Amelia Gorman on ecology, invasive species, and weird poetry

amelia gorman

Amelia Gorman is a recent transplant to Eureka, California, where she enjoys exploring the tidepools and redwoods with her dogs and foster dogs. Read some of her recent poetry in Vastarien, Penumbric, and the Deadlands. Find her fiction in She Walks in Shadows from Innsmouth Free Press, Nox Pareidolia from Nightscape Press, and the Nightscript series. She’s online at www.ameliagorman.com.

Field Guide to Invasive Species of Minnesota by Amelia GormanTell us about your new chapbook, Field Guide to Invasive Species of Minnesota. How did the idea of using invasive species to explore the connection between ecology and human nature come to you?

When I started (and finished) writing this book I was living in a very small apartment in downtown Minneapolis with my husband and our two dogs. So it seemed really important to get out and to green spaces in my free time when I could. The Twin Cities area is really great for that, with a state park and a national wildlife refuge right on the train line, and of course all the lakes. And like a lot of writers I was of course writing about what I was seeing.

The first couple I wrote weren’t imagined as part of a bigger project, they were just some fun little story-poems. I liked writing about invasive species because they turned the purpose of a lot of standard field guides on its head — the ones that are about helping you spot desirable species. They don’t take into consideration many of the plants and animals you actually see, since typically the nature spaces we enjoy aren’t truly a wilderness, they’re all some degree of impacted. Choosing only invasives became a way to write about real climate change, real ecological concerns but also tell these very misfit, weird stories.

As you started to realize these little weird poems would be part of a larger project, what was your process for pulling it together into a cohesive whole? How did you decide what needed to stay and what needed to go?

After I had 4-5 finished, I decided I wanted to take this in a much bigger direction. I made a huge list of potential species candidates, trying to evenly include plants and animals. Some of them were really easy choices — ones I had experience with removing as a volunteer, some we covered when I tutored environmental science, like buckthorn, Ones I saw slowly destroying some of the biodiversity of the lake by my grandparents, like trapdoor snails. Earthworms, because I participated in spreading them without realizing the problems they caused. Anything I had a real visceral connection to was an easy one to write about, to include.

Some I dropped because no matter how hard I tried, no matter how beautiful a name “Tree of Heaven” is or how sensory stick bugs are, I just couldn’t find a good hook to attach a poem to. Others I dropped because they weren’t really relevant. Wild boar, for example, would have been really fun to brainstorm about, but sightings are rare and almost completely unconfirmed. They just aren’t actually a driver of habitat loss or a signal of climate change, or anything with a large effect on the land. And I wanted those topics, albeit in exaggerated and fantastical forms, to be the core of the poems.

I also clearly remember sitting on my floor with printed copies of every poem in front me, ready to tackle the incredibly nitpicky and difficult task of trying to figure out what the punchiest order would be. Before I really got into laying them out and sliding them around like terrible tetris blocks I asked myself “What if I just try to do it alphabetically?” and ended up very happy with the start, the ending, the pacing. It was a nice reminder that just because poetry is sometimes really hard, it doesn’t always have to be that way.

One of the things I love about your book is how each poem is paired with a botanical illustration. Was this a concept that you thought about early in your process of writing the book? Or did it come about later as you were working with your publisher?

Both, actually! I had printed a version for myself once because I wanted to practice making artsy little zines and learn different binding stitches, and just for fun I included several old public domain illustrations. I don’t think anyone but me ever saw that version.

But early in the editing process, Holly at IFP asked me if I was open to including illustrations with the poems, to make it more like an actual field guide. Of course I was! It was like she read my mind. And it was an early sign that I was working with someone with similar tastes and interests, especially in books as artifacts.

With the collection completed and out in the world, what are you most proud of about this book? What do you hope readers will take away from it?

I’m proud that the book represents a couple weird, fringe spaces. It’s speculative poetry, some poems extremely so, like the one about eels going into space, or giant crayfish kaiju battles, but a lot are less narrative and more subtle. And I think most speculative poets can think of one time or another that their work was pushed out one place or other simply for not being “literary” enough.

I think poets without an academic background sometimes feel that way too. Poetry communities can be incredibly welcoming but most of us have still have some impostor syndrome baying in our ears and that’s definitely one of mine.

I hope one thing people take away is to tell the kind of stories they want to tell, not spend forever trying to guess the stories other people want to read. I don’t think this book looks like a lot of other writers’ debut chapbooks. I don’t think anything Interstellar Flight Press has put out does, really, and I love all of them. I’ve written my best work about things like this, that I feel incredibly passionate about, with no idea if I would ever find a publisher for a book of speculative poems entirely about invasive species in the 22nd most populous state. Or like recently, I wrote a list poem/sonnet hybrid about the science of cannibalism and Francisco Goya — it’s a form but not a form, it’s horror but minimally spec, I got lots of feedback saying it was interesting but not right for anywhere I sent it until Vastarien picked it up and I was thrilled. No one should drop the ball on a ton of wonderful poems for letting self-doubt get the best of them and thinking, “No, no one’s interested in that topic.” Someone is interested in that topic.

Oh, and I’m proud that someone recently asked me “What are these little pronged seeds that stick to your shoes that the park wants you to remove?” (Bird’s Foot Trefoil). That I can be that person, with those answers.

Do you feel community is important as a writer? How do you stay connected?

Of course, and like a lot of people, my community has been hit hard by the pandemic. Places that used to host reading events have closed or changed to new ownership less interested in the arts, fewer get togethers in general. So the internet has definitely become the place for poetry right now. Watching regular events like Akua Lezli Hope’s Speculative Sundays reading series and participating in some like Daniel Braum’s The Strange, The Weird & Uncanny have helped keep me connected. I also really enjoy the artists out there working hard to document these weird times from poets’ POV like Global Poemic.

Name a poet you would like more readers to know about.

Right now I’m reading Bounded by Eternity by Deborah L. Davitt and I really recommend it. I’ve always found her poetry really inspiring, as she tells really full, rich stories in verse. This one is a full length novella and that it resonates so well on a line level, and a poem level, and a chapter level, and a book level is so cool.

What can the world expect from you in the future?

Since I moved across the US shortly before my book was published, I definitely want to write similar-but-different eco poems about the northern coast of California. There’s so many beautiful plants and animals and conservation efforts, and I decided I want these poems to lean a little more hopeful. I’m imagining a bestiary of strange hybrids of native plant/animals but I have no idea if there’ll be enough for another manuscript.

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