Professor’s new book of poetry a ‘fierce lament’ on climate change
In 2006, beekeepers around the United States began reporting massive losses — honey bees were flying away and not coming back.
Colony Collapse Disorder was the top story in the media. No one, not the beekeepers or the scientists, seemed able to solve the puzzle.
At the time, Juliet Patterson was writing poems that would eventually be featured in her new book, Threnody.
“I soon discovered that writing poems about climate change is enormously hard,” says Patterson, now a visiting assistant professor of English at St. Olaf College.
“Even if I spent months learning about the issue, I essentially felt as though I didn’t know what I was talking about,” she goes on. “Somewhere along the way, I lost faith in poetry’s ability to address social or political urgency.”
So, to begin writing again, Patterson took the bees as a symbol for her book and “began to think of the poems as a sum of small, unseen catastrophes and more visible political and environmental challenges.”
As Patterson celebrates the launch of Threnody, she took time to answer a few questions about why it went through so many near misses and why writers need to read first and foremost.
Tell me a little about your book. Are there any key messages that you want to come across to your readers?
Threnody’s title originates from the Greek threnos — meaning “wailing” — and “ode.” So I think of this book as a fierce lament, a conversation between our present ecological moment and its responses.
It’s clear that we’re capable of feeling sympathy, curiosity, and love toward our earth and its abundance of living forms. Where does this impulse come from? How might it be nurtured? And what role might it play in moving us to behave with care and compassion? These are the questions and the hope that reside at the center of Threnody.
What was the most exciting or rewarding moment in the publication process? What about the most frustrating?
My publisher, Nightboat Books, originally declined the manuscript when I first showed it to them in 2008. At the time, they were interested in hybrid literary projects and were looking for something that my book didn’t quite embody. For the next six years, I sent the manuscript to other publishers, and the book had many, many near misses. Finally my original editor at Nightboat asked to see the book again. After a second look in 2014, he accepted it for publication: the most exciting moment of the process. My persistence paid off, and I was back with the press that I had most hoped would publish the work.
What advice do you have for St. Olaf students who have an interest in becoming writers themselves?
If you want to be a writer, you have to do two things above all else: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things; there’s no shortcut. And writing alone won’t cut the mustard: If you want to be a writer, you have to be a reader. If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time to write.
Beware that even if you do find time to write, it may take a long time to learn how you in particular write. Certain processes, genres, character types, or whatever — they will come more naturally to you than they do to others. Maybe you’ll figure this out when you first start writing, but for most, it takes time to tease it out.