Interview by Yasmine Guiga
You mentioned in your author statement for Rewild, that “poems are not decoration,” that “they are not static,” and that “they are here to change our lives.” Could you speak more to that and to the social activism potential of poetry?
Thank you Mina, for going into the heart of things. You’re pointing us toward how poetry can move us outside our dead ends of logic or habit. Outside the kind of reasoning that assures us that change is not possible, that boxes us in. A poem is not like setting out an action plan, a business plan or even a social justice campaign with a set program. Poems resist this kind of control or agenda. They are more akin to nature or unexpected revelation. Similarly, complexities of social justice movements start by a leap of faith – an intuition or thirst for something as yet-unspoken, outside the confines of what’s given or beyond what’s currently considered possible. To me, this feels entirely like the impulse and practice of poetry. In this way, poetry might even be considered an engine of social change – this imaginative reach outside the limits of current convention or law – whether to correct apartheid, gender exclusion, the violation of indigenous land rights – or to make the leap to stand up for the personhood of rivers. You start with limitation and blindness – and this is where poems can help extend outside these limits into collective, wider, un-yet-realized possibilities of justice. Think of Nazim Hikmet, Audre Lorde, Claudia Rankine, Gloria Anzaldúa or Danez Smith, Ko Un.
In Rewild, the poem “Stay Close to Clouds” speaks to this arc:
STAY CLOSE TO CLOUDS
they elude the intentions of spokesmen
stay attentive to what happens …
each of us requires
an accurate rendering, a reading
whose force allows uncertainty
a weapon that undoes weapons
the complete truthfulness of fern fronds unfurling
like a shell, taking the shape that makes justice possible”
You’re a poet, but you’re also an artist. I would love to hear more about the process of putting Rewild together, and some of the challenges you faced.
Poetry and art both reach beyond the limits of words. Moving into what cannot be said –
the lost, submerged, the unspoken. My mother was a refugee from Hungary, and I grew up with many people for whom English was not a primary language. I remember being around lots of words that I couldn’t understand so I felt comfortable going outdoors and trying to speak with the birds and trying to invent a language in between languages. So for me, the way an image forms in art and in a poem is very similar – it begins as a shape or something seen in a flash, a rhythm. The poem carries this shift between visual and language images, and works from the sensory contours of being-in-the-world.
Perhaps the simplest way of describing this continuum between visual art and poetry is speaking of the page as a space just like a canvas or an installation. A field or piece of land. You can also speak of the architecture of a poem – its structure on the terrain of the page. I make my living as a designer collaborating on the design of houses and spaces, mostly in Big Sur. I’m continually making small drawings or shapes on paper that open into the larger space of built forms, which is something like the radical scale shifts possible in a poem: planets and a snail shell, the movement of a hand alongside sweeps of history.
Also, I work on buildings and structures that have been impacted by successive wildfires, which have grown more severe and widespread through climate change. To feel the force of wildfire is profoundly stressful, humbling, revelatory.
Before rebuilding, the land needs to be restored – cleared of toxic materials left from melted infrastructure. The ground requires healing and protection against flooding and erosion. Attention is focused on conditions to restore plant and animal communities – as well as healing for the whole community that has felt deep loss.
These challenges reciprocate my practice of poetry. Envisioning poetics as habitat restoration,
I’ve been working with materials that also address damage and the possibilities of rewilding.
These experiences are very much part of the regenerative track of Rewild.
Poetry is highly subjective and Rewild celebrates the fragmentation and the irregularity of our contemporary world. When working on this collection, did you have certain expectations or hopes for your readers when it came to its reception? Have those expectations been met, or were you surprised by certain interpretations of your work?
I really didn’t expect the depth, warmth and understanding of responses to Rewild – from Maggie Smith, the Tupelo Dorset Prize judge to other reviewers. I feel that others have been better and more in-depth readers and interpreters of my work than I am. Mostly, I’m engaged with the intricacies of making. When I make something, it feels like the gift economy – where you hand it over and let the poem or painting move into its own life and relationships. In some ways,
once they release into the public realm, the poems become their own selves – outside my own interpretations. In a way they don’t belong to me as much to the process of being read.
