Southern Utah University, located in Cedar City, was recently designated the “University of the Parks” for its close proximity to Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks as well as Cedar Breaks National Monument. So it was a natural fit for me, as associate professor of creative writing and now director of the Grace A. Tanner Center for Human Values, to direct an ecopoetry conference at Southern Utah University featuring keynote poets, guest editors of ecologically focused literary journals, and a writing workshop in Kolob Canyon.
But I can’t take credit for the idea. A few years ago I invited poet Mark Irwin to read as part of Art of Literature, our English department’s visiting writers’ series in partnership with the Utah Humanities Council. After the usual schedule of a reading and class visit, I took Mark on a tour of Kolob Canyon in the northern uplands of Zion National Park. Once there, you gradually ascend into hidden but stunning switchbacks, monoliths, and canyons until reaching a view that overlooks the Kolob Fingers. Mark had been to Kolob before, but as we wandered along the overlook trail on a beautiful autumn day, he made a sweeping gesture and said, “This would be a terrific place for a writing workshop on ecopoetry.”
Thus the student-focused ECOpoetry, Place, and Technology Conference was formed, at least in spirit. I reached out to Terrain.org and Saltfront (an environmental humanities and literary art journal), and continued to consult with Mark, plus the editors of Sugarhouse Review, Nano Taggart and Natalie Young, based in Cedar City. The inclusion of technology was at Mark’s suggestion, to explore how technology allows one to cross boundaries not defined by geography, which can lead to a sense of “placelessness.” However, in order to also explore the local landscape, I involved one of SUU’s outdoor recreation classes to plan and guide the hike through Kolob Canyon.
The inaugural conference was comprised of on-campus readings and workshops, and a writing/hiking workshop in Kolob, open to a limited number because of wilderness permits. The first keynote poet was Sherwin Bitsui, who read his amazing poem “Water” and hiked with our students on one of the less-traveled trails through the canyon. He was introduced by Terrain.org editor-in-chief Simmons Buntin. The following year we featured Arthur Sze (introduced by Terrain.org poetry editor Derek Sheffield and later interviewed by SUU student Ayleen Perry), who gave a workshop on using astronomical terms to write poetry, and braved with our students unusually cold and windy conditions on the overlook trail. Other poets who have read their work are Nancy Takacs, Juan Morales, Natalie Young, Michael McLane, Mark Irwin, Derek, and Simmons. Nancy and Derek were the poets who, respectively, created student writing workshops for each Kolob Canyon hike. For our third conference, which just wrapped up, we expanded to focus on “Writing about Ecology and Place,” with keynote readings in poetry and creative nonfiction by Lee Ann Roripaugh and Nicole Walker. Each year the keynote readings have also been a feature of the Utah Humanities Council Book Festival.
Being familiar with Terrain.org as the first online literary journal that also addressed concepts of ecology, I invited Simmons to be the editor-in-residence of the conference. For the first two conferences, he moderated a panel of editors from Saltfront, Pilgrimage, Terrain.org, and Sugarhouse Review–fine journals whose commitment to publishing writing about environment and place, or to simply keeping poetry alive and pertinent, has added invaluable dialogue to national conversations about the role of poetry in contemporary times of radical environmental and cultural change.
I grew up in Virginia but have lived in Cedar City for over 20 years. Now a long-term resident of Southern Utah, my memory of the Blue Ridge Mountains and Skyline Drive vistas is contrasted against hikes through Kolob Canyon. The places couldn’t be more different from each other–and indeed I always take pleasure in showing Easterners the stunning view at the top of Kolob as they take in the colors and textures of massive red rock canyons against a brilliant blue sky.
Yet the Southern landscape is my first love, and I sometimes struggle to define my sense of place in the high desert with few trees or rivers, so far away from dogwood blossoms, dense forests, fireflies. When I return to Virginia, such texture exists in the humid nights and sound of cicadas that envelop me. To step through a forest path is to step into a secret. In contrast, the openness of the Western landscape conceals little–here you see the air rather than touch it–and at night the quiet crispness reveals plains of stars.
These conferences provide a gathering place for professional writers to find renewal through that landscape and to awaken students to see what is in their own backyard. They renew my commitment to the writing life as I revisit a landscape I often take for granted through my East Coast eyes. And they remind me that while writing requires solitude, it can also welcome communion–writers come to the conference from different Western regions that have likewise informed their ecological concerns.
As this conference continues, my hope is that our shared expertise will follow the next step of transforming art into action on behalf of ecological preservation for a land and climate that are becoming increasingly fragile.
Header photo of Kolob Canyon in autumn by Simmons B. Buntin.