Rappahannock Review Contributor Spotlight: Interview with
The nonfiction editors, Rappahannock Review: How did you come to decide to structure Form-Fall the way you did?
Marco Wilkinson: Most of my writing finds itself at home with a sensation of shuttling or a kind of skipping, like a stone bouncing across the surface of a lake. So rather than tight lines of argument running from paragraph to paragraph or a stable narrative with discreet voices and setting, it feels more natural for me to write in fragments. I am not someone for whom writing is a disciplined daily practice or an easy habit. I find it very hard to mentally create the space of ease necessary to write. I do, however, think all the time and percolate with images or ideas that bother me, haunt me as I go about my day. In the case of this essay, it started with the dual questions of “How much does New York City weigh?” and “What about all the empty spaces in the earth created by the removal of the stone to make New York?” Those two questions formed the surface tension, so to speak, across which the stones of unfurling thoughts were skipped.
Ultimately, this kind of writing just feels more honest to me, a truer communication of the reality of perception. It flickers. There is white space between our thoughts. The conclusion of the Jane Hirschfield poem, “The Envoy,” rings so true for me: “There are openings in our lives / of which we know nothing.” White space and writing in flickers is a way of acknowledging these openings without needing to “know” them.
RR: How do perceptions of genre influence your writing? Do you intentionally blend genre, or are genre classifications circumstantial to your process?
MW: I don’t know that I actually write too intentionally to break or cross or bend or trans- genre per se. I think that for me, this is simply how I perceive the world and want to communicate to someone else. That said, genre can be incredibly useful, both as a structure to fully inhabit and as a structure to intentionally transgress or hybridize. I live a kind of fitful, schizophrenic professional life — part editor, part horticulturist, part teacher of agriculture, part teacher of writing — and so on the one hand the horticulturist in me makes my sustainable agriculture students learn a new plant and its scientific name every day. Learning the taxonomy of plants is an incredibly useful tool for understanding types and the relationships between those types. By the end of a semester these students will have memorized 80 botanical names and all sorts of information associated with each one.
This is (I think) eminently useful. On the other hand, in my writing course on nature writing and ecopoetics this semester, I had these other students read Derrida’s The Animal That (Therefore) I Am, in which he describes an encounter with his cat. It is the morning and he is standing naked in his bathroom face to face with his cat, which leads to all sorts of philosophical insights into ethics and the subjectivity of the nonhuman and the ways in which humanity as a category (or genre?) needs the nonhuman for its existence. Among the points raised is the violence of the name superseding and overtaking the singularity of the being it denotes. He writes, “I must immediately make it clear, the cat I am talking about is a real cat, truly, believe me, a little cat. It isn’t the figure of a cat… No, no, my cat, the cat that looks at me in my bedroom or bathroom, this cat that is perhaps not ‘my cat’ or ‘my pussycat,’ does not appear here to represent, like an ambassador,the immense symbolic responsibility with which our culture has always charged the feline race… If I say ‘it is a real cat’ that sees me naked, this is in order to mark its unsubstitutable singularity.”
We can learn names for things, we can organize our worlds through these names, we can move through a world of names, we can speak and write names like little bubbles into larger bubbles, but eventually…. pop!… there is another world of utter singularity. And to try to inhabit that world is an ethical gesture one needs to make over and over again.
RR: How do the places you have lived in or seen create an image of this nature/industry cycle? What are those places and how do they influence you?
MW: I grew up in Rhode Island, birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution, and old factories dot the landscape of my little town, usually along the rivers that once powered them. My mother used to work in several of them, making textiles or soap or paint dyes. I remember being maybe three or four and being on the workshop floor of one of these factories for some reason. There were great pea-soup-green machines and a constant cavernous whirring and a heady intoxicating smell of God-know’s-what kind of chemical vapours.
I also lived in New York City for many years, first as a student, then as a bookseller at the treasure that is St. Mark’s Bookshop, then as a horticulturist. You can so easily forget that the world is anything but a man-made machine in New York, and you start to wonder how far down you would need to go underneath the city to reach the earth. But then you discover the mountain of Inwood Park or you see the October sunset pink against the stone sculptures in the courtyard of the Isamu Noguchi museum with the cold lavender blue of the sky behind, and the earth is right there, erupting into your consciousness.
RR: What do you find most influences your writing? From where do you draw inspiration?
MW: I find that those ideas that catch like burrs in the folds of my brain and stick are ones that arrive when I am doing work outside. Raking leaves, these days. Something about physical activity, and especially physical activity towards a purpose — work — frees my mind from its usual cul-de-sacs and lets those “openings in our lives/ of which we know nothing” dilate. The lines that follow and close that Hirshfield poem describe exactly my thoughts while working: “Through them/ the belled herds travel at will/ long-legged and thirsty, covered with foreign dust.” They are self-willed and unbidden. They travel to the strangest places in mind and have come from no place I could have predicted or planned for. And I am so grateful for that “foreign dust,” that stuff transmitted from an unknown and unknowable land.
Another more straightforward way of answering your question might be to list things like:
— horticulture. I trained as a horticulturist at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and at Stonecrop Gardens. Those two years of training gave me a framework for the way I see the natural world. The moment in “Form-Fall” where worms pull fallen leaves down into the ground comes directly from my time at Stonecrop.
— permaculture. I took a Permaculture Design certification course in 2009 with Darren Dougherty, and it transformed the way I conceived of relating with the world.
— Zen practice. I have been a Zen Buddhist for fifteen years and that practice has everything to do with the kind of worldview my writing inhabits.
— small things. I have always been fascinated by small things. Mosses, fungi, lichen. Huts, hermits.
RR: What are you currently working on?
MW: I am working on a book-length lyric memoir about growing up the queer only child of a single immigrant mother without knowing anything about my father. The whole thing is structured around weeds — those things, like me, that are invisible yet ubiquitous, excessive and unwanted, wild but always underfoot.
I have also been working on building a wattle hut and writing about that experience.
Marco Wilkinson’s work in Issue 2.1: