Alison Hawthorne Deming is the author of four books of poetry, Science and Other Poems (1994), The Monarchs: A Poem Sequence (1997), Genius Loci (2005), and Rope (2009); in addition to three books of environmental creative nonfiction, Temporary Homelands (1994), The Edges of the Civilized World (1998), and Writing the Sacred Into the Real (2001). A descendant of novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, Deming was born in Connecticut and earned her MFA from Vermont College in 1983. She has since found a home in the American West; she lives in Tucson, Arizona, and is the director of the Creative Writing MFA Program at the University of Arizona. Her latest book, Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit, is forthcoming from Milkweed Editions.
In the spring of 2012, Deming visited Nashville to participate in a Vanderbilt Creative Writing symposium: “What We Talk About When We Talk About Sustainability & Creative Writing.” The following is an edited version of my conversation with her after the symposium.
Interviewer: When I think about sustainable or environmental writing, which you are actively engaged with, I think about the idea of the writer “bearing witness.” Can you talk about that to begin our conversation?
Alison Hawthorne Deming: Sure. I mean, I think that’s what we’re doing when we’re writing anything, we’re bearing witness to the time we live in and how it’s different from any other time in history. But, in the environmental area, it’s an extremely important task for writers. We’re facing enormous changes in our planetary life, with climate change and the adaptations that all natural systems are going to have to make to these climate changes, and so it’s extremely important to bear witness to what’s happening. Everything that’s happening now is a baseline for what will happen tomorrow or fifty years from now or a hundred years from now. People don’t usually think of poems or essays or stories as actually taking a measurement of their moment in time. But that is extremely important, and it’s extremely important that, as writers, we give a voice to those who don’t have voices, including the other animals that we share the planet with and the places that are endangered or being lost. There are landscapes and species that are not going to be here a hundred years from now, fifty years from now. One gift we as writers give to the world is to bear witness to these landscapes and species as we have experienced them. The world is going to be less biologically rich for quite some time in the future. We are always weeping that we live in such a diminished world, but we are experiencing a biologically rich world compared to what the future will look like. Bearing witness to that is a beautiful gift.
We talk a lot about bearing witness in political contexts, like Carolyn Forché’s great anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness; all of that applies to environmental issues. There’s also this important notion of the “citizen scientist.” People can keep a record of the natural world in their own backyard, as, you know, your Great Aunt Mabel or somebody wrote down when the first robin appeared in the spring and how high the lake level was or when the first ice went out on the river. Some people just did that because they loved their place and they kept a record of it. Now, climate scientists get to look at Aunt Mabel’s journal and— it’s science. She’s not trying to be a scientist; she’s just an attentive person who cares about her place. All those documents created by citizen scientists in the future are going to help us see the picture of what is happening in the world around us and how we can be responsible toward it.
Interviewer: I love that idea, and it seems to be such a great defense of that famous Auden line that “poetry makes nothing happen.”
Deming: Right! Right. It makes nothing happen, and yet I always love the ambiguity of that statement. It makes nothing happen, so nothing is a result of poetry. But it also makes nothing into something that happens!
Interviewer: It also reminds me of some lines from one of Emily Dickinson’s poems about Nature: “Nature is what we know – / Yet have no art to say – / So impotent Our Wisdom is / To her Simplicity.” How does this dichotomy between nature and art affect the task of bearing witness?
Deming: That’s the incredible challenge. If you have this deep feeling of empathy for the natural world, you feel it so profoundly. It’s almost a religious experience. I feel that I could never really say the depth of feeling or connection I feel to the natural world, which has made me. I am a result of what has happened on this planet—how could I find the art to say that? I can’t, and yet, I am drawn to it because of the enormity of it. That seems really important. And that last part, the difference between our wisdom and nature’s simplicity—that reflects the burden of a complex intelligence. A complex intelligence like ours is impotent compared to the intelligence of a monarch butterfly migrating from Canada to Mexico, or the intelligence of hummingbirds that have co-evolved with the flowers all along their migration route. That seems so simple; it just happens, it just unfolds. What comes out of a seed—it just happens and unfolds. And you see this incredible capacity for replication in nature, survival, development, all of these things that are around us all the time in nature that just happen. By comparison, human life is really, really complicated. We’re gifted animals, but we are so complicated. Nothing is easy for us, except maybe eating too much.
Interviewer: I want to switch now to talking about your craft as a writer. I’ve been reading some of your prose book Writing the Sacred into the Real, and I was struck by this passage: “Artists live by their contradictions. … If I knew what I believed, I would not need to write.” Can you talk a little about writing as discovery in your process?
Deming: Life seems complicated to me; I feel confused a lot of the time by life. I feel confused about the fact that we can be so tender as creatures to one another, and so monstrous at the same time. I think I started writing as a young person because I felt a lot of psychic confusion and emotional confusion, and writing was a way to sort it out. You know, to externalize it, sort it out, put it down, look at it, and hopefully it would become clearer. Or, at least, I would document that sense of contradiction. I don’t think you ever get past it. But I think you have to live inside your contradictions and find a way to accept that that’s the human condition—to be forced to live in contradiction.
