An Interview with Jeffrey Thomson, by Heidi Sistare
May 9, 2016
Jeffrey Thomson’s most recent book, fragile, is a memoir that covers years and many miles, exploring our relationship to the natural world and to risk. It’s a story that gives us unfettered access to Thomson’s thoughts; we share his experiences with travel, teaching, fatherhood, and the edge between living and dying. In addition to being a memoirist, Thomson is a poet, translator, and teacher. I spoke with Thomson about place, collaboration, and his current project—a historical novel inspired by Thomson’s own ancestry set in the 1700s. He also shares the most important lessons he hopes to impart to his students and reminds us: “Writing is about learning. Always.”
With the exception of your memoir, fragile, all of your books are poetry. Why did you decide to write a memoir and how was the writing process different from your other books?
I decided to write a memoir when I almost died. That’s not when I started writing what became fragile, but it is when I first focused the jumbled mess of narratives and images into a single story, into a real memoir. For several years, I had been working on a fragmented and lyric series of pieces about place and nature—rainforests and quetzals and macaws and monkeys—but they lacked a story. They wandered. A connecting and controlling thread was missing. Then I ended up in the doctor’s office with heart problems, serious heart problems that required surgery. Facing the heart problem meant facing a real and consequential moment in my life. But it also echoed back through the years and my experience in the wild. I realized that I had a few other similar near-death moments hiding in the work I had been doing about Costa Rica and Alaska, these stories hiding in plain sight. Those moments—properly developed—became the ground for the memoir to stand on. Solid ground.
So then, the process of the memoir, really, became a twofold challenge for me. First I had to find the central story that gathered all my wanderings together and then, second, I had to really learn how to write prose. I had to focus on not just one image or metaphor or line; I had to focus on scene and narrative. I had to bring characters to life and to think about setting (always setting). I desperately want my readers to see the different worlds I bring them to. Poetry is insistent while memoir is persistent, says Tracy K. Smith. And that’s right. But I didn’t know it until I taught myself that lesson.
In fragile you take readers across years and between continents. Can you talk about your choice to include all of this travel in a single story and how you organized time and place for the reader?
The answer to this has to do, somewhat, with what I just said. I found the central narrative of risk and threat and needed that full arc—from biking up Cerro de la Muerte as a 20-year old through my adventures in the rainforest and finally into an operating theater in Boston—to tell the story. But another aspect is the idea of place. I am very interested in place—not just one particular place—but place as a concept that creates and defines how we as human see and experience the world. I think the places we inhabit—and everyone inhabits place somewhere—not only act as the staging ground for our stories, but these places define the kind of stories we can, in fact, tell. Americans tell certain kind of stories not just because we share a linguistic or cultural background (we don’t, really). We tell certain kinds of stories because we live in and encounter and create a certain kind of landscape. So when I am moving across the Americas (the wild, wilderness, open and natural space) I tell a particular kind of story, but with each return to the central narrative that story deepens. Then when I end the memoir in Europe—old cities, deep with memory and history—I tell a different kind of story, but one that hopefully resonates with the American stories.
The New Faces of Belfast includes poems from your time in Northern Ireland, the poems in Birdwatching in Wartime explore some of the same locations as fragile—Costa Rica and Peru, The Country of Lost Sons focuses on war and childhood, and The Poems of Catullus: An Annotated Translation is a translation of work from the Roman poet. Are there any common themes that you continue to explore across these landscapes and in these books?
Place. As I said before, I am desperately invested in place. I dislike writing that doesn’t do the necessary work to place a reader in a world (even if that world is fully imagined) and I respond like a child to writing that does the opposite. That fully immerses me in a specific locale with its the rich and quirky possibilities. That’s the writing I love.
But I am also interested in violence. Violence and the human response to it. Social violence (the Troubles in Northern Ireland or the wars in Bosnia, for example.). Personal violence. Literary violence. But also the violence of language on experience. And the violence of beauty on time. Maybe a better world is extremity. Extreme situations. These are crux moments that carry deep levels of meaning. They carry their own meaning, of course, but they also echo back in time and pick up the vibrations of history. I guess that’s another theme isn’t it. History. When I talk about Led Zeppelin debuting “Stairway to Heaven” in Belfast, or my encounter with the grave of Brian Boru, first king of Ireland, those moments are also linked to multiple other possible moments in time and it is my job to find the right echoes and connect the threads so that the reader can hear the resonance.
Poetry is about finding connections and links—that’s metaphor, right? Saying that one thing is another is another. That’s a radical and weird way of communicating, but metaphor allows us to say more than the limited palette of words can do alone. And that’s what poems do best, isn’t it? They find the deep human heart of someone or something (maybe several somethings) and create for the reader an equivalent space in her own life.
In fragile you describe your co-exploration of landscapes with your students, Catullus was a partnership with a classicist, and Blind Desire was a piece of work published for an exhibit at The Mattress Factory Museum in Pittsburgh. What are your thoughts about collaborative work? What are the challenges and benefits of working in partnership across disciplines?
