Honest Work: Poetry, Day Jobs, and Alison C. Rollins’s LIBRARY OF SMALL CATASTROPHES

 by Eric Morris-Pusey

A simple, albeit unwelcome, truth: poetry alone doesn’t pay the bills. While some poets have the training and good luck to land day jobs teaching writing classes or heading up literary journals, most of us (at least for a time) find ourselves doing work that’s at best poetry-adjacent—adjuncting as a literature instructor or stocking shelves in a hip local bookstore—or entirely unrelated: making spreadsheets for a subsidiary of a subsidiary of a massive textbook retailer.

The struggle between wanting to be an artist and needing to make rent can exhaust the energy and inspiration we need for poetry, preventing us from doing our best work or from writing at all. In a 1994 interview, Philip Levine said of his time working in auto factories and other jobs in Detroit, “I felt myself wearing down. I wasn’t going to have the strength or will to keep writing.”

But that labor, though it drained Levine, became the foundation of his poetic work. T. S. Eliot famously wrote much of The Waste Land while employed by a bank. And Alison C. Rollins’s debut poetry collection, Library of Small Catastrophes, would doubtlessly be a different book if its author were not a librarian.

Rollins’s work as a librarian informs and transforms her work as a poet, enriching the striking imagery, intimate personal narrative, and cutting social commentary that already make her poetry vital.

The collection reflects its title and its author’s occupation in both form and content. Poems incorporate call numbers into their text and use forms inspired by definitions and library machine-readable catalog entries. There are well-researched allusions and references to the history, philosophy, art, and religion of not only our country but all the traditions that went into making it, from the lives and writing of the “founding fathers” to the cultures those founders attempted to destroy through slavery and genocide.

One of the collection’s longest poems, “Cento for Not-Quite Love,” uses the cento form to merge the librarian’s science of the archival and curatorial with the art of poetry, employing lines that not only form something new but feature snapshots of style and subject from throughout the history of American poetry. Rollins continues to research, refer to, and repurpose others’ language—from the original, racist title of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None to Kendrick Lamar’s lyrics—throughout the collection.

In “Self-Portrait of Librarian with T. S. Eliot’s Papers” Rollins’s speaker imagines the forthcoming release of said papers in 2020, making the archive a representation of history’s beauty and terror: we may “come to see what young muse has risen / from the dead,” but also that “storage units preserve our culture’s haunted houses. / The canon is merely a ghost story.”

The collection’s eponymous poem, about midway through the manuscript, is rich with both the language of the library and its physical sense of place. The third of its four sections discusses the speaker’s MLIS degree, and throughout the poem Rollins grapples directly with systems of classification like those used in libraries and their influences on the ways in which we perceive and treat race and gender:

Dear Dewey Decimal System,
How will I organize all the bodies?

The professor said that in judging
women’s bodies by their covers

we have a system of returning
things back to where they belong.

In the fourth, final section of the poem, Rollins breaks from the sweeping vision and more scientific or historical language of what has come before to recount the story of a woman arrested outside the Andrew Carnegie Library for attempting to steal books, showing what the previously outlined systems of classification and power look like in real lives, how they inflict violence upon real minds and bodies. The poet’s intimate understanding of the library—of what makes it possible and what defines its physical space, what it contains that is beautiful and what it contains that is terrible—makes both the wider history and the specific episode that ends the poem even more deeply affecting.

Working as a librarian may be more meaningful and fulfilling work than many find themselves doing, and its closeness to books and history certainly lends itself to poetry. But it’s the pain and complication of the library and all it represents that make Library of Small Catastrophes so powerful. Rollins may love her day job more than Levine loved his, but both find in their work examples of and analogues for human lives and the larger power structures that shape them.

Eric Morris-Pusey has written a few poems, some of which appear in The Missouri ReviewDriftwood Press, and 3Elements Review, among other places. He holds an M.F.A. from Vermont College of Fine Arts and works on the Nimrod Editorial Board. You can find him on the interwebs or on his stoop in Columbia, Missouri, staring wistfully at the moon.

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Meet the Intern: Portlyn Houghton-Harjo


Tell us a little about yourself:

I’m an incoming Pratt Institute freshman raised in Tulsa, and I’m from the Creek and Seminole tribes. Besides writing, I watch too many horror movies and try to paint when I can. I’ve been making up stories forever and hopefully will continue to do so forever. My parents raised me in an environment that fostered a love for storytelling and words, and I’ve taken that to heart.

What made you interested in working with Nimrod?

