Biodiversity & storytelling

As I have mentioned before in many previous posts, telling stories matters to humans. It’s the best way to get a person’s attention: if a writer wants to bring a fact, claim, event, person, or history to light, the best way to reach a wide audience requires spinning a good story about it. I recently finished reading a book about so-called living fossils, including bacteria and worms (not my favorite subjects), because the author’s enthusiasm for his subject was scaffolded onto a story of world-travel and time-travel. In the process of learning about coelacanths, horseshoe crabs, and echidnas, Richard Fortey also makes an impassioned plea for biodiversity–and storytelling.

“…I am not in sympathy with the idea that what matters about a species is how we humans react to it, which seems allied to a view that nature is only validated by observation from this particular hominid…We don’t reckon the worth of a species by the “damage” its extinction would do to other ecosystems. We cannot rank the products of more than 3 billion years of evolution in utilitarian lists. The richness of the biological world is the most wonderful feature of the biosphere, and every story is worth telling no matter how humble, or indeed insular, is the the organism concerned.” [my italics]

–Richard Fortey, paleontologist and expert on trilobites, in his book Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms: The Story of the Animals and Plants that Time Has Left Behind. https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/54786/horseshoe-crabs-and-velvet-worms-by-richard-fortey/9780307275530/

The lyric, the epic, the myth, the story written in the genome or the geology or the great vast cosmos–all of the things we know contain mysteries–intrigue us when we hear a narrative. Who knew that microbes and bacteria and alga have stories? They cannot tell their own unless “the storytelling animal” interprets them, raising their stature and importance in the eyes of “particular hominids.” In 1971, Dr. Seuss invented The Lorax for such a purpose.

It takes all kinds of people to tell good stories. Keep reading!

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Creative publishing

Poetry and publishing: two topics that seem diametrically opposed, if you look at them under the perspective that’s the norm in the USA—that of business, capitalism, popular culture. Shake off that norm, however, and publishing can be re-imagined as aural/oral, visual, textual, cinematic, digital, interactive…who knows?

When a reader begins to deepen her understanding of creative literature, she will also find it necessary to widen the concept of publishing. Some folks say this is a new world. Or they’ll claim things were better in the old days. Curmudgeons and prejudices abound.

In my lifetime, I have observed and been part of significant and constant changes in what constitutes publishing, from Linotype to Huffpost. Recently, I participated on a panel of poets talking to students who have just begun an MFA program. The panel was a discussion, but it jogged reflections on the process of getting poetry to an audience. So here’s a compressed version of getting poems published, as I experienced it.

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I began to submit my work in the very early 1980s to the indie-publishing journals which were extant at the time: photocopied, stapled zines with print runs of 300, or maybe just 150. I was new at writing and aware that my work wasn’t ready for Ploughshares or Poetry and the so-called top-tier journals I purchased and read carefully and tried to learn from.

As a 20-year-old woman, I was not exactly full of self-esteem. Why did I submit at all, when I knew my poems were juvenilia? Well, I know that now…at the time, let’s say I knew they weren’t up to the work of Elizabeth Bishop or Audre Lorde.  The reason was mentorship. I had two good friends who encouraged me to send work out but to be realistic. To read the journal first and analyze my work in comparison to what appeared in the magazine. Good advice—and let me tell you how much harder that was in the years before the internet! As I lived in New York and Brooklyn and Philadelphia, however, and it was the 80s, there were good independent bookstores to browse, and good libraries. And there was Dustbooks.

So analysis was crucial, not just for deciding where to submit but to learn how to be a better writer. It was important to compare, to take apart, to hear meter, to recognize rhythm and consonance and the fabulous image and the fresh metaphor, to say how does that writer achieve what she does and can I learn it? Without slavish copying?

Damned difficult. But thanks to publishers, at least the materials were available. If we hadn’t had poetry publishers, it would have been even harder to learn the craft; and I’m not the sort of sui generis writer who just creates out of genius. I had to study, practice, revise, and learn the hard way. Alas.

In the later 80s, I started doing some editing and publishing of other people’s work. My dear friend, David Dunn, and I had a small press that put out two broadsides and four chapbooks. Taught me a great deal. I helped to edit a Xerox-zine in Philadelphia in the 80s. Meanwhile, I kept getting work into small press journals nationwide, mostly these photocopied deals with tiny readerships; but the minor successes kept me going. After awhile I had enough hubris to try the better-recognized journals, with some success. This is how it works: persistence, but not bull-headed, blind persistence. One persists through the learning process; revises, practices, finds trustworthy people for feedback.

