Conversations with Contributors: Sarah Rose Nordgren (Poetry, Issue 11)

Issue Eleven is out, and Conversations with Contributors is back! First up in this sequence of interviews is Sarah Rose Nordgren, whose poem “Kindling” rocks the new issue.

Amanda Silberling, Blog Editor: Your poetry collection Best Bones, which the Adroit blog reviewed, came out last fall. Almost a year later, what has the experience of releasing the book been like? 

Sarah Rose Nordgren, Issue Eleven Contributor: When I opened the envelope and held a copy of Best Bones for the first time, I was sitting in the passenger seat of my boyfriend’s car outside the UPS shipping center. He’d driven me there to meet the incoming trucks because I’d missed the delivery at my house and couldn’t bear to wait another day to see the book. Staring at the cover and turning it over in my hands, I was overwhelmed with a strange feeling. For a few seconds, it was as if I’d left my body and was looking down tenderly at myself like a parent looks at her child. My thought was “Oh, Sarah Rose! I’m so happy for you; you worked so hard for this.” Although it seemed like the feeling was coming from some outside perspective, it really was a wonderful moment of self-compassion and appreciation for the years of work, love, and heartache that went into that book, as if I were my own sister, or friend. I think many artists, including myself, can get in the habit of too much self-criticism as we try to continually push ourselves to be better, but it’s important to feel pride in our work as well, imperfect as it may be.

It’s been the better part of a year now since the book came out, and the experience has been wonderful. I’ve had great fun traveling for readings; it’s given me the opportunity to return to my alma maters – Sarah Lawrence College and University of North Carolina Greensboro – to see old friends and teachers, and meet wonderful new people as well.  

Has your relationship with the poems in Best Bones changed over time? 

Between the oldest and most recent poems in the collection, there is a span of about ten years. Two poems are even from my undergraduate days! Because of this, when I was putting Best Bones together it often felt like a patchwork quilt of irregularly shaped bits of fabric. I liked the poems individually, but it was difficult for me to step back from them and see how they were working together. But through the revision process – and especially since the book’s publication – I’m able to see it as an organic whole. I still associate the individual poems with the time and circumstance of their composition, but with more distance I can better perceive the thematic through lines and arcs that I endeavored to highlight when I was editing and ordering the manuscript.  

Since the book’s release, I’ve learned that one of my favorite things to do is visit with classes of students who have read the book. Their insightful questions have opened up some of the poems for me in new ways and gotten me thinking about connections that I hadn’t seen before. I love hearing other people’s interpretations and thoughts about the poems.

You’re currently collaborating on a video installation with the choreographer Kathleen Kelley. Can you explain what the installation is, and how the idea came about?  

Digitized Figures is a project that Kathleen and I have been developing for the past couple of years as an exploration of potentiality between our two mediums of poetry and dance. We started with the simple idea of “choreographing text,” which led to the creation of three separate videos in which text moves like bodies across the screen. Since then, we’ve added a performance element with live dancers, and are also developing the videos with interactive software so that the text will be responsive to audience members’ bodies as they move through the space.

Conceptually, the project investigates the parallels between digital technology and organic/evolutionary processes. Technology is often presented as a being counter to – or opposite of – nature, something that’s coming at us from the outside. But we’re interested in looking at how technology is, in fact, an extension of the body. Like all tools, it is an evolution that develops from us, allowing us to accomplish things that we couldn’t before. 

What do you want to be the “takeaway” from the installation?

I hope that audience members feel immersed in the environment that we create in Digitized Figures. Between the video projections, the use of sound, and the live dancers, I want the audience to feel as if they’ve stepped into another world – like a diorama or a story in which they can participate and play. It doesn’t matter so much to me whether all of the conceptual and philosophical framework comes through for the audience, but I hope they see and feel the interplay between organic and technological worlds.

We’ve had the opportunity to show this work in various stages of development, most recently in a show at The Dance Complex in Cambridge, Mass., and at the Society of Dance History Scholars annual conference in Iowa City last fall. Each time we present it, we learn a little more about what we want it to be. We’re currently looking for a place to show a more fully realized version with interactive video, so if anyone has connections with a venue that might be a good fit, please reach out and let me know!

 Digitized Figures allows poetry, dance performance, and digital media to intersect in a really unique way – have the different mediums in the project influenced each other? 

They definitely have. The factor that has most affected my usual composition process has been the collaborative aspect. This sharing of creative direction and speed has pushed the text into interesting directions that I wouldn’t have arrived at if I were working in isolation.

