Justin Howe Interview: “Behind the Sun”

Read “Behind the Sun” in Reckoning 1.

justin-howeMichael: How much meaning do you expect a reader to bring to a story, and how much do you invest it with yourself and expect readers to take from it?

Justin: Fuck if I know. My goal is to make something that’s ripe with potential meanings. A lot of fiction and media I enjoy is less about one thing than it is potentially about many things. Making a story that shares that quality is my goal, but that potential’s going to be informed by the range of my interests. In this case the interest was in travelogues which I’m a fan of, but inverting the genre somewhat.

Michael: “Behind the Sun”‘s narrator starts out lost, trapped amid the sterile inhumanity of an airport lounge. By the end, he’s invigorated, renewed, a different person–and he’s home, in this incredibly strange new place. That’s all we know about him. I vaguely recall an earlier version of this story where you hinted he was a failed academic; that part’s gone. Instead he seems to me a vessel for the reader’s frustrations with the modern world, and his journey a version of that revolution in perspective that comes with travel, with being thrown out of one’s comfort zone. It happened that way for me. I know you’ve had experiences like this and to spare. I know it’s taking ridiculous advantage of editorial privilege, that most readers can’t and aren’t supposed to get to ask the author this kind of thing, that the story should speak for itself. But I’ve got the editor’s chair now, and the rush of power is irresistible. Is that what you meant this story to be about? Maybe a more diplomatic way of putting it: how has your experience of cultures other than the one you were born to informed “Behind the Sun”?

Justin: I am very leery of travel for travel’s sake and the quest of broadening one’s awareness experiences, as I can see that being a trap. If anything the narrator is someone who has over-traveled and is exhibiting the kind of jaded exhaustion you can glimpse in airport lounges and expat bars. When the story ends, he’s shed that need to travel. Here’s the thing: when my wife and I moved to South Korea the first place we lived in was a village of 250 people. I’d never lived in a place like that before, neither had my wife. In fact the building we had been living in back in New York City likely had more people in it than that village. Even my in-laws were shocked that places like it still existed in South Korea. Now, the culture shock I felt: was it the shock of being an American in South Korea or was it being an urban inhabitant suddenly thrust into a rural environment? I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure I would have experienced culture shock moving from any metropolitan to rural environment. Of course I was now living in a culture where mine was not the dominant perspective, and even now I’m normally at a loss in communicating with strangers. If anything from my experiences informed “Behind the Sun” it was maybe this notion of letting go and not insisting on knowing, but instead seeing what comes. The narrator throughout the story is often reliant on kind strangers and must learn to subsume himself in a group effort geared for the greater good. Some folks would likely take issue with this being a positive outcome, this erosion of the character’s individuality, but I see it instead that the narrator has shed a false self he’s been clinging to. Now that he’s lost that baggage he can begin growing again.

Michael: So what’s the trap you’re talking about in travel broadening one’s awareness? Is it this potential for the traveler to impose their own potentially false sense of self on what they’re experiencing?

Justin: I’ve encountered people who seem to have climbed onto this travel treadmill where they’re searching for some transcendental experience of “ultimate reality” and all it does is make them boorish: “You think this is real, man? This isn’t real. If you want real you need to go to Thailand. That’s where the real shit is. I saw dead people in the streets, man.” So to me the trap in broadening one’s awareness is the same for anyone who chases after the ultimate high or whatever in the hope that it makes them more real. Granted, I’ve often said living in Asia is wasted on me, but there’s a big difference between being an adventurer and being adventurous as Tove Jansson point out in Fair Play. An adventurer takes what opportunities arise, but doesn’t need to go out looking for them like the adventurous do. That said, I agree it is a good idea to learn to exist outside your comfort zone. It’ll certainly teach you things about yourself, and not all of them to your liking.

Michael: Am I falling into a similar trap by claiming “Behind the Sun” as a piece of fiction about environmental justice?

Justin: Probably, but your money’s good so I won’t complain. I did try to talk you out of buying this story after all, but you fell in love with the whole notion of people working together to turn shit into gold and called it environmental justice. What could I do?

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J.R. McConvey Interview: “Eel of the Lake”

Read “Eel of the Lake” in Reckoning 1.

jr-mcconveyMichael: I love this story of personal identity in the context of collective activism. As I probably told you when I bought it, it made me cry, I think partly because I know how ineffectual and insignificant working for positive change in the world can feel, and the idea of getting such a personal acknowledgement from the huge, beautiful abstraction you’re trying to defend is a powerful thing indeed. I think “Eel of the Lake” makes a fair argument that the escapism of fantasy serves a worthwhile purpose–introducing a ray of hope when we need it most.

But I want to ask you about a particular issue of personal identity this story brings up, one that applies very much to Reckoning as a whole, which is representation and cultural appropriation. To be blunt about it: I’m a white dude, you’re a white dude; Mizay, the main character, is a lesbian woman of Indigenous descent; is that okay? When I first read this, I hesitated, even though it made me cry, because I want Reckoning to be a platform for voices not my own, not like my own, and I want it to be a space where people not like me can feel their voices are being given the attention and respect they deserve. In the end, it was the making me cry that made up my mind: Mizay’s voice clearly didn’t feel fake to me, it felt respectfully and authentically rendered. Still, I have to ask myself, who am I to make that call? So, in hopes you might have better answers than mine, I wanted to ask you the same question. How did you decide to tell this story from this perspective? How did you find Mizay’s voice? If you thought about issues of appropriation, can you tell me about how that went?

J.R.: This question has weighed on me heavily in recent months, and it’s not easy to unpack. A bit of relevant background is that I have worked with Indigenous people on past projects, mainly documentaries, and feel I’ve learned a huge amount from these interactions. A few summers ago, I was fortunate enough to participate in an arts leadership program through the Banff Centre, where I met an elder who helped me further explore Indigenous knowledge, and to see both its essential wisdom, and the beauty and poetry of the stories. I believe they carry answers that will help us navigate the accelerating changes that Earth is undergoing.

When I set out to write this story, I was searching for a way to frame a discussion about climate change, resistance and the ways in which humans are connected to the landscape. It didn’t start out as a story with an Indigenous protagonist, or a story about an LGBTQ2 character – those character traits came out in the writing. But once they emerged, it made sense to me, since marginalization and activism are so connected in cultural discourse. When I wrote it, it felt emotionally true. So I submitted it.

What I can see in retrospect is that one can’t really be incidental when attempting to write from other perspectives, especially Indigenous ones. And, ultimately, you have to admit ignorance, and accept that all you have is an attempt to understand, which may or may not be welcomed by Indigenous people who feel stifled or limited in terms of how and where their voices are heard. I believe deeply in the value of fiction as a vehicle for empathy, and I cherish the freedom of the imagination as the truest freedom. But I also understand that some people feel that what’s at stake in writing from Indigenous perspectives is a more urgent matter, a question of life or death.

So, where I’ve landed with this story is that it’s out there, and I welcome any criticisms of it that will open a respectful dialogue about these questions. I’m willing to listen, which is the request I hear or read most often in discussions around appropriation: listen to us. I’ve given the story to my friend, the elder, and am hoping for an honest assessment of where it falls on the appropriation spectrum. My argument in favour of the piece, such as it is, is that I am (hopefully) not glossing over the complicity of straight white men in systemic discrimination against Indigenous people, women and those who identify as LGBTQ2. If I’m writing from the perspective of a marginalized character, it’s in part to throw an interrogating light on my own privileged position in relation to those who are marginalized.

However, at the moment, it seems an argument isn’t what Indigenous people (or LGBTQ2 people) want or need in terms of response to questions like this. Which makes sense: as soon as you take two steps into the larger discussion around treatment of Indigenous people in Canada, any would-be indignation falls apart. There are communities with no clean water. There are twelve-year-old kids killing themselves on reserves. The last residential school was not shut until 1996. Colonization is still effecting very real and painful consequences on Indigenous people.

So, ultimately, although I still like the way this story feels and reads, and believe it’s as emotionally honest as I could make it—and am happy to have it in a publication like Reckoning, which invites conversations like this one—I’ve since removed it from the manuscript of my short story collection, on the grounds that it’s not really mine to tell, or at least that there’s sufficient debate around that statement to warrant removal. It’s the last piece I’ll write from the perspective of an Indigenous character. As much as it saddens me to see how the world, in general, seems to be dividing and subdividing into closed ranks—how much “us versus them” has become the dominant paradigm—I don’t want my writing to be hurtful to people whose suffering is still so acute, and I have to believe them when they tell me how appropriation contributes to this, even if the context is a story that aims, in part, to champion decolonization.

