Our Cha-Cha Toward Oblivion: Kurt Caswell Interviews John Lane

The poems called “Erosion” were originally one long poem. I am most partial to “Voice While it Lasts.” I enjoy the way the voice of the poem is so fluid, and accommodates a reflective philosophical mode, and a more anecdotal poetic response. Writers like Henry David Thoreau, John McPhee, Barry Lopez, Peter Matthiessen, Pattiann Rogers, J. I am drawn to writing that feels close to life. The poems are arranged in a pattern that focuses on your narrator, the geologist, as well as the multiple poems titled “Erosion,” and then the series that begin with “Field Notebook.” They’re signposts to guide a reader through the book. We cannot separate ourselves from the world. This is fundamental. A writer known for his range (Lane writes across genre), Anthropocene Blues brings together the sharpness of poetic form with the wandering music of the prose poem. Poorly informed in the sciences? Thanks for asking. And it doesn’t stop that reader from feeling what she feels when she does read it. We are so full of ourselves as a species. Why have you taken on this subject in your new book? Are you, in general, optimistic or pessimistic about the next 100 years in the story of Homo sapiens? What do you mean by that? Good writers adjust their thought-systems as the science changes. Second, because the poem is a delightful music, play-time in rhythm and rhyme. However, there are geologists who claim human impacts are simply extensions of Holocene changes. Nature writers, such as I’ve mentioned above, speak from cities and open spaces, even wild spaces. A poet like Gary Snyder may be as informed about the latest research in ecology, Earth sciences, and anthropology as anyone who writes, and he is always correcting his thinking as new data comes along. Bad writers? Maybe for them manufactured landscapes pass for the “public celebration” of nature. In the same way, no one’s killed the power of the Romantics. But that’s how I am. It’s through his eyes we see the world, and so are introduced to the geologic concept of the Anthropocene. Hemingway too, for that matter. Google Morelet’s crocodile, along with my name, and you will discover one of my first publications. I know this runs counter to the idea of the Anthropocene, which suggests we humans, and our impacts, are the biggest thing going. I had a great deal of help from two poet friends: Patrick Whitfill and Ray McManus. Usually epochal changes play out geologically over millions rather than thousands of years. Oh, and there’s a draft of a new novel too. Initially the manuscript was much longer, about 145 pages. In the end, the poems either sing a song somebody wants to hum, or they don’t. And I think it might be the only contemporary poem about a masturbating parrot. His most recent book of nonfiction, Coyote Settles the South, was a finalist for the John Burroughs Medal for Distinguished Natural History Writing, and his papers have been archived in The Sowell Family Collection in Literature, Community, and the Natural World at Texas Tech University, along with those of Barry Lopez, Gretel Ehrlich, Rick Bass, Bill McKibben, Annick Smith, Pattiann Rogers, and others. I have another project underway about deep time and the ancient buried soils of the South Carolina piedmont, and my own connection to this place. Environmentally conscious writers know this. He teaches writing and literature in the Honors College at Texas Tech University. They wouldn’t get it: that, in a deep time perspective, humankind lived fully capable for almost two million years in a sort of steady state with other species — and then in just 10,000 years, is threatening to end life as we know it. The structure came later, mostly at a time when friends read the manuscript. Which of the poems in the book do you think is the best, and why? I just finished reading John McPhee’s Draft No. A professor of English and Environmental Studies at Wofford College in South Carolina, Lane directs the Goodall Environmental Studies Center, and is the author of more than a dozen books of poetry and prose. A weakness, I think. These are writers who care deeply about their response to the natural world and aren’t dismissive of the power of naming things. And I have a smaller journal with a leather cover that travels. I believe in the power of immediate observation and its record. And third, because it invokes so many of the beautiful creatures of our world, none of which, aside from Einstein, is human. Once I had the idea for the geologist, I went back to see which of the poems I could revise and make part of that character’s point of view. Lane sings both in praise and in lamentation for the world we evolved in, and which we are now losing. Lots of poems — travel poems mostly — had to be cut. Patrick helped me cut it, and he also coaxed me to write several new poems that are crucial, including the “Erosion” poem that begins: “Is geology a kind of poetry?”
