An Interview with the American poet Janet MacFadyen
"Being a poet is not a vocation; it's a dedication of one's life to the beauty..." - Janet MacFadyen
Last month, we presented to you some of the beautiful poems written by Janet MacFadyen. Her imagery fascinated our minds and we asked her to do an interview for our audience and share a bit more about her world, inspirations, and challenges. Now, you can enjoy her insightful answers as well as two poetic excerpts from her book Adrift in the House of Rocks.
The poet's Imaginarium
When was your first encounter with poetry? Can you remember what exactly prompted you to become a poet?
Being a poet is not a vocation; it's a dedication of one's life to the beauty, music, and intuitive depths of language. As such, my embrace of it has been a long, still-ongoing process, not something initiated by a single incident. My family loved literature; and I was always hardwired for language and for music – I played flute seriously from childhood through college – and that combination pointed toward poetry. In college, I decided the arts and humanities were a waste of time (what kind of job would I get?), so I majored in geology. Being math-deficient, I struggled in the sciences, as much as I enjoyed them. I took that difficulty to mean that geology was clearly a serious career choice, rather than a flight of fancy. My mother, when I told her of my intent to major in geology, responded, "Now you are talking like an adult."
So the arc of my adult life has been a slow acceptance and then embrace of poetry, which had been my calling all along. Poetry was always waiting in the wings when I was a young adult; I took workshops for years, had some early successes in publishing, which continued as I got older. Finally, in my late 30s, I went back to school to get an MFA in poetry, and haven't looked back since.
Where does the inspiration for your poems come from? – from your dreams, thoughts and reflections on nature and reality, or maybe from the active experience of involving yourself, of perceiving them in front of you?
My earlier writing often came from images from dreams or encounters that would not go away, signaling a poem lay there. But today, most poetry comes from the journals I keep while hiking or walking, where I record what I see in as much detail as I can muster. I also write my subjective responses, along with whatever I know about the particular landscape and ideas that I am thinking about anyway. And if the writing turns to whimsy while I am cataloguing a twinning feldspar crystal or a manzanita leaf, that's fine with me.
Unfamiliar landscapes I encounter while travelling especially inspire me, because as an outsider I am completely awe-struck – in the full deep sense of that phrase -- by the singularity and beauty of new places, new rock formations, new plants, new insects. It is too bad to have to travel to encounter that depth of awe, but it can be hard to appreciate whatever natural beauty exists in our home territories, what we see day in and day out, deluged as we are with everyday pressures. One of the tasks I have set for myself is to get more in touch with the enchantment of my home, starting with the woods behind my house.
Could you tell us which are the writers, artists or scientists that influenced you the most?
That is a continually expanding list, and the people who influenced me earlier perhaps no longer influence me so much now. But here's a partial list:
For artists, I am always inspired by Andy Goldsworthy's ephemeral natural sculptures; Marc Chagall's folk imagery and animacy of nature – the inextricable bond between human and animal -- that saturates his canvasses; and Sha Sha Higby's wearable sculptures whose intricacies remind me of natural complexity.
Many many environmental writers have been deeply influential, including Camille Dungy, Wendell Berry, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Terry Tempest Williams, and Rebecca Solnit. For example in the excerpts from Adrift in the House of Rocks, the concept of leaving the house the way you found it I believe came from Robin Wall Kimmerer, and the concept of radical empathy from Camille Dungy.
These influences filter down into my writing, as does the news, which is peppered throughout the excerpts here from Adrift. Though I vociferously read contemporary poetry, the poets who have been enduring influences are Rumi, Mary Oliver, Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, Elizabeth Bishop, Adrienne Rich, and Sylvia Plath. Of more recent poets, Mark Doty's luminous long poems and Ilya Kaminsky's woven political narratives gave me insight into how to harness the narrative in Adrift.
Scientists who have influenced me have all been through popular writing. Stephen Hawkings, Leon Lederman, James Gleick, and John McPhee all come to mind. Robin Wall Kimmerer also belongs in this category. I have been fascinated by particle physics and astronomy all my adult life.
What do you think is the social role of poetry today? Do you socially engage your writings or maybe they are pure expressions of your mind and imagination?
An explosion of pointedly socially-engaged poetry has occurred in the past twenty years or so. I do believe it is necessary – at a certain point a writer must ask, what is the point of writing about a beautiful bowl while atrocities continue all around me? And yet, the mere expression of beauty can also be political, as true beauty necessarily opposes the forces of greed and consumption. True enchantment and engagement – whether from poetry and music, from full absorption of nature, from deeply loving what one observes -- serve to counteract our rapacious consumption strangling all that is human out of us. I am here paraphrasing from Simon Wilson of Canterbury Christ Church in the UK and the writer Patrick Curry. Or to also paraphrase Penobscot speaker, attorney, and activist Sherri Mitchell: Why are we collectively creating a world that none of us want to live in individually?
