Monday, September 28, 2015

Plastic is All of Us: An Interview with Allison Cobb

Essay Press’s EP series showcases excerpts from new book-length projects by contemporary authors. Plastic, an autobiography, by Allison Cobb is part of this digital series, all of which are free downloads.


MA: In Plastic, an autobiography, I was especially drawn to the section describing Shed Bird, the albatross living outside an old Coast Guard shed. This bird died a slow death because of all the plastic it ingested, over 500 pieces. What made you want to include Shed Bird?

AC: The violence and suffering is what draws me to the topic in the first place and motivates me to uncover the connections. The photographer Susan Middleton took the photo, which helped bring attention to the harms plastic can cause after it leaves our hands. The system of global capitalism is set up to occlude those interconnections—to erase from view the toll it takes to supply people in wealthy nations with a constant stream of goods and services. I want to make that violence real for people, and concrete.

MA: What was the biggest challenge in writing Plastic? What came easiest?

AC: The biggest challenge was time. A research-driven project requires sustained time that is hard to come by with a full-time job. I actually turned away from this manuscript for the past year and wrote a manuscript of poems instead. I think I just needed to be able to finish something of a less demanding duration. Also, I guess I needed a direct, unmediated release for the grief and anger I myself was experiencing, which can happen in poems. This is a dark topic that can feel at times oppressive. The excerpt from the book that appears as an EP at Essay Press represents about half of what I’ve written, and I’ve got a good deal more to go. I’m really living the book in the sense that I began collecting all the plastic I find every day on my dog walk and cataloging it on my website and Tumblr. It’s gross to pick up plastic, and depressing. On the other hand, it’s awe-inspiring to discover how all these things connect, to really experience and internalize the beautifully complex nets in which our lives are embedded. That is what will spur me to finish this work.

MA: The structure of Plastic is so effective in guiding the reader along these different threads you’re exploring. How did you decide to format the book this way?

AC: It wasn’t a conscious decision. My experience in writing the book has been a slow discovery of these interconnections between my own life and the violence of these technologies. I wanted to structure the book to deliver to readers the same kind of discovery. The short sections do that. They also interweave with one another in an episodic way—a little bit of one thread is revealed, then another—which enacts within the text the interconnections I’m tracing in life. But I didn’t rationally plan this out in advance—the discoveries within the book and the writing of it coexist.

MA: Can you talk about building mystery in your writing, as you work to illuminate and expand on certain connections?

AC: The mystery has been inherent in the writing, uncovering it as I go, that’s part of the wonder of it. So I’m not consciously creating it, though of course I am deciding how to order the pieces after the fact. That process is also intuitive, just kind of a feeling forward in thought and writing. I have collected many photos and lists of plastic as part of my process that don’t appear in the EP but that may be part of the finished book. Following the writers Kaia Sand and Eleni Sikelianos, I want to think of the book as an “installation site” that can contain more than text.

MA: Were there any contemporary writers who influenced Plastic?

AC: In addition to the two just mentioned, Susan Howe is a powerful and abiding influence, as is Alice Notley, who sits at the very top of my pantheon of contemporary writers. I’ve been inspired by recent documentary and mixed-genre work by Jill Magi, Claudia Rankine and Susan Landers. I’ve loved recent poetry books by Brandon Brown, Sarah Fox, Kim Hyesoon, Jennifer Tamayo and Dana Ward.

MA: You mention Heidegger’s essay “The Thing.” Heidegger, you say, had this idea that living under the sway of technology endangers people’s relationship to all that exists. Can you talk more about this idea?

AC: I find it difficult to talk about Heidegger, frankly. I am not a Heidegger expert (few people are), but also I ultimately reject his thinking because of his Nazism, despite his influence on philosophy and the humanities. I see Heidegger as part of the darkness—the racial fear, terror and desire for revenge—that drove the vast violence of World War II and led to the acceleration and development of technologies that have completely altered the globe: plastic and nuclear weapons. Perhaps the two seem incommensurate, but as the book attempts to show, they are linked, and both arise out of basic fear-driven desires to increase one’s own power, profits and abilities at any cost.

I think Heidegger is wrong about technology—by which he meant not really discrete technical advances but a way of viewing the world that sees everything as instrumental, only an object of potential use. I think it is actually those deeper, unexamined, unchecked drives—fear, grief, desire—that endanger people’s relationship to all that exists. My hope for the book is to expose how those basic drives lead to the very complex systems of exploitation and violence we have today. For example, global capitalism.

MA: You wrote that after you decided to write an autobiography of plastic, a car part showed up against your fence: “I want it to speak to me. I want it to tell me something about how to live.” (40) Was there something from another point in your life that visited you in such a way?

