In Seven Questions, we interview writers, editors, designers, and others in publishing. Today we talk to Barbara Hurd, whose essay “The Ear Is a Lonely Hunter” captivated us when it crossed our desks for Ecotone’s sound-themed Issue 20. Hurd teaches in the MFA in Writing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, a NEA Fellowship for Creative Nonfiction, Sierra Club’s National Nature Writing Award, and three Pushcart Prizes. Hurd’s writing launches into meditation from landscapes (caves, bogs) and animals (bats, sea stars).
What books are open on your desk right now?
Loren Eiseley’s Night Country, Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature, Louise Gluck’s Wild Iris, and another half dozen or so.
If you could spend a year writing anywhere in the world, where would it be?
I’d stay right at my desk. I love to travel but I work best at home.
If you could change one thing about a classic work of literature, what would it be?
I wouldn’t change one word of the book itself, but I’d wish that the course of environmental history since 1962 would allow us to reclassify Rachel Carson’s classic Silent Spring as a good science fiction book whose worries would have turned out to be needless. In other words, I wish the book weren’t still so devastatingly accurate.
Your book, Listening to the Savage: River Notes and Half-Heard Melodies, was released in March and another of your titles, Tidal Rhythms: Change and Resilience at the Edge of the Sea, will come out later this year. What can readers expect from these books?
Though both books have undercurrents of worry about environmental degradation, I hope for the reader certain pleasures come first: the pleasures of language, of imaginative musings, of immersion in sensual details of the natural world, and the conundrums of how to live a moral life in such a damaged world.
One of the challenges of writing Listening to the Savage was how to weave the sensibility of a quirky child—my granddaughter, who pretends efts are dragons and is delighted by mud– with my own increasing worries. It was tough and has made me want to think more about how to genuinely be with children in endangered places we cherish.
The Tidal Rhythms book was a stimulating opportunity to work with a master photographer, Stephen Strom. Because I had no interest in merely writing captions, the challenge in that project was to see the tidal regions as he saw them through his camera’s lens, to re-see them through my own lens, and then to re-see them once again through the lens of climate change impact.
So both books, I hope, offer readers the sense of multiple ways of seeing simultaneously, which is, I suspect, how we usually experience the world.
How would you describe the relationship between your writing and environmental activism?
One of the aims of almost all environmental activism is the preservation of biodiversity. Equally crucial, I would maintain, are diversity of voices and ways of calling attention to the natural world. We need the scientists, journalists, activists, etc. to research, testify, protest, publish data, lead inquiries—all the actions that might clarify and perhaps alter what’s happening to our local and global communities. And we need the artists, too–musicians, writers, etc. whose work probes the hidden thoughts and the complex responses of the heart that are so often so difficult to express, which can also clarify what’s happening. We need them to sing the songs and tell the stories that can help us to see the present more clearly and to imagine possible futures.
Though I do some minor work with a local environmental group, my primary labor is with the written word. If the natural world is endangered, in part, because of our willingness to manipulate and exploit it for various political and economic reasons, I’d say language is endangered for similar reasons. Its precision is often diluted and its pleasures twisted for purposes of advertising and group-think. Part of my job as a writer—and reader–is to try to resist that degradation and to see whether the effort of paying scrupulous attention to one may enhance our attention to the other.
When do you feel most confident as a writer?
When that pesky sentence finally becomes clear and graceful and says what I didn’t know I was trying to say.
You have a superpower: You can immediately give to every person on earth one piece of information. What is it?
Everything’s connected. Everything changes. Pay attention. (Oh, wait. That’s three pieces of information. But they’re all connected. )
Typing or longhand? First longhand and then typing.
Silence or music? Silence, so long as it’s not deafening.
Morning or night? Morning.
E-reader or print? Print! I love the physicality of books.
Vowel or consonant? Diphthong.
Train or plane? Train.
Bookmark or dog-ear? Dog ear, which I also use to mark pages—no matter how many–that I want to return to.
Cake or pie? Pie.
Bog or cave? Bog—it has better sounds.
Sea star or bat? Sea star.
We’re rapidly approaching the end of the semester here at UNCW, and are trying to cram in as much learning as possible in these last few weeks, even as spring beckons us to the beach. In honor of the teaching and learning we all do, this week’s post corrals some news worth getting to know.
First up: have you pre-ordered Lookout’s new title yet? Clare Beams’s We Show What We Have Learned comes out in October, but you can reserve a copy now here. About half of the stories take place in schools–from odd assemblies to fraught classrooms–and combine the literary, the historic, and the fantastic into one fabulous collection.
Speaking of Lookout specifically, and the idea of the teaching press more generally, Lookout founder and publisher, Emily Smith, has an essay in the anthology Literary Publishing in the Twenty-First Century (Milkweed), edited by Travis Kurowski, Wayne Miller, and Kevin Prufer, which was officially released on Tuesday of this week. Among some really fantastic and thoughtful essays about the work of–and challenges facing–independent presses and literary magazines, Emily’s essay documents the founding of Lookout Books; the historic success of our debut title, Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision; and our innovative teaching press at UNCW.