Sorry for the long-winded response. This is a question that may take a hundred years to answer.

Michael: Because you and I also share the Great Lakes watershed, the particular huge, beautiful abstraction Mizay is protesting on behalf of in this story, I also wanted to ask you about the real-world inspiration for that. Are river outlets being paved and islands drowned near where you live? Does the resistance to it look anything like it does in the story? I’m a transplant here, and for years I was daunted by the level of degradation of the lakes–having never known this ecosystem any other way but polluted and infested with invasives, I found it harder to work up the energy to do anything about it. I’ve gotten over that, thankfully–but I’d love to hear a little of how you think about the lakes, what’s made them worth defending.

 J.R.: It boggles my mind that some people would question the need to protect the Great Lakes. This is the largest source of fresh water on Earth. Like you, I’ve only ever known the lakes in their degraded state, although I’ve lived next to Lake Ontario for most of my life. It’s the sad truth that they were already degraded before I was born. I take some solace in the cleanup efforts that have happened in my lifetime—I can swim in Lake Ontario now, on good days—and in the efforts of groups like Waterkeeper Alliance, who work on spreading the message about their protection. But, while there’s not a specific, local incident of pollution I can point to (invasive species are another matter: Asian carp, lampreys, Zebra mussels…), I think we are generally now headed in a very dangerous direction, with the efforts the current US government is making to destroy environmental regulations.

What is a very visible and present problem in Toronto at the moment is the flooding of the Islands. They’ve been closed since early May, covered in water, and although the city keeps pushing the deadline for re-opening the park, it keeps raining, and I am afraid this may turn into a permanent problem. It’s also a harbinger of the kind of changes I think we’re going to see happening more and more frequently. Frankly, it makes it hard to conceive of any kind of effective resistance… I know hope is important, but the scale of change is so vast, you wonder what can happen on a grassroots human scale that will slow or reverse what’s already in motion.

In the case of “Eel of the Lake,” the point is more that resistance and love are sources of personal strength in the face of big-picture despair, and that the possibility still exists to reimagine ourselves and the ways in which we see and relate to the natural world. Or, if you want to take the fantastical element at face value, that maybe at some point the world will take over, and our struggle to be the controlling factor in nature—on either side of the issue—will be rendered insignificant. I guess there’s some skewed hope in the thought that the Earth knows what it’s doing, and will find a way to detoxify itself. What that would mean for humankind is anyone’s guess, though. Maybe the beast in this story is an omen of personal discovery… or maybe it’s hungry.

Michael: These are great answers! As thoughtful and nuanced as I could have hoped for. Thank you very much. I really appreciate your wanting to engage with me over these questions.

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Brandon O’Brien Interview: “Papa Bois and the Boy”

brandon-obrienRead “Papa Bois and the Boy” In Reckoning 1.

Michael: I’d never heard of Papa Bois until I read “Papa Bois and the Boy”. Now I know a little, but only in the abstract. How did you find out about him? I imagine the poem must be engaging with the myth, and with what the myth means to the people, in ways I’m not getting. Can you tell me a little about how you thought about that?

Brandon: Well, to open, ‘finding out’ about Papa Bois, in Trinidad, is the equivalent of finding out that water is wet, I’d say. I’m a Trini writer, and that means that folklore is always in the air—they’re the tools that people associate most swiftly with Caribbean fantasy. I grew up knowing about Papa Bois, the father of the forest, in the way that I guess we all grow up with Sleeping Beauty.

Myth gives people the kind of language they need to communicate the things they value, and part of why I love Papa Bois is because he stands for the reverence of nature that we always worry we’d lose. That’s what I wanted to tap into, especially as it relates to now—to how industrialization is a threat to it, a shadow cast over nature. I’m surely not the only Trinidadian, or even the only Caribbean person, who’s had this thought, but in a world where the ‘first-world status’ of a nation is measured in the height of its skyscrapers, coming from an island that yearns for that kind of ‘first-world’ love and leverages its oil economy for just a drop of that status—it was as if Papa Bois called me personally and insisted I write it. Or, hell, it was as if Papa Bois wrote it and told me to pass it on.

Michael: The poem tells a story about the encroachment of civilization on nature, and about fleeing that encroachment. It’s a classic trope of ecological literature, and something I think it’s almost impossible to avoid thinking about for anyone who grows up with access to nature. I wanted to ask what your own experience of that was like. Did you lose some nature that was precious to you? Would you tell me about it?

Brandon: This is an interesting question, to me, because I feel like ‘losing some nature that was precious to me’ means so many different things that aren’t very close to me, but I think about a lot. As in, I think about nature a lot, but I can’t think of any one thing that stands out. It wasn’t seeing my favourite reserve be torn apart or something like that—it was thinking about all of the various ways that our relationship with globalization has led us to make poor environmental decisions. And I’ll admit that those decisions always affect other people moreso than they do me. In Trinidad, we’ve destroyed prime agricultural land for houses, we’ve removed wetlands in order to construct a stretch of highway. And I’m not saying those infrastructural decisions aren’t valid ones to make, but the relative ease with which we make them at the expense of nature—and more often at the expense of people whose lives depend on it—is still baffling. And then they inevitably bite us, and we stare down the widening maw of food insecurity, for instance, and we wonder what went wrong.

Michael: Finally, I have been itching to ask you about Fiyah, the new (or should I say revived?) magazine of Black Speculative Fiction. You’re the poetry editor. How has that role been for you so far? Have you done anything like this before? What has editing taught you about your own aesthetic for poetry? Is it informing your writing at all?

issue-3-cover-smallBrandon: O, FIYAH has been lovely! Issue Three, ‘Sundown Towns’, has some amazing poetry in it, and I love everything we’ve looked at so far. It’s such a wonderful feeling to see great work pass before your eyes in a flurry, and an even lovelier one to let them know you’re going to give them the space to tell a story they care about, to give them a platform to share themselves like that. Because this is a new experience for me. I’m pretty sure I must’ve told the rest of the FIYAH team at least once how anxiety-inducing it is to have this kind of position over a work, to essentially decide if it deserves to be a part of your platform, to be seen. One of the things I’m glad to learn from this, from the business end, is that when an editor really cares about bringing new voices to the speculative fiction space, and you bring them really damn good work but it just isn’t what they want, it hurts them to tell you no almost as much as it hurts you to hear it. But when they tell you yes? Man… again, I’m really in love with the poetry in this issue!

On the aesthetic side, I’m discovering a lot. For one thing, seeing a bunch of poems set against each other every few weeks does wonders for undoing the kind of Poetry Dos and Don’ts we keep being told. Things I’ve heard people say are always uncool, or too old or cliché, or too difficult for speculative poetry, are always showing up in the poetry slush pile, and even if they don’t catch me, they still prove well enough that those things are still engaging and worth reading.

And that’s at least made me more confident about my own work. About being willing to test the boundaries of my own work.  I don’t see nearly as much experimental work as I’d love to, but I have seen swaths of poems that don’t shy away from being interesting with things people usually throw away as trite. I can only hope that seeing the poetry that comes out in the magazine in the coming issues will challenge and inspire others as much as it does me.

Michael: How do you feel the work the magazine has featured so far has done at representing the spirit of the original Fire!, and Fiyah‘s statement of purpose? Are you seeing submissions written to that purpose?

Brandon: Definitely. I think our goal to èpater le bourgeois has been undoubtedly achieved since day one. I can speak for everything that comes to us, and for the poetry slush in particular, when I say we’re always brimming with work that I think is doing what FIYAH has to do to follow in FIRE!!‘s spirit—work that rebels against both the narratives black people have been fed in narrative media in general and the history of the speculative fiction canon in particular. We have a secondary goal—to give writers the confidence in their own work to keep getting hungry, to keep working and submitting as many places as possible – and of course I feel it’s too early to gauge, but seeing how hungry readers are for FIYAH, I have faith. We’re giving the black community worldwide a space to tell their own stories in their own voices, through the lens of speculative fiction, and we’ve seen some very radical things come out of that process. Things that challenge all of the gatekeepers’ assumptions about the genre, and put blackness in a far more nuanced light. I want to do more of that. I want people to keep seeing more of that.

