Do Oranges Float?
An interview with poet Nikola Champlin
Nikola Champlin recently visited from the prestigious Iowa Writer's Workshop in the USA to teach an eco-poetry course at the IIML in Wellington. I enrolled in the course and twice a week we sat in a stuffy room on campus and discussed the different ways that writers write about the natural world. Questions like 'how do we deal with the fact that we are a part of the natural world yet we write about it from a human perspective?' and 'why don't we see more ethnic diversity in eco-poetry?' Then after that we had to go home and try write our own poems. Here is a poem that she wrote while in NZ and then a few questions I didn't get to ask Nikola during the course.
These colors press into my eyes,
vivid and important
to pupils adjusted to a white
wash of snow.
My gaze holds onto the roses,
kowhai, hydrangea, hibiscus.
If I could absorb their life by looking—
into skin pale as the land I've come from,
What a surprise color must have been
to film viewers whose virtual universe shifted,
not toward reality, it seemed, but dreams.
I am too young to know this.
I imagine it like this hemisphere switch,
which startles me on the level of instinct.
Right, I’d dodge, following a rabbit,
left, I’d swerve, evading an avalanche,
hunker down and outlast the sleet,
a fleeting appearance of sunlight.
Instead, I rise everyday and look at the roses.
You grew up in Maine. I've heard that state is packed with national parks, moose and lakes. That is probably a terrible summary, but did you spend much time in the outdoors as a child? Is that a thing kids do in Maine?
The stereotype is true! Maine is a part of the United States that definitely resembles New Zealand. Most of the State's population is concentrated in the southern part of the State in cities and towns, and large areas are untouched wilderness devoted to National Parks or rural areas devoted to farming or forestry. My family always enjoyed camping, swimming, hiking, and exploring outdoors. I didn't watch any TV as a kid, which I think shows my parents' emphasis on hands-on activities for children. Of course, there were times I resented this while I was growing up, but now I give my parents a lot of credit for teaching me to be the sort of person who loves getting out into the world and experiencing new things. One of my lifelong favorite places in Maine is Mount Blue State Park. There's a couple hour hike there up Tumbledown Mountain that leads to a lake in the top of the mountain. I always thought this was the perfect 'reward' for a hike as a kid—to get to swim at the top of the mountain!
I heard you have been hiking (we call it tramping) recently in the Wellington area. Where did you go? How was it?
I didn't have as much time as I would have liked for tramping in New Zealand, but a friend and I did the four-day loop around the Greenstone Caples Track (near Queenstown). The hike isn't particularly challenging, but the scenery is stunning. I was surprised by the livestock that seem to appear around every corner in New Zealand, but I got used to cows and sheep avidly watching me hike past. I was also able to do some hiking on Eaglehawk Neck in Tasmania. I went to Australia for ten days in the middle of my sojourn in New Zealand. The geological features of the coastline there are visually engaging at every turn of the trail.
How was it different from hiking in the States?
I was struck by the friendliness of everyone on the trail, which is not to say that hikers in the States aren't unfriendly, but I always felt like New Zealanders went out of their way to talk to me and to share stories. Also, I loved nearing multiple languages spoken in the bunkhouses in the evening. I don't think we have that type of international draw for hikes in Maine, with the exception of the end of the Appalachian Trail that concludes with a hike up Mount Katahdin in Maine. The landscape varies so dramatically within New Zealand, even within a distance one can cover on foot in a few days. I think that's very rewarding for a hiker.
Have you tried any other outdoor pursuits? Basejumping? Spelunking? I heard you were a lifeguard at one point?
I went zip-lining in Rotorua, but that was the extent of my extreme sporting. I would have happily tried some other activities, but often the people I traveled with were less than enthusiastic about heights. My friend who signed us up for zip-lining was terrified the entire time! I was surprised to meet mostly locals in our zip-lining group who were all celebrating one woman's birthday. The birthday girl explained that the gift of a zip-lining tour had actually been given two years ago, and she'd been working to lose weight since, so she could do the tour. I was so touched by this story, and hope it's okay to share it, even though it's not mine. It's incredible to see someone work hard toward a goal. This woman was absolutely thrilled to be on the zip-lining tour the entire time. It made me not take my experience for granted.
Can you explain in five words what eco-poetry is? Just kidding. But really, for the Up Country readers who may be scratching their heads, what is it and what's so exciting about it?