We’re lucky here at UNCW to have wonderful teachers, and to bring in guest writers and publishing professionals to boot. Last semester’s visitor, Michael Taeckens, interviewed editor of the NYTBR, Pamela Paul, for Poets & Writers this week.
For those in the know: if you didn’t make it to #AWP16, we still welcome you to use our AWP subscription discount for Ecotone! The code AWP16 grants you two issues for $14.95—two issues at more than 50% off the cover price! Use this knowledge well, friends.
For National Poetry Month, during which we all get to learn and enjoy poetry even more than we usually do, Ecotone is sharing poems from our Sound issue and archives all month long. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter to see when new poems are live. The first few are here, here, and here. And if you’re still hungry for more poems, Ecotone contributor Angie Macri has two poems in Terrain.org. And Ralph Sneeden has another Sound-centric poem (about Hendrix!) in the Southeast Review. Here’s a picture of Ralph reading his poetry this past week at Word Barn for its Silo Series of readings. We heard the acoustics were amazing, and it sounds like such a cool space wherein to learn about words. Thanks to Paul Yoon for the photo!
To take us out, we give you two topics we never tire of learning about: Donald Trump and mini golf. Ecotone contributor Jeff Sharlet had this fascinating story about Trump rallies in NYT Magazine. And have you ever wanted to learn more about mini-golf courses? Me too. Luckily, Ecotone contributor Sarah Bryan has an interesting audio piece up at the Southern Review about her dad’s role as one of the country’s preeminent mini golf course designers.
We hope we’ve given you lots of new things to learn and think about this week, and that your quest for knowledge never ends. We’ll see you back here next time!
There was lots of good news in the halls of Ecotone and Lookout this week, not the least of which is that Lookout author Matthew Neill Null got a starred review from Kirkus for his forthcoming story collection from Sarabande, Allegheny Front. Calling the stories “sometimes lyrical, sometimes scarifying” the reviewer says Matt is “a natural writer with much to say.” We wholeheartedly agree.
It’s been a big week here for Ecotone! Our Sound issue, pictured here, is hot off the press. We hope you’ll check it out, and keep your eye on the blog for more on the issue, the great stuff inside, and its contributors. We’re also profiling sound-related news and writing on Ecotone‘s Facbook page.
And subscribe, why don’t you? Not convinced? How about the fact that Ecotone made BuzzFeed’s list of twenty-nine literary magazines that will help you read better things. That’s pretty compelling, right? The list includes so many other great magazines, too. We hope you’ll check it out.
In other goings-on this week, Ecotone contributor and all-around-hilarious guy Bill Roorbach is visiting our MFA program this semester, and gave a fantastic reading from his forthcoming story collection last night, watched over by a younger (and smoking) version of himself.
Bill is also joined by many other Ecotone contributors–including Rick Bass, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Barbara Hurd, Kathryn Miles, and our own founding editor David Gessner–in this forthcoming collection on fracking. Fracture: Essays, Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America brings together over fifty writers to explore “the complexities of fracking through first-hand experience, investigative journalism, story-telling, and verse.” Check out this video for more.
We hope good news abounds in your neck of the woods, too! We’ll see you back here next week for more happy literary things.
Ecotone’s tagline is “reimagining place,” and we love work that brings us to a specific location, real or imagined. In this department, Save Your Place, we highlight our favorite descriptions of place from work we’ve published at Ecotone and Lookout. And in honor of our forthcoming sound-themed issue–out soon!–we’ve chosen some descriptions of place that sound good, too.
This place is from Joe Wilkins’s essay, “Boys” in Ecotone 11.
“The air is smoky and close. A bookshelf stuffed with paperback westerns and yellowed romances rests near the woodstove in the corner, and a battered pool table shines beneath the glare light of a bare bulb. Beer posters featuring bikinied, big-haired women draped over muscle cars hang from the walls. Country music drifts from a dusty radio on a high shelf behind the bar. Though the long antenna is flagged with tinfoil, whirrups of static snap through the jangling music. On the same shelf sits a small black-and-white television, the screen shifting and flickering without sound. Every table in the place is empty. The men–for they are all men at the Sportsman–sit on tall stools at the bar. Their cowboy hats and ball caps are pulled low, their elbows heavy on the bar lip, bellies sagging beneath. They look at us and do not look at us–a kind of slow, sideways glance. They tip their beer cans to their mouths, wipe their mustaches with the backs of their shirtsleeves.
From the back of the bar, fist on her good hip, Maureen looks us up and down. Maureen owns the Sportsman and is ancient and cantankerous and broad-shouldered and big as any of the men. “Boys,” she says, in a voice that means our answer must be good, “what do you want in here?”