Rosemarie Dombrowski’s collection The Cleavage Planes of Southwest Minerals [A Love Story] won Split Rock Review’s 2017 Poetry Chapbook Contest. Rosemarie agreed to do an interview with SRR to talk about her winning chapbook, her writing process and influences, and what she’s working on now.

In the acknowledgments page, you state that these poems are based on and cut up from the mineral entries in the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Rocks and Minerals. Can you talk about the form and approach of the poems in your collection and the challenges (if any) you faced during the writing process?

I was teaching a lot of found poetry to teens at the time, so I was playing with all sorts of found forms. Eventually, I spotted my rock and mineral handbooks from my geology days (it was my “related field” in college) and realized that my love of the geology and geography of the SW and the beautifully painful relationships I’d endured in the desert were a natural point of intersection. The collection wasn’t merely about the deconstruction of a non-poetic text (and its subsequent reconstruction into a poetic one), but also the deconstruction of a dozen or so relationships with landscape and human.   

What was the biggest surprise for you as you were writing and gathering poems for The Cleavage Planes of Southwest Minerals?

The biggest surprise was how easily the poems morphed from something mechanical and literal – a cut-up exercise rooted in geologic entries – into something lyrical and love-lorn. The myriad metaphorical meanings they took on. The sound quality I began to long for (and hear). It was the most exciting poetic writing I’ve done to date. It was like alchemy.

When did you begin writing the poems for this chapbook? Which poems came first/last?

I think I started them in the fall of 2015 and completed them over the winter holiday that same year. Surprisingly, the order didn’t change much between their composition and their arrangement. The opening poems were the first to be composed, and they quickly established the tone, began morphing into the metaphorical. Once I saw the trajectory unfolding, it was easy to compose in a rough order. I must’ve been subconsciously thinking about a narrative arc of some sort. Once I realized that the poems were a narrative of a relationship(s), I recognized “the stages”: the honeymoon/blind promises phase, the establishment of expectations, the inevitable disappointment, the acknowledgement of benefit and acceptance of shortcomings.

Why the Southwest? Why minerals? What is your connection to this region and environment?

I hiked the fabled canyons and mountains of the SW as a teenager. I studied geology here. As a confessional poet who writes frequently about my son with nonverbal Autism, the unforgiving nature of the desert, its harshness and inability to nurture, is the ultimate metaphor for me. I loved this land/landscape the first time I saw it, but it has come to define me, my ongoing struggle to parent, my perpetual need for rebirth.

Tell us about your other books The Book of Emergencies (Five Oaks Press) and The Philosophy of Unclean Things (Finishing Line Press). Do you feel that The Cleavage Planes of Southwest Minerals moved your poetry in a different direction?

I referenced my writing about Autism above, aka The Book of Emergencies, and though Cleavage Planes is clearly stylistically and topically different from that collection, the undercurrent of confession is still there. And perhaps the ethnographic tendencies/approaches of BoE have been replaced by geographical ones in Cleavage Planes.

I’ve started to recognize that culture, as well as the biological sciences, underlie nearly everything I do, so I draw upon as much ethnographic research as possible, but I also do a fair amount of secondary research. Accordingly, The Philosophy of Unclean Things broaches the culture of germaphobia, West African culture (and my studies there), superstitions, and the processes of decay and decomposition.

As this book goes out into the world, into the hands of readers, what is your biggest hope? What do you aspire for this book?

I’d love for people to recognize (intuitively or otherwise) that it’s a love story, that the act of anthropomorphizing minerals was a symbolic act of love, that all of our love affairs begin in these deep, pressurized spaces, that the terrain is always difficult to navigate, that the gems are always challenging to mine, that mining them disrupts the structural integrity of the land. I’d like to be perceived as an eco-confessionalist who isn’t afraid to experiment with mechanics and craft. 

As a poet, a full-time professor, the founding editor of rinky dink press, the inaugural Poet Laureate of Phoenix, and more, can you talk about how your different rolls influence your poetry (and vice versa)?

Whenever I complain about grading or being overbooked or running too many programs or editing too many publications, I stop to think about how lucky I am, specifically, how lucky I am that the lines between my teaching and my community passions and my creative play are so blurred that the divisions barely exist anymore. When I’m on a university holiday, I’m teaching in the community. When my press is on hiatus, I’m curating an anthology. I don’t think the integration felt this seamless a few years ago, so it’s either a “poet laureate learning curve” thing or a “being over forty” thing! 

If you were venturing into the wilderness for a month, what three books would you pack and take with you?

First, I’m the worst reader! I read selections of about 10 different books this past summer, so I clearly have ADD and/or the need for more variety than the average reader. Or I have commitment issues. Likely all of the above.

I’ve never read any of Sexton’s collections in their entirety, so I’d bring her collected works. She’s the poet I most aspire to in style and syntax.

I’d probably bring an Audubon guide of some sort, maybe North American Birds.

Lastly, I’d love to bring a collection of contemporary short stories, but I might opt for a spiritual text. Leary, Dass, and Hahn have been my go-tos for a while now.

Who or what are your literary influences? What poets do you continually go back to? And, why? 

Rosemarie Dombrowski  Photo credit: Enrique Garcia

Ginsberg’s collected works was listed above before I swapped him out for Sexton, so that’s two right there. I don’t remember any of my professors taking the confessionalists seriously when I was in grad school, but when I started dissertating and teaching more rigorous literature classes, I realized how critical they were to everything/everyone that followed. Berryman’s Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (which should be prefaced with Anne Bradstreet’s confessional verse) is possibly the most magical text in both its premise and syntax.  

Leaves of Grass, maybe the 1880 edition, is everything to me. It boards every plane with me, gets tucked into every Airbnb nightstand. I suppose it’s my holy book. From his spiritual insights to his naturalist tendencies to his egalitarian ideology, his verse still embodies everything I aspire to and desire for every classroom and community.

The quick list, which I feel obligated to give, includes Gertrude Stein, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Adrienne Rich, and Donald Hall.

As I’ve aged, I’ve come to better understand the process of cannon formation, the politics of it, the whims of its curators. But I’ve also been able to gauge the endurance of poets in my own curricular canon, and I think that’s the litmus test. I love socially engaged and relevant work, but I’m even more excited about work produced 50 or 100 years ago that’s still fiercely relevant. I guess Tolstoy was right when he argued that it’s always about art standing the test of time. 

What’s next for you? What are you working on now, and what can we anticipate from you in the future? 

I was working on a series of poems based on John Audubon’s Guide to N. American Birds, both the paintings and narratives. It’s somewhere between chapbook and full-length manuscript right now, which is where it might stay.

My focus has recently shifted to flash memoir, possibly because I’ve taught it a dozen times in the past year or two, possibly because I recently experienced a traumatic loss that seemed to necessitate the narrative form. It’s going to be a more difficult collection to find a home for (or so I’m anticipating), but I’m hoping to have enough work for a full manuscript by winter break. A few of the pieces have already been published, and one recently received second place in the Force Majeure flash nonfiction contest.