You could call this a recombinant theory of knowledge, but really, I am a sponge. I soak up what I observe, learn, and experience, and then express it out to the world as an offering. I do not ground-truth anything; I simply try to distil pure experience. However, as is often the case, something peculiar happens in translating observation to text, something quite different from the editing I might do to remove obvious factual inaccuracies.
Adrift is the most socially-engaged text I have published to date. I wanted to set the spiritual abandon and deep sense of dislocation I felt so profoundly in that Utah landscape against the unbearable acts of despoliation, all for the sake of profit, that were occurring. Later I followed the conflict more closely as mining and drilling escalated under the Trump administration. I went back out to the U.S. Bears Ears and Grand-Staircase Escalante national monuments – both drastically cut to allow coal and gas extraction -- to see if the situation was as dire as it seemed, and it was.
Some of your poems are written with a specific formatting. How do you use the form of your texts as a poetic instrument? Could you elaborate a bit upon the formal meaning of the two excerpts of your book Adrift in the House of Rocks, which you are sharing with us? For example, why the body of the texts goes in three somehow separated parts?
I had the stratigraphy of southern Utah's sedimentary rock in mind when I formatted Adrift. So I favoured interweaving couplets, triplets, and single lines to mimic interweaving rock layers; and indented sections that mirrored how some sedimentary layers erode faster than others. The excerpts have two different voices throughout: the voice drawn from a personal joy versus the voice of outrage when confronted by political reality. The left-justified and right-justified text was the mechanism I used to keep these two voices separate. Both voices needed to occur as simultaneously as possible as you read, because the outrage and spiritual abandon occur simultaneously; that is the complexity and conflict at the center of our beautiful earth.
You are both a scientific researcher and poet. Since SWS scholarly society is especially interested in the meeting point between Science and Art, could you tell us how do you see this extraordinary rendezvous? How does science inspire your poetry? Do you think that such union could be a productive and important step for the progress of human knowledge in general?
My father was a geologist and my mother was very literary, so the rendezvous of science with art seems a natural marriage to me. I grew up in a house filled with music, books, and rocks, and we had an old VW van, also filled with rocks. My father would swerve out of his highway lane to identify sediments in an outcrop, and I had a round speckled stone that I imagined was a dinosaur egg, until my father disabused me. He loved being outdoors more than anything, so I grew up with a love of rocks and the hills and woods around where I lived. I majored in geology in the 1970s, and later abandoned it – most graduates were getting jobs in the oil or mining industry, which I had no interest in. But rocks and landscape kept appearing in my poems and still do.
I'm not sure why our western culture is so intent on keeping science separate from the humanities, as if any contact with the humanities might sully a researcher's ability to do objective observation. I wonder if there is some fear that the subjective side of experience has the power to tear down what technology has built up. Or you can think of it as an inability to embrace what the poet John Keats called "negative capability": to hold two contradictory thoughts in your mind at the same time. It's easy to see how that might fly in the face of our western concept that something is either true or false, but not both.
I used to teach writing, and I tried to encourage one student to loosen up his very superficial writing in order to get at something deeper. He was an airplane technician, and he replied "If I loosen up, then planes will start to fall from the skies." That gave me pause for thought. I could understand his reluctance, but why isn't it possible to obey mathematic and technological imperatives using one half of our brain, while allowing an expansive creative view of reality in the other? Some major scientific breakthroughs have occurred when NOT focusing on deductive reasoning, when the analytical mind was at rest. For example, the chemist August Kukule discovered the structure of benzene while dozing; in his dream, atoms swirled around then transformed into a snake eating its own tail. He woke with a sudden realization that the molecular structure was a ring.
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book? For example, do you need to spend a lot of time at a specific place, or musing over some object before you start to write?
Before the internet, I used to travel with several pounds of field guides. As I got to know certain areas I would read up on the rocks or trees or birds, and that knowledge would end up in my journals. In that sense you could say I was doing preliminary research. But mostly when writing a poem, I don't research beforehand, because I don't start with an idea, just an inkling of something. I may later research ideas that come up, and fact-check anything I have questions about, but only after I have a draft. For example, in "The Boulders of Lyell Canyon" I reference the length of time needed for granite boulders to erode. Originally, I put this as several thousand years —I knew it had to be a long time, and I liked the sound of "thousands" in the line. Later, I did some research and found a paper suggesting the accurate figure was closer to a million years. So now the line reads "It could take a million years to see the argument to conclusion."
Do you write while listening to music? If so, what music inspired some of the poems you already shared with us ("Cascade," "The Boulders of Lyell Canyon")?
Music has always been very important in my life, but no, I don't write listening to it. It would be too distracting because when I listen to music I get totally absorbed. I can remember music for decades; oftentimes certain passages are connected to specific emotions or experiences. The ambient sounds of my immediate environment when writing do directly influence me. For example, I wrote "Cascade" while sitting next to a stream; I was hyperaware of the rippling sound of the water, and the low thumping as submerged rocks bumped against each other. The fluidity of the poem I attribute to the sound of the water. "The Boulders of Lyell Canyon" also came out fluidly but as a much longer prose entry in my journal. I was hiking in Lyell Canyon at the time, so again, no man-made music. The music was the intense western sunlight that danced all around, the sound of the Tuolumne River, the constant wind, and whatever was in my head.
