My poems “The Bog” and “Views of Nature” join in the company with a marvel of other writers
including Kevin Young, Rita Dove, Craig Santos Perez, and David St. John.
“Letter to 2050” published in January 2021 issue of Scientific American in the Meter feature curated by Dava Sobel. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/poem-letter-to-2050/
Tune in to our December 3, 2020 conversation. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GAW5UhKu9Hg
Adam and I talk discuss my forthcoming book A Woven World, fishermen, women forgotten in history, how and why I keep journals, and more.
Part memoir, part elegy, part cultural history, A Woven World celebrates the fading crafts, cottage industries, and artisans that have defined communities for generations.
Sensing a need to preserve the crafts and stories of our founding communities, and inspired by an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute featuring Yves St. Laurent’s “Sardine Dress,” Deming turned to the industries of her ancestors, on Grand Manan Island, a community of 2500 residents, and New York City, a metropolis of millions. Both offer stories of old ways of knowing and being perfectly suited to their time and place that are currently in danger of fading away. Resisting history’s erasure, Deming reweaves the fabric of those lives. A Woven World is a quest for continuity and belonging in a time of destabilizing change. One way to face loss is to give a presence on the page to beloved people, places, and practices, uncovering and preserving a record of the ingenuity and dignity that comes with such work. In this way the lament can become a praise song, a testament to the beauty and fragility of human making.
The book unearths wonders in its journey through family and environmental history to find: the unmarked grave of a grandmother, a fisherman lost at sea afloat for a week in his dory, a seal skin coat, flowers placed in bullet holes in glass after terrorist attacks in Paris, the humble herring underpinning civilization for centuries, Vermeer’s portrait of The Lacemaker, a seal rising up through the floor of an Icelandic cottager, the historic silk weavers of Lyon, prom dresses and crinolines, a Manhattan Subway sandwich shop where once a dressmaking business thrived, the bounty and beauty of a herring harvest, the silences of women lost to history, and so much more.
The author is grateful to the Guggenheim Foundation for a fellowship that supported the research and writing on this project. The book will be published by Counterpoint Press August 2021.
“With the skill and care of an artisan poet, Alison Hawthorne Deming’s “The Woven World” brings us the textures of nearly lost words and the craft that required them. Her tactile exploration of makers from fisherfolk to dressmakers makes me long for the embrace of a handsewn garment, stitched of relationships to land and history, embroidered with story.” Robin Wall Kimmerer
Poetry Centered features curated selections from voca, the University of Arizona Poetry Center’s online audiovisual archive of more than 1,000 recordings of poets reading their work during visits to the Center between 1963 and today. In each episode, a guest poet introduces three poems from voca, sharing their insights about the remarkable performances recorded in our archive. Each episode concludes with the guest poet reading a poem of their own. Our inaugural season includes episodes hosted by Hanif Abdurraqib, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Ada Limón, Urayoán Noel, Maggie Smith, and TC Tolbert. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
AHD podcast is live now!
1.1 The Big Story of Life on Earth
Alison Hawthorne Deming introduces recordings of Diane Ackerman reading a love poem for an extraterrestrial (“Ode to the Alien”), Cornelius Eady choosing gratitude as a response to anger and racial discrimination (“Gratitude”), and N. Scott Momaday describing a memorable encounter with Georgia O’Keeffe (“Forms of the Earth at Abiquiu”). Deming also reads a new poem written during this time of quarantine and isolation, “Territory Drive,” originally published at Terrain.org.
This collection began with my Letter to America published in terrain.org just after to cataclysmic 2016 election. I wrote: “Think of the great spirit of inventiveness the Earth calls forth after each major disturbance it suffers. Be artful, inventive, and just, my friends, but do not be silent.” Hundreds answered the call in terrain, driven by outrage, heartbreak, and determination. Many of those works are now collected in this volume edited by Simmons Buntin, Elizabeth Dodd, and Derek Sheffield from Trinity University Press. Visit terrain.org/dear-america for multimedia and other resources to support the reading, discussion, and teaching of the book. http://tupress.org/books/dear-america/
WRITING IN RELATION: THE SOUTHWEST FIELD STUDIES IN WRITING PROGRAM
By Susan Briante
In an article published in Esquire magazine in 1974 poet Muriel Rukeyser recounts her experiences as witness to the dawn of the Spanish Civil War. Towards the article’s conclusion she remembers a conversation she had on a ship fleeing Barcelona. A passenger asks her, “And in all this—where is the place for poetry?” Rukeyser responds, “I know some of it now, but it will take me a lifetime to find it.” Across a lifetime of countless poems and essays—even a posthumously published novel—Rukeyser proved that literature could incorporate testimony and document, could correct the historical record and be a place to advocate for a better future.