Michael: Are you having to do much outreach, encouraging authors to submit who might not have done much submitting before? I understand many writers of color feel an active disinterest from white-dominated publishing that deters them from even seeking publication for their work. Did you experience that at all submitting your own work? Are you doing anything specific to overcome it at Fiyah? Do you feel you are contributing to change the circumstances that were outlined in that Fireside #BlackSpecFic report?

Brandon: I’d say… a little less than before. Again, I can speak definitively for speculative poetry, which from my vantage point is such a small community already; take the black community within it, and we cut it even closer. Then we’re talking about a distrust of the publishing ecosystem, a distrust that is literally older than I am, and I can’t blame anyone for that, I think. If someone looks at the genre, even at people deliberately reaching out to them, and goes, ‘no, I don’t think the genre is for me, because I’ve had these experiences’, I don’t think I can criticize them for that. It was part of my own experience, for a time, for sure.

But we’ve also been lucky that people, especially after the #BlackSpecFic report, have been eager to see the landscape change. People are rooting for us, because we’re making it a little easier for new black voices to make their way into the genre and have their work noticed. So they’re sharing us with their friends, they’re promoting us on social media, because they have faith in us. And we’re working hard to earn that faith, and to reach out to people in their small pockets who may have something but haven’t been sending it out, because we really do want to see it.

Michael: Sorry for the barrage of questions about this—it’s all stuff I’ve been thinking about a lot for Reckoning, if from a different angle. Fiyah looks beautiful, it’s doing what it’s doing forcefully and with grace, and it’s something the field and the world badly need. So I can’t help looking to you all for inspiration.

Brandon: You can’t see this make me blush, but it’s making me blush! I similarly think Reckoning is sorely needed—giving people an avenue to use speculative fiction as a lens to view the literal world in, and our impact upon it, and how we can be better stewards of it. The genre has been having such good luck lately, with so many people wanting to ensure that it becomes more diverse, more inclusive, more radical, more conscious, more critical. As a fan, as a writer, and now as an editor, this makes me so happy. I’m glad both of our spaces can be such inspirations to each other, and I can’t wait to see what it inspires other people to make.

Michael: Thank you for being a part of that inspiration. And thank you very much for talking to me!

Brandon: Thank you! For the opportunity to talk to you, and for sharing my work in Reckoning!

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Diego Reymondez Interview: “Wine and Wisteria”

Read “Wine and Wistera” in Reckoning 1.

diego-reymondezMichael: When we were first talking about “Wine and Wisteria”, you told me you tend to write in English, but you acknowledged some Spanish influence on the structure of your writing “creeping in” (which made me happy, in the context of a story about taking care of old grapevines). I love your prose–the informal, oral style is one of the things that drew me to “Wine and Wisteria” in the first place. So I wanted to ask you a bit more about that. I can read Spanish–slowly–and I’ve done enough of that to have maybe a tiny sense of what you meant about finding Spanish “too pretty”. But I’ve read vast swathes more in translation, and I’ve always been interested in what it means to love the sentence structure of a piece of prose that’s translated, without getting to see exactly in what way or to what degree the translator chose to mimic the rhythm of the original. I’ve done a little bit of translating, so I know how that works–for me, the dangerous tendency is to mimic too closely. I also am terribly prone to long sentences in my own writing, which is something I think Spanish lends itself to.

Can you tell me more about how your bilingual experience in Spanish and English influences the way you write, what you write?

Diego: I wish I could. I’ve been wondering what that relationship might be for years. Before I left for Spain my only real reservation for not going was that my English might suffer. Who might I have been or how might I be writing now if I never left the states? I’m not really sure.
What I can say definitively is that I’m two different people depending on the language I speak. And the longer I spend in this country the more that Spanish part of me becomes the real me. I’m becoming less sarcastic, more whimsical, more open and direct. If that’s to do with the language, or the culture or the feedback between the two creating reality, I’m not sure.

There’s an odd lag when I switch languages. If I’ve been talking English with visitors, switching back to a place where I can speak proper Spanish takes me half a day. My accent comes out and it’s harder for me to express myself. I suppose talking Spanish all day and then switching to English at night to write had to affect Wine and Wisteria.

Michael: Do you consciously draw influence from English writers, Spanish writers?

Diego: I think I’m a sponge. I don’t actively draw influences, but whatever I’m reading at the time has always seeped in to what I’m writing. These past few years though, after having to leave my library back in America, and relying on my brother’s, I’ve concentrated on non-fiction in both languages. Especially anthropology, permaculture, ecology, and biology. I think that might have a bit to do with how “Wine and Wisteria” came out so conversational. I might have been escaping from so much structure.

Michael: One of the things you do besides writing is permaculture–in your bio, you’re a forest astronaut, a bosquenauta, which I love. I’ve been trying at this on my own very small piece of land in Southeast Michigan for about six years: food forests take a long time, I gather, but I’ve got apple and cherry trees, strawberries, native onions, comfrey, edible ferns, stinging nettle etc etc in a great disorganized jumble I mean to slowly try to unify into some kind of self-supporting system. I gather from our earlier discussion and your Facebook group that you’re doing this in Spain.

Can you tell me what a food forests look like in the climate where you’re working, and how people interact with it?

Diego: The nice thing about forest gardening, you can have all those disconnected plants and if you leave for five years and come back they would probably all have connected themselves. Found their own self-supporting system. Maybe a wild borage would find its way in, or you’d lose some plants to the shade of new tree growth (although everything you mentioned grows fine in the shade.) You learn to trust that nature knows what it’s doing, to think a bit less, and take Obi-wan’s advice to heart and “stretch out with your feelings.”

Forest gardens here look almost any way you want. Even though we’re basically at the same latitude as New York, we’re protected by the warm air from the gulf of Mexico that crosses the Atlantic just for us. So, on the coast, it almost never freezes and you can have almost any temperate tree growing along with tropical avocados, sapote and bananas. There are even stories that people tell like conspiracy theories about old ladies with mangos and ice-cream bean. “You know what I heard…”

It’s about 15-25 degrees year round, (60-80 degrees in Yankee parlance) which lends itself to ideal tree growth in almost every season, and when you team that with particularly fast growing trees and bushes like alders, elderberries, willows and scotch broom, you can create three dimensional forests pretty quickly while the more edible varieties of trees which take longer to mature grow in the shade.

We’re having a lot of fun these days tying the principles of permaculture and forest gardening into more cultural settings. Some of our projects are simply about production, or personal use, but the more entertaining ones are for therapeutic centers who’d like to have their practice molded into the forest, masseuses who’d like to set their tables up outside, edible forest clearings with stages. The possibilities go on.

Michael: Have you been doing it long enough to see a forest garden approach maturity? How does that work?

My forest is still young (entering its 4th year) so you don’t get a proper feeling of being in the woods at every moment, but there are times when you can catch a glimpse. Last year, for example, when it rained for the first time after months of drought, I could start to feel the soil revive. The microorganisms came out of their comas, and there was an indescribable buzz in the air. Then that feeling mixed up with the dissipated echo of bird songs off the young trees. It was the first time I felt like I was in a forest here.

Michael: Finally, I want to ask you about the generational conflict that to me is at the heart of “Wine and Wisteria”. This to me is one of the hardest challenges in trying to change humanity’s relationship with the earth from something destructive and toxic back to something nurturing and mutually beneficial: influencing the people we love to see things the way we do. And also maybe the most crucial. You show us a moment of frustration and one way to get through that frustration. That’s beautiful, and I really appreciate it. I think it’s something we all need. Can I ask if you were drawing from personal experience? Has that strategy helped you in the long term? Do your parents get what you’re doing with permaculture? Do they approve of it? Or, to take the lesson of the Lavandeira another way, do you think it’s enough, in the long run, for the younger generation to find ways to cope with their loved ones’ misunderstanding and move forward without them?

Diego: My parents are beginning to understand. They think they’re more understanding than they are, but I do appreciate their process.
Almost everyone I’m meeting is kind of going through the same process.

1. They head back to their family land.

Almost everyone in Galicia has access to a little piece of land, because by some strange miracle banks never figured out how to buy everything up so there’s almost as many hectares as owners. And at the same time the entire nation’s been in an economic depression since 2008.
So people are realizing, “Hey, I might not have a job, and I might have been lied to about my education landing me a job, but I do have this small piece of land that I can plant, grow and maintain myself on. And as they start they realize it’s not the hard work they were told farm work has to be. It’s actually kind of fun, satisfying and even fulfilling. Individually, they’re fulfilled.