Interviewer: Do you see your poems and your essays as you working something out, discovering something?
Deming: Yeah, I’m always writing towards a discovery. When I’m writing poems in particular, I’m often writing because a few images coalesced in my mind and I thought, “I wonder why these images are abrading against each other. I wonder what happens if put them in a poem and explore them.” I’m trying to learn something every time I write a poem. I’m trying to learn something about making a balance between the inner life and the outer life. I wouldn’t write if I didn’t need to be making those discoveries, if I didn’t feel the perpetual ignorance of being a human being. Poetry is a really helpful instrument for doing that. It’s so physical; the musicality becomes a sort of expression of the body. The mind is there too, in the formal aspects of the poem. The emotions are there in the way the senses gather things into the poem. For me, it’s one of the most full ways of discovering what it feels like to be a human being in this particular moment, in this particular set of concerns. It’s all about discovery. A lot of times students will come up to me and say, “Well, I can’t write because I don’t know what I think about such-and-such.” And I say, “That’s why you have to write.” You don’t wait until you know, because then who cares — it’s static.
Interviewer: I wonder if that’s maybe part of the reason you came to writing essays, creative non-fiction, after writing poetry?
Deming: Yeah, I wrote poetry first, for a long time. I had a crisis of genre. Partly I felt that because I’m always doing poems from a place of not-knowing, a place of ignorance in a way. I began to feel that there was so much of life that wasn’t getting into my poems. I had real concerns about the relationship between nature and culture and places I wanted to write about. I had some content and some ideas I really wanted to pursue, but I didn’t want to overburden poetry with that kind of subject matter. I thought, well, maybe I should try prose. It was a real struggle to begin because, first of all, there were so many words on the page — it was terrifying. [Laughs] So yeah, I did just jump into it. Now, though, I really like working in both genres. Beginning was awful, though. I don’t know why I was so scared of the genre change, but I was. I thought I’d try a novel, but I was absolutely incapable of inventing a character. Completely incapable of it. So I said, “Alright, I’ll write a journal. Anybody can write a journal. Just sit down and work with the journal form.” So I started writing prose that way. I tried to be as observant and particular as I could be. Eventually, the journal turned out to be an essay called “An Island Notebook.”
Interviewer: When you were coming to the form of the essay, did you have any models you were looking at for inspiration?
Deming: I had been reading a lot of twentieth-century nature writers and essayists and non-fiction writers. I loved Edward Hoagland’s essays; they are very associative, almost poem-like. I loved Peter Matthiessen. I think I had always liked great essays, too. Montaigne, James Baldwin, these were really compelling authors for me. Especially Baldwin. Here was somebody who perfectly married personal and psychological concerns with the social and political concerns of his time. His essays are so passionately inward but so passionately outward as well. So, I was reading a lot but I was really tormented. I’m sure I was reading all the great environmental writers, Wendell Berry, Barry Lopez, Peter Matthiessen. I also liked aspects of travel writing, aspects of meditative essay, and aspects of nature writing. I just thought I’d just take a little bit from all of these genres. I was less crazy about memoir, because I saw too few memoirs that took on a larger subject. The memoirs that turned me on, and still do and still inform me, are those with big subjects like Nabokov’s Speak, Memory and Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table. They’re personal but they’re also very engaged with political situation.
Interviewer: I think the, as you put it, marriage between personal and political concerns speaks to a lot of your work as well, not just your essays. Your poetry obviously has to do with nature, but it also has to do with more than that. It also addresses the context, the “culture,” to borrow word you use a lot, that surrounds nature.
Deming: I’m really interested in culture because it is such a powerful human force, particularly in America where we think it’s all about the individual. As writers, the world is not about individual expression entirely because we are producing works of literature and getting them out into the world. I’m interested in thinking about how are we contributing to the culture, what we can write that might help us deepen the culture, make us more reflective, make us more empathetic, make us feel our connectedness in other ways. I’m just really interested in the interface of the individual with the collective. I think that’s where the arts live. Sometimes it gets talked about as if it’s all about the individual, and I don’t think it is. I’m really interested in what writing can contribute to a kind of cultural intelligence.
Interviewer: How do you think the culture of nature manifests itself in your poetry?
Deming: Well, for one thing, I’m extremely interested in science as the mythos within which I live. Science tells me what kind of animal I am, what kind of a universe I live in. It’s always deepening my understanding of the natural world. So, for me, bringing science into poetry is one way of acknowledging some of the richest stuff that is in my cultural moment. If I sit down and I read Science News, any issue, I’ll sit down and I’ll say “Oh my God!” Like in the one issue, there was this piece about luminescent bacteria, bacteria with a phosphorescent substance that makes them light up under water. The brine shrimp that feed on these organisms favor the ones with this luminescence. I read something like that and I think, “Holy cow, the world is amazing. I want to put that in a poem.”
