Jonathan E. Skinner
St. John’s College, 1991, B.A., Liberal Arts
University of Oxford, 1993, B.A., English Language & Literature
University College London, 1996, M.A., Translation Studies
State University of New York at Buffalo, 2005, Ph.D., English
Jonathan Skinner was born and raised in a classic nuclear family in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He has also lived in Mexico, England, Italy, and France. He is the author of a poetry collection called Political Cactus Poems and the editor of ecopoetics, a journal exploring creativity mainly in the written form and ecology. Currently, he is an environmental studies professor at Bates College in Maine. He teaches a freshman writing seminar that emphasizes experiential learning. His class included a climb of Mt. Adams in the Presidential Range in New Hampshire and a canoe float on the Androscoggin River. And when he’s at home, he has a view of a wild island populated with bald eagles.
Tell me about your parents.
My father was a tutor at St. John’s College in Santa Fe. He retired not too long ago. Now he’s an artist. He was at St. John’s from 1965, not long after the founding of that campus. My father was trained in classics and philosophy at the University of Colorado and Princeton. He met my mother at the University of Colorado when she was a history major. She went to Rutgers to do her degree in history. My dad got the job in Santa Fe and they moved. She was teaching history at the College of Santa Fe and moving towards a dissertation, when she had me. She’s been a writer off and on, but she took various jobs-managerial, office jobs. She worked for an architect and a doctor. Now, she’s a writer.
What does she write about?
She’s working on a political memoir. It’s hard to characterize. It’s kind of a hybrid genre. She’s been working on it for a long time and has only published little bits. I shouldn’t say she’s a professional writer. She’s aspiring towards that, but she’s written all her life. She writes lots of letters and she’s involved in political work. She’s founded a political group in Santa Fe that took a lot of her time over the past decade and a half.
What kind of philosophy did they have in raising children?
Oh, not much. [Laughs.] She recently told me the story of my conception. My maternal grandmother had breast cancer and died the day after I was born. My conception was hastened by my grandmother’s diagnosis. My mother knew if she wanted to give her a granddaughter, she’d better do it soon. My parents didn’t put a lot of planning into having kids and they were both pretty heady intellectuals. It’s not like the ignored us, but they left us to our own devices a lot of the time. They also took us traveling. My father, being curious and an academic with long vacations, took us away every chance he could get.
Where did they take you? Just within the United States?
No, almost always across borders. I probably went to Mexico 15 or 20 times when I was growing up and to Europe twice for yearlong sabbaticals. Even after my freshman year in college, they invited me along for my father’s third sabbatical to India, Nepal, and Tibet.
Did you go?
Oh, yes. They had no problem taking my brother and me out of school for a year at a time and home schooling us. The first time, I was seven and eight. My brother was three and four. My dad just brought along a lot of classics, books of mythology. I remember reading Homer and Aeschylus. We visited Greek ruins. The second time, when I was thirteen they sent my brother and me to school in France. They got away with stuff that I don’t think parents could get away with nowadays.
I think they still could.
Maybe. They took us out of school and brought us back a year later. We pretty much fit back in. Their philosophy was somewhat laissez-faire, but they shared their curiosity about the world with their children.
I guess one of the values you got while growing up was that curiosity.
Curiosity and resourcefulness. Figuring out how to entertain myself. We never had a TV.
Never. I was allowed to go across the street to the neighbor’s house to watch TV if I wanted to, but I didn’t own a TV until well into my twenties. We took our VW bus to Europe both times and spent weeks at a time driving around, free camping in the bus, so my brother and I had to entertain ourselves in the back of the bus. Because of a lot of the traveling, my parents managed to do a lot with a little. We didn’t have a lot of toys. I made my own toys.
Out of what?
