POET TO POET: John Lane and Philip Lee Williams in Conversation

John Lane is emeritus professor of environmental studies at Wofford College and the author of numerous volumes of poetry and prose. Philip Lee Williams is the author of twenty-one books. Both Lane’s Anthropocene Blues (2017) and Williams’s Eden’s Last Horizon (2022), which they discuss here, were published by Mercer University Press.

JOHN LANE: It’s great to get started talking about the poetry of the Earth. We’ve both been at it quite awhile and both of us have attempted to write about the natural world. We have been blessed to have the Mercer University Press folks support our poetic efforts in multiple volumes.

PHILIP LEE WILLIAMS: Indeed, we have been focused on nature in our poetry and lucky to have Mercer interested in our work. Most of my writing in this vein has been hopeful and about the aesthetics of the natural world. But with Eden’s Last Horizon, I took a darker and more urgent tone. I supposed I felt it was time for a small scream against what we have done and are doing, and how the Earth herself is reacting.  

JOHN LANE: I have always admired your attention and passion. One good place to start might be to contrast the two poetic approaches of Eden’s Last Horizon and Anthropocene Blues. I think of my “blues” more like the Piedmont blues, often upbeat as much as beat. Several reviewers pointed out the way humor works in my poems. Sometimes I worry that I am too optimistic and “light” but part of that comes from my undergraduate training in geology and my love of the idea of deep time. As the Scottish geologist Hutton famously said, “No vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.”

PHILIP LEE WILLIAMS: Insightful as always, John. I think my book imagines the beginning of the end with more focus than I have before. I loved your book and the wandering geologist narrator. I think, with the humor in your book and a fairly strong difference in our tones, the books do complement each other well. Many of your poems teach, whereas I think many of mine plead, like the more sorrowful Psalms, that we can save the earth from our own ignorance and arrogance.  

JOHN LANE: Your book seems more centered around loss than mine, more tuned to sorrow, more elegiac. Even your title doubles down on this loss. It’s not that your speaker doesn’t attempt to rise out of ecological despair, but it seems hard to get there. If my book can be said to be narrated by a geologist who thinks there is plenty of time, yours seems to be an Old Testament prophet who believes the end is near. This makes for two very different but complimentary poetics of the Now!

PHILIP LEE WILLIAMS: Fair enough. My book arose from a place of anger for what we have done and are doing to the Earth. I tried to temper my dark feelings with poems about the beauty of the world, but some of those poems are inevitably dark because they point out what we stand to lose. My use of the word “Eden” in the title was metaphorical, of course, but I was looking backward at least to the mid-nineteenth century when we began to tear the fabric of our planet. Unlike your geologist, I don’t think there is much time to turn around our approach to saving the Earth. But that’s the beauty of poetry, I think, and one reason I admire your work so much. I cheerfully admit I—and the world of science—may be wrong. And geology, perhaps, always tells the truth.

JOHN LANE: Often the hard truth—although there is maybe a sedimentary truth as well!

PHILIP LEE WILLIAMS: The “Field Notebook” poems in your book make clear that the narrator is someone with scientific training. Do you think your undergraduate work in geology gives you a broader picture, as a poet, of what has passed and what is to come?

JOHN LANE: For sure, Phil. I know that I see the world in a different way because of the three geology courses I took as an undergraduate. I run into reminders of my education all the time when I’m moving through landscapes with those who do not have such a perspective. My idea of time always includes “deep time,” something I’m not sure many folks think about. So, the poems, I think definitely offer a broader time perspective than most poetry which opens mostly on the present or near present—at least “near” when thinking of geologic time.

PHILIP LEE WILLIAMS: It occurs to me I am seeing a future from now and include less of the distant past.

JOHN LANE: Yes, I see that in your poems. In section 34 you speculate on the future: “I wonder what shape / the Apocalypse will / take when it comes, …?” That’s pretty direct!

PHILIP LEE WILLIAMS: I am intrigued by how you end several poems with a colon or a dash. Those poems feel as if the reader must add more or complete the idea. They also seem to hint at an ambiguity, as if the poet may be changing his mind mid-stream. What is your idea in doing this, and how important is the last line of any poem?

