From Idyllic to Deadly: A Conversation with Patrick Coleman




THE POEMS IN Patrick Coleman’s first book, Fire Season, are dispatches from a landscape that can change from idyllic to deadly. Coleman lives in a California neighborhood that was partially destroyed by wildfires in 2007, and Fire Season chronicles the fear that runs through his daily life, the increasing danger due to climate change, and the joys and struggles of having a new family. In poems that exist somewhere between prose poem, flash fiction, meditation, and memoir, Coleman navigates how to live — and be an artist — in a land that can turn dangerous at a moment’s notice.

Fire Season was published by Tupelo Press on December 1. I talked with Patrick over email about the anxiety that comes with living in the path of wildfires, working in the cracks between genres, the intersection of literature and visual art, and what Raymond Chandler would be doing in San Diego circa 2001.

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RYAN TEITMAN: Can you talk about how you composed this book?

PATRICK COLEMAN: I actually can’t remember how I got the initial idea, but I “wrote” it aloud by speaking into a digital audio recorder on my hour-long commute between where I live, in the eastern San Diego county backcountry, and where I was working, at the San Diego Museum of Art, down in the city, in Balboa Park. It was the only the time I had free: I had a new baby at home, so any time there I spent being with her, taking care of things around the house, and supporting my wife. I was also in full economic panic — a new baby! — that I would need to feed real solid food in only a very short time, during a down economy, in expensive California. I’d gotten a toe-hold at the museum, but I was working my ass off trying to not screw it up or maybe get health insurance or, later, a raise. And it was art and a nonprofit, so there’s always more you can and should be doing.

Not writing is bad for me — bad for my mental state. But I couldn’t get up at four in the morning, because I’d been awake several times each night with the baby already, and then she was up for the day by five. I couldn’t fit writing in. And I’d been listening to poems in the car, trying to memorize them; I still remember “Those Winter Sundays” from that time, though why it would stick and not the others is a mystery.

So, I got my little Zoom recorder for recording music, and I’d turn it on while I was driving and start saying something, not usually with any kind of plan. I might start with something I could see out the window, something from the passing landscape. Or it’d be a memory from the day before, something I didn’t want to forget or that had happened at work that was bugging me. I’d have to trick myself to throw a few words up into the air — you feel stupid, talking to yourself in poet-voice in a car, when you could be singing along to Janelle Monáe or listening to Steve Inskeep give you useful information — and then try to follow something in the sounds or associations into the next few words, and into the next. Pretty quickly I realized I liked not having the page to refer back to. I liked forgetting, or not remembering precisely, what had come before. It freed me up, a little, from trying to make perfect sense. I liked the surprise of feeling my way, out loud, into resonances and surprising ideas and feelings of conclusion.

I did that for two years. Along the way, I think I sensed that certain themes were emerging and recurring, but I resisted stopping and thinking about those because I was enjoying it too much, and it was helping me feel more grounded and present in my life. I was afraid, I think — and probably rightly — that if I stopped and looked at it too hard, I might kill whatever interesting thing was happening there.

And the wildfires were happening near your home around this time, right?

Actually, not then. Where I live, there are zoning restrictions that preserve undeveloped land between the houses — it’s actually in the hills above where the San Diego Zoo Safari Park is, so some morning you can hear, very faintly, the lions roaring — and that part of the quasi-neighborhood, except for a handful of houses, burned in the 2007 Witch Creek Fire. My in-laws live there, so I’d come right after and seen what the fire had done, both to people’s homes and possessions and memories, but also to the incredible and unique natural environment. It had been this dense layering of old oak trees, buckwheat, coyote bush, rare kangaroo rats, coyotes, owls, bobcats, mountain lions, and so on. We have bald eagles that nest nearby, in one of the last protected California grasslands, and I hear there are golden eagles there now. After the fire, it looked like the surface of Mars.

My wife and I moved there in 2011 from Indiana. After having our first daughter, it was more the memory and the prospect of that fire that triggered my anxiety. We’re pretty far out, with one road in and out. Depending on where a fire started, you could get trapped pretty easily. Some neighbors hadn’t been able to get out in 2007 and barely made it, sitting in their car while the fire moved all around them, burned down their house. So I had this beautiful child in this beautiful environment that I loved, but that landscape could flip into a firescape in a moment, and at any moment the world might take back the life of this child of mine. That just all started to fuse together in my daily consciousness.

But there’s also a cycle to wildfires. They’re a natural part of the California ecology. The year after the 2007 fire, the wildflowers were explosive, surreal — unleashed by heat and all the newly open space. Now, 11 years later, most of the plant and animal life has returned. Which is great. But all that plant life, to a certain person, might rightly be called fuel. Just this year we had two fires a quarter mile from where I live, and I raced home from where I work, an hour away still but now at the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination at UC San Diego, to throw a few handfuls of possessions in the car, pack the kids up, and get out of there in case the winds came up or CAL FIRE couldn’t control it. And climate change is only making it worse. It’s a reality we live with, and as I worked with it in my mind and writing, it began to feel like a way to make sense of reality.

I’d like to talk about the genre of this book: it’s a collection of poems, but they could just as easily be pieces of flash fiction. And, knowing you as I do, I couldn’t help reading this as a kind of memoir of fatherhood, family, and work told through very short essays. Were you thinking about blurring genres as you were putting this book together?

