On Furia and Writing Wild: A Conversation with Ire’ne Lara Silva and Stalina Villarreal

HER KIND: Bitch Magazine provided us with the following prompt for our BITCHES theme this month: In a May issue of Publisher’s Weekly, Claire Messud was puzzled by her interviewer’s remark that the main character in Messud’s The Woman Upstairs seemed like someone she wouldn’t want to be friends with. “Would you?” she asked Messud, who responded, “What kind of question is that?” and continued on to list a number of male fictional characters whose male authors, as far as we know, were never asked to account for their likability. Do likable characters matter? When you write, do you consider how readers will judge your characters—particularly female ones—according to gendered expectations of behavior?

 

STALINA VILLARREAL: Never would I consider the audience to develop the content of characterization. I think of the audience when considering accessibility and pacing, even formal poetics, but character itself seems to exude upon the exposure of rugged individuality, independent of others. For example, one of my poems has a female speaker that admits to having stained underwear from menstruation, and I have been thanked by females in the audience for saying such commonly unsaid truths. Originally, I had thought that the taboo I described with this character would have been unpopular, but as it turns out, the conflict of the plot helps fuel the character’s motives. The effect results in freedom of characterization. On the other hand, the challenge then is to answer: What kind of pursuit of freedom should the character have? I disagree with the screenwriting convention that each character only has one motive, for three-dimensional characters usually have more than one motive, even if the second motive is minor in comparison. The sister can be a mother and can be an enemy all at the same time, depending on the context. Transitioning is the key to taking turns with the motives, so I suppose that now I have contradicted myself by correlating the motives with the pacing. To be more precise, I should distinguish that I do not think of the audience when defining the character’s motives as I write, but I do think of the audience as I edit the proportions and sequencing of the writing.

Maybe I should also disclaim that my artistic background is in visual art, so my characters usually have a visual motive that I assign: a spiral, chicken scratch, a square, and so forth. This allows me to have what I call the dominant motive, but characters often have recessive motives. For instance, I know that I strive to have a circular motive, as it seems to me the most perfect shape, yet instead, I am bombarded with my spiraling, chicken scratching, cutting angles, holes, and stitches. Still, while my characters are usually fictional, I displace some of my emotional truths to make the characters molded to a vision that I can accept in existence, even if I disapprove of their potential popularity or infamy.

Perhaps I still haven’t answered the concern about the gender angle. I disagree with the double standards and the stereotyping, yet I actively pursue the feminist notion that women can be the subjects of desire rather than objects of desire. To me, this means rejecting the art history claims that circles are purely a feminine shape and that angular shapes are solely masculine. All genders have their moments of blurred behavior, hence the multifaceted characterization. I consider my gender bias to be queer.

Nonetheless, the majority of my work has what I call hidden characterization. Oftentimes, we do not know if the shy person became shy because of experience or if the person was born with a temperament that causes this person to be shy. Even when we think we have known a person for years, we sometimes still make an unintentional mistake that hurts because of a lack of understanding behind motives.

 

IRE’NE LARA SILVA: I don’t think ‘likeability’ matters at all. I don’t read or write to find ‘likeable’ characters. ‘Likeable’ characters aren’t often doing interesting things. Sometimes they are, but if you give me a choice between a character baking cookies and dreaming of love or a character waking up from a nightmare of killing their best friend, my interest is more likely to be piqued by the latter. What I want are characters that are compelling—characters dealing with situations that are pushing them to the limits of their comfort zones, their identities, their relationships, their coping abilities, etc. People living through those situations are often not ‘likeable,’ but we, as readers, empathize because we know what it is to live through those situations, and know that we were perhaps not always ‘likeable’ in those situations ourselves. Or, we’re fascinated by the unpredictability of the characters’ responses and what it tells us about them.

The gendered expectations of ‘niceness,’ of superficial beauty, of ‘keeping it together,’ fail to offer us opportunities to illuminate the human experience. I learn nothing—as a reader, writer, woman, or human being—if life isn’t illuminated, its brighter aspects as well as its darker and less likeable parts. Otherwise, I’m just being entertained. That’s not to say that I dislike being entertained—sometimes I want to read a romance novel or watch a sitcom or go to a movie theatre for a big summer blockbuster. And that’s perfectly fine—but to suggest that, as a woman writer, my foremost concern should be my characters’ likeability, is to limit me to use 3 crayons when I could have 128.

For example, I just finished working on a short story about a character with cannibalistic tendencies who’s deciding whether or not to give in to the desire to ‘consume’ her lover. Likeable? No. Compelling? I hope so.

 

SV: I agree: Transgression is welcomed in literature yet rejected in real life. Or at least we pretend to abide by our own norms yet tend to fall for temptations or to experience turmoil beyond our boundaries. Hence, literature has a purpose in this gray area of subversion, as even the most traditional Western literature depends on conflict to drive the plot and subsequent characterization.

I would even dare to say that humans find an attraction toward otherness, for obsessions of hatred and fear still inspire us to move or hide. The advantage is that an artistic representation of the grotesque is more approachable since it is more removed. The distance but exposure together allow for desensitization—or at least give us room to file more categories in our brain. Otherwise, we would never see monstrosity like the loving vampire or the endearing zombie.

As an audience member, I have always experienced the consciousness Brecht describes when he asserts that the audience never forgets reality, never fully gets lost in art, even with my escapist lens. Visually, this interplay can be seen like the localized color of painting: The shade of the pigment in a solid can be altered by its reflected light in the air. In other words, the artist and audience are simultaneously both codependent and independent. The latter of this duality concurs that likeability is irrelevant to any type of character selected for writing, and I believe this irrelevance should be the writer’s carte blanche. Worrying about the audience is futile because discomfort is already inevitable in potent writing in the same way that strong spices prick the taste buds. As a writer, I use revision as a way to rearrange the presentation for the codependence in the dining room, but acquired tastes seem to be too arbitrary to limit the writer’s choices in the kitchen.

Lastly, I agree that true learning requires a challenge, and that art can serve this necessary pain on a palpable platter.

 

ILS: I think there is an important distinction that needs to be made between an ‘artist’s audience’ and ‘the market’. When it comes to the ‘market,’ the work of art–book, painting, film, etc–is a ‘product’ and its value is determined by what people are willing to spend for it and/or by how many units of it will fly off the shelf. ‘Audience’ and ‘market’ are often conflated. Returning to those summer blockbuster movies–their goal is to attract as much of the market as possible, make as much money as possible, attract as large of a following as possible. And so, they use likability as a storytelling shortcut, often using familiar actors, and for the most part, sticking to established plot-lines and ways of telling a story. They have ‘test audiences’ and whole departments strategizing on behalf of their product.

But an artist’s audience is a different thing. I think of my audience all the time–before, during, and after writing–because it is my goal to tell a story, to communicate an experience, to invite a response. But I don’t conflate my idea of what audience is and what the market is. My work is not a product. I know this will sound idealistic/romantic/naive to many. How can it not matter how many books are sold? My ability to live off my writing depends on it. My work’s ability to reach a larger audience depends on it. A press’s or agent’s desire to publish/represent my work depends on it.

But I didn’t come to writing for any of those reasons. I haven’t poured time and energy and heartbreak and decades into my writing in order to have to deform/mutilate/hinder my vision, my language, or my stories. The audience I’m seeking, the one I’ve been writing for, is the audience that needs my work.

In Seven Nights, Borges makes an argument against the idea of compulsory reading. To roughly paraphrase, compulsory happiness only should direct the reader on their way. If the reader isn’t drawn to a book, then it’s a book that wasn’t written for them. Literature is diverse and rich enough that it will offer the reader something they will want to read.

Reading that passage, I had a revelation.  If literature was rich enough to offer something to every reader, then conversely, there was a reader for every kind of book. And books did not have to appeal to every reader. Books were written especially for some readers. And that freed me. To me, it meant that I would eventually find my readers. Find the ones I was writing for–who would find something they needed in my words.

I have been often humbled and awed by my readers’ responses. When you have elicited tears from readers or audience members, when you have had perfect strangers share their personal stories, pains, and triumphs with you–then the numbers on the page do not matter.

My life has been saved by poetry, by stories. I don’t say that lightly. I would not be here. I would not be who I am. I would not have enough heart or vision to care or to speak. I owe a tremendous debt to the work of others that saved me. My repayment is to strive to create work that may save others, that may help them heal, or that, at least, may enable them to go on.

I write from my gut. From my base chakra. From my vagina, as a friend once said. Personally, I have an affinity for the word ‘cunt.’ In my own personal act of language re-appropriation, I like to say (or at least think), I write from my cunt. To write from the heart sounds Hallmark-y, so I will stay away from that, but I mean that too–I write from the seed-filled center of my blossoming heart. All of this to say that I write from a visceral body. What I long for in art–as an experience and as an artist is the direct opposite of  Brecht’s consciousness. Give me the Stendahl effect–where all consciousness and all our ideas of separation cease to exist. As Stendahl wrote, “I was in a sort of ecstasy…Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty… I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations… Everything spoke so vividly to my soul…” As a reader, I want to feel the minute and the infinite. I want to have new eyes. I want the world re-made. I want my senses sharpened. I want to feel that my heart isn’t the only one beating inside my chest. I want to feel the preciousness of life.

Transgression for the sake of transgression, monstrosity for the sake of monstrosity, pain for the sake of pain, pushing boundaries just to push boundaries is not what my work is about. Perhaps I should have used another story as an example—a few years ago I wrote a semi-autobiographical story about a pregnant, almost suicidally depressed woman taking care of her terminally ill father. She spends most of the story speaking to her unborn child, walking along the ocean, and fantasizing about killing her father. The point of the story was not to transgress or to provide pain for the reader to consume. The point of the story was to share an experience as I felt it in my body. Returning to the idea of likability—there was no way I could see where I could tell this story if I insisted on a likable character to hold a reader’s attention.

 

SV: While the distinction between ‘audience’ and ‘market’ is important, during my education in the United States, I was taught early on that the poetry industry loses money instead of gaining it, that poetry usually pertains to the gift economy more than the actual market. Perhaps the fact that my poetry has only been published in Mexico contributes to this bias. I never think of my work as sellable, although I do put a price on it simply because I live in a capitalist nation; however, this is mostly a compromise in the adaptation of my aftermath of having lived as a red-diaper baby in a contradictory atmosphere.

I’d also like to clarify that I do not associate only ‘likability’ with ‘audience’; on the contrary, I was loosely trying to explain that both love and hatred are essential in art, that the worst art is when the audience is apathetic. As I see art as a sensory form of communication, ‘likeability’ and taboo must combine for the audience to feel. That does not mean that the description of a panhandler on the corner has to be that of a famous violinist, but it means that the artist has to play with arrangement, whether the likeability-taboo mixture is simultaneous, consecutive, or a combination thereof. Again, I have been influenced by visual arts, in which most products are about arrangement rather than invention. Because I am a maximalist, variety within intense patternmaking is my goal.

In my extremist perspective, I have to say that I identify with the minimalist Philip Glass regarding art being a nervous compulsion. I tried to sell out many times because the life of an artist is taxing. In spite of my efforts to be part of the mainstream, I would have committed suicide if it weren’t for art, so I only live because art motivates me to get up in the morning. Because I have a day job, sometimes art is a long-term goal rather than an immediate one, but I have to think about art every single day, even if it’s in an abstract or brief moment.

With that being said, my artistic motivation is independent of the audience. My “hidden characterization” is actually quite unpopular. Some writers have even questioned how it is possible for me to have an MFA with my “wild” writing style. I just follow my code and hope that later someone else (an audience member) has a code that can overlap in a Venn diagram, not 100 percent of the time but at least enough to make the person feel (negatively, positively, or both) at least once. Even when audience has booed me off the stage, that behavior still requires energy. Both negative and positive energy electrify me because interacting with others is a shocking yet enriching process. I use the audience’s free energy instead of paying shrinks, curanderas, or churches. In a way, I am the vampire of human electrodes; I use both art production and audience consumption as a healing process for my synapses in everyday life.

Now that I have confessed that I am a selfish person seeking and sucking energy through art (as opposed to sports or other fueling mechanisms), I have to say that preciousness is not part of my style. Especially since I hide character, I have to engage in experiences that strengthen my own character—usually challenging myself uncomfortably—so that some of the character development can trickle into the writing, even if the writing is fictional. I write using my gross motor, engaging viscerally, but I revise with my fine motor, focusing cerebrally without erasing the rugged skeleton. To grow, I have to step out of my comfort zone, and my ultimate outcome, as my painting professor once suggested, should be to produce works of varying value to avoid a plateaued state of existence.

 

ILS: You’ve piqued my curiosity with a few things you said: first, about ‘wild’ writing styles and MFA’s. As part of my own journey as a writer, I had a brief period of being anti-MFA because 1) I didn’t have one, 2) most of the writers of color that I knew had had extremely negative experiences in MFA programs, and 3) I feared that my developing voice would be crippled before it could find itself. Nowadays, I would happily go to one if I had the time, energy, and financial resources to do so—because I have my own voice now, because more MFA programs are available in more diverse places with more diverse faculty, because I can’t think of anything more lovely than 2+ years to focus on my writing, and because of the increased access having an MFA would give me to writer opportunities. With that said, I also have to say that I often feel like an ‘outsider’ because I don’t have an MFA. I’m not an academic. I’m not ‘trained.’ As much as I have read, I can’t claim familiarity with the American ‘canon.’ To my bewilderment, my stories were often judged as ‘too experimental’ or ‘un-marketable’ by various presses that I thought would be receptive to my work. I still don’t understand how they are ‘experimental’. They’re merely stories I told in the best way I could—with an Indigenous/feminist/poetic sensibility, yes, but not deliberately ‘experimental’.

Recently, also, I’ve been re-hashing an old argument with myself about how ‘validity’ as an artist is determined. To what degree do we look to degrees and teaching positions and publications and life arrangements as markers of validity as artists? By life arrangements, I mean the ideas I consider to be antiquated or elitist—that a woman artist/writer must be independently funded, funded by a husband, spouse-less and child-less, or otherwise free of all care-giving responsibilities. In order to create, I constantly have to silence all the voices that say that I cannot be a writer because I am from poor, working-class roots, because I work seven days a week to support myself and my brother, because I am his sole caregiver, because I am not free to travel widely, because I don’t have an MFA, because….because…because…

I hear so many women struggling to claim their identities as artists/writers…as well as the struggle to claim time, energy, and resources for their work. How do you see this argument for validity as artists working out in your life and in the women around you?

