A More Encompassing View of Human Flourishing: An Interview with Alison Hawthorne Deming
By Simmons B. Buntin
About Author Alison Hawthorne Deming
Alison Hawthorne Deming was born and grew up in Connecticut.
She is the author of Science and Other Poems (LSU Press, 1994), selected by Gerald Stern for the Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets. The book was listed among the Washington Post’s Favorite Books of 1994 and Bloomsbury Review’s Best Poetry books of the past fifteen years.
Deming received an MFA from Vermont College (1983) and held a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University (1987-88). Her writing has won two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (1990 and 1995), fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown (1984-85), the Arizona Commission on the Arts, and the Tucson/Pima Arts Council, a Residency Award from the National Writer’s Voice Project, the Pablo Neruda Prize from Nimrod, Pushcart Prize, the Gertrude B. Claytor Award from the Poetry Society of America, and the Bayer Award in science writing from Creative Nonfiction for the essay “Poetry and Science: A View from the Divide.”
She has held residencies at Yaddo, Cummington Community for the Arts, the Djerassi Foundation, Mesa Refuge, The Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, The Island Institute in Sitka, Alaska, Hawthornden Castle International Retreat for Writers in Scotland, and the H. J. Andrews Experimental Forest.
She has served on the faculty of Prague Summer Seminars, Writers at Work, Taos Summer Writers’ Conference, Art of the Wild, The Orion Society’s Forgotten Language Tour, the Sitka Symposium on Human Values and the Written Word, and numerous other writing programs. In 1997 she was Distinguished Visiting Writer at the University of Hawai’i in Mānoa.
Her poems and essays have appeared widely in magazines and anthologies, including The Georgia Review, Orion, Islands, The Puschart Prize XVIII: Best of the Small Presses, American Nature Writing, Writing it Down for James: Writers on the Life and Craft, Verse and Universe: Poems on Science and Mathematics, and the Norton Book of Nature Writing.
Terrain.org: Since 1983, when you were an instructor at the University of Southern Maine, teaching has filled a significant part of your professional life. You’ve also held writer-in-residence, visiting fellow, and workshop instructor positions at other schools and programs. How important is it to have a teaching “base”—a position, location, and perhaps a kind of routine—you can return to? How do extracurricular teaching activities—such as instructing at the Prague Summer Program or the Wildbranch Writing Workshop—support your teaching of college students? Or vice versa? What are the drawbacks of teaching, if any, for your own writing life?
Alison Hawthorne Deming: I had an earlier career during LBJ’s “War on Poverty,” when I worked for Planned Parenthood and some other agencies dedicated to women’s healthcare, sexuality education, and teen pregnancy. I had dropped out of college to become a teen mother, so this work meant something to me. Those were challenging years but this work gave me a sense of purpose and self-worth when both had come into question. I was writing in those years, mostly in solitude. Since then, I’ve valued writerly community in any number of settings—small press, workshop, the incredible UA Poetry Center, and interdisciplinary groups working on climate change and related issues. I came to teaching late—not until my forties—which is one reason why I’m not burned out. What I like about teaching is the discipline of finding words to unpack the artistic process. And I admire the drive in students who want to write, the mystery of how artistic talent unfolds. What better conversation could I ask for? I had wanted for so many years to feel that writing really was at the center of my life, not something I did in my spare time. So the writing and teaching feel in some way to be one thing—the personal engagement and the social engagement good partners.
Teachers have had a great effect on me as a child. I’ve always loved school and had a great appetite for learning—right from the first one-room Pine Grove School I attended in rural Connecticut. I cried when it was time to go back home and tried to jump from my mother’s moving car to run back there. Teachers have been heroes to me, as well as artists and writers, and I’m honored to be among their ranks. There is always a lot of grousing about the academy. I suppose it comes from our all-American anti-authoritarianism. So be it.
For me teaching has provided community and livelihood and the satisfaction of passing along what I’ve learned to others. There is also the pleasure of learning from my students, each of whom brings a world view into the classroom. So in teaching I do feel very much that I am still “in school.” Drawbacks—well, considering what most people have to do to put food on the table, I consider myself very fortunate. Sure, I hunger for the long and beautiful openness of free time in which to stretch out into projects. That comes intermittently. Always a gift.
