‘What would happen if Nature was given the chance to speak? How gentle would she really be?’ Sophie Finlay Interviews Megan Kaminski

By and | 1 February 2021

SF: Gentlewomen revises and reclaims three female, allegorical representations of nature throughout literature and philosophy referred to in your book as: ‘Natura’, ‘Providentia’ and ‘Fortuna’. Can you outline why you choose to re-imagine the allegorical figures as sisters?

MK: When I was researching and thinking towards the poems, I wanted to really dig into the allegorical treatment of Nature – and that brought me back all the way to Heraclitus’s aphorism ‘Nature loves to hide’ and working with its various interpretations as a means to approach to how we encounter and come to understand our relationship with and within the natural world. (This line of thinking took me pretty far past my original concerns, and into some current projects that think with post-Heideggerian animal and plant studies.) In thinking and reading about Nature as an allegorical figure, I soon encountered her sister Fortune (in Seneca, in Boethius, and later in Le Roman de la Rose (as well as Chaucer’s translations), in Shakespeare’s The Tempest – even childhood memories of Lady Luck from Virginia Lottery ads). I collected snippets of research, excerpts from poems, plays, and philosophical treatises, and early modern prints depicting the two sisters, into a ‘Gentlewomen notebook’ and it all served to seed my imagination, with traces making their way into the poems that I wrote. As for ‘Providence’, I pretty much made her up, at least in the sense of her being a third sister. I wanted to think deeply about care and what it would mean to hold the whole world in one’s care – the beautiful effort and impossibility of that.

SF: The book presents a manifold of poetic speakers in an unfurling of sisterly, maternal, and earth linkages, and offers an expansive understanding of both subjectivity and lyric poetry. How would you characterise your approach or relationship to the lyric voice?

MK: I think of the book as part of an ongoing lyric re-visioning that I’ve been thinking of more broadly as a poetics of permeability – a poetics in which the self is capable of, and perhaps defined by, a porousness which insists upon the co-presence of the other, of the outside, of the self as other. While this permeability insists on a co-presence, it allows simultaneously for moments of distance, for moments to draw back, to refuse, and also to re-enter. I see it as a poetics of compassion and vulnerability, which is both an opening of the self and an acknowledgement of the various systems (people, objects, animals, ecosystems, histories) that compose the self.

I’m interested in the lyric self as site for commingling with historical, cultural, and political systems, with genetic and projective ancestors, with the various plants, animals (including humans), and material objects that inhabit our worlds. I see the beginnings of a map of possibility and recognition and a starting point to greater connection to the world around us on an embodied and personal level. By acknowledging that the self is as much a construction of systems and actions and encounters as it is a construction of the soul and any internally generated sense of self, we also must recognise our interdependence with the various sentient and non-sentient beings that share our planet. We might find possibilities for better understanding our embeddedness in the larger social and physical environment and also routes to change through this clearer and newly informed sight. In this understanding of the self as a dynamic, constructed, and interconnected thing, we can begin to realise different ways of being, to come to a more vital connection to and awareness of ourselves and those we interact with – and we can also use that awareness to build alternative schools of desire, where we can work to unlearn the lessons that keep us apart and replace them with ones based on and in the service of our intrinsic connections.

SF: I think that this idea of a porous, lyrical self transforms our notions of lyric poetry and incorporates the possibility for interconnected, ecological modes of being based on care and kinship. The site of the home also emerges in a number of these poems as either a domestic space or as dwellings within nature. What is the significance of home as a medium for ecological (and other) transformations? How do the ideas of ecopoeisis, particularly as a poetic practice, operate in your work?

