Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Literary Field Guide: A Q&A With Eric Magrane and Chris Cokinos

If field guides and poetry have something in common, perhaps it’s the way the writers of each seem to possess an inexhaustible knowledge, only the barest of which is transferred to the page. The more you read, the more you want to know. The Sonoran Desert: A Literary Field Guide combines aspects of both in its descriptions of the region’s most prominent species. On February 22, I sat down with the book’s co-editors to talk transfiguration: of the genre, the landscape, and what we’d choose if we could transfigure ourselves.

Paulina Jenney: I thought we could start by talking about how the book was born. What came first: the essays, or the idea to write a field guide? I’ve never seen anything like it.

Eric Magrane: The first incarnation of the project was the Poetic Inventory of Saguaro National Park, done in conjunction with the 2011 BioBlitz at Saguaro. The BioBlitz was a citizen science project in which public were invited to join scientists in the field inventorying species. And actually, a number of species that hadn’t been seen in the park before were found through that. Chris and I were a part of the arts planning group for the BioBlitz. I proposed the poetic inventory, which mirrored the form of the Bioblitz but would produce poems and prose instead of quantifying species. We gathered 80 poets and writers to write pieces, poetry or prose, addressing species that live in the Sonoran Desert. It was more of an affective or emotional response in how one individual human interacts with another species.

Chris Cokinos: This was really Eric’s project from the start and I sort of horned in and said, ‘I want to be involved.’ I had just moved from Utah to Tucson and was suffering some shock. I didn’t really know Eric or anybody on the planning committee, so it was fortuitous for me to be able to tap into the writing community here. I would say too that it's part and parcel of Eric’s creative and intellectual interest in arts and environment and science and his thinking like the poet geographer that he is. After the BioBlitz, he published pieces in his magazine, Spiral Orb, and it became really clear that this was the model for something that could be a sort of Sonoran nature writing 2.0 — this new generation of writers.

EM: We thought about what the next form of this work could take, and we hit on the idea of combining the genres of literary anthology and field guide. For me, one of the really exciting things about it is playing with form. As a geographer and as an artist, I’m really interested in what happens when you put different forms together. Different ways of approaching questions, different forms of approaching knowledge, different forms of approaching biodiversity—which we hopes happens in this book—are very important. I also find hybrid projects like this to be the most fun and interesting projects to work on.

CC: Right from the start, we knew we did not want to write a traditional field guide. The field guide as it is today is an immensely utilitarian form, and that’s great. But if you look back at earlier incarnations of field guides, when binoculars start to become available and the genre is sort of invented, the prose is playful and metaphoric and interested in sound and it’s funny. The early authors of field guides would tell stories. I think we wanted to capture some of that while being as accurate as we possibly could. We ran the field guide material by experts, but I think part of the reinvention was defying someone's expectations about what a field guide would be like.

PJ: There’s a wide range in the field guide entries as well as the poems and prose. Some are really literal, like, ‘this bird is six inches long,’ and then there’s the ocotillo description, which starts with “Imagine you are on the bottom of the ocean...” How did you tackle those?

EM: We wrote the field guide entries in the library at Tumamoc Hill, a landmark site in the history of desert ecology. We surrounded ourselves with piles of field guides and all kinds of research on Sonoran Desert ecology, and we riffed off some of the things that were there. We approached it so that each entry in a sense a creative piece as well: a mini lyric essay or a little prose poem, like in the ocotillo you reference…

CC: sometimes a call for conservation—

EM: Sometimes a field guide says just as much about the human as it does about the species it describes. It's essentially about taxonomy—the way humans organize other species, so that was one of the things we tried to play with as well. In technical or scientific writing, there could be a reduction to biology, but what about an aesthetic sense in approaching each of the species?