Rukeyser’s words and example were very much with me over this summer when I served as faculty liaison and educational facilitator for the inaugural Southwest Field Studies in Writing program sponsored by the Agnese Nelms Haury Program. This initiative sent three graduate students in creative writing from the University of Arizona, Abby Dockter, Gabe Dozal and Raquel Gutiérrez, to Patagonia, AZ, to work with local environment and social justice groups on writing projects that reflected the issues unique to the border region.
Over the course of a 10-day residency, these writers became researchers and witnesses. In the offices of the Kino Border Initiative, a bi-national migrant advocacy organization, they listened to anecdotes, statistics and testimony that described an immigration and deportation crisis. In and around Patagonia, they collected stories from southern Arizona ranchers, scientists and activists. In a migrant woman’s shelter in Nogales, they heard agonizing accounts of death threats and economic imperatives from a quartet of women in the process of considering asylum, migration, or a return to their place of origin. On an eight-hour drive through the desert near Arivaca to replenish water stations left for migrants with volunteers from Humane Borders, they came face to face with the deadly conditions migrants face on their arduous journey north.
The inaugural participants in the Southwest Field Studies program produced writing that clarified, contextualized, and imagined new possibilities from what they witnessed.
Dockter, a recent graduate in creative nonfiction, gave voice to ranchers who want to monitor their bottom line as well as broad environmental and social concerns. Dozal, a poet from El Paso, found a metaphor for a hybrid border identity in the vinegaroon, an arachnid that looks like a cross between a tarantula and a scorpion with pincers and whip-like tail. Gutiérrez, a poet, essayist and editor, contemplated the dramatic and deadly consequences of changing immigration policies comparing her parents own migration history to the conditions faced by contemporary migrants.
In addition to their own writing and research, Dockter, Dozal, and Gutiérrez spent four days over the course of their residency with the Borderlands Earth Care Youth Institute. This program, sponsored by the Borderlands Habitat Network, engages marginalized youth in hands-on restoration work of the local ecosystem while providing leadership and educational opportunities. With the high school students, Dozal, Dockter and Gutiérrez worked on land restoration projects: planting trees one day and making adobe bricks another. Then, they used creative writing to give the students an opportunity to reflect on their labor. The high school students presented their written reflections as part of the BECY graduation ceremony in front of their families and the Patagonia community. “I am way stronger than I thought,” student Eden Lattanzio explained standing before a photograph of herself welding a chainsaw.
Creative writing offers a place to reflect on who we are and how we exist in relation to others and to the world we share. In the remote stretches of desert near Arivaca, a series of simply painted crosses, erected by the artist Alvaro Enciso, stand as monuments to migrants who died on their journey. Writing about Enciso’s crosses, Gutiérrez provided an apt description of the power of creative writing, a description that would have made Rukeyser proud: “It is these kinds of artistic representations that operate as both homage and reminder that we need each other to get by,” Gutiérrez writes. “We need each other to remember. We need each other to witness.”
Susan Briante is the author of three books of poetry, The Market Wonders (AhsahtaPress 2016, Utopia Minus (2011), and Pioneers in the Study of Motion (2007). She is Associate Professor on Creative Writing at the University of Arizona.
GUEST POST BY ABBY DOCKTER
The Thirty-Thousand-Foot View
When I interviewed Richard Collins, retired Southern Arizona rancher, he asked the first question: “What have you read?”
Specifically, he wanted to know if I was a Sand County Almanac fan or a Monkey Wrench Gang member, and where I fell on the Aldo-Leopold-to-Edward-Abbey scale of ideas about wilderness preservation. “I lean much more towards Leopold and people like Wendell Berry,” he said. “Abbey just wanted it all to himself.” Collins, like the writers he admires, believes there is a way for humans to eat and drink and take up space without wrecking too much. He operated a ranching business for three decades in the Canelo Valley, working first for the Sibold family, then buying some acreage along with grazing permits for surrounding state and federal lands. His background was in epidemiology, which, he said, is the ecology of tiny, disease-causing organisms, so he had a handle on ecological principles. Disease is perhaps the prime example of how humans are part of a broader ecology.
