An Interview with Earth Day’s Alison Hawthorne Deming

Lindsay Tigue (LT): Thank you so much for taking the time to answer some questions. I am such an admirer of your poems and essays. You’ve appeared in the pages of The Georgia Review several times. Can you talk a little bit about that publication history and your relationship with the magazine over the years?

Alison Hawthorne Deming (AHD): I’d worked in poetry for decades before writing essays. I turned to prose because there were subjects of great concern to me—in particular the troubled relationship between nature and culture—that I didn’t think could be addressed in the highly compressed form of poetry. So I started to write about the island in the Bay of Fundy where I have spent summer since childhood. I sent my first essay “An Island Notebook” to The Georgia Review and to my astonishment it was accepted for the Winter 1991 issue. I was ecstatic and certainly grateful for Stephen Corey’s insightful and detailed editorial suggestions. I’d long admired GR’s commitment to essays and the superb work it published. To be in such company was a dream. Building a relationship with a publication and an editor is, I think, today rare. I feel very fortunate that this relationship has now spanned more than 25 years, during which time GR has published essays, I believe, from each of my four essay collections.

LT: You will be coming to Athens as the featured presenter in GR’s annual Earth Day celebration. What will you be reading and sharing with the audience?

AHD: I will be sharing a new essay on Earth Day titled “Coming Home to Earth.” I’ve been enjoying Scott Kelly’s Twitter photos beaming back to Earth from the International Space Station—and even more so his re-engagement with the simple pleasures of the home planet (rain! outdoors! apple pie!). Those photos inspired the title, which provides a good lens for thinking about where we are now in contemplating about our place in space.

Here’s a description: “COMING HOME TO EARTH: What purse seines, pump jacks, and Scott Kelley’s Twitter feed from space taught one worried citizen about the beauty of climate change on Earth Day 2016.”

LT: Who are some of the people you’re reading right now who are contributing to your thinking and writing?

AHD: I’m reading Robinson Jeffers, who figures in the essay. Also Lauret Savoy’s Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape. And a powerful new anthology, Fracture: Essays, Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America, edited by Taylor Broby and Stefanie Brook Trout. While traveling for that anthology recently in North Dakota, I picked up a copy of Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People, the Pulitzer Prize winning book by Elizabeth A. Fenn. These works are influencing my work at the moment. One of the key challenges I’m facing is to speak of the urgencies of climate change within the context of social justice issues that continue to trouble our nation. These are not separate issues.

LT: Your description of your upcoming talk and its attention to the celebration of the natural world alongside your call for urgency evokes a balance I know you’ve explored before. As you say, there is an urgent need to respond to the serious social justice issues that are inextricable from environmental tragedies like fracking. This reminds me of the preface to your 1994 essay collection Temporary Homelands. You explain that you wanted to write an “honest book,” that “explore[s] 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.” Has the way you’ve explored this balance or tension changed over the course of your writing career and how does social justice fit into that for you?

AHD: I now feel more keenly than ever that our environmental malaise is tightly linked to social justice issues. Even the extreme situation of ISIS terrorism has roots in part in climate change: a severe and long-standing drought in Syria that drove desperate agrarian people into the cities to seek employment. They found none and when they protested, violent suppression began that fostered radical resistance. That’s an over-simplified version of the story, and certainly there are other factors, but the drought is a precipitating factor. So when we seek, for example, to protect our homelands and the last wild places, I think we must also be mindful of questions such as: For whom are we protecting these places? Who is left out? How do we include those in greatest threat of suffering and losing their homelands?

LT: My next question also has to deal with tension/balance. How do you work differently in your primary genres of nonfiction and poetry? How do you approach environmental topics differently and do you work on projects in multiple genres at the same time?

AHD: I work on multiple projects. I try to let poetry have its head, as we’d say of a horse, and not overly determine what a poem wants to be. The process is more intuitive, driven by concerns for form or music or imagistic association. With nonfiction there is the gift of content and that requires research and an outing of thoughtfulness onto the page. But because I started as a poet, I am very interested in the musical and metaphorical potentials of language in prose.

LT: Lastly, what current or future projects can we look forward to?

AHD: I am working on an essay collection about high-fashion artisanal dressmakers in 19th century Paris and New York and herring fishers of the Canadian Bay of Fundy of the same period–both inflected by my family history. And I have a new book of poems coming out in September from Penguin titled Stairway to Heaven, a work arrived at after the deaths of my mother and brother within six months of each other.

 

Lindsay Tigue won the Iowa Poetry Prize for her first book, System of Ghosts (University of Iowa Press, 2016). She writes poetry and prose and her work appears in Prairie Schooner, Indiana Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and elsewhere. Tigue, a Sewanee Writers’ Conference scholar and Vermont Studio Center fellow, holds an MFA from Iowa State University and is currently a PhD student in creative writing at the University of Georgia.