Cardboard. Wood. I inherited some cool building blocks, Lincoln Logs, stuff like that. When we were in France, I didn’t have any toys and Star Wars had just come out. I was, of course, obsessed and I made all my own Star Wars toys. I think I got some Star Wars figurines, but I made a Death Star. I made a TIE fighter. I made all these things out of cardboard. I used to make all my Halloween costumes out of cardboard. I remember the rich kids next door. Their parents owned a hotel in the village in France where we lived and they got one of the Death Star toy kits. Their parents invited me over, so I could help them put it together, because they couldn’t figure it out. I had a room that was just littered with cardboard and duct tape. That was pretty much how I entertained myself.
Who besides your parents were big influences in your life growing up?
My aunt. My mother’s younger sister. She moved to Santa Fe, probably to be around us as we were growing up. She was like the parent who lets you do bad things. We’d go over [to her house], stay up all night watching movies, and get up late and have French toast.
Did you have any mentors?
I went to an open elementary school in Santa Fe. It was a huge space with dividers rather than walled-off classrooms and they had a special track for kids who were a little more advanced in one subject or another. I wasn’t advanced in math for sure, but in writing I was, so they paired me up with a fellow who taught writing. I would write ghost stories and science fiction stories. He lived across the street from the school, so he would even invite a couple of other students and me from time to time to write.
In high school, I had a couple of creative writing teachers. They were mentors who encouraged me to submit my poetry to contests. My parents didn’t have a big social life, so there weren’t a lot of people coming over. I was pretty self-reliant. I learned to have mentors.
And what do you think is the most impressive memory from your childhood? What stands out?
The first travels we made in Europe and North Africa; for example, driving through Algeria, getting caught in a sandstorm, and seeing hooded figures appear out of the howling sand to help us push our van. Being in Corfu and driving up this dusty road and seeing an old woman (you might call her a crone) dressed in black and thinking I’d just seen Athena. I was about seven at the time. My dad loves to tell that story.
In high school, we went to Yelapa in Mexico near Puerto Vallarta where tourists come once a day and then leave. At one point, local fishermen pulled a sea turtle out of the ocean and it was just lying on its back gasping for breath and all the tourists were standing around taking pictures of it. I wrote a poem about the cruelty of the moment.
There are endless memories of being in a strange place and experiencing the kindness of strangers. Another is growing up in New Mexico and the feeling of the landscape of northern New Mexico. There’s nothing quite like it.
So despite being born there and growing up there, you’re still in awe of it?
Definitely. You can say a sense of the sublime must have been cultivated into me somehow-the quality of the light, the mountains, the mellowness of the landscape when it has just rained. There are a lot of memories. That’s a hard question.
What kind of high school did you go to?
I went to a public high school. Santa Fe Public High.
Looking back on that, what do you think made you stand apart from the average teenager, or what drove you to excel early on?
My love of reading. Curiosity. The travel. If anything set me apart from my peers was having the good fortune to travel as much as I did and seeing people less fortunate than myself. So whatever trials one experiences as an average high school student weren’t a big deal. I remember breaking down when I was a sophomore in high school, thinking there was so much work and not knowing if I could do it. My mother held me in the kitchen and said, “It’s going to be okay, it’s going to be okay, it’s going to be okay.” [Laughs.] I hadn’t really thought about what drove me.
Obviously, it didn’t seem like your parents were the pushy kind.
No, they weren’t. They even encouraged me to stay home from school when I had a cold and insisted on going. It might have been paradoxically a drive for recognition. When my parents were so preoccupied with their own pursuits, I used to say, “Mommy, mommy, mommy.” Repeat things three times to get their attention. Maybe doing well in school was a way to get recognition, but I’ve always loved words, language, and books. That’s probably been the main drive.
How do you handle failure and what’s your perspective on it? What was your perspective on it in high school versus now?
