A Conversation with Renée Olander

by Mark Gatlin

I had the opportunity to sit down with poet Renée Olander following Old Dominion University’s 34th annual literary festival in 2011 and, driven by the wanna-be poet’s voyeuristic impulse to peer into the treasure troves of a practicing writer, I naturally took it. Well, not to sit down, exactly, but what often passes for a face-on parlay in academia these days: phone calls and emails amidst a cacophony of meetings, student advising, and final exams. Olander, a veteran professor of English at Old Dominion, currently holds the position of Assistant Vice President for the university’s Regional Higher Education center in Virginia Beach. A recipient of the Kate Smith Award for Poetry and a Pushcart Prize nominee, Olander’s poetry has appeared in numerous publications including Verse and Universe – Poems About Science and Mathematics, The Café Review, Best of the Decade – Hawai’i Pacific Review 1997-2007, Margie-The American Journal of Poetry, and, most recently, in her new collection, A Few Spells. And to top it off, she is oh so approachable regarding her craft—a fresh and eager voice willing to share, to teach, and to marvel at the possibilities. Where to begin?

MG: What first drove you to poetry?

RO: Probably the childhood exposure to nursery rhymes, language play, hearing my father read “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” each Christmas Eve and observing his reverence for Robert Frost. I remember being instructed in Haiku forms when I was a kid in Hawai’i. When I was in second grade I wrote several poems and my mother set up her manual typewriter on the dining room table for me to type them out, and I considered myself an author.

MG: How did you cultivate your poetic interests prior to formal academic and craft study? Who were your greatest literary influences?

RO: In fifth grade, my language arts teacher was an African American woman named Mrs. Cherry (now Mrs. McCoy). She introduced me to Langston Hughes and I was aware he had recently died, and she read poems to us often; sometime early in that school year I started writing poems and giving them to her, and it became a habit—I delivered poems to her daily. I saw her a few years ago at a parade in Norfolk and she told me she still had a grocery bag full of my little rhymes on a zillion subjects. Later, in seventh grade, another influential teacher, Mr. Audet, took me seriously as well. It’s a great gift to a child to be taken seriously by an adult. I gave him some poems, including a metaphysical one about beautiful snow turning to slushy mud and ultimate disappointment, and Mr. Audet wrote on the poem (I still have it) that it was “reminiscent of Robert Frost.” For a kid whose father considered Frost the greatest poet ever, this was head-swelling!

MG: And then?

RO: In high school I had a best friend with whom I exchanged poems regularly; she and I co-edited our high school literary magazine. Despite these early experiences, I was mostly ignorant of contemporary poetry. So when I got to college and told my advisor, a fine poet himself (now deceased), Joe Garrison, that I wrote poems, he asked me who I read. All I could say was Frost; it was pathetic. He pulled out and started me reading interviews of people like Linda Pastan. He brought Betsy Sholl to our campus my freshman year and I experienced my first poetry reading. But I have to say chiefly that I had literary parents—both voracious readers of prose—and whenever I brought a draft of a poem to my father, he would silence the room and honor me tremendously by reading it aloud. In college I became a lover especially of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman; if I could choose one person to be stuck on a desert island with, it would be Whitman. Other major influences are Christopher Marlowe; Shakespeare, Sappho, Mary Oliver, June Jordan. And several fine poets were important mentors for me: Peggy Shumaker directed my MA thesis at ODU in the 1980s; during my low-residency MFA, I worked with Dennis Nurkse, Ted Deppe, Gray Jacobik, Laure-Anne Bosselaur, and Baron Wormser—they were all tremendously affirming guides.

MG: Who and what has most shaped the directions your poetry has taken?