Terrain.org: Speaking of teaching, you’ve had an integral role across multiple genres in MFA programs in creative writing both in Arizona and Maine. Recently you noted how important it is for young writers, those for example fresh out of MFA programs, to “stay and work to build literary culture from the ground up.” What do you mean? How vital is a continuing writing community for new writers just out of MFA programs—or for any writers of any levels? Do you have a writing community, or a select person or two you share work with before sending it off into the world?
Alison Hawthorne Deming: Writers want recognition, audience, some corroboration that all those hours at the desk and in daydreams add up to something in the esteem of others. That kind of response completes the equation. But one needs to be on guard against expecting external powers to decide when you can take yourself seriously as an artist. It can be a long wait—and lead to endless appetite. More sustaining is to work at creating a culture that values the arts: start a journal, reading series, prison workshop; volunteer for the Poetry Center or Terrain.org; write book reviews and blogs. Better yet, turn some energy toward addressing a social or environmental problem that troubles you. I’m a deeply rooted New Englander, though I’ve lived in the Southwest for twenty years. I can’t help but want to be useful.
I have writer friends and editors whose opinions I value. Stephen Corey at TheGeorgia Review has been very generous and is one of the true editors out there whose judgments I rely on. When I’m writing something that draws on a scientific discipline, I have someone in that field take a look to make sure I’ve got the details right. The environmental writing community, though far flung, has meant a great deal to me because these writers share a passionate commitment. And poet friends here and there. My writing community is pretty fractal.
Terrain.org: Sixteen years ago you wrote, in the preface to your first book, Temporary Homelands, “I began writing these essays as a way to explore the tension I have felt between my own love and fear of nature, between my admiration for our species and my concern for our future, between the harmony I seek in going into the wilds and the general disharmony with the natural world that our culture has created.” Since that writing, global environmental challenges have only increased—climate change, ocean acidification, and rapid species extinction, to name just three. But the planet has also seen an increase in the use of renewable energy, extensive moves toward green construction, and collaborations among policymakers and community members to protect endangered habitats. Where does your tension lie today compared to sixteen years ago? What keeps you level—invigorated—in the face of such challenges?
Alison Hawthorne Deming: I’m filled with despair. We live in a pathological culture filled with rage and bitterness and greed. The hate-mongering and racism is reaching a frightening pitch. All disguised as “the American way.” And yet there is this counterforce . . . as there always has been. People who want to make a difference within a more encompassing view of human flourishing. Paul Hawken writes in Blessed Unrest that Earth’s immune system—its rapid response team of self-protection—becomes invigorated at times of peril. And one sees it at play now in the upwelling of grassroots work aimed at finding a sustainable future. The federal government is nearly immobilized by polarization and rancor. What keeps me level is the refusal to let the best of human aspirations die in the face of the challenges. I make a moral decision to be hopeful. Perhaps that is what the theme of this issue of Terrain.org invites us to do: to find the signal in the noise. In the realm of daily practice, what keeps me level is gardening, playing piano, walking, and reading.
Terrain.org: In 2007 you participated in a panel on the future of environmental essay, noting how the genre makes a strong case that “language, for good and ill, has the power to shape people’s experience in the world.” Can you elaborate on the role of language, and environmental literature specifically, in advocating for justice, humility, and compassion? Are writers and perhaps all artists responsible for more than bearing witness when it comes to environmental advocacy? Is it their job, also, to generate action?
Alison Hawthorne Deming: We have an obligation to bear witness to our time and to expose how language is used to manipulate our desires and beliefs. We also have an obligation to demonstrate the power of language to give solace, guidance, reflection, insight, community, vision. There is a strong tradition of writers helping to shape environmental ethics and policy: Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Wallace Stegner, Wendell Berry, in our recent history. On the frontline, Kathleen Dean Moore and Michael P. Nelson have just edited a stunning collection of over eighty essays, Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril, making a clear call to action. Climate change is a moral challenge, not simply an economic or technological problem. It is linked to social justice, because it is the poor citizens of the world who will suffer the most from our excesses. As Desmund Tutu writes, “The countries that are the least responsible for causing climate change are paying the heaviest price.” We can easily be numbed by loss and fear for the future. We need stories and poems to make us feel deeply our human condition and revive the hope that we can do better.
