With the publication of The Fate of the Animals, your “Three Paintings Trilogy” is beginning to take shape. So the question arises: what could possibly link paintings as different as Rubens’s Baroque The Drunken Silenus (covered in the first volume) and Franz Marc’s modernist The Fate of the Animals? Is it all subjective—or are there truly things in common here?
The earth is dying in a way that it was not (or we did not know it fully) when I was a boy, a way that is different from what is meant when we acknowledge that this world is always, as the Bible puts it, “passing away.” And this fact changes everything. Yet the earth is beautiful and will remain so. How can I show my children this goodness despite what threatens it?
No matter how many poems you write, the challenge is always with the blank page as you begin to write your next poem. There’s the emptiness, but it’s like a mirror with so many ghosts and echoes on the other side. Where are you going? Do you really know where this particular poem will lead you? Sometimes you do have an idea, a jumble of energized music swimming around as you look into what appears to be a void.
I’m intensely interested in the complexities of ordinary crime, like in the stories of Kevin Hardcastle: a world without mastermind Dr. Evils and I-can-solve-anything Sherlocks. But a world where those with power do exploit the weak for their own protection or benefit. I’ve seen that reality, from domestic abuse that’s touched people I care about to misogyny, racism, and sexism in the workplace.
The four parts of my book echo the progression of Virgil’s The Georgics: Book I—agrarian labor like tilling the soil, weather signs and war omens; Book II on olive groves vs. vineyards (“The Vituperation of the Vines”), birth of trees; Book III on animal husbandry (veterinary care, procreation), cycles of life in nature; and finally, Book IV, a “bio-mythography” of bees. I also explore Virgil’s questions in The Georgics: What is the ultimate path to happiness? What is pleasure? What is a good life?
It confuses me that nature writing should be considered as some sort of specialized niche. The earth is really our grand subject. But, like Wordsworth, I seem to be as interested in the quirky people I run across as I am in the natural places in which I find them.
Even as a kid, I remember reading stories and being enamored not only by the characters, plots, and settings but also by the notion that there was a personal presence behind the telling, that someone out there, some author, had first imagined into being what I as the reader was now imagining into being. As much as I loved reading, this idea of being the first imaginer was something that I always aspired to, and I was lucky as a young writer to have had many good teachers—from elementary school all the way up through my graduate programs—who cultivated this aspiration.
In another poem, I imagine the etymology of my surname as though my ancestors were plowmen, and I then tried that metaphor of turning earth for the poet’s task of “turning words / back to life, to light not stellar / but diffuse, like moonlight spread // across some field I must cross / by foot, by dream, by shadow.”
Books are also made from other books. I picture literature as a house haunted by the ghosts of authors past, full of echoes and whispers. I may only be able to name the literary ancestors of a given book after the fact, but I always know that they exist.
I think God’s miracles come in all shapes and sizes, and that many are mistaken for simple chance. We miss seeing them for what they are every day. The miracle at the heart of In Things Unseen is both big and small, in that it affects the entire world yet is only known by four people. In other words, it’s a personal miracle on a public stage.
Surface Dive: starting this new life with all this optimism and eventually settling in; then Underwater: disruption, challenges; and finally Surfacing: learning, growing, finding a harmonious way to live in the world.
The poems have happened in all kinds of ways. I was lucky that in college I worked with a mentor, the poet Gracia Grindal, for whom forms were important, so I tried them and got to know something about the way each moves, both musically and with its own shaped rhetoric or logic. I experienced how forms with repeating lines, like the villanelle and pantoum, can weave a spell.
Love does seem to me to be the source of art, broadly. Something comes out of us when we create, and it’s clear that it comes from beyond us, somehow. The “acts of days” referred to later in that poem refer to the labors of love, of each lived life. In the case of this book and me, a great part of that life was family life; another was the artist’s.
I guess you could say what I write is “non-creative fiction.” As the saying goes, you just can’t make this stuff up. If I lived in a different place, I’d probably see the world differently. But I’ve lived in South Carolina for almost all of my adult life, and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.
Most of my novels center on a quest of some kind, though there’s not always a criminal element. With Coyote Fork I tried a number of different approaches—including science fiction—before finally settling on this form.
Entanglement is a wonderful mystery. My characters live in that wonderful mystery. I think we all feel like we’re entangled with many things, some of which we understand, some of which we don’t.
Here in the landlocked Midwest, the sky is the body of water most visible to me. I watch it the way I imagine people who live on the coasts watch the sea.
Lately it has been the fashion to talk about “measurable learning outcomes.” I really can’t stand the idea of measurable learning outcomes! The pioneer Yosemite climber Yvon Chouinard has said that adventure is the uncertainty of outcome. I want anyone who reads this book to have an adventure. I can’t predict where that adventure will take them in their imagination.
I hope these stories shift our angles of vision by allowing us to experience characters and cultures who break their promises for complicated reasons, then struggle to set that right. The future looks better for some of them than for others, but each has given voice to the challenge of remaining faithful.
“As the saying goes, If you want to see something new, walk where you walked yesterday. I most want the reader to see this speaker as grappling with what is so hard to put into words, what is beyond words.”