Essayist Examines the In-Between during Radio Interview with CSM President
The College of Southern Maryland Connections Literary Series will feature Barbara Hurd, an essay writer, as she reads excerpts from her latest book, Walking the Wrack Line: On Tidal Shifts and What Remains, beginning at 7:30 p.m., April 1, at CSMs La Plata Campus, Building for Business and Industry, Room BI-113.
Hurd, who teaches creative writing at Frostburg State University in western Maryland and in the Stonecoast MFA program at the University of Southern Maine, is the author of five books beginning with Objects in the Mirror written in 1994 and her latest, Walking the Wrack Line, completed in 2008.
Her essays have appeared in numerous journals including Best American Essays, The Yale Review, The Georgia Review, Orion and Audubon. She is the recipient of numerous awards including a 2002 NEA Fellowship for Creative Nonfiction and winner of the Sierra Clubs National Nature Writing Award and Pushcart Prizes in 2004 and 2007.
Tickets are $3 in advance and for CSM students with IDs, and $5 at the door for the general public. Proceeds from this reading will be donated to benefit John Lamiman. A former professor and coordinator of developmental English at CSM, Lamiman was injured during a fall in July 2010, resulting in his paralysis. The CSM Faculty Senate Executive Board has established a PayPal account for donations to assist John and Claire Lamiman with their many expenses that are not covered by insurance.
John greatly supported the Connections programs over the years, and we'd like to make this small gesture of dedicating the evening to him and donating these proceeds to help him and his wife, said CSMs Neal Dwyer, a literature and languages professor as well as a coordinator of the colleges Connections programs and literary magazine.
In preparation for the Connections reading, Hurd was interviewed by CSM President Dr. Brad Gottfried as part of the weekly radio program, Southern Maryland Perspectives.
Question: What got you started as an author?
Hurd: Probably like most writers, I as a kid loved to read. It was the thing I was voracious about from the time I was probably 9 or 10. My mother used to take me to the local librarywe lived outside of Philadelphia at that pointand I would come home with stacks and stacks of books. I have a twin sister who was not a reader at all and who used to hide my books so that I would play with her. The deal was always if I would play with her for 10 minutes shed tell me where shed hidden my book… most writers begin as great readers at some point.
Question: As an author of three books of prose and two books of poems, do you have a favorite?
Hurd: Oh gosh, probably the favorite is the most recently finished one. Or its the one Im working on. Stirring the Mud is probably close to my heart because it was a kind of breakthrough for me. Thats the first prose book that came out in 2001.
I started off as a poet and was doing a lot of that and teaching, of course. What I remember happening was a decision at some point to try what we might call the lyric essay.
When I tried thatthis was maybe 10 years ago, 11 years agoit was enormously freeing for me. I felt like the form of the lyric essay suited my imagination better than did the form of most poems, and so I began quite crazily writing these lyric essays on swamps and bogs. Its those essays that became the first collection called Stirring the Mud.
Question: What precisely is a lyric essay and how does it compare with poetry?
Hurd: Thats a large question, just as creative non-fiction, what is that? Also a large question. I think of the lyric essay as a prose piece that is borrowing heavily from poetic traditions. So theres great attention to prose rhythms, to all kinds of matters of sound: whether it is alliterations, consonance, assonance kinds of things. Its also an essay that is probably trying to investigate a reaction, an emotional reaction to it, to an event or a time or a place, less argumentative than say a traditional expository essay.
In form its not lineated, so it looks on the page like a prose paragraph Ive had a lot of people at readings tell me afterwards, they thought I was reading poems because I do pay close attention to prose rhythms, so just the sound of it, if they hadnt seen it on the page and theyre simply listening to that language in the air, a lot of people think it is poetry. And Im fine with that. That suits me quite nicely.
Question: You started off as a poet and later on in your professional career went into prose and lyric essay. Do you go back and forth, or are you primarily now doing the prose? And are there certain themes in your writing that link everything together, or is it just how youre feeling in that particular time in your life?
