Our poetry editor Grier Martin recently had this exchange with Rebecca Durham, our Issue #30 featured poet. Here’s what she had to say about the connection between botany and poetry, her organic writing process, and her interest in ecopoetics.
You have studied and worked in the field of botany. When did you realize that you also wanted to write poetry? How do you balance your work as a botanist with your work as a poet? Did you ever feel like you had to choose between the two?
All my life I have created art and felt moved to create art, whether visual art or creative writing. I’ve always loved reading poetry and grew up fascinated by it, although I studied science as an undergrad. About seven years ago I began to put more energy into writing, but it was also a subconscious thing. All of a sudden I felt these poems coming out of me like a wellspring. I directed my energy toward poetry and honing my craft. I’ve been lucky to have great mentors and supportive friends and family. My balancing act is actually tripartite—my daughter, my career as a botanist, and my art (visual art and poetry). My priorities fall in that order, and it is sort of a dance, but somehow it seems to all work out.
Do you see science and art as being separate and distinct pursuits, or do you think that they are connected in some way? If so, how?
I can’t speak for all science and art fields, but I do see much overlap between botany and poetry. Botany is about being really present with fine details—noticing, looking, and having an intimate relationship with plants and the landscape. With poetry it’s similar. The intricacy of language emulates the intricacy of the plant world. Experiencing a poem is somewhat akin to experiencing a flowering plant. You can describe its parts, its structure, its origin, but there is always something else that is unnamable and needs no words.
Also, I think many botanists are lovers of language; otherwise we wouldn’t willingly fill our minds with hundreds of Latin names and get attached to them, to how they sound and look. Scientific names have their own poetics. For example, the lily Maianthemum stellatum—what a pleasing musical name! I could really start to geek and go into its elegant etymology…
You are also a MFA candidate in Creative Writing with an emphasis in poetry at the University of Montana. How has this program affected or changed you as a writer? What are your thoughts about what can and can’t be taught about writing?
It’s been an excellent experience; I’m really grateful to be in the program. It definitely has expanded my knowledge of poetics and helped me create better work. The exposure to a wide variety of poetry, being part of a community of writers, and learning from faculty and visiting writers has been invaluable.
It helps to be knowledgeable about your craft, and I believe learning and thinking critically about writing will make anyone a better writer. That being said, there is a limit to where instruction can take a writer, and some writers realize their greatest artistic vision without any instruction.
In addition to your other work, you are a visual artist. Do you find that poetry can help you to express certain things that you can’t in visual art, or do your poetry and visual art overlap? How do they complement each other?
Visual art for me is a welcome fluidity. It inhabits the space that doesn’t need words, which can open the creative floodgates for when I do write. I enjoy working with color and vividness and spending time in close study with one plant species. Poetry can conjure vibrancy in the imagination, but with art it is tangible on the page. However, poetry can go more places in the mind and seed ideas with more specificity. They are separate and complementary fields of art for me, but undoubtedly doing both enhances my creative process.
Could you describe your writing process? Do you have a specific routine, time, or place where you write? Do you rely more on inspiration or steady work? How do you know when a piece is finished?
I don’t have a set routine or writing process. A common progression is to amass poemlets in a notebook and ruminate on an upwelling of words, thoughts, or feelings. Then, at some point, either in a notebook or computer, the poem takes its full form. Since being in the MFA program, I’ve had to curtail that organic process to be able to produce poems on demand for assignments. It has changed the perception of my process, but I’d rather not force art. When I wait for the upwelling, it is more likely to be a purer artistic creation.
I feel a poem is finished if I have read and reread it over a period of weeks and nothing else strikes me as needing tweaking. Reading aloud really helps. When you stumble, something needs to change.
Format and structure seem to be especially important in “Find the Foci” and “Imagine Being Present and Finding Yourself Gone.” Do you feel that the visual effect of the words on the page is as important as other aspects of a poem, such as rhythm, punctuation, rhyme, alliteration, etc.? Do you have a particular visual image in mind for a poem when you begin to write it?
Some poems I experiment more with inhabiting the page, and for other poems form is not as foregrounded as alliteration or rhyme. I don’t have a specific vision for the poem when it begins. For “Find the Foci” the words make an ellipse that questions a focal point, both physically and metaphorically. I was thinking about geometry that day, and halos that ring the sun. In “Imagine Being Present and Finding Yourself Gone,” the part about left and right sense perception fell naturally into discrete areas of the page. I am fascinated by how letters and words arrange themselves into patterns, and create their own habitats for a reader to inhabit.
Your poetry seems to address the juxtaposition of rational human consciousness with natural forces that either defy or transcend human thought. In “Surrounding the Senses” you write that: “[t]he sensible world wants words but the wind within it isn’t uttering.” What do you find inspiring and/or challenging about writing on this theme?
Good question. We put words to the world, but so much of experience and existence defies expression. It’s a curious thing to use an alphabet to try to brush up against the very thing that language can’t touch. So it’s challenging, but exploring this space definitely holds my creative interest. How can we use words to describe intense, wordless experiences?
I’m also very interested in ecopoetics, and the links between language and our relationship to the non-human other. How do the words we use create and perpetuate binaries with the natural world? How do we enact language about the non-human other in ways that aren’t anthropocentric? Studying ecocriticism and ecopoetics enhanced this philosophical interest, although this is a subject I’m always contemplating.
What do you hope people take away from these poems?
Some poets consider potential readers either while composing or revising, but honestly that doesn’t occur to me when I write. I think it’s more important to create something that feels true to your own vision than worry about whether people will understand it or like it, or will take away a message. So that’s a tough question. I guess my answer is I hope that my poetry makes the reader think or feel something that deepens their understanding of themselves, the human condition, and/or the non-human other. More specifically, many of my poems address the interface between human/nature. I hope that my work makes people think more about that relationship.
Do you have any advice for beginning writers on how to develop their own voice?
Read everything you can and write as much as you can. Your voice will come through with enough nurturing of your creativity. Don’t worry about what other people are writing. Be especially attentive to your inner voice on the edge of sleep. Make sure your creative intuition is honed enough to recognize when feedback is or isn’t useful. Write what feels true, not what you think will get published or liked. Meditate. Find some good mentors and peers to help steer you and encourage you on your writing journey.
Since we’ve grown out of a writers’ workshop, we like to ask: could you share a best—or worst—workshop experience?
Workshops can be useful and fun, and they can also be nightmarish. At best, they are a group of artists skillfully nudging a work towards its greatest iteration and encouraging each other’s creative process. At worst, they become a heated, opinion blasting shame fest. I’ve experienced these extremes and in between. But overall, having a group of writers to bounce ideas off of and get feedback from is invigorating, and is a good way to keep steady on the writing path.