CC: But also being cognizant too of not getting too anthropomorphic. We were up there for several days bouncing these things off each other. For me as a writer, and I think most writers think of themselves as pretty solitary, it was an eye-opening collaborative research and writing process. The interchange that happened between the two of us as we were writing those pieces was both an extension and embodiment of what was happening in the book itself, in that these writers had gone out to the desert, interacted, observed, wrote about the species and then came together in this wider conversation. I think the field guide entries reflect, in both the process and the product, the sense of extended conversation among a variety of authors— not just Eric and myself, but all the people who have preceded us in writing about the desert.

EM: And the process for deciding which of us would write which descriptions was organic. Essentially, “This is the one I feel like writing about next.”

CC: Yeah, I remember I took the saguaro because I don’t have a real affection for saguaro. In fact, one of the reasons I jumped on the project five years ago was that I felt really out of place here. This was not the landscape or ecosystem, these were not the mountains or valley, that I had lived in for ten years. It was like, ‘I need to immerse myself in this place, now.’ I was feeling adrift, and so personally, the project was a way of creating a kind of home space for myself.

PJ: I think there’s a sense that both the writers are really immersed in the Sonoran Desert, as one reads the entries. A lot of the pieces, in fact, come from the voice of the desert or the animals that live there. I’m thinking particularly about the one with the vulture, where it says something like, “Of course the vulture’s head is made of bare skin, because who would want to stick a head of feathers in a deer carcass?” I think the line between the human writer and the animal kingdom… it’s easy to get lost, in a good way.

CC: Well, I think it’s important to remember we are all animals. An animal responds to some stimulus in the environment with fear or curiosity and can communicate that in certain ways, and at a base level, that’s sort of what we’re doing here.

EM: And it’s this multivocal thing as well. It’s a community project in the broadest sense: community of writers, and community of these other creatures. Although I’d spent a lot more time here than Chris -- I was a hiking guide for ten years in the Sonoran Desert before I got back into geography at the University -- the project was for me something of a love note to the Sonoran Desert.

PJ: Do you foresee, or would you like to see, field guides for other regions as well, say a Field Guide to the Appalachians or, the Pacific Northwest?

CC: Yes. My hope is that this becomes a thing, and that people from other parts of the world see this as a way of involving community, both human and otherwise. I think it’s just waiting to be done. It’s beautifully scalable; you could do it with a garden or the Grand Canyon.

EM: And I think it’s a way for people to really get to know their place. I knew a decent amount about the desert beforehand, but through the process of doing this project, I dug deeper. Each of the writers had to go out and get to know, in one form or another, this species that they were writing about. And hopefully, the readers get to know the desert in a different way and through that, the book inspires care and respect.

CC: Field guides are a form of de-mystifying, right? They’re typically very literal, scientific information. There’s factual content here, and not just in the field guide entries, and so there’s a kind of de-mystification. But at the same time, because of Paul [Mirocha]’s illustrations, or a certain variety of syntax and sound and voice, there is a certain kind of enchantment as well. I hope that it does both.

PJ: I’m wondering, especially with the birds and the mammals, how you assigned the species. For example, I’d imagine you can’t just assign someone a puma and say, ‘okay, good luck having an encounter with a puma’… or maybe you can?

CC: Maybe you can! Or, take Cybele [Knowles], who did not ingest any part of the sacred datura. The writers had varying levels of intimacy and distance with the species, and I think that’s appropriate.

EM: Some of the writers didn’t really know their species at all, and in that case, it was, here, meet, get to know each other. There’s such a variety in how the writers decided they were going to write about, or to, or of, their species. Some requested specific species, some were assigned. It was a mapping, in a certain sense, of all those different human and nonhuman relationships. Each of those pieces becomes an object that contains something about those relationships that can be approached, performed, or explored in many different ways, as a model, as a marking of a certain time and place, as information about human conceptions of nature.

CC: And I would say that that range is reflected across the spectrum of difficulty and accessibility, too. This book is as various as the writers and the creatures and the plants. There are some very straightforward and personal narratives that are nonetheless quite artful, and then you have some very compressed, maybe oblique kinds of work, which I think offer their own beauty and solace, even if you don’t have a rational paraphrase for what a piece is about. We tried to have a real range of entry points for people. Someone who’s not familiar with the desert or some aspects of contemporary poetry, they’re going to find ways into this book. And readers who know the desert very well, or have a certain eye for poetry are going to find entry points into this book as well.