In high school, instances where I experienced failure would send me back into myself. One time I read On the Road by Jack Kerouac and wrote a book report saying this is the greatest book I ever read and Jack Kerouac is an awesome writer. I was so enthusiastic. That was truly and I still think a key moment for me as a writer, when I really discovered a kind of writing that was exciting. I hadn’t realized one could do that with words. I got a C or a D on it, because my English teacher graded me for not being critical or analytical enough. Maybe she didn’t like Jack Kerouac. I don’t know. [Laughs.] I was taken aback, but that didn’t cause me to correct myself. I just took that interest elsewhere. Early on I learned flexibility and maybe not taking it personally so much.
Nowadays, I take the feedback more seriously, as an occasion for further self-reflection or insight into myself that I could never possibly have on my own. Failure is always difficult. No doubt about it. But you get philosophical and life goes on, too. You’re grateful for the successes you’ve had and also gain perspective on how many people don’t have the opportunity to fail, to attempt and either succeed or fail. Even to have had the chance [to fail] can be a great thing.
Did you have any rebellious streaks in you?
What were you rebelling against?
Actually, I’ve never really been rebellious in that radical sense of making a scene or disrupting the functioning of the institution. That partly goes back to the previous question. I’ve always found my own way of going about doing something if I wasn’t allowed to do it by the authorities, so to speak. I never felt the need to let my freak flag fly. [Laughs.] But I’ve been curious, so rules and established ways of doing things have never really gotten in the way for me if I wanted to pursue a creative impulse, or go out and stay out all night¬-a petty form of rebellion when I was in high school.
My parents were strict in certain things, but they were fairly permissive. They let me pursue my own path. I’m probably a lot less rebellious than my peers. I didn’t have to go through that moment of rebelling against the parents. I’ve had a pretty rich, creative, intellectual relationship with them and talked about books a lot. They always took a great interest in what I was doing after a certain point. For many of my friends and peers, poets especially, [rebellion] had been a big part of their experience. I was spared that. I would participate in rebellion, because it interested me. I went to all the punk gigs in the 70s, experimented with this or that. Maybe I was kind of going through the motions. I don’t know.
For college, were you happy with your choice of St. John’s?
[Note: St. John's College has two campuses, one in Annapolis, Maryland and the other in Santa Fe, New Mexico.] And did you go to the Annapolis campus to study?
I went to Annapolis the first year and then I was in Santa Fe the other three. I actually did try to rebel. I thought I’m not going to the college where my father teaches. I looked at other colleges and got a big stack of catalogues. The last one I read was the St. John’s catalogue. And I just had to say to myself, these are the books I want to read and it also happens to be free. But mainly, I was attracted to the curriculum.
I went to Annapolis to get away from the family the first year. As a creative person, I did chafe at the curriculum to some extent, in particular, the offerings in language and literature, or at least the approach to reading poetry and some literature. As a writer, it seemed inadequate to me.
The first year I took out after my freshman year to go to India with my parents on their invitation was hardly a rebellion. After my junior year, I took a year out, because I really wanted to pay attention to my writing. I was feeling stifled by the Great Books seminar environment and again, it was something my parents supported.
So what did you do for that year?
I went to the Naropa Institute summer writing program. That was the summer of ‘88 or ‘89. Then I worked in the fall in a bicycle shop and I attended a poetry workshop at the University of Colorado with Linda Hogan. Actually, it was a graduate workshop that I barged my way into it. In a way, that is something that I regretted. There were a couple of fabulous poets teaching undergraduate courses including Ed Dorn, an amazing American poet. I felt like I didn’t want to be stuck with a bunch of undergrads, so I went and got into this graduate workshop. It was good, but I missed out on the opportunity to work with Dorn. I did sit in on a couple of those classes. I attended some workshops from Naropa from time to time that fall. I worked and saved up my money. In the spring I went to Mexico for several months to “be a writer.” I lived in Mexico City for a month. I lived in Morelia in Michoacán for two or three months in a hotel. If anything, the pattern was going off and doing it on my own. If I rebelled, it was a quiet rebellion against the group, the gang, the clique.
When you took that year off did you know for sure that you’d go back to school to finish?
