Through the Tangled Forest: An Interview with Erin Rodoni
by Amanda Moore
Amanda Moore: Your book And If the Woods Carry You, winner of the 2020 Michael Waters Poetry Prize, is a stunning collection of immersive poems that dwell in the realm of fairy tale, beautifully rendering the wonder of childhood and the perils and dangers which threaten childhood’s innocence. The opening poems showcase how your work pivots between these elements, describing a child’s “first fireflies” and “the lawn they candled into enchantment” alongside the understanding that “It is dangerous / to be a child,” and later that “it is dangerous / to love a child.” I’m fascinated by how you navigate the world of the fairy tales, relying on what’s familiar within their archetypes and tropes at times but also radically departing to deposit us in a very unsettled world where parents must “hurl their children out / of the truck’s path” literally and figuratively. I’d love to hear more about how you approached fairy tales as a central conceit for the book.
Erin Rodoni: Thank you for reading so attentively and deeply, Amanda. As a child, I simultaneously thrilled at and feared that goose-pimply haunted feeling I got while listening to my mother read fairy tales. Back then, of course, I identified with the child protagonist, but by the time I started folding fairy tales into my own poems, I found myself first approaching them as the mother who will be absent by the time the drama unfolds, the mother who knows all she can give her daughter to prepare her for the woods is a map in the form of a story. But, as harrowing as the dangers of wolves and witches are, there is also something predictable about them, and the landscape seems stable, dependable. With climate change, whatever future my children will inherit seems volatile, unpredictable. So I started asking the question, where are the maps, what are the rules, if the forests are on fire and the continents are redrawn by rising seas? How can I entrust my children to that world, how can I prepare them, and how do I reckon with my choice to essentially hurl them into that future? Yet I’m also keenly aware of the disconnect between my fears about the future and the relative safety and security my children currently enjoy, a rarity in this world, for both human and nonhuman creatures.
Eventually the poems I was writing kind of found their own path and fairy tale became more the background texture and atmosphere, the setting in which to explore the way humans are both in danger and a danger. The woods of fairy tale as a site of risk and transformation began to merge with my interest in the forest as a self-sustaining macro-organism, as a creator, as a mother. So fairy tale morphed into ecology and mythology, it all kind of blended together, reminding me of a childhood favorite, Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn. The spectre of the Red Bull became an embodiment of climate change for me during the 2017 wildfires. I imagined these new California megafires chasing us into a rising Pacific, and a parable began.
AM: I’m so glad you brought up Beagle’s The Last Unicorn, as your book takes its epigraph from it: “Stay where you are poor beast, this is no world for you.” That book was a childhood favorite of mine as well, and though I wasn’t ever able to conjure an allegorical interpretation of the Red Bull as elegantly as you have, I do remember how much I once identified with the unicorn, who thinks she is the last of her kind, alone in the world. You’ve spoken so compellingly about both the volatility and yet relative safety of the world in which your own children live and how that has influenced your work; your book also traverses the speaker’s own childhood in poems such as “Bury Me in the Woods of My Childhood” and a series of Time Capsule poems. Can you say something about the function of those childhood poems in the manuscript?
ER: I think of the time capsule poems as sites of compressed memory, the set of memories contained within a place or symbol, to be preserved and maybe discovered and made use of when the daughters need them. It occurs to me now, that perhaps they are my own particular fairy tales, the lessons and warnings from my own life that I want to pass down to my daughters. After all, I’ve already negotiated some of the threats girls face, and I’ve been a daughter much longer than I’ve been a mother. I guess, though I approached fairy tales as a mother, I still feel a strong connection to the child’s perspective. Our childhood experiences are so formative and vivid, they are kind of like time capsules already. There is something cyclical in the way my daughters’ childhood calls up memories of my own childhood, revealing them in a new light.
AM: The word “cyclical” seems particularly apt, as the collection moves through time fluidly. Like fairy tales that begin “Once upon a time” and move toward a future “Happily ever after,” your Time Capsule and childhood memory poems exist beside meditations on the present and poems that gesture toward the future, which, at different turns, can be both grim and hopeful, one even attempting a more realistic vision of “Happily ever after” by admitting to a child that she, too, will die, but “not for a long, long time.” While traversing time, the poems move through particular settings and locations as well—the woods, obviously, but also other outdoor spaces, domestic spaces, and even the “land of illness.” I want to ask you about the book’s organization into four sections, each named for a location: “The Woods,” “The Village,” “The Kingdom,” and “The Clearing.” How did you conceive of and use these spaces as you constructed the book, and what does the movement through them offer the collection?
