Interview with Nathan Erwin

Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: We’re interested in how “A Dream of Salamanders” establishes civilization and nature as contradictory entities. How would you say you approach nature in your writing, and how does your own relationship with nature make its way into your work?

Nathan Erwin: I’m not certain that nature and civil society are at odds. It’s a dream poem, after all. Poems, like dreams, become subjects of psychoanalysis, literary critique, and theoretical investigation. I don’t necessarily believe these to be good or bad things, but simply an afterlife of our Western academic leanings. In many other hyper-local and indigenous communities, dreams––as well as poets––serve the interest of the public (society), the extended family, and the individual. Poets, poems, and dreams as guides.

In this piece, the dreamscape is rendered in a forested beyond, a place that extends past the metropolises, the peri-urban, and even past pastures of goat and sheep. And yet, somehow in the absence of all these things, “civilization” was conjured in your interpretation. It’s there. Alive in the white space. The vernal pool and the wandering cloud call forth modernity. To me, we (as individuals and even the broader spectacle of society) are not separate or contradictory to the natural world. We are of it. Your body is the cosmos. In the dream poem, two generations enter into a communing with that cosmic space.

With regard to nature in my work, I write through the land. I was born and raised in the foothills of the Alleghenies, and my current collection of poetry focuses on this particular place—its folkways, rural life, and people. Professionally, I am a land-based organizer, which is to say, I work with relational power across land-based communities to bring about revolutionary change; I work or have worked with communities including the Pocasset Tribe of the Pokanoket Nation in the Northeastern United States, Palestinian date farmers, the Ixil Maya of Santa Avelina, and Latino/a/e ranchers in northern New Mexico. My organizing permeates my poetry and so I perceive the world through a land ethic of care and collective resistance.

RR: There seems to be this transcendental—almost telepathically aligned—sort of connection between the mother and child figures referenced in the poem alongside other themes of civilization. Can you talk about how these themes came into the poem?

NE: Yes, to alignment. The speaker in “A Dream of Salamanders” narrates for the reader rather than the mother. But, he doesn’t need to. In the dream fabric, they are not separate. A feeling of transcendental alignment is a natural unfolding of this interbeing. The images of milk and bread are emblematic of a few meaning layers—one being this mother-son unity. Bread raises the socio-religious sharing that cuts across spiritual traditions: from “the reverse of offerings” referred to in Ancient Egyptian foodways to Jesus’s naming himself “the bread of life” in John. Milk carries a more primordial calling; what Irish writer and philosopher John Moriarty would call, “bush soul.” The feeding from the mother. The first libation that draws us from the cusp of the womb into this life. 

How these themes arrive is unclear. Perhaps, they are fragments of my own dreams. Images that bubble up in my writing from years of studying Celtic and Appalachian myth and folktales along with a life spent crawling in the dirt of wild places.

RR: You mention in your bio that you’re from Northern Appalachia. How does this identity influence your poetry?

NE: Northern Appalachia consists of counties in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, and the northern portion of West Virginia. It is a place with its own unique heritage often overlooked in conversations of Appalachia as a whole. In my region, the Twin Tiers, there is a beautifully strange blend of The Northerner and The Redneck (proudly claimed). Being from Northern Appalachian, or more specifically the rural Southern Tier, means waterfalls in deep glens and bonfires, it means knowing everyone in town, it means front porch stories and rifle cracks during hunting season. While the region is predominantly white, there are many diverse communities that exist in this place; however, their story is not mine to tell. I aim to help distinguish a literary identity for the region that draws from contemporary and mythic sources.

RR: There seems to be a lot of religious imagery in this poem, such as the reference to the seventh day in the creation story. Do you bring in religion or mythology often, and if so, how do you approach doing so?

NE: Religious in some sense, yes. But not of an Abrahamic line. The number seven is a sacred number in many cultures—I also just like its physical shape. Shakespeare wrote about the seven ages of men. Celtic-Appalachian sources take the number’s perfect order, the numerological cosmic cycle, one step further: the pre-colonized Scots and Irish were concerned with principle more than order—a symbol of their seven planets and sometimes a tool for referencing the inexact or several. The oak tree is linked with the number seven and stands against all odds, a symbol of strength in diversity, protection, and magi. My poetry draws from pre-Christian Celtic story, Cherokee (Echota) cosmovision, Appalachian folkways, and Buddhist practice (Plum Village tradition). The first three are tied directly to my lineage and have been passed to me by elders; the later, I have cultivated in sangha (community) through years of practice.  My approach to these spiritual perceptions is a rooting in place. Sometimes this is physical—the beaver pond of my childhood—but oftentimes it is imaginative, a looking for the “hidden country,” the dreamtime laid across landscape that calls up old stories and embodied ways of being.

RR: Why salamanders?

NE: I love salamanders. Fascinating amphibians. Some are terrestrial, while others live almost their whole lives underwater. Salamanders can even regenerate severed limbs; this works quite nicely as a metaphor for how we process loss and trauma. The highest diversity of salamanders is on the east coast of North American, especially in the Appalachian Mountains. So, in the poem, another nod to place. Etymologically, “salamander” comes from Old French salamandre, or “legendary fire beast,” and whose Latin roots, salamandra, also means “a lizard that extinguishes fire.” These small creatures often were thought to be fire spirits. Through both indigenous wisdom and Western scientific perspective, salamanders are indicator species of environmental quality. With a semipermeable, sensitive skin, salamanders can only live where there is healthy land and water, and so, an abundance of salamanders point to a healthy ecosystem.

As children, my friends and I would spend hours scouring under rocks and rotting logs for redbacks and spotted salamanders. Once or twice, we even wrangled a hellbender from its muddy depths. For me, salamanders invite us to touch the earth, get dirty in it, and find ourselves again.


Read “A Dream of Salamanders” by Nathan Erwin in Issue 11.2