Yes. One of my best friends, who now teaches at Harvard, he also took the year out. We both felt disappointed with our peers. At St. John’s the quality of the seminar experiences vastly depended on who was there in addition to the tutors. It just seemed it was the Reagan generation. I don’t know. There was a new generation of students. St. John’s is tuition driven, so it’s largely wealthy kids whose parents were sending them out for a liberal education. They didn’t seem to have an evident stake in the learning. What I always liked about St. John’s growing up (that probably was a huge influence) was seeing really intense students there who self-select and are passionate about reading, thinking, and talking. Something changed in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s. [My friend and I] actually liked the class that was “beneath us.” We both wanted to go off and pursue other things, but we thought we would come back and have more interesting conversations. I had no doubt I was going to come back. I just wanted to work on my writing for a while. Learn another language. Learn Spanish.
When did you really start loving poetry?
And what inspired that?
One influence was my maternal grandfather who was a cardiologist in Uniontown, Pennsylvania. He loved particularly the Romantic poets, fantasy, Lord Dunsany, and J.R.R. Tolkien. He’s the person who took me to see Star Wars when it came out. He had a very rich imaginative inner life. He probably read to me, or shared with me the Romantic poets.
Before thirteen, my interests in reading and writing were largely fiction based. I read a lot of science fiction and wrote decent short stories. When I was thirteen, my paternal grandmother died of cancer when she was living in Santa Fe. She came there to die, so my father and his brother and sister could take care of her. She was an important figure for me. There’s another mentor. She was one-sixteenth Native American. (Her great-grandfather was a trapper in the Ohio valley, and married an Indian woman, though the history of the tribal identity has been lost.) That always interested me and she used to love to talk to us. Before she died, she gave my brother and me presents. They were musical instruments. She gave me a tambourine. [Laughs.] She would tell us a lot of stories. She was one of those interesting, resourceful, self-reliant women. She had lived this kind of Laura Ingalls Wilder life, teaching in a small prairie schoolhouse in Kansas. She later lived in Reno.
When my father was thirteen, his parents split up. After that point, she had this kind of pioneer woman, marginal life. She was living in Reno with a card shark for a while shortly before she died. That was not a particularly happy relationship. That’s another reason she came to Santa Fe. She also lived in Taos for a while when she was with that partner in an adobe house out on the sagebrush plain. I remember visiting her there. Those visits were also associated with our visits to the pueblo to see the Native American dances. So she was the person who connected me with the land in a way.
When she passed, she had requested to be cremated and we scattered her ashes from the bridge across the Taos Gorge. I played the flute as part of the ceremony. I had this very powerful, spiritual experience. I think I improvised on the instrument. I felt like she was playing through me, so I wrote the first poem I ever wrote-a poem called “The Canyon and the Spirit” and it was about being a medium for someone or something. I had that same experience with the poem. I just sat down and wrote it and it was like she wrote it through me. I haven’t looked at that poem in ages. For a thirteen year old, it was pretty sophisticated poem. It was surprising. Of course, my mother encouraged me and she was excited. That was the beginning for me and it was almost from that moment on I knew I wanted to be a poet and I never had any doubt. I mean I’ve had lots of doubt whether I could actually do it, but I never had any doubt that that’s what I wanted to do.
So do you describe yourself now as a poet, or do you say, “I teach” or “I’m a professor”?
It depends. I’ve gone back and forth. It often seems like such a pretentious thing to say or it’s just awkward. You say to people, “I’m a poet” and they look at you and think what century are you from, but I’ve become more comfortable as I moved into professional life saying, “Yeah, I’m a poet. That’s what I do.”
Let’s travel to Oxford a little bit. Did you enjoy your time at Oxford?
I did and I didn’t. I immensely benefited from it and I just whole-heartedly threw myself into the academic challenges. I didn’t have a huge social life when I was there. I really wanted to read English literature and poetry, because of a mission I was on. St. John’s didn’t really provide that. I was hungry for words, books, and wisdom, so I attended lectures, read, read, read, and wrote essays.
