Lady in the House Questions: KMA Sullivan

(1) How do you define mother?

While the term mother clearly refers to one who has birthed and/or raised children I tend to think of “mother” primarily as a verb. It’s an action whereby one responds to the needs (can be material needs but are more likely emotional and psychological needs) of self or other in such a way that health, happiness, and independence are achievable.

 

(2) How does your understanding of alpha fit into your perceptions of being a mother and a woman? Is dominance allowed?

That’s an interesting question and deserves a thoughtful complex answer that will take more words than would fit here but I’ll happily make a start. My general thought is that some people are Alphas or leaders through personal charisma or expertise or situation. I think a parent in a family is sure to be an Alpha or rather I pity the parent who is not. Gosh, what a more difficult job than ever the parenting role would be if there was not an understanding in the family that the mother or mothers / father or fathers in a household were not the leads of the house. I believe that if there are two parents in the home that they can (I’ll even say “should”) share the leadership role. Perhaps it alternates with the area at hand. For example my partner took on all elements of driving training for the children as I was simply too stressed out about the dangers of them being on the road as new drivers. I knew they had to learn, but I also knew I couldn’t be the parent who made decisions about driving or they’d never achieve the freedom they had to have.  There were plenty of areas involving the raising of our children where I took the lead and in other areas my partner and I worked as a team from start to finish.

The word alpha takes on a different and more negative tone when we turn away from the domestic sphere.  It is frequently the case that when a woman asserts herself in a professional setting she is labeled an “Alpha” and the labeling is NOT a compliment. An effort to quiet women seems to be running through our current culture. If we look at the stereotypes of women as nags or crazy or bitchy I think what we are actually seeing is an attempt to push women toward silence which is generally (though not always) the opposite of power and so the opposite of Alpha. There’s much more to share and think about and muscle through on this topic but that’s one place to begin.

 

(3) Who are your other mothers, and why do you need them?

I was a smart fat kid with glasses and braces. My mother, intelligent and disciplined but not at all comfortable in herself, was entirely unable to help me understand or accept myself or help me make internal strides that might lead to happiness and independence. I found those voices, that comfort, that strength in books.

As a child, I was introduced to kindred spirits in books by E. L. Konigsburg and Jean Craighead George and Jane Austen who helped me feel less alone. In my later teens I was exposed to ideas and thought experiments in books by Kierkegaard and Nietzsche and Arendt that helped me survive those terrible years of questioning and anguish. As a young teacher I found an understanding of human nature that made sense to me in books by Viktor Frankl and Toni Morrison and Carl Jung and Zora Neale Hurston. In later years, after two decades of parenting five children and the slow death of my mother had worn me to a nub, I found fresh passion and therefore a  renewed reason to be alive and happy in the poetry of Walt Whitman, H.D., Emily Dickenson, Pablo Neruda, Claudia Rankine, and Bob Hicok.

Books have been my mothers for as long as I can remember. It is in them that I found (and find) comfort, emotional and intellectual nourishment, and the strength to create an understanding of the world I can live with and in.

 

(4) In “Magi,” Brenda Shaughnessy writes: “The gift of having had a better mother myself,/my own mother having had a better mother herself./The gift that keeps on not being given.” Thoughts?

I would say that my experience has been the opposite. I’ve been lucky enough to be on the receiving end of generations of folks striving to exhibit better (or at least less damaging) parenting than they had experienced themselves. My great great grandfather, for example, indentured his only son into a coalmine, possibly to discourage the son’s violin playing, in spite of the fact that he was well-positioned financially. That son, in turn, disapproved of my grandmother’s choice of husband and so abandoned the young couple until my father, their second child, was born. My father was sent to a boarding school at the age of nine because it was the English tradition, though the family had been in the United States since the young violinist had immigrated here with his new wife two generations before.

My family has been party to one disastrous parenting decision after another. My mother was raised by pathological narcissists who thought children should be quiet and attractive. When she was a child her parents tied her to the porch because she liked to wander. A self-identified blue-stocking who studied art history and mathematics, my mother was declared unmarriageable by her father when she was twenty-two. When she married my father at 24 and gave birth to me 10 months later she was ill-prepared for motherhood. She, like me father, and his parents before that, worked to provide their children with families that were more loving, more forgiving than the ones in which they were raised though, because they had been offered so little love and forgiveness themselves, the forward steps were sometimes meager. And so I have benefitted from all this striving, perhaps learning more negative lessons than positive ones, ie. what not to do as a parent. But with the “hands off rather than do any damage” approach employed by my parents I learned most significantly, to trust myself. And that has served me well.

 

(5) What mothers characters in pop culture intrigue you?

I have no interest in pop culture moms. They have paid lackeys to take care of what grinds the rest of us to dust. What intrigues me about mothers and motherhood is that we (the primary caregivers regardless of gender) survive parenting at all – survive with our souls and minds in tact. The shear volume of mindless tasks: washing, sorting, folding laundry, choosing and preparing groceries, arranging play dates, tracking permission slips, doctors appointments, homework, and baking all those goddamned cupcakes. The shear volume of mindful tasks: planning nutritional meals that might also have a prayer of being consumed, assessing our children’s environments so the children are safe but still have the freedom to do some failing, figuring out which lessons to teach our children and which ones to let them learn for themselves, being engaged in the world ourselves so that our children might also be engaged, tending to our own romantic partnership so that it is not always in last place. Then there’s the really hard stuff: finding a balance between discipline and softness, facing our inner demons so we don’t pass too many on to our children, ignoring all the bullshit advice we get from professionals and other parents who know little about us, finding and listening to the quiet voices of good advice, setting our standards low enough that we might reach the bar, forgiving ourselves again and again when we don’t even reach the low bars, maintaining the will to get up and do it all over again the next day…for decades.

My life has been blessed with many people to love and many people who love me. But I wouldn’t call them my mothers. And except for the five children I have raised with my partner, I am mother to no one else. Perhaps that is the secret—we are our own mothers.  We learn lessons where we can, glean comfort where we are able, pull wisdom from sources that are available to us, and then offer back to others the support we are capable of giving and we hope might be useful.

Raising five children with my partner of 30 years has been the hardest, best, most insane, most exhausting, most fulfilling thing I will ever do. Thank god its time for poetry.

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Lady in the House Questions: KMA Sullivan

Renegade Blackberry Patches: A Conversation With Writers Rachel Heston-Davis and Simha Evan Stubblefield

HER KIND: Deborah A. Miranda ends her poem “Old Territory. New Maps” with this entreaty to a former lover: “. . . Help me/ translate loss the way this land does—/flood, earthquake, landslide—/terrible, and alive.” What are your natural worlds? In what ways do you and your work connect to the natural world? 

 

 

Simha Evan Stubblefield: i’ve been reading Annie Dillard’s The Living, which is set in Puget Sound and the islands around Washington state in the 1800s. i’ve never read a book by Dillard and am stunned by her ability to create such in-depth images about a time she didn’t inhabit. beyond that she creates poetic images of the landscape:

“The fatal, glittering peaks in every direction brewed storms that jumped canyons and blew through their clothes. Mountains’ black ramparts shone as mighty blocks between which soiled glaciers bore down. Dirty snowfields sank into melt pools whose water tasted like nails.” (57)

unlike Deborah A. Miranda’s poem in which the characters match and become the landscape, Dillard sets up nature as a beautiful nemesis that often wins its battle with man. Dillard is writing mostly about Washington’s landscape versus the white settlers–in Washington (if you’ve never been there) nature is much, much bigger than man. there are curtains of trees. and just looking at the mountains begets intimidation.

i’ve found myself more consciously trying to allow nature to give more to the setting that my own characters inhabit in Charleston, SC. it’s not that i’m not a nature-thinking writer, there’s always some tree that finds it’s way into my narrative, but including nature as a conscious choice is not something i often do. i am including nature as a reflection of characters who are closer to nature themselves and thus, in my book, closer to their “natural selves.” the ocean, for instance, serves as a metaphor for hope and freedom for these characters two generations removed from slavery.

i guess i’m following Miranda’s route more so than Dillard’s, though Dillard’s poetry is certainly an influence. i think for a lot of writers and poets, nature finds its quiet way into our work.