The publishing world has always been interesting to me, although a complete mystery. I was interested in building my own skills while peeking behind the curtain of publishing, which made Nimrod a perfect fit. The 2018 conference Nimrod held was also a huge factor in my interest, since Patricia Smith is one of my favorite poets.

What’s your major/what are you thinking about majoring in? Why are/were you drawn to that major?

I’ll be majoring in Writing, and minoring in Sustainability Studies. Focusing on writing was a no-brainer for me, as I’ve wanted to pursue it as a career for most of life. Recently, however, my concerns about our environment pushed me to work in sustainability as a way to do my part in helping the Earth. I want to blend the two areas as much as possible, since writing is a career field that deals with many not-so-sustainable things (Though I could never get rid of my physical book collection. Shop local and second-hand, everyone.)

Who are a few of your favorite authors?

Neil Gaiman. Specifically, Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. I first read it in the third grade and will still return to it now and again. I also went through a phase where I wrote Emily Dickinson quotes on all of my clothes, so I feel like I have to mention good ol’ Emily. Recently, I’ve been obsessed with Shirley Jackson’s works and Richard Brautigan’s In Watermelon Sugar, though my “favorites” list goes on and on.

What are you most looking forward to learning or experiencing with Nimrod this summer?

I’m most excited to learn the mysterious secrets of editing a literary magazine like this. However, I’ve already learned so much about the behind-the-scenes of this world and it’s been eye-opening. It feels like I’ve started to understand how I can make a career in the literary world.


Poetry Book Club



Or a different kind of book club—

by Britton Gildersleeve

I suspect most of the readers of this blog have been in a book club. You may even be in one now. But what, exactly, do you read? Any poetry? Probably not. . . . And why is that?

Today was my book club’s monthly meeting. My poetry book club. The one a few of us started when it dawned on us we wanted to read more poetry, be exposed to more poetry—revisit classics (yep, we did a Shakespearean sonnet one time) as well as become more familiar with both new writers and forgotten ones. (Who knew Gjertrud Schnackenberg was a real person? And a poet to boot!)

Each month we meet at one of the members’ homes, share iced or hot tea and snacks and poems we’ve brought. Some of us know a lot about poetry, and others would demur they don’t. Our tastes are eclectic, both individually and as a group. It’s part of the fun!

Today, for instance, there was the Schnackenberg sonnet to kick things off. We had a wonderful discussion about Petrarchan vs Shakespearean form and how we might write sonnets ourselves. There was a nature poem next, then a witty poem by Elizabeth Flynn (whom I was completely unfamiliar with), then an excerpt from Middlemarch on poets and inspiration. Next, another sonnet, this an amazing one by Gladys Schmitt (founder of Carnegie Mellon University’s creative writing program) on Bach. It was a bit of a sonnet day. . . .

I brought a recent poem by Rodney Jones from the Academy of American Poets website—“For Katy.”  A whimsical diatribe on an overactive cat, but also a lovesong. And of course there was work by our new U.S. Poet Laureate, Joy Harjo.

In sum? I learned of two new-to-me poets and had a fascinating discussion about sonnets and the importance of form in poetry—and great snacks (lemon bars w/pistachios, mmm). For a poetry lover, it was bliss!

There’s so much great poetry available for free online today. Some months we have themes (“fathers” for June, for instance). Other months we just bring what struck our fancy recently. I’m probably the most obsessive about poetry (I think my friends would agree!), but there are retired teachers, retired English faculty, a retired scholar of the presidency, two musicians, and an accountant among us. In other words, our interests are varied, and it makes for great diversity in readings.

If you love poetry but feel you don’t read it as often as you’d like (and feel like you have no one to share it with), send out poetic feelers. Look at possible classes in your area. Or see who might be interested in a trial run of monthly meetings. You can start here, at Nimrod, looking at the prize issue’s poems online, or go all out and buy a copy! You can join Nimrod for the Conference for Readers and Writers, another great venue to find simpatico readers.

Just two years ago I moved to Blacksburg, Virginia, from Tulsa, knowing no one. Now I have 8 good friends who like poetry and a familiarity with new poems I’d never have found otherwise. All from a poetry book club that meets a couple of hours monthly. I can’t recommend the idea enough: it’s fun! You might even get lucky and find a great lemon bar recipe. . . .



Britton Gildersleeve’s creative nonfiction and poetry have appeared in NimrodSpoon River Poetry Review, This Land, and many other journals. She has published three chapbooks and was the director of the Oklahoma State University Writing Project for twelve years.