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David Roderick is the author of Blue Colonial, winner of The American Poetry Review/Honickman Prize in Poetry. He was a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University and has been awarded an Amy Lowell Traveling Scholarship. His work appears in many journals, including The Hudson Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Missouri Review, New England Review, Shenandoah, and The Virginia Quarterly Review.
This interview with David Roderick first appeared at Poem of the Week.
Blue Colonial addresses displacement in a world designed (rather than destined) to repeat its mistakes— the subdivision constructed of “rowed colonials, each the same / because the mind of a developer planned them that way: / decks too small for barbeque, monotonous shingles and brick.” As a personal narrative, Blue Colonial is a beautifully composed address to that innate human longing to belong even when we recognize the aberrant nature of our surroundings.
Obviously, the act of looking back and of returning via the explorative lens of the poem can be a redemptive experience for the poet. What is it that you hope readers glean from this poem?
David Roderick: I confess that I find the verb “glean” perplexing, because when I wrote the poem, several years ago, I couldn’t predict that it would find a wide audience. Looking back, I can now see that it was very much a poem I wrote for myself, and its central questions were more along the lines of: How did I become a poet? Why? Did any of my childhood experiences point toward poetry?
Becoming a poet was not a natural or easy decision for me. I didn’t start writing poetry until my mid-twenties because it felt like an indulgence as well as an act of rebellion against my culture and upbringing… the suburban cookie-cutter lifestyle familiar to a lot of Americans. I suppose that when I wrote “Blue Colonial,” I was searching for some evidence that I was destined for poetry, that I should allow myself to pursue it. In this sense, it is redemptive, as you’ve astutely pointed out. Because the poem is such a personal manifesto, I didn’t and don’t expect my readers to glean anything from the poem, except, I hope, a modicum of pleasure.
AMK: Do you feel that you write for a reader, to a reader, or in some other way entirely?
DR: Most of the poems in Blue Colonial take place in my hometown, and I was cognizant that family, friends, and neighbors might find the poems interesting. I also wanted to avoid writing a book that was too regionalized. My hope was that a broader poetry-reading audience, people who had never been to Plymouth, Massachusetts, might be charmed by the work.
To answer your question more directly: I write for myself, but I hope I’m also addressing a reader.
AMK: Is the poem “Blue Colonial” the thematic foundation upon which Blue Colonial the book stands? Is this how title poems, in your experience, typically operate?
DR: I had the title in place long before I’d written most of the poems. It resonated through both the historical and the semi-autobiographical terrains of the book, evoking the unique colonial history of Plymouth, and also creating a backdrop and atmosphere for the semi- autobiographical poems, in which the speaker’s tone is meditative and somewhat somber.
AMK: “Self Portrait 1970” is the third of a series of four self-portraits. Like a painter sitting before a mirror with pallet in hand, do you see these poems as similarly constructed reflections upon that which composes the self? Is this a sort of mode that allows you to see yourself as a child born of “another child,” a trick of the “rabbit’s foot,” a “low line / of election continuing?”
DR: Yes, I think so. With the exception of the title poem, the semi-autobiographical or self- portrait poems came very quickly (and late) in the project. I didn’t feel like a painter while writing those poems, yet I think they’re rather impressionistic… perhaps more so than the historical poems. The self-portraits to which you refer depict my birth and infancy, so I can obviously only imagine those parts of my life. From that angle it was easier to exaggerate tone, character, mood, and setting.
AMK: Some of these poems address a negative relationship with your father as a child. I’m wondering how you navigate the slippery slope of such autobiographical narratives.
Do you stick to the absolute truth, or are you comfortable with incorporating the imagined with the real?
DR: Yes, there’s a father figure, and a son, but they’re fictionalized, embellished, as all good poems must be. I’m comfortable with incorporating the imagined with the real. In fact, that’s where poem-making happens for me, in the liminal space between the two. I find that if I hold too closely to factual truth, the poem comes out flat. I might as well be writing a diary entry. But the images and rhythms I’m working with require me to fudge the facts, to embellish the past.
Think of Van Gogh’s riveting self-portraits, for example. It’s easy to see that every depiction is him and only him, but there are also wild distortions of color and form on the canvas. Without his unique manner of vision and style, they’d be pretty dull paintings. I suppose I’m trying to use correlating tactics in my so-called “self-portrait” poems. The truth is that I have a very healthy relationship with my father, even though he frequently bruises my ego by whipping me in ping pong.
AMK: The first section of Blue Colonial consists of poems primarily dedicated to telling the story of the colonization of Plymouth, Massachusetts through the eyes of the settlers. The second section looks more inward, primarily composed of autobiographical poems. The result is a book that fuses the search for the self with an examination of America’s heritage. Do you mind discussing how these two realms came to coexist?
DR: Sure. I wrote most of those historical poems first, thinking that they were fueled by my common experience in that landscape and my desire to debunk many of the myths associated with Plymouth: the landing on Plymouth Rock, the first Thanksgiving, harmony with the Native American tribes, etc. Much later, after that part of the project gathered some dust, I came to see that I was also associating, in some small way, with the historical figures about which I’d written. They were masks, disguises I’d used to write about some things I wasn’t comfortable writing about as myself.
Obviously I hadn’t suffered through the experiences of the Pilgrims. I’m too much of a sissy to have survived that harsh colonial lifestyle, but I found, through my studies, that the members of that community must have felt repressed. In order to survive, they all needed to be on the same page. Thinking about how an individual’s needs and desires are subordinated to those of a community motivated the semi-autobiographical poems. That element of personal repression resonated with me and finally emerged without the trope of dramatic monologue. Once I was able to take off those colonial costumes, the semi-autobiographical poems emerged.