 

Rachel Heston-Davis: So much of what you’ve said resonates with my own experience of writing the natural world into my work.

And yes, I, too, have noticed that authors use nature in one of two basic ways: as a metaphor for the character’s journey or self or as an antagonistic obstacle. Nature as obstacle can make for a great read! I tend to be drawn more towards nature as metaphor.

One of my favorite examples is Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. Early in the novel, the narrator recalls a journey with his father across the drought-stricken Midwest of the 1890s to find the grave of his estranged grandfather. The land is painted as desolate, dry and hopeless, mirroring his father’s hopeless quest to somehow right a relationship that has irrevocably ended. The word “fruitless” comes to mind. But once they’ve found the site, and his father has done what penance he can by tidying the grave and saying a prayer, an amazing change comes over the landscape:

“…A full moon [was] rising just as the sun was going down. Each of them was standing on its edge, with the most wonderful light between them. It seemed as if you could touch it, as if there were a palpable current of light passing back and forth. . . . We just stood there until the sun was down and the moon was up. They seemed to float on the horizon for quite a long time . . . My father said, ‘I would never have thought this place could be beautiful. I’m glad to know that.’ ”

That utilization of the great outdoors as a place for personal growth is the idea I gravitate toward most naturally in my own work. A great many of my characters end up searching for their true selves, or trying to become, as you aptly put it, “closer to their natural selves.” I turn to nature as the vehicle for this discovery because I feel this pull too—this intangible promise that if we connect to the natural world, we will find something more basic and elemental in ourselves, and our own personhood will make more sense to us.

That may be why I’m drawn to natural places that feel wild and deserted—the woods, the aging barn on my family property, the fields that surround my husband’s childhood home, full of broken fence posts and renegade blackberry patches. These locations seem to offer the space and quiet needed to get your bearings about yourself.

I create similar spaces for my characters. My major work-in-progress, a young adult fantasy novel called Flynn, features a young woman who discovers her family history in an expansive landscape of parched, barren mountains, and rolling grass plains. The openness and intensity of this place appeals to me, as well as the sheer extravagance of such a landscape.

Another germ of an idea that I’m drafting involves a woman who returns to the forests of her girlhood in an attempt to recapture the person she was before her parents were killed.

I believe there’s some basic instinct that wants to connect our sense of self to our sense of place. Maybe that’s why the natural world is often the most compelling part of a good piece of writing.

 

SES: let me start off by saying, “fruitless” is a great word to describe the landscape you include from Robinson’s Gilead. it plays, as i’m sure you can see, a double entendre, the land unable to bear fruit, sort of like a barren woman and the character’s inability to heal, to grow. that the full moon has worked its way into this landscape and gives healing is clearly not a mistake. forgive me, i’m always sort of analyzing, but i think the section from Gilead that you include here is a perfect sort of metaphor of how nature is within and without us and how we as writers can work nature as a metaphor into the emotional lives of our characters.

life itself for me, in any case, works as metaphor on myriad levels: our health, our illnesses become metaphors for emotions we carry. our habits become metaphors for things we believe, hold onto, resent, love, etc. nature, it seems to me, is just another way of reflecting how we see ourselves and understand our world. i think this is true outside of the literary world we’re talking about; i believe it’s also how we see the literal, concrete world that we inhabit. it’s how we see ourselves.

i don’t know that i’m necessarily compelled by the natural world. compelled is not the word i would use. don’t get me wrong, i love creatures (birds and coyotes and bobcats, bears, et al) and trees, fields of corn or tomatoes, water. but i think i include nature in my pieces in the same way that a play or a film includes background, because it says things that i actually cannot put into words: the emotional life of a character or the emotional life of a whole town, a metaphor for the unspoken, and on.

in a piece that i started years ago, but never quite finished because the story changed and then changed again, i have a character walking home down a dark road in a small town. he’s an old man who’s refused to get a car, though his family has tried to make him get one, but he likes being in nature:

“For all the years that he had been coming to Cherishtown to cook he had learned how to take his time walking home. This depended naturally on a lot of other things, but all things being what they were, he seldom rushed. It was firstly, pointless, and secondly, you missed out on things when you did: the night-air smell, the stars (though he only ever could find that Orion’s Belt), the quiet. That may be, in fact, why he still did not to this day have that car.”

reading that section again, i realize that character is wise and innocent at the same time. just like nature.

and as i think about it, my very first story which i started writing when i was the innocent age of eight, was a kind of Simha-version of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series. after that, somewhere, somehow nature tended to set the scene. i write about small towns, eras in which few people have cars, eras in which technology was, well, horribly primitive. i have characters who are in love with nature, characters who abuse nature, and those who are completely indifferent to it. i think nature always offers some reflection, some metaphor of how they view themselves, others, and/or the world in which they inhabit.

my own experiences in nature are pretty sizable. i did a lot of camping as a kid. a lot for a little black girl who grew up in Los Angeles. we went to Yosemite, Yellowstone, Jackson Hole, Death Valley, Washington state, Oregon, Arizona, Idaho, Canada, etc. trees and land are the way i see the world. even in a home there should be some symbol of nature.

that said, i’m far more compelled by the unknown than i am by nature, per se. though, even that’s tricky to say, isn’t it? underneath it all, nature is the mystery.

 

RHD: I like that you brought up the word “mystery.” The natural world is kind of a mystery to our society, because in truth, most of us don’t have much interaction with it. At the same time, a person in today’s fast-paced world can sometimes feel disconnected from her inner self, as if her own personhood is a bit of a mystery to her. Is it too much of a stretch to see a connection there—that authors use nature as a metaphor for the emotional life because these two elements are both something of a riddle to modern man?

Do people seek nature hoping to unlock answers about ourselves? I think for some this might be true. Perhaps authors and artists tap into that hope on a conscious level more than other people. You’ve got the classic example of Thoreau who went to nature to reconnect with his writing in a profound way. Outside the writing world, you have people like Georgia O’Keefe, whose era of New Mexico paintings was inextricably tied to her pursuit of an independent personal life.

Then there are modern writers who understand that connection whether they themselves ever seek to live in the wild or not. For some reason, my mind keeps going to the young adult novel Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell. Although it’s a short book written for a younger audience, I consider it to be an exemplary piece on nature as a metaphor for internal growth. It’s the story of a young native woman named Karana whose tribe lives on a small island off the coast of California. The tribe sails away, and she is accidentally left behind at age 12. Karana lives in the wild—fending for herself, taming the animals, and coming to know the island—until she’s in her early 30s.

Karana’s mystery is the same mystery that confronts all teenagers: who am I? How do I exist independently of the people who raised me? This is represented through Karana’s struggle to use the island’s natural resources with the same skill and savvy as the adults in her tribe. It’s a process of trial and error, and she does some things differently than they did. As her confidence in living off the land increases, she develops into a grown woman. As she understands the island better, she comes to understand her place in the world. And, just as every teen’s years of struggle and isolation end in joining the adult world, so Karana’s isolation on the island becomes too great, driving her to follow her tribe to California.

Getting away from nature-as-metaphor for a moment, I’ve always been fascinated with different authors’ abilities to paint a setting so vividly that you actually want to be there. This is a more concrete use of nature—as an appealing factor to make readers enjoy your work—but it takes an equal amount of forethought and mastery of description. It’s quite a job to represent the truth of a natural landscape to someone who hasn’t been there. Not to mention readers who have visited your natural places, and will compare your descriptions with their own first-hand knowledge.

Last summer/fall I rough-drafted a novel about a girl who experiences small-town life for the first time during the autumn season. Having grown up in small towns, and seen many autumns, I mistakenly assumed that I could easily represent a midwestern fall from memory alone. This exercise ended with me realizing how foolish that was, and commencing a notebook of “Observations About Fall,” which lived in my pocket through every walk from September to Thanksgiving.

