Journal of Writing & Environment

Interview: A Conversation with Alison Hawthorne Deming

By Samantha Futhey

Alison Hawthorne Deming was born and raised in rural Connecticut. Her poetry collections include Science and Other Poems (winner of the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets), The Monarchs: A Poem Sequence, Genius Loci, and Rope. In addition to poetry, she has published four books of nonfiction: Temporary Homelands, The Edges of the Civilized World (finalist for the PEN Center West Award), Writing the Sacred into the Real, and her latest collection, Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit. She received an MFA from Vermont College, a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, two poetry fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts, as well as other prestigious fellowships. Her work has been awarded the Pablo Neruda Prize from Nimrod, a Pushcart Prize, the Gertrude B. Claytor Award from the Poetry Society of America, as well as other numerous awards. Publications such as Ecotone, Orion, The Georgia Review, and The Norton Book of Nature Writing have published and anthologized her work.  She has held residencies in places as diverse as the Mesa Refuge, Hawthornden Castle International Retreat for Writers in Scotland, and the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest in Oregon. Currently, she is the Agnese Nelms Haury Professor of Environment and Social Justice in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Arizona and lives in Tucson, Arizona and Grand Manan, New Brunswick, Canada.

This interview was conducted at Iowa State University during the Environmental Imagination Reading Series sponsored by ISU’s MFA program in Creative Writing and Environment. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Flyway: To start, I’ve noticed that in your poetry collections and in Zoologies, you describe first encounters with the natural world and animals. What was your first profound experience with the natural world? What got you hooked into exploring the natural world in your work?

Alison Hawthorne Deming: Well, this is going to be a strange answer. I think it was when I was three and a half years old, growing up in the woods in Connecticut, and I was attacked by dogs. I talk about it in the introduction to Zoologies. My father saved me, thankfully. I had a lot of wounds on my face that were fixed with a lot of surgeries, so I was ok. But I’ve thought a lot about that. How is it that I’m a person who loves animals and is so fascinated by animals when I could be a person who is terrified and doesn’t want anything to do with them? I think subliminally there is something in me that feels that it is a part of the animal world, a part of the animal world in a vulnerable way, which is something human beings don’t feel. We’re the top predator; we don’t always get to feel the vulnerability that all other creatures feel. So I think that was something very profound that’s hard to understand.

Also in my childhood I had lots of books: children’s books, literature books, poetry books. And also little guidebooks: trees you want to know, wildflowers you want to know, a natural history encyclopedia. In my mind, these worlds were both the same, the story book and picture book about the natural world. Books taught you about the world, about people, about the inner life, and this marvelous, strange thing that we’re a part of. I think in my child’s mind, art and science were always one thing, not two things. I lived in a rural part of Connecticut and my parents both loved the outdoors, loved to work in the garden. So, I was outside a lot. I didn’t realize it was going to be a main subject of my work until people starting saying, “You seem to write a lot about nature,” or asking me to give readings to audiences interested in nature. Over time I realized this was an obsession that I should embrace and not worry about, because it seemed to be something I needed and wanted to explore.

F: So your fascination with science, biology and ecology, does originally come from your childhood?

AHD: Yes, I think it does. There were a lot of writers in my family. My parents were involved with the theatre, but my grandfather was a country doctor and amateur horticulturalist. He grew fruit trees and nut trees, and was involved with trying to save the American chestnut tree from the blight that wiped them out. I remember my grandfather and father going out, standing around these trees and talking to them like the trees were people. And thinking, “Wow, this is what men care about in the world,” and thinking that was weird.

F: In your work, I noticed the amount of research you incorporated into the poems about science. It almost makes me think you had some sort of past life as an undergraduate biology major. But is that not the case?

