Rosalie Moffett is the author of Nervous System (Ecco) which was chosen by Monica Youn for the National Poetry Series Prize, and listed by The New York Times as a New and Notable book. She is also the author of June in Eden (OSU Press). She has been awarded the “Discovery”/Boston Review prize, a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in Creative Writing from Stanford University, and scholarships from the Tin House and Bread Loaf writing workshops. Her poems and essays have appeared in Tin House, The Believer, New England Review, Narrative, Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. She is an assistant professor of poetry at the University of Southern Indiana.
Rosalie Moffett’s Nervous System shares a quality with many book-length poems in that it evokes an orchestral experience. But instead of bringing together strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion, she composes a meditation on memory, loss, science, the natural world, the transition from childhood to adulthood, and the relationship between mother and daughter. Throughout the poem, these subjects repeat, recur, juxtapose, and counterpoint to weave together and explore how we remember the people we love and what happens when they can’t do the same for us.
I spoke with Moffett via email about how she wrote the book, the challenges specific to book-length poems, and how she thinks about writing now that her second collection has been published.
Ryan Teitman: Can you talk about the origins of this book? Did you conceive of it as a book-length project, or was it something you wrote your way into?
Rosalie Moffett: This book began as an essay, which perhaps accounts for part of how Nervous System ended up with one of its feet in poetry and one in memoir.
The essay started because I had been reminded of an experiment that my mother, a neurologist, told me about when I was a young girl. In the experiment, researchers took the egg sacks off of Wolf spiders and filled them with weights in order to study their strength and load-bearing gait. This experiment has stuck with me for all these years because of how I felt when she told me that some of the spiders broke their legs in their desperation to carry their suddenly-heavy young to safety—which was overwhelmingly sympathetic and sad. There was such emotional impact built into that, and I began to write an essay responding to it, and looking for other experiments that seemed to hold that kind of poignant weight. I ended up finding out about new research that was using spider silk to repair nerves after brain trauma, and I suddenly had this collection of information that seemed propellant, interesting. I had already written about my mother’s concussion and her possibly resulting neurological symptoms (some of those poems are in my first book, June in Eden) and I had thought I was done, but something about these scientific articles—and those spiders!—made me go back. Maybe the truth is I just wasn’t done.
I got stuck in the essay after a few pages and began to cannibalize it for the poem that ended up being the first poem in the series. And that felt right, so I pulled from it for a couple more of the early poems. The smallness that the poems required made sense—it began to feel like a piecing-together. The form began to be useful as I considered how the spider silk was being used to span breaks, how brain injuries caused blank spots that needed to be crossed, how sometimes my mother’s symptom was a lack of language: a white space I could make on the page.
I had no idea at first how long it would be, that it would be a book. I had never undertaken anything like it before.
RT: When did you start to think that these poems might become an entire book?
RM: When I started writing this series, I was writing for the first time in years with no feedback. Without that structure, and maybe without that MFA or Stegner stamp on it, my writing felt less official, like I was just playing around. I went to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference with 10 pages of sections of the series that no one had seen. Alan Shapiro, who was my workshop leader, asked, “How many of these do you have?” I had maybe another 10 sections, and he was like, “Oh, you basically have a book then.” Which really came to me as a surprise. Until that point, I think I hadn’t allowed myself to conceive of it as any kind of whole or final product, lest I somehow torpedo it with hopes and expectations. And maybe because it seemed too quick or easy; I hadn’t quite believed that the project, which had a rolling, almost self-propellant feel to write, could be any good.
I think Alan regards my gratitude to him as a little out-sized, but his confidence in the project, and his perhaps tossed-off comment, really changed how I looked at the poems.
RT: Can you talk about the process of going from 10 pages of a project to a full-length book? One of the challenges of a long sequence like your book seems to be the ability to weave together the different threads (family, science, memory, nature, and others). How did you get them to support, amplify, and counterpoint each other?
RM: As I researched, there were a lot of what seemed like incredible, serendipitous moments of crossover between the themes I had begun with and the science I was reading about. For example, I was researching brain trauma and came across the Latin names for the three layers of meninges that protect the brain: dura mater, pia mater, and arachnoid mater. Or, hard mother, tender mother and spider mother. I mean, when I read that, I got a little shiver. I felt that I was tapping into something that was deeply rooted in science and culture rather than fabricating it. Almost like I was pulling at some mythical threads that no one seemed to be aware of. So there were these discoveries that pushed me to keep going, that had a startling pre-made resonance.
But, too, the poem, as it got underway, began to create this contracted world with a close-knit ecosystem of features and vocabulary. To return to the project was like stepping back into a diorama: the canyon, fruit trees, spiders, my mother. Much of the book required going back to a certain time in my life, middle school and high school when I lived at home, and I think memory has its own limiting filter that made it easier to sift out a lot of what might have been extraneous. So, sitting down to write, I would re-enter this curated and memory-specific diorama—and that’s where I would start. I would go in with different mindsets or curiosities or needs, which meant it didn’t feel stagnant, but starting in that mind’s home base every time made the task of weaving the book into a coherent whole manageable.