 

SES: my buddhist leanings would have me say, we and nature are the same. no different. scientifically, we are made of the same things. we and many animals can get the same illnesses. i heard the other day that dolphins can get diabetes—who knew?—and dogs, ptsd. when we don’t understand ourselves, the natural world seems farther away. the more we learn about who we are, like Karana, the more we understand the natural world. 

i think about the people who don’t feel at home in nature, even just a little bit of nature, and i worry for us. i worry how far we are from our true selves and how long the way is back. there are reports these days of people now defacing rocks in national parks. heart breaking. if nature is not sacred, and clearly it isn’t sacred enough, what is?

you talk about Thoreau and O’Keefe, about artists consciously seeking out nature, which brought up a couple points for me. first, i have to say i disagree that it’s just artists who consciously seek out nature. i think those are the people we celebrate doing it, however. there’s something very appealing and romantic (not to mention metaphorical) about an artist going into nature to rediscover herself. and we may need to witness someone as the person that steps into the unknown, into the natural world, into themselves. but i think that many people find resilience in consciously connecting with the natural world, people who will never pick up a pen or a brush: surfers, farmers, park rangers, firemen/women, holy women and holy men to name a few.

i know a group of women, many of whom are not artists, who do sacred ceremony in july in new mexico every year in the heat and the rain. off the grid. no phones. no toilets. no showers. just them and the land. they would never do that work in an auditorium or a backyard. there’s something to being on the land and connecting with themselves, each other, and the unknown in that way that gives back to them.

i truly believe we all have to find our way back to nature however we can, whether it’s in Central Park or with a pet guinea pig. or heaven forbid, going to the zoo.

as a writer i hope that i can, even a little bit, impart some sense of the sacred, through the actions and emotions of my characters, through a true reflection of how ineffable, unexplainable, and at the same time, profound and beautiful nature can be, how it can and does affect us, always.

my second point, or thought, is that at some point in the not-too-distant past the the idea of going back to nature was . . . well, there was no such thing. people were in nature. people walked on dirt roads. people swam in lakes and rivers. people killed and ate their food. i want to say this remained true probably some time before the industrial revolution’s peak. and for some cultures and peoples even today the world that has been made normal is what is foreign to them, cars and planes and trains, oh my.

it also occurs to me that in some ways the idea of returning to nature is very much a construct. from it came the need for national parks and the idea of camping, but also on a more negative end, a need to conquer (i’m thinking of european men here) women, indigenous people, and symbols of nature: lions, antelope, tigers, buffalo; the land itself needed to be conquered and torn up. (clearly some of the reason Thoreau was a naturalist is because of a reaction to the industrial revolution.)

i would be intrigued to know how we looked at the world once the industrial age was in its infancy versus how we look at it now. what did writers who were literally connected to the natural world focus on versus what modern writers focus on today?

now that i’ve gone on that tangent . . .

one of the things you mentioned that really stuck with me was about having to relearn what a midwestern fall was. this was very poignant to me for some reason. it is always intriguing to me how we can pass through a landscape without really seeing it. i moved down to southern California a few years ago and was living with my folks in the house i grew up in. they live near the mountains. i took a lot of walks. i realized there were birds that live here i had never seen before. i had to come to a new understanding of where i grew up, which opened up the possibility, of course, of writing about it.

John Dufresne mentions in one of my favorite writing guides The Lie That Tells a Truth, that in order to write about something you really have to study it. he says this about Queen Anne’s Lace: “How could I have looked at the flowers all my life and not seen what was there?” i think this is true particularly of the things we think we know–often things in nature. i don’t write things down in a notebook the way you do. maybe i should, but i do find myself looking and listening to birds, being surprised by cactus flowers or occasionally the actions of my dog. i start beaming at these things like a kid. just pleased that this thing i hadn’t fully gotten to know is also taking up space on the planet with me.

 

RHD: It would be interesting, wouldn’t it, to purposely sit down and make a comparison of what writing was like (at least in America), what it focused on, just pre and just post Industrial Revolution. Now you have given me something to do this summer between teaching gigs! Especially since I have a complete set of the Norton Anthology of American Literature, volumes A-E, sitting on my desk.

Off the top of my head, I can think of so many writers in this country’s infancy who recorded what their daily life was like. These people lived so close to nature that, like you said, the idea of going “back” to nature did not make sense yet. We get a feel for the natural world even through average things like their diaries, because it was so close to them. Yet at the same time, I imagine that writers took the natural world a bit more for granted in those days. When I sit down to write a scene where a character is, for instance, in a modern kitchen, I don’t go into great detail describing the fridge or how the stove burners work. It’s so universally understood by American readers that many details get glossed over. I really wonder if that same phenomenon happens with the natural world for those who are living and writing in it. I must sit down this summer and make a comparison—now you’ve got me so curious!

The intentional noticing you spoke of—yes! How important that is. When I read your story of finding new animals in the environment you’d grown up in, it really hit home for me how many assumptions we make regarding how well we know our environment. I think one of the best ways to combat this is to explore a landscape with someone who is completely unfamiliar with it.

I remember in high school, I became friends with a girl who had just moved to southern Illinois from the state of New York. She had lived in the New York countryside, but the climate and foliage and wildlife were different enough that coming to Illinois still felt like a huge discovery to her. I remember the first time she heard locusts. We were out walking on a summer night, and their grating, almost devilish song started up in some of the trees. She got an expression like aliens might be landing, and said, “What is that crazy noise?” Her reaction startled me, because locusts had literally been the soundtrack to every summer of my life (this is still the case, by the way, which is one reason I could never move to New York). I realized for the first time how bizarre and almost creepy they sound.

Another time, she was at my house for dinner during a thunderstorm. Afterwards, I drove her home. I came in to chat with her mom for a moment. She was floored by the strength of the wind and thunder and lightning. I was trying not to smile, as it had been a storm that Midwesterners would consider pretty average. No straight-line winds, even!

Those are two things I might not have thought to write about in much detail if I was describing the Midwest. Now I know. I wonder how many other things were strange to her that I simply forgot about? I will have to ask her when I see her next, if she even still remembers. It’s been about twelve years now.

On another note, I think you are entirely right that many people make valiant efforts to connect with nature and an artist’s effort is usually the most visible. It actually encourages me to hear so many stories of other people wanting to get plugged in to nature. (Oh dear . . . should I be using a modern electrical metaphor in this manner, or is it too ironic?) Your story of the women who get back to nature in New Mexico sounds, frankly, fascinating. Have you ever heard any of them describe the experience? I’d be interested to know what they feel they gain from it. Sometimes the more extreme measures give the best rewards. This is a principle I find to be true about most things in life.

The college I attended, a small, Free Methodist liberal arts school called Greenville College, has a ten-day hiking/wilderness trip each summer called Walkabout. It’s open to all students, though student leaders like resident assistants are required to go. The idea is that being in the unpredictability of the wild, along with the removal of modern comfort, teaches students things about themselves and about teamwork that they simply could not learn from a classroom experience. Years ago, I spoke with one of the directors of Walkabout, and he believes people can even learn things about their own bodies that they don’t know in the comfort of modern life—for instance, how much food you truly need per day, and how far you can push yourself in physical endurance.

I wonder what sort of impact a trip like that would have on a writer’s material? Obviously, if one wanted to write about a protagonist stranded in a wild landscape, a walkabout or wilderness adventure could be helpful. But I wonder if the act of noticing a strange and unpredictable environment can even help us be better writers to the stories that don’t involve nature. It certainly increases one’s power of observation, at least. Maybe such experiences could even inspire story and setting ideas we hadn’t thought of before.

 

Rachel Heston-Davis has been writing since she was old enough to spell. Literature and stories have always been her passion, a passion that led her to seek a degree in English from Greenville College and an MFA in creative writing from Lesley University. By day, she writes for a newspaper and teaches college freshman how to put a research paper together. By night, she writes fiction and graphic novels with a particular love for young adult fiction.