That particular “Erosion” poem is a series of questions without answers, and it ends by asking if our current age is a joke on humankind. Most who embrace the term would say, hell yes, we have screwed the planet at every level, from atmosphere to soil. This new book of poems goes deeply into these concerns, and also explores the world through science, particularly geology. They outline an intellectual ecology, maybe the mind of the geologist, maybe mine. And I’m finishing up a 50-page essay to be included in a coffee-table book about a well-known alligator biologist on the coast of South Carolina. You and I both studied at Bennington College, but at different times. I sent a dozen copies of Anthropocene Blues over to England and Ireland with two American friends, and I’ve told them to cast them widely, like seeds. Now it’s a lean 62. My favorite is “The Geologist Suspects God Plays Dice.” First, because God does play dice. Along with the deep past, I trust in the deep future, but not so much in the thin crust of the present. The next 100 years are going to be tough. I’d prefer to be in better company, and sometimes this means in the company of animals, so I enter into a poem like this one with a sense of relief; it’s a place I can go to listen. ¤
KURT CASWELL: John, some readers may be unfamiliar with the term “Anthropocene.” What does it mean? I like the juxtaposition — something as abstract and huge as an epoch, something as human, warm, and particular as a song. I wanted Anthropocene Blues to feel like notes toward a bigger idea through a series of field trips and, yes, I really hoped that the character of the geologist would pull a reader along, especially when coupled with a number of pieces called “field notes,” and the poems called “Erosion” scattered like shards throughout. The figures I reference represent much of what I have read. The Holocene is only a little over 10,000 years old — the shortest epoch so far. But it’s not enough for me. I think this age would be baffling to our paleo-ancestors. They believe in solutions. 4, his book on craft, and the most important and longest chapter is on structure. And you also give voice to some of our greatest thinkers in conservation and the sciences — Leopold, E. I write everywhere and all the time — journals of various types, my desktop computer, laptop, and my iPad and iPhone. I have a big journal, sort of a ledger, that stays in the house, and I write in it most mornings. I’m a poet singing the blues about an idea, a paradigm, a long Latinate word few people know and even fewer can pronounce. In the first decade after college, I spent a great deal of time assisting these professionals in their research, and even got my name as a secondary writer on a scientific report. When I was there, a poet by the name of Lynn Emanuel gave a lecture in which she claimed that nature writers are not only inaccurate and poorly informed in the sciences, but they’re also just bad writers. Thoreau wrote two million words, and I think I have surpassed that, though I’ve been at it more years than he got. Would you comment further on the book’s structure? JOHN LANE: Simply put, some scientists believe we are emerging from the last geologic epoch, the Holocene, and entering a new geologic epoch in which everything on Earth is affected by human activity. I am optimistic. In this light, what are the obligations of writers working in the Anthropocene? JANUARY 4, 2018

JOHN LANE’S newest book, Anthropocene Blues, is a collection of poetry that addresses the fate of humanity against the loss of species diversity and the terrifying planetary impact of climate change. But you are devoted to the whole, as much as its parts. To return to you, though: you’ve had a long career as a teacher and writer. McPhee states that he must have a structure before he really begins to write. Another thing that makes me optimistic is teaching. So did you make an outline for this book, or did the structure come along later as you wrote the poems? He writes in “Voice, While it Lasts,” “you were born, your voice, his voice, / place and space and sound/like birds leaving a tree together.” In this cacophony, readers may hear the sound of humanity taking leave of the Earth; and in its wake is a tree — silent, bereft, still. ¤
Kurt Caswell’s newest book is Getting to Grey Owl: Journeys on Four Continents. I admire the British nature movements so much — the New Nature Writers like Robert Macfarlane, Kathleen Jamie, Roger Deakin, and Paul Kingsnorth and his really provocative, important Dark Mountain Project. And perhaps we deserve it. It’s in the spirit of Robinson Jeffers’s long narrative poems. The central question of the Anthropocene is whether or not our species is “irreversibly transforming the Earth’s biological, geological and chemical processes,” in the words of chemist Paul Crutzen, the first scientist to use the term about a decade ago. For my part, I’ll stay with these writers until the end. They’re calling it the Anthropocene. Your narrator, the poet/geologist: Is he very much like you? Most of my students understand that our problems are complex, but they believe we can tackle those problems. I figured a geologist would have a field notebook. In your book, you invoke the names of a number of our greatest poets, at least in the English language — Byron, Shelley, Whitman. It’s hard to argue we aren’t pathological. How can you sing an epoch’s dawning blues unless you name those who helped describe some aspect of it? I wanted this book to echo with these voices. You’ve worked in the earth with your hands. Speaking of which, what’s next for you as a writer, John? 
