St. Louis’ Acclaimed Self-Taught Poet, Alison C. Rollins

 In Culture, Feature

If you’ve been keeping up with ALIVE, you’ll probably recognize the name of poet Alison C. Rollins. Whether she’s skillfully navigating a rigid form—like her poem “Invisible Architecture”—or wrapping us into a stream of images both clear and compelling—like “IN WHOSE IMAGE?”—her precisely written poetry captivates with every line.

The St. Louis poet was the second-prize winner of the 2016 James H. Nash Poetry contest, a finalist for the 2016 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors Prize and a 2016 recipient of the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship. In addition to being a Cave Canem and a Callaloo Fellow, her list of published works includes pieces in American Poetry Review, Missouri Review, River Styx and Poetry.

Yet Rollins isn’t much for the limelight. Over the phone, she laughingly admits she could remain totally content “buying books, reading books at home, writing poetry and never going out into the world.” With a deep fascination and love of the possibilities of language ingrained in her from youth, Rollins’ childhood was decorated consistently with books. From cultivating her own curiosity as an avid young reader, to the summer reading programs her parents had her attend year after year, Rollins attributes her “writer mindset” to being a reader first—a practice that has continued steadily throughout her life.

“I really just love doing the work. You know? The reading, the meeting people, getting down to the granular level of the poem, of how I approach craft, having conversations with people whose work I enjoy,” she explains, unfiltered. “It’s really on the singular level of what poem I’m working on at the moment: how can I make it the best poem possible, and how can it reveal things about my craft and my process? How can it resonate with the reader, and how will it live outside of me?”

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Though she’s currently getting her Masters in Library and Information Sciences from the University of Illinois, her attention and ability around poetic craft wasn’t born in the academy. “I was always really self-taught,” she explains. “I don’t have an MFA. I just fell into a love for buying poetry books and reading poetry, and then building community around it wherever I happened to be living.”

The poetry community Alison has found here in St. Louis has kept her exploring the city’s characteristic neighborhoods, each with their own collective of regular attendees and distinct vibe. She visits readings as she discovers them, from Goodie House and River Styx readings, to the 100 Boots Poetry Series at the Pulitzer and Poetry at the Point reading in Maplewood. It brings her a new understanding of the city she’s known her whole life, offering opportunities to re-investigate her relationship to it—particularly as a young Black woman, working hard to shape and sustain a poetry career without the kinds of institutional support typically associated with professional writers.

“I think especially being a young Black person who grew up in inner-city St. Louis, poems and being a poet is still seen as very frivolous. It’s often seen as very elitist,” she explains. As she continued to work on her poetry, Rollins found it difficult to communicate the value of her literary accomplishments to her loved ones, who supported her without hesitation despite knowing little about the literary field. Being awarded the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship in 2016—one of the nation’s most competitive and coveted prizes for young poets—provided her a kind of currency, a moment of validation for her craft.

Despite the arts scene’s rapid evolution across the city, there are still several points of disconnect in St. Louis’ starkly segregated geography. It can be a difficult place to garner support for the arts. “I’m teaching creative writing to high school seniors right now, and seeing how they process or approach poetry is somewhat heartbreaking,” she sighs. “They don’t really see it as relevant or interesting. They’re really being conditioned not to think in poetic ways.”

Conversely, St. Louis’ small scale also allows for interactions and possibilities that would be almost entirely unimaginable elsewhere. The city has brought some of the most celebrated poets of the time to local readings and performances, offering a chance for attendees to talk with nationally renowned writers in more casual, interpersonal settings.

Rollins currently works as a librarian at Nerinx Hall High School, while studying to get a master’s degree in the field. The opportunity has also highlighted challenges to increasing engagement and building an interest in poetry. “From a librarian’s perspective, when we think about what will be preserved or representative of American literature, what will last—does the little Black girl from St. Louis get a voice in that canon? What are the odds that that will be a lasting piece of the cultural memory?” she questions.

For more in-depth reasoning, she offers, “I think some teenagers are very introspective, and very wrought with anxiety about a variety of different things, but no one’s really actually listening to them, ever. And I mean genuinely listening to what is being said. For me, the page is always that place. The page has no choice but to listen. The page has no choice but to bear witness to whatever it is you’re experiencing, in a very accessible way. And I think that’s very necessary.”

Busily working on her debut full-length collection of poems, her advice to young poets is simply, “Read. And be willing to interrogate the self.”

Cover image by Aaron Burden.

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