Hurd: Im primarily doing the prose. Every once in a while I start working on a poem. But Im so much more stimulated by the form of the essay that I seem to end up investigating more interesting things in that form than I do in a poem.
I would say that I, probably like most writers, have my obsessions. There are some themesvaguely, Id guess Id saythat seem to crop up over and over again. Im very interested in the between. Whats happening between this and that? Whats happening in that kind of gray shadowy area that were probably not looking closely at because were looking more intently at either a or b. But I want to know whats going on in between those.
So I would say that sense of investigating the in between is a major obsession. I would say that maybe this is related: investigating things that seem to spend most of their times in the margin. And I mean that perhaps physically and emotionally, too. The things like swamps and bogs that are not at the center of most peoples minds when you say, name a gorgeous landscape. Not too many people say, Oh, a swamp. So in terms of the aesthetics of a landscape, swamps and bogs I think are on the edge of that. Things, too, that are small, Im interested and in the minutiathats probably another theme that crops up over and over.
Question: Now your most recent book, Walking the Wrack Line, what is a wrack line?
Hurd: Thats the stuff thats left behind when the high tide recedes. So its the kind of seaweed and shells and bottles and whatever else that high tide might have brought up with it and then deposited on the shore as it receded.
Question: In Walking the Wrack Line, there are 19, I dont know if you call them essays? But each one seems to center around some aspect of something youve found whether its a bottle and a feather, worms, jellyfish, pebbles. Did that make it easier for you to organize your thoughts?
Hurd: Its actually the way I decided to write the book, and this was unusual for me in that I made a clear decision tothat I wanted to see what would happen if I could–write a single essay on a single object that had been washed up by the tides whether those were natural objects or man-made. So each chapter does begin with an object that has been washed ashore.
What I didnt know was going to happen was that in my trying to spin off of those objects, I found myself over and over thinking about the differences between the ways my parents saw the world. They would have been, I suppose, my strong initial influences in terms of how do we see the world? They were so utterly different from one another, that that question seems to crop up over and over again in those essays.
It was not my intention to do anything with them at all, but finally I found that kind of interesting, so that here would be an object washed up on the shore, and I would think, now what would my Fathers response to this be and what would my Mothers response? and to see so clearly how incompatible those responses might have been. And, what does that do to the child whos standing there in the middle between the two of them?
Question: Were some of these easier to write than others? Did the emotions, the idea of what you wanted to explore, come easier on some of these essays than others?
Hurd: What I want to explore Im never sure of until Im in the essay itself, other than heres this object that is probably by now sitting on my desk and not back on the Jersey shore. And so almost all of those essays in draft form probably began with a very physical description of the object itself. What Im always watching when Im doing that is being alert to language that resonates on more than one level. So even if Im physically describing the aperture of some snail shell, Im hearing something else at the same time.
Thats what Im writing myself toward, Im writing to get into where the language starts resonating with concerns that are larger than the object itself, and then that gives me my clue about where this might go. But the direction of those essays, none of those gets planned out ahead of time. Thats not how I work. I have to wait and see what the language is doing, and where its pointing me.
Question: Some would call you a nature writer. I suspect youre going to cringe at that but what impresses meand I have a background in zoologyis the detail when you begin each of these essays, where you really do understand the science and you explain what happens so well. Its beautifully written but also in very nice detail so the reader understands the dynamic of that organism. Im thinking about, for instance, the Moon snail and its interaction with clams. But how do you feel about it, if someone were to call you a nature writer?
Hurd: Well, youre right; its a term I cringe at a little bit. I think because the reputation of a nature writer is somebody whos only writing about gorgeous sunsets and, you know, magnificent forests. Im really to the point wherethis will be the first Ive said this in any public waybut I almost think weve got too much reverence in the nature writing tradition right now, and thats preventing us from investigating something else other than the beauty out there.
So I cringe only that it seems to carry certain connotations with it. People seem to pigeon-hole a nature writer, and I dont wish to be pigeon-holed like that.
