Even the most dedicated student might struggle through a graduate-level Shakespeare seminar. But for poet Emily Rosko, it’s where she found the inspiration to write her latest book.
Now an assistant English professor at the College of Charleston, Rosko was working toward her PhD in literature and creative writing at the University of Missouri when she started writing Prop Rockery. Inspired by the language of the Bard and other early modern writers, she started a series of poems that play off of lines from those texts.
“I was being saturated in that kind of language that [Shakespeare] had, which of course is so wonderfully peculiar to our ears,” Rosko says. “And the energy of the poetry that emerged from his plays was something that sort of fueled my own writing at the time.”
Many of the poems are titled with a line from a Shakespeare play, which acts as the springboard into the poem. “The voices are inspired by certain Shakespearean characters, but are not limited by them,” she says. “The voice of the villain, for instance, is one that reappears as a way to bring into poetry those emotions that are, perhaps, considered ‘unpoetic,’ like jealousy, anger, and vengefulness.”
Shakespeare’s influence is evident in Rosko’s attention to detail and her playful use of language, encouraging readers to slow down and savor each word and consider its various meanings. She also spent quite a bit of time researching the cultural context of the works, giving the poems another layer of meaning. The poem “[So that they seeme and covet not to be]” is based on the history of glass-making and the mirror in the Renaissance. Back then, the technology and production of glass was so unrefined that mirrors were full of imperfections, but they were still a sought-after status symbol. “The mirrors provided a new way of looking, a new sense of selfhood,” Rosko says. “So I play with these classic ideas of vanity we associate with mirrors and also this material and cultural history.”
That said, many of Rosko’s poems are rooted firmly in the present. “If anything, I worked to update those old forms, to bring them into a contemporary context,” Rosko says. “My language doesn’t match Shakespeare’s language, though there’s still a huge interest in the high rhetoric and the excess and the lushness of that language. … The poem doesn’t just retell the story of that Shakespeare character or that drama. It moves stuff up to the present.”
The poem “Mare’s Nest” was written in response to a policy reversed by Congress in 2004 that had previously protected wild horses. Without that law, the horses could be rounded up and sold for slaughter. It was also inspired by a 13th-century nursery rhyme, “Hark, hark, the dogs bark,” which hints at the abuse of beggars with a horsewhip. “Somehow this seemed like the same story to me — the beggars and the horses,” Rosko says. “In short, two stories of cruelty. I wanted this poem to bridge the wide divide between the then of the nursery rhyme and the now of the current contemporary moment.
“This is really a larger concern of the poems in Prop Rockery,” she adds. “So many early modern texts can be read as pushing back against the power dynamics, dynamics that are not all that different from the ones we face today. The poem is what sings against, and ideally subverts, those unmoving power structures.”
Rosko is already looking ahead to her next project, a book tentatively titled Weather Inventions that she says explores the emergence of the scientific revolution in the 17th century. She’s also planning to write a series of poems inspired by S.C. native Aggie Zed, whose work graces the cover of Prop Rockery. “If anything she has been my great inspiration and discovery since being in Charleston,” Rosko says. Zed’s sculptures are currently on view at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, where they’ll provide a backdrop for Rosko’s reading and book signing on Thurs. Feb. 23 at 7 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.