ER: For a long time, I knew how this book would open and close, but I wasn’t sure how to structure everything in between. I thought about interweaving all the threads and not having sections at all, and I still love how that echoes a tangled forest, in theory. But as I gathered the poems into constellations that seemed to hang together, I began to recognize in them the standard settings of fairy tales. Traditionally, the protagonist would leave their village, wander through the woods, find a clearing where they might be tested or receive guidance, and then reach the castle (the kingdom) at the end. In scrambling the order, I do hope the reader will get that sense of time being cyclical, as you say, and also as something that is always transforming. I didn’t want to set it entirely in an invented future, but I also didn’t want to remain entirely in the present with some future disaster always impending but never happening.
There are lots of little linear jumps and echoes between the poems themselves, but I guess I think of the first section, "The Woods," and the last, "The Clearing," as being temporarily connected in the present tense of the book, and being separated by a shifting past and a potential future. "The Village" is more rooted in the past, a setting that seems more secure on the surface, but also conceals and reveals its own dangers, just as the woods does. "The Kingdom" mostly contains the long poem sequence “Parable of the Bull,” which describes a hypothetical future, in which humans stop reproducing and go extinct over the course of a last lifetime. This was my space to go into the worst case scenario, a future where climate change renders the earth unlivable for humans. This was also a way to follow the line of thinking I am hearing more and more, that it is selfish or irresponsible to bring a child into this world, to its logical conclusion. But I return to "The Clearing" at the end because I wanted the threat of that future to hang over the tenderest poems in the book. "The Clearing" contains those the speaker loves and what she hopes for them. Where she cultivates her own kind of faith that there is still time to transform the future.
AM: Will you talk about your writing process? Where does writing fit into your days and weeks, and how do the responsibilities of your life conform to and/or thwart your poem writing?
ER: Pre-pandemic, I did most of my writing in cafes. I needed to be away from my home to get anything on the page. Now, much like my home, my writing process is messy these days, but there is a method to it. Generating new material is the most difficult part of the process for me, because I don’t have a lot of quiet time in which to dream and conjure language, and when I do sit down to write, my children interrupt me constantly, breaking whatever trance I can manage to get into. So I try to accumulate language over time, in fits and starts and scraps. I keep documents on my computer that I keep adding to as new moments and memories and lines come into my mind. Eventually I will write something that brings the whole mess into focus and that’s the real beginning of a new poem. Then I have this block of material to cut and paste from and chisel away and rearrange. This is the most enjoyable part of the process for me, when I’m shaping a poem and I know I have all the material I need, it is just a matter of how to hold it all together. This is also around the time I am able to hold and revise the poem in my mind while I cook, or drive, or run. Because it takes a long time for me to “finish” a poem, I usually have several going at the same time, at various stages of completion.
AM: I love the way you talk about language as something you “conjure,” echoing the magic that infuses these poems, and also as something you “accumulate.” From where do you accumulate your language? Maybe another question I’m trying to ask is: what are the texts, what are poems, and who are the poets who help you find your way on the page, either in this collection or more generally?
ER: While I was writing this book, I was really drawn to poetry and prose that sinks deep into the life of landscapes, particularly of trees and forests. Here’s an incomplete list of books that captured my imagination during that period: Richard Powers’s The Overstory, Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, Maya Khosla’s All the Fires of Wind and Light, Claire Wahmanholm’s Wilder, Camille Dungy’s Trophic Cascade, Merwin’s Rain in the Trees, Vievee Francis’Forest Primeval, and Brenda Hillman’s Extra Hidden Life Among the Days.
And more generally, since becoming a parent, an unsought but undeniable source of language for me is rhyming children’s books; that music seeps into my poetry to the point I have to revise rhymes out of my poems to avoid becoming too sing-songy. As a former massage therapist and someone who grew up on the doorstep of wilderness in the form of the Point Reyes National Seashore, I seem to resonant most deeply with poets who fuse bodily and natural imagery into a certain lushness of language. I also love tracing myths through the works of various poets, like the Persephone myth across the work of Rita Dove, Eavan Boland, and Louise Gluck. Here is a very small sampling of other poets whose words always nourish and fuel me: Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Aracelis Girmay, Ada Limón, Traci Brimhall, Natalie Diaz, Hala Alyan, and Linda Gregg. I think I could read Kelly’s “Dead Doe” and Girmay’s “Kingdom Animalia” every day and never stop being astonished.
Lately, my attention has felt very scattered so I’ve been jumping around a lot in both my reading and my writing, but I’m lucky enough to be one of Carly Joy Miller’s first readers, and I am always enraptured by what she is doing with language and lyricism. One of the books that has called me back to the page most recently is by another San Diego State University MFA alum, Tara Stillions Whitehead. Her stunning Blood Histories is a hybrid collection, and the rhythms of her prose, the way her sentences leap and connect, always gets poetic language swirling through me.
