Photo Credit: Darby Ullyat
Colorado’s Western Slope Poet Laureate Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer’s poetry has appeared in O Magazine, in back alleys, on A Prairie Home Companion and in her children’s lunch boxes. Her most recent collection is The Less I Hold. Clients include Think 360, Craig Hospital, Hospice and Camp Coca Cola. She served as San Miguel County’s first poet laureate, directed the Telluride Writers Guild for 10 years, and co-hosts the Talking Gourds Poetry club. She’s won the Fischer Prize, Rattle’s Ekphrastic Challenge, the Dwell Press Solstice Prize, the Writer’s Studio Literary Contest, was a finalist for the Colorado Book Award, and has been nominated three times for a Pushcart Prize. She curates “Heard of Poets,” an interactive poetry map of Western Colorado. Since 1994, she’s performed with Telluride’s seven-woman acappella group, Heartbeat, and since 2006, she’s written a poem a day. Her MA is in English Language and Linguistics. Favorite one-word mantra: Adjust. Her TEDx talk, “The Art of Changing Metaphors,” illustrates the power of metaphor to influence perception and can be viewed here.
TBL Author Q&A Series: Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer
This is one in a series of brief interviews with a diverse array of writers, editors, and other industry professionals. Check back over the coming months for more!
How did your poetry career begin? Was there a particular experience that catapulted you into the world of literature?
Hmm, well, let’s start with the phrase ‘poetry career.’ I suppose the shoe fits, but still I cringe a little at it. I like to think of whatever I do—teaching, writing, performing—as part of a poetry practice. There’s something more vital in that word that seems to express that poetry is more a way of being in the world than something I am an expert in. Poetry is something I am exquisitely curious about, something that is still teaching me more than I am the teacher of it.
I began writing poems because it was play, back in the fourth grade, and that sense of pleasure (which includes being wrestled down and undone by the poem) is still what pulls me in every day. A real turning point, however, was in 8th grade when I was in confirmation class. My priest, Father Blakeslee, recognized my love of words (I had come to class one afternoon all excited about the symmetry of the word ‘sometimes’), and he gave me a book of e.e. cummings for confirmation. That was when I understood that play could also help us engage with and express grave and tender themes, and it shifted everything for me about how I read and how I wrote.
How would you describe your poetry? What sort of themes tend to emerge in your writing?
Structurally speaking, I was obsessed with form for many years, and though I only write the occasional sonnet now, I am still very much driven by rhythm and resonance. I hear poems as I write them and let myself be led by sound into places my logical self wouldn’t have thought to enter.
Because I write every day, I think it makes sense that I write about very everyday things—raising children, gardening, a long marriage, making dinner, walking. But beneath these subjects, I suppose the themes that repeatedly emerge have to do with the tensions between knowing and unknowing, learning and unlearning, showing and telling. I am deeply in love with mystery. I marvel at the ways our identities are erased and refashioned.
The Western Slope is one of the most beautiful regions in our state of Colorado. How—if at all—does the Colorado landscape influence your writing?
Yes, it is beautiful—and, as Gerard Manley Hopkins would say, it has also “cliffs of fall. Frightful, sheer.” I am so resonant with this landscape, and it informs most of my poems. Many years ago (in 2000) I did a book expressly about the San Juans with photographer Eileen Benjamin. Our collection, “If You Listen,” focused on the alpine environment. Now, living in a river valley, I suppose my poems are much more about the daily movements of the changing riverbed, the animals and plants that thrive and die here. I seldom write what I would call a nature poem, but there is nature in almost all of my poems.
As much as the landscape inspires and informs me, I would say that it is the poets of the Western Slope that have most influenced my writing, most especially Art Goodtimes, with whom I have been teaching and performing and organizing festivals and from whom I have been learning for 22 years. But overall, there is such a warm, inclusive, supportive, fun-loving community of poets on the Western Slope, and our gatherings, both formal and informal, have shaped me not only as a poet but as a human. Wendy Videlock, Ellen Marie Metrick, Jack Mueller, Danny Rosen, Kyle Harvey, David Rothman, Beth Paulson, David Feela, Kierstin Bridger, Haz Said . . . there are so many more Western Slope poets than I would love to list here, but that’s a start. Unlike other poetry communities that seem to be highly competitive and backstabbing, the Western Slope feels open, encouraging, wildly conspiring. Now maybe THAT is an expression of the landscape, too.