And returning to the idea of ‘writing wild,’ what is it that makes some writing wild? I’ve had my writing called ‘wild’ as well and have been left wondering what it means to be a  woman writer whose work is called wild, raw, primal, etc…more specifically, to be a woman writer of color whose work is called wild and raw and primal. When is it what I would like it to mean—that I connected through words to my blood and my gut? And when is it that it denotes that I am being perceived as writing primitively? That my writing is accidental/instinctive/un-educated…and not the result of decades of contemplation, deliberate choices, and painstaking revision?

Another point that piqued my interest was the difference between perceptions of poetry in the U.S. and Mexico. While we are both queer-identified Latinas, I feel that our backgrounds are probably very different from one another. How do you feel that your background and your queer identification inform how you perceive the creation of your art—whether visual or written—and how you came to identify as an artist/writer?

 

SV: To answer your question fully, I’d have to be very narrative, which is not inherent in my nature. To apply what John Locke wrote of a restricted freedom, I usually live very reserved in terms of expression, for even my journals don’t fully hold my deepest desires. I hear the singer, guitarist, and songwriter David Rovics with a disclaimer: “It was no one that I knew who ran the plunger up my ass / It’s just that I was told to speak freely.” Although he inspires me to practice the First Amendment, my unusual upbringing quickly taught me that I offend and argue less if I just stay quiet. Marginalization was imposed upon being named after Stalin for my first name and upon being named (for my middle name) after Emmanuelle Arsan, who wrote erotic literature—among a myriad of characters, the one that mother points out is the one about the wife of a diplomat who slept with the wives of other diplomats. I think my parents wanted a daughter with character. To make my identity even more pluralized, I also had an epiphany during my formative years when I read Edward T. Hall’s The Hidden Dimension about cultural proxemics: I have some Arab tastes from my mestizaje that partially like to obscure the figureground. The latter impacts my aesthetics most, but that may be caused not from lineage but rather from experience—despite the gringa rhetoric of tolerance that my (also pluralist) mother instilled in my brain, the public seems to be very intolerant when confronted with lack of commonalities. My art, then, serves as my shield. I call my poetics partial poetics because I only share an assemblage of fragments and because I am biased.

As I was raised by a feminist, it has been my understanding that I have a fundamental freedom to defend but that the struggle for freedom is ongoing. My mother explained to me that when she was young, she used to attack with expressions like el tuyo and chinga tu padre, but that she later realized that succumbing to gender-associated insults means to stoop down to the level of the original oppressors. As a result, I refuse call a person words like bitch, but I have caught myself degenerating by using the word as a verb to mean to gripe. I’d like to diminish this behavior since the only linguistic difference between the genders that I’ve read about is minor. According the linguistics blog Language Log written by linguistics professors, women tend to apologize more. Is apologizing bitchy? Maybe slightly, but not in the way that the word bitch is used. While this misperception may seem trivial, it still shows the desensitization of language amid popularity. Society seems to be the one that oversimplifies, and my struggle is that I live in a country that likes to tag everything.

Among those tags are words like queer, Latina, and so forth, and I recognize that I was born in the seventies when some labels like Chicana were used to empower. Sure, I can use these existent terms to explain who I am, and I enjoy that pluralism allows me to adopt multiple identities. Nevertheless, predetermined tags are uncomfortable—I hate them. For instance, the word agnostic seems to supply the definition that others like most for my theism, but it does not satisfy my own delineations, as I am an intrapersonal theist but an interpersonal atheist. This search for answers using tags may be part of human nature, but it seems hypocritical that inquiry can be portrayed as being rude. For example, it seems unfair when people ask where I am from. I answer “Houston,” but they really want to know why I am not like them. My answer does not suit them, so further questions must be asked, even though it is impolite for me to ask about lineage in return when they, in turn, assert being natives. In other words, because I am an immigrant (Mexicana), it’s easier for them to ask me about location, but when I ask about the America of immigrants and lineage, the mood usually turns sour. Self-identification seems to be safer, but even so, it’s still more complex than it seems. Another example is class. Economically speaking, I fall under the upper part of the lower class, not rich enough to be middle class, yet that is not the type of term that I talk about in my personal life. I identify as a pinko, someone who is not communist but is sensitive to communists. I mention this because of my strong-but-nonstandard beliefs, yet demographics tend to ask about given-but-not-acquired standards. I do like that some of the tags mentioned above are more politicized and could be seen as acquired, but if I had to select one tag or two tags to flaunt, I would feel fragmented because I do not write just chic lit, only bi-chic lit, solely Chicana literature, purely poesía frontriza, or simply Marxist literature. To answer your question in its simplest form, description defines things without naming them, so characteristics of these tags in my writing and art are evident in sequence, simultaneity, or both.

I treat language as a material, and as much as writing is about the human experience, I still see it as an inanimate object that I forge, saw, solder, file, and sand like a blue-collar worker. Poetry may be a white-collar activity, but again, the supply supersedes the demand, making the profits look like an utter loss. Although in Mexico the government spends more money on poetry than its more affluent neighbor the United States, I don’t usually have access to these funds, as I was given the impression that more opportunities are given to young Mexican poets while the older ones need to have similar expectations of publishing as the poets in the United States. There is a possibility that I am misguided in regards to the very economics I evade. I do know that I am limited in my applications in Mexico by the types of identification documents I have, and one essential one has to be obtained by living in Mexico. Consequently, I disassociate the idea that I would receive money for my work, even though it occasionally happens sporadically, briefly, and marginally. For materiality, I still rely on the breadth my visual art, a mark of my hand, for the depth of my pencil-pushing and finger-typing writing; synaesthesia allows me to make poetry my primordial and primary form of communication.

The most obvious characteristic that the audience remarks is the code switching. This may be why it’s easiest for me to blend among Chicano poets and Mexicano poets who like bilingual work. Being part of the Generation 1.5, I partially use sound to cantinflear, a process I learned from my father but created by the popular Mexican comedian Carlos Cantinflas to gibber using similar-sounding words, which I speculate that in the United States could be accepted phonetically by slam poets but could be accepted lexically by poets familiar with modern and post-modern movements that emphasize abstraction as part of form rather than content. For form, I combine both Latinate and Anglo-Saxon rhythms and sounds to appeal to both my ear and possibly the audience’s ear. For monolinguals, I believe that readers familiar with Erza Pound are more likely to accept that I use more than one language, although the code switching probably creates a language barrier for many; however, for bilinguals, the wordplay is familiar when learning cognates and false cognates. Much of my work is a mistranslation about culture clash.

The gender part, on the other hand, when actually present, is the part of the content that is most graspable. I’m what some of my friends call futch, neither femme nor butch. I let the audience decide if my cyclone is a yoni from the heavens or a phallus from the earth.

I think that the reason why people call my poetry experimental is because I overtly force the reader to fill in the gaps, a process contrary to today’s information age. However, I feel that good art, even traditional art, has to challenge what has been previously created, and that this particular process requires experimentation, even if the experimentation is not deemed as peculiar. In essence, I disagree with the societal associations of the term experimental.

The word wild is usually used to describe fauna and flora that are not human, so I was insulted when my work was labeled with this subhuman adjective. Granted, I do animate art media like wood, but I sarcastically told a friend, “Bring on the antlers!” Perhaps I am unruly at times, but what I learned in art school is that every decision has to look intentional, even if there is a nonsensical part. I’m starting to move toward the use of the oxymoron, but I still allow for the juxtaposition of the unexpected, which sometimes appears to be nonsensical because I seek syncopated hyperpluralism. Who was is who said that Frost was not writing about the choice between two roads but multiples? The road is the erred ode is the era odd, ha!

I could not be an artist today had I not been formally trained simply because I started out green as an engineering major in college, but I do not think that a piece of paper legitimizes an artist—experience does. I lucked out that I started out at a school that did not require a portfolio. I knew in my calculus class when I was having emotional responses to the graphs on the board that I belonged in an art-history class, not a math class. Today, I am still pathos driven; as an English teacher, my students tell me that they enjoy my instruction when I make myself emotionally vulnerable in the classroom. Alas, I have not left academia, but I still feel that prose is a coercion of society, although I believe everyone should have access to utilitarian prose if the individual chooses so. I’ve just always been insecure about my prose because of standardized testing; I even think that, unlike the writers who take pride in honing their prose, I allow mine to wilt, leaving my own prose to be left boring unless it has poetic moments.

I do agree with you that having a few months to eat, live, and breathe poetry is phenomenal, but in the aftermath, you still have to reconcile with reality. After you overcome the post-MFA withdrawal of the writing community, you have to establish a writing community to interact with regularly. Further, not only do you still have to make ends meet, but you also have to deal with the fact that aging leaves a more decrepit body each day. For a loner like me, my mind yields my escapism.

And as you make the decisions that you live with, it is now my turn to inquire: How do you make your own decisions between identity and writing? Also, how much of your experience would you say is typical or atypical?

 

ILS: When I was a child and young reader, I had a thing for stories about foundlings—everything from The Ugly Duckling to Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles to Jane Eyre. There was something about not being recognized for who you were that struck a strong chord in me. Whether it was the duckling coming into its beauty or how Taran the assistant pig-keeper became a hero or Jane Eyre’s insistence on autonomy, it was the tension between destiny/nature and the perceptions of the external world that fascinated me.

Growing up, I never felt like I belonged to my family. I didn’t fit. I wasn’t the quiet, obedient, pretty child my family and culture expected me to be. I talked back and fought with my brothers and was too dark skinned and ‘fat’ for that. I loved words and books and daydreaming, but my parents were illiterate, with only a first- or second- grade education. I was passionate about libraries and ideas. My siblings were into partying and football and tv and disco and erasing their culture so that they could become white-identified consumers.

My parents, most of my grandparents, and so on were born here in the United States, but due to that lack of education and living in South Texas, I spoke Spanish until I started kindergarten and we thought of ourselves as “Mexicans from this side.” I learned and claimed, in turn, ‘Hispanic’ and then ‘Mexican-American’ and then ‘Chicana’ and then ‘Latina’ and then ‘Xicana.’ What ran under all of those labels, though, was Indigena/Indigenous. This land is my homeland and the homeland of my ancestors. The dominant society may try to make me “Other,” but down to the marrow in my bones, I know this land is my home.

I was very defensive of my family. I’m not the oldest, but due to how much older my older siblings were, I often ended up being my parents’ translator with the English-speaking world. I was there when my mother was looked down upon in the grocery store because she couldn’t fill out a personal check. My father would have me call when we were migrating to a new town and needed to rent a house or apartment for a few months. The landlord or landlady would tell me all about the rental property, schedule a time for us to come over, sound glad on the phone that we were ready to move in immediately. And I was there when my father would knock on the door—they’d take one look at us and shout, “It’s not available anymore,” as the door slammed shut.

So there was that conflict between me and my family, the conflict between my family and the world, the conflict between some of my sibling’s desire to acculturate and my insistence on retaining my Spanish, on learning Mexican ranchera songs, on claiming my Indigenous ancestry—and that’s before even involving my desire to write and my identity as a queer woman.

I went to college firmly believing that writing would only ever be a hobby. But everything—my understanding of myself and the world around me— completely changed when I first read This Bridge Called My Back and other work by Gloria Anzaldua and Cherrie Moraga and bell hooks and Audre Lorde and Toni Morrison and Leslie Marmon Silko and more. As for the queer identity—that took a bit longer to coalesce. I was comfortable with bisexual for many years, but I never felt the need to come out to my family. I was fine with the silence that kept the peace—and through those years, my youngest brother’s gay identity and the conflict that set off with our father and other siblings completely overshadowed my own journey. I came out officially to a few friends in 2002, but my perception then and since is that most people can’t figure out how to label me or where I fit within their paradigms of the masculine and feminine. The first time I heard ‘futch’ though, I thought, “I could work with that.”

I’ll agree that the tags and labels are a pain—in my opinion, mostly because they set us up for people’s expectations and shut down dialogue. Tags are an easy way for differences to be prioritized above commonalities. But I have felt kinship and connection with people from vastly different backgrounds and lives. When people are concerned with beauty, with language, with emotional/psychological/spiritual truths, there are so many more points at which to connect.

At different points, my being a queer Latina with my particular background might directly inform my work in ways that can be easily seen—but just as often, it won’t. furia, my first book of poetry, was much more about grief and loss and family than it was about anything else. My short stories—while they are about my cultures and my histories—are not autobiographical. The poetry manuscript I’m polishing up now is about diabetes, illness, and healing. And the novel I’m writing—about a Mexican-American hermaphrodite living on the border and trying on different genders and sexualities –may be the ground where everything collides…and who knows what I’m going to write after that?

It took me a long time to claim the label of ‘writer’ for myself. I still remember that moment in 1999 when I was taking an informal six-week writing class where the daily journaling exercise finally made me realize that I had an unlimited supply of words, ink, and paper at my disposal. Much more than I could ever exhaust. It took even longer to really claim for myself that I would see my dream realized—a shelf of different books with my name on the spine.

Books with wild writing inside—wild the way Natalie Goldberg describes it. I like the association of wild to flora and fauna, to the natural world, to the ways we are both animal and spiritual beings. To be wild and original and connected to the essence of things the way Lorca speaks of it in his essay about El Duende. I want to own primal, to speak words that penetrate and resound beyond solely the level of intellect and theory.

 

 

ire’ne lara silva has lived in Austin, TX since 1998. She and Moises S. L. Lara are currently co-coordinators for the Flor De Nopal Literary Festival (December 2012). Her work has appeared in various journals and anthologies including Acentos Review, Ginosko Literary Journal, Mas Tequila Review, Pilgrimage, Bordersenses, Sin Fronteras/Writers Without Borders, CIPACTLI, Kweli Journal, The Worcester Review, Rhapsoidia, Soleado; Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Palabra, The Mesquite Review, La Revista Literaria de El Tecolote; Kalliope: A Journal of Women’s Literature & Art; among others. She is the 2008 recipient of the Gloria Anzaldua Milagro Award, a Macondo member, a 2010 Cantomundo Inaugural Fellow, and the 2013 Fiction Finalist for A Room of Her Own Foundation’s Gift of Freedom. ire’ne lara silva is the author of two chapbooks: ani’mal and INDíGENA. Her first collection of poetry, furia, was published by Mouthfeel Press in October 2010 and received an Honorable Mention for the 2011 International Latino Book Award in Poetry. Aunt Lute Press will be publishing ire’ne’s first short story collection, flesh to bone, in October 2013. ire’ne and Rain C. Gomez  are currently co-editing an anthology titled, Chronically RED: Indigenous Bodies Writing and Resisting Chronic Illness in the Age of Paracolonial Occupation

 

 

Stalina Emmanuelle Villarreal is a Mexican and Chicana poet, a translator, and an instructor of English. The book (H)emötoma by Minerva Reynosa has been the main focus of her translations, for which she attended World to World, Mundo a Mundo in 2009 to workshop poems from the book. She is also the translator of “Grace Shot,” by Luis Alberto Arellano in Sèrie Alfa: Artiliteratura, “Eight Fabulous Animals” by Ilan Stavans in Eleven Eleven, and nine poems by Minerva Reynosa in the latest Mandorla. She has an MFA in Writing from the California College of the Arts in the San Francisco Bay Area. Stalina lives and works in Houston.