2. Family dispute about the land.

Parents who hadn’t thought about their land in years see their kids working it and inevitably an argument starts. “What are you doing there?” “But that’s not how you’re supposed to plant things.” “That’s not how my grandpa did things.”

3. Doubt

More than anything else, they’re met with misunderstanding, doubt, and flat out refusal from a generation of parents too accustomed to comfort to submit themselves to the discomfort of understanding something new. Even a bucket for food scraps to add on to the compost next to the trash becomes the Iliad. Where on one side are the zealots of reusable bags living at the expense of others, and on the other are the people who are too comfortable to notice they’re living at the expense of others.

4. Years long reconciliation

Everyone’s flawed and nobody’s living well, but we’re all trying. All we can do for the time is have the courage to move beyond our lack of foresight, deal with our emotions like adults, and do it without the support of certain people.
Solutions won’t come from fighting the people we love. If I’m right, they’ll learn on their own time how to change. When I’m wrong, I’ll learn. The fight of our lives can’t be between generations. It needs to be directed into soothing the future. And that involves accepting that some people won’t change at a pace Earth needs, moving past them, and putting energy into helping people who do.

Michael: Thank you, this has been fascinating!

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Giselle Leeb Interviews Christopher Brown

tropic-of-kansas-cover-435x655Michael: Since Giselle Leeb and Christopher Brown happen to have appeared together in both my editorial efforts in the world thus far, and since they seem to me to share a certain radical sense of humor and outlook on the world, I figured there must be something significant to be learned by all parties in introducing them. 

Read Christopher Brown’s essay, “The Rule of Capture” here, and Giselle’s story “Wholphinia” here. You can find their previous work in LCRW 33.

Giselle: “There is no such thing as an empty lot,” is the first sentence of ‘The Rule of Capture’. You mention that “more than sixty percent of the wildlife population of the planet has disappeared in my lifetime.” What sort of environment do you think will exist in the future? Will it be like the fascinating urban wildernesses you describe?

Christopher: I imagine the near-term future will resemble the urban woodlands where I live, as humans further expand their territorial occupation of the planet and wild animals must learn to adapt to Anthropocene environments, flee, or die. I am no scientist, but over the course of my lifetime, I have seen many species become more prevalent in the urbanized U.S. Raptors, coyotes and foxes have all become prevalent in cities. Urban raccoons and opossums are evolving faster than their country cousins, solving the food-sourcing challenges of our complex environment—like how to open a trash bin secured with bungee cords. And vultures seem to really thrive on all the death we create—cruising over the interstate highways for roadkill, lording over the degraded fields from perches atop cell phone towers.

While the experience of wild predators inside the urban fold is wondrous and uncanny, it is also immensely sad, in its implicit reminder of all that has been overtaken by our sprawl. If we can work harder in our landscape design to think about sharing habitat, I think we can mitigate the damage we cause, and maximize the everyday wonder around us. But I fear the long-term future is one in which nature will have checked human hubris and overdevelopment—which may be a better future for those who survive.

Giselle: You write about a realtor who can only see animals as property, a vision limited by his self-definition of what it means to be a human being. What sort of self-concept would people need to develop to improve the way they interact with the environment and animals?

Christopher: I think it’s more a question of getting past the contemporary obsession with the self, and seeking unmediated connection with the environment in which one lives. But that’s a hard thing to find—it takes a kind of tuning of the senses, and patient exploration. And even when you experience it, it is usually only just for a passing moment. Letting our landscapes go wild, as we have done with our feral roof, is a great way to heighten the everyday experience of sharing the world with other species. That aids an intuitive empathy, one science is catching up with as it comes to better understand animal intelligence and the social networks of plants.

Giselle: “A world in which the fox also had rights would be a very different one than the world we live in. It would probably not be one in which…more than sixty percent of the wildlife population of the planet has disappeared in my lifetime.” There’s an urgency to this. How can the fox’s point of view be taken into account and how does this relate to human stewardship of the natural world?

Christopher: We are a long way from a world in which animals have authentic rights. In the U.S., at least, we are going in the other direction at the moment, with the extractivist philosophy triumphant. The American identity is so tied up with the notion of eternal frontier abundance that we are all plunderers to some degree—though the idea of the commons was far more prevalent in our early history than most appreciate. Even the noble notion of “human stewardship” starts from a proprietary premise. No wonder so much of contemporary conservationism is an expression of property rights—as governments, non-profits, and the super-rich purchase huge parcels of land to protect them from exploitation. I read recently that media mogul Ted Turner is the biggest landowner in the U.S.—perhaps refuge in nature is the ultimate luxury good on an overcrowded planet.

My forthcoming novel Tropic of Kansas deals with these themes—in part by envisioning a kind of green insurrection. That’s a fantasy, of course, though real-world movements like the Standing Rock protests show the potential of civil disobedience in service of ecology. In the end, I expect the only really effective motive force will be the need to survive, as the future scarcity created by our own consumption catches up with the present.

Giselle: Your non-fiction has a fascinating way of going from the immediate to the general and then looping back through history and ideas to the particular, with a wry and insightful humour. Near the beginning of ‘The Rule of Capture’ you say, “if this were a fairy tale, I would tell you how the fox appreciated that,” and the ending includes a fantastical element. How do you find writing non-fiction compares to writing fiction in the way that you tell a story?

Christopher: Well, I find that the trick is to violate the boundary between the two. Putatively factual prose is more interesting infused with the lyric intuition of fiction, and imaginative literature is more compelling when powered by observed truth. These pieces I have written for Michael DeLuca’s Reckoning and LCRW 33 try to obliterate the boundary completely. Exploring that territory is a lot of fun.

Giselle: How has your relationship with the environment changed over your life?

Christopher: As children we are trained to objectify nature. We learn the names of animals, we experience them as toys and as pets and screen images, we see them in zoos, or as objects of backyard experiments. We come to understand nature as something other than the place where we live. Over the course of my life I have tried to break that mediated alienation, with some success. I have always gravitated toward wild remnants hidden in the fabric of the city— empty lots, rights of way along roads and railroad tracks, bits of forest not yet tamed as park—practicing a kind of eco-psychogeography. “Sous les pavés, le fôret,” you might say. When you do that daily over the course of years, you sometimes experience the natural world around you without names or taxonomies, almost without active thought, and there I think lies the path to the everyday transcendent, where you momentarily and authentically feel your connection to all the wild around you, and see that the environment in which we live is our true home.

Michael: Thank you very much, Giselle and Christopher. This was fascinating.

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Aozora Brockman Interview: “Kill or Be Killed”

Read “Kill or Be Killed” in Reckoning 1.

aozora-brockmanMichael: I have been waiting to ask you and talk to you about the tension that is at the core of “Kill or Be Killed” pretty much since I read it. I’ve thought a lot about what constitutes civilization, how the way we negotiate killing in order to live has changed as what it means to be human has changed. I’ve been thinking about it for most of my life–this satirical bit by the comedian Bill Hicks sticks in my head, I heard it first as part of a Tool song in high school–where he mocks militant vegetarians, asking why nobody is lamenting the pain we cause to carrots. The point being (at least, so I have interpreted) that we have to eat to live, that what we eat is something that was once alive, death is universal, pain is universal, and it’s forgetting to acknowledge it that’s the problem.

I love “Kill or Be Killed” for the intense, personal clarity with which it renders that moment, killing these little alien things that would otherwise be taking your food. I couldn’t help but be riveted by it. You’re writing about something you’ve actually experienced, I think? In other words, for you and your family, keeping pests from eating the food in your garden was a matter of livelihood–not such a common experience anymore for human beings. Too many people I know no longer need to think about where food comes from, so they don’t.

The poem, I think, invites us to contemplate those questions without feeding us an answer. Maybe it’s taking unfair advantage of my editorial position, but I’d love to know what your answers are, if you have any. How do we decide what lives and what doesn’t so we can eat? Is it okay to kill an ant, but not a chicken? How does empathy play into that decision? Do you ever look at it from the ants’ point of view, or the potato’s? Has your experience working with the land, growing food, taught you anything about how to negotiate those complexities?

