Conversation with Rosemary Royston

According to Rosemary Royston’s own description, she is a poet, writer, re-imaginer of things. I couldn’t agree more, especially with that last part. Her most recent publication—a full-length collection of poetry, Second Sight, available through Kelsay Press and Amazonis all about reimagining things. Reading the poems in Second Sight causes me as a reader to want to reimagine things too.

Rosemary agreed to answer some questions about Second Sight as well as about the writing and publishing process. Come back tomorrow for a writing prompt from Rosemary, inspired by her new collection.

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DL: The poems in Second Sight are often about intuition and premonition. A number of poems such as “Mountain Hoodoo” explore rich traditions of superstition. How did you first become interested in these traditions, and why/how did it occur to you that they were ripe for poetry?

RR: Having lived in many places in northeast Georgia, I found Appalachia, where I’ve spent the last 30 years, to be full of wonderful traditions and superstitions that intrigued me greatly. Always one open to the sixth sense and the power of suggestion or intention, I wanted to know more. Where did these “spells” come from? Why did some contain scripture from the Bible (something I stumbled upon), and why were others different? These questions led me in two directions: one, asking my friends and acquaintances in Southern Appalachia for their stories, and two, doing research that ranged from academic to collections based totally on experience or wisdom passed down. There were two sources that were very rich with history and on both ends of the spectrum: Anthony Cavander’s Folk Medicine in Appalachia, and Edain McCoy’s Mountain Magick: Folk Wisdom from the Heart of Appalachia. Cavender’s text is based on significant research, and identifies the “magic” or superstitions that have a level of legitimacy (such as medical magic that uses herbs of the region), along with identifying folk” treatments” that can be confounding and not based on scientific evidence. One of the examples Cavender shared that stayed with me is the act of “passing” a colicky baby around table legs nine times to end the colic. On the other hand, Edain McCoy (an actual relative of the famous McCoy’s) recorded a substantial amount of wisdom that had been passed down from her family. So before I began crafting the poems, I did a good bit of research as I wanted to honor the traditions and be as accurate as possible. Nothing in the poems with “Mountain Hoodoo” are totally made-up by me: they are references to the texts listed in the end of the book, or based on oral traditions shared with me by those who have lived in Appalachia for the majority of their lives.

As for their ripeness for poetry, I know that the traditions of any culture begin to slip away as society changes. I do not want the heritage of Southern Appalachia to evaporate. To capture them in poems allowed me to not only practice my well-loved craft of poetry, but also pass on some of the practices that I found most intriguing.

Second Sight, available through Kelsay Press and Amazon

DL: The third section of Second Sight begins with your son’s at-first undiagnosed illness, but the section includes poems about other traumatic experiences from your life. Can you talk about the benefits of writing about trauma? What’s your process like for transforming that kind of therapeutic writing into a well-crafted poem?

RR: Early in my writing career, I had the luxury of working with Heather McHugh. I had written a poem about my (favorite) dog passing away. She read the poem and put it down and said in the kindest way, “this is too close.” What she meant was that not enough time had not passed. I needed time to grieve. To reflect. She was 100% correct. So my thoughts on trauma are to definitely journal the pain and spiraling that trauma throws us in. But then let it sit. Because if a writer does not, the writing can be too painful to process, or come out in a way that is too sentimental. Even today, when I read “Type 1” or “Sudden Awareness of Embodying the Dialectical” I may tear up. It took years for me to be able to write poetically and with somewhat of a psychic distance about our son’s near-death experience, and my own experiences in this miraculous but aging body. I’m glad I did, but processing and grieving take time, and the writer must honor that. I’d also posit that turning therapeutic writing into poetry is not unlike writing creative nonfiction. The writer must decide what details are necessary, and they must be comfortable editing details or events in order to support the essence of the poem—this includes language, chronology, and the actual event in order to convey the emotions that the writer wishes the poem to convey to its audience.

DL: One of the questions I’m asked the most, especially by poets early in their career, is how to not sound overly prosaic. What kind of craft elements do you employ to identify and modify those prosaic turns of phrase?

RR: Oh, this is a great question and extremely relevant. In the first drafts of many of these poems, I would go back and read them and see that I’d just made more or less a list of my research findings. Making the language poetic was a big factor in taking research and shaping or conjuring it into poetic form. To do this, I had multiple drafts, with specific attention to diction, sound, line breaks, and form. I think that those of us who have grown up in the South have an innate ear for sound, and we often incorporate it without even thinking about it, but I made a concerted effort to take advantage of sound. I turned some of the research I’d gathered into narrative poems. Also, I used the ghazal form, which is a Persian form that allows for repetition. Since spells often involve repetition, I found this to be an applicable form. I intentionally steered away from ballads because not only was I not good at doing them, I felt they were a form already done well by my Appalachian literary aunts and uncles. Finally, I went for the scientific—Latinate titles for some of the poems with the intent that the reader be both aware of sound and craft, but also intellectually engaged—having to read further or deduce exactly what is being described.

DL: My first book took two years to find the right publisher, and that time while you’re searching can be really disheartening. What was the submission and publication process like for Second Sight?

RR: Just as hard as the first process! However, I’m grateful for both opportunities, which took about six years of reorganizing, resending, and hoping. I was proud of myself for being more assertive this go around, though. Initially, Kelsay Books accepted a chapbook submission. But I felt that the submission was too thin for the work I’d done; it did not feature everything I wanted. I asked if they would consider my full-length, and they did! It was very rewarding.

DL: What are you working on now?

RR: Of all the questions, this one (which should be easy) was the most challenging to answer! I will always write poetry. It’s in my bones. However, I’ve found that I’m branching out and experimenting with all types of art, from mixed media, needle felting, and playing barbies! LOL. Yesbarbies. But not only in the sense of play, but also of conveying a message, which is often based on issues such as gender, feminism, and sexism. Often, I’ll “enact” the essence of a poem in one of these forms (for readers who want to see this, follow midge_and_midge on Instagram). I’ve also done some collaborative work with the painter and artist Larry Caveney through ekphrastic poems based on his paintings. For the most part, I feel like I’m in that necessary lull between poetic projects, and I’m enjoying it (as opposed to berating myself!).

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My next post will feature a writing prompt supplied by Rosemary Royston, as well as more information for opportunities to study with Rosemary this spring.

6 thoughts on “Conversation with Rosemary Royston

  1. Hey Denton,

    We have learned & been enlightened with this great interview with R.R.
    Thanks for your work, getting these artists’ words out to us.

    Miss seeing you.-jack wright

    Liked by 1 person

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