AHD: I was into biology in high school, and thought about it as a field I might go into. But I was much more strongly drawn to literature. I have a non-traditional background: I started at Brown University and I dropped out in my freshman year. I had an unplanned pregnancy; this was in the Sixties, so there was no counseling available. It was a very difficult time; I had a shot gun teenage marriage. I deferred my undergraduate education for a long time to raise my daughter, mostly by myself. It turned out to be one of my life’s greatest experiences. Talk about nature taking over and resetting the course of your life. So, no, I did not have undergraduate work in the sciences. But in those years I worked for Planned Parenthood, during President Johnson’s war on poverty. Among the programs that were set up to help disadvantaged women and families were family planning programs in rural areas. There were VISTA workers setting up those programs in rural Vermont, where I was living, and I got involved in that work. I got training in the health sciences, particularly in women’s reproductive care, and worked for Planned Parenthood for over a decade. That also tweaked my interest and capacity to think and write about science, though I haven’t written about those issues so much.

I never finished the B.A. degree, but I got an MFA in a low residency program and got a post-graduate fellowship at Stanford, so I felt redeemed by that. While I was at Stanford, we had our poetry workshops, but we could sit in on any other classes. There would be a conference on consciousness and I would sit in and geek out on the scientific language and exploration that was going on. That was when I began to realize the language of science had a lot of poetic potential I wanted to explore and for some reason the mechanism that makes poetry in me is excited by science. It clicked there, so I said I’m going to stick with reading the sciences and see where it goes.

F: You mentioned you teach a place-based writing course, and in your poetry collections there’s a clear emphasis on place, like the poems about Prague in Rope. I’m curious about how travel and place has impacted your writing and the importance of it in your work.

AHD: It’s been very important. As a writer, poet or essayist, you’re trying to see things anew, in a way people haven’t seen things before. Of course when you travel, you’re seeing things anew for you. There’s always an enlivening aspect to travel and heightened attention. There are also issues of appropriation and sensitivity: What can I write about without claiming too much in terms of what I know about this place? I’m concerned and sensitive to those issues. I think place is a great starting point, because if you’re really paying attention, you have to pay attention to both nature and culture in order to understand a place. This bifurcation (of nature and culture), which we know is false, begins to melt away as you explore place. That seems to me extremely fruitful. We shouldn’t think about human culture as one thing, engaged in a particular project of civilization and nature over here that we’ve left behind. We’re realizing that model is not a sustainable model and we have to understand how civilization works with nature in a way that doesn’t destroy it. Writing about place, you just have to — if you’re paying attention, engaged — to break down that binary, which seems to me a helpful thing in reassessing where we are at this time, which is a profound time.

F: I see those connections in your latest book, Zoologies: how you make bridges between animal and human experiences in places. What compelled you to write this book? Was it a moment or a gradual urge saying “I need to write this book”? How did this project start?

AHD: I read Science News every week, and I saw an article in there about these mammoth tusk carvings that had been made 30-40,000 years ago. They were all animal figurines: a diving water  bird, a lion-man hybrid, possibly a mammoth. And I began to think how deep the associations with animals is in the human imagination and in our art making. Most of the earliest art is all animal, in these figurines and cave paintings. I thought I’d like to explore the meaning of animals to the human imagination, from those very beginnings, through this long period of abundance of animals on Earth, to this period of the great diminishment that we’re living through now. I think that great diminishment is among the most profound things that human beings have experienced.

Another trigger was [that] I was teaching an undergraduate writing course and there was that slacker dude in the back row, slumped down, arms folded, not buying it. I was talking about the 6th great extinction and he’s got this sour look on his face. He puts his hand up and asks, “Why should I care about this? What does it have to do with me? I just want to get out of here and get a job.” It was one of those questions — why should you care about this? — and I realized a lot of people feel that way: “It doesn’t have to do with me, I just want to have a life and a job and have a good time” or have good work or whatever they want. I thought I could probably find 200-300 pages to address that question. Why should you care? What does it matter to us? That was another way I came to this question; what do animals mean to us now, if we really start paying attention? I didn’t want a typical book about animals that would be expected experiences; I wanted to try to find unusual experiences, like the essay about ants, a joke of rabbits on Mars, or eating oysters in a bar in L.A. It’s not your typical “I saw a mountain lion” book about the natural world, but I wanted to explore the richness of the animal presence in our lives, even at this time of the great diminishment.