 

Simha Evan Stubblefield is a third generation Angeleno, an English instructor, a student of meditation, and a consummate eavesdropper, who blames her love of story on threads of unfinished family gossip. Shaped by the writer’s formula–quiet, imaginative, introverted child turns to books instead of people–she has always found story a form of both mystery and solace. She writes to uncover the inexpressible connection between history, ancestors, and the deep roots of African-American culture. In previous lives she’s worked with youth, studied journalism, and written billboard and radio ads. These days, she’s at work on her first novel, a book about love. Her work has so far appeared in Sequioa, Transfer, Woman, Ohana Anthology, and Reader’s Break Anthology

Renegade Blackberry Patches: A Conversation With Writers Rachel Heston-Davis and Simha Evan Stubblefield

How Frightening, How Fierce: Reflections on the March for Marc Carson

by Anne Hays

On the day the news broke that Marc Carson, a 32 year old gay man, had been shot in the face in NYC’s West Village, I was running in the Brooklyn Half Marathon. That evening, when Village residents held the first of two vigils, I was lying exhausted in bed icing my right foot—which felt like the bone had pushed through the pad beneath my big toe—until I fell asleep. And so it wasn’t until the next morning when I woke up and hobbled out of bed and over to the kitchen table and scrolled through the top stories in the New York Times that I read what seemed to me an astonishing headline: “In the Shadow of the Stonewall Inn, a Gay Man is Killed.” My partner woke up. When she gets up in the morning, she reminds me of a lumbering bear: pinked cheeks, straight brown hair muffled askew across her face and shoulders, naked and stomping blindly into the kitchen and usually unable to really speak yet. That morning she stumbled into the kitchen holding up her cell phone and exclaimed, “A gay man was shot in front of Gray’s Papaya!” and flopped down onto the kitchen chair next to mine.

“I just tweeted about that!” I replied. I don’t write tweets because I have followers (I have almost no followers). I tweet when I’m feeling crazed and twitchy; tweeting is my twitchiest response to any news. It’s a place to put things that I have no other place for. How can one even process the concept of a man shooting another man in the face for being gay right there on 6th Avenue and 8th street, right in the heart of NYC’s gay mecca, where I naively feel the safest I feel anywhere?

*

The murder happened blocks from Stonewall Inn and adjacent Stonewall Park, where in addition to the more obviously historically significant Stonewall riots of 1969, the advent of the gay rights movement, Stonewall Park is the location where my wife, June, came out to her Mormon mother for the second time (twice, because her mother refused to hear her the first time). I remember her second coming out well because we had just started dating a few months prior, and because her Mormon mother and three brothers (two of whom were still Mormon at the time) were visiting June in NYC, and because she and I had been lurking around the city in dark doorways all week, trying to avoid being spotted by them. Hiding from her mother in Greenwich Village felt to me like we had regressed decades, like we had travelled back to my memories of the early nineties, when holding hands in public with my first girlfriend meant suffering near-constant comments, but in this case we were hiding only from one person, the one person who mattered most to my partner. She and I were making out by the side of a coffee shop near Christopher Street when her phone beeped a series of texts from her brother that the whole clan was headed our way. June announced to me she was coming out for real this time—she was telling her mother about us—and I decided that I should not be there for this announcement. “If you want your mom to actually like me someday then I should be in another borough when you tell her.” She grabbed my wrist and pulled me down another winding street, whisking me further from her family’s march, whose footsteps we imagined we could actually feel pounding towards us through the pavement. We started jogging, I recall, darting around corners to find a safe spot to kiss goodbye. I caught a subway to Brooklyn and June found an empty bench in Stonewall Park to sit, and breathe, and wait for the terrifying moment when she would break her mother’s hope that she would ever be straight, or Mormon, again.

My poignant memories from that time include a pottery store—also blocks from Stonewall—where years ago June worked as the general manager, firing pots in the kiln in a dusty basement. There, she assisted shaky new mothers stamping their baby’s handprints on decorative plates, chaperoned young orthodox couples on their fumbling first dates, babysat ex-corporate executives on medicated career breaks, who spent entire days for weeks on end painting therapeutic flowered patterns onto clay teacups they didn’t intend to keep. Her arms rippled with fine muscles acquired from loading and unloading the days’ kilns, her fingers were calloused and weathered and covered in dried paint; I remember on our second date wondering if she would wash them before touching me or if that were even a polite thing to ask. As the manager of the store, she also managed the fence on the corner of 7th Avenue and Greenwich, which displayed ceramic memorial tiles grievers made for loved ones lost on 9/11. The pottery store served as the unspoken site of a community’s pain, and June, as the manager of other people’s fresh wounds. When June and I had been dating for three months, my uncle died suddenly at the age of 43. He suffered from schizophrenia and lived in a home for folks with severe mental illness and drug addictions, and he died suddenly in his sleep. I couldn’t cry during the memorial service, or at my family’s party afterwards, or on the long train ride back from Philadelphia, but suddenly as my subway clattered on through the bustling city I only newly thought of as my home, my vision started to narrow, and my heart began to pound, and the chatter of the other train’s inhabitants began to roar in increasing intensity. I thought I might scream, or puke. I thought I might pass out. I wandered off the train at 14th street and 6th Avenue in a near daze—it was snowing—and fumbled my way to the pottery store where, without saying a word, June pulled me by the arm down to the basement by her half-loaded kiln and held me and kissed my cheeks while I hysterically wept.

*

I don’t expect homophobia in my city, but I know it in my life. June has yelled at a lot of gawking teenagers on my behalf, and a lot of old men. She yelled at a couple of middle aged tourist women from the Midwest, one time, who found it hilarious to witness an androgynous dyke using the women’s restroom. Outside the city, June reports to me when people ogle me, or when their heads turn as I walk down the street. I try not to notice. I want to believe so badly that our world has changed, that homophobia is not the issue, that we are past all that.

When people “debate” gay marriage rights, I tell myself that this is a debatable issue, that we aren’t debating about who gets to live, but about which way. I tell myself that genderphobia is benign, that when a woman asks me to leave a women’s restroom, that she’s not talking about me, not really, or that all she’s referring to is that one space, this one bathroom, this one time–that the fear this triggers is not a fear of death. What is the psychic impact of that fear on the living? Who walk around life holding a subconscious awareness of other people’s irrational hatred? Anyone could think anything at any time, and I can’t tell the difference. How could Marc Carson know that his assailant was serious? I’m aware that I walk around with that fear only because I register frequent shock when strangers are kind to me, that they are kind even after they take in my buzz-cut hair and after they hear my high-pitched feminine voice. When people are kind to me, my shock tells me how far I’ve internalized the possibility of any given stranger’s irrational hatred.

Do people think about that? When parents write to schools to ban books with homosexual content from school libraries, do they know that people die over this? When they work to protect their precious children from content they “disagree with” do they know about hate crimes? Queers are beaten, and screamed at, and fired from jobs, and murdered. Queers are bullied as children, and as teenagers, and as adults. Queers commit suicide more than any other group commits suicide. It seems unconscionable; I can’t imagine that they know these things when they “debate” what they see as “issues,” but they must know. It is unconscionable that some people decide to not know the psychic impact of their actions.

*

At Marc Carson’s second vigil and protest march on Monday night, May 20th, thousands of people crowded in along 13th street between 6th and 7th avenues—so many people I couldn’t see the end of our crowd in either direction. We started the march at The Center, where years ago I attended a gender identity workshop and support group for folks born as legally designated “women” living along the masculine spectrum, and then we marched past June’s old pottery store, which is now a high-priced boutique for pet supplies. We passed the site of the 9/11 memorial tiles, which are no longer there, which are being housed in the Jefferson Market Library after the MTA removed them to make way for a ventilation plant. We marched past a seedy sports bar that was once the cafe where we first met, and where I studied her calloused hands carefully before walking with her to a lesbian dance club, where we spent the night not dancing because we were making out in the corner. We walked past the defunct hospital, whose ambulance sirens used to roar down 7th Avenue, and where Marc could have been taken and possibly saved, but was instead taken to the much farther Beth Israel, where he was not saved.

When we marched, we chanted a cheer I have shouted so many times at so many pride parades and never truly felt before, because pride parades feel connected to Budweiser beer floats and corporate sponsors whose presence doesn’t remind me of what the stakes are, of why we march for our pride. When we chanted during this march, my body kept shivering to the beat of the chant, despite itself.