AC: Green-Wood Cemetery. I lived across from the cemetery in Brooklyn, New York from 2002 until 2009. I visited it every day—at 500 acres, it was the largest green space in Brooklyn, filled with beautiful trees and ponds, birds and flowers. Soon it insisted on inserting its presence into my writing in a way that left me forever altered.

MA: You did a lot of walking through Green-Wood, and you've said that the experience of walking for a long time lands you somewhere different and particular, mentally. Can you talk about this?

AC: Walking eventually leads me into a meditative state in which I can finally actually take in the external world through my senses. It takes about 45 minutes of rhythmic walking to get out of my own head—my ego-driven, solipsistic thoughts—and open to the world. It’s a much different experience from my screen life, which is most of my life, in which I feel like I’m consuming a constant barrage of information. When I’m walking—in whatever context, urban, rural, suburban—I find myself slowly opening, able to take in more and more, to drink in my surroundings. It takes an inner quiet to do that. It takes patience and time.

MA: Have you returned to Green-Wood since? Are there other places that have inserted themselves into your writing?

AC: I visited Green-Wood most recently after Hurricane Sandy, which toppled dozens of trees in the cemetery, many of them more than a hundred years old. The other place that continues to insistently insert itself in my writing is Los Alamos, New Mexico, where I was born and raised. It is the place where the first atomic bombs were built and it remains a nuclear weapons lab.

MA: What is Los Alamos like? Was it a good place to grow up for a creative person?

AC: Los Alamos is a wealthy, largely white community of highly educated scientists plopped down in one of the poorest states in the U.S., a state with a so-called majority minority population, meaning most people living there are people of color—Native American or Hispanic. It is a cultured town, as one might expect—many scientists there are also accomplished musicians, for example—but science and rationality are the heroes of the town, not creativity, emotion, intuition. So I would say it was a good place to grow up because I was raised with money, privilege and a good education. It was not a place that nurtured creativity.

I had one English teacher, Rebecca Shankland, who introduced us to 20th century poetry—Wallace Stevens and Theodore Roethke. I loved those poems, but I had no idea that living people wrote poetry, much less that there were powerful poets living very near me, like Leslie Marmon Silko and Jimmy Santiago Baca. It’s possible that people tried to show to me these things and that as a teenager I just wasn’t paying much attention. I did always have a pretty acute sense of not really belonging in the place where I was born—Los Alamos arouses strong feelings among residents of nearby communities, many of them negative for obvious reasons. Once, when I was walking through downtown Santa Fe, which is about 30 miles away from Los Alamos where I was born, someone yelled at me “Tourist! Go home!” This sense of not quite being able to put down roots has stayed with me ever since, I think it informs my position as a poet and writer, where having a sense of being on the outside looking in can be helpful for taking a critical view of the dominant culture.

MA: Did you like writing and reading as a kid, or was there something else you were more into?

AC: I always read and wrote. I read and read and read—I had weird perches to read in, usually warm places—sitting on a heating vent, on top of the dryer, on top of the refrigerator. I consumed novels. I also wrote—short stories mostly, but also nonfiction. We had a spy club when we were kids and my contribution was to write an extensive report on Mata Hari.

MA: Does writing usually feel good, or is it somewhat stressful? Do you find it pleasant to throw stuff out, to write and know that much of it might not count? Or is that painful?

AC: As with any regular practice, a certain repetitive labor accompanies daily writing—that can seem pleasantly ritualistic or effortful, depending. Producing a lot of writing that isn’t becoming anything can be frustrating. But none of that lessens the moment when something totally new arrives in writing, something completely surprising and unexpected, or when several circulating ideas and obsessions suddenly cohere into a musical whole. Those moments are life renewing, or, more precisely, they are living, actually immersing in that moment—a thing that rarely occurs for most of us I think. For me the stressful part about writing is that nearly everything works against it, that the dominant culture finds zero value in most of the work I love, particularly poetry. Constantly working against that devaluing and denial is, well, exhausting.

MA: In an interview last year Joy Williams said that "Real avant-garde writing today would frame and reflect our misuse of the world, our destruction of its beauties and wonders. Nobody seems to be taking this on in the literary covens. We are all just messing with ourselves, cherishing ourselves." Is establishing this type of framework something that's on your mind?

AC: Lots and lots of people are taking this on in all kinds of writing—there’s a whole genre called “ecopoetry.” Many writers are also taking on the full scope of injustices that keep our system operating. See the work of Claudia Rankine, Alice Notley’s recent book Negativity’s Kiss, a scathing take on contemporary culture, Joyelle McSweeney’s brilliant play Dead Youth, or The Leaks, CA Conrad, Don Mee Choi, Brian Teare Juliana Spahr’s entire body of work. And those are only some poets living in North America (or Europe in the case of Notley). I could go on for a long time even limited to that geographic range.