On Furia and Writing Wild: A Conversation with Ire’ne Lara Silva and Stalina Villarreal

Its Beautiful Not Caring: A Conversation With Poet Sally Ball and Artist Sally Deskins

HER KIND: In her poem “Summer X-Rays,” Nina Cassian tells us: “That’s why I swim so far out,/ willing prisoner/ inside the sea’s immense green magnifying glass.” What draws you to the water? How far are you willing to swim and why?

 

 

Sally Deskins: First off, of course, thanks for introducing me to Sally Ball and her work! I’m honored and thrilled at the opportunity to have this conversation with her! As well as Nina Cassian’s poem, what an honest delight….

I had never heard of Nina Cassian or “Summer X-Rays.” Before reading the poem in its entirety, my immediate answer to the question “what draws you to the water?” was simply: “peace.”

I thought of my summers spent visiting San Clemente State Beach and Doheny State Beach in Southern California. My mother’s family lived there; each visit was a few weeks of utter respite—the beach to me was a place of peace not only because of its literal tranquil qualities (albeit frigid water itself, sand rough, who can’t resist looking out into nowhere, recognition of your smallness to the vastness, splashing all wild and uninhibited), but because my mother, too, was calm, herself home, back where she was planted.

My first real memory of the beach, was at age three or four, when we just arrived; I was without my swimsuit yet, and immediately undressed to get myself enveloped in the heavenly waves. My mom laughed, smiled, took my picture—something I surely wouldn’t have gotten away with back at home in the Midwest. That photo sat framed in my family’s home for years, which alone I adored, but loathed in front of company—curious, the sense of comfort of nudity in one place, and absolute shame in another. Who wouldn’t choose the former? Why does the latter even matter?

After reading the Cassian poem, I was taken aback—I felt she wrote my experience with the water (which, when I think of “water” I think of the beach—even more specifically, “my” beach in Southern California). The tiny moments, the dread upon leaving, how the beach literally makes you feel humble, content and free no matter whatever else is going on. And savoring that moment, for it’s quick. (This is the inspiration that I’m drawing on for my current series of artwork—my prints are made quickly; I paint various ocean-inspired colors onto my breasts, do a push up, and it ends with a pleasant abstract image embracing this seemingly simple, satisfied feeling.)

I have lived most of my life in the middle of America, far away from the beach water. Still, being born in Oregon, and from my serene summers, I too, feel like being near the water is blissful, home. A few days ago, I moved to the opposite end of the country—near the east coast, I’ve found myself bits closer to the water, but also engulfed in hills, where it seems a trip to the beach—to anywhere—is just out of reach. It isn’t, of course, and this bliss is really simply in my state of mind. Is it possible to have this feeling somewhere else? As they say, “wherever you go, there you are”—then why do I feel so different near the water? And, how can I bring the water feeling to wherever I am?

For, of course, this water I write of, also causes wretched destruction. This is, thankfully and fortunately for me, not what I immediately think of when I think of “water.” Still, it lingers. Which is why I never go out too far . . .

What draws you to the water, Sally B.?

 

Sally Ball: I think it’s both of the things you mention too: I’ve been around the ocean all my life (or all my summers, now that I live most of the year in Arizona, ocean of dust), and I’ve always been drawn to the water’s edge—for the way it makes us small, and for the allure of that vast body when it’s peaceful, the alternate thrill of seeing it chopped up and dangerous. The ocean is so much, so big: you can’t help releasing your sense of being In Charge. My poem “Tributary” is about this; these are the first few stanzas:

 

About the sea we love the combination

comfort and menace, the sense of water

gently holding us, of depths engulfing—

 

we love to be the smallest particle,

germinal, relieved of any prowess

or conviction about prowess,

 

about control. Inside the sea I know

I love the salty shoring up; I love

the way a wave will take my body

 

and cleave the foam with me

as with a post. My almost

running out of air.

 

I’ve just arrived back at the Jersey shore, where Sandy’s destruction dominates the landscape. My mom’s house is still here, but lots of people I know lost everything. Or lost more than they can recover from any time soon. Last night I drove north about two miles, and there was a crew dug into the middle of the main road, in a trench as deep as they were tall, five feet wide and as long as a school bus, lit by klieg lights, that they’d dug in the late afternoon, and which was closed and paved over this morning by 8. AmeriCorps volunteers worked in a friend’s garage all day yesterday. People trade stories about the kindness and muscle of the National Guard, and groups of veterans who appeared right after the storm to help. There is still heaps of debris in people’s yards, vast open spaces where yards and houses used to mark off the landscape square by square. So many trees and plants are gone, washed away, and among what’s left most evergreens are brown and brittle. Teenagers ride their bikes around the detritus (broken clapboard, washing machines, hunks of torn concrete, stuff you can’t tell what it was. . .). Sunday afternoon my kids pulled a florist’s square-sponge base and its glass bowl (wired together, still trailing some sturdy stems) and a leaf blower out of the bay. Someone’s kitchen table, someone’s garage.

So I have been expecting mixed feelings about the water.

Today I went to the beach for the first time (usually I go on Day One: I must’ve been —scared to see it? scared to love it (or not love it?) after all this?) I turned out to be alone; a lot of New Jersey is still in school, making up the days Sandy shut them down. I stood knee deep in the cold water and tried to think about it à la the pathetic fallacy, à la the objective correlative, and it just didn’t work: the water doesn’t care, has no will, etc., etc. Uh duh.

I’m reading Geraldine McCaughrean’s excellent Theseus to my youngest son right now. So as I went in a little deeper, I thought about Poseidon, about Greece’s need to have someone moody to appease.

The water distracted me with its beautiful not caring.

The water rippled past incredibly clear and clean (almost no shells, no seaweed, no fish today, nothing) crisp bubbles and docile crinkled waves. I went out further, dove into it, tasted the salt. The first plausible wave I paddled with, rode without thinking—whoosh. This is my ocean, I thought (like you, “your” beach!), relieved, maternal and daughterly at once—not despite but because of knowing how much itself it is.

Sally, I want to see your paintings! They seem like they would exactly match this it’s mine, it’s utterly itself sort of feeling (not to mention the pleasure of lying down in the sand, which yields a little—quick to relinquish whatever shape we press into it.)

 

SD: First of all, I love “Tributary”; even the excerpt you shared is so lovely to read—“comfort and menace . . .depths engulfing . . .relieved of any prowess”—just perfect! Thank you for sharing that! I hope to read more of your work.

And you are from the Jersey Shore—wow—I cannot imagine what it has been like going there. I really had no idea there was still such destruction and need for rebuilding—disappointing not to read more about it in the media, as I’m sure you are as well. Still, the way you described your solo visit to the water was calming—“the water doesn’t care”—so simple yet so profound actually! I never thought of it that way, but exactly! And, “maternal and daughterly” is, too, right on. I am so honored to read your words!

On the note of my work—I’ll include one or two examples here. I started about a year and a half ago, doing body prints inspired by Yves Klein’s “Anthropometries” which I knew of, but when I saw them in person in an exhibit in D.C., I was speechless and had to do it myself—in a feminist way, of course: myself as model, director, and artist.

Anyways, my first series focused on womanhood and body perspective. I used quotes from women I’ve interviewed and various colors of paint—more just expressive and fun.

 

“Objectivity is Myth,” acrylic on canvas, Sally Deskins, 2012

Then, I did a motherhood series exploring my body/sexuality and motherhood roles, which I did body prints and nude drawings along with childhood imagery. One of my pieces, I decided to just print my breasts a number of times for practice on one sheet, and a friend saw it, and said, “hey, you should draw those into monsters or something.” And I thought, hmm, that’s cool, but they kind of look like fish swimming around in a fishbowl. So this was the result, which has been by far my most popular piece—it sold last year in Philadelphia, after being in a few shows and published twice:

 

“Breastfish,” tempera and pencil on paper, Sally Deskins, 2012

 

So, though it wasn’t my favorite, I thought more about what fish meant to me, and a whole series came to fruition—sea life, the blissful fleeting beach feeling, and the ironies/humor of women’s bodies and imagery.

I’ve made over 100 prints to get drawing on, in my new oceanic color scheme. Here’s one that you can kind of see the fish shape already taking shape.

 

Untitled in progress, acrylic on board, Sally Deskins, 2013

 

And one I drew a rainbow fish on.

 

“Rainbow fish,” acrylic and pencil on board, Sally Deskins, 2013

 

I plan on drawing more—octopus, jellyfish, maybe some sharks, seahorses and other types of sea life. I planned them as singular for a commission who requested a series of six single fish—though at this moment, water is taking on a more singular role.

In this apartment complex where we’re living, there is a rather small community pool, which, of course, my kids love. Usually it is packed. None of the kids care, though, still running into each other, jumping in where they almost land on each other, using everyone’s toys, yelling, splashing, etc. It is amazing to me—I hate crowds and would rather (since as long as I can remember) stay inside than go to a shoulder-to-shoulder place (though I prefer cities to countries, not when they’re jammed!). However, this is, to them, bliss. This tiny patch of water, which to me feels so confined, is heavenly to them, no matter how little space—and water they have.

So I guess, with the second part of that question, “how far out do you go?” I would say, just as far as I can go, on my own.

I wonder how your week is shaping up. And how far out you like to go!

 

SB: Sally, wow: the fish! I love them.

Also I love the description of how your work began and how it moved to where you are now—

I’ve been thinking all day about that kind of shift: from willful to fanciful, from shocking to normal (today is goodbye DOMA day). This morning my son Oscar said he was amazed by his own acceptance of the wreckage here. He said, “At first, it was just awful, scary, everywhere you look, OHMYGOD. Now, it’s, like”—shrugging—“you’re used to it, you don’t even notice.” He’s eleven. (So the “you” suggests maybe a little potency remains in the mounds of broken everything.) We talked about the brain for a little while, the way it gets used to stuff, and about Theseus constantly thinking things will be hard that turn out to be easy.

How far out do I like to swim? Far enough to get a little scared. Far enough to feel that cuspy space between home and lost. Less far than before I had kids!

Cassian’s poem is especially moving because her perfect day by the sea occurs despite some darker knowledge: “I know what’s awaiting me—/ the winter of my discontent./ I have a reservation/ outside on a hard bench/ holding a bag of frostbitten potatoes.” Her poem is about recognizing, even claiming, joy in the fleeting moments where it’s possible to feel it. I think her obstacle to joy was the repressive Romanian regime. The water’s edge seems to be where the usual certitudes break down, a site of great paradox (it’s peaceful AND wild; it’s “mine” and it’s NOT; I’m safe here or it’s menacing—); the water’s edge brings us to the edge of ourselves, too. The brink.

Theseus is sent to fight the Minotaur, and he promises his father he’ll sail home with a new white sail if he wins (instead of the black one under which he sets out). In the excitement of his victory (which occurs thanks to crafty-but-oafish Ariadne, whom he ditches at Naxos on the way back to Athens), jolly Theseus forgets to make the switch, and as the ship approaches, his father sees the black sail and jumps miserably (mistakenly) into the rocky sea.

How far out shall we swim? What have we got to lose? What do we need to let go of?

Sally, I don’t know about you but I think these are impossible questions! I also think that’s why coming to the water’s edge is so appealing. Cassian wonders if to live without fear is a trap, but her poem savors its fearlessness. I think we reckon with our fears, with their hold on us, with the possibility of breaking free of them, when we go out into the water. I like to go right to where the waves are breaking, dive down under them, fly up the other side.

(Caveat: yesterday they found an unexploded WW2 British MINE in about a foot of water along the beach near here! And the Navy came and blew it up! I’m not sure I can assimilate worrying about mines into my fears of sharks, riptides, giant storms…)

But I’m over-emphasizing the fear, because the most seductive thing is the opposite of that, the sense of being at one with the universe even if you also know you should be cautious. Do you know this lovely paragraph from a speech JFK gave at the America’s Cup in 1962?

I really don’t know why it is that all of us are so committed to the sea, except I think it is because in addition to the fact that the sea changes and the light changes, and ships change, it is because we all came from the sea. And it is an interesting biological fact that all of us have, in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch it we are going back from whence we came.

 

SD: Oh wow, isn’t that exactly right? No, I had not read or heard that excerpt of JFK’s but it’s right on. Funny how you think you’re so alone or special with your thoughts sometimes, and conversations like this make you feel so much less alone and humble. I just love that quote and think I can also utilize it when thinking about my work and the body’s connection to the sea. Thank you!

I cannot believe—or maybe I can—how your 11 year old is now accustomed to being around such destruction. No doubt the experience has opened his eyes and made him tougher than most people can imagine. Yes—I love Cassian’s referral to the knowledge of darkness, too—its like, even when you’re in a great place, you know (or at a certain point in your life perhaps) it won’t last, and/or that bad things/happenings can occur anytime.

Its been raining here in Morgantown today, the pool is locked, the kids walking around the apartment complex with their little umbrellas. My son searching for worms, my daughter hoping not to find any. Rain, too, is comforting, I think, like a renewal, sometimes a forced rest, time to sit and reflect. Also, it causes destruction—I saw on Facebook someone’s whole sunroom was ripped off. This is, obviously, very small compared to what you have witnessed in New Jersey.

Though still, just like JFK said, just like the sea, rain makes us feel human—alive and connected. Being an Oregonian, rain never bothers me—in high school for one year, I woke up at 5am to go swimming at the pool in town every morning. One morning it was a terrible rainstorm, and a tree had fallen on the road—I couldn’t see it and drove right over it. Didn’t hurt my little Hyundai. After the sun came out and I finished my laps and went outside, I saw the flooded parking lots, school had been canceled; my road was blocked off for the destruction. Woops! Oh well, I got home after all. . . .

I’m feeling more at home here every day and thanks to this conversation, more excited about this series of work—the wet paint on my body, a connection to feeling it in the ocean or rain, and the quick imprints, the fleeting calm moments. The drawing of fish over them, well, okay, still getting used to that idea. I have such an ego for the “naturalness” of the original prints, it’s still hard to draw over them. But I guess that’s the release, the water’s edge, and my extent to how far I go! Shall I? Or shall I stay in comfort? I don’t know . . . the water doesn’t care, right?