Alison Hawthorne Deming: Sandra Alcosser, who curated the pilot project at Central Park Zoo, invited me to be one of five poets-in-residence for the project. The goal is to see if poetry installations will help to foster conservation values. It worked in New York, where there was a 48 percent increase in people who said humans are part of an ecosystem and a 36 percent increase who said humans have a role in stewardship. People said that the poems gave them words for something they had felt, but didn’t know how to say. This is in keeping with George Schaller’s maxim: “An appeal for conservation must reach the heart not just the mind.” So these additional projects were funded by the Institute for Museum and Library Services to see if we could replicate those results. Poems selected come from a range cultures and historical periods. They are located throughout the zoo: Langston Hughes beside the St. John River, Han Shan in the Asian garden, Robinson Jeffers at the vulture habitat, Guyanese poet Ian McDonald among the endangered amphibians, Nerval with the great apes, Inuit “Magic Words” with giant otters. Perhaps the Wordsworth quote at the zoo’s exit sums up our intent: “What we have loved,/ Others will love, and we will teach them how.” Early in 2011, we will have outcomes tabulated from the exit interviews conducted at the five new projects. In addition to Jacksonville, the installations are located in New Orleans, Little Rock, Milwaukee, and Brookfield, Illinois.
I think of this as an “applied poetics” project—a marvelous experiment. It was a great pleasure to work with the zoo staff, whose dedication to the flora and fauna under their care impressed me quite profoundly. And certainly there were moments of wild humor—such as the morning that installations were derailed because Archie, the 41-year-old, 4,000-pound rhino had escaped from his quarters to sample some fresh grass. Talk about a minor glitch in the work plan.
Terrain.org: Your newest collection of poetry, Rope, contains several long poems, including “Definition of Disaster,” “Works and Days,” and “The Flight.” They are quite distinct in their approach—through sectioning, stanzas, and voice—and they are all stunning. What attracts you to the long poem, and how do you keep a long poem going? By that I mean, when do you sense a poem needs to be long? How do you invigorate yourself and the verse to sustain itself over several pages or more? Can the long poem—in its creation and resiliency—serve as a metaphor for how we (could or should) live?
Alison Hawthorne Deming: I like to joke that I started writing long poems out the anxiety over ending and starting poems. It just seemed easier to keep going. I’ve always been attracted to long poems—Paterson, of course, The Prelude, Four Quartets, Letter to an Imaginary Friend, and the classic epics. In graduate school I did a semester’s study on the long poem looking at works by Frank Bidart, Marilyn Hacker, Ashbery, Pinsky, Neruda. So many others. I like the dance between sustained focus and digression that the long poem invites. A controlling metaphor helps to sustain the long poem, as with The Monarchs or “The Flight.” I like to use research to enlarge the poem. And sometimes a rhetorical or syntactical gesture stitches the poem along. In “The Flight” the word “so” became a little in-joke between my conscious and unconscious faculties. Stuck? Just bridge to the next association with the friendly conversational gesture, “So….” No accident that the word is a homophone for “sew.”
And, yes, I do think that the long poem speaks for an inner need for continuity. We live in a time of so many losses, disruptions, and distractions, that the need for a sense of the ongoing is quite real. The long poem is very satisfying in offering the psyche a model of coherence.
Terrain.org: Many of the poems in Rope—“The Andrews Forest Quintet” most notably—flow from your work to bridge science and the arts or, as you noted in a presentation last year at the University of Arizona, “to see beyond Earth’s noise for new relationships between art and science.” Why is such an integration essential? What are the risks? How can policymakers specifically benefit from expanded relationships between art and science? What advice do you have for writers who want to work more closely with scientists—and for scientists who wish to work more closely with writers and other artists?
Alison Hawthorne Deming: The problems we face are too big and complex for any one discipline to solve them. And we know that communicating the science of climate change to the public and policy-makers has been a dismal failure. We need to try some new strategies. The arts help at getting beyond polarized argument and into imaginative thinking, reflective thinking, extending empathy, testing out ethical principles that might guide us. The arts have been with human culture for at least 30,000 years as a means for us to handle complexity and uncertainty and the beautiful mystery of our inwardness. Data is not the answer. Rethinking ourselves and how we behave toward one another and toward the mothering planet is what counts now. Whatever the risks, they are worth taking. No poem ever blew up in the Gulf and spewed out oil into the sea. My advice is for artists and scientists to spend time together in a place, sharing conversation and questioning one another’s way of seeing, asking for clarification. We meet first as people with a shared love of amazing life. Our disciplines are toolkits that may or may not be useful. I think the conversation around a campfire may be much more useful than the one around the conference table. For starters.
