A soldier in World War I brings
a German bride back to America,
but he does not love
women and she stays locked
her whole married life in a
language she cannot learn.
There are children who leave and don’t
come back, even when the mother dies
and the father’s health fails. What kind of children are these? people ask, who
still consider the husband a kind man –
remember, the wife spoke only silence. What kind of children? you ask, and I
look away – I have already shared
what I know, and there is nothing one
will not do to another, again and again.
Virginia Smith Rice earned her MFA in creative writing from Northwestern University. Her first full-length poetry collection, When I Wake It Will Be Forever, was published in 2014 by Sundress Publications. Her poems appear in Cimarron Review, Cincinnati Review, Denver Quarterly, Meridian, Rattle, Stone Highway Review, Superstition Review, and Third Coast, among other journals. She is co-editor of the online poetry journal, Kettle Blue Review, and associate editor at Canopic Publishing.
Early in my conversation with poet Virginia Smith Rice, she revealed that she has four children. I was surprised by the number—four being, well, a lot. “When I decide to do something,” she said, “I don’t do it half way.”
Once you read Smith new poetry collection, When I Wake It Will Be Forever, you’ll understand this declaration as pure fact. When I Wake is a diverse collage of voices, forms, imagery, and obsessions. There is no single narrator, no one theme, no sense of omniscience or rightness. As diverse as the collection is, these are poems unified by intention—stories vividly imagined and well told.
Some of this is due to Rice’s job as a middle school art teacher, where she witnesses the art of self-description on a daily basis. “Students so often use passive language when they speak,” she said. “They often feel like they are bystanders of their own lives. I want them to be more active in their own stories.”
Rice’s story is one of action and reinvention. She began her academic career as a visual artist, but shifted focus once her children were born. As a committed stay-at-home mother, Smith found that her creative impulses didn’t wane—they actually became stronger and harder to ignore.
“I was always jotting down lines and ideas, waiting for a few moments where I could create something. As a visual artist, I had a tough time finding the space and money to do this. Materials were expensive and I didn’t have a lot of time, either.”
Her sisters—both writers—encouraged her to attend a few summer workshops at The University of Iowa. It was there that she started writing abstract prose pieces and decided to attend graduate school at Northwestern University with a focus in literature.
“Poetry really took me by surprise. I didn’t intend for it to happen that way—it’s the way my art wanted to go. I enjoyed my classes,” she said, “but I found myself wanting to talk to my professors about the poems I’d been writing. That’s all I wanted to do.”
On the advice of those professors, Rice joined the MFA in writing program, where new relationships formed between her experience as a visual artist and her emerging talents as a writer.
When I Wake is filled with references to Rice’s first passion. Part III is entitled Curiosity Boxes, a nod to Joseph Cornell’s boxed assemblages. These works, created from found objects, are not unlike centos, poems assembled from the words, lines, and phrases of other sources. This form is found throughout Rice’s collection.
“You look at poems you’ve loved for so many years and you see them differently. It’s often what you decide not to use that is most instructive. It’s always surprising to see what resonates with you at the time.”
Through the guidance of her professors, including Simone Muench and Ed Roberson, Rice began to repurpose lines from her own work into centos. This approach allowed her to write with a newfound freedom. “I recognized that I didn’t have to bring a poem to closure each time I sat down to write; every line could move the poem in a different direction, and the poem could eventually arrive somewhere entirely unexpected. I started just writing and collecting. It reminded so much of collage and the visual arts.”
The cento could also be the perfect form for Rice’s life. She is a mother and a teacher, an artist and a poet, seemingly disparate elements brought together in one curious box.
“If there’s a theme to my work, it probably includes the impulse for connection,” she says. “That need to be active in our own stories and to have someone listen to us.” (That’s what it’s about.”)
Sara Lovelace received her MFA in Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2004 and is an editor at Sundress Publications. Her work is published in the Smith Magazine anthology, The Moment. She also writes for various online publications, including a weekly blog on elephant journal. She is currently working on a project about the healing effects of yoga on victims of sexual abuse.
Knoxville, TN— Sundress Publications is pleased to announce the release of Virginia Smith Rice’s first full-length book, When I Wake It Will Be Forever. Rice’s debut collection collapses the natural and material world into instances of loss, longing, memory and sensory expression.
Rice investigates the emptiness of language with a lyrical and alliterative force with a jarring, poignant, and distinct ability to deconstruct place through the linguistic fabric it emerges from, to create a more intimate presence with the physical landscape of existence. Rice builds her ethereal and imagistic poems with a deep engagement of the senses.
“Both shimmering and seething, haunted and haunting, the complex, dazzling contours of When I Wake It Will Be Forever beckon the reader with the imperative of ‘listen’; and we do, because Rice’s poems vibrate with a ‘voice thorned and singing / but not human.’ Like her poetic parentage—Desnos, Szymborska, Tranströmer and Csoóri—there is a wisdom contained in this work that transcends a singular being’s experience; ultimately elegiac, yet ‘lit by inner, hidden suns,’ this book is a stellate network of memory, loss, longing, silence, and voice. Often serving as witness (to an aunt’s suicide, a stranger’s suicide, ‘the suicide in my voice’) Rice pays tribute to the manifold ghosts that clamor inside us. This is one of the most solidly exquisite and lingering first books I’ve had the honor of reading.”
-Simone Muench, author of Orange Crush, recipient of the 2013 NEA Fellowship in Poetry
“Virginia Smith Rice has created a tremblingly precise, intricate, bright-edged evocation of a world both ecstatic and ominous, grieving and vital, broken and mending, but rarely mended. Her poems are richly colored and intensely focused on the shapes and forms of the world and of inner life and relationships. They are crowded with living plants and creatures and intense feeling, and Rice can even describe the color of solitude. Her language is sensuously complex, her angle of vision is oblique and finds the memorable touch of reality off-center, at the edges, just this side of perceptibility. She has created a delicate yet vivid response to what she calls the ‘percussed absence’ that haunts human life. This is a marvelous first book.”
-Reginald Gibbons, author of Fem-Texts and professor of Humanities at Northwestern Univeristy
Virginia Smith Rice earned her MFA in creative writing from Northwestern University, where she received the Distinguished Thesis Award for her poetry manuscript, “One Voice May Survive the Other.” Her work appears in Cincinnati Review, Denver Quarterly, Meridian, Rattle, and Third Coast, among other journals. She currently lives in Woodstock, IL, where she teaches art and serves as co-editor of the online poetry journal, Kettle Blue Review.