Writing is about learning. Always. My writing is about me teaching myself what I think and how I think. And sometimes I can teach myself what I need to know to say what I want to say, but often times I can’t. It takes help. It takes another eye to see the new angle, another voice to sing harmony. When you join with another creative person to collaborate, it is more than 1 +1. Good collaboration is more like 5 x 1, because the other person, she brings not just her work to the table, but her life and her experiences and her complexities. And that comes with a challenge, as you say. I can’t simply dictate or decide. My narrative doesn’t always win. But that’s also a good lesson in life. Sometimes other people are smarter than me. Pay attention. Listen.
Can you describe your interest in ecology and environmental writing? What is the writer’s role in exploring, understanding, or defining our environment?
The American experience was forged out of an encounter with raw wilderness. But that wilderness was raw because Europeans introduced into the landscape a variety of diseases that killed close to 90% of the native human population (alongside other violent assaults). So as Europeans moved across the Americas (North and South), we moved into a landscape that had been suddenly freed of its human occupants and was rebounding. This world was full of animal life and abundant, but it was artificial in a way. So we encountered a wild and unnatural Eden. And we have, at many levels, been trying to get back to that landscape ever since. So when I talk about American stories, this is what I mean. Sort of.
There is a primal loss in the American way of being at home in a place, right? But at the same time, that loss drives us to define and recreate place in ways that are unusual. Part of the project of American environmental writing has always been salvation—not Christian salvation but the salvation of place and thus the salvation of the self. The first national park in the world—Yellowstone—was in the US. Yosemite is the second and its existence is due in no small part to a writer—John Muir. Ed Abbey in Arches. Margery Stoneman Douglas in the Everglades. The list goes on. Find a place that has been set aside and there was someone there telling the story of that place to the world. Standing in the road of progress, yelling, “Stop!”
But what Thoreau—the father of all nature writers—teaches us is that the salvation of wildness doesn’t have to come on a grand scale. It can come from the wildness of your backyard bean plot, from the local pond. There is always something worth saving. Sometimes it is just yourself. That’s my story, isn’t it?
If students take only one lesson from your courses what do you hope it is and why? When and how did you learn this lesson?
Can I have two? If you are talking about my writing classes, I want the students to learn the lesson that language matters. The sound of the words and their sense. The way language—when put together just right—can make a kind of magic on the page and in the mind. This takes effort and attention. And patience. But it is worth it. When it clicks, for the writer and for the reader, fireworks happen.
If you are talking about my Costa Rica course, it isn’t all about the writing. It’s about place in general and the tropics in particular. I want to the students to learn that place matters. That there is a freshness deep down things (to paraphrase Hopkins) that rewards attention and persistence. That wildness is both grand and small—monkeys and volcanoes, quetzals and poison dart frogs and tarantula wasps. Costa Rica is particularly useful in this regard—there is such a profusion of species and landscapes, such a richness. But anywhere in the world the same lesson applies. Pay attention. There is something interesting going on.
I guess, if pressed, I can say that this is really the same lesson. Just spread out in two different ways.
What are you working on now and what has inspired this writing?
I am writing a historical novel set in the mid-1700s in Scotland, Ireland, and the American colonies. The story is told in two voices—Anne and William—who are in fact my ancestors. But the facts end there, mainly because I have so few of them. I have created a whole new life for them and tried to imagine why William left his home—not just once but twice. He emigrated first to Ireland as part of the Plantation of the North, but then left Ireland with a wife and a child for the colonies. Why? I am really fascinated by liminal moments like this—moments of transition and change—and they lived them.
I am in the revision process and it’s a wonderful and complicated thing trying to revise something this large. You have to work small—at the level of sentence and scene and sensory detail—but then you also need to be thinking at the macro scale: How is this scene working to develop the story as a whole? That’s a complicated process and tough. It’s hard to hold it all in my head at any one time. But the process is teaching me a great deal about people and story and the way both come together.
Novels, it seems to me, are in many ways about empathy. As a writer I need to imagine someone else’s life as fully and as richly as I possibly can. The characters need motivation and complication. They cannot be mere cardboard cutouts that I move through the plot. The story flows through them and is them—as the arc of our human lives flows through us and our actions.
Jeffrey Thomson is a poet, memoirist, translator, and editor, and is the author of multiple books including his new memoir, fragile, the poetry collection Birdwatching in Wartime, The Complete Poems of Catullus: an Annotated Translation, and From the Fishouse. He has been an NEA Fellow, the Fulbright Distinguished Scholar in Creative Writing at the Seamus Heaney Poetry Centre in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and the Hodson Trust-John Carter Brown Fellow at Brown University. He is currently professor of creative writing at the University of Maine Farmington.
Heidi Sistare writes from her home in Portland, Maine, where she attended the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. You can view her published work on her website: www.heidisistare.com.