 

Aozora: Thank you so much for these wonderful questions, Michael! To be clear, I do not—at all—have the answers to what/who we should kill to eat and what/who we should not kill. But I do think that you are right that the point is not to make a list of living things we can kill and those we shouldn’t, but to always question, empathize, and think deeply about the lives you are taking into your body when you eat.

In Japanese, there is a phrase you say before you eat a meal, “itadakimasu,” which literally translates to “I am receiving your life”. My Japanese mother loves this phrase, and she explains it as a way to thank the living things that gave up their lives and became your food. I love it, too, because “itadaku” is a highly polite form of the verb “to receive,” and signals the deep respect the speaker feels for the living beings (now dead) before them. The phrase has Shinto origins and has been a part of Japanese culture for centuries, but the real meaning behind the words are mostly lost to Japanese people today.

Which brings me to my point: we live in a society today in which we are wholly unfamiliar not only with who grows our food and how it is produced, but with the very fact that what we eat was once alive, and that the boundary between us and the animals and plants we eat is not as rigid as we’d like to believe.

People often assume I’m a vegetarian, but, like most of my family, I am not. But my parents always made it a point to make me and my brothers think deeply about the food—especially the meat—we were eating. All of the meat we eat is from our farm, and when we eat meat (which is not that often), I feel in my heart an immense appreciation and love for the animal who gave up their life. I’ve taken part in many chicken butcherings on our farm, and I think it takes great courage on the part of my dad to raise his ax to the neck of a hen. There is a holiness to that moment, of making sure death is quick and as painless as possible, and with the enormity of the deed washing over us all.

I believe that when I eat an animal or plant or insect, I am taking in their precious life and rebirthing them into my blood and bones. And when death comes for me, all of those lives consumed into my body will be returned into the earth to feed new life. The most important thing, for me, is to always recognize that I am not apart or above the cycle of life, and that I must try my hardest to give back all that I’ve taken.

 

Michael: What’s in the cocoon at the end of the poem? I don’t know enough about the life cycle of the tomato cutworm to be sure.

 

Aozora: I still have no idea what was in the cocoon! It was definitely not a tomato worm, though—based on my research, a tomato hornworm’s cocoon is red in color and smaller than the white cocoon I discovered in the poem. I actually found (and smashed) some tomato hornworm cocoons while I was digging in the soil to plant artichokes a couple days ago. I haven’t seen that white cocoon in a long while, and odds are that they are from a worm that doesn’t do much damage on our farm. (So I still feel guilty for murdering it.)

This goes back to your previous question, but as farmers, and especially as farmers who use no pesticides or herbicides to grow our vegetables, we are trained to find and kill certain insects when they are damaging a crop. We squish small, fat red potato worms, smash squash bugs, stomp on tomato worms, squeeze Japanese beetles and cabbage worms…the list goes on. In bad years, we have to look through row after row of plants and fill cups of soap water with potato worms or Japanese beetles until the water is fizzing with drowning bugs. The experience always gives my stomach a lurch, but I think it is an important one to have, because it makes you aware of what it means to consume food, and how much destruction you must wage against certain insects in order to eat. On industrial farms, all of the killing is left to chemicals, and the killing is not targeted: instead of bucket-fulls of Japanese beetles painstakingly drowned after hours of work, whole insect and microbiome ecosystems are wiped out with one sweeping spray of poison. That means that they are not only killing the pests, but are murdering the spiders, earthworms, ladybugs and bacteria that help make a healthy and nutrient-rich soil. All of this (unnecessary) murder is heartbreaking, and it’s all the more enraging that we all conveniently forget about all of this killing because we aren’t the ones doing it with our own hands.

What farming teaches me is that it is necessary to kill certain insects because they are eating up our beautiful broccoli or burrowing in our green tomatoes, but that it is not necessary to kill them all, or to kill insects that are doing no harm. We must only kill when it is truly necessary, and when we kill, we must feel in our hearts a deep gratitude and humility.

 

Michael: I’d like to ask a process question–about how you write. How true is this this poem? Another way of putting which might be, “Did you in fact squash a big gross cocoon with sticky white insides and get inspired to write poetry about it?”

 

Aozora: Yes, I did! One summer I was digging potatoes out in our bottomland field and had this exact experience. It was during a period of drought, so the soil was extremely dry and painful to kneel on and work with, and I was exhausted from running out irrigation drip-tapes day after day, night after night. In this kind of haze and daze, I was harvesting potatoes and killing ants and then all of the sudden, staring at this cocoon I’d squeezed, its insides all over my fingers.

I didn’t know, at the time, why that moment felt significant and strange, and I probably forgot all about it for a while. But when I was back at school and tasked with writing a poem (in the style of Robert Frost) for my poetry class, the experience came flooding back. What was beautiful about writing this poem (and writing most of my poems) was that I had no plan of what I was going to write about while I was writing it, and all of these emotions and thoughts and questions emerged naturally while I was exploring the memory through language.

Some of the questions that emerged in the poem probably weren’t concretely in my head when I was digging the potatoes that summer, but came to me later, through the classes I was taking then. For example, the biggest question I see now in the poem is one not just about the literal killing of insects, but the philosophical and moral questions of war and violence. The ants, in this case, are easier to kill because they are attacking me, and they are warrior ants—they know they are putting their lives on the line. But the sleeping cocoon, all of the sudden exposed to the sun—a mere baby, curled and innocent, in the dirt—killing it, that feels very wrong. And I think those feelings of guilt and non-guilt raise important questions: why is it easier to kill someone or something that is attacking you, versus someone or something that seems innocent and passive? Why do some feel so justified in killing our “enemies” abroad and yet rail against abortions? To me, those are the central questions of the poem.

But I love that each reader brings their own perspective to the poem, and it can spark different questions for different readers. When I shared the poem in my class, I remember that one student told me she thought the poem was about losing sexual innocence, and her reading surprised me because I did not think of that at all while writing the poem. But I can definitely see that theme in the poem, and I love that poetry can open up spaces and possibilities in this way. My memory becomes your memory, my experience yours, and we are all pondering on the same plane of thought.

 

 Michael: Thank you very much!

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Emily Houk Interview: “Plague Winter”

emily-houkRead “Plague Winter” in Reckoning 1.

Michael: The more of these interviews I do, the more clearly I perceive common threads that recur through many of the pieces in Reckoning 1. It seems they ought to be telling me something–about myself, about all of us writing and thinking along these lines. “Plague Winter” touches on so many of these threads I don’t know where to begin.

Okay: invasive species. I got to talk to Travis MacDonald a little about their history, their progression, the line between invasive and naturalized and native and how it blurs over time. But in “Plague Winter” you come at all that from the other side, from the individual, the personal. Robin cares about the hemlocks in a way I understand at a visceral level. It doesn’t matter to her that those hemlocks aren’t so very old in the age of the world, that they came in only after the Northeast was deforested by a different plague of invasives of which we’re reminded by Robin’s grandmother who comes from the Mohawk and grew up isolated and displaced. And it maybe doesn’t matter to Robin that the beetles designed to defeat the adelgid that’s killing the hemlocks may bring about some other plague yet unforeseen. It’s irrational, but that’s how people work, and the natural world changes because of it–so drastically as to be unrecognizable in just a few generations. I love the way you layer all this. It’s subtle. I don’t know if you’re for setting those beetles free or not, and–as I said talking to Aozora Brockman last week–I don’t really know if it’s fair to ask. Do I have to let the work stand on its own? Do I have to come to my own conclusion?

I’ll tell you my answer: I’d set the beetles free. I think. I suppose it would be hard to say until the moment came. And I suspect I’d have given a different answer a few months ago. I’m feeling rather radicalized of late.

How about you?

Emily: I wanted “Plague Winter” to raise questions without necessarily providing answers. Because that’s real life, right? Stumbling around, trying to find answers. Like you say, the lines between native and naturalized and invasive can be blurry. I wanted the story to illuminate that blurriness, to provoke readers to consider what belonging is. Which parts of “nature” do we feel belong?

When I first started drafting this story, which was actually several years ago, I was more on the fence about my own beetle-release philosophy than I am now. Coming back to the story, I found I came down much more on the side of beetle release. Partly this has come from hanging out with scientists and learning more about biological control, which has changed dramatically since the disastrous early attempts, when invasive species were introduced and threw entire ecosystems into chaos. While I don’t trust human schemes and strategies to be infallible, biocontrol efforts go through a lot more testing now. There’s an attitude of caution around them. And then there’s the fact that hemlocks are widespread, and losing them would have devastating consequences for plants, animals, and humans. So yeah: Release the beetles.

