An Interview with Scott Edward Anderson: Dwelling in Nature's Empire
By Mark Danowsky
Scott Edward Anderson is the author of Fallow Field (Aldrich Press, 2013) and Walks in Nature's Empire (The Countryman Press, 1995). He has been a Concordia Fellow at the Millay Colony for the Arts and received the Nebraska Review Award. His work has appeared in the American Poetry Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Cimarron Review, The Cortland Review, Many Mountains Moving, Nebraska Review, Pine Hills Review, Terrain, Yellow Chair Review, and the anthologies Dogs Singing (Salmon Poetry, 2011) and The Incredible Sestina Anthology (Write Bloody, 2013), among other publications. Learn more about his work at ScottEdwardAnderson.com and connect with him on Twitter @greenskeptic
Mark Danowsky: What is the role of writing in your routine?
Scott Edward Anderson: I try to write every day. Ezra Pound said poets should write 75 lines per day and Graham Greene famously finished writing every day when he hit 350 words. I counted: it's pretty much the same thing. 350 words could be a draft of a poem or a blog post; a review or an essay. Whatever it takes to keep the muscle working.
MD: In your poem “Healing” you write, “Forward thinking, making things new / or better or, at least, bringing back”. This brings to mind two questions. What are your thoughts on the role of social justice / social issues in poetry?
SEA: There's always a lot of talk about how issue-based poetry doesn't work, and that may be true if the poet has forgotten that poetry must still contain music; without paying attention to rhythm, sound, and cadence it will fall flat and on deaf ears. But, really, there are many fine poets who incorporate social issues and politics in their poems and do so with an attentive ear.
MD: Do you consider yourself an “ecopoet”?
SEA: I remember Barry Lopez saying he felt marginalized as a "nature writer"; I said to him, "You want to be marginalized, try being a 'nature poet'!!" Seriously, though, if you take the Greek root of "eco," which is "oikos” -- “house” or “household” -- close to our word home, then I guess it's a moniker that fits. A "home poet," then, in that I'm trying to make sense of our home -- this blue planet -- through my poetry.
MD: Where does your interest in philosophy come from and how does it work its way into your poetry? Heidegger in particular seems to do a good job of finding his way into your poems.
SEA: My "Dwelling" sequence, part of which comprises the fourth section in my book, FALLOW FIELD, was triggered by Heidegger's essay, "Building Dwelling Thinking." It started from his essay, but departs from it fairly quickly to explore the nature of our dwelling on earth, how we conceive of our place and concept of home. There’s also Gaston Bachelard, Kate Soper, David Abram, and Homer’s ODYSSEY in there, too. There is a prose section that didn't make it into the book, which explores the concepts further and also touches on the complicated relationship between Heidegger and the poet Paul Celan. I'm hoping one day the entire “Dwelling” project can be published as it was conceived.
MD: In your interview a few years ago with Brooklyn Poets (http://brooklynpoets.org/poet/scott-edward-anderson/) you mention Ada Limon’s collection Sharks in the Waters as one of the best recent books you read. What did you think about Bright Dead Things? I have been borderline obsessed with Limon's poetry for some time now and think she is downright incredible. We seem to share some poetry tastes as, in the same interview, you also mention enjoying a book by Kathleen Jamie. Jamie’s poem “The Dipper” is excellent. Who are you reading these days?
SEA: I've just started reading Ada's new book. She's really one of the most talented of today's young poets. I spend a fair amount of time in the UK these days for work, so I keep up with the work of some favorite poets there, such as Fiona Sampson, Jo Shapcott, Kathleen Jamie, Isobel Dixon, Jo Bell, Helen Mort, John Glenday, Simon Armitage, and Don Paterson. I read widely and enjoy learning about poetry from other countries when I travel.
Most recently I've been re-reading my friend A.V. Christie's poetry -- she died in early April after a long battle with cancer -- and I'm looking forward to reading her last book, which comes out in May. Such a loss. I've also been reading recent books by some old favorites, Erin Belieu, Mary Karr, and Alfred Corn. And Annie Dillard’s new volume of selected prose.
MD: In talking about your poem “Running” you note, “the most interesting architects to me are those with a very strong relationship with the natural world”. Do you feel the same way about other art forms? For instance, I hear you’re a fan of Monet and Vermeer, Billie Holiday and The Beatles, Elizabeth Bishop and Kenneth Patchen.