AM: Thank you for that incredible list! That you are pulling language from so many voices and traditions deepens and enriches the reading experience, and it’s nice to have this family tree of sorts to chart your linguistic and thematic influences. I can’t help but notice that yours is a matrilineage, one deeply influenced by the voices of women writers, which is consistent with the themes of mothering and daughtering in your collection. How do you think the book is shaped by the feminine, if at all? What role does womanhood play in And If the Woods Carry You?
ER: Yes, I noticed that too and was a bit surprised by it; because, aside from Plath and Dickenson, most of my first poetic loves were men: Neruda, Eliot, Thomas, Keats, and Yeats. But when trying to list the poets who help me find my own way on the page, the ones I have been reading and returning to for years, it does seem to be primarily a matrilineage of influence. My initial reaction to the question of the feminine in my work is that it is so unconsidered I don’t even know how to talk about it. But upon further reflection, folklore and fairy tales are associated with that domestic sphere, which has been traditionally a realm of women and children, so just using that as a narrative frame, plus the way I identify as a mother and daughter, tilts the book feminine. Also, my being immersed in motherhood for almost as long as I’ve been writing poetry as an adult. My experience of motherhood is full of milk and blood and blurred boundaries and shifting shapes, it is watery in the way it connects back to memory and childhood and how I experienced my own mother and grandmothers. There are other ways to experience motherhood and mothering, but for me personally, it is tied up with my sense of the feminine, of a lineage of women filling recurring roles, which you explore so tenderly and viscerally in your collection, Requeening.
AM: Thanks, Erin. I do feel such a kinship in our books and an alignment in our curiosity around who we are in the world and within the family. You’ve spoken frequently about parenting as an inspiration, hindrance, and truth, and you navigate parenthood and daughterhood on the page so adroitly. I’m wondering what it feels like to write from those personal experiences and how you navigate writing about your family.
ER: I say I’ve been a mother for most of the time I’ve been writing poetry as an adult, because I wrote poetry as a teen, but took an extended break that encompassed most of my twenties, while I pursued massage therapy and natural healing, arts that are also associated with that archetypal feminine energy I suppose. When I was going to turn thirty, I had some kind of late quarter-life crisis revelation about my “true” calling, and threw myself back into poetry, applying to MFA programs to make up for time I felt I’d lost. I had my first daughter during my second year of the three-year program at SDSU, and of course my nascent poetry couldn’t help but orbit that life-changing experience. Maybe this will change as my children get older and our relationship changes, but poetry and parenthood have been and still are inextricably tangled in my life, because I grew and became in them over the same period.
AM: Putting a book into the world, particularly a book that is so deeply personal, is such an act of faith and a gesture of good will to your readers. My last question is about what you hope for your readers, either in terms of how they meet the collection or what they get from it.
ER: In some ways this book has felt less personal than my previous books, maybe because the fairy tale frame makes it seem less overtly autobiographical. But the fears and tensions I’m exploring do feel deeply personal and a little scary to put out there. In trying to address a fraught subject with nuance, I do worry about being misunderstood, which would be my own failing as a writer, not a flaw in the reader’s ability to interpret. Obviously, I do have children, so the debate around whether or not it is right or ethical or responsible to bring a child into this world is already settled for me. And I love them and the experience of being their mother far too much to regret it, but that doesn’t mean I’m not terrified of what they might go through in their lifetimes. So this is a very personal matter for me, but it bumps against much larger ongoing, sometimes harmful, narratives, and that is a tricky space to navigate. For instance, though humans choose to go extinct in “Parable of the Bull,” for me the poem sequence is about the possibilities for change within one lifetime, and I wanted to juxtapose the regeneration of the forest against the human civilization’s decision to die out rather than transform. But I worry about it being read as if I’m saying it’s too late for us too. So I guess I’m hoping/trusting that readers can feel the precarity of our lives through this book, but also sense the, admittedly dim at times, light of possibility. Which I hope gets brighter as the book enters its final pages.
Amanda Moore’s debut collection of poetry, Requeening, was selected for the 2020 National Poetry Series by Ocean Vuong and published by HarperCollins/Ecco in October 2021. Her poems have appeared in journals and anthologies including Best New Poets, ZZYZVA, and Mamas and Papas: On the Sublime and Heartbreaking Art of Parenting, and her essays have appeared in The Baltimore Review, Hippocampus Magazine, and on the University of Arizona Poetry Center’s blog. She is the recipient of writing awards, residencies, and fellowships from The Brown Handler Residency, In Cahoots, The Writers Grotto, The Writing Salon, Brush Creek Arts Foundation, and The Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts.