Alison Rollins:

Interview + Poems

Alison C. Rollins was awarded a 2023-2024 Harvard Radcliffe Institute Fellowship and named a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellow in 2019. In 2021, her essay “Dispatch from the Racial Mountain” was selected by contest judge Kiese Laymon as the winner of the Gulf Coast prize in nonfiction. Her work, across genres, has appeared or is forthcoming in American Poetry Review, Black Warrior Review, Iowa Review, The New York Times Magazine, and elsewhere. A Cave Canem and Callaloo fellow, she was a 2016 recipient of the Poetry Foundation’s Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship. Her debut poetry collection, Library of Small Catastrophes (Copper Canyon Press, 2019) was a 2020 Hurston/Wright Foundation Legacy Award nominee. Rollins holds an MFA from Brown University and is an assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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Photo credit: Kevin Grady


Interview by Amanda Torres


Editor’s note: Earlier this year, Alison Rollins and I sat down to discuss her forthcoming book, Black Bell: a speculative collection of poems inspired by the nineteenth-century, archival image of an enslaved woman wearing iron horns and bells with text, images, and fugitive frequencies that perform love and liberation as they might exist across time and space. One of the many things that came from our conversation was a list of ancestors, musicians, and authors that are present in the book and that Alison’s work is informed by. She asked us to list the names alongside this interview as companions, members of the chorus:

Recite aloud: The Black Bell / Phyllis Wheatley / Basquiat / Harriet Jacobs / Henry Box Brown / Lear Green / Audre Lorde / Toni Morrison / bell hooks / Robert Hayden / A Tribe Called Quest / Stevie Wonder / Sun Ra / Lucille Clifton / Teddy Pendergrass / Dred Scott / Ralph Ellison / Eliza Harris / Henri Akoka / David Walker / Frederick Douglass / Harriet Tubman / Octavia Butler / fred moten / Saidiya Hartman / Alexis Pauline Gumbs / Marvin Tate / JJJJJerome Ellis

Amanda: This collection is a historical project, and also a speculative and a deeply personal one. How did you come to the book’s content?

Alison: Yeah, you know, I came to the MFA late, and I really consider myself self-taught. I just spent time in libraries. I read. I watched YouTube videos of folks I admire. I didn’t really grow up in, like, youth arts communities in St. Louis. I was very by myself. So, I didn’t have any rules about what a first book was supposed to do, and I love my first book, but I ended up taking out a lot of the more speculative poems because of what I imagined it was supposed to be. So, then, for this book, I was like, it could be a historical project book centered on enslavement and fugitivity, and I wasn’t going to remove all of the queer or speculative science fiction notes. We can talk about the nineteenth century, we can talk about queer desire, we can talk about Star Trek, and I have to trust that the reader can hold all those things.

Amanda: In your poem “Writing with Death,” you say: “my ancestors are gone, air filled with critical fabulations.” Can you talk a little about the work of critical fabulation in this text?

Alison: Well, of course, we gain “critical fabulations” from Saidiya Hartman. I think I’m always operating as a type of curator where the book becomes an exhibition space for these things I’ve gathered, or collaged, or, in an Octavia Butler sense, acted as “pattern master.” I’m weaving things together more so than having some original genius. I think we often romanticize the Western notion of, like, the white male originator genius that’s operating in an isolated, insular, solitary, artistic way. Whereas I’m more so calling a symphony, a variety of voices together, and then presenting them collectively. But it’s always the collective, and it’s always, if anything, my work as a gatherer more than some singular artistic process.

Amanda: Does your background as a librarian inform the research that you did for this book?

Alison: I think when I first started working in libraries, it made me really savvy. We withdraw so many books every day, it’s like, if they’re not getting looked at or checked out, then they just disappear. So, the notion of resurrection was really interesting to me for this book–of activating readers and those that are gone. I’m always thinking about silence, about the forgotten, about the disappeared, about how we might ethically continue to reanimate or reimagine or resurrect when the loss is so incalculable.

Amanda: I think this book is an inherently performed text and there are a lot of ways that you have performed this text (metallurgy, costuming, readings, etc.). Can you talk about how you understand writing, reading, and performance as siblings? And, perhaps, also your process in making the text performable or in illuminating the inherent performance of the text?

