Walking in Landscapes and Seasons: Melissa Kwasny and the Art of Nature

Melissa Kwasny

MELISSA KWASNY is an artist who works conscientiously at conversing profoundly and intimately with nature — both in life and in writing. Born in Indiana, she spent a decade in San Francisco, teaching in the California Poets in the Schools Program, and has been invited as Visiting Writer by universities such as the University of Montana, Eastern Washington University, Lesley University and the University of Wyoming. She has also held residences at venues including the Vermont Studio Center, Hedgebrook on Whidbey Island in Washington, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.

Author of two novels, Trees Call for What They Need (Spinsters Ink, 1993) and Modern Daughters of the Outlaw West (Spinsters Ink, 1990), Kwasny gains notable recognition for her poetry; she recently garnered the 2010 Montana Arts Council Artist’s Innovation Award and the 2009 Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award for Work in Progress from Poetry Society of America. Her first book of poems, The Archival Birds, was published in 2000 by Bear Star Press, followed by Thistle (Lost Horse Press, 2006), which won the 2005 Idaho Prize for poetry and the 2007 Silver Award from ForeWord magazine. Editor of Toward the Open Field: Poets on the Art of Poetry 1800-1950 (Wesleyan University Press, 2004), her third book of poems, Reading Novalis in Montana, was released from Milkweed Editions in 2009. The Nine Senses, a book of prose poems, is newly presented — again by Milkweed Editions — just this spring.

Kwasny now lives outside Jefferson City in Montana. We are honored to feature her in this interview, in which she shares her vision of a world we live in but do not own.

For a long (or perhaps not) time, you’ve been writing in close dialogue with nature, a world that we humans freely take for granted. How has this dialogue and your relationship with nature evolved over these years?

I began with an intuitive response to beauty. We all have an affinity to beauty, I believe, are called to it. And the earth is beautiful. My grandparents were tenant farmers in rural Indiana. I was lucky to grow up with lots of time spent outside, surrounded by forests and farms; at the same time, the farm was on the interface of a town that was rapidly being industrialized. So, at a very young age, I became aware of the conflict between human beings and the non-human world.

I began with my response to beauty, but… my response was more than celebratory, more than descriptive… precise observation took me many more years to learn.

Instinctively, I loved the farm and hated the factory. But beauty, as the Sufi scholar Henry Corbin writes, is a theophany, which I take to mean an experience that leads to other, deeper experiences, a preceptor to greater knowledge and vision. I began with my response to beauty, but even in the beginning of my writing life, in my novels, and later, in The Archival Birds, my response was more than celebratory, more than descriptive, though precise observation took me many more years to learn. At the same time, my poems could not help but be elegiac. I was reading about the rapid diminishment of song bird populations, deforestation in South America, the genocide of many California tribes. My first book of poems, The Archival Birds, bore some witness to this loss.

I later was drawn to the work of others who have written about our relationship —and increasing division from — nature, starting with the transcribed song and ceremonies of the Native people of this continent, continuing on to the Romantics, especially Novalis, and the German mystics, who believed in the correspondence between the natural and spiritual worlds, and in the dream, which still comes down to us, of a past when we were in dialogue with animals and plants. (We encounter the dream everywhere, even in contemporary work. Leslie Marmon Silko in her recent memoir, The Turquoise Shelf, echoes it: “I was fascinated with the notion that long ago humans and animals used to freely converse. As I got older, I realized the clouds and winds and rivers also have their ways of communication. I became interested in what these entities had to say. My imagination became engaged in discovering what can be known without words.”) The work of feminist women writers, such as Susan Griffin and Rebecca Solnit, also informed my work.

Increasingly, I began to feel that, instead of mourning the loss of species and plants, that I might forge, not force, a relationship with them while they were still alive (“an art of cure” rather than “an art of diagnosis,” an idea for which I must credit Ezra Pound), that there might be a means of dialogue. (Thistle is a book wherein every poem is a meditation and attempt at dialogue with a plant or herb that lives near my home. Reading Novalis in Montana has two long sequences wherein I concentrate on what a waterfall and a series of cardinal directions have to teach me.) You see, I believe that, paradoxically, in order to be fully human on this earth, we have much to learn from the vegetable and animal worlds. In order to heal ourselves and the earth, we must include them in our concept of the whole.

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