With an MA in English Language and Linguistics, how would you describe the relationship between the scientific study of language and the creative use of language? It seems to me as though your linguistic knowledge would inevitably influence your own writing.
You are so right! The reason I pursued linguistics in the first place was because of Hopkins. I was so curious about his use of sound, and I thought if I could only understand the science of language better I might be able to apply it better to reading and writing myself.
Language thrills me—what we know about it and what we can never know about it. For the first time now, writing this, it occurs to me that perhaps the most worthwhile thing I learned in my two years of graduate work was that even knowing the science, we still can’t quite grasp how language does what it does. It’s not science that makes us cry when we read a poem like Neruda’s “Tonight I Can Write the Saddest Lines.” But perhaps there is something in the science that can help us understand some of what the language is doing, its repetition, its use of sound, and then we can use similar techniques ourselves.
What I love most about language is how it slips, how it never can quite express what we want to say. The science helps, of course, but it will never get to what is essential about language. It’s like a biologist who can catch a butterfly and pin it to a wall and study it to know the mechanics of flight, the syntax of butterfly, but she knows that the real delight of butterfly is in the being of it, the expression of butterfly as it transforms and lives.
According to your bio, you have authored and edited thirteen books—are these all books of poetry, or have you also published prose work? Having such an extensive repertoire, have you found that the publishing process becomes easier once your work has already been printed?
Most of those books are poetry, though there is also a collection of essays I edited about Charity, a book about the history of Christmas card angels, and a historic architectural walking tour of Telluride.
Is the publishing process easier? Well, I don’t know about that. I have worked with four presses, a collective, and I have self-published, and I think there are compelling reasons to consider each of these options. But is it easier? Maybe it is harder. I think I have higher standards now than I did when I was younger and more eager to publish. I also have less interest in publishing than I did when I was younger. I am so much more invested in the process of poetry—how it changes every day for me. I think publishing is important for establishing yourself as a teacher or performer. As Art says, a book is the new calling card. But publishing is most certainly not the reason to write.
You’ve also taught poetry in a diverse range of settings. Can you speak a bit about your approach to teaching, and how it might shift based on the students involved?
You are right, I teach in many settings—from kindergarten and college students to octogenarians, from classes about mothering to classes I’ve offered for hospice. Though the exercises I choose and the poems we read might be different from class to class, I don’t think my approach changes very much. I believe in poetry as play. I believe that all of us can write and that poetry can open us in surprising and unsettling ways. I also know that all of us will write better when we are relaxed and when we feel safe.
What I know about poetry and bring each class: That if we get out of the way, the poem will lead us. Poetry thrives when we come to a subject with curiosity. If we know the ending when we start, we sabotage the process. I know that reading great poems is a fantastic step toward writing great poems. That if we set out to write a great poem, we will likely fail—I tell my students (and myself) over and over to focus on writing something true (not necessarily factual) as opposed to writing something “good.”
I do have a slightly different goal with school students—I primarily want them to come away from a class thinking that poetry has pleasure in it. If they have that, they are more likely to explore it more on their own. But in classes where students are selecting to be there, I am most interested in bringing people tools that they can use whenever they find themselves with a blank page.
What advice would you give to emerging writers?
Find a poetry community, ideally other poets who you think are a lot better than you. Get together often and read other people’s poems out loud, talk about poems. Memorize poems.
What projects are you working on now? Do you have big plans for 2016?
I am just finishing a collaboration with Snowmass artist Jill Sabella, a conversation of three-line poems and three-line drawings. We took turns starting these little conversations, sometimes with a drawing first, other times with a poem first. We will have a book come out in early fall with Lithic Press and a gallery showing in Telluride at 81435 in October and November.
And I have another collaboration, too, a collection of poems based on intricate drawings of the alphabet done by Lian Canty of Crested Butte. Lian’s illustrations portray the letters as tree people surrounded by objects and animals that begin with the letter at hand. My challenge that she gave me was to write poems for each letter that incorporate all the objects in the image, usually around twelve. That book is currently looking for a publisher.
And I just finished a new collection of poems, too, that I have sent out to a contest, finger’s crossed. That’s one way I’ve never published before!
In terms of performing, I am excited about forming a new troupe with Art and Judyth Hill. We call ourselves AJAR, and it’s a live-wire performance extravaganza! We perform individually and collaboratively, with poems that leap from political to ecstatic to intimate.
I have a whole host of performances, retreats, openings, classes and more on my website at www.wordwoman.com, for anyone interested in coming out to play.
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