Alison Hawthorne Deming turns back into a student when she reads writers such as Rachel Carson, James Baldwin and Joan Didion. Environmentally inclined or otherwise, they have influenced the University of Arizona creative writing professor.
She wonders: How do they create the self as a character in the work? How do they frame the personal journey within a cultural context? How do they combine science smarts with a sensual engagement with experience?
Those are some of the details that Deming seeks to absorb from the masters, but readers would do well to visit her own work and see such questions answered with grace and skill.
Deming's "Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit," an essay compilation, was released on Oct. 1 by Milkweed Editions. Since her first book, the Walt Whitman Award-winning "Science and Other Poems" in 1994, she repeatedly has returned to the complicated bond between people and their planet.
“I have a Ripley’s Believe-It-or-Not relationship with science,” Deming says. “Reading (science) or hanging out with people who do science keeps me going. And in this time of so many diminishments to nature and culture, science is necessary to understand our situation and work toward a more just and sustainable future.
“As a writer, my intentions are not didactic. That's for the classroom. But my writing is fed by the excitement I find in research—intellectual adventuring—and I want that energy of discovery to be apparent in the work and to become contagious in my readers.”
"Zoologies" expounds on wildlife in all its dizzying diversity: crane broods and ant colonies, felines foreign (cheetahs) and familiar (house cats), species that make up the tragicomedy of our imperiled environmental heritage.
The compilation "continues my fascination with the long story of human life and its relationship with our fellow creatures on the planet,” Deming says. “It asks: What is the place of animals in the human imagination? How have art and science, mythology and religion, all contributed to our understanding of animals? In terms of craft, the book explores the short essay as a form, bringing some of poetry's compression to bear upon prose.”
The book, her 10th, already has garnered favorable reviews. Novelist Scott Russell Sanders referred to the text as “artful essays” penned by “a brilliant guide in a dark time.” Publishers Weekly wrote: “Deming’s writing is both precise and intricate, allowing her to gracefully transition from natural history to memoir. This articulate compilation is highly recommended for lovers of words and nature.”
Deming’s earlier work received a Pushcart Prize and two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. She recently completed a book of poetry, "Stairway to Heaven," and is working on what she calls “a cultural memoir” of her grandmother and great-grandmother, who worked as dressmakers in New York in the Gilded Age (late 19th century).
Both of those projects are typical of her investment in the past and appreciation for a diversity of forms.
“To be a writer is to try to convey what it's like to be alive at this time in history as opposed to any other,” Deming says. “We're part of that long continuity, just as we're part of the long story of evolution. And some consolation, some freedom from the burdens of self, comes from knowing such things, from writing one's way into them.”
Deming recently was named as one of the inaugural Agnese Nelms Haury Chairs in Environment and Social Justice. The initiative, which recognizes top faculty whose work involves the environment, social justice and/or the Southwest, is part of a broader program under the Haury banner that will "foster the kinds of interdisciplinary scholarship and community engagement that can really make a difference in this time of great challenge,” Deming says.
Although Deming, a faculty member in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, is not directly involved this year, several others from the UA are part of Humanities Week from Oct. 13-17. Faculty from the College of Humanities will deliver talks heavily focused on women and gender issues. Topics range from the femininity of Japanese Harajuku girls to images of cosmopolitan women during the German Weimar Republic. For more information on Humanities Week, click here.