The march ended in front of the location where he was shot, in front of Gray’s Papaya and the newly vacant Barnes and Noble, where 6th Avenue meets 8th Street. Marc Carson’s family were there, but they didn’t speak. Zachary Jones, a gay Bishop with Unity Fellowship Church in Bed-Stuy got up and with a booming voice said something that struck me, that gave me hope. He said, “God is on our side.” Before him, a speaker from the NYC Anti-Violence Project talked about homophobia and transphobia, the astonishing rate of murder and suicide among the trans population. When my partner and I test my feelings about my own gender identity by using a dildo in bed, I shake and weep after orgasm, because although she is not ashamed of me I feel shame; I fear what other people I don’t know and will probably never meet might think of me if they met me in an alleyway or a women’s restroom or maybe just on the street. The Bishop from Bed-Stuy spoke about the basketball player who came out recently, and proclaimed, “They are afraid of us. They are afraid because they no longer own masculinity.” When the Bishop spoke, I felt the most intense surge of pride and warmth in my heart, this amazing hot steel in my chest that I am someone who makes it impossible for hateful people to not encounter their own hate and hopefully question it, and someone who makes it impossible for straight males to own masculinity.

How fierce it is, to walk through life being oneself.

How frightening, and how fierce.

How Frightening, How Fierce: Reflections on the March for Marc Carson

Diving In, Elbow-Deep

by Heather Jurva

I lay on the sofa in the living room of the 1970s-era trailer, under a multicolored afghan my grandma crocheted out of scratchy acrylic yarn. I refused to sleep in my bedroom alone – the tin-can walls offered little separation from the Outside. The snuffling sounds without, the high-pitched adults’ voices within, lent themselves to a vulnerable fear, the anxious wonder unique to 8-year-old girls.

I watched wide-eyed as my dad nailed boards across the front door. A curious grizzly bear was trying to get in, and though the two-by-fours wouldn’t stop him, they would at least give us the time we needed to escape if he tried to make his way in.

I slept soundly, and the bear never breached the door. But the next morning – and many other mornings, scattered across my memory – we called the local Bear Guy before we sprinted to the car. “Problem bears” were tagged with tracking devices, and it was easy to pinpoint their whereabouts before we left for school.

Fear and anxiety and practicality and absolute respectful awe: This is what I know of the natural world. I grew up in a trailer in the woods in rural Montana. I knew nothing else, and nature was first practical and then— only when we knew our lives and homes were safe— it waxed spiritual.

My family called to monitor the location of grizzly bears before carrying on toward the local high school as if nothing happened. We banged pots and pans together to scare the moose standing, once again, between my family and the car. In return, we offered up hay and corn and summer apples to the deer and elk in the winter months.

My brother and I fished in the creek, pulling in enough brook trout to fry for dinner. I let my dad slide the knife into their smooth, white, shiny bellies before running my thumb through the ridges of their insides, examining the contents of their stomachs and slipping their guts into a plastic bag.

This, to me, was the natural world. Nature was gritty, irritating, inconvenient and delicious.

The day came, however, when I realized that Outsiders – strangers, second cousins and Californians – found our lifestyle strange. They became tourists into a life that was all I had known, and for that, I resented them. I didn’t want to be watched, I didn’t want their curious ears. I didn’t want to be admired – and along the way, I learned to expect admiration for my upbringing. I was proud, but I wanted to be left alone in a way that still showered praised upon my unwilling ears.

That dichotomy – the intersection between nature as life and capital-N-Nature as art – infiltrates our social conversations and shapes our natural resource dialogue. We hold fancy fundraisers and drink sparkling cocktails for the benefit of Wilderness; we paint pictures of land and trees and bears; we rally for the political protection of untainted wild lands. Nature is beautiful, symbolic, universally esoteric.

Nature is also a pain in the ass.

It’s a juxtaposition that has formed not only our most important social and political conversations, but also one that has molded me into a very special kind of woman and writer. I am constantly anxious about the meaning of practical things. What is this corkscrew worth, I ask myself? And this fern! Why do I keep a fern in my living room?! And these shoes! Enough of these shoes!

Once, not too long ago, I pulled on a plastic glove, tugged it all the way up to my shoulder. An ewe was giving birth, and it was to be my first involvement in the liminal space of birth.

And as I try to explain it, I realize that I can’t really explain it any more than I can explain the value of a corkscrew or a potted fern or the boards across the door of my trailer house. I want to describe the sensation of her body giving way in front of my fingers, her pulse running counterpoint to mine, the warmth and safety and female unity. I want to somehow convey the way I felt when I realized, elbows deep in afterbirth, that the little lump between my fingers was a hoof, and the knobbly bit was a knuckle and the biggest lump was the tiny head of a lamb. I want to explain the connection, the wondering if this will happen to me one day too – if I will expand to accommodate another small set of bones and muscles and skin and teeth, reduced to the physical components of myself.

But I can’t. But know that if I could, you would know where Nature really lives.

Diving In, Elbow-Deep

The Irreal and Deformative World of Lady in the House Virginia Konchan

1. What is your relationship to the natural world? And do you bring the natural world into your writing?

Interpreting “natural world” to mean semiotic language; landscapes not territorialized by tourism, gentrification, or ghettoization; animals (domestic, and those “housed” in museums and wildlife preserves), and other necessary essentialisms:  one of rapture, formerly. I grew up in Cleveland, so while my experiences of that post-industrial urban landscape were mediated, suburban life was per contra unpunctuated by commerce, diversity, and serial time. I spent many childhood hours in a backyard biosphere I created with my sister Anne, scavenging for berries and weaving twigs (in preparation for the world-making of poiesis), then, in adolescence, playing sports until dusk, living out Jung’s “participation mystique,” undifferentiated from my immediate environment (people, ideologies), as a mirror to, rather than detached observer of and participant in the world.

The “natural” figures into my writing through dramatic irony:  the split-consciousness of poetic personae, from Napoleon to Dolores Haze, as a means of self-representation, and dramatization of identitarian “difference” alert to structural inequities (class).

I recently completed a chapbook entitled A is for Amoeba:  a 27-poem taxonomy of a late-capitalist subject “inspired” (inspirare:  “to breathe”) by Olson’s theory of projective verse, in which the unit of measure in the line is the breath, not the iambic (or other metrical) foot.  I’m interested in archaeologies of the Word, wherein apotropaic utterances suggest a power to (re)animate life, not just figuratively (prosopopoeia, apostrophe), but literally:  the alchemists’ dream of transubstantiation from symbolic word to actual flesh.

I’m also working toward a lived praxis of the “natural” through a few creative projects:  with Caroline Picard and Jill Magi, an art installation entitled Lacunae, weaving cognitive and artisanal arts to labor, and, with Ashley Capps, a web project connecting the commodification of animal capital to the twilight of speciest ideology.  On 6/21 I’m hosting Habitus, an eco-event in Chicago involving local farmers, culture workers, visual artists, dancers and poets, to raise awareness about the rising tide of scholarship and activism in the fields of environmental aesthetics, the humanities, agriculture, and law, on sustainability practices as an alternative ethic to capitalism.  These projects were informed by Donna Haraway’s writings on companion species and cyborg culture, and Judith Butler’s writings on “symbiogenesis” (species cooperation rather than competition as the agent of all evolution), all suggesting endings to impending (or already-survived) apocalypse not based on the flawed logic of Darwinian determinism and the free market (deregulation and greed).

2. What aspect of human nature are you finding peace with? What are you cultivating?

I once believed in an American imaginary, an urban imaginary, and post-romantic imaginaries:  reified social landscapes which, because of fiat currency and fiat aesthetics, have become fundamentally irreal, or bankrupt.  In a globalized world, however, I now think we’re shaped by larger processes of self-, other-, and world deformation (eco-catastrophe, terrorism, biotechnology), or, possibly, formation, in accordance with new spatial metaphors:  Deleuze’s rhizomatic structure, say, rather than top-down power structures demarcating nation-states or so-called “orders” of the symbolic, imaginary, and real.   In my own life, I am finding peace with, and grieving, finitude (formal closures of existence, and art), and cultivating a processual “I” beyond the theoretical hallucination of the dialectical machine:  writing missives, and constructing systems of value, from the still-distant shores of a long-exiled (from reality and nature), and necessarily makeshift, “self.”

