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




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. Lane sings both in praise and in lamentation for the world we evolved in, and which we are now losing. 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. After we are gone, the Earth will be all right, but the poet’s song, Lane seems to suggest, will be missing.

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. 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the South, was a finalist for the John Burroughs Medal for Distinguished Natural History Writing, and his papers have been archived in The Sowell Family Collection in Literature, Community, and the Natural World at Texas Tech University, along with those of Barry Lopez, Gretel Ehrlich, Rick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.

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.

This interview was conducted via written correspondence in October 2017.

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KURT CASWELL: John, some readers may be unfamiliar with the term “Anthropocene.” What does it mean?

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. They’re calling it the Anthropocene.

This new book of poems goes deeply into these concerns, and also explores the world through science, particularly geology. The primary narrator for the collection is a poet/geologist. It’s through his eyes we see the world, and so are introduced to the geologic concept of the Anthropocene.

Why have you taken on this subject in your new book?

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. Most who embrace the term would say, hell yes, we have screwed the planet at every level, from atmosphere to soil. However, there are geologists who claim human impacts are simply extensions of Holocene changes. And they wonder if our species will go the way of the woolly mammoth, and the passenger pigeon, and become extinct during the Holocene.

Usually epochal changes play out geologically over millions rather than thousands of years. The Holocene is only a little over 10,000 years old — the shortest epoch so far. The group that decides such shifts and changes, The International Commission on Stratigraphy, has not officially signed off on the term. 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. And perhaps we deserve it.

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. I’m a poet singing the blues about an idea, a paradigm, a long Latinate word few people know and even fewer can pronounce. I like the juxtaposition — something as abstract and huge as an epoch, something as human, warm, and particular as a song.

Your narrator, the poet/geologist: Is he very much like you?

Yes. 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. 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. Google Morelet’s crocodile, along with my name, and you will discover one of my first publications.

You and I both studied at Bennington College, but at different times. 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. A few days later, fiction writer Amy Bloom claimed that she doesn’t care at all about “flora and fauna” (her words). She cares only about people.

In this light, what are the obligations of writers working in the Anthropocene?

Bad writers? Poorly informed in the sciences? Writers like Henry David Thoreau, John McPhee, Barry Lopez, Peter Matthiessen, Pattiann Rogers, J. Drew Lanham, Terry Tempest Williams, Gary Snyder?

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. Good writers adjust their thought-systems as the science changes. Thoreau knew this. That’s why his work changed so much after he read Darwin.

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. But we have to remember, we are the fauna! We cannot separate ourselves from the world. Environmentally conscious writers know this.

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. Maybe for them manufactured landscapes pass for the “public celebration” of nature. But it’s not enough for me.

Nature writers, such as I’ve mentioned above, speak from cities and open spaces, even wild spaces.

So must writers living and working in the Anthropocene train in the sciences?

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. This is fundamental.

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. These are writers who care deeply about their response to the natural world and aren’t dismissive of the power of naming things. Hell, they’re even unafraid to talk about the re-enchantment of the world along with the importance of place-based writing. 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. 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.

I admire the way you’ve put this book together, John. 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. 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. A weakness, I think. But you are devoted to the whole, as much as its parts. Would you comment further on the book’s structure?

I just finished reading John McPhee’s Draft No. 4, his book on craft, and the most important and longest chapter is on structure. McPhee states that he must have a structure before he really begins to write.

Like McPhee, I often start work on a book of poems or a book of prose with an overriding structure in mind. 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.

So did you make an outline for this book, or did the structure come along later as you wrote the poems?

The structure came later, mostly at a time when friends read the manuscript. The poems called “Erosion” were originally one long poem. 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. Lots of poems — travel poems mostly — had to be cut. The “field notes” idea came next. I figured a geologist would have a field notebook. Initially the manuscript was much longer, about 145 pages. Now it’s a lean 62. I had a great deal of help from two poet friends: Patrick Whitfill and Ray McManus. It was Ray who suggested I split the long poem “Erosion” into a series of poems, and spread them throughout. 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. What do you mean by that?

I mean “joke” as in a complete surprise. I think this age would be baffling to our paleo-ancestors. 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. Our “cha-cha” (my term) toward oblivion.

In your book, you invoke the names of a number of our greatest poets, at least in the English language — Byron, Shelley, Whitman. And you also give voice to some of our greatest thinkers in conservation and the sciences — Leopold, E. O. Wilson, maybe even Black Elk belongs here. How have these figures influenced your work over the years?

Yes, someone pointed out to me there are at least 25 such figures in this book. 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. They outline an intellectual ecology, maybe the mind of the geologist, maybe mine. The figures I reference represent much of what I have read. To name what you’ve read is to affirm the depth of influence, to breathe once again the air that filled you.

Do you feel you owe a debt to Byron, Shelley, Whitman, who have been, if not thrown out, at least marginalized in the academy? Hemingway too, for that matter. For my part, I’ll stay with these writers until the end. I’ll go down on their ship. How about you?

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. 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.

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. And it doesn’t stop that reader from feeling what she feels when she does read it. In the same way, no one’s killed the power of the Romantics. In the end, the poems either sing a song somebody wants to hum, or they don’t. In my new book, all these mentor-poets and scientists help the poems sing by giving them depth and backdrop.

Which of the poems in the book do you think is the best, and why?

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. And I think it might be the only contemporary poem about a masturbating parrot. Which one do you like?

Thanks for asking. My favorite is “The Geologist Suspects God Plays Dice.” First, because God does play dice. Second, because the poem is a delightful music, play-time in rhythm and rhyme. And third, because it invokes so many of the beautiful creatures of our world, none of which, aside from Einstein, is human. 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. 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.

To return to you, though: you’ve had a long career as a teacher and writer. You’re also well traveled. You’ve worked in the earth with your hands. Are you, in general, optimistic or pessimistic about the next 100 years in the story of Homo sapiens?

I am optimistic. 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. We are so full of ourselves as a species. It’s hard to argue we aren’t pathological. 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. There are bigger systems at work than human will and intellect. I know this runs counter to the idea of the Anthropocene, which suggests we humans, and our impacts, are the biggest thing going.

Another thing that makes me optimistic is teaching. Most of my students understand that our problems are complex, but they believe we can tackle those problems. They believe in solutions.

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. It’s in the spirit of Robinson Jeffers’s long narrative poems. In prose, I am sending off a book manuscript about spending a year watching hawks in our neighborhood. 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. 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. Oh, and there’s a draft of a new novel too. So lots and lots to juggle. But that’s how I am. I can’t work on only one thing at a time.

Tell me more about that?

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. And I have a smaller journal with a leather cover that travels. The big journal now goes back to 1978, and the travel journal to 1999. Thoreau wrote two million words, and I think I have surpassed that, though I’ve been at it more years than he got. It’s in that travel journal that I drafted many of the poems in Anthropocene Blues — many of them started as field notes. I believe in the power of immediate observation and its record. I am drawn to writing that feels close to life.

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Kurt Caswell’s newest book is Getting to Grey Owl: Journeys on Four Continents. He teaches writing and literature in the Honors College at Texas Tech University.


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