Below is an interview I’ve conducted over the last few weeks with the writer/poet Amalie Flynn. Our readers/followers might remember Ms. Flynn, as we’ve previously highlighted Amalie and her work on this blog. For those who might not remember, Amalie is the author of several blogs and the poetic-memoir Wife and War, which was released in 2013. We at CWCP have been fans of her work for years. And now, Amalie is back with a new project called The Sustainability of Us. Ms. Flynn describes this project as “eco-memoir – made of poems. It is about one family – mine. And wider still. Across our bodies and bodies of land. Because it is about all of us – and the question – the question of what is sustainable.” In the following interview, I ask Amalie about the motives and themes that underpin her new project, as well as the role that the current political landscape in the US is playing in her work.
Brad Nelson: First, I'd like to start with a basic question. What motivated you to start your new project The Sustainability of Us?
Amalie Flynn: A convergence of desires led me to The Sustainability of Us.
My desire to write about my child, who has a disability, who has apraxia, and who does not have language, the full power to speak. I want to write about him and express his experience, empower it in a way he cannot, by speaking it into being.
My desire to write about the environment, the physical land, which surrounds all of us, and holds us in this space. I want to write about the connection between each of us and the land, how it writes the story of our lives, and we write its story, weaving in and out of each other’s narratives, and how there is always consequence. I want to write about the specific connection between my son and the land, in terms of language and rights, the rights of the environment and the rights of my son, rights that can be cultivated and cared for by the rest of us, but are often desecrated and dismantled, torn down and ripped away.
And my desire to write about my child and the land - right now - in this new political reality we are living in, that is marked by division and fracture and seemingly insurmountable separation. I want to write in search of the ways we are interdependent, the ways we can be connected, all of us, to the government, to one another, to the land. I want to write about how we interact, together, in this, our giant ecosystem of being. I want to write about the rights and responsibilities we have, our own rights and the responsibilities we have, to protect the rights of others and of the land, what rights we choose to protect and what rights we choose to risk, what we choose to conserve and what we choose to endanger, and the sustainability of it, the sustainability of us.
BN: Was it easy to decide to write publicly about your son's experiences? Or did you have any trepidation about that?
BN: Another thought occurred to me. Your comment about the interdependence and interconnectivity among people, the government, and the land is quite fascinating. I'm curious about what has inspired and influenced your thinking about the world in these terms. To my ears, it sounds very Buddhist--whether intentional or not.
AF: I’ve written about both of my children before. In my Wife and War poems, I wrote about my son’s disability in poems like Horn, Fill, Matter, Locate, and Words. But in my Wife and War poems, I wrote about my son’s experience alongside war. This project – The Sustainability of Us – is different. Because my son’s experience is the focus. And because – in these poems, his experience is paired with the environment. The environment is dynamic in a different way than war. War is destructive while the environment is constructive, organic, and cyclic. Writing about my son’s disability paired with the environment is my effort to convey his experience of being, almost ecologically, in terms of his autonomy and his interrelationship with others – in a world where he may seem not to fit in but a world that is undoubtedly his. You asked me if it is hard to write about my son. And, yes, it is hard. Because it is raw and vulnerable and, all at once, mine and not mine. But it is harder not to write about him. Not to give voice to his story, to my story with him, to our family’s story. It is a story of struggle and strength and a constancy of tenuous beauty, like a lotus through mud.
AF: The idea that we are all connected is a repeating theme in my writing, a core belief, and an interest, really, in what happens when we forget, forget we are connected, disconnect, and, then, remember again. Often we forget that we are part of the natural environment, this ecosystem of living and nonliving species, or that we are dependent on other species and they are dependent on us. We forget that we are living in a community with these species, with blades of Blue Fescue grass, a Rufa Red Knot, algae in bloom. And this forgetting happens in our human relationships too. We forget that we are connected to other humans, interrelated, and, in many ways, interdependent. So, in these poems, I am laying, like gauze, the idea of an ecosystem over our interactions, our interactions with the environment, with each other, and with our government, so that I can see and describe what bleeds through, what happens when we forget we are connected and what happens when we remember our connections again. I am drawn to the land in my writing because I think it provides a perspective and a tension to the human experience – and because I think the land possesses intrinsic value and is important. This philosophy comes from my scholarship – my doctoral work was an eco-anthropological analysis of the American suburban front lawn. It comes from Aldo Leopold’s land ethic, the warnings of Rachel Carson, and my own sense of environmental ethics. It comes from my obsession with space and place, what we build and what we do not, what fills and what leaves holes or a void. It comes from my belief in the narrative and story and shape of land. And it comes from my own sense of self, my deep connection to land. Being in nature is almost ritualistic for me. I do it every day. And it is one of the ways I feel most myself, most human, when I find myself amongst the land, because I remember myself again in a contrast to and in a connection with that land.