3. What extinct animal would you bring back into existence?

The dodo and the wooly mammoth (as neo-Platonic charioteers).

4. What is your nature’s candy? And why?

Aspartame, because 95% of refined sugar in the US is genetically modified, and because fake sugar gives rise to epic poems.  I also enjoy dopamine kicks:  hot yoga, and spontaneous acts of kindness.

5. When are you most natural? When were you most unnatural?

My most unnatural, though ultimately transformative, incarnation:  graduate school, where internalized the ideas that preferential judgment (likes and dislikes) equaled bad aesthetics, a consistent ideological position bad faith, a desire to be adequately paid for academic labor, and the aspiration to a full-time job upon graduation, materialist greed, and attempts to marshal an ethos to textual hermeneutics, aesthetic education, or the institution of the humanities evidence that I hadn’t fully liquidated my “self” (a construction) my past (a post-historical fiction) or my feelings (Pavolvian instincts awaiting a theory of affect for validity).

I am most natural when I remember to forget Roland Barthes’ dictum (“I advance, pointing to my mask”).  This unselfconscious consciousness happens while reading, making and experiencing art, and being with loved ones:  presentness (the becoming-natural of the performative “as if”) as grace.

The Irreal and Deformative World of Lady in the House Virginia Konchan

The Natural World & the Mind as Landscape: An Interview with Katherine Larson by Melissa Buckheit

MJB: Welcome, Katherine and thank you for speaking with me for HER KIND about your book, Radial Symmetry, Winner of the 2010 Yale Younger Poets Prize, and your writing process, with particular attention to the presence and sensorial experience of the natural world within your work. Your book begins with the poem, “Statuary,” which seems to assume the function of a lens, or perhaps even something like a coda, but at the beginning of the book rather than the end. It seems to introduce perspective, experience as well as themes that recur throughout the text. The poem begins with the image of cranes which seem to suggest some being or reflection of the self’s habitation in an intermediary place or plane between earthly groundedness and existence in another space or realm, either of mind or of physicality,

 

The late cranes throwing

their necks to the wind stay

somewhere between

the place that rain begins

and the place that it ends (11. 1-5).

 

The speaker seems to resist this intermediary space, “I’m sick/ of this stubbornness” (l. 14-15), but the existence of the earthworm presents a contrast—as creatures who,

 

seem to think it all right

they move forward

and let the world pass

through them they eat

and eat at it, content to connect

everything through

the individual links

of their purple bodies to stay

one place would be death (ll. 17-25).

 

The earthworm is both associated with death and decay, but here demonstrates the need for non-attachment, ease with living between ‘heaven and earth’. Like the cranes, they are unfixed in a way (although, ironically, they do recall the opposite superficially, as creatures consigned to live below the earth, just as cranes exist between air and water), embodying the imperative that “to stay/ one place would be death.” This path would seem to be taken by the speaker, as she travels throughout the book, setting the poems in locales from Ireland to South America. Worms digest the dead, all organic matter, and they create an environment for life in the soil, thriving in the process. The speaker’s voice and vision seem to emerge as this striving or an attempt at an understanding between the worm and the crane, particularly as relates to time, our perception of experience, and memory. Yet the speaker does not appear to arrive nor desire to arrive at any ‘conclusion’ about this movement; instead, she seems to pass through places, to exist alongside experiences, present and sensorial. This seems natural. She says,

 

But somewhere between

the crane and the worm

between the days I pass through

and the days that pass through me

is the mind. And memory

which outruns the body… (ll. 26-32).

 

Perhaps you can speak about these ideas, themes, and this poem’s relationship to Radial Symmetry, as a whole. I also wonder why you chose to place “Statuary” at the beginning of the text.

 

KL: First off, thank you Melissa, for reading the book with such generous attention. I’m also grateful to VIDA as well for illuminating and supporting women in the literary arts.

To answer your question, I’d first say that I’m a writer that is deeply interested in synthesis; I’m attracted to the tension that’s created by drawing seemingly disparate categories into relation in order to see what can be exposed, what kind of receptivities can be explored, what perceptual shifts may happen. In this book, it’s an aesthetic gesture that I think arose out of my sensitivity to displacement and suffering of all kinds, a habit for observing and examining “otherness,” and a preoccupation with topics of consciousness, dream and memory (i.e. “the mind”).

Though synthesis is one of my aims, the poem “Statuary” places emphasis on the space that persists within dialectics (both in this poem and others), introducing the presence of a speaker that is suspended at times within those liminal poles. You mention that the speaker of the poems does not appear to arrive at any “conclusion”; I think this comes in part because the poems are engaged with and/or emerge from a place where there is always the desire to unmask, to examine subjects through several lenses (“Study for Love’s Body,” for example), to investigate even their own investigations. Such a process can never be conclusive. Instead (at least I hope) their arrival is in the reaching—your “striving”—towards those slippery interstitial spaces that are so charged with paradox, with dynamic tension. I suppose in some ways you could say that I wanted to be able to place the paradox before I could begin to arrive at any conclusions.

Since the creation of the book spanned about a decade, I also felt the need to create a place to locate myself, to determine a place from which to work. My studies and working life have been very multidisciplinary and scholarships and grants enabled me to work, travel, and live all over the world. But the time that I had to work creatively was always fractured. I wanted to honor some of the lived experiences I had (for example, the geographical locations that are noted in the book are places that I have actually worked/travelled/lived myself). At times they are located in actual experiences, but only for the purposes of the poem as a whole. In this way, I hope that they don’t appear as just existing alongside experience, but as distillations of intensely lived and/or imagined experience, complete experiments unto themselves.

 

MJB: Please speak about the use of the natural world—beasts, fish, algae, plants, insects, birds, sea-life, and others—living and dead, in Radial Symmetry. These animals and others seem to exist as both themselves and also echoes of or interactions with the human realm, and the speaker. The book feels ‘peopled’ with almost a swarm of them, as we engage either through the voice of the speaker and her stark admissions, or in a narrated third person voice, which is almost removed yet somewhat omniscient as regards the speaker’s feeling and emotions. Why is the text populated with these animals, which seem to follow and surround human experience?

 

KL: I recently read Kinji Imanishi’s “The World of Living Things.” An ecologist, anthropologist and primatologist, the book is a short volume, intensely distilled, in which he delivers what he calls his “personal view of the world…(a) self portrait.” I think he framed something deeply important in this work. One thing he discusses in a resonant way is human life as included in the larger category of living things—the concept of life on Earth (to the best of our knowledge thus far) as having “grown and developed from one thing,” (i.e. that all life shares a common ancestor). This is obviously not a new idea—evolutionary theory has staked its territory here. (And how fascinating—and poetic—to think about the specifics of this idea, that we have genes in common with sea urchins, with zebra fish, with mustard grass). But what I really love is the way he then examines what it means for humans as a species to have affinity for those types of life that are most similar to us. Our intuitive knowledge of resemblances, he argues, determines this affinity, and thereby results in our subjective response.

Poetry and science, for that matter, are disciplines that I believe allow us to expand or push against the limits of our so-called intuitive knowledge and/or subjective response. The imagination in its generative power plays a vital role in making empathetic leaps, and I feel that a practice of empathetic response is one of the most essential practices that we as a species can engage in. To value human and nonhuman life—life that we may not have a natural affinity for—by entering into a state of reflection (on the convergent evolution of the human and octopus eye, the sonographic acoustics of a dolphin skull, the infrared acuity of rattlesnake vision) grounds us, enlarges us. Just look at The Oatmeal’s recent comic on mantis shrimp for an illuminating and humorous take on this idea. Cultivating cognitive and emotional empathetic response is a practice that helps us understand each other better as a species; it might even be the thing (not to be too dramatic here) that could end up saving us as a species.