In poetry, I have a long narrative poem about Spartanburg County’s catastrophic 1903 flood that I’ve been working on for a few years. I admire the way you’ve put this book together, John. I’ll go down on their ship. Tell me more about that? A few days later, fiction writer Amy Bloom claimed that she doesn’t care at all about “flora and fauna” (her words). Like McPhee, I often start work on a book of poems or a book of prose with an overriding structure in mind. Thoreau knew this. The primary narrator for the collection is a poet/geologist. The big journal now goes back to 1978, and the travel journal to 1999. As I look out on our world and events unfolding upon it, I find the pettiness of human beings less and less worthy of my time. But use of “Anthropocene” has exploded among intellectuals and activists who find it a useful cudgel to beat our species about the head and shoulders. Yes. Yes, someone pointed out to me there are at least 25 such figures in this book. It’s in that travel journal that I drafted many of the poems in Anthropocene Blues — many of them started as field notes. How about you? As a poet, I think the book’s title — which I had in mind long before I had the book — says it all: Anthropocene Blues. O. In prose, I am sending off a book manuscript about spending a year watching hawks in our neighborhood. I don’t think all writers have a responsibility to train in the sciences in the Anthropocene any more than they did in the Holocene, but I do think that writers who find themselves on this particular tree, considering our larger place in the natural world — writers I still call nature writers — need to understand how natural systems work. And they wonder if our species will go the way of the woolly mammoth, and the passenger pigeon, and become extinct during the Holocene. I think between the time I was at Bennington and when you were there, a lot of writers turned away from the more-than-human world and toward a human-first world. So lots and lots to juggle. There are bigger systems at work than human will and intellect. Drew Lanham, Terry Tempest Williams, Gary Snyder? Early in his important essay “Poetry as Survival,” the late poet and novelist Jim Harrison writes that the poet “works within the skeleton of a myth to which there is no longer a public celebration.” Maybe writers like those you mentioned think of themselves as only speaking from manufactured landscapes, small gassy corners of the current culture, high-rise apartments built of cheap sheetrock and furnished with IKEA furniture. How have these figures influenced your work over the years? In my new book, all these mentor-poets and scientists help the poems sing by giving them depth and backdrop. Hell, they’re even unafraid to talk about the re-enchantment of the world along with the importance of place-based writing. The “field notes” idea came next. But we have to remember, we are the fauna! As a reader myself, I trusted that you were taking me somewhere, perhaps to a place I didn’t want to go, but to one that I needed to go. 
So many books of contemporary poetry are collections of various poems pulled together under a title that tries, but often fails, to unify them. Laura Dassow Walls’s new biography of Thoreau has the power to revitalize his influence and readership for a new century, no matter what snarky journalists in The New Yorker think about him. She cares only about people. That’s why his work changed so much after he read Darwin. The group that decides such shifts and changes, The International Commission on Stratigraphy, has not officially signed off on the term. I took what is maybe the unusual path of incorporating the discipline of science into my poetic practice. I find as much inspiration in accompanying scientists on their work projects, biologists in particular, as I do in reading literature. Do you feel you owe a debt to Byron, Shelley, Whitman, who have been, if not thrown out, at least marginalized in the academy? It was Ray who suggested I split the long poem “Erosion” into a series of poems, and spread them throughout. But beyond that, if we make it, in a thousand, 10 thousand years, I think the planet (with us as a part of it) will sort things out. To name what you’ve read is to affirm the depth of influence, to breathe once again the air that filled you. I can’t work on only one thing at a time. As Robert Macfarlane writes in his essay “A Counter-Desecration Phrasebook”: “Certain kinds of language can restore a measure of wonder to our relations with nature.”
So I am hoping this book will find a readership in the United Kingdom. So must writers living and working in the Anthropocene train in the sciences? Our “cha-cha” (my term) toward oblivion. After we are gone, the Earth will be all right, but the poet’s song, Lane seems to suggest, will be missing. Not only am I going down with the ship, I know in my heart of hearts that literature is a submarine, disappearing beneath time’s waves, and then resurfacing years later. Which one do you like? Wilson, maybe even Black Elk belongs here. You’re also well traveled. I mean “joke” as in a complete surprise. Literature professors can throw out Hemingway, but that doesn’t stop someone from picking The Sun Also Rises out of the trash and reading it. This interview was conducted via written correspondence in October 2017.