She’s won the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets and held a Wallace Stegner fellowship at Stanford University. Her multi-genre writing awards, fellowships and residencies have already created the type of legacy that many writers dream of leaving behind. None of it, though, will tell you this:
(1) She gives as much or more time developing her students as writers and people in the world as she does to her own writing.
(2) Perhaps no other living woman writer has written about (and been involved in the writing of) our natural world as extensively, consistently and superbly.
Young or old and regardless of genre, writers seeking to write about – and/or study the writing about – our environment will eventually come to the work of Alison Hawthorne Deming. Along with her four books of poetry (Science and Other Poems, The Monarchs: A Poem Sequence, Genius Loci, Rope) are her three books of nonfiction (Temporary Homelands, The Edges of the Civilized World, Writing the Sacred into the Real). This introduction does not include her chapbooks, the many books she’s edited, the panels she’s organized or participated in or her countless hours of volunteer work for literary journals and environmental organizations.
Of all the professors I’ve had throughout my writing career, I’m honored to say that Alison is the professor with whom I’ve taken the most classes. Despite her busy schedule, she’s granted me an interview.
CC: Alison, when or how did you know that this path (the fusion of writing and environment) would be the one you would follow? Do you have any advice for writers (or people in general) about how to listen to and let their inner workings be their guide?
AHD: The funny thing is that I don’t remember actually making such a decision. Like most artists, I followed my intuition where it led me. I grew up in the woods in Connecticut in a family that prized the arts and the wilds. These seemed the basis of what it meant to be a cultural animal. My parents were writers and devotees of theater—acting and directing in community theater throughout my childhood. I too loved the theater, but I preferred the deep privacy of the literary experience—the way we can enter a book in solitude, taste and savor it, carry some essence of it as a part of who we become. Literature takes the measure of an individual life within the context of a particular historical time. It is how we know what it felt like to live in whatever period the author was writing. Calvino says it is an ear that can hear beyond hearing, and eye that can see beyond seeing. Something like that. And one of things I feel most keenly about the time in which we’re living is the human toll on the richness and beauty of Earth’s biological legacy. The diminishment of our fellow creatures—and the land, air, water that sustains us all–is a kind of madness which we have been pursuing with self-absorbed oblivion. I think all creatures, not just the human ones, should have a chance to fulfill their evolutionary potential. So for me the great stories are not only the ones about the difficulty of conducting oneself well in situations of conflict, crisis, moral complication in relationships with other people. They are the stories of how we frame our existence within the larger context of life on Earth. That means exploring an idea of ourselves not only as individuals and cultural beings, but as a species among other species, all part of the amazing expressiveness of this planet. Those of us who write about the environment are trying to expand the moral imagination beyond the sphere of self-interest to include concerns for environmental justice and for those who come after us. It’s interesting to write about this stuff, it stirs my passion, it makes me feel that art is useful.
My advice to other writers and artists is to cultivate a good working relationship with the unconscious, which is the human organism’s repository of cellular learning, and to frame personal story within a cultural context. Read into your ignorance. Read, read, read. Keep testing your values and assumptions against your own experience to see if they still hold up. Don’t spend too much time licking your wounds. We all suffer. Educate your empathy so that it grows.
CC: We know, in many ways, that the environment (in the broadest sense of the word) continuously fascinates and sustains you. In regards to teaching, do you feel your students serve the same purpose? What is their impact on your career as a writer?
AHD: Students feed my work, there’s no question about that. I admire those who respond to an artistic calling and I feel that it’s a radical act to do so. The range of human story and experience that students have brought to my attention over the years astonishes me: from cage fighting to urban planning to archeo-astronomy to transgendered identity to becoming a conscientious objector as a Marine in Iraq to all the muddles and mysteries of family life. That’s something I love about creative nonfiction: it has content. I’m sure teaching has been one of the enterprises that has helped to educate my empathy. And I have tried to remain a good citizen to the art through my teaching. I have little patience for colleagues who whine about the burdens of their academic responsibilities. Pick a job you’d rather have, I want to tell them. Artists have an illusory idea that they may have the freedom not to have a job. But having a job keeps us honest and accountable to others.
I also like the challenge of having to articulate an informed response to my students’ writing, of digging into a work-in-progress in collaboration with a student to see what it might become. With graduate students, there is commitment and talent that makes the teaching relationship satisfying. I don’t always feel that way about undergraduates, who often seem to think that they can become writers without becoming readers or without understanding the mechanism and cadence of sentences. Read, read, read. Study sentences. Sing them.
CC: At times it seems like both the environment and the field of literary writing are under constant attack – programs, artists and places defunded or cut. Do you feel, as comes through in the writing of the Yaak Valley by Rick Bass, that you work from or are driven by the underdog role? What are your thoughts on the current nature of both fields?
AHD: I don’t feel that when I think in terms of Big Time, because I think both of these concerns are among the most enduring ones. Sure, there is a lot of competition for people’s attention out there. But in the big story, every culture has had its poetry, narrative, and art. And every culture has worked to understand and sustain its relationship with the natural world.
In terms of the current imperatives that come with climate change, I feel a terrible urgency and fear that the noise of political argument is taking a lot of intelligence away from addressing the problems. If we could develop a sane and moderate defense agenda and budget, we’d have the resources to lead the world in amelioration and adaptation to climate change threats. Maybe it’s too late. But there’s no future in thinking that way. I want to leave something in the world that will say I tried to make a difference.