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.

Melissa Kwasny

This idea has led me into a decades-long obsession with what I call the visionary properties of the natural image, by which I mean anything alive to which I am called: aspen, deer, rock of rosy quartz. I call the method “Talking into the Image,” a process that involves meditation, dreaming, observation, and allowance, and owes much to the writings of others, including the Sufi concept of “the creative imagination,” a play of inner and outer, spiritual and material on which any dialogue depends. The Syrian poet Adonis writes that the image is “not a style but a vision that calls for completion, figurative language as a kind of question that propels us toward an answer.” The poem is one site where I can engage with and have a conversation with these other voices, where I “give them voice” by opening the door to a kind of hearing that continues past the initial conversation.

You once evoked the phrase “faith-in-progress” when describing different processes of a “work-in-progress,” as well as the need for trust in an image, in a feeling and the progress of the process. What helps you in nurturing this trust, and in keeping alive this faith consistently?

Corbin, again, is a teacher here. He writes that “there’s a divine response without which Prayer would not be an intimate dialogue.” Response is what nourishes and builds faith, whether one feels the response comes from the divine or a sprig of kinnikinnick. And poetry, I believe, is a form of prayer, a calling out to the other and a careful listening for response. On the other hand, one must be comfortable with no response. As poet Rusty Morrison writes in the anthology One Word, one must allow “for the lack of echo” as a step in preparing room for the unknown.

The poem is one site where I can engage with and have a conversation with these other voices, where I ‘give them voice’ by opening the door to a kind of hearing that continues past the initial conversation.

My saying “faith-in-progress” is a way of saying what Robert Duncan said better: “Poetry reveals itself to us as we obey the orders that appear in our work.” It is also what I think Carl Jung meant when he said we must strive for, “an obedience to awareness.”

I also wanted to distinguish between the modern faith in scientific or capitalistic progress toward the betterment of mankind and a faith in the progress of the imagination, which involves a number of external and internal operations. This winter, during all the upheavals all over the world, and minor ones, like the tea party take over of our legislature here in Montana, who are gutting all environmental protections, I felt closed off from all sources of inspiration. It’s not that they weren’t there. They were just closed to me. I asked, before I went to sleep one night, what I was to do about it. When I woke the next morning, the words, “Porous, not trapped” were on the edge of my waking, and I realized that the body, the rocks, the earth are porous, have pores. Through them, we move in and out, breathing, exchanging, often in silence, without words.

The Nine Senses

The Nine Senses
BY Melissa Kwasny
(Milkweed Editions, 2011)

From the Publisher:

“In this groundbreaking fourth collection comprised of exquisitely crafted prose poems, Melissa Kwasny examines the world around her with the quiet and profound attention of a poet at the height of her powers. The questions that have informed much of Kwasny’s previous work — how to relate to the natural world in our time? what can we learn about being human from non-human forms of life? — find a new urgency in The Nine Senses, as image collides with image to produce a singular ecological and poetic vision, one that is often dire and surreal. Thematically rich and varied, touching on mortality, temporality, and eternity, this collection puts Kwasny on the forefront of American poetry, and asks the reader: how do we tie ourselves to the world when our minds are always someplace other than where we are?”

Are you interested in lyrical tension (versus lyrical harmony)?

What an intriguing question, a musician’s question. Well, in music there are refrain, variation, counterpoint, and changes in tempo that create tension. How we create it in a poem is usually by manipulating the line length and the line break. In a prose poem, which is what I have been writing, almost exclusively, for a number of years, one loses the line break and has only the syntactical movement within a sentence and the movement from one sentence to another to create rhythm or tension, something I have spent a great deal of time studying in the works of others I love, such as the prose poems of René Char. I would say that, formally and contextually, I am more interested in movement rather than either tension or harmony, the movement between varying degrees of speed — syntax and phrase length — and the movement from one image to another, from the exterior image to the interior one and back again, movement from one speaker to another, one tone to another, one thought to another. For example, listen to this one sentence from a prose poem of Char’s, translated by Mary Ann Caws:

Born from the summons of becoming and from the anguish of retention, the poem rising from its well of mud and of stars, will bear witness, almost silently, that it contained nothing which did not truly exist elsewhere, in this rebellious and solitary world of contradictions.

In my own poems, I am trying for this kind of harmonic feeling, as in the striking of a chord, where many tones or speakers or images are chiming at once to create resonance. I see that same kind of movement and resonance in the collagist work of C.D. Wright, especially in Deep Step Come Shining and One Big Self.

The Nine Senses, your new collection of poems, contains a series of dense and beautiful crafted prose poems. Their combination of image and movement is different from your other poems that may contain more silence and space. How does that feel, this change in energy and drive?

It feels exhilarating. I think of The Nine Senses as my ecstatic book. Freed from the line, I became less somber, more playful, able to attempt to speak in the language of flowers, to attempt telepathy, to veer off course, to add four more senses to my way of perceiving the world. In a way, I think the ongoing line without end stops, the completely enjambed poem, which is what a prose poem is, mirrors my attempt to fuse the inner and outer worlds into a, if not cohesive, at least harmonic or resonant whole. Fuse is not quite the right word. I am letting the image lead in these poems, inviting it in and following it as it moves — in my mind as well as in the phenomenal world — to another image or to emotional statement or question to intellectual revelation. In the poems, I don’t have to distinguish between them. No image or statement is there to explain the previous one; rather, they come out of the previous one. I trust their progress. It’s a way, for me, of reading the world at the same time as I am participating in the writing of it.

