Molly Bess Rector lives and works in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where she co-curates the Open Mouth Reading Series. Rector’s “Ecology Lesson: Alewives” appeared in Nimrod‘s Awards 39 last fall. Since then, we’ve had the opportunity to talk with her about her writing life.
Was “Ecology Lesson: Alewives” originally inspired by an encounter with animal nature, like the fish dying in the poem, or by the kind of rumination on human nature we see in the last stanzas? Or are these two things not disparate in your mind?
Rector: I wrote a series of “ecology lesson” poems during a time when I was grappling with a powerful grief. I started having synchronous experiences with fish imagery—I’d be mired in anxiety about loss and change, and suddenly a truck would drive by with a vinyl fish on the side—that kind of thing. The marine world is often described as “alien,” and at the time my interpersonal world was feeling very much that way too, so I became sort of fixated on writing about fish. “Ecology Lesson: Alewives” takes its central imagery from an experience I had with my twin sister one summer when we saw the results of a mass die-off of thousands of alewives in Lake Michigan, but it takes its central spirit from trying to understand how we participate in our own ignorance (of self, other, system) by pretending away enormous losses.
When writing from a memory, do you ever let yourself alter the facts, either as a way of abating grief or in order to go in a new direction the poem seems to seek?
Rector: It seems to me like one of the tasks of writing poems is to go beyond saying what happened toward saying why what happened matters. I’m not sure I believe that memory is all that factual to begin with, and I think writing memory—personal memory, at least—is more about asserting an emotional truth than about recounting events. I’ll often draw on several memories that share an emotional thread. In the case of the alewives, I drew also on memories of fishing with other kids by other lakes. I often turn other kids from my childhood into my sister in my poems.
Of course, I think writing collective or political memory is a little different and that when looking outward in that way, poets have to be very careful with our speculation—to make sure our interpretation doesn’t serve as an eraser. I think of the many excellent poems out there about the murder by police of Tamir Rice (like Reginald Dwayne Betts’s “When I Think of Tamir Rice While Driving,” or Tsitsi Ella Jaji’s “To Bless the Memory of Tamir Rice,” or Mark Doty’s “In Two Seconds”)—those are poems that take care to preserve the facts of what happened and do their interpretation through highlighting those unaltered facts (“there was no riot” or “a child, a hidden toy gun, an officer that fires / before his heart beats twice”).
I think it’s important to be really conscious of this distinction and of the places where “memory” and “facts” stop belonging to us individually. In either case, I don’t tend to go in the direction of abating grief, because I think it’s one of our most important emotions.
Did you have to do extensive research on ecology in order to write the “ecology lesson” poems, or did the subjects in the poems give you all you needed?
Rector: I wouldn’t consider most of my research extensive, unfortunately. I did some reading about fish ecology to write the ecology lesson poems—for this poem, I looked at a few articles about alewives and read a piece about mass die-offs—but only enough to absorb a bit of vocabulary and to have slightly more knowledge than I actually needed to write the poems.
Any advice for new or struggling writers looking for inspiration?
Rector: Find a community. So much of taking ourselves seriously as writers depends on finding ways to share our work, to join our work with that of others. I know that can be a tall order, but in my view there is nothing more valuable than having the support, insight, and honesty of other writers who share your values and understand your voice, interests, and goals.
I’ve found a powerful source of community in the reading series I co-curate, Open Mouth Reading Series. The poets who run the organization with me and the poetry lovers who show up regularly are a huge source of inspiration for me. Together we are able to celebrate each other’s work and engage more deeply with the work of writers outside our immediate circle.
For those struggling to find community, I’d say don’t be afraid to attend readings where you live and talk to the other writers there, don’t be afraid to reach out to writers you admire or to engage in online forums. Writing is hard, beautiful, vulnerable work. We don’t have to—I’m inclined to say we can’t—do it alone.