Alison: That’s such a good and rich question. I think I’m unsure about a lot of those categories, and my unsureness about them creates a sort of meditation in the book. I feel like there’s a lot of literacies that people with certain bodies have to have–or a lot of types of readings that are being done of our bodies and of each other that are necessary for survival that don’t get understood as a traditional type of literacy. I feel like we have very ableist, normative understandings of literacy, especially as it’s taught in K-12. It’s presented as something meant to exclude rather than include, when it’s a much more expansive and nuanced experience.

When I started doing readings after having a book, I became a spectacle in a different type of way; I was authorized because of the publication. When I got behind the microphone, people brought their own set of expectations about how I should sound; how I should dress; how I should look, if I look like my author photo, if I sound the way they thought. All these things happen when you place a body and a voice with the written word. If I define myself as a performance artist, what happens differently than if I say I’m just a poet doing a reading at a bookstore? It’s all quite performative. So, I have more mysteries than answers.

Amanda: You discuss many different notions of time in this collection. Could you talk about how you understand time? Or more specifically, how Western definitions of time are unspooled and redefined by you in this collection?

Alison: I’m a time nerd. It’s an invented creation that shapes and governs our culture and society that then also gets attached to your character (i.e., laziness, etc.). For instance, I have a due date for my pregnancy that’s pretty fabricated. The date comes out of a type of imaginary pseudoscience that we take as a given. Or, like, 9:00 a.m., is when you need to be here for work and, if you’re not, there’s certain repercussions. But it’s not real, or it’s a very interesting speculative fabrication that we use to do a lot. As a Black, queer person, and in relationship to Black communities, I think a lot about what it means to contend with premature death–or lifespans that are not going to be as full based on where a body resides or their socioeconomic circumstances. This preoccupation with death, or being out of time, or in time, or always kind of reconciling with this measure, is something that the book is really engaged with.

And also the way language shapes time. There’s one poem in the book that talks about Aymara conceptions of time where the past is in front of us because we can see it. So, the future is actually at our backs. If that was our orientation spatially, that would really reframe how we think, and talk, and move through the world. We could have a more expansive, more free, more in-tune with nature–even just the rising and setting of the sun–or seasonally changing way of experiencing moving through time. But we’ve divorced ourselves from that. And, instead, we’ve committed to the desire to have ultimate control of something that’s much more fluid and porous and probably mysterious. I really just love time.

Amanda: I think a lot about the ways that time, like you said, orders our days. Or how time, in the sense that we know it, is something that is given or requires approval. Who has time to sleep? To dream? And what is productive or unproductive? It’s like another regulation of our bodies that governs us in violent ways.

Alison: Yes. Yeah. I feel like another thing I experienced after the first book, and now with the second book, is that people are very interested in how long it takes someone to write a book. And some people say fifteen years or three years, but what if you just gave your age as the answer? What are people really asking? And what am I really answering in terms of giving a consolidated amount of minutes, or hours, that accumulated in this end result?

Amanda: It’s so interesting, your obsession with time makes a lot of sense to me because of your obsession with fugitivity. What do you think is the relationship between time and fugitivity?

Alison: Time, for me, is linked to space. If time is x variable, then space is y. If one is in a fugitive state, or has marooned themselves out of the kind of surveillance of society in some way, what then happens to time? Does time stop?

I think another figure in the book that’s really dear to me is Lear Green, who I discovered while researching Henry Box Brown. Similar to Henry Box Brown, Lear Green escapes by shipping herself in a storage case on a boat, but she dies a year after making it to New York. I don’t know if she was as invested as Henry Box Brown in being a celebrity, or turning into this kind of larger figure, but her name becomes forgotten. That journey, that escape, seems less fabulous because it didn’t result in maybe years of life after the event. But, how do we measure the five seconds of freedom she experienced? I just don’t know how to quantify spatially where a body can exist more freely in terms of time. I also don’t know what spaces are not oppressive. And if there are [non-oppressive] spaces that exist, how much time can they remain so? And do they require seclusion? Like, just being in the cut, just totally out of time? In JJJJJerome Ellis’ latest book, Astor of Ceremonies, there’s a poem that distinguishes between being on time and in time. And I’ve been thinking about that a lot; like being on beat, folding into a rhythm and being in time, and that being enough, as opposed to whatever ‘on time’ might represent in a labor capitalist notion.

