Open Alphabet welcomes Rochelle Hurt and her new book The Rusted City,
published by White Pine Press in the Marie Alexander Poetry Series (ISBN 978-1-935210-52-8).

Rochelle Hurt

Rochelle Hurt's work appears frequently in literary journals and her writing has been awarded numerous prizes, including the Richard Peterson Poetry Prize from Crab Orchard Review, Tupelo Quarterly’s TQ3 Poetry Prize, the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize, the Rumi Prize from Arts & Letters, the Ruth Stone Prize from Hunger Mountain, and the Poetry International Prize from San Diego State University. In addition, she was included in Best New Poets 2013.

Rochelle holds a BA from Ohio State University and an MFA from the University Of North Carolina at Wilmington. She is currently in the PhD program at the University of Cincinnati.

Everywhere the whisper ticks of fingers,
every hand a clock. And every evening,

the clinking, ever nearer the doorstep, of coins
inside all the hollowed-out fathers as they walked.

-- from In the Century of Lunch Pails

Open Alphabet: How did you come to poetry? Do you have a memory of the first poem that you read or the first poem that you wrote? The Rusted City

Rochelle Hurt: I remember writing poems as a kid and even as a teenager, but I didn’t take poetry seriously (as a reader or a writer) until I was in college. I was feeling disillusioned with my first chosen career path, visual art, so I started reading Plath and Sexton in search of general commiseration. When I took a poetry workshop shortly thereafter, I got hooked. I changed my major and found amazing mentors in the creative writing classes at Ohio State.

OA: The Rusted City feels like a very purpose-built book. What initiated this project?

RH: During a visit to my hometown (Youngstown, Ohio), I decided that I wanted to write a book about the city, but I knew it had to be a re-imagined version of the city. Youngstown is in the Rust Belt, and I had read a lot of depressing nonfiction about its history, but I wanted to capture something different: a story that left room for the surreal elements of life—both light and dark—in the Rust Belt.

OA: There are five sections in the book. Sections 1,3 and 5 are are composed of prose poems that propel a narrative. Sections 2 and 4 are verse, in the voice of the oldest sister speaking to the youngest. How did this juxtapositional structure come to you?

RH: I wanted to tell a story about a single family living within my imaginary version of Youngstown, and that story is told through the prose poems. I knew, however, that the larger history and culture of the city was closely linked to this family’s story, so I started the lineated poems as a separate project that would address how the city came to be the way it is—covered in rust, etc. These poems fit together like a chain, with each one telling a story about one century in the city’s (imaginary) history.

I knew I had to get both series in the book, but I wasn’t sure how to do this at first. One of my advisors in graduate school at UNC Wilmington suggested I embed the history in the larger narrative by having the older sister tell it. This turned out well, but then I went through countless organizational revisions. Even with the oldest sister speaking the lineated poems, I kept thinking that the two series either had to be braided together or divided into two completely separate sections. Ultimately, my editor suggested that I break them both up just a bit and deliver them in chunks, which is how the current structure came to be.

OA: What challenges did you encounter in putting the book together?

RH: Aside from the organizational challenge of fitting the two main series together, the biggest challenge was sustainability. The book has a central narrative, but it’s also very lyrical, which can be difficult to sustain. I had to balance unity and variety so that the project of the book held together without overusing the same images. I tried to make sure that recurring images like rust and the various metaphors made from rust continued to evolve as the narrative moved forward.

OA: Yusef Komunyakaa has said that poetry has to first surprise the person creating it in order to surprise the audience. How does your poetry, and this book in particular, surprise you?

RH: The process of writing this book was obsession. Every bit of inspiration I found in the world was automatically filtered through the experiences of these characters, and once I had a grasp on who they were, they began writing themselves. I was constantly surprised by what they would do to one another.

My more recent work is less character-based, but a sense of character still emerges through voice. Sometimes when I start writing in what I assume is my own voice, a new voice takes over through music and rhythm, and my lyric self transforms into a surprising persona.

OA: You seem very adept at the use of vivid imagery to avoid the well-trod road to post- modern cynicism. In this regard, who do you see as your poetic ancestors?

RH: Much of my inspiration for this project came from work (both poetry and fiction) that has a dark sense of whimsy: Charles Simic, Vasco Popa, Julio Cortazar, and even Marquez. There were also quite a few contemporary books by women working in the tradition of fables and fairy tales that influenced me, including Sabrina Orah Mark’s poetry, and fiction by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum and Kate Bernheimer.

OA: What is on your desk? Who are you currently reading? desk

RH: I’m currently in a PhD program, so I’m reading a lot of theory and criticism for school, but I manage to read for pleasure on occasion. Right now my desk is holding a few books: Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, which I read every so often for moral support; Danielle Pafunda’s Pretty Young Thing; Marianne Boruch’s Cadaver, Speak, which I’m reading (and enjoying) for a class; Lucy Corin’s One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses; and an old issue of the literary journal Midwestern Gothic. The corner of my desk also holds various toys and trinkets I’ve received from friends. I don’t like sentimental writing, but I’m pretty sentimental at heart.

OA: What can we expect to see from you in the future? Will there be surprises?

RH: I don’t know if I’ll ever write a book quite like The Rusted City again, so my next projects may be surprising. My second manuscript, No Place, is currently searching for a home. Like The Rusted City, it’s driven by a sense of place, but the poems in it are not as closely linked. I’m also working on a new project that feels very different from my previous work—more fevered and perhaps slightly political. That one is surprising me, so hopefully Komunyakaa is right.