RO: I’ve had so many influences, good teachers and mentors, and I’m a constant reader. I’m also very interested in the trajectory of human civilization and in politics or power, and in giving voice to the powerless or inarticulate. These factors have contributed to my poems, which sprawl across a very wide range of subject, form, and tone, from in-your-face political, to meditative and lyrical. My encounters with June Jordan were certainly transformative and liberating, and I’m very grateful to have known her. She was courageous and funny, and I’m riveted by so many of her poems. “Teotecacinte,” from her Amnesty International work in Nicaragua, showed me ways to tackle gore and address an audience, and “Song of the Law-Abiding Citizen,” is a surprising model of ironically tackling the subjects of nuclear waste and class disparities, both dear to me, and which I hadn’t seen anyone else do before, and with amazing sound.

MG: How would you characterize the “job” of contemporary poets?

RO: The “job” of any poet is to speak truth and attend to the power of language, to be engaged in the human condition. Life is puzzling, mysterious, and challenging; poetry is one of the arts that helps us appreciate, enjoy, and possibly understand better who and what we are. The spoken word and other public poetry forums are an indication of how much people want this. In The Life Of Poetry, Muriel Rukeyser says that art prepares us for life, and I agree; it bolsters us.

MG: What are the obstacles to reaching audiences—to finding increased appeal—in today’s society? How do we reach those most in need of reaching, with poetry?

RO: People are bombarded by stimuli, especially audio and video, and race around time- and techno-bound; the age we’re in undermines the values of poetry, which are slow, thoughtful, literate, quiet, recursive. So many people haven’t been exposed to poetry in any good way and don’t realize what’s there for them. We live in a society with dozens of sports stations, but few arts stations, with reduced book pages and arts sections of shrinking newspapers; we’re in post-post-literacy or something like it. Many children don’t learn to write in cursive; teachers report kids have good thumb skills but overall reduced small motor skills in their hands. Many children learn to play video games before they learn to read. All these factors contribute to our societal ability to experience and appreciate poetry. Poets have to be missionaries, converters, models who demonstrate the power and joy of poems to the uninitiated. It’s critical to get poetry into schools—elementary, middle, & high schools— the assessment rage of the last decade gutted a lot of literature out of the language arts curricula, and even before that, most language arts teachers were not trained teach poetry. In fact many, if not most, English teachers are afraid of teaching poetry and avoid it if possible. Poets have to fill this gap. We must be resources for our communities and schools. As Mary Oliver observed to me ages ago, children respond to poetry the way dry leaves do to fire. It’s vital to expose them to the possibilities.

MG: How do you choose your focal themes? Do they sometimes choose you?

RO: They almost always choose me. Poems arise in me. Words, combinations of words, phrases— I write down lots of snippets and stow them for later. Once in a while I consciously choose a subject. For instance, years ago I felt I should try to write a poem about make-up (being a female and wearing make-up). I spent years trying to handle that topic, yet the poem I generated is actually much more about mortality than about make-up. My experience with writing is akin to my experience as a painter working either in oils or watercolor: whatever ideas you start with morph along the way and the canvas reflects the process of discovery as well as the artist’s (possibly not entirely conscious and/or realized) intent.

MG: What effects upon audiences do you hope your poetry achieves?

RO: I hope audiences recognize the poems, find truths they know expressed in ways they appreciate. I want them to enjoy. I want them to be enlightened and pissed off; I want female audiences to feel empowered when they hear for instance a rape poem or gender-based violence poem, and I want the males to gain an understanding they didn’t have before. I want folks to feel affirmed and energized.

MG: Do you set out to write with a particular goal in mind—to reveal, urge, enlighten, shock, confess, intrigue, move and share (among other things)?

RO: Usually I don’t have a particular goal, just some words, rhythms, subject.

MG: One communal definition of literature is a focus on awareness and change. How does your work fit this descriptive?

RO: Well, I do think that art impacts life in major ways, that the imagination is mystical, and as Keats observed “like Adam’s dream”, he woke to find it real. Artists can be prophets and leaders. Whitman’s democratic vision articulated in Leaves of Grass is still radical in some ways, but possibly helped us to achieve the much more pluralistic, open-minded, 21st century society we have today. Not all of my poems are necessarily aiming to fuel change or awareness, but many are; for the past two years I’ve visited psychology classes and read rape poems, both mine and others’, and it’s clear to me that these poems raise awareness and impact the minds of the students who hear them.