I write from a place of profound curiosity of the experience of being in the world—and by being, I mean I think about all kinds of beings in the world (beasts, fish, algae, plants, insects, birds, sea-life, as you mention) in part because the subjective and fragmentary nature of human experience is something that alternately fascinates and frustrates and perplexes me. And I’m not just talking about knowledge of natural history or a matter of having experienced a childhood-in-nature, or of doing fieldwork in the wilderness. I’m talking about a whole and vital paradigm shift. That’s why, among other philosophical movements, the deep ecology movement and current discussions of flat ontology are such crucial ideas to me.

 

MJB: As a scientist, a field researcher and a poet, how does science offer or suggest certain frameworks for the perception of the natural world, and how do you create a bridge or natural relationship with poetry? Is this relationship between poetry and science one of ease or is it fraught with any complexity?

 

KL: My university training was in the field of ecology and evolutionary biology. One of the most basic precepts of ecology and ecosystem studies is that of relationships—a kind of scientifically based awareness and study of overlapping spheres of existence not just between living entities (both human and nonhuman), but their abiotic (nonliving) environment. It’s a field whose approaches include studies that span time, comparison, experiment, natural history, and theoretical and conceptual models. These are tools that can also be useful in poetry.

It’s been my experience that you can’t study science of any kind for long without bumping against the horizons of the unknown. There are those things we know we don’t know, and those things we don’t know we don’t know. In both science and poetry, you have to either figure out a way to bridge those gaps or to find a way to exist within them. For me, that experience is complex—sometimes fraught with mystery and wonder, other times with confusion. The poems “Love at Thirty-two Degrees” and “Crypsis and Mimicry” come to mind as examples. There are limits to how much and the ways in which we can know, limits to the properties or nature of that knowing (e.g. Schrödinger’s cat), limits even to the ways that we can articulate that knowledge.

 

MJB: What is your writing process, generally, and how did you/do you integrate writing with work in the sciences? I know you have worked for different periods in labs or in the field. Please speak about from where your desire to write was sourced. Did poetry co-exist with love of the sciences or was it a later arrival, among other interests? What other fields or activities fuel your poetry?

 

KL: Poetry has coexisted with science for me for quite some time now but I would actually say that poetry in many ways emerged from science: its strange, material beauty; its gaps and silences; its elemental feeling-around-in-the-dark. It’s safe to say that especially the biological sciences are a pretty fundamental muse for me. But I’m also inspired by the visual arts, by philosophy, by film, by all kinds of literature. I’m by nature a very sensual being; I love dancing, camping, hiking, and food. My husband is a truly fabulous cook and foodie, so that definitely has worked its way into my writing. And the new chapter of parenting my daughter, who is quite a firecracker, will surely figure into it too, though that’s still in process yet.

 

MJB: In the book, the speaker seems to float and flow among the object, animals, people, places and spaces, themselves, similar to movement through or with a river or the tide of the ocean. There is a preponderance of recording, observation, perception, and existence. Is this a reflection of an emotional or actual feeling or lived experience at the time the poems were written? Is this indicative of your style or perspective in a majority of your writing, or is it specific to Radial Symmetry?

 

KL: This is an aesthetic experiment that I feel is very specific to Radial Symmetry. It’s something that’s changing quite dramatically in some of my current work.

 

MJB: Please talk a bit about the poem, “Love at Thirty-Two Degrees”; what is the narrative of this poem—the conversation about love, science, the self’s identity, both as a person and a scientist?

 

KL: “Love at Thirty-two Degrees” was a poem that was about eight years in the making, which is to say that it was a struggle to finish. It’s one of the more difficult pieces to talk about in terms of its narrative, because at least to me, the poem has many threads. But certainly one of the main threads is the tension between reductionism vs. holism in scientific pursuit.

I think of it this way: when you displace the scientist from the proverbial ivory research tower and consider him/her as an individual: a person with complex motives and passions, with an intricate emotional and intellectual history, you recognize that there really is no such thing as a completely objective perspective. (Which actually allows you to realize the value of fluidity and flexibility—even of imagination—in thought processes. After all, many scientific ideas are expressed in terms of analogies or metaphors—how else can you explain the unknown except in terms of the known?). It also allows you to recognize a quality of vulnerability, a capacity for blindness or error. From a phenomenological perspective, the universe is not merely a universe we are aware of—it is the universe of our present awareness, of a scientist’s particular present awareness.

In this poem, I wanted to make the persona of the scientist (biologist, astronomer) visible. And in doing so I wanted to explore dialectics of reductionism and holism, science and art, Eros and Thanatos, mythology and scientific fact. It allowed me to engage in a conversation about the intensity of the desire to understand (and the processes through which one attempts to undergo and/or fails to arrive at), the ultimate and tender paradox that we can only understand the world in fragments.

 

MJB: The end of “VII” from “Ghost Nets” seems again to speak to that intermediary state between earth and another realm, from “Statuary,” at the beginning of the book. You say, “The brain humming in its electric language./ Touching something in a state of becoming” (ll. 16-17). This ‘something’ is or can be other living beings—human or animal—yes? What is the relationship between this serial poem and the rest of the book, particularly the aforementioned idea.

 

KL: My husband is a neuroscientist; that line is actually an artifact of one of our conversations as I was working on the “Ghost Nets” sequence. It speaks more directly to neurophysiology in the sense that the transmission of signals in neurons is fundamentally electric in nature (i.e. the generation and propagation of electrical signals known as action potentials are conducted by voltage-gated ion channels).

What I was trying to get at in the poem is the emergence of thought and memory at their most fundamental level. And you’re right to connect it with “Statuary” because that moment is intrinsically tied to the mind-as-landscape as a larger phenomenological concept. What the structure of subjective experience and consciousness can hold in flux, in paradox, in elegy. It touches, like parts of the rest of the book, on Dickinson’s “The Brain—is wider than the Sky—,” which illustrates this concept much more successfully than I ever could. But particularly in “Ghost Nets,” where the examination of a larger external landscape is at stake, I wanted to explore how the individual mind can become a repository for an imperiled ecosystem. This is not a new idea, obviously, but I hope the specifics of that particular landscape are.

The really interesting thing to me now—something I’m exploring in my current work—is how the mind doesn’t just become a repository, but a dynamic repository. For those interested, the French philosopher Catherine Malabou has written an excellent book called What Should We Do with Our Brain? A short but dense read. I highly recommend it.

 

MJB: Please tell us what your current work is concerned with and if you are working on a new manuscript or particular project. What are you writing about?

 

KL: Currently I’m working on a second poetry collection as well as a lyrical novel. I typically don’t like to say much about work-in-progress, but I can say that both projects draw eclectic inspiration—from Japanese beetle hunting to ecological restoration, twentieth-century French poetry to bio-inspired robotics. Much of the reading that I’m doing revolves around ideas of embodied cognition—basically that our motor and perceptual systems influence or “embody” our cognition, thereby allowing for a far more dynamic interplay of the mind/body connection than previously thought. I’m very grateful to the Arizona Commission on the Arts as well as the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies for their support of these manuscripts-in-progress.

 

MJB: Thank you, Katherine.

 

Watch & listen: “Ghost Nets, Sections VII-XI” from Radial Symmetry, for The Edge Series for Emerging and Younger Writers, Casa Libre en la Solana, Tucson, AZ, April 2013

 

Melissa Buckheit’s debut collection, Noctilucent, was published by Shearsman Books in 2012, and a chapbook, Arc, by The Drunken Boat in 2007. Her poems, interviews, photography, and reviews have appeared in Fact Simile, Shearsman, Sonora Review, Bombay Gin, Cutthroat and Blue Fifth Review, including her translations of the Modern Greek poet, Ioulita Iliopoulou. She is the curator of the Edge Reading Series at Casa Libre, teaches writing at Pima College and aerial trapeze at Zuzi Dance Co, and is an orthopedic massage therapist. She lives in Tucson with her partner and son.

