Robots and the Natural World: The Poetic Life

Three poems from Port Townsend Writers' Conference alumna Maya Jewell Zeller (2004 and 2008) grace the February issue of PANK magazine. The magazine's interview with Zeller is reprinted below, and continues after the cut. Maya's poems also appear recently in the Bellingham Review, High Desert Journal, Cimarron Review, and New South. She lives in Spokane with her husband and daughter, and teaches English at Gonzaga University.

During the July 18-25, 2010, Conference, Zeller will be leading an afternoon workshop in creating poems from the raw material of our world, the "real" stuff that John Balaban once referred to as the grains of sand that become the pearl.

Have you ever considered writing a poem about nature from the perspective of a robot? What would that be like?

That’s actually something I’ve never considered before you asked, so I decided it would be a good exercise. I had just begun to answer your questions and I stopped and wrote the poem. It’s called “The Robot Considers the Chambered Nautilus,” and it’s a prose poem with two stanzas/paragraphs. It’s in third person limited, and explores the robot’s “thoughts” on equilateral spirals. . . among other things. It’s mostly about human nature, I think. It’s hard to say since I just wrote it.

What would you like to leave behind in a river?

Ideally, a person who admires and seeks comfort from the natural world should seek to leave nothing material behind in a river, right? We all know what we carry on and in our bodies can be toxic to fish and other things that live in rivers. But I think if you read enough of my work, you’ll probably agree that I’ve left a lot behind already, that I go to rivers to find the things I’ve lost. I know I won’t find them, because the river will always be different. But maybe I’ll find something else valuable. I know that probably sounds a little cheeky, but I feel about rivers something like the way the philosopher Heraclitus did: that the river is able to exist, to be (the way a poem must “be”), because the water in that river keeps changing. We often credit Heraclitus with saying that “you cannot step into the same river twice.” I’m not even sure I understand him correctly, but I like to think that his ideas somehow precede the notion that a person is eternally in revision, but that there are constants which allow us to think of it as revision rather than as a new creation. I don’t think I even answered your question, so I will try again: I think rivers (and other bodies of water) have left themselves in me, metaphorically, and that’s why I feel so compelled to write about water and go to water. I live in Spokane right now, where the ocean is far away, and I find myself seeking out the rivers here on a daily basis, just to feel balanced.

What are your favorite movies that involve a body of water?

Hmm. Movies? It’s easier to cite books: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Siddhartha, My Story as Told by Water (David James Duncan), Housekeeping (Marilynne Robinson), a lot of H.D.’s poems, Richard Hugo’s poems. . . but movies really are hard. The obvious answer would be A River Runs Through It, but it didn’t enthrall me like it should. Maybe because it’s a dude movie. I don’t know. Does BBC’s Planet Earth series count? I guess Cape Fear was pretty good, but too often movies about bodies of water use them as motifs for danger. It’s hard to capture the ineffable qualities of water even on film (says the woman who has never actually formally studied film).

Do you believe the talent to write is something one is born with or something that one can be taught?

I believe genetic predisposition could lead a person to become a writer, but encouragement means a lot when it comes to actually doing something with that “natural talent.” Mostly, I think a person needs to study the craft: read, read, read, write a little, read a lot more. Write about what you read. Figure out how what you read was written. Mimic it. I teach writing in a lot of forms, so I better believe it can be taught, at least to some degree.

If you had the chance to design a course and teach that course, what would it be? Why?

I’ve designed a few courses and taught them, but always within the parameters of predetermined course descriptions. I have a lot of ideas for designing my very own courses; one of them is a class called “Married Poets.” It would be a special topics class for a MFA program, and we’d read Donald Hall & Jane Kenyon, Ted Hughes & Sylvia Plath, Joe Millar & Dorianne Laux, Mark Halliday & J. Allyn Rosser, Tess Gallagher & Raymond Carver, and some friends of mine who are young poets. . . maybe some others; kind of a range of styles & talents. It would be fun to study the sensibilities and aesthetics of poets married to each other, or at least living together like they’re married. It would take a small group of really interested students to make it work, so that’s why I say it would be in an MFA program (now, don’t go stealing my idea: this is my course). I know it sounds uber-geeky, but that’s what designing your own hypothetical course is all about, right?