SEA: Nature and our place in the world is a persistent theme and concern, so I guess I'm attracted to art and artists that wrestle with that as well. My tastes are fairly eclectic and I always try to seek out new things -- there are some touchstones I come back to, which you've named.
MD: You’ve written in mediums besides poetry. Can you discuss when and why you decide poetry is the appropriate mode and when another medium seems more suitable?
SEA: To me, poetry is the most precise language we have for making sense of our world. In the case of my "Dwelling" sequence, I wanted the prose pieces, called "Questions of Dwelling," to further explore or question the themes and concerns of the poems. I rarely get too expository in my poems, preferring to take Pound’s advice that “dichten = condensare” (poetry is to condense). I guess that dictates when another form is more appropriate.
MD: What sparks you to begin writing a poem?
SEA: Sometimes it's a word or a phrase that sticks with me and won't go away. Sometimes it's something I see or witness or imagine. A couple of years ago I participated in my friend Jo Bell's 52-week challenge to write a poem each week responding to a prompt she supplied every Thursday. It nearly killed me for writing poetry. I wrote a poem every week to her prompts. I liked how the experience pulled me out of my comfort zone and took me out of my method of working, but I never want to do it again.
MD: When do you most enjoy writing? Is this also the time you feel you write best?
SEA: Enjoy? Who said anything about enjoying writing? Annie Dillard said to me once that writing was very painful and I totally understood what she meant. Yet, some of us HAVE to do it, we're compelled to and it's not very enjoyable. There are moments when you feel in a groove and you start to think, "Okay, this is really good." That's when you need to be afraid. The next day almost always brings disappointment with what appeared to be stellar results the night before.
I used to write late into the night -- typically from 11 PM to 1 AM -- but all of that has changed the past few years. I work very odd hours -- my day job involves a team based in the UK, South Africa, and India, so I have to accommodate a variety of time zones and schedules -- and I have a complicated family life, my wife and I juggle a blended family of six kids in several locations. So, these days I end up having to steal time to write whenever I can. That's made me more flexible and adaptable, which is the only way I can get any writing done.
MD: When do you decide a poem is complete? What factors leave you satiated?
SEA: I'm not sure I ever feel satiated by a piece of my writing. Most of the time I work on poems for a long time before I think they are close to "finished" -- and even after they are published I can't resist tinkering with them. I'm partial to Valery's assertion that a poem is never finished, only abandoned.
MD: Do you finish every poem you start?
SEA: No, definitely not. And sometimes it takes years to finish a poem. I have files and files of unfinished poems and scraps of poems, some of which will never see the light of day or at least I hope they won't...
MD: Average number of drafts for a poem?
SEA: Average? It can range from two to twenty-two. Rarely have I been blessed with a poem that required very little editing – maybe only three times.
MD: How do you know when the scope of a poem is too far-reaching?
SEA: I try to listen to what a poem is trying to say, rather than what I want to say. It becomes clear when I'm getting in the way of a poem and then it's my job to clear the path, to get the poet out of the way of the poem.
MD: Do you revise as you write?
SEA: I'm a big believer in what Anne Lamott calls the "bad first draft." You need to get that out of the way -- without editing yourself -- and then come back to it fresh after a period of time. That said, I also think the real work of writing is in revision. I gave a talk at the University of Alaska in Anchorage on the subject about 20 years ago called "Making Poems Better: The Art of Revision." Note that I called it the "art," not the "science" of revision.
SEA’s lecture/essay “Making Poems Better”:
MD: Is there anyone you share your poems with during the revision process or before you seek publication?
SEA: I rarely share my work with anyone while I'm writing it, except perhaps my wife, Samantha. That said, when I was doing the "52" experiment I mentioned before, part of it was sharing the weekly poems with the closed Facebook group Jo gathered. That afforded some immediate feedback, which was very useful, but I don’t workshop or anything like that.
Last year, I was struggling with a poem called "Villanesca," which I had started years ago, and I happened to mention it to my friend the poet Alfred Corn. He had some very useful suggestions for improving the poem and, ultimately recommended it for publication to the Cimarron Review. So, it varies.
MD: What poets/writers are essential today?
SEA: To me? The poets I return to most are Elizabeth Bishop, Alfred Corn, Erin Belieu, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Seamus Heaney, and Paul Muldoon. I don't pretend to know who is "essential" today. I like what I like.
MD: Any influences on your poetry you would like to discuss?
