A change of scenery can inspire any artist. It’s no wonder that living and traveling around the world has shaped Josie Rozell’s creative process and her book, Articulated Soul . She shared with us how new places and spoken languages permeate her writing and collage work, how she tackles writer’s block, and why good book design is essential.
1. What does your day-to-day creative practice look like on the road? Are there essential books, materials, tools, or resources you like to bring with you?
I’m grateful to have writing as my tool for communication, it fits so cozily into the pocket of traveling. Wherever I go, I bring my unlined Moleskine notebook and a black pen and there we are; poems, stories, notes. When I was studying at a university in Graz, Austria, I had an iPad and keyboard that would fit in my shoulder bag. I could take that on the train or up the banks of the Mur River and tack away on longer (more furious) essays and observations. Living place to place teaches that it’s always better to take less. Less of a physical burden, but even more so, less of a mental burden.
When I was living in New Zealand, I carried a copy of Leaves of Grass around with me. In Indonesia, I had Letters to a Young Poet, by Rilke. If I start reading work that has soul, that little poet within me will start speaking. I lost both of those books somewhere along the way. It didn’t matter. I always had libraries or the wisps of conversation around me to study.
I suppose I always bring my website with me, The Hydrogen Jukebox. This has become my writing world and has taught me to subdivide the work to avoid getting caught in perfectionism. Isn’t that the death of so much brilliance? Being afraid it’s not good enough to share. How to solve that? Editing once or twice, allowing myself to be proud of what I have and occasionally valuing quantity over quality. I don’t let myself say “writer’s block” until I’ve produced a chapbook of horrible writing. And by the time I’m plugging away at proving to myself I’m a horrible writer, something shines in the dust. Writer’s block is simply insecurity.
Some of my best pieces have been written in one go (my favorite being “Sonnets of Indigo”). Others have been handpicked from rickety longer poems. I trust the little poet that gives me her words, and although I do plenty of “killing my darlings,” I don’t let insecurity override potential.
2. How does traveling through different cities, landscapes, and languages affect your writing style or the creative modes you work in?
When I was a girl, my father took us on a year-long sabbatical to Scotland, so he could study sheep and my brother and I could attend an old insane-asylum-turned-primary-school in the heart of Glasgow. I became as Glaswegian a little American girl could get, saying “th-ah-rt-y” instead of thirty and reciting William Soutar’s “Aince upon a Day” by heart. My parents have nurtured the empathetic gene in me and Scotland had nurtured the impressionability.
Now when I spend a length of time in a country with a dialect, I quickly slip into it. The Kiwi accent or the Hawaiian slang affects my work significantly. The way I talk influences the way I think, which influences the little poet within me. It’s my hope that the outcome of this is writing that connects more to the uniqueness of the place than to my own individuality.
When it comes to different languages, the effect is perspective. There’s no way to authentically, fully understand a place and a people unless I can speak the language. I learned this in Austria, studying German and getting lost in the Austrian dialect and feeling disappointed when I forced Austrians to speak English with me. I can never claim to “get” Austria until I learn the language, and I still haven’t. Happily, as life goes, I’m engaged to a German man now and am faring better in my German language.
All is not lost by not knowing the language. In Jakarta, I found seeking to learn Bahasa a good way to connect, as a puppy coming home for the first time and investigating every nook and cranny. My Indonesian poems are more analytical.
3. Tell us about curating and designing Articulated Soul. How did you choose the font, layout, and sequence for your poems? Why did you create different book covers for the paperback, hardcover and ebook versions?
Self-publishing is tricky, eh! It’s both all in your hands and all in your hands. If editing a poem is like sculpting it away, whittling it down until the picture arrives, then stuff like fonts and layout are the material from which the sculpture is made. Everything needs to gesture to the poem, gracefully lay a hand on the piece, nothing can distract. I wanted capitalized titles that weren’t SCREAMING (and Futura gave that to me). I wanted type that was flowing and readable (Garamond).
