Q&A: Elizabeth Rollins

questions posed by Selah Saterstrom, August 2006

SS: As you've experienced it, what is a sentence?

ER: It’s as though I’m designing a body of water. I consider visual shape and sound. Oh yes, and meaning. I love a sentence shape’s capacity to texture meaning, to deepen it. I consider the ways in which the sentence shape could relate to the story, and to the larger theme. As water makes the shape of the land, and land makes the shape of the water.

I’m writing an island novel which bears oceanic sentences. Huge waves, cresting waves, spooling tides of sentences. Other times I’ll write a whole piece with sentences which are clear and spare (lakes, ponds) when the character or subject craves simplicity. Poetic lines are creeks, rivulets, inlets; any caught-but-still-living water. Essays tend toward rivers of sentences, long and winding, by turns wild and dull.

I’m fond of big cracking rollers. The same kind of waves that surfers seek, I love in sentences. When the text calls for a glorious, impassioned, breathless sentence, I ride it all the way out to where waters break and thin and soak into sand. I depend on currents, also, sentences that change the pace. These must be clean, adroit. There are other sentences that come in on long, sinuous waves from other continents. Those are for dreams, abstractions, philosophies. Of course I’m also fond of the curt ones, sounding like the slap of wakes. These slaps jolt the text, shake it out of reverie.

SS: When I read your work I am often affected in a multidimensional way—I read it simultaneously with my mind and my nervous system; I feel I am feeding (in the field of language) and also being fed—that is, I can feel the words in my mouth, going down. It's visceral.

How would you describe your process of pushing an essential energy through the density of language? What do you have to do in order to make that possible? How do you know when you've done it?

ER: Dense! Isn’t that funny? I never thought of language being dense. (Although of course, in certain hands, it is dense, utterly so.) To me it is an osmotic screen, through which my thoughts flux freely. Language itself is the essential energy. I can use language to approach any abstraction I am trying to express. It is as if every dream/idea gains flesh in the marks of language, and language bends to me in collaboration to express the dream.

Language never hides, its magnificent breadth is always willing and present. Even the words I don’t know, or can’t summon, are accessible in the obvious ways through dictionaries, thesauri, encyclopedias.

Time, not language, seems dense. There are moments when I cannot clarify what I am trying to say, and then I have to sit in the thick air of not quite knowing, I have to still myself for hours or days before I can find the answer. The language is always there, but time must pass before I am there with it. This waiting is a suffering to me. I am hungry for the motion of idea into language.

When I have written something into its existence, I know because there is no falseness in it. I know what every word means and why it is there. I can support these words. I find it touching, when I’ve done it. Sentences, passages that were inside of me in the gauziest of ideas, suddenly exist without me. They are on the page and utterly defensible, defending themselves, no longer needing me in the least.

SS: As curator of the Curiosity Symposium, can you talk a little about what the symposium does, and what obsessions it was born of?

ER: The symposium is born of a fire. I started it this year as part of a huge collective fire I wanted to build in myself and around me. I am exhilarated by the wealth of creativity in humans, and I wanted to put some appreciative force into the world for it. I wanted to create a community of listening.

It began with a party, or maybe a couple of parties. My fella, Ben, and I went to these parties, or had them, and blah blah blah, we ate and sipped and chatted, and I came home feeling thwarted. It was so hard to converse! True conversation seemed like a weirdness. When did it become gauche to be earnest? I’m so curious to know what people think, what they wonder about and hope for and dream. Curiosity like this is hunger.

I became a little desperate, doing things like starting up the metaphor game inappropriately: I know we’re at a wedding, but just between you and me, if you were a kind of sofa, what kind of sofa would you be?

It felt like an enormous opportunity was sliding by, in these blank interactions. So Ben and I started the symposium.

Each symposium has a topic and the participants are invited to bring a dream, an object, a drawing, a word, a passage, a song, anything that strikes them as being relevant. During the symposium, each participant is given time to present what they’ve brought.

In one instance, the topic was energy. A man brought a suitcase and said, “I have a suitcase!” Immediately, everyone was interested in this suitcase. This vessel carrying: what? He passed it around and the energy of the room went one by one, to whoever had the suitcase, whoever shook it and took a guess. What? What? What could it be? When it was finally opened (having already illustrated energy moving in a room), there was more: it was filled with blank paper (the energy of possibility) and more: this paper had once belonged to the man’s father (the energy of history). Brilliant. Who knew he would bring a suitcase?

These symposiums go a long way to feeding the curiosity hunger. Everyone who leaves one is different, slightly, bettered in the sharing.

SS: As a writer, you not only participate in a variety of communities, but have also created community. (In particular, I'm thinking of The Traveling Reading Series for the Curious.) How do you define "community," and what—in a big or subtle sense—is happening when communities gather around art and writing?

ER: Here’s what I hope, in all of the writing communities I begin or participate in: that writers will care about each other’s work or, at the very least, each other’s goals. That writers will honor each other. That spite or jealousy or deprecation or scorn will not enter in where it does not have to belong.

In The Traveling Reading Series for the Curious, for example, I hope to set up a string of readings across the country where an emerging writer sets up a reading for a visiting writer. The host writer invites friends and reads with the traveling writer. Bingo. There’s a reading that didn’t exist, a collaboration that didn’t exist. There’s a whole new set of people that is familiar with the visiting writer’s work, and the host writer has had an opportunity to read and collaborate. Momentum is born.

I believe we need invention right now, new ways to take the honoring of our work into our own hands. Literature does not belong to those who publish it (or don’t). Although we are grateful for all the books and beauty they make tangible, we must not forget: Literature, and the future of it, belongs to the writers.

SS: What is the last piece of art you encountered that affected you? What film? Book? Scenario from the margins of life?

ER: In that I am a scribe of the world, a note taker on existence, it follows that all of the world relates to me, or could. Or does in some way I don’t know yet. I don’t equivocate. All of it relates.

I do have moments of supreme connection, though. For example, I have a strong relationship with Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. There is a sunflower on the left-hand side with a diamond-shaped eye. When I look into that eye, I can see back through time, all the way to his wooden table. I can see his broken fingernails, a yellowed crust of cheese on its side. Sometimes I can feel someone moving in that room.

Dostoyevsky has sentences like this diamond-shaped eye, also. When a hysteria of excitement enters me and I can’t stop talking, I know this is Dmitri Karamazov’s carriage, rattling in my lungs.

Thelonius Monk’s piano rains words inside the walls of my study, and there also, I’ve found a Jane Kenyon hair on the floor.

Once, TS Eliot’s wasteland found its way into a roll I was eating. I have a portrait of Toni Morrison’s phraseology on the wall. A wedge shaped sorrow that belonged to Virgina Woolf once broke a window in my house. Rebecca Brown’s dead mother, anointed with orange blossoms, has slept in my bed, and Kent Haruf killed a man I loved and never knew.

These other scribes come to me in my sleep and in my waking hours. I let them come, I make my notes.

Elizabeth Rollins has previously published in The New England Review, GW Review, The Bellevue Literary Review, PMS, The Philadelphia Citypaper, Washington College Magazine, and The Redwood Coast Review. She is the author of The Sin Eater, a chapbook (Corvid Press, 2004). She received a NJ Prose Fellowship in 2003, and was a 2006 Pushcart Prize nominee. She is the founder of the Curiosity Symposium and Traveling Reading Series for the Curious. She has recently completed a novel, Origin.