Then an endangered species of fish, the Gila Topminnow, appeared in Collins’ grazing lot. The Fish and Wildlife Service wanted all grazing in the Red Rock Canyon watershed to stop, which would have made Collins’ business a no-go. In many ways, it was a classic conflict between a federal agency and private ranches. But this experience with federal regulation prompted Collins to wonder if there was a way to run his business that also addressed ecological concerns. He and his neighbors formed the Canelo Hills Coalition to see if they could insure the health of the watershed just by adjusting their grazing practices. They brought in George Ruyle, UA’s sustainable rangeland management expert, who set up vegetation surveys. They monitored conditions and put up new fencing and water sources to control where cattle could go in each season. And they were considered successful, says Collins, “by the people who evaluate these things. The federal agencies and the university and my peers in the ranching industry.” Not to say the fish.
Collins reminded me of some of my own family. Retired, but habitually dressed for outdoor work. A busy brain and sturdy opinions. Even his sense of humor and turn of phrase, and the way he pronounced a long period without water “drouth.” But what I liked most about Collins, and so many other people from the Patagonia area that I met during Southwest Field Studies in Writing, was their blend of practicality and idealism. Agriculture is an undertaking with a pretty clear rock bottom. But people around Patagonia think there must be a better way of doing things, and are willing to take a chance to find out.
One evening I wound my way along the Santa Cruz River to talk to Dean Fish, manager at the Santa Fe Ranch Foundation. He situated me immediately: “We’re located about six miles north of the US-Mexico Border, northeast of Nogales, Arizona. The Santa Cruz River bisects the ranch, and so we have what we call uplands on both sides and semi-riparian river valley in the middle. The main ranch is approximately 25 hundred acres of private grazing rangeland and about 65 acres of that is irrigated to provide forage for livestock and wildlife.” He spoke loudly over the hollering goats, and ignored the light rain falling as we sat in front of an adobe wall with peeling whitewash.
Fish is a good communicator, knowledgeable, generous, and extraordinarily nerdy about cattle. Exactly the kind of person you might want at the helm of a foundation that provides not only beef, but also education, a model for management, and even an animal therapy program to the surrounding community. The Santa Fe Ranch Foundation employs people through the Santa Cruz Training Program, which connects developmentally disabled people to opportunities in the county. This ranch is a private business with its own bottom line, but it is operated by people who know how their business fits into something larger. When I asked Fish what principles guide his decisions around here, he talked about “the 30,000-foot view.” From 30,000 feet, this ranch is part of a landscape, these cattle are not the only ones who need the river water, and people who live nearby will always be part of the picture.
I asked Collins and Fish a few of the same questions, and some they answered alike. When asked how they know what to do day-to-day as managers, they both answered, essentially: Go look. Get to know how water moves, how grass responds, how the animals look, and how weather impacts everything. Both Collins and Fish maintained long-term vegetation monitoring programs to make sure they had accurate information for their decision-making. Collins believes “fiction writers and bad movies and songs and all that kind of stuff” that romanticize agricultural life have done real harm to people’s understanding of where their food comes from. But I still find something romantic about this eminently practical, deeply observant experience of a place.
I asked both men what it means for land to be healthy. I am interested in this question both practically and idealistically—the principles that guide decisions, and the practices that create them. I am interested in the 30,000-foot view and the view at the end of a microscope.
Fish said his overarching priority is always to leave the land better than he found it. But he also offered specifics, his picture of ideal rangeland: “I think that healthy land is land that has seen minimal erosion, that has good ground cover and a diversity of plant species on it. And that supports multiple uses: wildlife habitat, livestock grazing, recreation, hunting or camping.”
Collins took longer to answer. He rubbed the back of his neck thoughtfully. “You’re talking about health, and it’s a hard term to get my hands around because it’s so broad and ambiguous.”
“Intentionally so,” I said.
He nodded. “But it does convey the sense that like human health, you have to have all your systems working. At my age they’re beginning to break down a little bit, so I understand. Things fall apart. It has that same sense. But how you evaluate it and describe it is difficult.
“I guess in a nutshell, if you want to summarize my view of land health: It’s got to work for the rancher, got to be able to make a profit. It’s got to work for the health and integrity of the watershed, and that means the plants, the water cycle, and the other animals that are using it, including obviously endangered species. And you’ve got to work very hard to do it. It’s not an easy thing to do.”
“Multiple uses” has a dubious history in the U.S., and there is no hard-and-fast line between use and exploitation. But listening to Collins and Fish, I was imagining an ag industry with these priorities. Imagine for a moment that the economy exists to serve quality of life, and not the other way around.