I would also note the majority of this work is published on small presses run by poets dedicating largely unpaid labor to getting this work into the world. People are also working very consciously to build more just, egalitarian communities—I think the Omni Commons in Oakland is a totally inspiring example.

There have been lots of difficult, emotional debates in the poetry community recently about issues of race and sexual violence that, although painful, I think create a lot of hope for a different future. This is a thrilling time to be a poet, a writer.

MA: It can be tough not to sound preachy when writing about issues you feel strongly about. Do you have any advice for younger writers who want to write about humans' effects on the environment?

AC: Preach! But also, delve into the complexity of the problems and how they are all interconnected, and also into one’s own deeply embodied complicity.

MA: What kind of work do you do for the Environmental Defense Fund?

AC: I write funding proposals.

MA: While you're writing these proposals at work, does it take a lot out of you? Are you getting angry when asking for money for a certain issue, or depressed if a funding proposal is denied? Do you accumulate a kind of energy from being at work, or does it drain you?

AC: I’ve been working for an environmental organization for 15 years, and in the course of my work I absorb a constant stream of information about the ecological crisis unfolding around us. That is what makes me feel grief and anger. I have been speaking with a colleague, a really interesting climate scientist, and she pointed out that in the context of the biosphere, grief indicates a sense of connection while anger shows a desire for justice. I think that’s a clarifying way to think about it. I get energy from my colleagues, who are smart, committed, passionate people working hard to push forward practical solutions. They maintain their optimism for change against daunting odds. But rationality and logic alone will not get us to the change we need; we must also have a means of expressing and metabolizing emotions, of intuiting and imagining a different way of being on the planet—art is one way to do that.

MA: How would you describe the writing scene in Portland, compared to Brooklyn or other places you've lived?

AC: The Portland scene has lots and lots of energy. In the five years I’ve lived here it has kind of exploded—many poets coming here, many of them younger, infusing excitement into the scene. There are a bunch of reading series and a commitment to small and letterpress publishing that I love. The Independent Publishing Resource Center is a cornerstone for the community. It is a nonprofit center that offers affordable access to letterpress machines, perfect binding machines—all kinds of resources. It also is so generous in sharing its space for readings and events, including my own reading series, The Switch. Anyone with tons of extra cash should consider giving it to the IPRC—I’m not sure anything like it exists anywhere else. Also, there are incredible independent bookstores—even new ones opening—including Mother Foucault’s, Anthology, Division Leap, Passages, Daedalus Books, of course Powell’s.

I sometimes tell people that Portland is like poetry playland. That can be a bit double-edged though. While there are some politically conscious poets here that I deeply admire, like Kaia Sand, the scene is not particularly politically engaged, and there is not much interaction among the diverse poetry communities. I’m working to forge more connections, and there are other poets doing a lot. The poet Stacey Tran is an incredible connector here of diverse artistic and intellectual communities.

MA: What are you working on now? What do you see yourself doing in ten years?

AC: I’ve just finished a poetry manuscript called After we all died, and I’m working to finish the full manuscript, Plastic, an autobiography. I don’t see myself in ten years—I don’t look that far ahead. What I hope for the world is that in ten years a mass citizens movement will have forced changes in the current system of capitalist excess whose ultimate logic is death—death for many living communities, including most of world’s human population whom the system exploits, and ultimately also for the small proportion of wealthy people who enjoy its short-term benefits.

MA: If your writing process were a meal, what would it be and why?

AC: [here]

MA: If you could reduce the main ideas in Plastic to five words, what would those be?

AC: Plastic is all of us.


Allison Cobb is the author of Born2 (Chax Press) about her hometown of Los Alamos, New Mexico, and Green-Wood (Factory School) about a nineteenth-century cemetery in Brooklyn, New York. The New York Times called Green-Wood “a gorgeous, subtle, idiosyncratic gem.” Cobb’s work combines history, nonfiction narrative and poetry to address issues of landscape, politics, and ecology. She is a 2015 Djerassi Resident Artist; a 2014 Playa Resident Artist; received a 2011 Individual Artist Fellowship award from the Oregon Arts Commission; and was a 2009 New York Foundation for the Arts Fellow. She works for the Environmental Defense Fund. She lives in Portland, Oregon, where she co-curates The Switch reading series.


Maria Anderson is from Montana. Her fiction has recently been published or is forthcoming in Big Lucks, The Atlas Review, and Two Serious Ladies. She lives in Laramie, Wyoming and is an editor at Essay Press. You can find her online here.

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