I think it’s probably important to say, though, that a lot of this is only clear in retrospect. As I was in it, I wasn’t always confident I was steering one big project, or if it would, at some point, explode back into poems. Before this, as I said, I had seldom written a poem that crossed the bottom margin of a page (I think I have a particular creative OCD that involves needing to be able to see the whole thing at once), so I was in uncharted waters and felt that acutely for much of the writing process.
RT: Were there any particular books you looked to as models as you were putting the collection together?
RM: There are many books that influenced me in hard to define ways (Marie Howe’s What the Living Do is almost always on my mind), but I think the one that most served most clearly as a model was Ed Hirsch’s Gabriel, which is a book-length poem written all in tercets. It’s an elegy for his son and a search for what provides meaning or solace in a time of grief—religion or literature or remembering. So there’s a kinship in that sense, because, though it’s tonally very different, Nervous System is also interested in understanding meaning and knowledge in the context of grief. But, too, it was a book I sat down and read entirely without pausing, which I almost never do with books of poems. It had a force that pulled me through, and that was one aspect of Gabriel that I wanted to create for Nervous System.
RT: I have to admit that you were successful in that case, at least for me as a reader: I happily read Nervous System in one sitting. But sometimes, when I read books that are one single, unified project, I worry about whether the poems themselves function as individual pieces of art—rather pieces in service of a larger whole. How did you negotiate that tension in Nervous System?
RM: I love this as a follow-up question, because the role of the sections in Nervous System is interesting to me.
A poem is clearly a whole, but part of what makes it interesting is to encounter and sit with the pieces, to let the mind contend with what a fragment might mean. And I tend to think of a poem in a fractal way: each line offers its own poetic unit of sense, each stanza offers its own poetic unit of sense, each section in Nervous System offers… you get the idea. The lineation is significant to the subject and emotion of Nervous System in the way that it creates a tension of gaps, and so, in a fractal sense, the book as a whole-in-pieces magnifies the idea that reading poetry is a practice that requires a conscious crossing of white space. In other words, a repeated encounter with a lack of language.
I want the reader to experience this book as a single poem, but to be aware of the pieces at the same time, so that the reading process has an urgency, a pull forward, but requires also a deliberate process of construction. To have the book be one continuous poem, or to have the sections feel really contingent, would have created the sense, perhaps, that there was an easy coherence. The life experience that this book grew out of had so many unknowns, so many gaps, that to present it as single unified whole visually—i.e., all the text flowing together—would have been wrong.
In some ways, it’s not the sections that are in service of the whole, but their attendant white spaces, their spaces of languagelessness that are contributing to the overall experience of the book.
RT: I think a second book of poetry occupies a really interesting place in a poet’s career. Is it First Book, Part II? A Conscious Effort to Do Something Completely Different? Do you have any feelings about Nervous System as your “second book”?
RM: There are a number of poems in June in Eden that are, perhaps, the seeds of Nervous System (which is due, I think, to that manuscript overgestating, slightly). So, in that sense, there’s sort of a blurred line between the two books. The two books are formally and tonally different, but I think there is a Part II-ness about it. It’s possible that I’ll have some blur into the next book, as well (though that’s feeling a bit more like A Conscious Effort to Do Something Completely Different).
After the shock and delight that Nervous System had been chosen for the National Poetry Series wore off a little, I realized that had been so under the pressure put on a first book to launch or not launch a poet (and/or to secure or not secure a stable teaching job), that I hadn’t been conceiving of my career as a marathon, with many possibilities. And it was a great relief to start thinking that way. To start thinking of the road as long.
RT: Now that you’re thinking about your career in the long-term, how has that changed your current work?
RM: I think it’s lightened some of the attendant anxiety and rush, so that the actual process and the work can feel more center-stage. It feels more OK to take my time. Right now I have a number of poems that feel close, but not quite done. And I’m sitting with them. I’m trying to approach things that I find really difficult in poetry: the political landscape, the environment and economy, school shootings, etc. At other points in my life, I know I would be leaning on the poems in order to be able to call them ready for journal submission. But since I’m not, the drafts are getting longer and rangier, a bit out-of-hand, actually.
In my workshop with her at Bread Loaf, Ellen Bryant Voigt was talking about restraint in the writing process (I was only then realizing that I tend pathologically towards restraint) and she said this amazing sentence: “Take your hand from the throat of the draft.” And that’s been coming back to mind lately; I’m trying to let the poems breathe.
Of course, there’s always that nervous writing itch that grows if the poems are coming too sluggishly, but that internal need is different from the necessity to publish to get a job, or to publish in order to prove (even to yourself) that you can. To have those demons waiting a little further from my shoulder means that I can have some more privacy with the work.