 

SB: The worm search! The umbrellas! And your young self swimming through a major storm. (Louise Glück: “You’ll get what you want. You’ll get your oblivion.” That’s also a water’s-edge poem—) It’s been a real pleasure talking with you about all of this. I’m lingering with the fish question: your attachment to the naturalness sans-fish, and the imposed clarity of the sketches on top of the abstractions. How important is it to know how the painting was made? More important with the fish than without them?

Here’s part of another favorite poem, from Louise Bogan’s The Blue Estuaries, the opening of “Night”:

 

The cold remote islands

And the blue estuaries

Where what breathes, breathes

The restless wind of the inlets,

And what drinks, drinks

The incoming tide

 

I think I’m winding up here because the poem suggests that the water’s edge makes demands on us. There’s a kind of reckoning that happens there, shaking us out of ourselves and into the world.

 

SD: I just love these quotes and excerpts you’re sharing! You raise a good question, the importance of how the painting was made . . . with or without the fish . . . I don’t know. For some reason, though, I just thought of a totally irrelevant quote I remember seeing on T-shirts in the 1980s: a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle. . . . Ha! Maybe I should make them into fish on bikes…hmm, I suppose what I have to do, is just breathe, drink in . . . and start! Now, back into the rain puddles . . .

 

 

Sally Ball is the author of two collections of poems, Wreck Me and Annus Mirabilis. She’s the associate director of Four Way Books and teaches in the MFA Program at Arizona State University. Her website is saralouiseball.com.

 

Sally Deskins is a writer and artist who examines the female body and identity in her work. She keeps a journal on women in all forms of art, Les Femmes Folles, and lives with her husband and two young children in Morgantown, West Virginia. See more of her work at sallydeskins.tumblr.com.

Its Beautiful Not Caring: A Conversation With Poet Sally Ball and Artist Sally Deskins

Into the Wine-Dark Sea of Self: A Conversation With Amina Cain and Veronica Gonzalez-Peña

HER KIND: In her poem “Summer X-Rays,” Nina Cassian tells us: “That’s why I swim so far out,/ willing prisoner/ inside the sea’s immense green magnifying glass.” What draws you to the water? How far are you willing to swim and why?

 

 

AMINA CAIN: My mother tells me that when I was two years old, she couldn’t keep me from the water. She would set me down on the beach and before she knew it, I was in the waves trying to go further than a two year old should. I had very few fears as a child and I loved the water, as many children do. I love it still. I am always trying to decide which I like best—ocean, river, or lake—but I can’t. The ocean is immense, yes, but you can float down a river for a very long time, and in a cold climate a lake’s waves freeze in winter. Today, on the first day of summer, I think I would choose to swim in a river. The Yuba, in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

I like to think that I’m willing to swim to the ends of the earth, but the truth is that I have a relationship to fear now. There are ways in which I block myself. But there are also ways in which I feel free. I am freest in summer, more myself. I think water has something to do with that. Water is healthy; swimming is healthy. Cassian writes: “I’m still able to recognize a perfect day.”

Is it bragging to say that I think I know what swimming far out feels like? I have felt it in my movements, and in my relationships with other people (I love how far you can go with another person) and myself (I love how far you can go with yourself), and in my writing. To temper this are the ways in which I have been very held back. I think that those moments of going far into something made me a writer, or at least they take up the same space as my writing. It may be that I write partly to be in that space. It is one way to get there. I am probably slightly addicted to it, to heightened experiences (this is what swimming far out is often like for me). But I am also made happy by the simplest of things.

Veronica, I just finished your new novel, The Sad Passions, and the sense for me of reading it was almost total immersion. I think you are able to show what swimming far out is like, swimming out with one’s fears. Feeling them and swimming anyway. Being set in front of the ocean. The water is there, so the question is not do I swim, or how far, but, what is swimming like? What will I encounter “inside the sea’s immense green”? And the sisters’ (and mother’s) voices/chapters do become like waves; they return and crash upon the narrative.

There’s a passage toward the end of the book—in Julia’s final chapter—that reads: “I know what limitlessness is. It was during that year that I saw it in Claudia. I know what not stopping feels like, what not having an outline is, a boundary, an inside, which ends at the edges. I know what not having edges is. I have seen it, that lack of line.” This is the other side of the coin, the other side of swimming far out into the sea. It’s not a place one can live in all of the time.

 

VERONICA GONZALEZ-PEÑA: I think that I swim because I have to … and I am not brave; I don’t go far out. I respect those primal forces, fire and sea, and I like safety; I like to feel myself in some place of control; I envision myself a coward, a scaredy-cat… this is my vision of myself, though when I step outside myself a bit I know it is not true. I am constantly doing things that would terrify other people – this book for instance, The Sad Passions. But it is not a choice for me; it is not as if I do things because I am brave, or feel heroic. I don’t choose to be these things. I feel myself a coward who does what she does because she must. I am already in the middle of the ocean and I have to swim hard, hard to try to find my way back to land. And I can’t say what drives me, either. I am not someone who does things with a plan in hand. I don’t say, I’m going to write a terribly dark novel, or teach myself a new skill, or go far and wide. I like doing and so I do and do and do, I am making films now too, in addition to my fiction, and working on this collaborative project called Rockypoint through which I make prints with writers and artists, and through which too I ran a reading series in LA.

Right now, I am on the road, sitting in a motel 6 with my cat and my dog. My cat has just gone to the bathroom, and the whole room stinks. I have left a very comfortable life and am moving from LA to NY. Not for a job, not for anything concrete, just because I am compelled to; it is like I have to do it. Like writing. Like all these other things I do. But in actual water, in the ocean, say, I am never one to tempt the waves. I do not go far into it at all. I am afraid of that immense space… the wine dark sea… how it may take me over, bring me down and into itself. I respect primeval forces.

I am listening to the Odyssey on my drive across the sea that is Middle America. Ian McKellen’s recording of it – it is just gorgeous, and of course the ocean, the sea and water are everywhere. People are constantly crying too – the warriors weep all the time, into the ocean itself sometimes, and their blood is everywhere, all that aqueous substance. The wine dark sea of self.

In The Sad Passions, Julia says she is afraid of limitlessness, says she knows what boundarylessness is… her mother is mad, so this is her experience of that space that is not a defined space at all because there is no outline. And that limitlessness which can be such a romantic aspiration for some, for her is a terrifying and tragic reality.

But, Amina, I’ve been looking at I Go To Some Hollow again, with our discussion in mind, and your writing, your stories are so full of water. It is everywhere, from the very first. People going to the water, staring at the water, swimming in it, floating, in pools and rivers and the ocean; it is everywhere. All this water is set up as a kind of counterpoint to fire, and barren land. Can you talk a little about this, both as symbol and in the actuality of these primal forces: the barren land (yesterday I drove through Utah) and the sea. How do those two things play off of each other in your own internal landscape, and then in your writing?

 

AC: I relate to that completely: moving to a place because you just have to, because you are driven towards it. That’s what moving to LA was like for me. I was pulled there, kind of inexplicably. And I knew my time in Chicago was over. Driving across the U.S. is like a kind of ocean. The vastness, but also the weird depths. There is something to sink into in that huge swath of landscape that’s always changing. Sometimes your own self.

Landscape has always been important to me, both physically/psychically in my life, and also in a story. When I write something new I often start with land, or at least a kind of atmosphere, usually a place I want to spend time in somehow, either because I crave or miss it. Maybe I passed through once and I couldn’t stay, didn’t have enough hours. Lately, I’ve been combining landscapes. In the novella I’ve started writing: an imaginary France-Brazil coupled with an imaginary Los Angeles.

When I was a baby, our house burned down. Heat is a purifier. I don’t know how to stop it from being a kind of purification in my fiction too. As with bodies of water, when I go to the spa in winter I can never decide which kind of heat I like best: the dry sauna or the wet one. There is something to the sensation of sweating everything out, but I also like the subtle way dry heat pulls out the toxins. I guess I need both, and when I’m at the spa I take turns with each, several times in a row.

When I drove through Utah, I felt very alive and happy. Maybe I’ll never live in Utah, but some part of me wants to inhabit places like that in my stories. I like when everything seems empty; I like when it’s still warm at night. Something this simple is enough to get me writing. In my stories, I think I just go towards what I need and crave, and this means I take myself to these bodies of water and land.

In your novel, Claudia wanders outside her hotel room in Acapulco, looking for her husband M. and she sees a falling star. At first it’s just Claudia and the sky and her fear. Then the ocean is there, moving in that landscape too. “I stopped and made a wish, though I was very frightened, my heart racing, because I believe you must, you must take a wish that is offered to you. And as soon as I had made my wish I registered the crashing waves, loud, hard, and black and loud as they are on the Pacific. I watched their dark violence play itself out upon the soft white shore . . .” When I read this passage it stuck with me, partly because of how beautifully it describes the complexity of an ocean and what our feelings toward it might be in different kinds of moments, but also because of the way it comes alive in that scene, comes alive in that sentence. When I read your writing and in the times I’ve heard you read it out loud I’m struck by how your sentences gather their power and then by how whole chapters do as well. Do you like sentences? I mean, as writers, I imagine we all like them, but in the same way that the ocean becomes present in the middle of fear and a star filled sky, I find a sentence written by you to bring a thing into existence and then another thing and another all along itself. There is a way to travel not just from one sentence to the next, but right inside one of them. There is a way to swim far out. This is gratifying.

 

VGP: I’m obsessed with sentences. With rhythm, with the way things build. I love repetition, and patterns, and hiding things inside of other things. I can live inside a sentence by Henry James, or one by Sebald, or Josef Skvorecky who wrote this incredible novella full of unbelievable sentences, Emoke, or HD (who writes about fire beautifully). Or Flaubert, the way his sentences can negate themselves with one semi colon. Nabokov writes about this in his Lectures on Literature. The way one of his sentences will build and build through clauses; and then a semi-colon and the negating clause which undoes all that went before. It is perverse, almost, and I like that sort of thing… the way that Jean Rhys makes things happen in her sentences too, the dense poetry of them. They do get very complicated sometimes, my sentences, I love layering so I can lose control of them sometimes, and then I have to double back and make them work. This can take a long, long time, but that is what I find gratifying, to use your term – that wrestling with language that ends up giving you something. I like it so much I want to give it to my reader, that gift, a sentence you have to untangle, the pleasure and sense of satisfaction you get from something like that… For me it is all about sentences, not words necessarily. I’ll sacrifice a word for a sentence – I won’t sacrifice a sentence for anything else, not for a paragraph, not for plot, not for character. I work toward making as perfect a sentence as I can; I don’t struggle for the perfect word in the same way. But we’re all so different. I’m sure there are people wanting to kill me over that statement, how stupid, they must think. But I chalk it up to difference, and to pleasure. Sentences are my pleasure. And a series of good sentences, when the rhythm builds to a pitch – that is just beyond…

But Amina, I want to talk to you about the floating sensibility of your characters who are so often there and not there at once – this I associate with water, the ocean mainly, as it is so symbolic a body of water, huge and unknowable, like our very selves. Your characters are often trying to feel or make themselves felt, as if floating on the surface of life. Sometimes they say this directly, express it, their need to be felt, their need to feel; it is as if they don’t quite know they are there at all, like a dream. It is almost as if through the meticulous narration – because your narration is slow and careful and meticulous –  they are trying to explain themselves to themselves. Sometimes the stories have a  dream logic, as in Black Wings where a pilot is suddenly present in an important role, as interlocutor (I imagine him wearing his pilot hat, his pilot’s coat). Other times the stories exist more fully in that dream world, as in Homesteading; yet other times they inhabit our logic, but still feel floaty and somehow slow and surreal – like being in deep water. How do you do this? I keep trying to figure it out. It is not any one element, and, as I said, your narration and attention to detail are meticulous, so how do you achieve that sense of swimming which feels like suspension in water, deeply pleasurable, but so untethered we might float away at any moment?

 

AC: That makes sense to me, that you find such enjoyment in sentences and in the way they build upon each other through rhythm to a pitch. I know I mentioned to you that after hearing you read last month here in L.A. for your book launch, well, I didn’t really want it to end. I felt pitched into something, something not easy to come down from, like when I’ve just watched a film and then it’s hard to walk out of the theater afterwards, into the actual day, or night. The same with reading The Sad Passions. When I finished it, I missed it. I had gotten used to going into the landscape of it, everyday, and also the landscape of those sentences. Interestingly, right now, writing back and forth with you, having this conversation, is affecting my own sentences! I realize I am at times going further into them myself.

It’s fascinating to me what different writers gravitate to in their work. I have always thought that though I’m a writer, it’s not language I’m drawn to when I’m working on my stories—more than that, it’s image. Sometimes fictional situation. And always atmosphere/setting. Plot has never been important to me. Character, I’m not sure, but certainly the relationships between characters. And definitely narrative and voice. So much can be carried in the voice, a swimming out. I think that when plot is not the thing holding a fictional work together then other kinds of scaffolding can emerge, perhaps dreamlike. I don’t plan anything out either, relying instead on my subconscious. That’s probably where some of the floating sensibility comes from. I write to see what is inside my mind—a bit like meditation. But I think in Creature, which will be coming out in the fall, I have been trying to get closer to feeling, and closer to closeness itself, and to understanding another, instead of that distance I have so often mined. Not that one is better than the other, just that these kinds of proximities are important to me right now.

I have to say: I very much want to see the film you just made!

 

VGP: I’m glad you appreciate that sense of rhythmic space I create within my writing – or work to create, anyway. I want the reader to feel submerged in the musicality of the book, to feel so deeply in it that it is as if they must come up for air sometimes. To feel as if they are swimming in it. The films are not as weighty. I made the first one as a relief from the book, which had been so solitary and deep and intense, and so I wanted to work collaboratively, which was a joy. The film is visually poetic, and slow, though it is narrative too, and hopefully it is moving; but it is not of the same deeply immersive intensity as my writing. Sylvere Lotringer plays my daughter’s grandfather in it! This I love. The title comes from something he says to her character about death: Death is like a shadow…. I’m making a new one now, with Michael Silverblatt; and Chris Kraus and Hedi El Kholti are in it too. It’s about a young poet Michael is concerned about, and a young poet plays that part; I’m not really interested in working with actors, but rather in making things happen with the people who are a part of my life, my sphere of interest. I want you to see the completed one! We’ll do that.