Are you working on anything at the present moment?
I have a new collection of poetry forthcoming in 2023 from Salmon Poetry, in Ireland. It is not focused on science or the environment, but rather on the internal landscape of the family, on the way the personal affects the political. But I also am gathering material for another book of poems stemming from nature and the ecological crossroads we find ourselves in at present.
As an aside, Adrift in the House of Rocks was a limited hardback edition of 100 copies, and is now sold out. I do still have some copies myself; if anyone has an interest they should contact me directly.
As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal/ place or piece of nature?
I would never be able to choose only one animal nor only one place!
What do you think about audiobooks? Do you like them? If so, could you record one (or some) of your poems and share them. Your readers will be delighted to hear your poems with your voice?
I have recorded some poetry, which is available online, and certainly would be happy to record a whole book. At the moment, though, I don't have the necessary equipment to do this well.
If you didn't write, what would you do for work?
Anything that involved walking outside.
Your favorite part of the day/night?
Early morning and twilight – the liminal times of day when my mind is shifting between the active and receptive states.
Share something your readers wouldn't know about you.
I used to tune pianos.
Two poems from the book Adrift in the House of Rocks (New Feral Press 2019)
8,000 feet: Bryce Canyon
This is the order of land beneath our feet:
Pink Cliffs, Gray Cliffs, White Cliffs,
Vermillion Cliffs, sending long bruised fingers into Zion,
Chocolate Cliffs, which we never see.
Sediments laid down
like slabs of cake
then cut with the knife
of wind and water
into cliffs, into canyons
pillared and flounced,
an elaborate architecture or theater
backdrop, and peopled
with lost souls.
When you step down inside
you feel that connection,
heel to stone.
…how slowly our bodies are pressed
the proposal crawls forward
like a desert tortoise but opening
not hearts but100,000 acres
a lease that comes due
when the last tenant on earth is released
into the arms of the ground,
when the highway
slashed through the Red Cliffs
will still bleed with iron
though there will be no more blood
A bristlecone pine, dead but for one small greening branch.
What would it be like to live fifteen hundred years
stripped by the wind?
Roots of manzanita drill their blind way down
in search of water, long deep anchors
into the earth.
Sometimes I feel
like a blown weed. Sometimes
I could roll, drunk
on sunlight and color
through the orange-white blur just touching
the hem of the fleeting universe.
See the stiff
upright leaves of the manzanita
catching the early light
with praying hands.
to every sentience, the rocks and rain, to the wind always listening
8,300 feet: north rim, Grand Canyon
…proven reservoirs in the Kaibob Limestone,
potential in the Toroweap…
A strip mine, army-fatigue green, dusty plum,
antique red. Velvety—
We're on the rim
In a maze
of brick-colored strata, the mason
has been busy for a long long time
bricking up the secret and sacred,
the terraced buildings,
the furnaces and fireplaces.
He used the limestone bodies of the dead
The highest buttes barely break the surface of the Kaibab plateau, like submerged mountains. At the bottom, a rock-bound Atlantis: in the land of subterranean mountain valleys, the brass hasps are thrown back and the great doors open. Asleep in fields and terraces, the first people awaken to golden temples.
They came to testify
on Examining Consequences
of a Growing Dependence on Foreign Minerals,
deaf to the old way
of asking permission
of the land and leaving behind
half the harvest for the hungry —
to leave the House
the way we found it
when the lease is up.
How many bodies
have been laid out
on the tables of the gods
in the appalling heat?
You can mark your bearings by the sediments
underfoot and bands
of color on distant walls. Cliff-
forming limestones and sandstones,
slope-forming shales dropping
youngest to oldest:
Kaibab Limestone (overgrown with evergreen), Toroweap limestones,
Coconino Sandstone painted yellow, black, red.
Hermit Shale. Supai group, deep-red
Vishnu, metamorphic (the fundament).
to the hidden Colorado that whets
its ceaseless blade against the ancient rock.
Sun burns through to the deepest
gray-green gorge, illuminates
one surface of rock, one block
of a row of brick-stepped skyscrapers.
City of ravens and vultures,
city of the bending paintbrush and scarlet penstamon,
city of hanging gardens against mahogany shale,
city of snaking trails, winding down and down,
city of thirst and silent killing—
One by one, the people go down
into the ovens,
the land running thick with grease and ash.
One by one they resurface,
the fat rendered,
panting, sweating, straining.
the uranium? What about
the water and air
that had sustained
us for thousands of years?
and the Chair
viewing the proceedings
in his echoing Chamber
cut off from the umbilicus and radical empathy
to the inhabitants of centuries
"You're not entitled
to your own facts."
Excerpts from Adrift in the House of Rocks, New Feral Press 2019