Web Feature

MARCO WILKINSON
in conversation with BENNINGTON REVIEW

 

EMMA RICHARDSON 

Sometimes it feels as though science and art exist in two very different realms and can be difficult to reconcile or master both, yet you are a professor of writing and sustainable agriculture. In your essay “Hidden Light, Wooden Ladder, Bucket of Clay, Pillar of Water” and in much of your writing you weave both disciplines together so elegantly. Have both of these passions of yours always been intertwined?

MARCO WILKINSON

It's a strange life I've somehow wandered into.  I studied English and Gender/Sexuality Studies in college and then immediately fled to an organic farm in rural Pennsylvania, then to training as a horticulturist, then back to farming, then to teaching sustainable agriculture, then to an MFA in creative writing.  Getting too close to words, I flee to weeding. Lost in weeding, a word and then another word comes to mind. Setting the words to paper or screen: inevitably they are about weeds. This shuttling becomes a weave, each thread strengthening the other. In my writing, it feels natural to write about these things I happen to know about, and inevitably hopefully the result is that a reader learns a thing or two they didn't know about before, even though the primary reason for the writing are not these data but the lyric stream flowing through them. That incidental learning feels like an important and subversive aspect to my writing.  In my sustainable agriculture teaching, whether it be about soil management or plant propagation or wild edibles (or even composition, in my writing teaching life), even as we cover practical aspects of farming and gardening, I try in every class to infuse a sense of lyric wonder in the material because "Why are we doing this work at all?" seems like a question whose answer lies elsewhere than row feet, yields, and revenues. In both of those worlds, the counter-weaving gesture feels like a political one.


EMMA RICHARDSON

You talk a lot about Buddhism and your practice in the essay. Connection, respect and responsibility to nature are obviously very important to you. Your awareness and attention to detail in nature also seems to be reflected a lot in the very intentional and careful detail in your writing. Are all of these things connected for you as well?

MARCO WILKINSON

To be honest, I'm not sure.  I've always been drawn to the small, the unnoticed, the oddly intricate. In my two years of training in horticulture, in the first I did an independent study on mosses, using a microscope to examine and identify them, and in the second I studied mushrooms, training my eyes to sift the forest floor for specimens.  It's not that nature is some space apart worthy of that respect and responsibility you mentioned in some special way that other aspects of life deserve less. Rather, for me it's just a recognition that what we have artificially circumscribed as "nature" is really just another part of ourselves to connect, respect, and be responsible to.  For me that is a particularly Buddhist perspective or insight that drives my approach to interacting with and writing about this thing we're conveniently but reductively calling "nature."

EMMA RICHARDSON

This piece is also very much about intention and ritual. Can you talk more about the importance of ritual, in any capacity, in your life and work?

MARCO WILKINSON

I am a creature of routine.  I don't necessarily see this is as a virtue by any means.  There are ways in which ritual -- routine -- is a way of coping with an overwhelming world. God, just give me my morning coffee and pastry from Slow Train Coffee each morning on my way to work and maybe just maybe I can make it through the day.  This seems like sleeping ritual and not at all helpful. On the other hand, what I was trying to write about in "Hidden Light, Wooden Ladder, Bucket of Clay, Pillar of Water" were gestures that offer a chance at waking up to the reality of the present world, ritual that is intentional, that can give structure to waking up to that overwhelming world.  Maybe it's lighting a stick of incense and touching it to my forehead before placing it before an image, or standing by the stove watching the tea kettle until it comes to a boil and then pouring the water into the wide-mouthed teacup with the strainer and loose-leaf emerald needles of green tea before taking it to sit on my porch. I think it can be a gesture learned and shared in tradition (incense, bowing, chanting) or idiosyncratic and unique to an individual (making tea in the morning), but either way it for me feels personal and vulnerable to the degree that ritual at its best completely opens a person up to honest encounter with the world.  Writing about the ritual gestures I made around tapping the maple tree felt more vulnerable than the other aspects of the essay.

EMMA RICHARDSON

Most of the work that you have published has been nonfiction personal essays, yet there is a very poetic quality to your work. Who are some of your biggest literary influences? Does reading or writing poetry inspire the work you do?

MARCO WILKINSON

My partner is a poet and I am the managing editor for Oberlin College Press, a poetry press, so nearly every surface of my work and personal spaces is covered in poetry books.  Probably my favorite poet is Brian Teare, who is so smart in his thinking about the environment while masterfully constructing a lyric space that is so spare and compressed. Evelyn Reilly's Styrofoam,  an amazingly inventive eco-narrative of styrofoam, is a title I always teach in ecopoetics courses.  Likewise, Juliana Spahr's inexplicably out-of-print Well Then There Now, is a book I would always teach if my students could get their hands on it.  She is virtuosic in her syntactic play. I am working on a lyric memoir project, and Li-Young Lee's The Winged Seed has since I first read it a number of years ago been a compass for how to write a lush poetic story of a life. Sun Yung Shin's Unbearable Splendor, likewise, is stunning in some of the formal leaps it takes and the unsparing eye it uses to interrogate transnational adoption.  Essayists Lia Purpura and Joni Tevis, for me, are exemplars of inventive non-fiction writers whose minds move brilliantly in a way that only intensifies the work of their hearts.

EMMA RICHARDSON

 So much of your writing is incredibly open, intensely, even sometimes grossly personal, and very self-aware in the text. Can you talk a bit about the importance of this to you in your life and your work?

MARCO WILKINSON

I suppose this starts with the fact that writing is almost always writing to oneself at first.  Mostly my writing starts as a way of trying to scratch some intellectual itch I've had that won't go away.  If a thought recurs enough eventually I find myself writing it down, and trying to explore just what it means to me, what its ramifications are.  In that sense, it can't help but be personal as I unspool the initiating thought through the realities of my own life. This essay, "Hidden Light, Wooden Ladder, Bucket of Clay, Pillar of Water," perhaps more than most, deliberately didn't spare details since part of what I wanted to explore was precisely that dynamic of usually hiding/denying/erasing the traces of our physical existence.  I wanted to find a way to write about the reality of giving and taking, of interaction and reciprocation, of connection, gratitude, and responsibility. It just so happened that I was tapping a maple tree for the first time and experimenting with humanure practice at the time, so these became the tools of my life to give those thoughts shape. Today I might write a completely different essay.  

 


MARCO WILKINSON has had his work appear in Assay, DIAGRAM, Kenyon Review, Seneca Review, and Terrain. He teaches writing and sustainable agriculture at Lorain County Community College and Oberlin College. He is also the managing editor of FIELD and Oberlin College Press.


EMMA RICHARDSON is an editorial assistant at Bennington Review.



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