One of the most marvelous things at Oxford was the music. Everyday it seemed a concert of amazing medieval or Renaissance music was happening, often in a beautiful chapel. I lived on Holywell Street just down the street from the Holywell Music Hall where Hayden played. I remember attending the full series of late string quartets by Beethoven. That was almost religious.
Merton College, which I attended, had a medieval library and the librarian was quite friendly and liked me. He’d let me go up and I could spend all afternoon sort of pawing over seventeenth century editions and first, or second editions of Milton. Alexander Pope, Sir Thomas Browne, and T.S. Eliot attended Merton. The library had an amazing collection.
And the international life of the middle common room and students from around the world was fun to experience. In a way, it was a double exposure for me, both the exposure to international, intellectual community and to the university life, in general. I had come from St. John’s, a smaller college with a very unique, radical liberal arts curriculum. At Oxford, I was meeting scientists and archaeologists, people who had a much more specialized training. I ended up making friends with a lot of archaeologists. For some reason that ended up being my crowd.
The happy side was attending lectures, tutorials with John Pitcher, John Carey, and Nigel Smith–great scholars of the sixteenth and seventeenth-centuries (still my favorite period in English Literature). Also lectures by Terry Eagleton and Toril Moi. I was always a bit out of step, because I did a second B.A., which was the thing to do back then. It’s less common nowadays for Rhodes Scholars. But I approached the work backwards. The way (that I learned late in the game) was to go home during the six-week break and read. When you come back, then you read the secondary literature and have a rich social life. You sign up for different clubs and everyone goes out drinking.
I was trying to do a lot of the primary reading during the eight-week terms, because I also wanted to travel a lot in the six weeks. A great thing about the Rhodes Scholarship being generous was being able to travel to Spain, France, Italy, and Germany. I was traveling with a backpack full of books. I wasn’t curled up on a couch on some country estate. You would get these reading lists for the next week saying read the complete works of Milton. It was just insane. I was reading my eyeballs out. I was also quite a bit older than my peers in the tutorial situations, which were often three on one. We would all come in and read our papers out loud, and receive verbal feedback from the tutor.
How much older were you?
About six years older. My approach was always a bit different and maybe the age difference was less important than the cultural and academic differences. I came from the St. John’s tradition where you were encouraged to synthesize and think critically. The emphasis at Oxford was much more on analysis and being able to generate really neat, nifty, practical-critical papers. It’s almost training for civil service. I’m not trying to belittle that. Actually, it’s an impressive training and my peers were brilliant, very smart people. I learned a lot from listening to them, but I never had a moment of success in a tutorial. I was always trying to bring in these big ideas and put it all together. Once, at the end of a paper I tried to deliver, a reading of John Bunyan’s Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners through Hegel’s “Lordship and Bondage,” my tutor said, “Mr. Skinner, what you need is measure.” I always felt a bit incommensurate there and I’m sure other Rhodes Scholars may have mentioned the experience of arriving and then realizing you’re a second-class citizen. You’re just an American and there’s only so much to be expected from the American. That didn’t bother me so much. I had traveled abroad quite a bit and I was quite interested in making British friends.
And did you?
I did to some extent. I didn’t succeed in making any long lasting British friends there. That only happened later when I went to London and met some poets and writers whom I’m still close to. The last thing I’ll say about Oxford, is that it wasn’t a particularly encouraging place to be as someone interested in an active, contemporary poetry scene. Cambridge would have been a much better place to be, but I didn’t know that at the time, and I could have made a case for going there had I known.
Who encouraged you to apply for the Rhodes Scholarship?
