Bloom: Your first book of poems, Blue Window, is situated in Mississippi, which is interesting because Mississippi is not your first home. Were you writing much poetry before moving to Mississippi? How did your writing life develop?
Ann Fisher-Wirth: I started writing poetry seriously after moving to Mississippi. Before that, I primarily wrote literary criticism: a book on William Carlos Williams and numerous essays on Williams, Willa Cather, and various other literary figures. But I had always wanted to write poetry. Shortly after my family and I arrived in Oxford in 1988, I audited a poetry workshop taught by my friend Aleda Shirley, and I loved it so much that I decided that’s what I would focus on from then on. Luckily, I had received tenure at the University of Mississippi by then, so I had the freedom to follow my desires, even though that meant abandoning a book project on Willa Cather to work on what became my first book of poems, Blue Window.
I was an Army brat, so I have lived in many places. I was born in Washington, D. C., and lived as a child in Germany, Pennsylvania, and Japan, before my father retired from the Army and my parents decided to move to Berkeley, California. I went to college in Claremont, California, then spent three years with my first husband teaching at an International School in Belgium, then returned to Claremont for graduate school, during which years I had three children. After I received my Ph.D., we all moved to Virginia. I divorced, remarried, had another child, and 26 years ago Peter and I brought our blended family to Mississippi–though our children by our first marriages came and went. I’ve also had Fulbrights to Switzerland and Sweden.
Bloom: Can you talk about your collaboration with Maude Schuyler Clay? How does it work? Are you responding to photographs she’s already taken? How has this work been received so far? What have you learned from others as this project unfolds?
AF-W: Thanks for asking about this new project, Mississippi. I have known Maude Schuyler Clay for many years, though not well; though she doesn’t live in Oxford, she has deep ties with the literary and arts community here and we have mutual close friends. I chose one of her photographs to be the cover of my fourth book of poems, Dream Cabinet. She mentioned in passing that sometime she’d like to “do something together,” and eventually I was able to take her up on the idea. She began sending me .pdf’s, choosing among the thousands and thousands of photographs she has taken, and I began writing poems in response to them—not all of them, by any means. With one exception, the photographs are not of people, but rather of swamps, fields, trees, derelict buildings, weather, dogs—but they evoke Mississippi so powerfully that I would begin to hear voices speaking their lives through these images. It’s a matter of listening, waiting. These poems are all about voice.
Bits of my own experience coalesce in creating these speakers who are not me. For instance, the poem “Had me a dog once”…. In 1995 we found the starving puppy, who became our dog GrizzLee, abandoned in a forest, and the vet told us that he had probably been turned out to die because he didn’t look like he would be a good hunting dog. That’s the story I created for the dog in my poem. Then, I’ve noticed that men around where I live, including my two grown sons, often punctuate their conversation with “You know what I mean?” So that made its way into the poem too—though my sons would never abandon a dog. I like the horrifying irony of that last iteration of “You know what I mean?” when, I hope, the reader most certainly does not.
I’ve been submitting these poems for publication, with a lot of success. I have given readings from Mississippi, accompanied by a PowerPoint of the images, at various universities in the United States and also in Taiwan at a conference on material ecocriticism last December; and I’ll travel to Cambridge University next fall, to the ASLE/UK conference, to do another presentation. It is very exciting, the enthusiasm with which the project has been met. The voices in these poems are not often heard outside the South, and they are voices that, like the land, are being lost with the development and modernization that characterize the New South. Yet they express emotions and concerns we all share, and wherever I’ve taken this project, people are responding to it.
Bloom: You’ve written about and to your children. How has having a family, being a mother and wife, affected your writing life?
AF-W: My writing has been affected by family in so many ways I can’t begin to count. In “A Room of One’s Own,” Virginia Woolf hazards a guess that books written by women would need to be short, because so many demands are made on women’s energies. I’ve always worked full time, and altogether we have five children—so it helps, that poems and books of poems can be short! But more seriously: I cannot imagine my life without my family. I continue to write about my marriage, sometimes, but not so much about my grown children; I used to do so more than I do now. They deserve their privacy. But they are my heart.
Bloom: Since Blue Window you’ve published three more full length books, four chapbooks, and you co-edited, with Laura-Gray Street, the ground-breaking The Ecopoetry Anthology (Trinity University Press).
AF-W: I like to work. It doesn’t feel to me that I’ve been prolific, though. I just feel lucky that I get to spend my time doing what I want to do, and publishers who have been interested in publishing my work. I hit a lull, for a while, after Dream Cabinet came out in 2012, but then the wonderful photographer Maude Schuyler Clay mentioned that she’d like to collaborate with me sometime, and that launched this present manuscript, Mississippi, which I’ve been working on for the past year. I am also at work on a manuscript tentatively titled These Things, but I’ll have to wait for some uninterrupted time before I can really return to it.
Bloom: How have your poetic concerns changed since Blue Window? What has stayed the same?
AF-W: Like many first books, Blue Window was highly autobiographical. But then, all my books have been autobiographical, though each has been different from the others. I’ve tried to broaden my range, particularly formally; I have been interested in opening the free verse poem to fragmentation and spatial experimentation, and—as you see in the poems from Mississippi—I have been writing recently in first-person voices beyond my own, voices that speak themselves through me.
What has stayed the same? An intense investment in experience. A concern with place, the natural world, memory, art, love, sex, the spirit.
Bloom: In the past decade and a half you’ve become more and more engaged with issues around global climate change and the creative response to it. Your teaching and your writing have been heavily influenced by this engagement. What do you see to be your responsibilities or obligations regarding environmental issues? What choices or ideas drive your creative work — how do you avoid being polemical? What are the challenges of writing creatively about environmental degradation?
AF-W: Environmentally, we live in a time of unparalleled crisis. Though life in some form will endure, it’s by no means certain that humans will endure—and that thought is pretty overwhelming. My dedication in The Ecopoetry Anthology is to my grandchildren—Sylvie, Benjamin, Dylan, Eve, Rowan—and to the world’s children: “They step forward into the world we have made.” Unless we humans change our ways, I cannot think of anything more heartbreaking.
I direct the Environmental Studies program at the University of Mississippi. I teach courses for the minor and I’m faculty sponsor for Students for a Green Campus. Also I teach yoga, at Southern Star Yoga Studio in Oxford; I have practiced yoga for nearly forty years. I think that both of these help me find a way toward writing about the environment, though it’s difficult to do so. Teaching allows me to expand my knowledge and express myself directly, in dialogue with students, and to plan speakers, films, field trips, all those things that increase awareness. Yoga allows me to experience peace and a growing sense of compassion for all things. Whatever poems grow from these two forms of engagement will, I hope, be both urgent and grounded: not polemical, but not detached: trenchant, but beautiful. That’s the desire, at least.
Click here to read an excerpt from Mississippi.
Feature photo credit: Courtesy of Ann Fisher-Wirth’s Web site.