Written River Interview with Jason Kirkey
This interview originally appeared in Written River: A Journal of Eco-Poetics | Summer Solstice Issue 2010. Jason Kirkey, author of Estuaries and the award-winning title, The Salmon in the Spring: The Ecology of Celtic Spirituality | Interview by: Jenn MacCormack
MacCormack: What is the eco-philosophical concept behind this volume of poetry?
Kirkey: An estuary is a type of ecosystem that forms where streams and rivers meet up with the sea. In that meeting of salt and fresh water, or terrestrial and coastal ecologies, a new habitat is formed. Like most transitional zones, there’s a lot of life and diversity in estuaries. I’m using that idea here as a metaphor for the kinds of things which happen when we let our minds become entangled with the Earth.
Mind, as I understand it, is a phenomenon that is not unique to human beings but present through the whole of ecosystems. A forest is a particular kind of mind as are grackles and salmon. It is only through an act of cutting ourselves off that our minds don’t mingle with the minds of these Others. Estuaries is a question, then: what happens when we let our minds meet, when we speak with and to our watersheds? What kind of poetry do we produce, together?
MacCormack: In the preface of the book you write, “The poems in Estuaries suggest that speech and poetry are fundamentally rooted in the ecosystem ….” Could you explain what you mean by this?
Kirkey: I mean that poetry, in its essence, is the articulation of being. When I write a poem I am attempting to speak my depths and communicate my meaning. The sound of rain falling is no different. That sound speaks the rain’s being and communicates its meaning. That is to say that the rain’s being and meaning are one: it means water, it means life in relation to every organism on the planet, and so on. It’s poetry, we think, to write or speak about all our human concerns, ranging from the profound to the mundane, if we somehow are able to illuminate these things or use them to speak deep truths. But what deeper truth is there than wild nature? To me, the growth of moss or the way a river meanders across the landscape is unmediated poetry. It is, in fact, where our poetry is derived from even if we aren’t writing “nature poetry,” per se. Our lives depend on the poetry of the Earth.
MacCormack: How does Estuaries connect to bioregionalism?
Kirkey: The idea is that we’re not just relating to “nature” in the abstract. We’re not really capable of experiencing nature—we experience places. It is our situated places, our actual watersheds, that I’m most interested in. What is the poetry of our place and how can we participate in that place through poetry? If the decomposition of the detritus on a forest floor is actually a kind of poetry, if the movement of river water over stones is poetry, then what is our poetry in relation to this ecology? I think this is at the core of bioregionalism. When we understand our place in the bioregion through art and our poetry, when our voice is among damselflies and otters, then we might also understand how to live within the patterns and dynamics of that place.
MacCormack: None of your previous poetry collections contained photographs. Why did you decide to do this particular collection with photography instead?
Kirkey: For quite a while the book felt incomplete and I put off plans to publish it, thinking I’d eventually write a few more poems to round it out. Then last winter as I was putting together our inaugural issue of Written River, working with James Liter as our featured photographer, I had a passing thought that it would be interesting to work photographs into the book in some way. It didn’t take long for that small idea to take root and the more I thought about it, considered possible photographs for each of the poems, the more the book started to feel complete. It felt like a more embodied book, appropriate for the imagistic nature of the poems.
MacCormack: “These Bodies: Rain Water Upriver” is unmistakably a love poem, which is unexpected in a book of nature poetry. How does this poem fit into the collection?
Kirkey: It was written for someone I love who I’ve been habitually separated from by circumstances. When I visited her in her home watershed we walked along the Eno River. I wrote the poem both to suggest that her and her river shared a single habitat of identity but also to draw a metaphor between the way the water all gathers into the river and the way her and I gathered into each other.
MacCormack: How do you feel your writing process and style have developed or changed during the lengthy break between your last poetry collection in 2008 and Estuaries in 2011?
I see my first three books of poetry, Portraits of Beauty, Songs from a Wild Place, and The Ballad of the Sea-Sweet Moon and Other Poemsas my apprenticeship to poetry. In the first book I wrote in very short lines, just trying to get the feel of words and phrases, the rhythm of the poem. Stylistically they were fairly didactic and blunt. There wasn’t much subtlety.
Songs was a bit more ambitious. The lines got longer as I learned how and where to use line breaks (not always with success, however). The poetry, also, became a bit more complex and varied. I think the first hints of a more imagistic style came through in this book because I worked a little with haiku and prose poetry.
If Songs is the book where I learned how to break lines, The Ballad of the Sea-Sweet Moon is the book where I broke form entirely. It’s an explosion on the page and much of that poem doesn’t have lines at all in a conventional sense. It was a practice both in being really free in the verse, but also in subtlety, rhyme, rhythm, and emotion. It’s the first time I think I really wrote something that is both deeply personal but also entirely mythic. It’s also the first time, as a poet, that I think I got over myself, learned to get out of the way, and just let the poetry happen.
I say all that as preface to simply saying that Estuaries is probably my first “mature” book of poetry. Certainly it’s the first collection where I feel like I knew what I was doing and why. The frightening part of that is that it means I have to own both its successes but also its failures as my own. That’s also the most exciting part, and the part which, I hope, makes it good poetry.
MacCormack: What breaks your heart?
Kirkey: The callous destruction of non-human life, the daily abuses of human rights, and an empty tea pot.
MacCormack: In the quiet moments from which these poems arose, how did these stunning, magical words spin out to you?
Kirkey: In all different ways. Each poem is very much its own living organism. Some of the best poems—or at least my favorite poems—came without much visible effort. Both “Twenty-One Ways to Birth a Heart” and “Scattered Leaves” underwent very few changes from first draft to final. Both just overflowed out of me and all I really had to do was put out my cup to catch them. On the other hand, “Estuaries” was a poem of effort. It was originally much longer but when I scraped away all the soil from it I just had a few lines which I shaped, in a much more conscious and deliberate way, into the poem. It’s interesting, at the end of the day, to try to spot the difference. In all cases though, there was an alchemy of both feeling into the poetry and applying the deliberate, intellectual mind to shape them. One mind shapes the clay, the other one put it into the fire.
MacCormack: Where do you see things going from here? What projects do you have next?
Kirkey: Right now I’m working on a book called The Riverway: Field Note for Re-inhabiting the Earth. I think of Estuaries as its poetic companion book. The Riverway is a term I use to describe both the patterns of nature as a whole (the Dao) but also the particular patterns and dynamics of the individual watersheds that we all find ourselves in. The idea is that by integrating ourselves into the watershed we make ourselves consonant with the Dao and a more viable and sustainable culture going forward. It looks at the ecosystem as a mind and, from there, how our minds are part of or integrated into that larger mind of the Earth. The first draft is almost done so I’ll be spending most of the summer revising it and looking for a publisher.
This interview was featured in Written River: A Journal of Eco-Poetics | Summer Solstice Issue 2011
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