F: I was struck by the organization of your book. Those first essays are brutal, such as the mammoth essay and the hyena surplus killing essay. Why were those essays at the forefront before moving on to essays like “Ant Art” and “Field Notes on Hands”?

AHD: Well, there are some dark ones in the middle like “The Feasting” and “The Finback Whale” which look at dark aspects of the destruction of the natural world and the feeling of grief about that. I think there’s a lot of sentimental writing about animals, pieties about how beautiful animals are to us, which they are. I think we’re at a time where some truth and reconciliation is important, to be honest. Let’s look at the whole brutal, miserable aspect. It’s not that we suddenly became violent and oblivious to the fate of animals. We’ve been this way for a long time in our history. And there are certain genetic propensities that could lead us in that direction. Like the hyenas [that] do surplus killing; they don’t care how many gazelles they kill. But if we kill a lot, we say, “This is disturbing, we don’t like it, we don’t want to be this way, why did we do it, is it possible for us to stop?” I’m interested in being honest and discerning about the long history of violence against the animal world, the fact that we now see the impact and there may be ways we can mitigate the harm we do to the world, to what remains. But you have to face how ugly and violent it has been. You can’t say, “Oh we’ve always loved animals, we love the lions.” You love the lions because they’re not in your backyard. If they were in your backyard, you would not love them. They would strengthen you, make you sharper, more intelligent and vicious if you had the risk of losing your children to those lions. There’s a viciousness in us that comes genetically because we came through a violent period in our history. We’re now at a time when our violence is not helping us survive, it’s hindering our survival. The only way we can be hopeful is to say this part of the human story we’d like to change. Can we do it? We don’t know. Who knows?

F: In writing these essays, did any preconceived notions about animals change? Did any of your thoughts and feelings about the natural world shift through this project?

AHD: I’m sure in many ways. One thing was [that] I did come to see [that] if I asked myself every day to look for an animal story in that day, I could find it. For a while I was thinking, “Oh I’ve never been to Africa, I have to go to Africa. Oh I’ve never done this.” I had the privilege of working in a zoo, which was great, so I got a close-up experience with elephants.

But I didn’t want to have only experiences you had to be a researcher or be in a privileged position to have. I wanted essays that would show on any given day you could find something. If you saw the ants in your backyard, did some research and explored that, you would have a story and it would have some resonance. In the essay about the oysters, I go to LA and I’m looking for an animal. I can’t find an animal anywhere. At the end of the day, I’m having a drink at a bar and a couple were feeding oysters to one another. I realized that when you’re eating a raw oyster, you’re eating a live animal. I thought, “There’s the animal essay!”

But there’s so many ways animals are in our lives that we don’t see it as an animal moment and have a sense of that kind of awareness and gratitude that animals are still giving us, in terms of food and companionship. I think I felt more keenly [how] the animal presence informed my daily life, and I wanted to keep that awareness. I always think how interesting it is, in so many different disciplines, how animals are important. There’s a lot of science in this book, but there’s also folklore, mythology, and art. Looking at the history of the dragon, for instance, every culture on earth has some dragon-like form. I learned that animals are even more broadly represented in the big human story than I might have imagined, [which] reinforced my overall assumption that this is not a peripheral relationship, but has been a central relationship for human beings since the beginning. We are animals. I feel much more connected to my animal nature and to the fact I’m a product of animal evolution. We wouldn’t be here, I wouldn’t have my life, if it weren’t for the history of animal evolution. We owe our lives to the animal world. You don’t just shoot your mother and your grandmother because you want a head on the wall. The animal world is our parentage. So I feel that much more profoundly than I did when I started. And I think other people feel it. They don’t know they feel it, but when you talk with them about it, I think they feel it.