That's an excellent question! Ecopoetry is a recently used term to describe poetry that deals with ecology and the natural world in crisis. Nature Poetry, poetry the engages with and describes nature, has existed for centuries. Much of the earliest poetry we have focuses on the relationship between humans and the natural world. In the States, everyone would read the Nature Poetry of someone like Robert Frost in high school. Ecopoetry specifically responds to a 21st understanding of the environment as threatened and endangered by the impact and interference of humans. It is not enough in Ecopoetry to describe nature, or to use it as a poetic tool to add beauty and mystery to a poem. Ecopoetry deals with the environmental crisis we face today, and thinks about the power of poetry to reveal problems, highlight a crisis, and call for change (on a personal level and on a social level).
You also studied at Yale, I believe in Art History? Were you interested in convergence of ecology and art then or did that come later?
That's not quite right. I did my undergrad degree is in English and Philosophy. But I did work at the Yale Art Gallery and complete Art History internships in college. I think I have always been interested in the convergence of ecology and art because this is, quite literally, part of who I am. Both my parents have their degrees in science fields. My father is currently a Biology professor at the University of Maine. My mother has a Ph.D. is Biochemistry, but returned to school for a degree in History and is currently a historical curator. As I grew up, my parents' scientific knowledge and thinking was always shared with me. I remember having 'metamorphosis' explained to me at about age five. I recall being asked to make hypotheses—Do oranges float? Do they float after you've peeled them?—and then testing those hypotheses. Both my parents were excellent academic role models. They like to read. They are both surprisingly good visual artists. I always loved reading and writing. I have poems I crafted in third or fourth grade. It seems unsurprising to me that with my scientific background and my commitment to art I would always be looking for ways to bridge the gaps.
And you were treasurer of the Yale Dramatic Association. Are you an actor? Does that side of you (responsible financial officer? flamboyant thespian?) ever come into your poetry?
I have acted some, but my primary commitment to theater was from the technical side of things. I did set-design and construction, as well as production management. Set-design and construction drew my artistic interest. I have always loved creating three-dimensional works of art. Producing theater or working as the treasurer for my undergraduate theater company grew out of my love for being part of a theater community. In high school and college, I met the best people in the theater community, actors and technicians alike. I hope that theater will always be a part of my life, through local community theater. I never intended to pursue theater professionally. I think theater influences my poetry less directly than, say, the visual arts. I find myself engaging directly with visual art in my poetry. For example, I'm fascinated with the 'Earthworks' art movement in the 1960s onward in the United States. These visual artists tackle the same environmental questions that I often ask in my poetry. I took a playwriting class once in college and was repeatedly surprised by how different I felt playwriting to be from poetry. Perhaps because I'm not used to writing dialogue!
Have you read many New Zealand writers? What about Dinah Hawken, she's probably one of our better known eco-poets?
I feel I've barely scratched the surface of what New Zealand writers have to offer, and I want to keep reading. I read 'It Has No Sound and Is Blue' by Dinah Hawken, which I greatly enjoyed. She wrote this book while living in New York City and she eloquently expresses so many things I was feeling about being in a different hemisphere, a different season, a vastly different place than her home. It was incredible to see her populate her poems with things that are distinctly 'New York,' and it made me aware of the attentiveness and observation behind her poetic voice. I hope to strive for that type of precision in my poetry.
I've heard Dinah Hawken is influenced by Wallace Stevens, as am I. At one point on the course you said Wallace Stevens in the best poet, EVER! And that exclamation mark is not an embellishment. Please explain why I should agree with you?
I think that any claim ever made about something or someone being 'The Best' is made in order to invite others to disagree. Appreciation and enjoyment of poetry is very subjective. Certain things will speak to and move certain people and not others. I am highly unqualified to argue for the greatness of Wallace Stevens when critics and professors have had years to overanalyze his work, however, I will offer this: Wallace Stevens's work has an attention to detail that is endlessly rewarding. I am hard-pressed to think of other poets who achieve as much from a careful manipulation of syntax. Every time I re-read one of his poems, I notice something new about the word choice or the syntax that seems planned and brilliant to me. At the same time, on a first read the pace of a Wallace Stevens poem is perfect. I feel I move through the poem with deliberate steps. I am asked to embrace an idea, to look in a certain direction, and then this is added to, complicated. I am not ahead of or behind the poet, but right there with him. Wallace Stevens treats poetry as a craft, not as a random outpouring of energy, and even if you favor a more spontaneous style, I think every poet has something to learn from Stevens.
Thanks for the invite, but I'm struggling to disagree with that. All the best in your future ventures, and come back soon!