Actually, my mother pushed me a little bit, although both Phil Le Cuyer and Charles Bell at St. John’s were Rhodes Scholars. Other tutors like Ralph Swentzell and Linda Wiener encouraged me. I’m sure my father supported me too. It was not something I planned to do. It’s not something I actually thought I was eligible for or would be a good candidate for. It was a last-minute thing. I was probably being driven by my interest in poetry and my desire to immerse myself in the “mother tongue.” It wasn’t a very formalized process at St. John’s. Back then, they didn’t have a committee and you were not nominated and vetted. In other words, because a lot of students weren’t going for it, maybe I lucked out at that point or that year.
Are there any lessons you’ve taken away from your Rhodes experience into your present day life?
Mainly, the surprise of making it there and realizing that you don’t necessarily know what you have in yourself until you try it out. You can’t second-guess your own capabilities. When someone says to you, you’ve got this going on, you should really take it somewhere. It should be taken seriously, or listened to openly.
Another influence out of my travels was learning about Buddhism, practicing meditation, and learning to find a place of inner stillness. Finding the place of inner resourcefulness and self-confidence that will allow you to project inner stability and peace can be very powerful. What I’m saying is that I don’t feel like I got the scholarship because I knew a lot, passed some tests, or showed community leadership. Those might have been all part of it, but it was being able to find that place. If you find that spot, then you can spring from it in any circumstance.
Actually, it was quite a difficult time for me at Oxford, so that it was more about falling back on that inner place, cultivating it, and trusting it. It’s not a very clear answer to your question, but it’s the deepest answer I can give. There were obviously a lot of things I gained from that immense gift, that experience. My life would be completely different if I hadn’t been able to go abroad at that point. My answer may not be typical. I don’t know if there’s a typical Rhodes Scholar answer.
One other thing I’ll say is it made me less confident, more dependent on that inner place, that almost unqualified place of self-confidence, but less externally ratified. If anything, I felt as I progressed through the Oxford years, I felt increasingly ignorant, how little I knew. That’s part of the Oxford experience. It just intimidates you. You’re constantly before people of immense learning. I felt more pressure to prove myself, to make the grade. Experiencing that type of luxury at Oxford was an eye-opener, too.
The luxury? In what sense?
As a member of the Middle Common Room, you can attend high table once in a while. Merton College was famous for its three-star chef and wine cellar. When the sultan of Brunei came for his honorary degree, they wined and dined him at Merton College. There were incredible five course meals with sherry, port, and different wines.
It was a very generous scholarship. Suddenly, I was traveling on trains. Not that you felt wealthy or anything, but it was a degree of comfort I hadn’t experienced before. It was a sense of fortune and exposure to lives of the more fortunate and realizing how important chance is. I don’t feel like I didn’t deserve the scholarship, but I feel that chance played a large part in my getting it. It made me more aware of contingency in everyone’s lives and how each person is complete and partly responsible for who they are, but also at the mercy of other factors.
Let’s talk about the importance of walking for your work. I read that you never write a poem without taking one or several walks.
Maybe that’s the current form my interest in the world takes-a sense that there’s this inexhaustible yet particularly demanding world out there and whatever we do takes place in that world. I never felt comfortable with the poem that gets made out of the dictionary or by making a collage of the words in one’s head. Poems always come from somewhere and I’m curious to find out where it was they came from, or to send them somewhere. Walking is probably the most literal way of making contact with that somewhere.
I did a lot of bicycling when I was younger. Mountain biking was my sport. I spent vast amounts of time whizzing through landscapes. I enjoyed that, but as I’ve grown older there’s so much more to be gained from the measure of walking. It’s the human pace. It’s the pace at which humans were designed to experience the world. The things that you notice while walking are vastly richer than one would notice from a car, or a bicycle. They’re different measures. Bicycles are probably good for traveling around the country. Thoreau says (and I’m paraphrasing) a man could possibly spend a lifetime exploring everything within a ten-mile radius of his home. Walking opens you up to enough that you’ll never completely cover the ground. The other part is my desire to learn about the natural world and pay attention to plants, animals, and geology.
So your poetry didn’t always have that natural slant?
