Interviewed by Christopher Linforth
You began your writing career as a poet and scholar. Can you tell us about your early work and influences?
As a very young poet, in high school, I read James Wright, Robert Bly, William Stafford—all poets for whom the natural world mattered in ways sometimes spiritual, sometimes political. Their work showed me the power of plain speech, the way a kind of intimacy can occur within the voice on the page. I remember reading “Tract” by William Stafford and realizing with a kind of elation that even though it seemed like a rather dated poem—at first it reminded me of Our Town, which I found tedious—his emphasis on simplicity in ritual could apply to much more than going to a funeral. The Deep Image work of Wright and Bly captivated me—they still do. Long before I read Jung, I was a Jungian through their poems. Soon I found women poets who appealed to me as well: Adrienne Rich and Louise Glück, especially. From Glück I learned so much about the role of silence in a poem, such a different wielding of voice from the energy of Bly, for example. Part of that silence emerges from her composition in multi-sectioned poems
Why did you switch to the essay form?
I hope I haven’t fully “switched”—I still write and publish poems, but they function for me more fully as lyric moments. I’ve been engaged in writing essays that aim to combine narrative and lyric into much larger mosaics, which at first seemed to me a kind of progression of the multi-sectioned poems I’d been writing. One of my teachers, Scott Russell Sanders, once told me that he didn’t need to write poems because he wrote essays, and I like his implied point that the essay is such a flexible form. I first began writing essays seriously because I was teaching an honors composition course and wanted us all—my students and me—to write prose that drew us out of our existent selves into something previously unglimpsed. It’s vital work for 18 year old college students and it turned out it was equally so for their young professor.
Photo credit: Gina Becker
In the last few years, you’ve written three books of essays—Horizon’s Lens: My Time on the Turning World, In the Mind’s Eye, Prospect: Journeys and Landscapes—that contain lyrical meditations on landscape, language, and the cultural remnants of humanity’s past. Elaborate, if you would, on your writing and research process.
Generally, I start from a literal place: sometimes a landscape that I know very well (like the tallgrass prairie near where I live in Kansas), sometimes one that is thoroughly new to me (like Mount St. Helens, where I had a week-long residency through Oregon State University’s Spring Creek Project and the US Forest Service). I think my most deeply meaningful and engaging experiences are essentially periods of sustained phenomenology: feeling the world act upon me, feeling myself exist through that action. From that intensity of feeling—always a version of Thoreau’s exultation on Mt. Katahdin—I like to move outwards in spirals of association.
Before I went to Mt. St. Helens, I read volumes of material about the history of volcanism in the area, about the 1980 eruption, about the three decades of scientific monitoring while the landscape underwent a rapid succession from sterile pumice plain to vibrant meadow-and-shrub community. But only after the visit, when I saw a tiny burial site (scattered ashes and a few flowers) carefully placed on the shore of Spirit Lake, where the scalded trunks of the pre-blast old-growth forest still float, did I realize I wouldn’t write directly about any of that research. Instead, I thought about the nominative power in elegy: names of a landscape that is gone, or changed nearly beyond recognition; names of the dead we once loved. And so I turned from scientific literature to lexicons and tales of the older, indigenous languages that named and described the Pacific Northwest.
I think that’s pretty typical of my method, such as it is—walk around a lot, read a lot, and try to find connections between knowledge of a place and the lives it has housed, and the sensation of my own enlivened experience of having been there, too.
What do you think of term “creative nonfiction”? Good, bad, or ugly? Do you personally align your work in the tradition of Montaigne’s essays or do you have a more contemporary influence?
Well, the first time I read Montaigne was in a college French class, and the experience did not make me feel on a conversational level with him at all! But yes, I hope that my work now might sometimes achieve the conversational quality he offers to adept readers. Et je suis toujours en train d’essayer quand j’ecris. More important to me as a writer, however, have been the sense of literary companionship—the sense of being spoken to—from Patricia Hampl and Reg Saner. Hampl, I think, is the best stylist in working in the essay these days; Saner is, for me, always the supreme example of a writer equally at home in the educated mind and in a pair of well-worn boots.
“Creative nonfiction” is a term useful in the academy. It’s useful on a college syllabus. I suppose it’s also useful in the publishing business since presses don’t think they can sell books of “essays.” But I like to write “essays.” And to call them that.
Your last two books were published by University of Nebraska Press. How have you enjoyed this relationship? Is there a degree of collaboration in fine tuning the book before publication?
I have loved working with University of Nebraska Press! They publish such strong nonfiction, I’m delighted to be included among their authors, and I’ve especially loved working with Kristen Elias Rowley, my editor for Horizon’s Lens. She was supportive and encouraging at every turn and helped me see the ultimate shape for the book’s intended chronology of the seasons. And since people do judge books by their cover, I’ve been grateful for the care and thought that the designers devote to the projects. The cover for In the Mind’s Eye was the second design—I thought the first design failed to connect with the work and they came back with the wonderful handprints that are, I think, the very essence of the way I wanted to touch artwork in place and be touched, in turn, by those long-dead artists. I think it’s unusual for such close communication between authors and design teams and I feel very fortunate for the outcome.
What is the current project you’re working on?
In addition to the lyric moments I spoke of above, I’ve just begun writing about a remarkable environmentalist movement in the nation of New Zealand. New Zealand is a landmass, an island nation, that was isolated by the geologic expansion of the Pacific ever since the Cretaceous era. Like a very slowly drifting raft out of time, the land that is now the North and South islands and all the accompanying tiny islands represents an ecosystem where mammalian presence was absent for millions of years. There are tantalizing hints of minority-mammals, if you will: some small rodent fossils from the center of the North Island, uncertain reports at the time of the first European arrival that something like otters *might have been* in a stream. But basically, after the Chicxulub impact 65 million years ago that decimated dinosaurs all over the planet, life evolved in New Zealand without mammalia as a presence. Birds. Insects. Reptiles. Plants that had protective defenses against eaters that lacked lips or primate hands. So when the first mammals arrived—Polynesians, with rats in their boats—some eight hundred years ago, according to archaeologists, the moat of the vast Pacific was breached and the cascade of extinctions has been devastating. Anyway, there is an environmental movement to establish sanctuaries that are themselves islands, to recreate in miniature the kind of protection that first allowed the unique life of New Zealand to evolve. First, the movement relied on real islands. In just the last two decades, though, facsimile “islands”—surrounded by enormous fences—have been undertaken to create inland habitations of protection. There’s something heroic, against-all-odds, in the boldness of this undertaking that I love. Hope, behind this last bastion of effort.
So far I’ve visited two literal island sanctuaries, two fenced sanctuaries, and am following the story of another fenced-preserve that is nearing construction. This narrative reveals so many of the key heartbreaks and fears of the current era. Extinction is a story we’ve mourned in the West for more than a century, but as the oceans rise, as the centers of economic (and cultural) power shift from the northern to the southern hemisphere, as literature reveals the pervasive philosophic, geologic, ethical, and (I think) aesthetic changes we must realize in the new Anthropocene, I think the image and effort of these Sanctuary movements can be potent narratives. That’s what I’m engrossed in now—I foresee a series of these essays. I think of them now, in these early stages, as dreams in the Anthropocene. And if we don’t dream, we die.
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Elizabeth’s website: http://www.elizabethdodd.com/
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