I think of myself as an essayist more than anything else. So if somebody has to label me, thats the label I would rather hear, rather than nature writer.
Question: Youve talked about your parents and the influence they had on this particular volume. Do they influence you in your other works? Do you have other major influences in your professional career?
Hurd: Well, certainly other writers, I would say. Both my parents are deceased now, but, my Mother was certainly very tuned to the aesthetics of all kinds of things and I think Ive absorbed some of that. And my Fatherand heres the dichotomymy Father had no interest in such things, but was a real adventurous spirit and a practical problem-solver. So just in terms of my makeup and what I tend to pay attention to and how I respond to things, theyre both certainly highly influential, [but] in terms of the writing itself: no. I think they probably read my books, but they werent particularly literary people. So, the literary influences for me have been those writers who raised the bar for me, and when I first discovered them, excited me tremendously and made me want to be a writer.
Question: Who would be your top-two writers that had the greatest influence on you?
Hurd: The first one was Annie Dillard. In 1974 she published a book called Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and in 1975 I rather haphazardly pulled that book off of a bookshelf in the local library. Id never heard of her; Id never heard of the book, though it had just won the Pulitzer.
I had a baby at the time that was two or three months old. I remember just thumbing through that book and realizing I could not take the chance of reading it at this point in my life because I had just had a baby and my life had changed radically enough with the birth of my daughter and I couldnt allow it to be changed radically by reading this book, which I knew it would do. So I didnt read it then. I waited eight or nine years, I guess, and then read it and was astounded by the sentence-making in that book. That became a book that was one of those held out as something to reach for.
The other writer I would say is Loren Eiseley, who was trained as an archeologist and anthropologist, taught at Penn for many, many years and was one of the first people to take his academic knowledge and turn it into gorgeous essays for the layperson. [He] got a lot of criticism for doing that, but his essays are just wonderfully melancholic and descriptive and, again, hes a superb sentence-maker.
Those two, I would say, remain still after 30 years at the top of my list.
Question: You were a faculty member and you still teach in Maine as well as at Frostburg. What are some of things you tell aspiring writers?
Hurd: Probably the first piece of advice is read, read, read. I dont know how many students when I would say that, say they dont want to be influenced by somebody else. And I would say, Please be influenced. I mean, that notion that I want to develop my own unique voice uninfluenced by anybody else is a death knell for a writer.
I think as writers weve got to read as much as we can. We have to learn whats been done. We have to see the way people have broken the rules, and finally at some point, perhaps, to break a few ourselves, but not until we know what were doing.
So reading, reading all kinds of thingsand not just in your own genre or not even in whatever the canon might be thats part of the curriculumbut I would say, read everything that interests you and even some stuff that doesnt interest you. Figure out why.
The other thing I would say to aspiring writers is: figure out a way to bear that horrible question that we ask in writing workshops, which is, so what?, who cares? Nobody likes to hear that question about work that youve produced, but its an invaluable question. And its a question that makes you think about what do I need to do with this material to transform it so that its interesting to somebody else?
So many writers think that their own lives are inherently interesting. The bad news is theyre wrong about that. They might be interesting to friends and family, of course. If youre really trying for an audience out there who knows nothing about you, then its your obligation as the writer to do something with that material so that it engages them.
For the complete transcript of this interview or to listen, visit http://www.csmd.edu/News/MediaResources/barbarahurd.html.
Completing the Connections series this spring will be readings by contributors to the spring literary magazine, beginning at 7:30 p.m., May 6, at the La Plata Campus, Business and Industry Building, Room BI-103. The event is free.
For information on Connections, study guides and author links visit www.csmd.edu/connections. Books featured are available at any CSM College Store or online at www.csmd.edu/CollegeStore.
Southern Maryland Perspectives, is a half-hour talk show that features local issues and guests. The same show airs Sundays at 7 a.m. on WKIK 102.9 FM, 7:30 a.m. on WYRX 97.7 FM and 8 a.m. on WSMD 98.3 FM.
Since CSMs Connections began in 1990, the program has featured US Poet Laureate