PJ: I agree. Do you have any questions for each other?

EM: I have a whimsical question for Chris, actually. If you could be one of these species, and not a human, which one would you choose?

CC: Oh, that’s a good question. I have two answers: One is one of my favorite species, but I’m not sure if it’s in the book. I’d want to be a loggerhead shrike.

EM: You’d want to be the butcherbird! The loggerhead shrike catches insects and lizards and impales them on cactus thorns or barbed wire fences, and then they’ll fly away and come back later and eat them. Dude.

CC: Right? I would either want to be the butcherbird or the flicker, which I wrote about in the book. Those are birds that have followed me, or I’ve followed them, or we’ve co-evolved over my movement across different landscapes, from Kansas to Utah to here. There are certain species that are iconic for me in that way. What about you?

EM: I’d probably choose a bird as well. There’s something about a species that lives in a way that’s quite a bit different from the way that we live. So, raven. Their language, their ability to fly, they seem like they know quite a bit. Or I think it would be fun to be a Sonoran spotted whiptail, a lizard, because it would be a lot different from being a human. As far as plants go, it would be interesting to be a mesquite tree, or an ironwood, but I don’t know if I’d want to live for that long in just one place.

CC: We could be like, concocting the plot for the next Margaret Atwood novel. I’d want to be a sacred datura, if I had to be a plant. What about you, Paulina?

PJ: I mean, in terms of birds, it’s funny because I’m vegetarian, but I keep thinking about the vulture. As far as reptiles go, I think I’d want to be the greater short-horned lizard.

EM: You’d get to shoot blood out of your eyes!

PJ: Yeah, it’s so wild.

EM: How did we describe that in the field guide entry? The superpower that every eight-year-old would want?

CC: Yeah, I’d totally love to be able to shoot blood out of my eyes. Can you imagine? Like, this committee meeting is over. *spew*

PJ: Well, before we get there, is there anything else you’d like to share?

CC: I have a fact to share actually; this is just coincidence that we’re doing this interview today. Every year, I mark in my planner the anniversary of the death of the last Carolina parakeet, and yesterday was the death of that bird, named Incas. He died in the Cincinnati Zoo 98 years ago. I keep that in my logistical planner to remind me of the stuff that’s really important. Not to end on a down note, but I really think of this book as one of those artful tools through which we can transcend our own ignorance, because those were birds that were quite beautiful and could easily have been spared, and so hopefully this book will touch some people to love, and defend, and protect.

EM: One of the things that we put in the introduction is a question: In 100 years, how many of these will be elegies? In 1000 years, what will the makeup of the Sonoran Desert be? That, for me would be one of the most interesting things about being a different species— having a different conception of time. As humans, we think on certain timescales, and being able to shift that some, to think about Chris’ comments on extinction…

CC: I think that’s the heart of the book, actually. Things come and go. Extinction is a normal process, beauty is ephemeral, and a book like this not only helps us think of different temporalities, but also about the aesthetic foundations of policy choices that we make that sustain or diminish a particular system. Maybe this book is having an object or poem or essay or drawing to help, in some way, clarify or trouble that question. What is it you value? What is it you find beautiful? What do you want to work to sustain?


Paulina Jenney is a double major in creative nonfiction and environmental studies at the University of Arizona. She communicates for the Institute of the Environment, is the Recommended Reads editor at, and writes the Tree of the Week series for the Campus Arboretum.

Eric Magrane is a poet and geographer. He is poet in residence at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and is the founding editor of Spiral Orb. He is currently completing his PhD in geography at the University of Arizona and teaching environmental studies.

Christopher Cokinos is the author of three books of literary nonfiction: Hope Is the Thing with Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds; The Fallen Sky: An Intimate History of Shooting Stars; and Bodies, of the Holocene. He’s the author of a poetry chapbook, Held as Earth, and co-editor of The Sonoran Desert: A Literary Field Guide.

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