No. Early on, it had that romantic impulse and attraction to landscape, but in the more generalized sense for sublimity and beauty. Even through my undergraduate years, I was probably more interested in learning the particulars of poetry than language of the natural world. That came later, the need to particularize, realizing it wasn’t enough to just see a bird. I wanted to be able to name that bird and know what was going on. After learning all this literature at Oxford, I realized I knew so little of the natural world. Basically, I was environmentally illiterate. Walking was the way to gather information and practice one’s knowledge.
I was just wondering if there was something about the British landscape or the Brits themselves that made you think you didn’t know the birds the way they do?
Unfortunately there isn’t, but it should have been. I did take a couple of walks in the countryside. I went to the Lake District and rambled around. I tried to explore the countryside around Oxford, but again that was more on my bicycle. When I was at Oxford, I didn’t connect with that vast, fascinating tradition of rural know-how that is so English. I would have been much happier if I had. In fact, I probably would have read far less and spent more time walking around. I was more interested in exploring the continent, so I went to France, Spain, and Italy. Through ecopoetics I’ve become more aware of how much the Brits know about their land. There is such a great interest in the poetry of landscape coming from the British islands.
The parents of one of my archaeologist friends, Claire Calcagno, had a small place on the island of Favignana on the west coast of Sicily. They liked to invite artists and writers to spend a few weeks there, so they invited me in the off-season after Oxford. I read the poetry of Charles Olson and lived on the island, close to the lives of these people who really live off the water. They have the famous tuna “mattanza” (massacre) there. I was living right next to the port, observing that life on the margin. That’s probably where it started-the move towards my eco-obsession. When I came back to Santa Fe a few years later, I read Gary Snyder’s essays in The Practice of the Wild. It was a key change that happened after Oxford.
It was the point in my life where I had done the higher education thing and I really just wanted to be a poet. I went back in New Mexico with my girlfriend, who is now my wife Isabelle Pelissier, whom I met in France. I wanted to rediscover the homeland-New Mexico-and introduce her to it.
I applied for an administrative assistant job from a classified ad. I was trying to get outside of myself. I was rebelling against myself a lot, feeling vastly overqualified but applying for the job anyways. The woman that interviewed me I had known from previous work. I had worked on a film when I was in high school. I had a bit part in a Robert Altman film, Fool for Love. That seemed to have gotten me somewhere, too. When I got the Rhodes Scholarship and there was the big dinner in New York before flying us over, I was introduced not as a poet, not as the community activist, but as the guy who played Eddie in Fool For Love. I played the young Sam Shepard character. That was just by chance. I’m not an actor.
Nina Simons had been the casting director and here she was running a non-profit with her husband Kenny Ausubel. That was a happy coincidence. At the time, they called themselves the Collective Heritage Institute. They put on an annual conference called the Bioneers Conference in San Rafael, California, in the Bay Area. Part of my job was transcribing talks that had been given at their conference over the years. It opened my eyes and ears to this whole world of environmental activism, thinking, and innovation. It was the world of the people who weren’t buying the doom-and-gloom approach to environmentalism and thinking the most we can do is protect the national parks. I was introduced to people like Joe Salatin and his innovative pig and chicken farm in Virginia; John and Mary Todd, who invented living water filtration systems that you can have in your house; and Janine Benyas who works on biomimicry and developing innovative, sustainable technology working with natural forms. Velcro is one example of biomimic technology. I realized there was so little I knew. There is this fascinating world-this new kind of green consciousness that’s very specific and engaged and innovative. That was the moment where I woke up to needing to know more.
What do you love about what you do? Can you name three things? Three things you love that make up your life.
