Sculpting Sound: Alison C. Rollins on Silence, Afrofuturism, and Writing Poems Across Time


Lit Hub is excited to feature another entry in a new series from Poets.org: “enjambments,” a monthly interview series with new and established poets. This month, they spoke to Alison C. Rollins, the author of Black Bell (Copper Canyon Press, 2024) and Library of Small Catastrophes (Copper Canyon Press, 2019). Her awards include the 2018 Rona Jaffe Writers’ Award, the 2020 Pushcart Prize, and the Poetry Foundation’s Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship. She is currently an assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin–Madison

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Poets.org: What is your relationship to form, and what do you seek to explore within the formal parameters you constructed in this collection (e.g., concrete poetry, the couplet, the aural and oral aspects of “Phillis Wheatley Takes Turing Test”)?

Alison C. Rollins: For me, form is like sculpting sound. More simply, form provides a context, parameter, or set of dimensions for me to work within. I think about the Italian translation of stanza to “room,” and I am led towards viewing myself as an architect or interior designer of sorts using language as my medium.

With this collection, I strived to think about the page as multidimensional rather than a flat, one-dimensional plane. I was guided towards viewing myself not only in the subject position of poet but also as a visual artist—architect, sculptor, weaver.

Overall, I believe that poems function as compositions akin to musical scores, so I viewed myself as a composer looking to innovatively collaborate with readers in animating or bringing the poems to life.

I believe that poems function as compositions akin to musical scores, so I viewed myself as a composer looking to innovatively collaborate with readers in animating or bringing the poems to life.

Poets.org: For your revision of Robert Hayden’s dramatic monologue “[American Journal],” we again hear the voice of a humanoid alien, though one who is savvier and more at ease with English. While Hayden’s humanoid ponders the elusive metaphysical quality of Americans in the last stanza of his poem, in the last stanza of yours, the speaker’s interest is solely in language, with an emphatic resistance to silence.

Why did you choose Hayden’s poem as the means to examine contemporary American life, and why might a dedication to language be more attractive than contemplating “essence” or “quiddity” when thinking about American identity?

ACR: Robert Hayden wrote “[American Journal]” after being inspired by a visit to Garden of the Gods, a public park with geological rock formations, located in Colorado. At one point, I lived in Colorado Springs and would visit Garden of the Gods frequently. What is most interesting to me is that Hayden and I were both taking in this majestic source of the Southwest’s natural beauty and reading it through a “science fiction” lens.

When contemplating this question’s focus on language, I think of Audre Lorde’s “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” where she argues, “Your silence will not protect you.” Lorde furthermore poses the questions, “What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say?”

The closing lines of my version of “[American Journal]” are adapted from Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic, and I think that Kaminsky’s collection of poems calls us to think critically and imaginatively about sound and silence. Black Bell is wrestling with the power dynamics of a speech act versus silencing.

Ultimately, I think poetry offers us an incredible gift for imagining new ways of being in the world while also valuing the stillness and quiet that can be necessary for self-reflection, rest, and internal peace.

Poets.org: While both working ekphrastically and creating a mixed media poetry collection, were there bodies of work, poets, or artists that inspired how you imagined Black Bell?

ACR: I think of my poetry as conducting a symphony of voices across time and space, or the acts of curating or weaving together a variety of source material. Black Bell is a constellation or patterned tapestry that draws from a mass of individual stars or pieces of string. This collection is in conversation with a variety of other sources and texts.

Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time was a major inspiration for the collection. Robert Hayden’s American Journal, T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, and Ilya Kaminsky’s collections Dancing in Odessa and Deaf Republic are poetry books that strongly informed this project. The visual artist Nick Cave’s exhibition Until and his many Soundsuits also inform my work.

Black Bell is in dialogue with a variety of songs and musicians. The “notes” section of the book has a quite extensive set of musical references, but to name a few there are nods to JJJJJerome Ellis, Stevie Wonder, Sun Ra, Wu-Tang Clan, and Marvin Tate.  

Poets.org: In a Poem-a-Day “About This Poem” statement on “Love in Outer Space,” published by the Academy in January 2021, you mentioned writing in the vein of Afrofuturism. In many of your other poems, including “Door of the Cosmos,” music and outer space are merged. Historical and musical figures are mentioned—from Phillis Wheatley to A Tribe Called Quest to Lil Wayne.

How did you fashion your writing process to ensure that the collection would flow as seamlessly as it does while still encompassing such an expansive reach across time, space, and genre?

ACR: I was determined to write a book that centers the historical archive while still drawing from Afrofuturism. I don’t view the past and future as binaries or opposites or linear. In addition, I think the act of remembering is a much messier endeavor than we would like to admit.

I am particularly fascinated by the nineteenth century and what the genre of poetry affords is an ability to experiment with words and play with language in such a way where anything is possible. Thus, I can have poems where Phillis Wheatley takes a Turing Test and T. S. Eliot is behind the wheel of a Chevrolet Impala. I can reimagine or remix Dante’s fourteenth-century Inferno with Wu-Tang Clan’s 1993 Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) album.

I am particularly fascinated by the nineteenth century and what the genre of poetry affords is an ability to experiment with words and play with language in such a way where anything is possible. Thus, I can have poems where Phillis Wheatley takes a Turing Test and T. S. Eliot is behind the wheel of a Chevrolet Impala.

Poets.org: What are you reading now?

ACR: Toni Morrison’s Paradise, Christina Sharpe’s Ordinary Notes, and Camille Dungy’s Soil: The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden.

Poets.org: What are your favorite poems on Poets.org?

ACR: This is an extremely hard, borderline impossible question to answer, but here are a dozen poems for good measure: Lucille Clifton’s “won’t you celebrate with me,” Paul Tran’s “Galileo,” Ada Limón’s “Instructions on Not Giving Up,” Aracelis Girmay’s “You Are Who I Love,” Yona Harvey’s “Gingivitis, Notes on Fear,” Nicole Sealey’s “Even the Gods,” Hieu Minh Nguyen’s “The Understudy,” Fatimah Asghar’s “Smell Is the Last Memory to Go,” Safia Elhillo “how to say,” Dawn Lundy Martin’s “From ‘Life in a Box is a Pretty Life,’” Monica Youn’s “Study of Two Figures (Pasiphaë/Sado),” and “Danez Smith’s “summer, somewhere.”

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“enjambments,” a monthly interview series produced by the Academy of American Poets, will highlight an emerging or established poet who has recently published a poetry collection. Each interview, along with poems from the poet’s new book, and a reading by the poet, will be published on Poets.org and shared in the Academy’s weekly newsletter.



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