthrough during a scientific research problem. I wanted to write poems in hopes of transferring the inspiration of life I’ve always discovered and felt within the nature of nature, the history of the formation of the earth we live on, the struggle of early life, all forms, to endure, the slow development of the human hand and its opposable thumb, for instance. Those strange, amazing occurrences that have made all the difference in the development of human life that we never knew about before science revealed them. And I wanted to capture in language the wild sway of the imagination I experienced in the breadth and beauty of the universe.
I thought it was important to try to bring poetry and science together, hopefully to demonstrate how similar our creative work is when revealed side by side.
KV: I often hear people use the words nature and God in the same breath, but I don’t hear people do that with science and God or soul nearly as often. You do, though. To me, this absolutely makes sense. I’d love to hear you say more, though, about how you feel science and the belief in a human soul fit together.
PR: Well, I think part of it depends on how we define soul or human soul or god or heart and how they are used in the language of a poem. In most poetry, language seeks to evoke in the reader the emotion the poet experiences relative to these words, and not to preach or lecture or attempt to convince.
I always come alert whenever I hear someone say, “I just don’t have the words to say it.” That’s probably true. Sometimes the poet can’t find the words, or the right arrangement of the words, and that’s where the poem begins and the work begins. And with poetry, the music in the language should lead the way. I regard the body of a poem as a song. What an important helper music is. Music is of the body, felt in the body, heard by the body. Even babies not able to walk yet or talk can detect timing and rhythm and the sound of music and move their bodies to the sounds without any help. “The poetry of earth is ceasing never.” Keats knew this, felt it. The body is of the earth. The heart beats with it. The heart knows it.
One of the most exciting and thrilling moments during our collaboration for me was when John said, “Essential flickering occurs in every healthy human brain and in all healthy brains of life on earth.” This word, flickering, the word that I had casually written at the top of the page of my beginning manuscript because it seemed simple, positive and harmless, is a word that all life with healthy brains carries. Learning these facts, as far as they can be validated, even photographed, through the work of scientists was more than I had expected. All of life on Earth is truly bound together strongly with this essential action, and the binding word is flickering, even more than I had thought . . . one family and “the family is all there is.”
Interested in hearing more? Do yourself a kindness and watch this illustrated reading of Pattiann’s work.
Pattiann Rogers has published fifteen collections of poetry and two book-length essay collections, The Dream of the Marsh Wren and The Grand Array: Writings on Nature, Science, and Spirit. She is the recipient of two NEA grants, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a 2005 Literary Award in poetry from the Lannan Foundation, and the Distinguished Alumni Award from the University of Missouri, College of Arts and Science. In 2018 she was awarded the John Burroughs Medal for Lifetime Achievement in nature poetry. She lives in Colorado.