Terrain.org: In your award-winning essay “The Rabbit on Mars,” you ask: “What better guide for us—if only in play—than the animals who have been with us from the start, real and imagined, the animals who live in us as the matter of our genes and the spirit of our imaginations, who live with us as our teachers and companions and neighbors, the animals who were our first gods in the childhood of humanity.” Tell us about a particular animal interaction or experience that helped create this insight, that perhaps changed the way you walk through the world. What about the iconography and importance of animals in public life? And tell us, if you don’t mind sharing, about the collection of animal essays you’re completing now.
Alison Hawthorne Deming: In A Bestiary for the 21st Century I’ve gathered a series of stories about animal encounters, dreams, research—all of which bring back that wonderful feeling I had in childhood for animals. The sense, as we see in children’s books, that animals are our teachers or that when they enter our consciousness something significant is happening. The classic bestiaries used animals to teach moral lessons. That is still true. But I think that boxes them in too narrowly. So the book starts with reflection on a thumb-sized carving made from a mammoth tusk 30,000 years ago of a cormorant and it ends with the idea of emergence—the still-becoming reality of our own animal nature.
I was attacked by two dogs when I was three and a half years old. I’m lucky to be alive. My face was stitched back together and here I still am, gratefully so. I believe that experience shocked me into a deep alliance with the animal world, its beauty and viciousness and terror. It certainly made me pay very close attention to animals. I also asked that the book seek stories that speak about our moment in history: hence “the Rabbit on Mars,” raw oysters in a Los Angeles bar, an AWOL soldier who teaches me a new meaning for the word “dogtags,” a dead finback whale washed up on a Provincetown beach, a pet cat who dies from ingesting anti-freeze—these all find a home on these pages. They are not all dark and violent stories, but there is certainly a generous share of “Quentin Tarantino” in my renderings. But exaltation is there too, if harder and harder to find.
Terrain.org: You’ve spent time at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest in Oregon, one of 26 long-term ecological research sites funded by the National Science Foundation. Kathleen Dean Moore, in her guest editorial in this issue, speaks to the Spring Creek Project’s role in the Andrews Forest. What is your sense of this particular site—as artist, teacher, and environmental advocate—and the idea of long-term ecological research in general? Any thoughts on long-term ecological research as it relates to the nature-urban interface, or is that a kind of blasphemy? As a society, how might we expand the idea of long-term research, documentation, and ultimately compassion beyond a select few sites and to the broader landscape. Or can we?
Alison Hawthorne Deming:The Andrews has pioneered this work that is now springing up in many locales—including our own urban/nature interface here in Tucson on Tumamoc Hill, where the Desert Lab plans to launch a writer-in-residence reflections project. The importance of the citizen scientist is growing, as we enter the “cone of uncertainty” that is climate change. Anyone can keep a record of changing patterns in nature—when the winter ice breaks up from a lake, when the first crocus or globe mallow blooms in spring, when the monarchs take off for Mexico or when the offspring return…. Make a family tradition of recording local observations. Journey North is an example of a wonderful program that engages school children in making monarch migration observations that the kids then can track as a great, big collective project of field observation. I think we’re coming to see that a continuity of observations will be so helpful as we try to understand what these changes will mean and how we and other creatures might adapt. Yes, we can pay attention—and this is as important as voting.
Terrain.org: Through your website, as well as your classes, you share reading lists—for example, essential books of the literature of science, and memoir. If you could choose five books that every American interested in the preservation and spirit of place, and self in that place, should read, what would they be? What authors have most inspired you? What are you reading now, and what do you most look forward to reading next?
On my bedside table: John Gardner’s Grendel and some other fiction. The Irish writer John McGahern. And I’m going through all of Denise Levertov for a shop talk I will give at the Poetry Center. She was very influential on me as a poet dedicated both to art and activism. I look forward to braiding my own history as a reader over the past forty readers with re-encountering her work.
Terrain.org: What’s next for Alison Hawthorne Deming?
Alison Hawthorne Deming: I just finished the essay “A New England Childhood” for the anthology Companions in Wonder, edited by Stephen Kellert and coming out from MIT Press. I’ll write some more about childhood—the sense of wonder abrading with the sense of peril. And poems, when they come, will always be welcome. I’m well into the next collection. I also want to work on a book about new relationships between the arts and science. The zoo project is one example. Also Long Term Ecological Reflections at the Andrews Experimental Forest. I want to ferret out other projects of this sort that are de-disciplining the disciplines. I see a sabbatical on the horizon, so I’m eager for the time to work. Plus more gardening, more hiking, more piano… and as the Shakers used to sing, more love!