Amanda: In your poem, “cognitive mapping,” you say: “to name is to freeze, to translate is to melt.” And then, in the Phyllis Wheatley poem, you say: “I know what I have said. I do not know what you have heard.” And then in the poem, “Got till it’s gone,” alongside ads encouraging the capture of runaway enslaved peoples, you say: “To write is to place the reader on notice / To run is to leave an away message.” These are just a few examples of how these poems and historical figures are thinking about writing or being known. In the actual translative practice of writing this book, I’m wondering how you’re thinking about being known.

Alison: First, it’s such a blessing to hear your curation of the reading experience; it’s like somebody going into your garden and making a bouquet from your flowers and being like, here’s what I put together. It’s very reciprocal, and it’s a very beautiful feeling. I think, especially as an educator teaching in an MFA program and having students read collections that are complete, what ends up happening is students feel like that is how books just come out. You don’t get to see any of the drafts or the poems that were rejected; it comes off as clean. To me, that’s what the written word, or the published book, does. But there’s so much glitch or static underneath that I think is much more interesting. The messy work of translation is always incomplete; there’s always residue. It’s never a proper correlation of this word to this word. There’s always a little bit of leftover juice or pulp. I’m more interested in the residue as opposed to the perfect presentation. I’m doing my best to use language to convey something, but I want you to always be aware that I’m aware it’s always falling short. And we can find delight in those shortcomings.

Amanda: Sound is so many things in this collection: sound as healing, violence, freedom, enslavement, communion, isolation, death, timekeeper, and also sound as something inherently Black or connected to notions of Blackness. Could you talk about the many iterations of sound in this collection and what they illustrate about Black being?

Alison: I was just at an event where they were referencing fred moten’s In The Break: The Aesthetics of The Black Radical Tradition. I feel like there’s so many rich conceptualizations of Black philosophies surrounding sound and Black life. I think I’ve always viewed poetry as a type of musical score. If you take it as a score, it can be animated in ways maybe I didn’t even anticipate. It’s gonna be a Black book, but there’s a lot of invitation for collaboration and improvisation. It’s an invitation to consider what bodies are allowed to have what feelings, and in what ways we convey those to others. What are the ways we translate an emotion via sound? And where do we see or hear that in the Black experience? Does it always have to be a marker of suffering? I don’t think so. I’m interested in the joyful utterances alongside the fullness of what it means to be human.

Amanda: It seems like this book is both an invitation and also an instruction. Can you talk more about who some of the teachers or symphony players are in this book?

Alison: In the final stages of editing the book, I’ve been pregnant, and so I think about the ultrasound as a measure; the sound waves of the heart and listening to these instructive notions of signs of life. I also think a lot about Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ work around echolocation that we are doing both on land, as mammals, but also in the water. And, of course, we have Toni Morrison’s notion of: “all water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.” We start in utero, in water, but we spend the majority of our life adulting on land, when we are trying to return back to that other state, which is more of a liquid existence, and in a beautiful type of darkness. The collective, the ancestors and people referenced in the book across spaces and time, they all come from that darkness. The in utero experience of dark liquid is a shared sound wave, or sound experience, that doesn’t have a language. And we all share that same experience. We all have that same primary first note.

Amanda: One of the quotes at the beginning of the book is, “the moment we choose to love we begin to move towards freedom to act in ways that liberate ourselves and others,” from bell hooks. I feel like this book is simultaneously grappling with the horrors of enslavement, and also performing an ode to Black women that queers time and space. Can you talk a little about those intersecting directions?

Alison: If the x and y variables are time and space, then two others, I think, are love and liberation.

