Nathaniel Perry on writing with the landby Anna Lena Phillips • 09.15.2011
This week in Fringe, we’ve got three poems from Nathaniel Perry, from a longer series called “An Invitation to Rache.” Perry’s first book, Nine Acres, winner of the APR/Honickman First Book Award, is just out from Copper Canyon Press. Here he answers some questions about both, starting with how he came upon the structure for the book.
My book, Nine Acres, came about through a chance encounter with an older, better, book. I have been interested for quite some time in growing vegetables, canning, raising chickens, etc. Basically trying to take care of myself and my family by taking care of the place I live as best I can. Of course backyard homesteading and organic growing and local eating is all embarrassingly (and wonderfully, I suppose) hip these days, but it is nothing new. There was the back-to-the-land movement in the 1960s and 70s, which brought us the Nearings and their Good Life, the organic growing philosophies of Eliot Coleman, the Whole Earth Catalog, etc., and this was preceded by a similar “flight from the city” in the 1930s (and I might add that Gary Snyder has rightly pointed out that these sorts of movements, returns to the land, have occurred regularly throughout the history of every urban culture).
Anyhow, one of the books from the 1930s iteration of this urban angst is M.G. Kains’s magnificent volume Five Acres and Independence. The book was published in 1935 (as just Five Acres) and a second edition was released in 1940 (adding the ‘independence’ to the title). A good friend gave me the book (which he had gotten in the 1960s) knowing my interests in growing food, and it is remarkably pertinent still to the enterprise. Though it also has instructions on making your own refrigerator out of ice blocks, rocks, and a dumb-waiter sort of contraption. . . . But I was fascinated mostly by the voice of the book. It is witty and knowing and literary and insistent on its own sufficiency. I began to think about what it means to be “independent,” and what it might mean to be “self-sufficient” or even just sufficient. I had the idea to write a version of this sort of book with poems. I was enamored with the terseness and liveliness of the chapter-titles of Kains’s book, so I tried writing a few poems with those as the titles of the poems, and the book spun out from there. In the end, there are 51 chapters plus one that was excised from the second edition. I wrote poems for each of those 52 chapter titles.
Do you think of some of your work as pastoral? What does the pastoral look like now?
These seem like more or less the same question, so I’ll say that I don’t really see my work as “pastoral” if we see that as meaning a romantic description of the natural world which provides an escape from the actual world. For me, the natural world is the actual world. We are all of us in it. And when we turn to it knowingly, it can be for solace, but not for escape. In my work, the spiritual is fully intertwined with the natural, so it is where my poems go for both comfort and despair. And I see other poets working with the “pastoral” in this way too–Maurice Manning, Todd Boss, and Alice Oswald come to mind. And one other small thing: in this book, at least, I thought a formal consistency was important to the project. So all of the poems are in the same simple form—four quatrains of rhymed tetrameter. Others have pointed out that the poems are orderly like a garden is orderly, and that makes a kind of sense to me. Form for me, I suppose, is its own kind of stewardship. I take care of the turnips, they take care of me. I take care of the language, and maybe it too will take care of me.
Tell us about the project these poems are part of.
The manuscript these poems in Fringe are coming from is more various. The title of the book, and of the long poem which anchors it, Bizarre, refers to the name of an 18th-century plantation house which was once located near where I live in rural Virginia and which was the seat also of a significant scandal involving illicit affairs, cover-ups, blood on the stairs, possible infanticide, etc. (all you could hope for from a good scandal). I’m actually, though, not that interested in the scandal itself. Instead, the long poem aims to use the story and circumstances of this event as a window into thinking about parenthood, which is, as you may know, in and of itself, bizarre. This poem will be surrounded by three suites of poems, each quite different, all attempting to explain a portion of the world to each of my three children. So far, the book seems like the poems will all be in some form of pentameter, but the rhyming and conceptions of form will be much less regular than in Nine Acres. Both books, though, certainly will have in common an attempt to understand ourselves and our relationships with each other as an interaction with form—the form of marriage, the form of family, the form of the self. So the poems, then, enact those struggles within their own forms, I suppose.