It is clear that atmosphere is your main concern. It is amazing, really, how you are able to create it in such a minimal/minimalist way. There is a sense of indirectness between characters and situations, and although your characters work hard to explain things to themselves, they never quite get at things – this is part of this sense of atmosphere, I think, the living inside a space that is thick and weighty and as I’ve repeatedly said, dream-like, that they seem to not be able to move out of, even through their meticulous attention to detail, and language, and careful attentiveness to each other. We sense they are working toward an intimacy that is at one remove from them. They have affairs that aren’t satisfying, friends they love deeply but can’t tell, the children, even, seem careful in these stories. And we are never quite sure why this is, even though they try to tell us, try to tell themselves to us, and it feels almost as if all these things they do in the world are part of the telling, in the service of the telling that will come. In And Went Inside the narrator tells us, Often I imagine things too soon. Sometimes I begin while the thing is still happening.

I’m in NY now, in my new apartment, and of course I am still thinking about the Odyssey. When Odysseus reaches Ithaca, he still has many tests he must endure. He knows this going in, the gods tell him it will be this way. He enters Ithaca a liar; he has to obfuscate the facts in order to save himself. And then for many books he is constantly lying, even to Penelope, and Telemachus, telling stories about himself to others through the voices he takes on, I believe he is still alive, he tells both his wife and his son at different moments, referring to himself in the third person. I think this is something all storytellers share – a telling of the self through the stories we tell, and of course I don’t mean this directly, as autobiography, but something deeper, more decentered and thus more deeply moving. What are you telling us about story telling through your work, and about yourself as a teller of stories?

 

AC: Regarding Death is like a shadow, I really like the idea of working not with actors, but with the people who are already significant in your life. My good friend Laida Lertxundi, also a filmmaker, does something similar. Sometimes she drives out to a space—like the desert—and part of shooting the film, I think, is spending time with the people who are with her there in that specific space. They are making a film, but they are also having an experience together, inhabiting something, and that experience comes into the work very strongly. Laida’s films are not driven by narrative, but they are in relationship to it, and I’m always interested in how one can be in proximity with something without going through the front door of it, if that makes sense. Connecting this back to writing: a story with a relationship to character, for instance, without centering the story there.

I like the way Odysseus refers to himself in third person. I believe he is still alive. If anything, I think of storytelling as a way to get close to experience. Can I somehow let the reader swim out into that space too? There are things that have affected my life so profoundly that I think I have wanted to be near them again, either because of how pleasurable they were, or painful; either way, I have wanted to share them. I have wanted to be in conversation.

What kind of storyteller are you?

 

VGP: A lost storyteller, always searching. I feel I am always lost, like I don’t know things I should and so I tell to figure those things out, or to at least attempt to approach. I am always searching. And this can be hard for others… I am always pushing further, asking questions, too many questions, and I am sure that sometimes I am just too much…

 

AC: I’m glad for that answer, Veronica, for how honest it is. I think I’m trying to figure things out too. Thank you for having this conversation with me.

 

Amina Cain is the author of I Go To Some Hollow (Les Figues Press, 2009) and the forthcoming CREATURE (Dorothy, a publishing project, 2013). She is also a curator, most notably for the literature/performance/video festivals Both Sides and The Center at the MAK Center/Schindler House in Los Angeles (with Teresa Carmody) and When Does It or You Begin? Memory as Innovation at Links Hall in Chicago (with Jennifer Karmin). She lives in California.

Veronica Gonzalez-Peña is the author of twin time: or, how death befell me, which won the Premio Aztlán Literary Prize in 2007. She is also the founder of Rockypoint Press, which produces a series of artist-writer collaborations. Her new novel, The Sad Passions, will be out June 2013, on semtiotext(e).

Into the Wine-Dark Sea of Self: A Conversation With Amina Cain and Veronica Gonzalez-Peña

Swimming the Blank Page: A Conversation with Jessica Soffer and Liz Moore

HER KIND: In her poem “Summer X-Rays,” Nina Cassian tells us: “That’s why I swim so far out,/ willing prisoner/ inside the sea’s immense green magnifying glass.” What draws you to the water? How far are you willing to swim and why?

 

 

JESSICA SOFFER: I’ve never lived in a landlocked state. Couldn’t. I’ve realized that over and over when I’ve spent time elsewhere. In New Hampshire, Vermont, Colorado. I think that has everything to do with being a water baby. My mother dipped me into the ocean in Eastern Long Island very soon after I was born. And my best memories are of summer, of staying in the saltwater until she had to beg me to come out, have something to eat, go home, it was getting dark. When I was young, I think I was drawn to the water because it had everything to do with feeling strong, challenging the waves, and so on. Now I’m drawn to it because it makes me feel small, puts things in perspective, shows me all that I cannot control even if I tried.

 

LIZ MOORE: I was just talking to somebody about why human beings are so calmed by the water. Is it what you say–that it makes us feel smaller, or cradled by something? Is it something about the rhythm of waves? Whatever it is, I feel it too, and I need it more and more as I get older.

My favorite water is a lake, not an ocean–the lake in the Adirondacks on which my grandmother’s house sits. That house has become our family’s second home, and we spend lots of weekends there in the summer, and weeks when we’re lucky. Everything is slowed down when we go there. It’s where I feel closest to being religious. Once, in New York City, I caught a whiff of something that smelled like those trees and that lake and I almost cried. I’m very sentimental about it.

Cassian uses swimming out into the water as a metaphor for pushing your limits as a writer. Do you think it’s a good analogy?

 

JS: Writing metaphors in general scare me. Something happens when people talk about writing in such a figurative way that makes me twitchy. Like, I remember that I should be pushing my limits. Or I should think of writing like driving with headlights. Or. Or. Or. And it sends me into a fit of humility, paralyzes me for as long as I obsess about what I’m not doing, or doing wrong.

I think that every time I write, it’s sort of all I can do–to do it, to do it how I do it. And so on. Not that it’s a struggle, but that something of the magic is lost when you think too much about it. You need freedom. And writing metaphors bind me to my insecurities. And binding and writing don’t mix.

You’re less twitchy. How do you feel about the metaphor?

 

LM: I just re-read the entire poem and now I’m reassessing my initial interpretation of it–I’m not sure Cassian is really writing about writing in this poem (though I guess all writers are always, in a way, writing about writing), but I’ll go with what I mistakenly said, since Freud would tell me I should.

I actually think swimming farther and farther out into the water is a pretty good description of how I feel when I’m writing. For one thing, it conjures an image of a necessary distance from life. Cassian writes about her view: “Far away on the shore: / children shouting, / dogs with golden rings / circling their muzzles, / and rumors of abandoned memories.” That’s great. That’s how I feel when I’m writing well: like I can see everything going on around me with some writerly distance, as if it’s already on the page, as if it’s framed. For another, swimming farther and farther out implies a risk of drowning. When I push myself to go farther and farther out, I always fear failure–but on the other side of that teetering feeling is sometimes my best work. And finally the aloneness of being far out there, that feels like writing too; the sense that one has to distance oneself from others to get to the truth. I am most at home when I’m alone.

Do you think all writers are introverts at heart, even the seemingly extroverted ones?

 

JS: I hear what you’re saying about the teetering. Totally. There’s something about the proximity of failure that has everything to do with that freedom I mentioned/the opposite of anxiety. And I rely on it. I do. But it’s the overthinking that does me in. If I were to imagine that poetic water every day, I wouldn’t be able to compose a thing. Not a thing.

That said, I once wrote a story about saving someone from drowning. It wasn’t subtle enough–but I think writers are plagued by fears of that big open space (wanting to save themselves, or others from it). The blank page–and then maybe the world, its judgments, how much it might be willing to give or not give on any particular day. Maybe I think of the swimming as having as much to do with the process as with the significance of the process, the bigger process. The writer’s life.

As for your extrovert/introvert question: I don’t know if I well enough understand the definitions of either to respond intelligently. (Though I was surprised when the Myers-Briggs test told me that I was an introvert. Again and again and again. I took it five times–and not in close succession–to be sure.) I think what all writers must be is comfortable in their own minds–maybe equally comfortable in a crowd and talking boisterously about their minds–but really comfortable there. Because that’s where everything happens. I think some writers dwell there, some writers can’t leave there, some writers catapult from there at exactly 10am after day after a solid two hours of writing. But what they must believe in, deeply, dogmatically, is going inside, to the interior. They must need it and be motivated by it. Does that make them introverts? Let’s ask Myers. Or Briggs.

Until then, would you mind if we do some imagining (aka being introverts for a second…)? What would your ideal writing space look like? Would it smell like the water, have a view of the water, have a large water cooler or water feature with watertchotchkes?

 

LM: How far-fetched can we get? My ideal space has no internet or cell phone service. To compensate, it has a huge enormous library with old-fashioned but up-to-date World Book encyclopedias. It has a lot of coffee- and tea-making stuff. It has a large supply of recorded instrumental music of various types. It has a kitchen stocked for cooking (which is the best thing to do after a good day of writing). It has friends in other rooms who emerge at the end of the day. To eat the cooking. Yes, there’s a view of the water. But there are no other houses or roads in sight.

 

JS: As long as I can be one of those friends in another room, I don’t find the idea far-fetched at all. I find it brilliant, and necessary.

 

Liz Moore is the author of the novels The Words of Every Song (Broadway Books, 2007) and Heft (W.W. Norton, 2012), along with works of short fiction and creative nonfiction that have been published in print and online in venues such as The New York Times, Tin House, Narrative Magazine, and Ladies’ Home Journal. She is also a professor of writing at Holy Family University in Philadelphia, where she lives. Her third novel is forthcoming from W.W. Norton.

 

Jessica Soffer is a graduate of the MFA program at Hunter, where she was a Hertog Fellow and a recipient of the Bernard Cohen Short Story Prize. A founding editor of The Tottenville Review, she has been published in Granta. She grew up in New York City, the daughter of an Iraqi-Jewish painter and sculptor who immigrated to the U.S. in 1948. Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots is her first book.

 

 

Swimming the Blank Page: A Conversation with Jessica Soffer and Liz Moore

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

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

What Made the Salt Caverns Unsound: A Conversation with Wendy Babiak and Metta Sáma

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 the natural worlds of Wendy Babiak and Metta Sáma?  In what ways do you and your work connect to the natural world?

 

WENDY BABIAK: Wow. First, I have to thank you for introducing me to this powerful poem. And then say that the natural world reflected in it manifests one way I see it: the landscape in which we love. But it’s also the world that feeds us, the very stuff from which we grow. As I’ve heard it said, the earth peoples like an apple tree apples. To imagine that we’re separate from the natural world is one of man’s most ridiculous fallacies. And it’s why we’re killing ourselves, by poisoning the air and water, by killing the micro-herds of the soil and the bees that pollinate our food, by dismantling with our carbon in the atmosphere the life-supporting systems of the planet: because we imagine that we are not of this world, but just living in it.

But it’s more than just the stuff of life; it’s also the stuff of spirit. As a panentheist, I believe that everything is imbued with divine nature, that God is immanent. (Also transcendent, which is why I say I’m a panentheist, not a pantheist.) And since we’re part of the natural world, we partake of that divine nature. The Hindus’ greeting, namaste, means “the divine light within me recognizes and honors the divine light in you.” The consciousness that looks out of my eyes is the same as the one that looks out of every pair. We are God meeting herself, whether we greet another human, a wasp, or a sunset. So Christ’s mandate, love one another as you love yourself, is quite literal. You love the other because you are the other. Of course, I’m not talking about the small self, the ego (which is just a trick of the mind…shhh, don’t talk about that too loudly, the little bugger really takes it personally). I’m talking about the ground of being.

I was born and grew up on the east coast of Florida. As a teenager, I watched pristine areas be developed into strip malls that no one wanted. “If you build it, they will come.” It was the 80s, it was totally stupid, and it broke my heart. I didn’t get my driver’s license until I was 18. Instead I walked, roller skated, or biked wherever I wanted to go. I engaged the world with no barrier between me and what I moved through, and that’s still my preferred mode of travel. I spent a lot of time at the beach. I saw dolphins from my dinner table, which looked out over the Intercoastal Waterway (what we called the Halifax River, though it wasn’t a river at all). Great blue herons would land and stand on my dock. Brown pelicans bred on a mangrove about a mile away. I once had a close encounter with a pair of manatees. As a moody teenager, the truth of the human world dawning on me, I walked the beach in the wind of November at night, feeling kinship with the clouds and the Atlantic, and suicide no longer seemed necessary, all my bad energy drained away into the storm. Now I don’t go home to Florida much. To see how much of it has been paved is distressing.

I have lived in big cities: Valencia in Spain, Chicago, DC, New Orleans. I remember in Chicago feeling trapped between the buildings, looking up at the strip of sky, and not feeling okay until I got to the lakeshore and could again see the horizon. In DC I walked to work along the C&O canal. Canadian geese spent the winter at the reservoir, near where I lived in Georgetown, and in the spring the goslings announced the season’s arrival as surely as the tulips. One time one of my bosses on K Street was stressing out, and I asked him, “Have you seen the pear trees down there in bloom?” Wherever I have lived, I have observed keenly the passage of time as it plays out in plant and animal life, learning the names and relationships. I started gardening as soon as I could, learning as I went. I got tired of killing plants and enrolled in the Master Gardener program through the extension in Shreveport, completing it shortly before being uprooted from my garden there (still a tender spot). For a very long time I’ve been gardening for butterflies and hummingbirds. About seven years ago I read Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and started trying to grow my own food, though there’s lots of competition for that stuff out there, especially here where I live in Cayuga Heights, overlooking, on East Hill, Ithaca, NY. Just today I noticed that somebody’s come and eaten one of my kale and two of my Brussels sprouts starts. Tomorrow I’ll need to go out and fortify the fence. I think it was the resident groundhog. This summer I hope to complete my design certification at the Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute, outside of town.

Because of all this I can’t write a poem without some detail from the garden or glade cropping up. I wrote a poem about desire, “Fall, Falling, Fallen” that begins, “The leaves of the dogwoods now/ almost match their berries/ heavy and red, swollen with rain.” I also can’t keep my concern regarding what we’re doing (the rape of the biosphere) out of my work. My first collection, Conspiracy of Leaves, is full of such natural imagery juxtaposed with very different images. I chose to focus my first collection on war and fundamentalism, though climate change is, strangely enough, an even bigger threat in the long run. But I knew I could never get anyone to see the personhood of a tree if they couldn’t see the personhood of another human being, blinded by their ideology. My next collection, Perrenial, deals even more directly with the land and our relationship with it.

 

METTA SÁMA: Greetings. I echo Wendy: thanks so much for introducing me to that poem, and to this conversation, as a way to begin.