 

Katherine Larson’s Radial Symmetry was selected by Louise Glück as the winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets. Larson’s work has appeared in AGNIBoulevardThe Kenyon ReviewThe Massachusetts ReviewPoetry and Poetry Northwest, among other publications. She is the recipient of a Ruth Lilly Fellowship, a Kate Tufts Discovery Award, and the Levis Reading Prize. In addition to writing, she has worked as a molecular biologist and field ecologist. She lives in Arizona with her husband and daughter.

The Natural World & the Mind as Landscape: An Interview with Katherine Larson by Melissa Buckheit

Jove’s Fierce Girl

by Jeneva Stone

As a graduate student, the playwright Aphra Behn’s outrage caught my attention, generating a dissertation on gender and writing identity in 17th century England:

All I ask, is the Priviledge for my Masculine Part the Poet in me, (if any such you will allow me) to tread in those successful Paths my Predecessors have so long thriv’d in, to take those Measures that both the Ancient and Modern writers have set me, and by which they have pleas’d the World so well: If I must not, because of my Sex, have this Freedom, but that you will usurp all to your selves; I lay down my Quill, and you shall hear no more of me. (1687)

In the wake of questions posed by VIDA’s “The Count,” Behn’s challenge to the male establishment still echoes. Now, recent commentary by Jennifer Weiner and Deborah Copaken Kogan (and others) analyze pernicious sexism in the publishing industry. The two describe marketing strategies using cover art as a form of gender straight-jacketing, whether designed to hyper-sexualize a book by a female author to “appeal” to male readers, or hyper-feminize another to “appeal” to female readers. Kogan wants her books to appeal to both male and female readers—Weiner is frustrated that men refuse to read books marketed as chick-lit. Both observe that the marketing of male authors doesn’t involve such blatant stereotyping. Male writers, the emerging consensus suggests, are marketed as androgynes, with a “natural” appeal to both genders.

Incidentally, Behn positions herself as an androgyne, her conceptual embodiment as a writer somewhat at odds with aspects of 20th century feminist theory. Behn doesn’t couch her writing body within the childbirth metaphor (writing a book is like having a baby), and she doesn’t say she lacks or wants a phallus. She says she has one, her quill.

In the 1970s, feminist theorists from Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar to Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray asserted the generative womb and childbirth as conceptual sources of female creativity, ideas still percolating through the work of many contemporary writers. In their study of 19th century writers, Gilbert and Gubar ask, “If the pen is a metaphorical penis, with what organ can females generate texts?”

So why does Aphra Behn use the image of the phallic pen, rather than childbirth, to embody her writing self? The short answer is that complex gendered associations about writing and the reproductive body go back well before the 19th century, with negative connotations clustered around the female, concepts still deeply entrenched in Western cultural consciousness. In my dissertation, I analyzed commendatory poetry (a precursor to dust jacket blurbs) and prefaces—early modern marketing strategies. Among my findings, the closer a metaphor describing literary productivity is to the biological female body, the more negative. For example, male writers expressing modesty often refer to past efforts (or worry that their current effort) is an “abortive” or “deformed” birth, or analogize the difficulty of labor to the stress of producing texts, as does Thomas Dekker (1607), “What a number of throwes do we endure eare we be delivered?” These find a modern day complement in David Foster Wallace, “The damaged-infant trope is perfect because it captures the mix of repulsion and love the fiction writer feels for something he’s working on.”

In contrast, tropes that figure the phallus bear positive connotations, such as this in praise of Ben Jonson, “from whose full strong quill, / Each line did like a Diamond drop distill, / Though hard, yet cleare” (1638), and this on John Donne’s work, “How will they, with sharper eyes / The Fore-skinne of thy phansie circumcise?” (1633).

Yet more complex figures exist in which men re-write the generative power of the female as their own. A conceit I dubbed the “phallic phansie” is elaborated upon ad infinitum during the period, a mash-up of commonplace gendered analogies of the early modern era: the fancy (imagination) with the generative womb, the imagination with a treasure-house, the “ore” of mining with a pun on “whore,” and the testicles and semen to a purse holding coins. Although gender-bending, these conceits have a whiff of modern-day slut-shaming. For example, William Cartwright says of Jonson’s translations, “thus doth the stampe and face / Make that the Kings, that’s ravisht from the mine: / In others then ‘tis oare, in thee ‘tis coine.” And Arthur Wilson writes of Donne:

All minerals (that Earths full wombe doth hold

Promiscuously) thou couldst convert to gold,

And with thy flaming raptures so refine,

That it was much more pure than in the Mine.

Through this trope, the raw material of creativity, ore from the womb-like mine, converts to the pure “coin” of male expression: “Thou hast redeem’d, and open’d Us a Mine / Of rich and pregnant phansie, drawne a line / Of masculine expression” (Thomas Carew on Donne).

These metaphors were predicated on a stylistic argument: as the metaphysical poets emerged in the 17th century, their proponents praised their “masculine qualities,” deriding other styles as feminine. Jonson’s style fell between the two camps, and he critiques some who “would not have it run without rubs, as if that style were more strong and manly, that struck the ear with a kind of unevenness . . . Others there are, that have no composition at all; but a kind of tuning and rhyming fall . . . Women’s poets they are called” (1640). Today, similar contempt is directed at “mommybloggers.” Thomas Sprat also critiques “feminine” style (1667):

But these Admirers of gentleness without sinews should know that different Arguments must have different Colours of Speech: that there is a kind of variety of Sexes in Poetry as well as in Mankind: that as the peculiar excellence of the Feminine Kind is smoothnesse and beauty, so strength is the chief praise of the Masculine.

While gender complexities may be analyzed through multiple theoretical frames, keep in mind that the job of the commendatory poet was to promote the book. In 17th century England, low literacy rates meant that most readers were men. Thus, Cartwright takes pains to show that Jonson’s verse, though “feminine” or smooth, is also virile:

Stout beauty is thy grace: Sterne pleasures do

Present delights, but mingle horrours too:

Thy Muse doth thus like Joves fierce girle appeare,

With a fair hand, but grasping of a Speare.

Jonson, Cartwright says, has the stuff to appeal to a discerning male audience. He’s an androgyne.

As women like Behn and the poet Katherine Phillips find audiences, their commenders must navigate a figurative landscape in which wombs connote literary inadequacy and failure, while phalluses connote excellence. Unsurprisingly, commenders of female writing did not use the womb as an unqualified figure of praise. They emphasized the “purity” of these writings (re: ore/whore puns), connected the work figuratively with that of male relatives and friends, and emphasized androgyny.

This last strategy most interests me today. Both Behn and the poet Katherine Philips were praised by male and female commendatory poets alike for their works’ gender-blended qualities. Of Philips, Abraham Cowley says, “Both improv’d Sexes eminently meet; / They are than Man more strong, and more than Woman sweet” (1667). Of Behn, “Ephelia” writes,

as your Inchanting Quill

Commanded Love, or Anger at your Will:

As in your Self, so in your Verses meet,

A rare connection of Strong and Sweet.” (1679)

“Philo-Philippa” says of Philips, “thy more than masculine Pen hath rear’d / Our Sex.”

We shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the marketing of Behn and Philips as a knuckling under to male hegemony. They were among the most successful female writers of a period during which men were the primary audience for books, yet female literacy rates rose significantly. Today, the situation is reversed: women purchase more books than men. Yet publishers seem to underestimate female readers, often replicating heterosexist gender stereotypes that risk alienating both men and women. For example, I am loath to purchase books with too many flowers on the cover or other soft-focus imagery, indicators that the publisher thinks I’m an airhead.

I applaud efforts to reclaim “female” creativity, but why not also claim our “masculine” side as we market our books? For centuries, men have seized the androgyne and adapted the generative power of the female to their own promotional purposes. But gender is a construct, a chimera—why should we be straight-jacketed by it? As the critic Joan Scott wrote, we should “treat the opposition between male and female as problematic rather than known.”

“Author” derives from “authority,” from the gender-male-linked attribute of assertiveness. Yet gender is not “natural”—as Philo-Philippa noted, “Nature to Females freely doth impart / That, which the Males usurp, a stout, bold heart.” Why not claim Minerva—gestated in the brain—why not be Jove’s fierce girl?

Jove’s Fierce Girl