“Plague Winter” reads like science fiction, but the story is actually historical. Based on the progress of the adelgid and the use of biocontrol to manage it, the story takes place in 2009. That’s the year that the predatory beetle Laricobius nigrinus was introduced as a biocontrol for the hemlock wooly adelgid in upstate New York, where “Plague Winter” is set. So while the story feels speculative, it’s actually fictionalizing a real moment in the past. The idea of using predatory beetles to manage the adelgid seems like this weird, out-there idea, when in fact it’s been happening for almost a decade. Ripe for a story!

Michael: Then there’s the question of what to do, as an individual, how each of us makes that judgment call, where our personal effort and emotional investment will do the most good. Most of us aren’t given the chance to steal beetles and set them free, even if we wanted to. A question I asked a lot of your fellow-contributors for awhile and got away from, and maybe should get back to: do you think writing fiction about it does any good? Does it make you feel better, at least?

Emily: These are some rough times for the planet and us who live on it. For myself, it’s been a matter of figuring out how to stay active and engaged without becoming overwhelmed and shutting down entirely. When I say “stay active and engaged” I mean a variety of things. There are traditional ideas of calling senators, sending postcards, going to a protest or rally or local meeting. Then there’s contacting corporations to urge them to join Business Backs Low-Carbon USA and follow the standards of the Paris Climate Agreement. There’s supporting my local library, donating household items to refugee resettlement efforts, turning the compost, working in the garden. Sharing skills with people in my community. And then there’s writing a story.

Does writing fiction make me feel better? Maybe a little. I feel better because it gives me an opportunity to explore the realities we face. It is important to deal in realities, now and then, and fiction is a great tool for doing that. This is the world we have. It may not be the world we want, but it is the world we have. To deny what’s happening would be a disservice to the world, to ourselves, and to each other.

Do I think writing fiction does any good? Reading fiction does me good, and it always has. So I hope that the things I write will have some sort of positive impact, even if, in this case, it’s just to encourage readers to notice and appreciate hemlock trees a little more. Telling stories is important. Language is important. We have to tell our stories. There is a strength in doing so.

Speaking of language and stories, in “Plague Winter,” we’ve got Eddie, who was kidnapped and forced to live at a boarding school where she was forbidden to speak her native language and follow the traditions of her Mohawk family and community. That was a real, calculated effort by the U.S. government to destroy the native population of the country. There were boarding schools like that all over North America. It’s a horrifying part of our history, and it’s important to acknowledge what was done to those kids. This didn’t happen all that long ago. Many of those schools existed into the 60s and 70s. As you mention, another invasive was behind that act of aggression. Again, facing the world we have. Not the one we’d choose.

Michael: Aside from plague beetles, aside from fiction, where do you choose to focus your efforts? I feel privileged to already know some of the answer to this, but would you please indulge me and tell me a little something more about the ways you’ve found to resist the metaphorical and literal plagues of this world?

Emily: When I was in college I studied human ecology and environmental design. I used to say that I went to school to study the end of the world. That was over a decade ago. I stumbled onto that path sort of accidentally, but once I was on it I couldn’t imagine a more important thing to learn about. I ended up working at a transfer station for awhile. Nothing like waste disposal to make you think about how things could be done differently!

I live with a whole bunch of artists and writers and musicians. That in itself feels like a bit of rebellion. Lately I’ve been focusing on how I can be of use to my community. In the last year I’ve taken classes in herbal medicine-making and wilderness first aid. I’m thinking of taking a chainsaw skills class. With the current global instability, I feel compelled to acquire as many useful skills as I can.

I try to fight despair by thinking creatively. I run Ninepin Press with my partner. We’re a very small press that creates literary objects in unusual shapes. We recently published a collection of poems by Travis Smith based on forgotten constellations. At a certain point in the 1920s, a group of astronomers got together and had a meeting where they decided which constellations would be recognized as “official.” So a bunch of constellations got the axe, like The Hot Air Balloon, The Printing Press, and The Sundial. Most people don’t know they ever existed. I wouldn’t have known, either, but for Travis’s poems in Zodiac B. While our work as writers and publishers might seem tangential or even unrelated to the way we think about the environment, that work can give us an opportunity to illuminate and question the stories we tell ourselves about our environment. To see the world in unexpected ways.

Michael: Finally—I want to ask about the feeling of marginalization, of operating way out at the periphery of a society, that I get from Robin’s position in the world. She’s scrabbling for a living, and to do what she can for her brother and grandmother, and to do what she can for the hemlocks, with minimal support. She operates brilliantly under the radar, on a shoestring, and I admire her for that. Can you tell me how you came to that aspect of her character? I’m curious if it was…an interpretation of ye archetypal heroism…or whether this is an interpretation in fiction how you, Emily Houk, operate in the world, or something in between? Or something else entirely.

Emily: I love the way you describe Robin’s situation. I knew from the moment I started writing that Robin was going to be a community college student. I went to community college myself, and it was an important part of my development as a human. It was so much less insular than a four year school. Everyone had jobs. Many of us had a bunch of different weird jobs. There was a lot of scrabbling. My classmates were anywhere from sixteen to eighty years old. Everyone was just trying to get their work done, to do what they needed to do. Some were caring for elders, others had kids. Some had stable places to live and others didn’t. Robin was someone I could have known back then.

I think Robin is a fun subversion of the idea of a hero. I mean, she doesn’t have much going for her. But that’s what makes her great. Looking back on the first draft, I think I gave her the name Robin so that I would feel her story more personally (Robin was what my parents were planning to name me before I was born). I’ve always lived kind of marginally. I grew up in a fairly remote area surrounded by hemlock forest. When I was a kid we grew a lot of our own food. I didn’t go to school until I went to college, and I didn’t attend college until I was in my twenties. But my parents weren’t much like Robin’s. They aren’t hermits, and they’ve been very present in my life. Like Robin, I tend to find myself in care-taking roles. But beyond that, I don’t know how similar she is to me. She’s more stoic than I am. Laconic. More like my own grandmother.

In some ways I see Robin as a cowboy in a western, or some sort of rogue knight in Arthurian legend. The system isn’t out to get her because it has anything against her; the system doesn’t even know she exists. And yet she finds a way to fight it, to get what she wants out of it.

Though Robin is scrambling to support herself, in some ways her story is one of wish fulfillment. Because she succeeds, at least temporarily. Eldercare in our society is so troubled and dehumanizing. This young woman was able to eat enough peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and sleep on enough couches to get her grandmother a place to live. I guess it’s weird to go for such a small, brutal sort of wish fulfillment, but I’ve watched people I love get older and I wish there was a more humanizing structure in which that could happen. (My one remaining grandparent, my grandmother Justine, will turn one hundred next month.)

I didn’t know I was writing a story about grief until I finished it. I have to fall sideways into these things.

I think that if Robin were around to look at 2017 and give me advice, she would say this: Do what you can to avoid despair. Despair immobilizes. And right now the world needs us to be our best and brightest selves.

Michael: Thank you very much! This interview has in fact done a bit to help me hold away despair.

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Cae Hawksmoor Interview: “Civitas Sylvatica”

cae-hawksmoorRead “Civitas Sylvatica” in Reckoning 1.

Michael: This story I feel like has gotten exponentially more topical in the time since I first read it. We’re shown two people caring about each other and doggedly pursuing the advancement of knowledge while the world turns to ashes around them. Thank you for showing me that. It turns out I needed it.

I want to ask how you’re managing with that. Brexit starts today, as I’m writing these questions, and Trump has just rolled back what progress Obama made on climate change. For months I’ve been telling myself to keep making my small, positive contributions to the world despite so much of the rest of it falling apart before my eyes. It doesn’t get any easier. Have you managed to do the same? Are there any small, positive things you’ve been doing for the world you’d like to share?

Cae: Not to start off too heavy, but I guess I’ve always felt the world was ending. It just took me a while to work out how. Growing up through the tail end of the Cold War, I remember doodling mushroom clouds in the margins of my schoolwork when I should have been paying attention in class. After that, and despite the continued and calm reassurances of my rational mind, in the long dark when I couldn’t sleep I obsessed over the supposed 2012 apocalypse. It was just this feeling that’s always followed me around: the lingering suspicion that I’m watching something end.