Your question also speaks to the relationship between reader and poet which is implicit in the act of writing. It also asks, in a way, who do we write for? I would say I write for everyone all together – for the trees, for nature, for people in traffic jams, the squirrel outside my window right now. For myself, for you, for oceans. In Rewild, I speak of this relationship as a kind of undertow:
an alternate reading, the other story
back behind clouds
hidden in ragged cloak, an island, an indigent
a wild animal, deep spring, a solace
your face swerves toward me
like headlights across wheatfields
crows diving for grain
an Undertow a “you” without proof
unseen across these words
I believe there’s this mysterious arc between reader and writer, just as I’ve experienced with all the writers who matter to me. And that this arc lies somewhere in the very full, very alive, wordless places of our lives. Every reader has responses to writing that never get relayed back to the writer – maybe they lived in other centuries or languages, or the responses are too complex to articulate. But that arc exists as a kind of shared understanding – “a wild animal, deep spring, a solace.” Just the act of making a poem unites us.
You bring an innovative approach to the literary world with your combination of visual and documentary poetry. Who are your inspirations as a poet, and as an artist?
There’s a large and ever-expanding list of artists, writers, news, animals, clouds who inspire and call forth. There are artists/poets: Cecelia Vicuña, Etel Adnan, Theresa Cha, John Berger, Patti Smith. And artists: Julie Mehretu, Luchita Hurtado, Tacita Dean, Cy Twombly, Alma Ellis, Enrique Martinez Celaya, Derek Jarman. And poets: Paul Celan, Anne Carson, Claudia Rankine, Nathalie Diaz, Brian Teare. I also read a lot of nonfiction: currently Arturo Escobar’s Designs for the Pluriverse, and I love Eduardo Kohn’s How Forests Think.
Do you have a favorite poem from Rewild?
I’m partial to the last section in the book, “Unbuy Yourself” which opens with:
I am burning with animals and greenness
and a burning thing cannot be placed
in a paper or plastic bag cannot be downloaded
or barcoded cannot be held only once, only
only wholeheartedly in the risk
of your eyes …
And here, toward the end of Rewild:
the unsellable becomes an endangered species
(poetry for instance) where pelicans dive intent and dark …
is this what happens when grammar runs out
and we hear the sound the world makes?
I couldn’t help but notice some similarities with Eliot’s The Wasteland in your treatment of decay and regeneration. Eliot ends his poem on a hopeful note: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” suggesting the possibility of renewal and redemption. Do you a have the same hope for Rewild? Do you believe in continuing to search for aesthetic wholeness in the face of madness?
Rewild looks at places that have been damaged by war, environmental plunder, or destruction, then left alone from human interference to restore and regenerate. What I’ve learned in this process is to respect the polymorphic intelligence of nature. We hover on a pivot of loss, yet destruction and trauma – whether of land or psyche – need not be permanent. For instance, “Dark Matter” explores 19th century devastation of the North American prairie lands through the killing of buffalo as part of the drive to eradicate native peoples. After writing this series, I learned about the decades of devoted work by a large coalition of native tribes to widely restore buffalo to prairie lands. Buffalo are now seen as “climate heroes” in their capacity to regenerate prairie habitats. The benefits of rewilded vegetation, birds, grazing animals, and other species result in vast green swathes, visible as “a green wave” from satellites. You cannot patent a buffalo – they are radical, unmarketable restorative forces, uniquely tuned to prairie and native cultures.
For me, hope is unavoidable not because of expectations but despite. How can we give up when oak and pine forests continue to adapt and send us their CO2, and oceans continue to absorb our heat. When communities on smallest atolls are gathering together to keep from being submerged by rising sea levels. People keep showing up, animals and plant communities have no other place to go. I want to show up with them.
Do you have any other projects you are currently working on that you’d like to tell us more about?
In the spirit of Mallarmé who says, “everything longs to end up as a book,” I’m working on
- a series of paintings exploring clouds as texts (how writing and paint coincide)
- a book of sentiences
- a book on grief and birds
- wild writing and trees
- and a new house design on a site in Big Sur that burned in the most recent wildfires.