When it came to choosing my poems and poem order:
I’ve got a master list of poems I’ve written, well over 500. This is going back to sometimes valuing quantity over quality. I’m not proud of this massive list, because most aren’t worth anything, but I am grateful that it exists. I combed through the list, remembering where I was when I wrote this and this, what I was attempting to convey. I found at least 10 poems that I thought represented each of the five places I have lived. I dealt with one category at a time, completely absorbing myself in Kansas, in Austria, in Indonesia. Feeling, again, what it felt like to be there. After editing thoroughly, I broke each poem into its summary, context and form. I wanted to tell a story in each category, a narrative arch. Once I was aware of the essence of each poem, they sorted themselves.
When it came time to making a cover, I told myself I would make three or four and choose the best. The first one I made I liked so much, I slapped it on the softcover book and set it up for publishing. Gut-feeling is as much my style as impressionability. When I was working on the e-book and getting that up, I remembered my promise to myself and had a go at a different cover. I liked that one so much, I slapped it on the e-book and set it up.
A mostly-white cover conveys a sort of openness, an innocent wandering. That if you read this book (the tactile book), you will feel big. I want the reader to be sitting cozy with a book of maps on the shelf behind her. The black underpainting, lots of points, bright colors communicates articulation. Excitement, enunciation. If you read this book (the e-book), you will feel like you’ve just got to get up and go. I want the e-reader to have taken out a kindle on a mountain top for a break.
4. How does the process of writing poems compare to that of making collage? Does each medium let you articulate your world or express yourself in ways that the other does not?
Both start from a similar place. I start my collages by looking through books of paintings, landscapes in Italy, Dali’s greatest hits, a book from the 60s about what each color signals to the brain. These I find at secondhand bookstores. Something always strikes the artist within me, and I make something new based on whatever feeling I was getting.
Collage art is the tumultuous side of me, the side of me that wants to stir up trouble and make faces. It is the medium that shocks me the most, and perhaps that is because I have less control over it than poetry. My poetry tends to be relaxing and searching, taking my hand and guiding me through foreign streets. When paired together, the collage shakes up the poem and the poem brings focus to the collage.
5. What advice would you give another poet looking to self-publish a book?
Before you self-publish, submit your poems to online magazines. Familiarize yourself with Poets & Writers (pw.org) and get rejected a lot. More than you can bear, if possible. Submit your completed manuscript for publishing contests, try to get feedback from editors. If an editor sends you a rejection letter and it seems at all a personal rejection letter, lean into that. Reply. Start a conversation. Be annoying, because you’re not being annoying, you’re just in your head. And who cares? You’re not doing it for the money, for the personal prestige. Otherwise you would have chosen a more profitable medium.
Be careful to show your poems to those you respect. If a literary magazine doesn’t have your style of art, move on. To be rejected because the editor prefers haikus instead of stylized lyric poetry isn’t useful to you. There are so many other literary opportunities out there. What we’re all going for is to set our identity to “artist”. What do artists do? Create. If you hone your identity to that, your goal of getting a book of your art out there is easier. If you have a handful of poems already published before you self-publish your collection, it’s going to feel more real.
Because a tricky part of self-publishing is the nibbling that it’s my only option. That for some reason, my poems aren’t good enough to be published by a publisher. It’s a lie—artists are published based on relationships and experience and years of putting in the work, not solely on quality of art. The best thing I could have done is self-publish my first book of poetry, because what do writers do? Write books. There, more identity reinforcement, more confidence. It’s hard to put personal work out there, it’s hard to feel rejection. The more confident I become that I am a writer, I am an artist, the better work I create. The more I take my work seriously.
Many of my favorite books, the ones that have really influenced me, were books from the community free bin at a café. Or the bottom shelf of a dusty bookstore, behind a stack of Somerset Maugham novels. Naomi James’ “At One with the Sea”, Ffyona Campbell’s “A Walk Around the World”, Barbara Savage’s “Miles from Nowhere”. That’s where I want my books to end up, a treasure to someone.
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