The annual Home Voices Festival brings together alumni and current students of the Creative Writing and Environment program at Iowa State University. The Festival celebrates the accomplishments the alumni have had since graduating, as well as current students’ successes as they make their way through the program. This reading is often the first event of the spring semester’s Pearl Hogrefe Visiting Writers Series at Iowa State.
These interviews were conducted after the 2019 Festival, held on January 27th, by recent ISU graduate, Shelby Rae Stringfield. You can find her on Twitter @Rae_Stringfield.
Eric, it was nice to hear you read from this collection at Home Voices. It’s so exciting that someone from my cohort has been able to succeed in publishing their work before even graduating—congrats! I’d like to ask you a few questions so our readers can get to know you and find out a bit about your interests and inspirations.
The Providence of Grass is your first poetry collection. Could you tell us a bit about how the title is emblematic of the themes in your collection?
Thank you for the interview and you’re welcome! The title comes from a line in the first poem in the collection, “Moth Song” and I realized afterwards that line contained the theme of much of my poetry up to that point. The theme that there is an invisible reality, a force, a driving ultimate reality behind nature that was in the cosmos before humanity and will be here long after everyone we know dies. “Providence” in theological terms often means divine intervention, although there is a secondary meaning behind providence, that there is sustaining lifeforce upholding the cosmic order. Traditional monotheists attribute that to God, Hindus call this ultimate reality Brahma, Daoists call it Dao, and many indigenous people believe in spirits hidden behind physical reality. Grass growing resembles the slow unfolding of nature. Grass has grown during the Pleistocene, the Roman Empire, even after all the megafauna and Caesars have died.
Among other things, your poems aim to make the reader confront the impermanence of life. Can you tell us a bit about how you came to explore such a weighty conversation? Are there experiences or inspirational books and authors that brought this topic to the forefront of your creative imagination?
I feel fixated on the idea of being mortal. To be honest, I see no reason to think I’ll live on through an afterlife in eternal paradise—that kind of seems to avoid the harsh reality of transience. So, I felt I was forced to cope with this “mortal coil.” We can still affirm life even though it is short. Eternity may not even be desirable. William Blake wrote in “Auguries of Innocence” about seeing worlds in grains of sand, and eternity in an hour. Perhaps he meant that eternity is all around us, that we’re participating in it, and when the human animal feels less attached to the construct of Time, we feel liberated into that eternity. Eternity is not an everlasting amount of time. It is without time. It is freedom.
I’m going to be boring and use 19th century Walt Whitman in his collection “Leaves of Grass” as my primary inspiration for these insights. He wrote about grass being “the beautiful uncut hair of graves”—something that lives on, even from the dead bodies of mortal humans There’s also Father Thomas Berry’s notion of the New Story. Berry was a Catholic Priest (1914-2009) who wrote about the heroic journey of matter, from the Big Bang, the beginning of life and the evolution of animals. The cosmos a sacred reality in his books, The Dream of the Earth and The Great Work Our Way into the Future about seeing the cosmos as sacred living realities, which the human cannot be separated from.
There’s another Berry, Wendell Berry I take inspiration from, more from his essays in The Unsettling of America, where he also describes a new approach to agriculture and our relationship to nature. If we don’t understand the whole of everything is holy, and equal to humanity, we will continue to trash the planet and may ultimately destroy ourselves.
Your poems often focus on non-human life, from plants (as in the title) to animals. Do you hope your human readers understand or learn something specific from this focus, something that they can take into their own lives?
My purpose is diffuse binaries, most notably, the human and nonhuman. Philosopher Jacques Derrida in his lecture “The Animal that Therefore I am” rightly understand how problematic our notion of animality is, that is to say, humans are a category, “the paragon of animals” per Hamlet, “the measure of all things” per the sophist Protagoras, and animals are a distinct, inferior category. If I can give anything to people regarding the nonhuman, it’s to pay attention to birds, flowers, squirrels and understand there is rich a beautiful life outside my reader’s human, limited concerns.
You’re about to complete your MFA here at Iowa State. How has the environmental focus of the program impacted or inspired your writing and creative process? Is there something you’ve learned in this program that you’ll take with you into your future projects, future writing life, career?
Well, the workshops aren’t a whole lot different than other universities I’ve been to, although I do find the Iowa State’s workshops kinder and more constructive. The environment is a component to everyone’s writing in the program, although I think that one of the truly innovative aspects of Iowa State’s MFA program is that the coursework goes beyond the English department, require 12 hours of environmentally themed outside coursework. I’ve learned so much in those outside course, from a Religious Ecology course my first semester, a US Environmental History course, even an anthropology course that broaden my understanding of “environment” to mean so much more than wilderness or simply nonhuman. There is no such binary. This is primarily I’m taking into my future life, that to be pro-animal is to be pro-human, to be pro-ecology to be against environmental racism and pollution of cities. Everything is natural. Per careers, I’ve applied to both teaching jobs and jobs associated with the environment. The program has helped a lot there.
Lastly, what project or projects are you currently focused on?
I’m trying to finish up my thesis, which encapsulated animality, romanticism, childlike sensibilities, and how to be affirmative and joyful in our world with so much extinction, wars, and despair. I have the audacity to believe that life is beautiful.
Eric Fisher Stone is from Fort Worth, Texas. He received his MFA in Writing and the Environment from Iowa State University, and now works as a college writing tutor and composition adjunct. His first full length poetry collection The Providence of Grass has been published in June 2018 by Chatter House Press. His has over two dozen poems published in magazines such as The Lyric, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Jersey Devil Press, The Hopper among others.