Reading Novalis in Montana

Reading Novalis in Montana
BY Melissa Kwasny
(Milkweed Editions, 2009)


BY Melissa Kwasny
(Lost Horse Press, 2006)

The Archival Birds

The Archival Birds
BY Melissa Kwasny
(Bear Star Press, 2001)

I learned this, too, from Char, how he took his images from both the violence of the French resistance and the beauty of his rural village of Vaucluse, as well as from his dreams. He wrote, in his beautiful war notebook Leaves of Hypnos, that this kind of language “comes from the sense of wonder communicated by the beings and things we live with in continual intimacy.” It gave me permission to place flowers, a film, global warming, and the fact that Saddam Hussein saved scraps from his bread to feed the birds when he was imprisoned all in the same poem. The fact that the person who fed birds and the person who murdered thousands of people exist in the same body is somehow moving to me. I remember Helen Vendler, writing about Char, saying, “he writes with absolute candor, but in a secret language.”

When you spoke about prose poems, you mentioned “the spacing of an image.” What is it? Can you elaborate?

I’m not sure when I said that or in what context, but my turn to writing prose poems, which began with the poems called “The Under World” at the end of Reading Novalis in Montana, was one motivated by necessity. I had already been writing what some of my readers described as poems dense with images. But in my notebooks, I noticed that I was no longer writing in lines but rather, as if in an attempt to run past the surface images that came to mind, a kind of automatic writing, a freer association wherein I found that, when I wasn’t trying to control their progression, one image would lead to another image, under or beside or through the previous one, not necessarily in logical sequence. And I noticed that an image would often lead to a statement or question, as if the image itself had its own question, its own sphere of intelligence, which would not explain the one before but propel me to the next association.

I was fascinated by this movement. It didn’t tell a story. It created worlds of images that led me deeper and deeper into their worlds. (Corbin calls the image itself “an organ of perception.”)

You write novels and essays as well. How do you decide the generic form? (Or does the form of writing decide the subject for you?)

I haven’t written fiction for almost twenty years. When I wrote my two novels, which were published in the nineties by a feminist press, I had already been writing poetry for many years. It was a time when the rigid boundaries between fiction and poetry were becoming more fluid, and more “poetic prose” was being published. I was inspired by the novels of Gabriel García Márquez, Carole Maso, Toni Morrison, and Leslie Marmon Silko. Women writers like Susan Griffin, who wrote Women and Nature and Chorus of Stones, were publishing work that combined personal narrative, poetry, and fact-based reporting. I wanted their range and experiment. However, after publishing two novels, I realized that, experimental or not, fiction writers told stories, and I did not. I returned to poetry, where I would not force, but follow my tendencies of thought.

I have not given up my love of prose, however. If I could write like anyone alive, it would be like John Berger or W.G. Sebald or Robert Pogue Harrison, writers whose work I can’t read enough of. And there are things I want to investigate, ways of incorporating my reading and thinking that the essay form seems best for. I’ve just finished compiling a book of essays that, obsessively enough, center around the image in poetic practice. The book is called, provisionally, Earth Recitals: Essays on Image and Vision.

Melissa Kwasny

You are interested in communication, and in creating work that communicates with others. How do you feel about poetry that may seem to disavow communication, instead showing more interest in “aesthetics”?

Disavow completely? I read widely in poetry, some of which could be classified as belonging to different camps — though I have to admit that I am not always aware of that — and some have doors that don’t open to me. Sometimes that is my fault: I need to pay closer attention, give it another reading. I don’t think anyone intentionally writes poetry to be uncommunicative. (Though Miles Davis turned his back on his audience, he still remained on the stage.) I find it hard to divorce the question of aesthetics from the question of what form one needs to say best the thing one wants to say. One strives for the latter first, I hope, though one strategy of that might be to make the reader engage more fully in the reading, which might look, on the surface, as a disavowal of communication. I do believe in leaving rooms open for the reader to wander in on her own.

What helps you in strengthening your inner life?

A braid of sweet grass, a yellow bowl of plums, pictographs done in red ochre, the chickadees at my feeder, spring rain. Paradoxically, the senses. “Chief inlets of Soul in this age,” as Blake said. I practice, with my lover, what we call “signs and omens.” We are often out walking in many different landscapes, in every season, in all weather, and we stop and tell each other what we smell, taste, feel, at the moment. We often try to extend our practice past the obvious and familiar, trusting our instincts. (Don’t you think it is interesting that insight, instinct, intuition, all flicker between the outer form and a pointing back to the interior?) We try to find the earth in the day, the water, air, fire in the outside. We practice cloud exercises. We play. Imagination, I have always believed, is a developed feeling. And reading, of course, is, too, one which affirms and confirms one’s direction, where one makes friends.

What are the greatest joys of creation for you?

The feeling that something hitherto invisible or unknown has deigned to come close to me. The kind of joy that comes when a bird alights near you — just like on the cover of my new book, a chickadee once crawled all the way up my pant leg, up my hair and planted itself atop my winter hat — or a plant softly turns its stem toward you. “Poetry keeps human beings open to the invisible, the hidden, the infinite unknown, always on the threshold of what is to come,” writes the poet Adonis. It is the feeling that hidden life has revealed itself to me.

What is awaiting you on the reading desk now?

The H.D. Book by Robert Duncan. The University of California Press just published this series of essays about one of my favorite poets, a book many of us have been waiting decades to have in hand. Adonis: Selected Poems, translated by Khaled Mattawa. Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics by Rebecca Solnit, and One with Others, by C.D. Wright.

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