I debated whether or not to pick up this series again. It seemed an insurmountable task after losing Pete, my beloved dog who inspired this project. But it feels like the right way to honor her. She was, after all, my favorite writing companion.
This is a long way of saying: welcome back, lovers.
Rochelle Hurt is up today, and we discuss her cat Frida and her latest book, which explores how place shapes people. It's a timely topic given what's going on right now (re: our country using nationalist appeals to keep folks out).
A little about Rochelle before we get to it: she's the author of two poetry collections: In Which I Play the Runaway (Barrow Street, 2016), which won the Barrow Street Book Prize, and The Rusted City (White Pine, 2014). She is the recipient of awards and fellowships from Crab Orchard Review, Arts & Letters, Hunger Mountain, Poetry International, the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fund, Vermont Studio Center, and Yaddo. You can find recent poems online at The Awl, American Literary Review, and Phoebe.
Tell us a little about your cat Frida. How long have you had her? What’s her origin story?
Frida has a great origin story. Twelve years ago, a college boyfriend and I went looking for a mythical cat warehouse we’d heard was full of strays who needed homes. Alas, it did not seem to exist, but near its rumored location we found a veterinary clinic, so we stopped in to ask if they knew about this warehouse. The vet staff we encountered at the front desk had not heard of it, but as we were about to give up and go, another vet approached the desk and said: “Do you want a cat? I have a cat for you! She’s right here!” She led us into a closed exam room, and there was Frida wandering around on the floor. She greeted us immediately. The vet said that Frida (unnamed and six months old at the time) had arrived in her backyard with no collar or chip and starting meowing loudly until she was let in—but the vet couldn’t keep her, so she’d been bringing Frida to work during the day. I have no idea what the first six months of Frida’s life were like, but when we got her home, we discovered that she already knew how to play fetch.
What’s the most poignant way your pets have impacted your life?
I’ve been lucky in that I haven’t—in all my thirty-two years—lost a very close friend or family member yet. It’s sort of incredible, actually. I have lost a pet though—Trotsky, feline companion to Frida and me. He was only five, so his death was unexpected, and it was the first time I’d ever felt such grief. His absence was enormous. He’d been a big showoff, and was very friendly to strangers—jumping in their cars when he was outside, head-butting their palms for attention. He was the most enthusiastic cat I’d ever known. Most poignant I think was the way in which he remained so alive and real to me after that. I’d always thought of pets as family members, but until then I hadn’t considered how resonant their spirits could be—or how expansive their lives. The day after we buried Trotsky, I got cards and condolence notes from several neighbors in my building (a big house divided into apartments) whom I’d never met. They all wrote about how they knew Trotsky—he’d visit them and play while they were in the backyard, the driveway, etc. It turned out he had more friends in the neighborhood than I did.
After that it was just Frida and I living together, and I think we became much closer, more emotionally reliant on one another. She’s been with me now longer than any other companion I’ve had in my adult life. That’s a serious bond.
"I’d always thought of pets as family members, but until then I hadn’t considered how resonant their spirits could be—or how expansive their lives."
Have you written a poem about Frida yet, and if so, what spurred it? If not, do you think you will one day?
I tried to a few times in college—not by name, but using her image. I don’t think the poems were very good. They were all breakup poems, and she and Trotsky were always lazy symbols of something like loneliness. I never tried to actually write about them in any specific way. I’ve noticed that I rarely use animals in my writing, and I’m not sure why that is. Maybe one day I’ll commit to more animal writing and give Frida a narrating role. She’d be good at that; she’s very direct.
I read your newest book over the holidays – In Which I Play the Runaway (Barrow Street Press, 2016) – and loved, loved it. I especially admire how this collection recasts small towns in middle America as their own sort of Oz. It’s like these poems are a collective voice of these towns: Needmore, Indiana; Honesty, Ohio; Hurt, Virginia. I also love how the Self-Portrait poems use place as a mirror for the speaker. Can you talk a little more broadly about how place came to be a lynchpin for this book?
Place has always been fraught for me because I grew up in a place that gets a lot of flak: Ohio—more specifically, the Ohio Rust Belt. When you tell people you’re from Youngstown and they say, “That’s a rough area,” or (jokingly) “I’m sorry,” you can’t help but internalize the idea that you are also, as a product of that place, somehow inferior. We tend to conflate place and character—as a show of camaraderie and as a form of insult. From one angle, it’s comforting; from another it’s diminishing—especially since culture and class are so often woven into our perceptions of place.
