Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: We’re intrigued by how “Notes On My Mother’s Desk” conveys a sense of indifference between the children and the mother. Was this part of your initial thought process when writing the poem or did the emotional theme change as the work progressed?

Bill Hollands: That’s interesting. I don’t read it as indifference, and that’s not what I was feeling when I wrote it, but I can see how the poem can be read that way. Certainly, there is a sense that the characters are living in their own worlds, what with the hiding under the desk, the long-distance phone calls, and my mother’s gradual loss of memory. But along with this retreat or isolation, I get a powerful sense of longing between the characters, a desire to connect.

RR: This poem shifts between literal images of your mother’s desk to personal and emotional responses. How do you navigate that kind of shift as you write?

BH: I guess my thoughts about this relate to the old adage “show don’t tell.” And I do agree that it’s usually more powerful to let images and specific things in a poem carry the emotional weight. On the other hand, I am often drawn to moments in a poem where there is a sense of the poet discovering an emotion or reaching an understanding within the process of writing the specific details of the poem itself, and then conveying that discovery to the reader.

RR: We love how the indented stanzas create a sense of momentum on the page. What is your process or approach to form in your poetry? 

BH: I’m glad the form created a sense of momentum for you. I always try to consider momentum in a poem, particularly during revision. In this poem the form—the varied line lengths and indentations—grew organically from the idea of the notes (or jottings) that my mother would take on those notepads and the wall calendar, first to plan and coordinate all the household activities and later, as she began to experience the effects of Alzheimer’s Disease, to help her remember conversations and other events. I was thinking of both the form as well as the content reflecting that form. So the “on” in the title (“Notes on My Mother’s Desk”) can be read literally as “on” (notes that my mother left on her desk) as well as “about” (my notes about my mother’s desk). As I revised, that more haphazard notetaking format coalesced into a consistent form while still maintaining (I hope) an echo of the original form. It’s nice when a form emerges organically from the content like that, since the two really are inseparable in poetry.

RR: We understand you were the New York public library’s “first internet librarian”—amazing! Can you tell us more about that work and whether it has influenced your writing?

BH: You’ve done your research! Yes, that was my job in the early/mid-90’s, when the World Wide Web was new. The library was launching its first website, and I got to help design that. This was also when the library began offering Internet access to the public, and a big part of my job was to travel to all the branches throughout the system and train the staff in how to use it and how to help their patrons use it. I loved that part of my job because I was fairly new to New York and I got to see many parts of the city that I might not have otherwise. I also wrote a book called Teaching the Internet to Library Staff and Users, but don’t buy it unless you want to take a trip down memory lane and read about search engines like AltaVista and Lycos. I can’t say that job influenced my writing, but writing the book did give me some exposure to the publishing process, though the professional trade market is very different from the poetry world.

RR: In addition to poetry, have you written in any other genres?

BH: I’ve tried my hand at fiction in the past, but I don’t have the same drive to write that as I do poetry. That said, many of my poems have narratives, and so I do often consider elements that are also common to fiction writers—things like momentum (there it is again!), story arc, point of view, and characterization.

Read “Notes on My Mother’s Desk” by Bill Hollands.