Pattiann Rogers on the “Flicker” that Connects All Life in Her Poems
Leslie Lindsay Talks to the Author of Flickering
Elegant, meandering poems that veer from attics to marshes, to skeletons in a city museum, in the depths of sub-zero winters, the silence of rivers and trees and the soothing phrases of ancient lullabies. Animals and life rise over tendrils and vines, shrieks of bells, a summer of strawberries and blossoms bloom into dreamy memories. A feral dog trapped in a cage. The shouts of children playing at dusk; a hard wind, a chorus of monks on a forest path. “Those who are incarcerated for madness stare from behind locked windows, their glass faces pummeled and battered by rain pellets, by wet, windblown leaves and trash,” the speaker warns.
This is Pattiann Rogers’ new collection poetry, Flickering, and “contemplation” is the word that comes to mind.
Rogers does not write science poetry. She does not write nature poetry, nor does she write poems taking place in imagined lands, but contemplates our place in this one. She perceives—not in any sense of the word—something ethereal, something beyond—what might be humming below-consciousness, in miniature? What does true fellowship with the nonhuman other—plants, animals, land—feel like? What is our relationship to wonder and imagination, mystery, and more? How can we know what we can’t?
What Rogers might be attempting in her work is a way to introduce us to the world as she sees it—with astute observation, an inquisitive nature, and balance and harmony with otherness. Her work is at once science and poetry, it is a study in humanity.
Is contemplation and curiosity a human thing or an “every” thing? Could it be that animals and plants and the cosmos continue to peer at the vast sky, the deepest oceans, the thickest forests, the tallest mountains and reflect back otherness? What of the tiny field mouse going about her business, her “knuckles the size of dots,” as Rogers writes in a previous collection?
In February, just as shoots were beginning to emerge from the earth, and a drizzly rain bathed us in hope, Pattiann and I connected over email to discuss the sonic quality of the word “flickering,” the idea of calming uncertainties, and interdisciplinary work.
Leslie Lindsay: Flickering. Flicker. Flitter. I love these words. Out of curiosity, I looked up the etymology. “Flickering” is derived from Middle English flikeren “to flutter,” and also has this root: flicerian, flicorian, meaning to “flap quietly and lightly.”
Yet, the same word, in Germanic derivations, can mean “quaver,” “clatter,” and “clamber,” offering a resonance of clang, noise; a heaviness. For me, the word “flickering” connotes “small,” “light,” and “lively.” It exudes spring and hope. Can you talk a bit more about the title of this collection?
Pattiann Rogers: At the beginning, Flickering was just a word I used for the working title of my book. I had no thought of keeping the title when the book was finished and published. I was scheduled to have my manuscript to my editor by a specific month, but a situation arose that meant my schedule was reduced by three months to a different time slot.
So I had to hurry and hurry with a disorganized group of many unfinished poems in order to have even a partially finished manuscript by my new due date. I couldn’t spend time on the title. But my editor said he liked the title and so did other people. So I kept it, even though, at that time, there was only one poem in the manuscript that included the word “flickering.”Every healthy human brain possesses “essential electrical flickering.” And not only that, every living creature functioning on the earth possesses this electrical flickering of the brain. All living beings are truly a connected family and “flickering” is one of the important physical facets of our bonding.
As we went along, my editor asked me to write an introduction to the book. And here is where I really came to love and admire the word “flickering,” how malleable, generous, and good-natured a word it was, as I explain in the introduction. Then when I found that humans and all living creatures possess “Essential Electrical Flickering,” I felt how lucky we were that we had kept Flickering as the title and our instincts had been right about the appeal and importance of the word.
I give more details in the introduction, including the question: Why do people like watching flickering? Why does it seem to make most people happen?
While writing new poems for this book, I thought of one way to present “flickering” in different places in the book. I thought of the four books of poetry I had published previously with Penguin and began to scan those four books for the word or a synonym for “flickering” to see if I could create some very short, haiku-like, one-image poems containing the word “flickering.” Seven of the nine poems I wrote in this new form are included in the book.
LL: In terms of the interior design of the collection, I was attuned to the flickering electrical wires across the pages of each section, which in turn mimic the brain waves present on every healthy brain, human and animal. I find that an astonishing connection between the work and the world.
And this of course, lends a closer examination of interdisciplinary work. Can you elaborate on that? Of collaborating with your son on this aspect of the collection?
PR: I will just relate one event as an example of our collaborating. My son was doing research of healthy human brains. He took microscopic photographs of his research and each photograph showed a colorful design of essential electrical flickering of the human brain. In John’s section of the book, he explains how these designs are created and photographed and used in research, and how they also became these objects of art themselves.
When John heard my working title, he told me that every healthy human brain possesses “essential electrical flickering.” And not only that, every living creature functioning on the earth possesses this electrical flickering of the brain. I’d never known this before. All living beings are truly a connected family and “flickering” is one of the important physical facets of our bonding.
I told our editor that John and I had an idea that one of the colorful designs could be the perfect art for the cover of the book. However, the book designers had a different vision for the book’s cover and rejected our suggestion.
Working together like this was all new for John and I and Paul Slovak, who was able to let us do just about everything else we asked for in displaying and describing John’s use of the word “flickering” in his research.