It took me a long time to make sense of it. To see that civilisations rise and fall. I’m not talking about the showy and fiery apocalypse we see in Hollywood movies, social structures just quietly go on following their own patterns of growth and decay. And, despite our increasingly frantic insistence that you can have infinite growth on a finite planet, ours is no different. As far as our own society goes, we are living through the last days of the Western Roman Empire.

I don’t even feel like I have to argue that point much any more, there’s a whole shopping list of evidence that it’s happening. From the increasingly unpredictable and devastating effects of climate change, the worst mass extinctions since three-quarters of the living things on Earth died at the end of the Cretaceous, there are famines, war, refugees, the rise of fascism and xenophobia as representatives by alt-right political parties all around the world, and the prolonged economic collapse. At this point you can basically take your pick. Every day for the past few months especially, I feel like we’ve woken up in the morning, looked at the headlines, and felt our world grow a little smaller and darker.

I guess that’s part of the reason why I wrote this story. When I feel like everything is collapsing around me, it helps to think about our society in terms of the natural world, where things grow and die and decay and tip the balance back into life again. There’s a kind of rhythm to it, if not a meaning. A kind of comfort in the wider context.

In practical terms, I guess that I’ve been working on spending less time inside my head and more time living out in the actual physical world. Trading some of the chaotic (and often unrelentingly bleak) drone of news reports and social media for walking, volunteering, meeting up with other people. Helping them out as best I can. I think our society spends a lot of time convincing us to exist only in our own heads, in a fog of persistent anxiety where we are easily controlled and even easier to sell things. Being more in my body, and with what is actually physically around me, is the only medicine I’ve ever found for that.

Michael: “Civitas Sylvatica” plays with scale. The tree of civilization grows and flourishes and contaminates the earth around it and destroys itself, beautifully, against a backdrop of Atiador’s own civilization destroying itself. And at the end, I think Atiador encourages Kestlie to use the seeds he sends her to start the whole process again–though that’s open to interpretation. I fear I may be in the minority of SF readers in that I love a good metafiction. I like writing that encourages the reader to look up at the author, or to look back upon themselves from the perspective of the text. And I feel that, in playing with scale, “Civitas Sylvatica” is encouraging me to do that. Did you think this way at all as you were writing? Atiador mentions a Great Architect–I am too easily tempted think of that as you, Cae Hawksmoor, great gardener in the sky. And I wonder, if I went downward in scale, down into the tree of civilization Atiador has planted, if I’d find sentient beings planting their own gardeners and taking Atiador’s name in vain.

Cae: I can’t speak as to metafiction, but I definitely think that one of the greatest strengths of speculative fiction lies in portraying other worlds in such a way that we learn more about our own. Ursula LeGuin is the master of that, although I also feel as though I have to mention the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica–with its drum beat of the Cold War and the post 9/11 world always rumbling underneath the surface.

My favourite speculative fiction is always this sort of double image: the shadow of our own thoughts, structures, and systems of power overlaying a world that’s utterly alien and fantastical. It encourages us to look at the familiar with new eyes, through the use of symbol and metaphor. This story was definitely an attempt to go and play in that sandbox.

If you looked very closely at the branches of the civitas sylvatica, I’m not sure you’d see little people there, but I’m betting you’d find something that was undeniably alive. Something building, gardening, re-shaping their world to the very extent of their strength and abilities. And, just like Atiador and the Great Architect he worships, telling themselves it was godly.

Michael: Do you garden? Would you plant Civitas sylvatica, knowing it might kill everything else in your garden? Is it beautiful enough, fruitful enough, to justify the ruin it causes?

Cae: I think I’d probably describe myself as a mostly frustrated gardener. Plants fascinate me with their endless cycles and change. And there are so many wonderful reasons to learn to garden! To be a little bit closer to the skin of the world and learn how to produce a little of what you take from it.

Yet, despite all of this, all I can say is that my adventures in growing things have taught me a lot about weeds, a lot about surrendering control, and a lot about admitting defeat. I’m pretty certain, at least, that the caterpillars and blackbirds that currently reside in the tangled wilderness behind my house are much happier without my interfering.

And trust me, if I can’t grow a potato, then you really don’t want me trying my hand at the tree of civilisation! No, I’ll just continue to sow weeds around the edges for the caterpillars to hide in, and let the tree of civilisation do what it does, I think.

Michael: Can you tell me how you thought about the World Tree myth in writing this story? Were there any specific instances of that myth you were referencing in particular? I feel like there ought to be epic trees that play home to civilizations popping up in fantasy all the time, yet in some ways it seems a neglected trope. Thank you for contributing a little to its rebirth.

Cae: Trees are incredible creatures. They’re both like us, and not like us. A lot of the smaller trees are roughly the same height as a person and have about the same lifespan. And all the time we’re finding out new impossible things about them–how they communicate through root networks and support the weakest and sickest members of their colony. They’re just like us, except they’re also like a lung turned inside out that sheds its skin in winter, right?

They’re a gateway between the known and the unknown, but we also see something of ourselves in them. And we can recognise things about ourselves from our relationship to them. At the moment, a lot of what that relationship tells us isn’t good. I’m not just talking about clear-cutting and the worldwide destruction of our forests in favour of plantations that are basically factory farms for trees, although that’s part of it. Our relationship with individual trees can be just as telling.

As I write this, I’m not long back from a walking trip to Sherwood Forest where we went to see the Major Oak–a thousand-year-old behemoth that has the somewhat dubious honour of being “Britain’s Favourite Tree”. This becomes rather more amusing and ironic when you realise it looks like an old sock that most of the elastic has gone out of. The whole tree is strung together with cables and held up by girders to stop it from falling apart. It’s covered with lead plates to keep out the rain, all the trees around it have been cut down, and the ground’s stripped bare to help us desperately pump more nutrients into its ancient roots.

It’s a tree that’s had its day, and is dying. It only continues to live because we have put it on life support. I guess it seems fitting that it’s tied up with all the Union-flag-waving, God-Save-the-Queen-singing imperialist nostalgia-and-delusion that unfortunately makes up so much of modern ‘Britishness’. Hell, it’s even called ‘the Major Oak’. If I wrote this stuff down, you’d say I was being too heavy-handed.

To its credit, it’s worth saying that the Major Oak itself is still happily making acorns while its entire superstructure collapses like a half-burned candle, isolated from the rest of its colony over its last few days and years of its life.

Maybe a tree is exactly the right size to contain a whole civilisation after all.

Michael: Thank you very much!

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Travis MacDonald Interview: Concrete Jungle

travis-macdonaldCheck out the four pieces from Travis MacDonald’s Concrete Jungle that appeared in Reckoning 1.

While the project as a whole has not yet been gathered in one place, other pieces can be found in a number of online and print journals:

Michael: What gave you the inspiration for Concrete Jungle—what has been your personal experience with invasive species?

Travis: The very first inspiration for this project came while I was studying at Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. Soon after moving to Boulder, a transplant from the east coast, I was struck by the silver leaved trees that seemed to grow along the banks of every river and stream. They seemed to define the high-plains landscape in a distinct and majestic way. I soon discovered that these Russian Olives were not exactly welcome and had been categorized as an invasive species. One which consistently drained an already taxed water table and resisted all attempts at eradication.

That encounter sent me to the Colorado invasive species list. What I discovered was a richly textured list of colloquial folk names that seemed to contain a vast and varied web of historical threads and associations. Each non-latinate name hinted at a story whose origins could be tracked and followed back through hundreds of years of metaphor, oration and migration. They carried contexts and connotations long since lost to, or blurred by, the landscapes where they now found themselves.

They seemed to echo and trace the human (and perhaps more specifically, American) experience in a unique and subtle way. Which is to say, for me personally, they made me more acutely aware of my own role as an invasive species.

Michael: Where I am in Southeast Michigan, my local state and county parks are at the front lines of battle with a couple of “noxious weeds”: garlic mustard, Alliaria petiolata, and the common reed, Phragmites australis. I’ve participated a bit—I harvest garlic mustard in the spring and eat it. But I’m aware that there’s another kind of battle ongoing about what species get classified as invasive, what resources are devoted to eradicating them, whether those resources would be better spent elsewhere. Where do you fall in that debate?

Travis: That’s a good question. And one I’ve given a great deal of thought to over the past few years. On the one hand, I believe that the preservation of our planet’s biodiversity is one of the most important battles being fought today. So, in that light, I applaud efforts to save native species whose survival is threatened by the influx of others that evolved outside of a given regional biome.