My sister, my spouse, and I all have worked in the publishing business-as-business, in how-to and B2B magazines; I was a typographer, proofreader, copyeditor, writer, indexer. All of that background was valuable in its way and never kept me from pursuing creative work. So I did eventually go for my MFA, in my 40s, and I got chapbooks and a collection published at long last in spite of—oh, you know—life.

Because I feel that poetry needs audience, I was early to jump on the online publishing wagon, despite colleagues who warned that it wasn’t really as acceptable a venue as academically-affiliated print journals. Nonetheless I’ve found myself enthralled by online journals, by audio-poems, moving-poems (video), podcasts, blogs. I’ve watched well-respected magazines migrate to the internet. And there are problems with online publishing. I know about them, wrestle with them, yeah—keeps life interesting.

My route has not been the academic route, although I work at a college today; I am more of an outlier. Poets and writers can be nurses, doctors, mechanics, or landscapers, grandparents, people with disabilities, insurance industry managers, post office workers, tutors. Each of us discovers her own process for writing and for getting the poems into the world. Mine is pokey and slow and frequently interrupted, and my next long collection won’t appear until 2021, nine years after Water-Rites, my first. But I feel satisfied with my publishing record, such as it is. People do read my work, which is kind of the entire point of writing, no?

When everything is easy and there’s no chance of failure, life is boring. Writing creatively means taking risks, creating tension. Publishing creatively requires the same things. Risks, imagination, persistence, curiosity, analysis and a willingness to be open-minded. Fun pursuits, but not always easy ones.

Marvelous anomalies

“Human consciousness has at least as great an impact on the planet as any force of nature, yet its existence is in doubt because science does not know how to describe it.” —Marilynne Robinson

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One of the things I most enjoy when reading Marilynne Robinson’s essays is her earnest yet delighted devotion to the preciousness of being a human on the Earth. “The sheer plenitude of things a mortal encounters is a marvel in itself,” she writes, and her prose illustrates how all that she encounters deserves attention and compassion. Humanity, in particular, is a marvelous anomaly (“What a piece of work…”) which she lovingly defends while noting our “propensity to error” leads us into great evils but also to the kind of wide-latitude indeterminancy within which “we construct our minds and our civilizations.”

With clear logic and complex ideas and sentences, Robinson dismantles the logic that dehumanizes us. She demonstrates “that much influential thought is fundamentally incoherent” (this thought includes philosophy, psychology, and scientific theory) but nonetheless informs our norms, our behaviors, the tenor of our beliefs and our entire lives. Too often we are reflexive rather than reflective. Too often we dismiss feelings as irrational, when they originate in our bodies and minds and often work to alter what we regard as facts, thus biasing our perspectives. Emotions are part of our beings as humans. So are questions, especially the unanswerable questions.

Robinson says science “exploits accidents and relishes surprise”–something that poetry does, too (my aside, not hers, though I doubt she would disagree). But scientific method does not “provide an all-sufficient test for the reality of everything.” By implication, the biblical texts and so-called creation myths offer people a method of grasping the awesome that science cannot answer for and may never yield to, as each marvel reveals new mysteries and new questions.

We cannot say that the stars were arrayed to instruct us in the glory of God, to dispose our minds to wonder, to make us feel our finitude within an order of Being for which millennia are more transient than breath. This, for all we know, is the accidental consequence of the accidental emergence of the constellations, the fortuitous interaction of our unfathomable brains and senses with dazzling reality…We must step back and acknowledge that any accounts of the initial moments that make the event seem straightforward and comprehensible are deeply wrong. Nothing else could be true, considering what it has yielded.

I have not mentioned the words theology or philosophy in conjunction with Robinson, because so many readers would be less inclined to read her work. She’s not afraid to use those words and to examine, often rigorously, what they have meant to societies. Don’t be put off. In the final chapter of her book What Are We Doing Here?, Robinson writes about slander. It’s a short essay I wish all of us would read and think about, especially relevant to our current moment.


“Syntax” by Steve Tobin. Copper, bronze.