By Lucy Abigail Albright
When Laura Romeyn was a kid, her mom prompted her to imagine what it would look like to see a cross-section of the earth. This concept of imagining the unseen parts of the world has appeared in her work in ways both literal and figurative.
“There's so much that goes around me that I'm not privy to, and I feel like where observation fails, the imagination sort of has to kick in,” Romeyn said. “And that desire to experience all layers of life definitely haunts the speakers of my poems.”
Last week’s installment of the Poets at Work lecture series hosted the poet Laura Romeyn, who read from her chapbook Wild Conditions. At the event—which was held on Zoom and moderated by Professor Monica Ferrell—Romeyn spoke about her approach to poetry, and how her childhood in the Driftless Area of Wisconsin has shaped her work.
“Planted by Streams,” the first poem of the night, serves as a good example of Romeyn’s writing style, with its images of nature and childhood, and its musings of what exists beneath the surface of the earth.
“If I could, I would sink below ground,” the poem reads,* “I would hard-sing that song of the green as it grows.” In keeping with Romeyn’s style, the poem dips into darker subject matter, ending with the image of a girl drowning in a river.
Romeyn said that this contrast between natural imagery and darker subject matter is often present in her work, whether she consciously intends it or not. The juxtaposition of “pastoral” and “innocent” nature imagery with darker imagery creates a feeling “that there's maybe something looming within the poem that could kind of catch up to the speaker,” Romeyn said.
Though Romeyn’s poetry draws heavily from her childhood in Wisconsin, her obsession with her home state began during her adult life. After moving back to Wisconsin, she found inspiration in the landscapes around her and in memories from her youth. The looming darkness in Romeyn’s work also has a connection to the region where she lived as a child.
“There are parts of small-town life that I do think have sort of implicit, I don't know, shadowy features,” Romeyn said.
In response to a question about punctuation from student Dana Hirsch, Romeyn described her approach to writing poetry. Romeyn said she usually starts her poems as a “prose block,” without punctuation or line breaks. She adds the punctuation later, she said, according to her intuitive sense of what the poem needs.
Ferrell, who teaches creative writing at Purchase, described Romeyn’s poetry as having a sense of timelessness.
“You really can't tell that we're in the 21st century in reading this book,” Ferrell said during the event. “There are poems that definitely seem to be in the 19th century, but they could be thousands of years ago as well.”
This timelessness can be attributed in part to the early 20th century books that Romeyn reads. One such book, about Wisconsin lore, Romeyn held up for the camera during the Zoom event. But this historical quality in her writing “wasn’t intentional at first,” Romeyn said.
“I think that's just a stylistic thing that I kind of picked up on early, and like, ran with,” she said.
Wild Conditions was chosen for a Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship in 2018. Romeyn’s work has also been published in journals such as Harvard Review, AGNI and Crazyhorse. She is currently working on a full-length poetry book, which will continue the historical themes and nature imagery of her current work.
“I don't want to say [the book is] more of the same because that sounds sort of boring,” Romeyn said, “but I'm continuing to play with some of the same ideas.”
* The quotation from “Planted by Streams” was taken from an audio recording of the reading, and may not reflect the line breaks and punctuation used in the printed version of the poem.