SEA: Someone once wrote about the influence of Bishop and Donald Hall on my work. Less obvious, perhaps, at least in my work, is the influence of teachers I've had such as Gary Snyder, Robert Hass, and the late Walter Pavlich. Michael Ondaatje and Annie Dillard have also been very influential, with their prose and example rather than their poetry.
MD: What poems and texts have changed the way you write? How has your writing process changed over time?
SEA: The poems/texts that have changed the way I write are always ones that challenge me and get me out of my comfort zone, that make me see the world differently.
My friend the poet David Simpson, who died late last year, challenged me in two ways: the first, was to be freer in my writing, to explore subject matter beyond the familiar to me; the second had to do with sensory perception. David was blind and, consequently, his writing was informed by his blindness: an emphasis was on sound and smell rather than the visual. That is a real challenge for someone who has relied heavily on the visual!
Claudia Rankine's CITIZEN is another example. The form and subject matter and perspective were all very challenging and I think I haven't completely processed its effect on me. I'm interested in how this may show up in my work in the future. Do I try to respond to it? How can I do that as a middle-aged white male? How can I not? I feel like she’s asking us to wake up and pay attention, as we should.
MD: At what stage in the writing process do you begin to consider your audience?
SEA: I'm a firm believer in Walter Lowenfel's phrase, "One reader is a miracle; two, a mass movement." While I'm not conscious of an "audience" when I'm writing, I do strive for a poetry that is both accessible and intellectually stimulating. I have no interest in being obscure. I agree with my friend Mary Karr that a lack of clarity alienates readers and inhibits emotional engagement with a poem.
MD: Do you ever feel the need to censor yourself during the writing process? If so, in what way?
SEA: Sure. I try not to give into it, but I don't like reading poetry that "lets it all hang out," and I don't want to write that kind of poetry either. Some of the poems I wrote during the "52" experiment pushed the envelope for me. Still, Elizabeth Bishop is always looking over my shoulder. It's not exactly "What Would Elizabeth Do?" but her example of decorum does inform some of my choices.
MD: What are your thoughts on what makes for a lasting poem?
SEA: If I knew that, this whole thing would be easier!
MD: Are there any literary events that left you with particularly fond memories?
SEA: Three conferences in the 1990s were pivotal for me: the first, in ’92, was the "Art of the Wild" conference at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. I studied there with Snyder, Hass, and Pavlich, who all had an impact on my work. Next was the Key West Literary Seminar in ’96, shortly after my book, WALKS IN NATURE'S EMPIRE, came out. The Seminar was titled “American Writers and the Natural World.” I got to hang out with some old and new friends and meet Annie Dillard, with whom I'd corresponded. And, finally, the Orion Society's "Fire & Grit" conference in ’99 was important to me -- it was a conference for writers and practitioners working in conservation. I was both -- I worked for The Nature Conservancy at the time -- and thought the idea of the conference was great. I met Alison Deming there and she became a good friend and mentor. Alison was the first person with whom I shared my "Dwelling" sequence in its earliest stages. She encouraged and challenged me, calling it "a phenomenology of how we live on the Earth." When I went to the Millay Colony to work on it in November 2002, I had that phrase in my head, which was both daunting and inspiring!
MD: Do you have general advice for poets/writers?
SEA: Write. Write every day. Then revise, revise, revise, and make your work the best it can be. Don't worry about publication. If your work is the best it can be, publication will come.
MD: What work of yours can we look out for on the horizon?
SEA: I've got a new book of poems I'm finishing up and hope to have it out in 2017. I'm also starting to work again on a big, historical sequence of poems I started over two decades ago. It's a mash-up combining the history of Rhode Island, where I was born, and my family history -- Azorean Portuguese and Scotch-Irish immigrants meet English colonists, some of whom came over on or shortly after the Mayflower.
MD: Rumor has it you’re quite the chef. And that your specialties include pizza and bread baking. Can you share a recipe or two? Also, what are a few tricks you’ve learned to improve taste or dining experience and shortcuts that can save us time in the kitchen without sacrificing quality or putting us in grave danger.
SEA: Ha! I bake bread every week and make pizzas almost as much, and I cook for our family almost every night. I love to cook and have been doing it since I was a teenager. I rarely follow recipes, but rather use them as the platform for experimenting. My friend Jack Ricchiuto wrote a cook book called BEYOND RECIPES, and that title pretty much sums up my approach to cooking. One of my favorite things to do is to see what we have in the refrigerator and come up with a meal. For me, cooking is a lot like writing poetry, actually.