A lot of people think if you write a book of love poetry, it can’t also be a historical book. It couldn’t possibly also talk about enslavement or enslaved people. Those things, for whatever reason, people can’t seem to reconcile. But it’s always, to me, an investigation of love. The book gets its title from an archival image I found in the New York Public Library’s digital collection entitled: “A woman with iron horns and bells on, to keep her from running away.” When I started doing metal work to recreate the contraption that this enslaved woman was forced to wear, I was like, this is hard work. It requires a lot of skill, labor, expensive materials, and time to make this device designed for subjugation. And yet, it’s a work of art. It’s an investment in an artistic process of sculpture. How do I reconcile that process with its intended use? How do I reconcile trying to reach out to this historical figure while also not fetishizing or romanticizing a state of intense pain? The last Black Bell poem that’s published alongside this interview is kind of a sign-off to her. The last two lines leave room for a type of silence or lack of participation, but also a possibility of resistance. I don’t want to stand in or speak for her, but to allow her a type of agency and also a type of rest. Some people want to be undisturbed or deserve a type of final rest that is not designed to create another spectacle, even if it is towards our own need for healing. She has to have a type of independence as well.

Also, I just love women. I mean there’s obviously male historical figures, musicians, etc., in the book, but I think there’s just a deep reverence of, and desire to not speak for, women. You know, we have a Henry Box Brown narrative. We have a Frederick Douglass narrative. Harriet Jacobs is one of the very few female narratives of formerly enslaved people that we have. I just have that one image with a caption at the bottom, but I don’t have a narrative or more documentation. So, it requires filling in the blanks with critical fabulation, which is a playful act of, I think, loving and imagining. What are the actual skills, tools, languages we have for love? I feel like they’re always falling short or always quite limited, and we could never spend enough time or investment in exploring more. That, to me, is a beautiful speculative realm to be constantly engaging with forever and still falling short.



Interviewer Amanda Torres is Lead Reviews Editor at Revolute and an MFA candidate of the Randolph College Low-Residency Program. 

Beware the End of the World

for Marvin Tate

PDF Version HERE (for accurate line breaks)


newsroom               nasty                   Never, never again!                     nonfiction                                Nino                                        1999

Neptune              Nantucket                        Nairobi                             Nicaragua                               Newark                                 Nigeria

………….no count         non sequiturs         She said, “NO!”            Negroni            nightgown       9:30 p.m.        nunchucks

9 feet under       noisy        N[              ]               nearsighted                     Nay Nay                      neurosis                  natural

…………………….Nastradamus           nickel bag                    nukes             nappy                       nut sack                                never mind

…..nylons                    neckties                                   noose                           nix                       no luck                  nicknack

necromancy               nary               nothing                              napkins                    nevertheless               nougat             nose hairs

Knuck if you buck!            Nubian            Negro               newborn                          named         nationalist             Nathaniel

…………………………………..nil       nominal        narcolepsy         Na na na na boo boo!        nimble           Nia

…………………………………..newfangled           not         nirvana       nomenclature    notebook       nowhere

…………………….Naw!        null            noun      nude        nipple          neighborhood watch     no good        never never land

…………………………………9 and ½ years            needy      nutcracker             Not today!         Nixon             nihilist            nonsense

……………………..neuter                 numerator          nuclear        neutron            neither             nanometer                       Now and Later

naysayer                        nadir              normal            numb              nugget           Nope!           negative         Beware of the N word!

……………………..neon                Nike                    neroli           notice       There ain’t a space program for niggas!            ‘nem         North

………………………nonstop                       nail                              naughty                        narcotic         neutral          number runner


Black Bell

…..A bell’s dome represents the whole universe, the flat bottom represents the earth, and the hollow inside represents the space between the rest of the universe and the earth. When you strike a bell it sends a message from Earth out into the universe. Before reading, strike a bell tuned to A, the note connected to the third-eye chakra.

Wore the whistles
of men down her back.

Her clapper hung
like a saggy breast,
a piece of music.

Beneath her skirt was
the truth made ugly. Unsweet
as blackberry thorns.

Her laughter’s rattle, a mask
for secret contempt.
She took in as much

as she could. A homely,
or rather timely,
air about her.

Inside the wall of her cheek
was a sliver of violence
only she could trust.

The wind would witness
but wouldn’t chime in.