But I’m always trying to ask myself both “Who am I as an individual?” and “What are the cultural forces that have made me the person that I am?” How can I understand myself as a cultural creature as well as an individual? I’m really obsessed with that question, and always asking my students to consider it. Often a student will tell a really powerful personal story, but it feels small. I always ask him or her, “Can you place that in a cultural context?” Then the story becomes a bigger one.
Interviewer: What you’re saying makes me think of a term environmental writers often use, “the wild:” the idea of bringing the wilderness or a sense of wildness somehow into the work. I wonder if you see writing a greater cultural context as a way of doing that?
Deming: That’s an interesting question. Maybe I do. Maybe it’s that same kind of exploratory impulse, wanting to trail-blaze away from the domestic, both in myself as well as out in the woods. A desire to say, “If I allow my mind to range more wildly, what will it gather and bring to the poem or the essay?”
Interviewer: You’ve talked a little bit about the differences between writing poetry and writing essays. I wonder if there are similarities you’ve found?
Deming: Yes. I think one is associational thinking, that same sense of discovery—allowing the subject to unfold as you pursue it. One of the things I’ve been working with in my recent non-fiction, my latest book Zoologies, which is composed of short essays. I’ve been trying to see how I can bring some structural elements from poetry into a short essay. They’re not prose poems, but in one short essay I do use a refrain line — “I don’t know when I first noticed the absence of birds” — and then it kind of riffs off, coming back three or four times. That idea of a refrain line as a rhetorical gesture, that sort of stitches the essay together, is a lot like a poetic gesture. I like that. I also like bringing poetry’s focus on figurative language and compression into the essay. Of course, the musical properties of language, the cadence of the sentence, are really important to me in prose. I grow very impatient with prose writers who don’t pay attention to the cadence of the sentence. If you start as a poet, you’re wooed by the music of language; you want to put that into your practice. I see a lot of similarities between the two genres; I’m always trying to bring as many poetic properties as possible to the essay without making it too overburdened.
Interviewer: I’d like to end by opening our conversation to a bit of speculation.
Deming: Oh boy …
Interviewer: I read a lecture you gave at AWP on the future of the environmental essay. I wonder if you can expand that to your ideas about the future of environmental writing in general, including the future of environmental, sustainable poetry?
Deming: Well, I do think environmental writers need to be forward thinking, not just lamenting our losses. We do need to lament; in some ways it’s important to be the vessels for grief for all that’s being lost on our planet. But we also need to be forward thinking; that’s why I think science fiction writers have a role in environmental writing. Kim Stanley Robinson has been doing incredible work with climate change in sci-fi. For the poets, my hope is that they will, quite simply, feel the obligation to be really informed about the situation in which we find ourselves, in terms of our imperiled planet. You should inform yourself so deeply that it becomes part of your nature, part of your voice. I don’t want people to write these programmatic environmental poems, but I think sustainability should become deeply a part of the consciousness of poetry—an impulse toward compassion, empathy, and social justice. Poets can speak for those things because they come out of a really deep place in us. We don’t accept oppression; we are about a freedom of spirit, or whatever you want to call it. I think environmental concerns have to go to that same deep place, so we speak from a place of great empathy for the planet—for the disadvantaged people, animals, places, cultures.
I see poetry changing in this way. It used to be, oh, you know, you’d have a few environmental poets, Gary Snyder, A.R. Ammons, W.S. Merwin, the great American nature poets. But what I see happening now, because the environment is becoming so much a central concern of our time, I see environmental concerns just bleeding into poetries all over the place. My hope is that we won’t have these environmental poets tucked over here and everybody else doing cool stuff with language and consciousness elsewhere, but that all of it will become one thing. Our collective conscience is being affected by what’s going on. I think we’re going to be surprised; I hope we’re going to be discovering extremely interesting ways that environmental concerns will come into American poetry. For example, I want to see urban perspectives on these issues, not just “I took a hike and it was beautiful and here’s my poem.” But, you know, sitting in the middle of Chicago reading an article about carbon in the atmosphere and our lack of political will—is there a poem anywhere in there? I don’t know! If you can find it, write it.
Interviewer: This brings to mind the fallacy of nature or the environment as something different from human places or human life, the specious dichotomy between humanity and nature. Isn’t everything nature?
Deming: Right. We’re nature. Our minds are nature. Our desire to make poetry is nature. Like Snyder’s idea of the “wild mind”—it’s the wild mind that wants to make the poem. I think that dichotomy is breaking down, though. Once you realize that human actions affect every bit of earth and sky, you realize that the environment isn’t just what surrounds us—it’s all one whole. Maybe we’re coming into that holistic view now.
Interviewer: So you see environmental poetry as maybe—a poetry of the whole?
Deming: I like that. Yes! I like that very much.