When I moved from Ohio to North Carolina, I began thinking about this relationship between place and identity. I was homesick, but also dealing with a breakup, a new relationship, and a jumble of fears about domestic life that were rooted both in lived experience and in fictions I’d created about who I was. The personal traits attached to place are not inherent, though it can sometimes feel as if they are. For me, this paralleled the ways in which I’d let some of my family history and personal habits become an excuse for fatalism and self-destruction. With the self-portrait poems I replaced the usual “self-portrait as” conceit with a “self-portrait in” conceit to suggest how profoundly origin and setting can inform identity and warp self-image.
"We tend to conflate place and character—as a show of camaraderie and as a form of insult. From one angle, it’s comforting; from another it’s diminishing—especially since culture and class are so often woven into our perceptions of place."
From a craft perspective, what changed the most between your first and second books? Was either harder to write? If so, why?
Both books are, incidentally, about place—but formally they are fairly different from one another. My first book, The Rusted City, is a narrative collection comprised mostly of linked prose poems. That writing came easy. Once I was creatively invested in the world I’d begun to build, sitting down to write felt almost like lucid dreaming. All my characters would be there waiting for me when I re-entered the space of the book.
In Which I Play the Runaway is more of standard collection in that it’s largely made up of discrete poems. That said, there is an arc of sorts, and several recurring series braided into the book. Writing this one was harder because I didn’t know it was a book at first. I was writing all these different series with shared themes, but I didn’t try to put any of it together until I already had a quite a lot to work with. Then I had to continue writing new poems and shaping the collection as a whole. Because of the nature of my first book, I’d never organized a collection primarily by theme, motif, tone, or anything other than narrative. So this time around, I learned that there are countless ways to organize a collection. After rearranging and revising until I could barely stand the poems anymore, I realized that I just had to choose a structure and stand by it.
“Inheritance” might be my favorite poem of this collection – those closing lines:
Don’t even open the door to your old room—the world
in there won’t know you.
This is how a house ends: once emptied,
the walls erode as the wind picks up,
and you are left
coaxing your memory back like a dog.
For this reader, it names the specific loneliness of leaving and returning to one’s home. But it’s the image of the dog, I think, that breaks my heart. There’s something about calling for an animal that makes you know desperation, whether it’s for their trust or just to bring them safely to you. Do you find you often turn to animals when the human world needs edification in your poems?
You found an animal poem! There are only a few in there—notably, dogs (including Dorothy’s Toto). I think in this collection I turned specifically to dogs because people expect them, unlike cats, to come home when called. That’s a lot of pressure.
I think I sometimes turn to animals when considering vulnerability and loneliness. I remember reading a passage by Derrida in “The Animal That Therefore I Am” about language as a wall between humans and other animals. Our relationships with them are fraught because we want so badly to convey to them that we understand their experiences, but we can’t—not fully. They remind us of our own animality, but this is somewhat frustrating because we can’t fully connect with them on a linguistic level. As someone who is deeply invested in verbal and written language, this holds some truth for me. I think we do want animals to teach us things about ourselves—and sometimes they do, but sometimes they just don't. I can project this feeling of separation onto Frida the cat and assume that she wishes she could better communicate with me, too—but perhaps she doesn’t. We’re both animals existing in this house together, but our realities could be entirely different in ways that neither one of us will ever know. That doesn’t detract from my love for her—and it may not affect her love for me—but it’s still a lonely realization.
"We’re both animals existing in this house together, but our realities could be entirely different in ways that neither one of us will ever know."
What’s bringing you to the page these days and what’s next for you (readings, new projects)?
I’m working on a third collection of poems that is more of a world-building project akin to my first book. It’s about this group of adolescent girls and all the ways in which language and consumer culture shapes them into performers of femininity, for better and worse. For example, one series in the book riffs on pickup lines and aphorisms. Another draws narratives from the names of beauty products. I’ve got a lot of poems at this point, but I just started toying with the idea of adding an annotation element, so I’m excited about it. Also, I’m about to finish my PhD this year!
A metaphor or simile for Frida?
Since you got me thinking about that Derrida passage, now I’m also thinking about Lia Purpura’s essay “Sugar Eggs: A Reverie.” In it, she describes the sensation of peering into spaces that are physically inaccessible—or accessible only through imagination, which requires a splitting of self. She writes: “The space is a privacy into which, as a child, I imagined, not my body but myself, eye to the window at the egg’s pointed end, the dim, egg-shaped world before me.” A cat’s mind isn’t exactly the same thing, but I’d like to borrow Purpura’s sugar egg as a metaphor for my human-feline relationship with Frida. Her feline point-of-view is only accessible to me through an imaginative process that places me outside of my human body. We’re so close, but she remains in some ways a mystery. Given their nature, that’s probably just how cats want it.