You were correct about the wavery lines in the background of the pages in the book. The designers of the book suggested it and asked if we liked it. All of us agreed we liked it and for the same reasons you have listed. It was perfect.
LL: You’ve shared in the past that many of your poems begin with a question, a curiosity. I like that. What’s a writer if not inquisitive and attentive? I find your work to be particularly alert to time and space, grounded in seasonality. The language can be quite complex, other times, very simple—ordinary—yet there’s always a human connection to nature. Do you see these qualities in your work?
PR: It’s part of what I have aimed for in my poems. I create it if I can, that human connection, for myself. I generally feel that human connection and work to transform my feelings into the language and music of poetry. And I also watch for a new discovery, some perspective I’ve never experienced before, a surprise or another question for me.
What often, maybe always, leads me to the conclusion of a poem is the music the words are making together. I naturally feel and follow the cadence, the sounds of the words and the rhythm and emphasis/accents they create. Poems are songs. What feels right and sounds right and opens a new resonance that reveals and evokes and invites is the goal I seek.
LL: The field mouse poem, it’s not in this collection, but another one (Quickening Fields, 2017), in which you felt an “otherness,” near you. Something you couldn’t see or hear, or otherwise glean with your five senses, but you intuited. I’m wondering how often writing comes to you from this place that is sort of “beyond?”
PR: It doesn’t come often. I try to understand it, but there are no words yet. It’s the music again, and that’s intuitive and leads the way. It’s the music in the heart where the words are created.
There are two times I can remember that this feeling of a presence happened.
I didn’t write about the first instance, but I felt that way again, more strongly when I was alone in a large rolling field in Italy on a quiet morning. I knew that something was there. I carefully describe the scene in the poem, the sky and the remnants of night, the newness of morning. Here is the last stanza of that poem, when I was struggling for the words, “A Very Common Field.” It was published by Milkweed in Song of the World Becoming, New and Collected Poems, 1981 -2001:
It’s not a voice, not a message.
but something like a lingering,
a reluctance to abandon, a biding
so constantly present that I can never
isolate it from the disorderly crows
passing over or from the sun moving
as wind down through the brief fires
of moisture on the blades of timothy
and sage, never separate it from the scent
of fields drying and warm, never
isolate it from my own awareness.
It is something that makes possible,
that occasions without causing, something
I can never extricate to name, never
name to know, never know to imitate.
It’s the music again that leads the way. It’s the music in the heart where the words and their order are created.
LL: Writing—and reading—poetry is a form of devotion, but also faith. Maybe it’s a type of love, of being attentive, of blurring lines between ourselves, our faith, and the object of our attention-obsession. Would you agree that we’re constantly soothing our anxieties in an attempt to escape, to offer (re)assurance?
PR: No. I wouldn’t choose those words in your last sentence to describe my experience, “constantly soothing our anxieties.” I don’t understand exactly what you mean. Maybe you mean stimulated to create, to write, to create the song. I don’t write poems to sooth an anxiety or try to escape something. I write to explore with words and their music, and my curiosity is always asking questions.
One morning I woke up with these words going through my mind: “The Importance of the Whale in the Field of Iris.” I didn’t know what that meant, but I wrote the poem with that title to discover what it meant. I was exploring with language, which is the only tool that poets have to explore with. This poem, first published by Wesleyan University Press, is included in my book, Firekeeper, New and Selected Poems. It was a joy to write it.
And I write to praise with the language and song of praise.
LL: Did you write these poems chronologically, as they appear in the collection, or write “at whim,” and then piece together later? What is your process of organizing a collection?
PR: I don’t write chronologically. Usually I write until I feel I have enough poems I like and then, as with this book, I gathered some poems and organized them in sections by topic, or by various settings, or poems that have the same tones, perhaps the same subjects.
LL: I’d like to revisit the idea of flickering. This collection pulls from some of your previously published poems featuring the word “flicker.” It provides the assumption that this word, this concept, has sort of haunted you.It was in my mind that I needed and wanted to make the word [“flicker”] present throughout the book, maybe its character present, maybe its motion wandering through the lines of the book in a silent, subtle way…
PR: Well, no, I wouldn’t say “haunted,” which to be suggests frightened or harassed in a distressing way. It was in my mind that I needed and wanted to make the word present throughout the book, maybe its character present, maybe its motion wandering through the lines of the book in a silent, subtle way, maybe the suggestion of its presence without using its word, achieve something like that.
LL: Humanity…”a wondering, curious, questioning creature,” you write in the afterward of Flickering, is so relatable. Scientists and poets, I would venture, are both constantly asking and exploring, experimenting (on the page or in the laboratory). Both, I’d conclude, are interested in details, being attentive. In the spirit of curiosity, I’d like to end with your favorite poems in the collection, and why?
PR: We agree. What you have written above sounds almost exactly like what I wrote in my essay, “Poetry, Science, and the Human Soul”:
I’m sorry, but I can’t choose my favorite poems. I like the poems that my readers like, because I want them to be pleased and happy, touched and surprised too. The earth, my heart, my thought, the light, the dark, the hungry and the stuffed, the silly and the rare, all are constantly changing and shifting. The poem I reject today may be a step to a future poem that I love. But what I personally love today, I may deny tomorrow. And I would rather not judge them myself in such a universe that might influence and confuse my readers.
Flickering by Pattiann Rogers is available via Penguin.