BN: I'd like to swing back to a comment you made earlier in our conversation. You said, "And my desire to write about my child and the land - right now - in this new political reality we are living in, that is marked by division and fracture and seemingly insurmountable separation." I'd like to tease out this sentence a bit. In particular, I'm curious about the impact of the current political environment on your work. How do you see it? And is the impact different from, say, the Obama years?
AF: Currently, America is fiercely divided. The current administration operates by way of division, seems to empower itself by dividing us, and is deeply mired in a scandal that divides us further still. And, yet, at the heart of this division is the reality that politics are personal. Politics are personal because politics affect people, real human beings with lives that are delicate and deserving of certain protections from their government. For me, what marks this administration as so different from the last administration, beyond all the fanfare and cacophony of scandal, is the very real reversal of rights, the moving backwards.
The policies and pursuits of this administration threaten the rights of many Americans – the rights of minorities, women, refugees, immigrants, the LGBTQ community, those who practice Islam, Judaism, or no religion at all, the rights of the environment, and, yes, the rights of those who live with disabilities – like my child.
Through aggressive deregulation of environmental protections, this administration has relegated the environment to the role of raw resource – a material to be used by humans, exploited, disregarded, and thrown away. There is a connection here – with the alarming way this administration has threatened the rights of people with disabilities. This administration has not proven to be an advocate for disability rights. Instead, there is an effort to strip health care coverage away from people with disabilities. There is a rolling back of ADA and regulations requiring businesses to be accessible. There is the proposal that IDEA be no longer federally mandated but left to states to decide whether to enforce it or not. There is the prospect that restructuring the public school system through school choice and voucher programs will re-segregate schools and deny children with disabilities the right to free and equal education. There is the actual physical erasure of the page on the White House website that was formerly dedicated to disability rights.
So, I see the environment and people with disabilities as connected. They are connected because the rights of each are threatened by this administration. Viewed from this perspective, my son and the environment are even more closely connected. Because they are both voiceless. They are both without a voice, at least in a traditional sense.
For me, the difference between this administration and the last administration is a backwards movement, the reversal of rights, the danger and darkness of a retrograde. And I am focused on this difference poetically – what this difference means for the environment, my child, all of us, not just politically, but personally. Because the America I love is forward moving. It is constantly trying to move forward. In ways that include everyone.
That we now live in an America that is moving backwards is devastating and will have very real and harmful repercussions, for the environment, in the personal lives of people, and for us all as a public society. So, it is this difference and this devastation that I am writing about. It is the disregard for a child. It is a river forced dry.
BN: I detect a sense of urgency in your assessment of the Trump era: the seemingly dire state of US politics, the growing intractable divisions within America, the declining state of our environment, and so on. It seems clear that your new project is a personal visceral reaction to all of that. At the same time, I suspect that you see—and maybe even hope—your poetic-blog goes beyond that, beyond the personal to something larger and bigger. Am I right?
AF: The degradation of the environment, the diminishment of certain groups of people, such as people with disabilities, the divisions between us – these realities precede our current administration and have always existed in America – as has my disquiet about them. Policies of the current administration that target the environment and people with disabilities only bring into focus a subjugation that is always there, that has always been there, in America. So, while this project speaks to the danger of the current administration’s mistreatment of the environment and of people with disabilities, it is speaking to something larger, an America where domination and degradation is woven into so many of our interactions, with each other, with our government, and with the land. In these poems, I seek to say something illimitable – about the environment and about us – about the dichotomy at the heart of this existence – resilience and self-sustainment, fragility and vulnerability. Ultimately, these poems are about humanity, how we are all connected, and the deep schisms and voids that form when we deny these connections or sever them. In each poem, there is the optimism of connection, reconnection. And the reality that sometimes – sometimes it is too late.
Amalie Flynn is an American writer and the author of WIFE AND WAR: THE MEMOIR and three blogs: WIFE AND WAR, SEPTEMBER ELEVENTH, and THE SUSTAINABILITY OF US. Flynn’s WIFE AND WAR poetry has appeared in THE NEW YORK TIMES AT WAR and in TIME’S BATTLELAND, has appeared in THE HUFFINGTON POST, and has received mention from THE NEW YORK TIMES MEDIA DECODER. Her SEPTEMBER ELEVENTH blog has received mention from CNN. In addition, her WIFE AND WAR blog has a global readership, with readers from over 90 countries. WIFE AND WAR: THE MEMOIR is her first book.