In Conversation with Clinton Crockett Peters
This spring I cracked open a Black Warrior Review issue to see an essay chapbook by Nicole Walker that was both personally discursive but aware of the processes that encircle the globe. And it wasn’t preachy, imperative, or overly sentimental. It was, essentially, an eco-essay, a nonfiction that included ecological investigations sandwiched within the ancient and contemporary revolutionized form of Montaigne (and before him Petrarch, Cicero, Plutarch, and many more). A searching not sermonizing voice. Quickly I dashed off a fan letter and bought her book of essays Quench Your Thirst With Salt, winner of Zone 3’s Creative Nonfiction Prize. I inhaled the work within a short time and asked if I could speak with her for AMRI. She agreed, claiming that she found the “collaborative” elements of an interview, more pleasant than the lonely one of writing.
Besides Quench, Walker is also the author of a collection of poems, This Noisy Egg (Barrow Street, 2010). She edited, along with Margot Singer, Bending Genre: Essays on Nonfiction, published by Bloomsbury Press in 2013. She’s won an NEA Grant, and is a graduate of the University of Utah’s doctoral program. Currently she is an Associate Professor of Poetry and Creative Nonfiction at Northern Arizona University and nonfiction editor of DIAGRAM. She and her city, Flagstaff, are hosting the semi-annual NonfictioNOW conference in October. We spoke in early August.
CCP: First off, could you tell me a little bit about how your book, Quench Your Thirst With Salt came together?
NW: When I was writing the essays for the book, I knew I would be moving away from Salt Lake soon—my hometown where I had returned for graduate school at the University of Utah. Growing up there, I couldn’t wait to get out. I left for Oregon as soon as I could. But after I went back, I had a different perspective. I loved the city. My family was there. The mountains—there are no better mountains. But, because I would presumably graduate, I had to get a job—which meant I would have to leave home. Universities rarely hire their own grads. I wrote everything I could about Salt Lake while I was still there. Like tectonics plates crushing into each other, the pressure of leaving created a lot of material. Each essay fomented another essay. I see the book like a matroyshka doll (and, like an earthquake, and like a lot of similes, of which the book has many!). Each essay, if you look inside it, suggests the kernel of another essay.
CCP: Do you consider yourself a “nature” writer, environmental author, eco-essayist? What do these terms mean for you (if anything)?
NW: I think I have a subject but not a cause. I am a little too flippant to be a proper environmental writer. It’s hard for me to be earnest all the time. But I do think my essays are ecologies. Each one bears upon the other just as mycelium in the forest bear upon the success of Ponderosa trees. Each little detail, image, or story serves to prop up the rest. I think to a large degree, with that definition, everyone is an eco-writer—relying on the words and punctuation and scene to make a forest-of-a-writing happen.
CCP: Do you find the writing world receptive to environmental investigations? Why?
NW: No. No one likes to hear about the end of the world. Or, rather, we DO like to hear about it but don’t want to do anything about it. We want to see what happens with climate change, just like we want to stick around for the climax of a story. We don’t like to be told what to do and we don’t like to change very much. But I do think we like to witness and observe, as William Carlos Williams would say. We would like someone else to drive the car (or, in the case of environmentalism, to ride the bike).
CCP: Do you see “environmental” writing as changing or needing to change? Can those of us who aren’t preaching the lost cause make a space for ourselves?
NW: I have spent a lot of time talking with Chris Cokinos about this. When environmentalist writing, or even nature writing, sounds like a eulogy, I think it creates, just like a funeral creates, inaction. You go to funerals to sit and mourn, not do anything. However, I don't think environmentalist writing should be all "now go out and monkey wrench some bulldozers," which it could, but doesn't have to. I think instead of preaching or mourning or galvanizing the troops, environmental writing should be funny and fun and scientific and beautiful because that's what nature is and what we're trying to appreciate/save/illustrate--which, in the end, galvanizes the troops better than preaching or mourning.
CCP: I’m very intrigued by your, for me, successful organization of micro essays seemingly stitched together into a larger, coherent essays. Are these tabulated separately and arranged or written in flow?
NW: I write poetry and nonfiction. When I get stuck with one genre, I slip into the other. Microcosm, the name of the manuscript that houses short, micro-essays within long, research-driven essays was so fun to write because, as I was writing about how certain microorganisms can reduce nitrates into nitrogen, and, if I got stuck on the chemistry, I could escape into another genre and write a short, lyric, microessay about microfilm or microsoccer.
CCP: Poetry seems to have obviously influenced your sense of form, structure, word choice, and style in your nonfiction. I wonder if you could speak to training in cross disciplines?
NW: I have the same faith in the reader that a poet has—I try, in every word choice, in the structure, in the images, to refract the essay in each constituent part. It probably doesn’t work as perfectly as I’d like when the essays get long and unwieldy, but I do like to imagine that inside every part, the whole. I think a lot about voice, both in my poems and in my essays. It’s a slightly different voice in each genre, but my favorite times writing are when I have access to the voice and it unfurls—whether in a pantoum or a lyric essay.