Yesterday, while driving here (to upstate NY), I was in Maryland on the Interstate, 895, I think, and talking to a friend about this conversation that Wendy & I would soon embark on. By way of reminding her of who Wendy was, I reminded her of a poem Wendy wrote for me, and, as I did when I read the poem the first and second time and consequent times, I stopped the tears that were brewing. 895 is surrounded with trees and there are signs throughout Maryland asking us to respect the natural world around us. Wendy’s poem begins on a premise, a question: do black people in the U.S. see trees as trees, or do we see the sordid history of the U.S., lynchings and such. I contacted Wendy & told her that when I see trees I see trees (and this was partially true). However, I’m now on these 1000 acres of land, and when I see this land, I see 250 freed enslaved persons who didn’t receive their 40 acres. A friend reminded me, too, that these 1000 acres are carrying the blood and bodies of Indigenous persons who were brutally removed from this land. I’ve been here about 26 hours and I’ve taken two long walks through the woods, encountered a snake, dozens of insect varieties, some tadpoles and birds. This is protected land, and I’m already loving it here, yet I do worry that when I get into my car I’m disturbing the natural order of things. But this is the new natural, yes?

Too often, we treat the land and the water and the air with incredible brutality. We believe it will replenish itself, and often it has, but it can’t keep getting depleted and returning itself to us, scathed but unscorned. At least once a year, when I lived in New York, I’d drive down to TN to visit my family, and so I’d have to drive through VA, which I both detested and completely loved. VA is a naturally beautiful place that’s being devastated by mountaintop removals and is also being devastated by widening highways. It’s always been so amazing to me to know that there are people in this world who feel nothing at the sight of mountains being cut into, trees being chopped down, rivers being polluted. How can one not feel that you yourself are being torn apart, dumped into?

When I was a young’un, I would feel intense physical pain to see our mountains in TN being dug into, watching people tear into the land simply to have a house perched on a mountain peak. I no longer feel that physical pain; now I feel rage and prolonged sadness. I’m an earth sign, and I’m a woman, so I feel that the land and all its non-human inhabitants are my kindred folks. They belong to me, and I belong to them; as Wendy said, they are of me and I am of them. I’ve always had a deeper connection to non-human forms; I was a bare-footed wanderer who spent most of my time looking up at the clouds, walking barefoot through the hills, trying to understand insects, hanging out in trees. I recently showed my parents my swollen, fire-ant bitten foot, and later one of my sisters immediately asked: “were you barefoot?”

Wendy’s final thought strikes me as what and how the natural world has to mean and matter, if any of us are serious about continuing on this planet: “But I knew I could never get anyone to see the personhood of a tree if they couldn’t see the personhood of another human being, blinded by their ideology” (par 5), and I’d add “and vice versa and interwoven”. And to return, briefly, to Miranda’s poem, and because Claudia Rankine’s Nothing in Nature is Private is sitting right next to me, I’ll add that there is something about escape, for me, in the natural world, and recognition, of humans, and their destructive force and power. And the natural world has always been a great source of power, of erotic power; there is energy in the land, more energy when the land is fed by water, tended to by air, cleansed by fire. I’m turned on by nature, physically, yes, and also mentally, spiritually, psychically, emotionally. Charged. ~

 

WB: Metta, lovely that you end with the resonant word, “Charged.” As you may know, in spellcraft, one charges an object (a candle to be burned, a crystal or stone to be worn or handled or placed as protection, a tool to be manipulated) with intention. I love the thought of you being charged, being filled with intention, by the natural world. I feel that way, too. Sometimes I can feel it rise up through the soles of my feet. And after it’s discharged, often through writing, I am left feeling a little shaky, like after good sex.

How wonderful, too, that you find yourself in upstate New York while we’re having this conversation via email. I went to Google Maps to figure out how far away you are: only about 3 hours driving. Oh, I hope you do come for a visit. I bet we end up laughing, and crying, and we can “bravely deplore.” And there is so much to deplore (of course we don’t want to let that sort of emotion eat us up, there is that danger, but dang, one can’t simply shrug off such ridiculous brutality, such obvious willful ignorance, such absolute disregard for the consequences of their unfettered greed—sounds a little like slavery, or colonization, doesn’t it?). Maybe I’ll drive you over to Seneca Lake, where my daughter goes to summer camp, and where an out-of-state company is attempting to colonize what is now a jewel of a place, with soft folding hills and long, deep lakes, by making it the northeastern hub for natural gas storage. In salt caverns that have been declared geologically unsound. I shit you not. And they’ve already been given permits to dump obscene amounts of toxins into the lake, which they’re doing. I’m not sure I’m going to send my daughter there this year, though she will be heartbroken. But not as much as I will be if she gets cancer.

Or I may come and visit you— a real possibility once the old Volvo is out of the shop and my son gets his driver’s license, both immanent occurrences (fingers crossed). Alas, I thought perhaps I could trek there on bike, but that would take 21 hours riding time, which means having to spend the night on the way, and risking who knows what. Well, we do know what. Rape and murder. Which brings me to another constellation of thoughts I’ve been watching dance in my head of late: the mythologizing of the natural world, and what impact it can have. And I don’t mean the sort of historical associations that can mar the experience of nature for some people, such as my poem engaged. (I didn’t mean to make you cry!) I’m talking about the way, at least in the West, nature has been imbued with a feminine being by patriarchy, making it ripe for rape. The whole Mother Nature trope. Material, matter, mater. Which places environmental degradation at the apex of rape culture.

We can blame it on Plato, convincing us that the soul, a perfect sphere, resided in the skull created to house it by the gods, the body simply being a machine to carry the head around. Cut off from the heart and from the brain in the belly, instead of fully inhabiting ourselves along the axis of being, we’re stuck up in our cranial brains, wondering why we feel so alienated. We’re alienated not only from the world we sprang from, but from our own deeper selves. This is how those whose actions against the world we so deplore can do what it is they do: they are cut off from the parts of themselves that would speak to them about the truth of things. The cranial brain is very good at rationalization. We all carry this conditioning, though some of us, admittedly, are at least in the process of teasing it out. Some swim through this story completely oblivious. The fact that you so identified with the natural world, so saw the truth of your oneness with it, that you felt physical pain when you saw it damaged, tells me that you didn’t quite buy into the culture’s story. Good for you.

Imagine instead a culture in which fully integrated people, people inhabiting their whole selves, engaged the natural world aware that they were an inextricable part of it. This is where we need to go. It seems like we need to write a new myth, of a sort, to get us there. Sure it’d be great if people could simply wake up to the truth, without some story to lead them. But that’s not the way we work, is it?

 

MS: Ummm hell yes I want to see you! I’ve been wanting to trek the gorges with you for quite awhile now, to see it as you see it. When I lived in Binghamton, as often as I went to Binghamton, I never went to the gorges. If you visit here, we can hike the trails & perchance take a book of St. Vincent Millay’s poems (and maybe a cocktail or two!).

What has happened that made the salt caverns unsound? I can imagine this to be true, particularly if people have been allowed to visit there and touch the walls, disturb the environment.

A few weeks ago, while I was co-editing (although I think we used the term co-curating) a section of a journal, I read a poem that had been sent in that likened the woman’s body to the land (the oppressed woman, the trampled on land); no troubling of phrases, no complicating of ideas, and I was so bothered by this, that I talked with the co-editor about it. He insisted that my irritation was steeped in Western ideologies, that many African nations readily likened women’s bodies to the land, and there was power in this. But I recalled being a conference of women writers of the African Diaspora, and this notion–woman-body-earth–was deeply critiqued, writers ridiculed for continue to validate this trope. Assia Djebar’s Fantasia opens with the trope, of the veiled mountain (veiled by fog) and the veiled women in the city, the generals seeing the penetration of horizon as the penetration of the women. In Pueblo, México, there is a volcanic mountain range with four snow-capped peaks called Iztaccíhuatl (which is Nahuatl for white woman), and the highest peak is called La Mujer Dormida (sleeping woman); there’s a whole legend about it. And then there’s Walt Whitman, who, in *Song of Myself* talks about dropping his seed into the earth. During the time that I first came across Djebar’s work, I was also writing missives to a student-turned-great-friend about the rape and pillage of Africa’s natural resources, the wars waged on people and land to get to these resources, the women’s bodies being pillaged and raped, too; for a time, I couldn’t get the image of caves and caverns as vaginas out of mind, so deeply ingrained was I in that rendering of the land as mother as woman! I fence-straddle about the connection: it’s there & it’s not there; it’s been mythologized, yes, certainly, and often, when we read these myths, they seem to damn the woman to the land or silence the woman in the land. Claudia Rankine says Nothing in Nature is Private (and I often think she’s saying): “everything is nature is up for grabs,” literally. We’re a very grabby race, humans.

Rationalizations and Romanticizations and Plato (who we have to stop blaming things on! The dude was theorizing and philosophizing in an age that had little technology to see and understand the mysterious concepts he and others were contemplating. We were talking about Freud, here, and I saw the eyes rolling, and I thought, “Xist Almighty! How much weight we always give to white men! Ideas only seem to die down or get hidden away or erased when they don’t belong to white men!.)

Mentioning white men, I brought Roland Barthes’ Mythologies here, and it’s quite appropriate that we’re talking about mythologies, now at this time, for each of us, it seems!

It’s a good thing for a poem to prompt tears. I can’t recall the last time I’d cried from reading a poem. That poem stays with me, while I’m here, in part pondering settlements and settlers.

What’s the equivalent of laughter for the land? This morning, I woke up in tears (intense dream!) and got dressed and set out on my daily walk to rid myself of those dream-memories. Didn’t work, so I turned around and sought out my resident mates, who are always filled with some turn of phrase or story that gets me laughing, which always seems to be just the stimulant my body needs to slough off the blues.

 

WB: I will be researching good hikes. I often simply walk the dogs through my neighborhood, passing over the gorges that separate the village and the Cornell campus, but I have gone on a couple slightly out of town. One on my birthday in July last year, to a disappointingly dry Taughannok Falls. Drought. Thanks, climate change.

I’ve heard it said that the earth laughs in flowers. If that’s the truth, then something is seriously tickling her funny bone this spring. It’s a riot around here! (Look, I just did it myself, that feminine pronoun.) There is some basis to the metaphor, however clearly it’s time to move past it. It started before they understood how necessary the male contribution was to forming life, when they didn’t know how it all worked. Life clearly emerged from the woman. And I think that ancient (though mistaken) feeling of not being necessary created a deep-seated insecurity that fuels a lot of misogyny. They should get over it all ready. Too funny that you’ve brought Barthes with you! I’m reading it myself, the final, long essay. It’s so funny how disparaging he is of myth. I do understand why he might be so, but I’m a long-time student of Joseph Campbell, so although I grok how it can be and has been and is misused, I also very much find value in it. The key is choosing, as Campbell says, the right myth to live by. (Nationalism/racism/patriarchy/consumerism sure ain’t it.) One of the books most formative for me in my evolving relationship to the natural world is Thomas Berry’s *Dream of the Earth*, in which he posits that we do need a new myth, one that he calls The Universe Story. Berry is (was? not sure we still share the planet with him) a monk who took advantage of his decades of solitude to study deeply just about every aspect of the physical world, as well as studying theology and myth, and synthesized it all into an incredible statement the reading of which will give you a new set of eyes with which to see the world. (Part of the Sierra Club’s Natural Philosophy Library.) Wondrous, really. And he offers a lovely authorial presence, deeply humane, good company. One of those white guys who transcends his white-guy-ness.

You were right to object to a straightforward perpetuation of that trope. It’s essential that we tease it apart, that we muddle it, because as long as it’s accepted without question, it will continue to work as it has, allowing those hyper-masculine CEOs to keep raping and pillaging the planet. This need to oppress and penetrate in a damaging way is one of the most toxic of concepts regarding masculinity. I start a recent poem, “Communicable,” with the line, “A man peacocks with a Bushmaster.” I could easily have made it, “A man peacocks with a bulldozer.” What strikes me as ridiculously ironic in this masculine=intellect/feminine=body construct is that the mythological feminine and mythological masculine have nothing to do with genitalia. Every human being contains both the masculine and the feminine in their psyche. And yet, and so, patriarchy’s denigration of the feminine has led men to be unable to accept and embrace half of their very selves. Pity the fools. They’re not only cut off from their heart and their gut, but they’re cut off from half their psyche, as well. And they spend a lot of energy and do a lot of damage trying to prove how masculine they are, because they’re freaked out by what they hear in the silence, their feminine selves screaming for release from behind that closed door.

I know what you mean by the goodness of having a poem make you cry. That doesn’t happen often for me, either, but it did just the other day. It was Naomi Shahib Nye’s “Wandering Around An Albuquerque Airport.” The ending is so hope-laden it hits me in the gut. Not in a stupid hope way, but the kind of hope that carries the burden of knowing the distance we have to go to create the world of connection she craves, and that she experienced temporarily in the incident the poem relays. And I find it no less powerful with repeated readings. I wish I could thank her personally for it. And I thank you, Metta, for being the person you are, a bridge builder. Goddess knows we need more bridges between us. It was that about you that led me to believe you’d be receptive to a poem that could indeed have been seen/felt as an imposition.

Don’t worry, I do cut Plato some slack; I know the kind of idiocy he was surrounded with, the sacrificial-bull-intestine-reading bullshit artists, the eager men with swords. And a lot of his ideas turned out to be spot on. But dang, when the man is wrong, he’s really, really wrong.

The salt caverns were mined hollow until they were ready to cave in. Now they want to fill them with an explosive fuel, under pressure. Again, yay. I believe I mentioned willful ignorance and blinding greed. They’ve got it bad. Speaking of cocktails, when you come I’ll take you to dinner at Maxie’s Supper Club, a New-Orleans-inspired restaurant featuring locally sourced food. Their shrimp and grits are off the chain. And they make a mint julep with local MacKenzie’s bourbon that is worthy of an ode. One of the many products from this area jeopardized by this insane fracking industry.

Just now, I heard something outside the window, a scratching very close. It was a bird I’ve never seen, hopping up and down one of the posts of the fence I’ve built around the beds against the house, looking for bugs under the post’s peeling bark. Onwards.

 

MS: We’ve yet to see any wolves or foxes, no bears, although we’ve been told about the brownie-smell-loving bears (that come (or perhaps once came) to the window to sniff some freshly-baked brownies, was satisfied, and moved on), no raccoons, not even a squirrel sighting. There are only birds, the same robin that seems to alert the others of our presence, a few mockingbirds, a finch every now and again, and a black bird with an undercoat of white, that we’re trying to find a name for. There are bees, wasps, bumblebees (who are very protective of their wild daisies!), and carpenter bees that seem to only exist to run headlong into each other. Every morning and evening I walk a mile and a half and often think of my friend, Randall Horton, who once queried where the poems about urban nature were. It’s tough, isn’t it, to find any balance between human existence/urban life and the natural world. We have to destroy in order to build (the Dadaists love this idea), and we seemed so consumed with building building building. And waste. Monteverde, Costa Rica, founded by Quakers (there’s a horrible story about them walking all the way from Alabama with hundreds of cows to the northern mountains in Costa Rica and establishing a place for themselves there; it’s supposed to be an inspirational story, but I often quake at the thought of frontier stories being simply inspiring, without thinking of the land occupations and the (often) displaced persons. . .), is all undeveloped roads, and just one step from Monteverde (literally, as all land borders work), there is Santa Elena, all paved roads, cars, 4 wheelers, scooters (If I’m not mistaken, you’re not allowed to operate a motor vehicle in Monteverde, although I do recall a nice motorcyclist, who was, perhaps, just across the border). The Quakers (and I believe some Korean War conscientious objectors) had an idea to preserve land and do some dairy farming (I find this quite impossibly hilarious! I have to study cows; I just don’t think cows naturally produce milk all the time; somehow, preserving land has nothing to do with preserving the integrity of the cow, the dignity of the cow, to let it’s milk dry up (I say this as I sip a cup of coffee that has more than a few dashes of half and half in it!)).

I think some parenthesis got lost along the way, which is an indication for me to shift direction.

I also brought along Ed Roberson’s City Ecologue and Voices Cast Out to Talk Us In. Roberson, a limnologist poet, somehow easily blends the urban landscape and the (mostly) untouched natural landscape, the body and the spirit, language and gesture. He once said (and this is pulled from Poetry Foundation, from an interview he did for Chicago Postmodern Poetry: ““I’m not creating a new language. I’m just trying to un-White-Out the one we’ve got”. I’ve been thinking about gender and nature, the sexed body (Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry is on my desk as well) and nature, race(ial designations) and nature, nationalism (and regionalism) and nature, who has access to the natural world (there was a brief conversation here about how the open space, the clean air, doesn’t allow our bodies time/space to fall into a brief illness here (a travel cold or sinus infection, although pollen pollen everywhere).

And I think of my nephew who has asthma and lives in the South, but not the rural South, and those multitudes of kids who grow up in congested urban areas, who have limited access to clean climates. Every coffee-shop I’ve entered, since being here, has reminded me of the ways in which race and money (sometimes, but not all the time, right, there are some financially struggling farmers out here, Caucasian farmers) have made spaces like this, cleaner air, wider pastures, available to some folks, but certainly not to all. Suffice it to say, I’m the person (the Black person) who enters town and the normal blah blah everydayness of life stops for a second, and the giant, omniscient camera clicks on, and the townspeople stop walking (at least their limbs stop walking; their eyes, however, walk all over me), and stare at the outsider (the Black outsider). So often I just want to stop thinking “oh! you have to be overly friendly and smile smile smile!” and just yell at them “I have a right to fresh air too!”

As I think, then, of the line to your poem (what a great great line! fantastic image of the “man peacocks”!), and of this conversation about gender and the natural world (and of that awfully funny cock building in China that you shared with me and the pussy mountain that you also shared (we can talk about that, too, the ways in which we can often find women’s bodies embedded in nature, and yet, the images we find of men’s bodies are almost always cocks (or phalluses for those cock-shy folks) and almost always hand-made (recently, a friend admired the cock-capitol of a town, and here I was thinking, Xist! another cock as a stand-in for legislative power!)!), I’m also thinking of, say, Lucille Clifton: “the earth is a . . . black and living thing”.

 

WB: The earth is indeed a black and living thing. Witches wear black because it’s believed to repel negative energy. Darkness is good, because it protects us, gives us cover. And so much of life happens in darkness, the silent exploration of roots, the beginnings of life in the womb, all the interior workings of these bodies. The splendid flight of the owl. Strange that all you’re seeing is songbirds. I imagine that means that at night the foxes and wolves are very busy. Around here we have huge numbers of small mammals, which we coexist with to varying degrees of satisfaction: groundhogs, chipmunks, gray and red squirrels, skunks, weasels, raccoons. And also an obscene amount of deer. This is what happens when you get rid of the predators. But further out, past Ithaca College, in Brooktondale, people have had bears in their backyards. And lately we’ve had coyotes here in our village. Cats disappear when they’re around. The fawns lure them in, but they’re easy prey only for a short time of the year, and then the cats start to look tasty. What’s really scary are the coy-dogs, especially if the coyote have bred with a larger feral dog. They’re not shy, like the truly wild coyote, but they’re sure not tame, either. A friend had one scare the bejeesus out of her retriever. Poor thing doesn’t want to go into her own backyard anymore. I am thankful that at least there have been no cougar around. Those see us as food. Out in California they build subdivisions in pristine cougar territory, then act surprised when someone gets eaten while out for a jog. Brian once saw one about ten feet long (from nose to tail) when he was commuting from Carthage in the foothills of the Adirondacks to Sackets Harbor, where we lived. Our backyard was an abandoned pasture, and I would sometimes have fearful imaginings of watching from the second floor while one hunted my children, and me unable to stop it.

I couldn’t resist the Mother Earth vajayjay and the techno-penis, sorry. I was taking a quick break, after having written my last missive to you, and there they were in my newsfeed. They seemed serendipitously a propos to our conversation! And I thought you might enjoy a laugh. Cock-as-symbol-of-power, yes. So tired. Not all phalluses are man-made, though. There’s a highly toxic mushroom that looks just like an angry red one stuck up out of the ground. A friend in Shreveport had one come up out of her lawn. Of course she took a picture and shared it with us.

Apt that you stuck in the parenthetical “mostly” regarding untouched landscape. Truly, there is no place that we haven’t disturbed, what with our chemical trespass. Our persistent petrochemicals have shown up in the fat of penguins at the South Pole (as well as in every mother’s breast milk). Roberson sounds like a poet I need to explore. I’m very interested in the line between wild and not wild. For the organic gardener, it’s pretty wild right outside the door. Because I’m not spraying stuff out there to get rid of the bugs, there’s a whole ecosystem forming in my yard. The more I learn about the relationships, and provide the proper plants for the wildlife I want to attract, the more complex and stable it becomes. This will be my third summer here. Already the little bit of land I’m stewarding has changed quite a bit since I’ve started touching it. There’s a certain mythologizing about wildness that goes on, as if land that we’ve interacted with is automatically debased. And though all too often that’s true, there’s another way to relate to it. And since we belong here, as part of nature, there’s nothing inherently negative about changing things around, as long as we learn and practice ways that replenish the land instead of degrading it. Nature takes a hundred years to make an inch of topsoil (which is why the loss of so much of it due to our chemical agriculture is such a crime). We can help it do that in a year, with sheet mulching, piling up layers of organic matter in clever combinations. There are people who’ve been studying this stuff for about fifty years now. We just need to get that knowledge out there, get all hands on deck. Permaculture, if widely adopted, really could save the world. It’s absolutely insane that we’re still growing lawns, with all that water and the poisons and the carbon to mow it, instead of growing food right where we live. And permaculture landscapes, because of the way they mimic nature, are beautiful. Like living in Eden.

I am sorry you’re getting stared at. That’s rude, and you’d think that at an artists’ colony the locals would be past that already. There are so many people who do need to get out into the fresh air. Richard Louv in 2005 posited in Last Child In The Woods that many of us are suffering Nature Deficit Disorder. Clearly not you and I, because we thrive on getting out there, and we know it, and so do. In the book I mentioned earlier, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Kingsolver writes of a friend, apparently intelligent and well educated, who didn’t realize that carrots have a “green part.” I know there are neighborhoods, mostly black, where you can find lots of liquor but no produce. In Dirt!: The Movie, we see heroes who are transforming that situation by creating urban food forests and gardens to feed their neighbors. The change that needs to happen is happening. So far too slowly, but things could snowball. They’d better.

Oh, foxes. Our first night up here, several Februaries back, in that basement apartment in Oswego, our furniture still riding the truck up from Louisiana, we lay, the four of us, on our bellies, propped up on our elbows with our pillows, the half-empty pizza box on the floor next to us, looking out the sliding glass door for entertainment, barely talking. There was deep snow out there, and about twenty yards away, a line of fir trees. In the moonlight, all by itself the landscape was magical. And then a red fox streaked across, coming around the side of the building, taking cover in the trees. We all gasped. This was another world.

 

MS: Here’s what was in my head all day today: let’s compose a list of items that we need, that we currently don’t have (“we” in the large global sense). And let’s also compose a list of resources that we need in order to get those items on list one.

I’ve been thinking this since yesterday, after I read your post about the salt mines and the fracking, and later, as I followed behind a truck hauling wood, wondering where it was going, and I’d also just come down a hill, and looked up and saw yet another of those houses sitting on the highest point in the mountain, and as I tried to figure out how much land they’d cleared out to get that house there and to get that view they wanted, I began to wonder: could that family truly not find a house that had already been built? And that question, of course, with the truck ahead of me, spiraled. I don’t know where to begin with the list, I’ll admit. I can’t think of one thing that is needed in this world that’s not already here.

 

WB: I’ll tell you two things that we need that aren’t already here, or rather are here in insufficient quantity: love and forgiveness.

And the huge irony is that the source of both is infinite. It’s about getting out of the way. The ego blocks it. Get it to step aside, to go to sleep, to sit down and shut up, or if necessary, chain that bastard and hide it in the dungeon, whatever you can manage with compassion and discipline, maybe some prayer: and let spirit flow.

What we need: real food, shelter, and clean water and air. All that talk about jobs, but there’s plenty of work to be done ensuring those. What we don’t need: strawberries in December. McMansions. A constant influx of new toys and clothes. The newest gadget. Movies with big, expensive explosions. They talk about how green energy can’t yet meet our needs, but that’s only because our needs have become unreasonable. Ridiculous. And neoliberalism/neoconservatism, with its financial elite doing shit like starting wars so they can sell missiles and missile defense systems and get paid to rebuild the buildings the missiles turned to rubble is the same sick system that has chickens inhumanely raised in California shipped to China to be processed by near slave labor and shipped back to be sold cheap at Walmart, the carbon cost on the planet externalized and the cost of the fuel subsidized. The cruelty to both chickens and Chinese citizens (and the brown people under the rubble) ignored. WTF? And the fact that millions of farmers have been put out of jobs.

And speaking of homes, a sane person builds a home into the south side of a hill, not on top of a mountain. That’s my dream, a passive-solar hobbit house surrounded by an edible forest. A pond for fish down the hill a bit. Some chickens for eggs. Tolkein’s brilliance shines in linguistics, narrative, and characterization, but his deeper genius is his subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) critique of humanity and gorgeous vision of the Good Life as lived by the halflings.

What we need to get from where we are to that good life is not just love and forgiveness (though boy, we really do need those), but also to regain the knowledge that was lost when people moved from the land into the cities, when everyone came to rely on the industrial food system. That system is failing, based as it was on plentiful oil. We’ve run out. Even if climate change caused by our carbon weren’t a reality (and it IS, for Christ’s sake, people, get a clue), there simply isn’t much left. Hence the fracking. Hence the BP ecocide: shit’s gonna happen when you’re drilling for oil with a mile-long sippy straw. There’s also the fact that we’ve exhausted the soil.

So we need to learn or re-learn things like: how to grow food in a way that replenishes the soil, how to preserve food, how to cook food. How to make bread. How to keep sourdough starter going. How to make beer and wine. How to keep bees, chickens, cows and etc. How to prune trees. We don’t all need to know all of this. But we need to build communities in which together, all our needs get met. I’ll come prune your apple trees and you pay me with eggs. Next week I’ll bring you some honey. See? But we need to start now, not only because it takes time for roots to grow, time for trial and error, but because we need to build the loving relationships with our neighbors that are required for such a community to exist. And we can’t wait until everything falls apart to do so. The relationships need to be there beforehand, or when everything falls apart, and it’s headed that way, we’re going to end up eating each other.

 

MS: Say that, Wendy! Say. That.

Post-apocalyptic and apocalyptic narratives are based on what you write above, it seems to me. A total collapse, a pure, total collapse, that tests our abilities to be human (whatever that means, yes? I agree that we can use more (condensed) expressions of love and forgiveness (I say “condensed” because I believe, deeply, that those of us who love, freely, wholly, persistently, and seek and offer forgiveness (and are compassionate and kind), outweigh those who are tra-la-la’ing along, self-absorbed and self-serving; we get so caught up simply working towards being alive in this world, that we somehow don’t see or sense those who are, en masse, doing the work to help this planet survive the current over-consumptions). Somewhere along the way I left out a closed parenthesis, but that’s all well, yes?

I have this ex-colleague who once said, “there’s no turning back; we’ve reached the point of no return, and all we can do now is to not go any further towards” the pure and utter collapse of the planet. Those remarks set off a chain of reactions, of course, one being: “so, okay, then, if my recycling isn’t helping; if my solar panels aren’t helping; if my composting isn’t helping (a long list of “if my”), then just fuck it all! Let’s go out with a bang!”. I’ve never quite gotten unshaken from those comments; from this sense of solo “I’ness”; no conversations about what we, as a community, are doing; what we, as a series of linked communities can do; what we, as linked communities, can do to, well, shut this shit down.

There will be those assholes who read this and say “let’s punch holes in this conversation” (I’d likely be one of those assholes if I weren’t participating!); there will be those asses who will say “nothing new has been said here! this is just a bunch of liberal talk!” and well, because sometimes I’m an anticipatory kinda person, I’ll ask our readers: what are you committed to doing? what communities, globally, are you committed to connecting with, to collapse this old world? You know, Wendy, I think that even for compassionate, loving, caring folks such as you and I, we still have this mind that has to be completely overhauled, to completely re-see and re-imagine what we’re doing here, what our relationships are with others (and I include the natural world in “others,” as I have a hard hard time distinguishing the important differences between these organisms, other than the obvious: some of us are typing and driving cars and smoking and producing junk food and making 100% Egyptian cotton sheets (sooooo lovely) and some of us are squabbling mid-air and acting as sentries and building nests and stalking prey). I don’t know what that re-seeing entails, but I know, deeply, that it’s not what we’ve been talking about so far. Not in its entirety, anyway.

