Derek Sheffield’s A Revised Account of the West was the inaugural winner of Flyway’s 2008 Hazel Lipa Environmental Chapbook Award. His work has appeared in Poetry, Ecotone, The Georgia Review, Wilderness, Terrain.org, the Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review, and Orion. His work is forthcoming in the anthology Ecopoetry: A Contemporary American Anthology (Trinity University Press, 2012). He lives in Leavenworth, WA, with his family, two dogs, and one horse.
Flyway blogger Andrew Payton got to catch up with Derek, and ask him a few questions about writing in his life.
Andrew Payton: After publishing A Revised Account of the West with Flyway, your full-length manuscript Black Stems, Red Blossoms was a semi-finalist for a number of contests, among them the Walt Whitman award. What kind of momentum do you think the publishing of your chapbook provided? Also, where does your manuscript stand now?
Derek Sheffield: The close call with the Whitman Award happened about the same time as the chapbook. Something was in the air. Since 2008, when Whitman met Hazel, the manuscript has been a finalist eight times for six different awards. As I understand it, this finalism is not uncommon. When Leslie Adrienne Miller read the manuscript the summer before the chapbook appeared in Flyway, she predicted it. So that’s where the manuscript is now, in the mail with a check to keep it company.
Publishing the chapbook with Flyway was a wonderful experience that, as your question implies, provided all kinds of giddyup for the full-length manuscript. Nothing quite compares to the experience of scrutinizing your poems, knowing that they are about to go into print. To do this with a whole chapbook gives you all kinds of insight about what kind of moves you are making in the poems (in case you hadn’t already known). You become keenly aware of your habits, ones you’d maybe like to foster and ones maybe to break.
I have to say that working with the staff of Flyway, especially Sara Richardson Perez, the former poetry editor, and Sheryl Kamps, was wonderful. They were consistently encouraging and responsive. I’m guessing they are indicators of the strength and character of the MFA program at ISU.
AP: Your poetry is often said to have an environmental focus. How does the environment shape your writing, particularly your home in the Pacific Northwest? What does it mean to you to integrate place into your writing?
DS: For me, place is part of wonder. What gets me going is what stirs my wonder. Lately, my two daughters are my muses, but often it’s the environment of the Pacific Northwest. I am a willing victim of this influence, and I think writers who believe they are not somehow influenced by place should think again.
In the last few years, environmental science has made its way into my work. Ecology almost as much as a ten-lined June beetle these days makes me want to make a poem. Interactions between science and poetry intrigue me the way interactions between the human and non-human do. No doubt I am influenced in this by my teaching life. At the small college in central Washington where I work, I teach a course called Northwest Nature Writing that combines field ecology with writing. I teach it in collaboration with a biologist colleague, and I find, by the end of the quarter, that my notebook is jammed with possibilities.
I’ll end my response to this question with a couple passages that have turned like beach glass in my thoughts for many years:
There are those to whom place is unimportant
But this place, where sea and fresh water meet, is important.
They call it regional, this relevance—
Now that I type them out, I realize they may not mean much to someone who hasn’t read the poems. The first is from a poem called “Meditation at Oyster River” and the second is from “Lake Chelan.” Both are powerful place poems that say something about the nature of place as they evoke their respective environments.
AP: You recently did a field residency, along with scientific experts, at Mount St. Helens. I’m interested in the community during that experience—how did the creative and scientific come together, how did they diverge? What kind of metaphor, if any at all, does an erupted volcano and a regenerating landscape represent for you and your writing?
DS: It was a fascinating experience. About ten of us writers from around the country tented out and mixed it up with a hundred or so scientists who had gathered to share their findings and pursue their research. I spent much of my time with the other writers getting acquainted with the volcano, but managed to shadow two scientists and their teams for a day. I read plots with a botanist and checked nest sites with an ornithologist. Since we all ate breakfast and dinner together, a lot of cross-pollination occurred over pancakes and beef stroganoff.
As far as metaphors, I was not the only writer who showed up with climate change on the brain. Did you know they filmed part of The Road at St. Helens? By the end of the week, though, the scientists had redirected me. I began seeing past the destruction to notice the rich diversity of the volcano’s renewal. They helped me realize that disturbance is not the exception but the norm, so “recovery” might not be the best word for all the flora and fauna thriving within the borders of the monument (See the gritty piece, “Dirty Words on Mount St. Helens” by Simmons Buntin for more on this notion). One scientist, Jerry Franklin, said, “The soil here falls from the sky!” emphasizing the importance of volcanic activity in our region. Here’s another way to think about it: there were some special effects in McCarthy’s film, something that grayed and dismalized all the violet lupine, brown elk herds, and green cottonwoods.
I encourage anyone interested in this field residency and similar experiences to visit the web site of the organization that coordinated it, the Spring Creek Project, where you get a good overview of the important work being done by writer-naturalist-philosophers like Charles Goodrich and Kathleen Dean Moore.
Also worth a visit is the web site for the Mount St. Helens Institute, an organization dedicated to acquainting people with a place that, I came to realize, is a giant, amazing laboratory. Jeanne Bennett, the Institute’s director, is an energetic and engaging spokesperson for the volcano. Both organizations are working on assembling a Volcano Log, which will feature much of the work from the 2010 field residency, and which will appear on one or both sites.
AP: You teach creative writing and nature writing at WVC. What do you try to show your students to inspire them to write about nature or place? What do you find young writers are most inspired by?
DS: In Northwest Nature Writing, a field-based course, inspiration comes from the classroom, which is to say the rivers, woods, and mountains of central Washington. Everywhere we direct our attention, we find it, from the pip-pip-pip of a passing flock of red crossbills, the exquisite taste of a ripe thimbleberry, and the jigging flight of a hatch of mayflies.
It helps my students, too, to read model essays. Recently, I’ve given them work by John Daniel, Annie Dillard, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Scott Russell Sanders, Debra Marquart, and Aldo Leopold. I’ve also used a book called, The Future of Nature, a collection of essays that appeared in Orion Magazine, which gave my students plenty of fodder for their own writing.
In creative writing, I let Pattiann Rogers and company do the heavy lifting, which is to say, I pepper the class with poems I love in hopes that my class falls for them, too. Another classic I frequently give them is Richard Hugo’s “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg.” As far as inspiration goes, I find my students respond more to contemporary poets. My plan is to hook them with Tony Hoagland and company, and hope that they take the hook deep enough to find their way to Hopkins.
And the plan sometimes works, as in the case of Cynthia Neely, your most recent Hazel Lipa awardee.
AP: What’s next for you? What kind of writing or personal projects do you have in the works?
DS: My personal project at this moment is the concrete slab site outside my study (garage) door. We’ve had our fill of dusty gravel the last seven years. All I have to do is wire together the rebar and it’s ready for pouring.
Other than that, really just trying to place the book, raise some daughters, be a good husband, and be ready for the next poem to come along. Annie Dillard has some smart advice for young writers. She says something like “never get yourself into a situation where all you are doing is writing and reading.” Barring the occasional brief residency (I’ve recently returned from a collaborative week at Centrum in Port Townsend with Allen Braden and Betsy Aoki), I follow this advice. For me, writing belongs smack in the messy middle of my life, just as poets and biophiliacs belong not on a remote island, but at the center of society. That’s where we need them. That’s where they need to be when we’re ready to listen.