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Looking Over My Shoulder: Ars Poetica

The intersection between my personal and professional goals has long since been marked by the presence of a notepad and pencil nub tucked away in an overall pocket. I grew up on a farm as the youngest child and the only boy (in a family full of wonderful women and a few lucky, leathery old men). All of these folks encouraged me to read and write voraciously. “Bedtime” really meant “spelling-bee-with-the-sisters-on-our-shared-bunk-beds.” My father would pick words from the few books on dragons, cowboys, astronauts, etc. we had until a sister would request something “more age appropriate” to up the ante. From a very early age, I didn’t mind that we lacked cable television, because we did have a VHS player and a few tapes. I can still recite the Clueless script by heart.

When I wasn’t reading or partaking in bedtime spelling bees, I was working. I would stop the tractor at the end of a row, fish out my writing tackle, and scribble down everything that had happened to me on any particular day. After hearing so many yarns spun by farmhands, my father, and sisters about the mountain lion that lived on Hayberry Corner and fed on chickens (or boys) who wandered into his coop… the head of cattle we’d lost to a mysterious hole in the fence I always mended… or how my grandpa had once lost a finger in the wood chipper only to reappear on his supper plate beside a heaping pile of potato salad… I began writing simple little ditties for sanity’s sake. It wasn’t until I grew into one of the folks who perpetrated these yarns and spun my own that I found out I didn’t much care for being frightened. Actually, I was always rather poor at lying, in all honesty. Tall or not, a tale is a tale. When I began writing poems and personal essays in high school, only then did I realize I, too, could grapple with reality and make it my own on the page. And, even though I couldn’t spin like a top, life seemed all too complicated to need my clumsy hand trying to make it go-round any faster.

I write because I have grown to demand a sense of what is true, what is false, and who gets a say for the ambiguous gray matter between the two. I push against this gray matter constantly. This matter is the mortar holding together whatever it is poets and writers would like to build. Though history has proven that a cylindrical silo is best suited for the storage of fresh fodder, it is up to the writer to construct. The silo could be as wide as a Turtle Bay sunset, more crooked than my grandpa’s spine, or as ugly as my grandma’s Bingo visor. Even if the silo buckles at the knees, a writer’s only term to uphold is the one that somehow makes the silo serve its purpose.

Lately, for a nonfiction workshop, I have been researching the realm of what most bookstores refer to as “environmental writing” within the scope of personal essay—in an attempt to further comprehend the minutiae I am most interested in incorporating into my own work. I am moving from macro to micro in my reading and writing as I identify the various subgenres/definitions of “environmental writing” in the personal essay by studying narrative theory and arc (including diction to create a sense of “place”), how and when to discuss eco-politics within a particular piece, the methods of craft that either aid or hinder the writing, how the writer negotiates differences (physical, mental, sensorial, environmental, etc.) between different eras of time and literary trends, and so forth. (I believe it is imperative for any writer to study the works and craft of their predecessors so they may contribute positively to the present dialogue and body of work.) I look for personal wonders through environmental dialogue, and observe the craft; though, it is my job to dissect what they’re doing, reasons why, and how it functions. My goal is to create and contribute to this collective consciousness. Together, we can negotiate the gray matter. Hopefully, the works I am reading and my fellow classmates can help me build the better silo. In my mind, this process is a poet’s Ars Poetica.

I admire works in which the relationship between Man and the natural world are being negotiated, with evidence of traditional and modern forms being both understood and utilized. I researched my family’s agricultural roots and published a scientific report revealing the causes of The Dust Bowl and how our family has used both literature and scientific analysis to better the land, the crop, and the people. I am very much tied to my own “place” and continue searching for the elements that define and connect landscape with language. Though I did not grow up in any one place, writers like Barry Lopez, Rick Bass and Scott Russell Sanders (A.E.) have dedicated much of their writing lives to exploring and tying down what it means to call a place “home.”

As I’ve said before, my family is comprised of farmers and professors. Many of them do both. Initially, my late, great-uncle taught folks how to fly in his crop-duster as a means of earning enough money to buy and plant the crop for the following season. These pilots then offered to dust his fields. Even though Dr. Gillan had their help on occasion, he opted to do it himself because he found solace in the air. He wrote poetry and prose about flying. He dreamt of flying. I, too, am in the family business. We catch and release. The process is the destination.

Like a spider, my own hunger drives me to foreign places. I return with another piece of thread. Again and again I do this, until I have built a web with all the gathered gray matter, capable of catching… Regardless of the prey, the catch I am after is not really a catch at all. I’m chasing a hunger. This hunger, I cannot appease alone.

Image: Chesapeake Bay Program

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