Kathleen herself could better speak to the digital and performance elements of the installation, but I know her process has shifted as well. First of all, she’s choreographing words in addition to bodies. Secondly, as part of the performance she dances live in front of one of the projected videos, creating a kind of duet (or trio) with the text and the moving image of her own body. It’s really beautiful!

 from  Digitized Figures
from Digitized Figures

How does your collaborative artistic process with Kathleen Kelley work? Any interesting memories so far? 

Digitized Figures is our first formal collaboration since we were teenagers, but Kathleen and I have been working together informally since we became close friends and artistic soulmates in high school. We’ve mostly lived far away from each other, so we got in the habit of sending each other letters (real ones, written on paper!), snippets, books, ideas, and pieces of writing. Because of this (and innumerable late-night conversations), we’re already very familiar with each others’ artistic concerns and processes and have played a large role in shaping each other as we’ve become “grown-up” artists.

To create the videos, we came up with a weekly schedule to send work back and forth between us, me sending text (with storyboards for movement) and Kathleen sending video of herself or of moving lines on a screen. Our process for each video was a little different, but for the most part it felt like a conversation — a back and forth — between mediums. I’ve described it elsewhere as a feeling of hitting a beach ball or balloon back and forth between us, trying to keep it from touching the ground.

How else do you think performance art can be incorporated into poetry? Did you draw inspiration from any other hybrid works? 

I think the possibilities are endless, and I’m definitely interested in exploring the field more. I know there are people all over the world who are doing interesting things with poetry and video or poetry and dance, and I also think our project is very unique because of the way that we’re treating text as moving, organic bodies in a digital space.

We weren’t directly inspired by a particular hybrid work, but some other interesting projects I’ve come across that explore connections between language and the body include “Your Body is Not a Shark” (a collaboration between choreographer Cid Pearlman and poet Denise Leto), “Aleph-Bet” (by vocal artist Victoria Hanna) and the various collaborations that Anne Carson has done over the past several years, such as “Stacks.”

Your Adroit poem, “Kindling,” is part of a manuscript you’re working on, which deals with “Charles Darwin’s family and evolution.” What inspired you to start this project?

It was nearly four years ago now, and I was trying to figure out why I was obsessed, among other things, with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and with writing about mothers and babies. It occurred to me that beneath those interests was a deep curiosity about origins, in creation, life, and death (you know, the small stuff). Luckily, I had just arrived for my second year as a poetry fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, so I had a lot of time and freedom to immerse myself in these ideas. First, I read On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, and from there I became interested in both evolutionary biology and theory, and with Charles Darwin’s life. So on the one hand I started reading Darwin’s journals and biography, and on the other I was reading more contemporary books by biologists and evolutionary philosophers (a sampling of names, if you’re interested, is Stephen Jay Gould, Daniel Dennett, Elizabeth Grosz, and Richard Dawkins).  

I’ve since written a manuscript, Darwin’s Mother, which is in the editing stages, but I’m definitely not done with this material. My interest in evolutionary theory is now impacting all of the work that I do in one way or another, and becoming a reader of science over the past few years has been absolutely thrilling. Obviously these concerns have informed Digitized Figures, and I’ve also begun experimenting with writing nonfiction that connects the scientific with the personal.

Charles Darwin studied the evolution of species – tell us your thoughts about the evolution of poetry! 

Haha, that’s a great question. I actually see poetry evolving in a couple of different exciting directions right now — two different influences that are mixing in new ways with the more mainstream (ie. “academic”) poetry genetic pool, if you will. One of these is the impulse toward cross-genre and cross-medium collaboration and hybridization, which includes experimentation in electronic literature. The other is the growing influence of performance poetry and slam on the broader poetry culture. This element is bringing in some wonderful dynamic energy, reminding everyone of poetry’s inception as an oral art form and that readings don’t have to be boring. This type of work is also making sincerity and bravery cool again, which I’m all for.

Sarah Rose Nordgren is the author of Best Bones (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014), winner of the 2013 Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize. Her poems have appeared in PloughsharesAGNIThe Iowa ReviewPleiadesThe Harvard ReviewBest New Poets 2011, and others. A two-time fellowship recipient from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Sarah Rose has also received support from the Breadloaf Writers Conference, The Ohio Arts Council, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. For more information, visit

Amanda Silberling

Amanda Silberling is a student at the University of Pennsylvania from South Florida. Her poems, essays, and reviews appear in Crab Orchard Review, PANK, The Los Angeles Times, and The Rumpus, among others. She currently serves as the Blog Editor for The Adroit Journal and a writer/photographer for Rock On Philly. Find her on Twitter at @asilbwrites.

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