On the other hand, I can’t shake the feeling that there is no fitting this particular cat back into the proverbial bag. These efforts are an example of treating the symptoms rather than the disease… it’s a losing proposition in the long run. Because if we continue down this path, we can only hope to hold back the inevitable tide set in motion by the actions of our ancestors.

Of course, when we speak of “the resources devoted” to this fight, in my opinion any amount of money earmarked for invasives is much better spent than the offensively ridiculous sums we Americans invest in our nation’s military budget or, say, the privatized prison economy.

Michael: I’ve recently become enamored of the Dutch concept of “next nature”—the notion that since human beings are a product of nature, the unexpected patterns produced by complex human systems themselves constitute an extension of nature….

Travis: I must admit, I’m not familiar with the term “next nature” but I tend to mostly agree with the underlying idea you outline here. However, I would hesitate to categorize the European model of colonial expansion in the name of civilization and progress (and all its accompanying side effects) as “natural.” In fact, if we take a closer look at our own evolutionary backstory, I’m pretty sure we’d have a hard case for it even being characteristically “human.”

That said, I’m of the mind that mankind’s recent (evolutionarily/geologically speaking) intervention has accelerated the organic processes of natural selection beyond our planet’s current speed of counterbalance. Our intervention in those processes now, no matter how well intentioned, seems ultimately futile. The idea that we can somehow hope to preserve a vaguely defined “ideal” state of nature or turn back the clock to before we meddled in the affairs of carefully balanced bioregions developed over millennia, seems like typical human hubris to me. The only way is forward from here. What that next nature looks like depends in no small part on our action (or inaction) today.

Michael: I love how the complexity of the ways people interact with plants is embedded in the words of Concrete Jungle: it’s not just about the way plants and people move, but about the way names and identities evolve with movement. You call it “procedural word art”—a term with which I was not hitherto familiar. Can you talk a little about the theory behind it, the process of meaning-making involved in turning data into art? Did you come to it from natural language poetry, or from visual art, or both? Do you consider your work a product of the digital age, of the proliferation of machine language?

Travis: Thanks! That complexity of identity and interaction was at the heart of my interest in (and inspiration for) this project. More than just state borders, ultimately, that’s the motion I hoped to map with each curation.

I have a longstanding love for both ecopoetics and Language poetry, both conceptual and contemporary visual art, so I suppose I brought a little bit of all those influences to this particular project. The “concrete” in Concrete Jungle, of course, is a nod to the concrete poetry movement that was so effective in combining the visual and textual into a single movement and which eventually gave rise to some of the amazing VisPo being done in the world today by folks like Nico Vassilakis, mIEKAL aND, bpNichol and many others.

I tend to use the term “procedural” as a way of describing my work as a whole and setting it apart from the more well-established borders of “conceptual” poetry and art. Don’t get me wrong: despite some recent (and not entirely wrong) assertions that conceptualism is a colonialistic practice at its core, I have a great deal of appreciation for the work of Kenneth Goldsmith, Vanessa Place and others….

However, for my own part, I’m interested in the places where appropriation goes beyond simply re-contextualizing and ventures into the reconfiguration and intentional manipulation of language, creating new forms and patterns. Language is the only material of artistic expression equally available to all and, as such, should be treated as an unlimited resource. Simply by speaking or writing, are imposing a process upon language. We are bringing our own contexts and experiences to its arrangement every time we set out to communicate. Making those processes and procedures more apparent as a means (and not just the method) of communication is one of my primary pursuits as a writer.

The processes that fall within the boundaries of proceduralism can be digital and mechanical (my own personal tendency) as well as natural, organic and ritualistic (as in the work of CAConrad, for instance). However, I should note that while it’s my own personal belief that there are a number of writers working in the procedural realm (Christian Bok, Michael Leong, CAConrad… to name a very few) I’m not sure any of them would necessarily agree with my categorization.

Michael: Thank you very much!

Travis: Thank you for sharing this work with your readers!

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Aozora Brockman Interviews Chloe N. Clark

chloe-clarkMichael: Continuing in my campaign to foster creative cross-pollination among contributors to Reckoning 1, I asked Aozora Brockman, whose poem “Kill or Be Killed” is forthcoming on the site in a few weeks, to interview Chloe N. Clark about her poem “Sidelong Catastrophe”.

Aozora: I love that your poem “Sidelong Catastrophe” surprises us in the opening line (“I’m not sure who the sky is / when it’s not the sky”) by giving the sky a dual identity—at once a “who” (human-like) and an “it” (object-like). In the poem, the perceived boundary between human beings and nature are blurred: a river was once a beautiful woman, and clouds show human-like emotion when they “weep the ghosts / of rivers for days on end”. What, to you, is the boundary between humans and nature? And what can a poem that blurs these boundaries open up?

Chloe: This is such a great question but I’m not sure I have a cohesive/at all well-thought out answer for it. I’ve always been fascinated by boundaries and the blur between them (my love of fairy tales is probably to blame with all their liminal spaces between boundaries). I also think the boundary between humans and nature is a liminal one, or at least a shifting one. I grew up closer to nature than many, because of where (and how) I lived as a child. So to me nature has always been something I exist in, not against or beside, and thus the boundary is something non-existent. However, obviously, this changes—I think in cities, there’s probably a much more defined sense of the boundaries. But maybe that, even, is false—since the natural world still interacts with all landscapes (something that we’ll likely notice more and more as climate change increases the disruption of what we think of as the norm of weather and natural cycles).

I think poetry is always about blurring boundaries. A poem itself is a liminal space—existing between the writer’s intent and the readers’ interpretations. So maybe a poem is the best way to shake us from the boundaries we imagine are there.

One of the coolest aspects of the MFA program I graduated from—Iowa State University’s MFA in Creative Writing & Environment—is that it kind of forces you to constantly be thinking about this in your writing.

Aozora: There is a tension between power and powerlessness in your poem. At one moment you are dreaming of the possibility of solving all of the problems of the world (“sometimes I imagine / that we can solve everything” ) but, a couple lines later, are wholly without hope, drawing “scenes / of decay because that is what / we know”. As humans we know that we have great power over nature—after all, we are the ones that have systematically destroyed our environment. But at the same time, it feels impossible to halt the poisoning of soil, water and air. We are, at once, extremely powerful and extremely powerless—and your poem lays bare this contradiction and tension. As a poet (and a person), when do you feel powerful? When do you feel powerless?

Chloe: I’ve always felt the most powerful, day-to-day, when I’m focused in on something. I cook and bake, so that’s a meditative act but it’s also one where you can feel powerful because you have this mastery over what you’re doing—especially once you became more and more skilled at it. That’s an exquisite feeling. When I’ve felt powerful in writing is when I hit that sweet spot between the last few lines and the ending, when you can see the writing coming together and everything feels like that stomach-jumping feeling you get when an elevator drops a little too fast but you know you’re still safe.

I think there’s so many situations when I feel powerless as a person (which maybe is why I write). It’s that moment when someone you love is hurt and you can’t do anything, or when you’re walking alone at night and the darkness seems a little too shadow-filled, or when you watch the news and the world is so filled with horror. It’s easy to feel powerless.

As a poet, the only time I ever feel powerless is in the poems I haven’t yet written—the ones about emotions that I haven’t figured out or events that are still too close to see right to put into language.

Aozora: What do you think is the role of a poet writing about the environment and natural world? What impassions you to write? And how can we change the world through poetry?

Chloe: I don’t know, to be honest. I think that writing purposefully about the environment and natural world is good, but when people set out to do so—it often feels like just that: something they made themselves do. I’m far more interested in writing that can’t help but be filled with these things. Where it bleeds into every line. So the role might be as witness, more than voice.

Chloe: The things that impassion me are so wide that it’s almost weird to think about: I write because I can’t not (I think I’m stealing that from somewhere, but it’s true). I’ve always been fascinated by stories themselves and I think of poetry that way—as a story, just told in slightly different terms than fiction.

I want to say we can change the world. But often I think I agree more with something Wilfred Owen wrote back during WWI: All the poet can do today is warn. Sometimes warning is the most we can do. But, I hope we can also offer some bit of hope: if only because someone else is noticing the same things as you, or finds beauty in the same place as you, or makes a joke that makes you laugh. I think that can be a lot.

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