MK: The spaces we call home – and the relationships we build and lessons we learn there – form the basis for our entry into and engagement with the world. Moreover, the ways in which we imagine a home, I think, are foundational to the ways in which we see the world and our connections with and responsibilities to others. I might see my home as the physical house where I dwell, as the family members with whom I dwell, as my collection of chosen family, as my place of origin, as the gathering of human and more-than-human inhabitants I interact with on a daily basis, as my neighborhood and community in East Lawrence, as the Kansas River watershed, as the traditional territory of the Kaw, Osage, and Sioux peoples, as the state of Kansas, as the Great Plains, as the United States of America, as Turtle Island, and so on – all these notions and imaginings of home carry different values, different histories, different orientations of the self towards others, and different conceptions of what comprises a self.
I think that the notion of ecopoesis, especially the ways in which seeing the poem as its own ecosystem invites the reader to become a participant in its imagined world, is a valuable one for describing some of the ways in which my poems work. It’s not really something I think about as my guiding poetic practice, though. Perhaps it’s a mode I’ve been so thoroughly immersed in that I no longer see it as resistant or emergent, but rather as a descriptive term that can encompass a wide range of poetry from John Clare’s up to the present. In terms of poetic practices, I’m specifically interested in poetry as a practice of encounter and engagement, and as a mode to access embodied knowledges (personal, collective, and historical). Some of this approach comes from the lineage of phenomenology and plant and animal studies, but I’m also informed by what might be considered an eco-somatic approach. In terms of an artistic practice, Generative Somatics, which connects the embodied healing modalities of somatics to social justice, has been an important touchstone – especially Alta Starr’s brilliant essay ‘Cultivating the Self: Embodied Transformation for Artists.’ I’m also really excited about Petra Kupper’s forthcoming book Eco Soma – and about existing work by scholars like Alison Kafer, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Anna Tsing, Timothy Morton, and Michael Marder that extends and deepens traditional academic research through research practices that also engage with embodied wisdom and other alternative knowledges.

SF: Similarly, your previous books of poetry such as Deep City (Noemi Press, 2015) and Desiring Map (Coconut Books, 2012) reveal an attunement to embodied and sensate experiences which mediate between the environment and the self. Were those eco-somatic approaches functioning in your earlier work? And in what way does Gentlewomen represent a continuation and/or a departure from your previous approaches to poetics?

MK: I don’t think I had even heard of the term eco-somatic when I was writing my earlier books, but it’s hard for me now looking back at those books and my writing practices at the time to see them otherwise. So much of our work as scholars feels like putting words to, or providing explanations for, things we might already know and processes and approaches that already exist in the world. Even though I didn’t know the term eco-somatics, my academic training and research combined with my work in the healing arts and at environment nonprofits – and perhaps through my own particular queer embodiments – oriented my poetic approach in that way. So perhaps more than developing a new approach, I’ve found a language and circle of affiliation that affirms my poetics, and connects it to a network of related approaches amongst eco-arts makers. I definitely started out researching and writing towards Gentlewomen with a set of philosophical and aesthetic questions that were new to me, but, in doing so, I found illuminations that created ways back into, and new ways of thinking with, earlier questions about memory, space, the city, the pastoral, and my own longings for connection.

SF: We’ve talked about your poetic practice and the complex theoretical strands which underpin the work. I’m interested in also hearing about your poetic influences. Can you tell me more about some of the poets who have helped to shape the formation of your writing?

MK: Of course! I have to start with Emily Dickinson, whose poems were certainly my first teacher, and Charles Wright, whom I studied with at the University of Virginia. This time of year (fall in the northern hemisphere) always reminds me of the beautiful ways Wright details the changing seasons and also the ways in which the foothills of the Appalachians, as well as the beaches and wetlands of coastal Virginia, were teachers to me, too, as a young person. Reading Leslie Scalapino, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Michael Palmer, Barbara Guest, Audre Lorde, and Alice Notley was super formative for my early poetics – and they continue to be some of my favorite poets. Erín Moure’s poetry – as well as her mentorship, fierce intelligence, and generosity will forever shape my writing. I also look up to Kate Greenstreet, Evie Shockley, Carmen Giménez Smith, and Selah Saterstrom as kind of poetic big sisters, if they wouldn’t mind me saying that – both for how their writing has opened possibilities and for the ways they have modeled engagement within the world of poetry. And right now, I can’t put down books by Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Claire Meuschke, Danielle Vogel, Brandon Shimoda, Gina Myers, Wendy Trevino, and Vidhu Aggarwal. Also, Douglas Kearney’s recent Bagley Wright lectures (as well as his poetry and other writing), all continue to blow my mind.

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