BTW, I think I said daisy at some point and I meant dandelions. The dandelions have EXPLODED from the ground since yesterday’s rain, and the bumblebees are truly becoming quite territorial about them! One hovered right in my face, a couple of days ago, before the grass become mostly dandelions, just hovered there, staring at me, for like 30 seconds! Eye level, eye-to-eye; I reckon because I was sitting on a bench that was sheltering a cluster of dandelions. The coyotes have started announcing themselves and that one robin that was following me on my walk, seemingly calling out to the others what I was (boringly) doing (you know, walking, stopping every so often to take a photograph; I think a woodpecker has now taken on the shift of sentry). It seems they were sniffing us out, figuring out what we were doing here. Yf we’re a threat. Some of us, too, have waited them out, have sniffed around, staying out later and later in the evenings, walking through the woods.

One of my college peers said, about the death of Barthes: all of that talk of symbols, and he was (eventually) killed by a symbol of wealth and the working class, one that he, apparently, didn’t see: a laundry van. I think of that, often, when I’m ready to give in to Barthesisms too quickly. Mythologies is serving me well, here, though, I must admit. . .

 

WB: To those who say that we’re past the point of no return I have to say: why bother breathing? Nihilism serves no one. Pessimism serves no one. Have we thoroughly f&c#ed things up? Oh, hell yes. BUT, the earth operates on a different time scale than we do. Think of it like steering a huge ocean liner (another one of those things we don’t need): what we do now will come to fruition in thirty years or so. That’s both really scary and really heartening. It does mean that if we continue on our path, all this carbon we’re pouring into the atmosphere currently (such a thin membrane around this jewel of a planet, it’s hard to believe that anyone who’s seen photographs of the earth from space can’t understand that the atmosphere’s capacity to absorb our effluent is incredibly limited) is going to totally cook things to the point that the whole place is a hell. But it also means that, if we get our act together, if we, through Permaculture and such, restore the soil, the living skin of Gaia, we can turn it around. Because a layer of living soil, planted with carbon-sequestering biomass (food forests!), could filter out that excess carbon, clean the water and air of toxins. According to my favorite movie referenced before, this could happen in about a decade. We could turn this ship around. But it will take all hands on deck. I don’t have time for anyone’s nihilism. We’ve got to get to work. Compost…and not just households, though that’s necessary, but municipalities. (I just came from the district-wide Green Team meeting, for which I’m the parent-at-large rep. The Ithaca school district composts, using Cayuga Compost, a company that also picks up from a lot of restaurants and office buildings around here.) Plant trees. Quit growing lawns. Eat local. Garden for wildlife. It DOES do good, but it’s a matter of scale. We’ve got to get everyone on board.

And we’ve got to reign in industry, especially biotech (I’m looking at you, Monsanto!) and fossil fuels. They are literally killing us. If our government refuses to do it, we need a new government. Which seems impossible, but it’s been done before. We can’t let the appearance of impossibility convince us to lay down and die. As long as we have life in us, we can fight. And people are fighting! Grandmothers are locking themselves by the neck to the machinery of extraction. There are so many more of us than there are of them. And information sharing is happening at rates that were unheard of just a few years ago.

I’m not saying that we can simply compost and recycle and grow a few vegetables and everything’s going to be hunky dory. No matter what, we’re in for a rough ride. But if we play it right, if we fight the battles that need to be fought and really put our backs into the work that needs to be done, we could survive, as a species and as a planet. And that is really what’s at stake, not just our comfort, not just our economy, not just our species: if we continue on our current path, we could make this place unlivable not just for humanity, but for life. There are some feedback loops that could be brought into play (that are very close to being brought into play!) that could turn us (the earth) into something like Mars. Let’s not go there, I say. Why would we do that? That’s a level of criminality that surpasses even Hitler’s evil. And ignorance is no excuse: the science is there. It’s a fact. We need to risk seeming like some hysterical tree-hugger in order to raise the alarm. The knowledge is there about how to fix things, we’ve got the backs and hands to do it. All that’s missing is the political will. And that can change very quickly. It’s up to us, thinkers, writers, to make it happen. Mother Nature is certainly not shy about giving us the stimulus needed. Here comes summer. California’s already having wildfires, in May. This past summer, in Australia, while we wintered, some spots were so hot that they couldn’t pump gas: it just evaporated. There are going to be food shortages, drought, floods. Remember Sandy? Political will is going to be easier to get every season that this new normal passes.

The needed re-seeing, something I hinted at in the beginning: understanding ourselves as part of a web, not at all separate, that is divine. I’ll leave you with my poem published recently at IthacaLit, part of my next collection:

 

Heirophany

for Deanna Graff

 

It happens to you, I know. You’ve said.

Waiting in your car, or walking the dogs

watching, to see what you will see, that

sudden wing-flash, the crimson leaf settled

on a blanket of green. Or, the poem the clouds write

across an azure sky, the trees’ hands waving.

And the God That Is the World

suddenly appears as a web that you are a part of

and the joyfulness erases everything else

and of course you have to laugh: even the grass

is in on it.

 

Actually, no, I take it back. I won’t leave it there, because your story of the dandelion and the bee reminded me of something that happened once down in my garden in Shreveport. Down there I had to deal with fire ants, which had an unfortunate symbiosis going on with another foreign invader, Bermuda grass. They’d use the deep roots of the grass as fortification for their tunnels, building around the roots, so when pulling out the damned stuff I’d often end up discovering a new nest (and by discovering I mean I’d be marauded by a swarm of the little beasts). Very distressing. Once I was weeding, and with my garden knife poised to plunge into the dark ground, I stopped, a bee buzzing frantically a few inches from my nose, under the brim of my sunhat. This was, of course, enough to get my attention. So I stopped what I was doing, and addressed the bee, which was clearly addressing me (it didn’t feel aggressive at all, but simply conversational). This was enough to satisfy it. It hovered close, still, but quietly, while I turned my attention back to the ground, in time to see that fire ants were pouring out of it. To this day, I believe the bee was warning me. I’d been gardening there for years at that point, and the life there understood that what I did created sweetness. I was the god of the garden. My work meant flowers that provided nectar and pollen for the hive, and the bee wanted me to keep at it, and risked getting swatted to ensure that I would.

Interconnectedness IS reality. If someone you know doesn’t believe it, cover his nose and mouth with your hand and see how long he can manage separated from the whole.

 

MS: That’s a great story, Wendy! Glad you didn’t end with the poem (although the poem, too, is rather full and speaks to much of what you’ve been saying here), and instead with interconnectedness (and protection from fire ants! The wretched little things. I know they have a purpose and their toxin is great for something or other, but ouch!). This morning I went out, as is my custom here, for a walk. I went the opposite direction I typically take and, once again, every time a bird really went hard on the chirping, I stopped to have a look around, to find the bird, to see its shape, and instead, I happened upon the most beautiful sights. I can’t say that they were telling me to stop thinking and take some awareness of my surroundings (& whoa was I thinking thinking thinking), but their sounds made me pause. Interconnectedness is precisely what I felt: surrender and commitment to be aware of the world I was currently inhabiting.

I had such hope for the U.S. when Majora Carter was becoming the face of urban greening, a series of ideas she got from projects throughout the world. Growing gardens and grass on high-rise rooftops in urban areas, yes; creating sustainable jobs, yes. What happened to that momentum? Wangari Maatha’s Greenbelt Movement. . . It sounds like upstate NY is doing some great work. Maybe folks who read this conversation will provide information about what’s happening in their neck of the highway/woods/cul-de-sac.

Today is Joy Harjo’s birthday, and I think you mentioned her much earlier. I’m providing a link from Poetry Foundation to her poem, “Perhaps the World Ends Here”  .

WB: Eating of the last sweet bite.” Oh, ouch. I don’t mind that I will have a last sweet bite (I mean, I’m going to put that off as long as I can, and try to get as much work and loving done as I can before it happens, but I came to accept my own mortality eight years ago, when I had a close brush with death, undergoing an emergency surgery only 2% survive). But that the world might have a last sweet bite, because of our stupidity and greed…yeah, that gets my goat big-time. Sometimes I get filled with rage, but it doesn’t burn long. It’d burn me up it’s so hot. Sometimes I sink into depression, but what can I do from the bottom of that pit? I’ve got kids to raise, chickens to feed, a husband who needs my own sweetness. Poems to write. And a novel! A novel that imagines a post-dystopian future in which, by necessity, we’ve figured out how to live in a lasting way, with the mess we’ve made. So joy! Joy is the mode of choice. It’s what works. But it takes faith. Not just faith in Christ, though I’ve got that, finally. But faith in the healing capacity of Gaia.

During my most recent poetry binge, the first poem I wrote was “Nineva,” exploring the concept and purpose of prophecy, and repentance. The sackcloth and ashes, the fasting, were gestures that begged for mercy. Successfully. The biosphere wants to heal, has powers to do so, but we have to move in that direction, take steps, make the necessary gestures. I trust that if we start to move in that direction, the planet will cover the distance to meet us. But they can’t be empty gestures. They can’t be greenwashing. The Greenbelt Movement is a good model. They got (are still getting, I believe, though we’ve lost Wangari, sadly) some real work done, planted millions of trees. And the miracle of trees is that they pull up deep water, and make it available for the rest. So they can turn apparent desert into an oasis, if we help them just a little bit with judicious watering until their roots reach down. Of course, they also sequester carbon, taking it out of the air and turning it into solid matter.

Outside, the clouds are gathering, again. For the past two days they’ve promised rain, but delivered only a drizzle. The ground, with everything in flower, is cracked. It does not bode well for this summer. I read a recent report that really frightened me, projecting long-term significant drought for everyone but the tropics. We already know that the warmer air holds on to moisture longer, that our agriculture dependent on annual crops is doomed. The seedlings dry out between rains, and those that survive get washed away when the hard rains finally come. That’s what Permaculture, with its deep roots and water catchment, can address. But if most of the moisture ends up hanging around the planet’s midsection, we’re going to be seriously screwed. Again, I have to say: we’ve got to get serious about the work to be done, and now.

I went this morning to buy flowers from a friend’s business (of course Ithaca has a sustainable florist) to bring to church this Sunday, which is both Mother’s Day and confirmation Sunday. Not only is my son being confirmed, but I was a mentor for a girl (young woman? she’s right on the cusp) who had been convinced by this culture’s assertion that you have to choose between science and a life of faith. When we started on this journey together she was solidly on the side of science. I think I’ve successfully convinced her that it’s a false dichotomy (the presence of particle physicists in our congregation, and many other scientists from Cornell, has helped a lot). The Daddy-In-The-Sky that’s posited by fundamentalism makes a convenient straw-God for the Dawkinsites to tear down, but the mystery of the divine is so much more than that. My favorite theologian, the feminist Elizabeth Johnson, argues that the patriarchs have created in God the Father an idol that obscures the wide horizon of divine reality. Part of that wide horizon is the immanence that animates everything. To be one with nature is to be one with God. And it’s not really something that one chooses; it’s something that one recognizes, or doesn’t. And to fail to do so is to consign oneself to alienation, to separation.

Swedenborg has a great analogy for the Kingdom of Heaven and Hell. He likens them both to a banquet, a long table set with every delicacy, a feast. And at each place setting, a three-foot fork. In Hell, the banquet’s guests sit at the table, smelling and seeing the food but unable to feed themselves with these long forks. In Heaven, the guests feed each other. Thank you, Metta, for feeding me here.

 

MS: I guess there are some very thin folks in Swedenborg’s Hell and perhaps some chubby ones in Heaven! Hopefully everybody gets to get up from the table at some point.

Did you see yesterday’s solar eclipse? I didn’t even realize it was happening, but today at the post office, the clerk was talking to a man in front of me about how the eclipse through her whole day off, & he talked about how mucky his day was, and I was standing there, waiting, thinking about how I twice had to “press the hard reset button” yesterday. When it was my turn, I asked her what happened, and she explained this whole series of snafus at work; she was certain Mercury was in retrograde, but one thing she knew: that solar eclipse had some magnetic energy that caused all kinds of problems, electronic and otherwise. It’s always amazing to me how the planets press in on us, how their energies become our energies.

It’s been a divine pleasure listening to your thoughts, sitting with them, before coming back to respond. I’m serious about us meeting face-to-face in the sooner rather than later future & in continuing to learn from you! Have a splendid Mother’s Day. Have you read “These New York City Pigeons” by Jayne Cortez, who transitioned last December, and would have celebrated her 79th birthday today? It’s hard out there for a pigeon, Wendy, real hard ~

 

WB: I confess the poem does not make me sorry not to live in New York City. But did make me chuckle. Once, down in New Orleans, I sacrificed one of my son’s blankets to try to save a pigeon with a broken wing that I came across while pushing the stroller, not far from Maple Street. I carried it in one hand, in the blanket, pushing baby Sasha in the stroller with the other, to a nearby vet’s office. The doctor there took it from me, looking at me like I was crazy. Maybe I am. All I knew at the time was that I couldn’t just leave it there in the street, not when I could do otherwise.

No, I missed the eclipse, and as far as I know nothing here went haywire. We’ve had a lot of cloud cover, so it didn’t even register. I’m an agnostic about the zodiac, myself. Considering how everything is hitched to everything else, I don’t consider planetary movements having an effect on us to be impossible. But what do I know?

Do come to Ithaca when you’re done at Millay. I’ll show you my developing garden, the chickens, take you to the gorges, see some ravens which roost there. I wish I could put you up, but we have no guest room. But I’ll feed you, and give you good strong coffee, and we can talk, and read each other poems, and watch clouds, and pray for rain.

 

Wendy Babiak (Conspiracy of Leaves, Plain View Press) has had poems published online (Poets for Living Waters, -esque magazine, Big Bridge, No Tell Motel, among others) and in print journals (Poems Against War, Barrelhouse, Tampa Review, among others) and in anthologies. She’s currently working on a novel that imagines a post-dystopian culture in which by necessity we’ve figured out how to live in relative harmony with the natural world, after screwing it up almost beyond recognition. Wendy is also an editor for Poets for Living Waters.

 

Metta Sáma is author of Nocturne Trio (YesYes Bøøks 2012) and South of Here (New Issues Press 2005 (published under her Lydia Melvin)). Her poems, fiction, creative non-fiction, & book reviews have been published or forthcoming in Blackbird, bluestem, Drunken Boat, The Drunken Boat, Esque, hercricle, Jubilat, Kweli, The Owls, Pebble Lake Review, Pyrta, Reverie, Sententia, Vinyl, among others. Sáma is a Visiting Assistant Professor of the MFA Program at LSU.

 

What Made the Salt Caverns Unsound: A Conversation with Wendy Babiak and Metta Sáma