CCP: Could you speak a little about organizing the 2015 NonfictioNow Conference in October? How has the process been?
NW: Organizing the conference has been mind-blowing. It’s been a lot of work. I had no idea how hard it would be to schedule panels! To make sure not one person on two panels is scheduled for the same time. To not duplicate topics in one hour. To attend to special requests. But the work has been a gift, too. I’ve talked to and met people I never would have otherwise. I have the chance to bring 500 people to Flagstaff and NAU and introduce them to each other. I’m so looking forward to hosting the keynotes and the panelists. I want to tell them where to eat dinner and where to look for turkey vultures and how to get to Sycamore canyon. I can’t wait for the hybrid forms panelists to meet the theory panelists and for them to meet to the journalism panelists and for them to meet the writing about weird places panelists. It’s going to be too much and too great all at once. I cannot wait.
CCP:How do you get to Sycamore Canyon?
NW: You have to drive out past the arboretum on Woody Mountain Road (Forest Road 231). You could even stop at the arboretum and say 'hello' to the penstemons and watch the raptor show which I haven't done but mean to do at least once a week. Then, to get to Turkey Butte lookout (a different kind of raptor show), take road 538a. Stop. Don't drive off the cliff. If you want to hike from the bottom (AKA, Sedona), then you have to look at a map because I've never gone in from there.
CCP: You’ve said that it is very important not to strike a “preachy” tone in your work. I agree completely, but I wonder if you think this is more of a land mine for particular types of writing?
NW: In this individualistic culture, no one likes to be told what to do. I don’t like to be told what to eat or when to get off Facebook, or what to drive or how to raise my kids or what temperature to keep my thermostat. With things like climate change, it’s going to take an interest in the collective good for us to make any individual changes. Right here, these sentences are thick with self-righteousness. Even I’m running away from them and I said them. But when we try to impinge on any of that individual rights business in our writing, your reader runs away too. So preachy is bad. Even global statements like “In this individualistic culture.” Ugh. I take it back. Turn the heat up to 80! Drive a Hummer! Be free! Read my books! Don’t listen to me!
CCP: Do you think this same individualistic gag reflex holds true when reading about other social ills or is it something in particular about eco-issues?
NW: I think I'm particularly sensitive to preachiness—maybe because I hail from Utah—but I do think it's true that preaching is the fastest way to lose an audience. In my undergrad nonfiction class last fall, we talked about Ferguson and the protest over Michael Brown's death. Letting other people tell their stories, or just telling the stories, seems to me more effective than telling people what to do. That's why I think teaching creative writing is so fantastic. It's a space where telling your story is its own persuasion.
CCP: Many of your essays contain research wrapped around the personal, and I’m wondering (chicken or egg) which came first. Was there lots of digging that necessitated a personal backbone, or was there a self-story that needed broader contextualization? I’m thinking particularly of the longer essay that concludes the book, “Where the Wild Things Are,” which links a respect for wolves to a fear of sexual predators.
NW: Like dipping into other genres, dipping into research offers some relief from writing about icky subjects. But I like to use to research too to provide some meaning to the self-focused events. If narrative is one thing happening after another—and one of the main reasons someone reads a text—then the other reason they read is for meaning. I do see metaphors and refractions in everything—which may be a brain flaw but also lets me try to see how there might be meaning in these seemingly random “one thing happening after another” narratives. By crashing the granite-y research-driven bits into the soft earth of the personal narrative, something interesting emerges from that intersection. Maybe lava.
CCP: Who are the writers that you look up to or communicate with as per your distinctive style? Do you find yourself working within a broader community of “eco-essayists/imaginists/artists”?
NW: There are two projects that I’ve worked on that have been the most generative and the most inspiring were the 7 Rings project on the Huffington Post and the book and website Bending Genre. For 7 Rings, which I curated with my friend, the artist Rebecca Campbell, every 24 hours, a writer would respond to an artist. In the next 24 period, a new artist responded to the writer. To bring art together between these different disciplines was exhilarating. And, for Bending Genre, for the book, edited with Margot Singer, I was able to deepen my appreciation and understanding of the work of people like Ander Monson, Jenny Boully, Steve Fellner, Brenda Miller, David Lazar, Wayne Kostenbaum, T Clutch Fleischperson, and Kazim Ali. And, when I started inviting other writers to participate on the Bending Genre website—writers like Justin Hocking, Liz Stephens, Sean Prenteiss, Jill Talbot, Sonya Huber, Erin Stalcup, Kirk Wisland—so many excellent nonfiction writers had so many rich and complex things to say about the genre—my understanding of the genre expanded exponentially. Each time I publish an essay, I feel like I’ve broadened my community of writers.