JOHN LANE: Mostly with the colons I was trying to underscore the connection to A.R. Ammons, who owns the use of the colon in contemporary poetry. But you’re right, I think I wanted to create as much ambiguity as possible in the poems and as little certainty because to me the future is so open-ended. I don’t think much about what the apocalypse will look like because the deep future still looks like one of those spaghetti models of a hurricane and it still feels to me that we are far from full apocalypse. I think of the planet recovering from those five prior major extinctions and not one of them proved a full apocalypse for life. Life just went in a different direction—thank goodness for us!

PHILIP LEE WILLIAMS: How about the dash?

JOHN LANE: The same thing really—ambiguity, as you say. And, of course, a nod to Emily Dickinson.

PHILIP LEE WILLIAMS: One stark difference in how we approach poetry in these books is in line length and diction. As you know, William Carlos Williams argued that poetic lines should always be something that someone, in real life, could actually say. I think Williams would admire your poems for this reason. What say you?

JOHN LANE: Yes, I got my voice and line from Williams and Gary Snyder. Both believed in that spoken line of various lengths.

PHILIP LEE WILLIAMS: Mine, on the other hand, are geared more to what we might think instead of say. It seems to me that my poems are possibly more abstract and made out of an expectation of earthly ruin.

JOHN LANE: Somebody once said to me that my spirit is more New than Old Testament. Is this part of what you are getting at?

PHILIP LEE WILLIAMS: I think it may be, John, but of course that is almost too complex to contemplate. Still, I think there we both generally share a love of the Earth and a hope that humanity can help save it in the end. My book clearly takes a darker look than yours, but in the end, I trust it is no less hopeful.

JOHN LANE: I see hope all through Eden’s Last Horizon, especially in your stunning descriptions of the world. Even in the loss there is so much beauty.

PHILIP LEE WILLIAMS: I’m curious about something. I was a science writer and taught nature writing at the University of Georgia for a number of years. But while science writing was my paid job, I was never more than an adjunct professor in nature writing, while you spent an honored academic career generally in both areas. Do you think the difference in our professions might have led to different approaches in our writing?

JOHN LANE: For twenty years I was an English professor with an MFA, and then I was an environmental studies professor teaching ecohumanities, alongside scientists and social scientists in an interdisciplinary program for another decade. But I was headed toward environmental studies from the beginning. It just took me several decades to help create the program that fit my interests and allowed me to teach them. I’ve always thought of Anthropocene Blues as my environmental studies book.

PHILIP LEE WILLIAMS: I think my book The Flower Seeker: An Epic Poem of William Bartram as my environmental studies book.

JOHN LANE: Phil, you have exhibited a love of the long poems in the past. I’m thinking here of that book, The Flower Seeker, your long poem about William Bartram. Do you think of Eden’s Last Horizon as a long poem? Your subtitle (“Poems for the Earth”) suggests it’s not, and yet it reads that way. Could it be read either way?

PHILIP LEE WILLIAMS: I fell in love with the long poem when I read Paterson by William Carlos Williams as a teenager. In my early 20s, I became deeply intrigued with Ezra Pound’s Cantos, though the version I read still had some of the deeply disturbing material blacked out. But the first long poem I really loved was The Canterbury Tales. I had always wanted to write an epic but had trouble finding a subject until I realized William Bartram would be perfect. I first read his Travels when I was about 12 or so and knew it very well. His life would allow me to write about nature, ecosystems, and history—lifelong obsessions of mine. Eden’s Last Horizon does say “Poems” on the front, but the poems are numbered, so I was trying to create a hybrid that could be read as a single long poem or individual poems. I hope it can be seen as both.

JOHN LANE: In Gary Snyder’s poem “For the Children” he offers a litany of advice for the future. He advises: “Stay together / learn the flowers / go light.” I’ve always tried to adhere to that. What would your advice for the children be? 

PHILIP LEE WILLIAMS: It might be “Live as well as you can in the moment, and don’t look too far down the road.”

John Lane’s poetry titles published by Mercer University Press:

Philip Lee Williams’s poetry titles published by Mercer University Press:

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