Anyone who thinks poetry is the languid pastime of effete aesthetes with time on their hands hasn't met Nancy Reddy and Nicole Rollender.
"You write alone, at night, for years, and sometimes ask yourself, 'What am I doing this for?' " says Rollender, of Williamstown.
"It's a serious thing, a rigorous practice," Reddy, who lives in Collingswood, says. "Not some cute thing you do in your notebook."
They're also the only South Jerseyans -- by which I mean people who reside well below I-195 -- among the total of 21 recipients selected statewide for their poetry, choreography, music composition, or sculpture.
Rollender (www.nicolerollender.com), whose work blends the mystical and the visceral, and Reddy (www.nancyreddy.com), author of poems that are cerebral yet earthy, were among four poets chosen from the 96 who applied to the 2017 fellowship program.
"Of course, writing poetry is a labor of love," Rollender, 40, says. "But to be paid for professional achievement is a huge thing."
Both women also have connections with Stockton University, recently had a debut collection of poetry published, and plan to use the $8,600 arts council grant to complete a second collection.
"It's confirmation that I'm going in the right direction with the new book," says Reddy, 34. "It's exciting and encouraging."
A longtime lover of poetry, I wisely decided decades ago to discontinue writing it. But I continue to read and support this essential art form.
So I was happy to meet the two new poets and interview them at their homes last week, departing, after much lively conversation, with a copy of their first collections each under my arm.
I'm even happier to report that Rollender's Louder Than Everything You Love (ELJ Editions) and Reddy's Double Jinx (milkweed editions) are the real deal. Each is a vivid, carefully crafted, and often startling work of verse by a distinctive new voice.
Consider the opening of Reddy's "Bad Magic":
It starts out simple, with blindfolds/
and sleights of hand. I'll be the girl/
you practice on. I'll let you/
pull a nest of ravens from my hair
Or take a look at the first lines from "Wearing a Victorian's Hair" in Rollender's book:
I bought part of you. Funny how your hair's spidery/
roots braided and knotted are stronger than your place/
here on earth. Hair like smoke around my wrist./
Yet, there was some brilliance around your skull.
What may appear effortless on the page, the two poets say, results not from a eureka moment followed by a reverie, but craft, dedication, patience, and grit (editorial rejections are a constant).
Even after getting their work published, poets must regularly produce and revise new poems, submit them to journals, attend readings, speak at conferences, and write reviews of other poets' material.
"When you're a working poet," Rollender says, "you do a lot of stuff for free."
A 1998 Stockton graduate and longtime trade magazine editor, Rollender grew up in Bergen and Somerset Counties. She moved to Williamstown 11 years ago with her husband, Grant, a retail manager; the couple have a daughter, 8, and a son, 4.
A vintage volume of Tennyson that Rollender found at 15 in a used bookstore "made me realize the power of poetry," she says. And after earning a master's degree in fine arts from Pennsylvania State University, she began to write in earnest about a decade ago.
"I feel compelled to write," adds Rollender, who emails work in progress to herself and revises it online. She recently read her work as part of the Moonstone Arts Center (http://www.moonstoneartscenter.org) series at Fergie's Pub in Philly.
Closer to home, she's scheduled to give a reading March 24 at the Williamstown Arts Center (www.williamstownartscenter.org).
Reddy, a Pittsburgh native who earned a master's degree in fine arts and a Ph.D. in composition from the University of Wisconsin, is an assistant professor in the first-year studies program at Stockton. She and her husband, Smith Hutchings, a software development professional, have two boys under 4 years old.
"I write with pen on paper at my desk upstairs," Reddy tells me. She sometimes revises on a typewriter -- "there's something about the rhythm of the words" -- but has been known to record an idea for or a snippet of verse on her smartphone.
She also says her formative experiences in poetry workshops -- first as a high school student, later as a Teach for America corps member in Houston -- spurred her commitment to provide students with "the spaces they need" to learn how to write. She also read recently at Pittsburgh's White Whale Bookstore.
"When I'm not writing, I'm not really thinking," Reddy says. "Poetry is such an important part of how I interact with the world."
Adds Rollender: "I want to make the most beautiful art I can, and get it out there. So that it connects with people, transforms people. Because it transforms me."