MG: What poetic forms most interest you and why? Which, if any, do you avoid?

RO: I suppose I’m chiefly an open-form poet who likes traditional forms and plays around with them but rarely sticks to them tightly. I like to create my own patterns and forms. I don’t write many long poems because my life is so busy right now it would be difficult to do. I’ve had periods of concerted formal experimentation. For instance, methodically going through Turco’s New Book of Forms and trying each. I wanted to write a sestina for years and felt I needed an obsessive subject, and then one night after a dramatic accident, I found it and wrote an entire sestina almost in one sitting which really works, perhaps having been so pent up. I wanted to write a ballad and felt I needed a traditional subject, and then I found it in Calamity Jane. I dislike scansion but will do it if necessary.

MG: What are your feelings regarding the broad spectrum of poetic devices available to poets? Are there any devices you avoid and/or find particularly cumbersome?

RO: A poet ought to have a big fat toolbox with every literary/poetic device available; I hope to use whatever works. Sound drives me quite a lot and I have to be careful not to overdo it. My undergraduate experience was very Renaissance/Elizabethan and Baroque-intensive, and I have to guard against becoming too rhymed or ornate. I spent a whole semester studying the use of the couplet in Shakespeare’s sonnets and know lots of traditional poems by heart, but it’s a different age.

MG: Did you set out with a thematic focus in mind for A Few Spells? How did it come together and what were your goals in compiling this collection?

RO: That collection was a whimsical stroke of luck. I had been working on a full-length manuscript when I noticed the call from Finishing Line Press for a chapbook prize for a woman who didn’t have a full-length book. Literally, late in the evening, I cut and pasted from the full-length manuscript a 26-page chapbook manuscript, pretty much slapping the poems in an order that was intuitive. When I had a sufficient number of pages, I flapped through them to get a sense of the “center,” and I noticed the “Grace Sherwood/Witch of Pungo” poem was nearly in the middle, and I glanced at the phrase “a few spells,” which closes that poem. It seemed like a good open-ended title and I liked the multiple ways it could be understood. Much later, after the manuscript was accepted for publication, I realized that the word “spell” or “spells” appears in two other poems in the collection. It’s important to trust our unconscious/subconscious instincts. My goal was simply to get into print! And that value informed my selection of poems from the full-length manuscript – every poem in the collection had previously appeared in a journal or anthology and I felt they were strong and spoke to each other.

MG: Can you share the directions your poetry is taking you now? What is next in terms of writing focus and publication? What is on your horizon professionally?

RO: As you know, I have a very demanding job at Old Dominion University as the Assistant Vice President for Regional Higher Education Centers, and this is a major drag when it comes to writing. I’m constantly trying to find time—I write late nights, weekends, on breaks, and I take leave to write. This summer I plan to go to the Ghost Ranch in New Mexico for a week to write. I have a number of poems in the works and some in mind, tons of drafts in all kinds of stages of progress—I don’t really have a big overarching goal; I just write what I need and want to write. My full-length manuscript, Magnetic Hotspot, is circulating around to a few presses right now and I’m hopeful. I expect to retire from administrative work in the next couple of years and return to teaching and writing.

MG: I’d like to close with something of a cliché that, nonetheless, reveals aesthetic and practical value any time it is answered with honesty from the depths: what would be your advice to aspiring poets, those of us struggling to find our voices and to make them heard?

RO: My advice would be: Be bold. Read widely. Trust your gut. Don’t take yourself too seriously, and remember how many great writers were largely unread and/or unpublished until after death.


Mark Gatlin earned his M.F.A. from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. He designs and teaches online English, British, World Literature, Creative Writing, and Composition curricula and teaches campus-based courses at Old Dominion and Regent University. His areas of specialty include writing creatively in the genres of fiction, non-fiction, and drama; the rhetoric of writing and compositional studies; and American literature. Mr. Gatlin, the author of short fiction, poetry, and drama, acts as faculty advisor for a university press magazine and is an active participant at national conferences.