Writing, editing, and pedagogy. The way I’ve been able to put those things into conversation with one another have meant a lot to me. I feel fortunate that I’ve been able to find a place where I can keep those actively in conversation. In other words, I’m rarely teaching something I’m not also researching for my own interests at the same time. I’m rarely writing something that I’m not also teaching or talking about. And I’m rarely editing as a magazine editor that’s not connected to my writing and teaching interests. They all come in to one another and out of one another in different ways. I couldn’t imagine doing it any other way and part of it is also being able to explore the world wherever I happen to be. As a teacher, I can make my own schedule. I can take that walk, or hop into a kayak. I’m not sitting at an office desk 9 to 5 Mondays through Fridays.
The other thing I really like about being an editor is the community of writers and artists that it puts me in touch with. Now increasingly through my job, I also try to have more contact with scientists and other people across disciplinary divisions.
Certainly as a poet, I’ve been incredibly fortunate and as an editor, too, to get to hear lots of amazing, brilliant people. It may be my bias, but you won’t find a more lively group of people than the poets working around the world these days-generally so smart, so interesting to talk to. I really love the poetry reading, whether it’s being able to put on the readings or give readings myself or just attending. Having people coming through has been a large dimension in my life. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
To be honest, I have a difficult time with poetry…understanding it.
It’s the way it’s taught, that there is some secret meaning or specialized esoteric knowledge that you have to have to crack the poem. One of my favorite poets, Ted Berrigan, used to say, “You don’t crack a poem, anymore than you crack your wife.” It’s about a relationship to language. That’s why the reading is important. I’ve found poems I had difficulty with on the page changed when I heard them read aloud. Sometimes hearing aloud can give a key to understanding the poem, relaxing and going with the sound of the words. Sometimes the opposite experience happens. The reading and the poem are two different things obviously. One is not more important than the other. People are taught to fear something as simple as enjoying the music of words. In other cultures, as in Ireland, everyone knows a poem. Poetry is part of their daily bread, or at least used to be.
Like our parents’ generation, they could at least recite one poem from their childhood.
Exactly. I don’t know what that is. Television? Maybe it has something to do with the way education changed in some ways for the better and in some ways for the worse. There’s something to be said for that traditional kind of Jesuit learning, where you’re taught to memorize poems.
What would you say to anyone young or old about living a rich life, going beyond mediocrity?
It’s so hard to not to descend into cliché for this kind of question. There are the Jesuits again. Carpe diem. You’ve got one life and to quote the Beatles, “The love you get is the love you give.” In a certain sense, you can go out and make your world. Maybe my background-middle class family, white, heterosexual male-gave me access to opportunities that weren’t so available to others. (In other senses, that identity probably has limited my opportunities.) I did get the sense that the world is yours. You make it. Don’t wait for things to come around. Don’t wait for someone to show you the way, or offer you what you’re looking for. You have to go get it.
It’s such a rich world out there, so I would say learn other languages, travel as much as possible, experience (if you don’t already) hardship. Experience living from dollar to dollar which I did after Oxford, when I was living in Paris without a visa, teaching English-being one paycheck away from the street.
Try to find out how the other half lives. Cross borders. Life is too short. Maybe the life of the species on the planet is too short in the larger scheme of things to be respecting borders, to be content with one’s given domain. We really need to explore and go meet the other.
Test whatever your inhibitions are, or your sense of what is impossible. There’s never any harm in trying. That’s part of the failure question. Be proud to fail, in the sense that at least you tried. If you never try, how do you know, right?
Be engaged, experiment, and experience. Maybe you’ll get burned once in a while doing that, but you have to experience things for yourself, not take people’s words for it. I don’t know if you can give that to someone, if someone doesn’t have the sense of confidence or sense of opportunity. Accept there are a lot of people out there in the world ready to help if you show your interest.
I don’t know if that’s a good answer to your question. I’m always trying to accomplish four times as many things as I have time for. Obviously, my personal challenge is to learn what my true measure is. I’ll never understand reluctance to go the extra mile, two miles, ten miles or whatever it is to get to the top, over the horizon, or around the next bend.
Little Dictionary of Sounds (PDF): poems written as echoes to recorded sounds. Click on each poem title to hear the sound.