To be honest, I think I was too exhausted all the time to think about genre! I’m glad about that, too. I used to be more genre-territorial, more prone to nitpick when something was X or Y genre. If anyone wants to, they can tell me what this book is. I’m not really sure. I’m happy and humbled to have them called poems. If anything, though, they’re prose poems, which is already dubious in some eyes (though I like Gary Young’s description of a prose poem as a single-line poem, one that extends horizontally instead of vertically). I’ve never especially connected with breaking lines as a tool to create meaning, and when you’re drafting out loud that drive toward line breaks falls away by necessity. And yes, they mix memoir and fiction. The speaker isn’t always me — at the very least no one speaker of a piece of writing entirely stands in for any “me” of the writer — and I’ve always been attracted to writing that uses short blocks of text, little scenelets or essaylets, like Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge or Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s Madeleine Is Sleeping.

But I was also thinking about all kinds of writing, all kinds of utterances. At work, I was thinking about performance practices and sound art, and I was writing audio tours, so they all became part of this. And as a curator, you’re asked to think about “interpretation” in a museum context, and one of the main tools you have are wall labels. The basic object information — who made it, where, in what year, and what rich person donated to the institution that now owns it — is called the “tombstone” (a quirk of naming that I love: here lies art). For some of these, though, you might choose to write an extended label, and specialists tell you these shouldn’t be more than 150 words (and probably more like half that) if you’re going to retain someone’s attention while they’re wandering a gallery. So you have art historians thinking about the 10-thousand-word essay they could write about a given work of art, and then attempting to winnow that down to the most salient single short paragraph. That’s an exciting thing, to me. What do you focus on? The head of Goliath the viewer can’t see in the lower left corner because one of the painting’s owners thought it was grotesque and had it painted over? Its original cultural role and function? The myths and narratives it is meant to represent? The casting technique used to create the bronze, or the brush so fine it’s made from a single hair from a squirrel’s rear end and dipped in pigment created from the dried urine of mango-fed cows?

The answer usually lies in how you imagine someone moving back and forth from seeing to reading — perceiving the art directly versus perceiving through the imagination, informed by ideas and information. And that I was really deliberate about. Working so closely with visual art was leading me to see in a way I wouldn’t have otherwise. Parenthood did something similar. Things that I didn’t register before become obvious and important. Scientists have studied how your eyes can scan right over something like apples in a tree until you’ve seen one and registered it as food. After, you spot apples everywhere! It’s adaptive, a survival mechanism. Instead, I was staring at my daughter so intensely that my brain would spontaneously generate her features in the landscape, on the road, on other people’s faces. Language was a way to focus that, capture some quality of it, try to reflect it back.

You talked about your role as a curator. How did you come to include works of art along with the prose poems?

They were on my mind when I was composing these. I understand the world through words. I don’t have a strong visual imagination. Even my memories aren’t very visual; they’re more word collages. But spending so much time with visual art shifted the way I saw — thinking about how they saw, how they expressed themselves. Perception is malleable. How language shapes seeing and how vision shapes thought are questions I find really fascinating. And you see it watching infants begin to put together their world, their point of view. How many times did I read a Richard Scarry book before my daughter saw Goldbug hiding behind the sink? It took pointing and saying, together. And, after, how quickly she was spotting Goldbugs I’d never seen.

So when I starting transcribing the pieces, I put reference images in for myself. It was a way to bring more of my thought out, in the tension between the image and text, a scaffold for myself that I figured would be temporary, and a way to play with the art/label dynamic of the museum. But pretty quickly I couldn’t see how I’d take them back out. And I’m so grateful and fortunate that Tupelo Press found a way to keep the art, and to the museums, especially the San Diego Museum of Art, for allowing them to be reproduced in this context.

You have a novel coming out this summer. Can you talk a little bit about it and about what it was like to move from a very short form to such an expansive one?

The novel, called The Churchgoer, came out of an obsession with Raymond Chandler — his style, that Marlowe-esque relationship to the world, and his sadness. Chandler lived in San Diego — La Jolla — but barely wrote about it, and I fell in love with that powerful, pervasively mournful tone that’s all over The Long Goodbye, written while his wife, Cissy, was dying. The Churchgoer came out of asking what a Marlowe would be like in San Diego, circa 2001. So there’s real estate dealing, beach culture, economic disparity, drug smuggling, and lots of Evangelical megachurches. Being who I am, the book evolved into a kind of quiet deconstruction of that kind of guy as much as a noir-ish mystery. Where does that resigned bravado about knowing how the world works come from? That hunger for meaning and assurance of certainty, and a nonreflexive willingness to impose it on others? It’s the American cowboy, sure. But it’s also the American pastor.

Fire Season was sandwiched between drafts of The Churchgoer. I didn’t have time to write anything long when my daughter was young and I was panicked about maintaining our health insurance, so I had to put it aside for a few years. But they both share a lot of DNA — trying to understand this place where I’m from, trying to express or contain some of what’s meaningful but also a lot of rage and disappointment and confusion. Chandler’s chapters are short and formally constrained in a lot of ways like a long-ish prose-y poem. You’ve written Chandleresque prose poems — you know what I mean! I like having something to push or pull against. There was definitely a lot more drafting and redrafting with the novel to get deeper into the concerns that mattered to me and to see how to discard aspects of the genre that were never going to serve those concerns.

Are you working on a new writing project now?

A couple new, difficult things — early, messy stages of setting impossible expectations! But as a writer with a day job, there’ve been some seasons where I can only get so much done, so I’m trying to relax into the process as it can exist in my life right now, as I’d like to live it: present for my loved ones, not beating myself up absurdly. I’m not very good at that, so it’s another process.

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Ryan Teitman is the author of the poetry collection Litany for the City.


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