Thursday, September 3, 2009

Friday Discovery: Hawk & Handsaw with Kathryn Miles

We're going to start a new feature at First Person Plural: a weekly "discovery" of a literary journal or small press. We're going to break this new feature in with Kathryn Miles of Hawk & Handsaw, a literary journal out of Unity College in Maine. This is one of the newest additions to our huge (and getting huger) stock of literary journals in our bookstore. Want to take a look at this journal? Come on down; it's here.

First, what is Hawk & Handsaw and how would you say it's different from other literary journals?

As far as I know, Hawk & Handsaw is the only journal dedicated wholly to creative sustainability. The global conversation about sustainability has become a rich and complex one over the past decade, but it seemed to us that much of that dialog was about science or, more specifically, data on issues like climate change and peak resource consumption. Obviously, those are good and important approaches, but we felt strongly that they shouldn’t be the only way we conceive of sustainability. Hawk & Handsaw, then, tries to get at what you might call the softer side of this very important subject—namely through an emphasis on anecdotes, metaphor, interpretation, and artistic rendering. In launching the journal, we wanted to create a space where writers and artists could reflect on how they live—or at least try to live—a sustainable life. We also wanted a place that emphasized imagination when it came to witnessing examples of sustainability in various communities.

The title for the journal comes from that wonderful dramatic moment where Hamlet, feigning madness, assures his friends “when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw." There’s a lot to like in that quote: the idea of getting a little crazy in order to solve a problem; not to mention the conflation of the language (both hawks and handsaws were terms for birds as well as carpentry tools). So you have flight and solidity, along with an appealing doubleness of denotation. These were all ideas that we somehow wanted to evoke, both in terms of our art and text, as well as our layout and production. We wanted not just the topic, but every aspect of the journal to be as creative and as sustainable as possible.

Can you define creative sustainability for our readers?

That’s a great question, and one that we constantly ask ourselves. In fact, we recently launched a new feature in the journal dedicated specifically to definitions of sustainability. When we first began the journal, we were thinking about creative sustainability in two ways. First, we wanted to pay homage to the fact that living a sustainable life requires creativity and ingenuity, whether that meant making a cistern out of discarded stuff, or finding clever ways to tamp down the need for stuff altogether. Just as important was the idea that artistic vision needed to have a seat at any table where sustainability is discussed: we need, of course, scientists and scholars and policy makers telling us about how to confront planetary crisis, but we also need to hear from the weavers and fiction writers and other great imaginers out there.

Thanks to our readers and contributors, that definition has grown considerably. One of my favorite definitions was provided by Alan Crichton, the founder of Waterfall Arts: “Creative sustainability means applying the fresh reach of creativity to the development of valuable new forms which change conditions for the better, make the world smarter, and bring clarity and happiness.” That does a great job of getting at what we’re hoping to do. And we look forward to hearing how other people define the term for themselves. Our Facebook page has a place for readers to add their own ideas; we’re also getting ready to launch a new interactive website that includes a place for readers to broaden the conversation even further.

You recently put out a call for submissions. What kind of submissions are you most interested in?

In the broadest sense, we’re looking for fresh and innovative thinking on sustainability. We’ve run poetry about topics as varied as local food and road kill, photographs by the noted Emmett Gowen, and woodcuts formed from found objects. Some of our favorite pieces have also been personal narratives about the frustrations and failures that come from a commitment to sustainability. A little humor does a lot to open up the conversation—and to remind us that sustainability can be a sizeable—and daunting—commitment. We also like work that challenges us: that makes us interrogate both our preconceptions of sustainability and also our assumptions about genre and art. Any work that broadens our collectively held definitions, any work that inspires us to form a better relationship with the planet, is work that we would very much like to see.

You're also the author of Adventures with Ari: A Puppy, a Leash & Our Year Outdoors, which Library Journal described as "a canine memoir that is unique and irresistible; more reminiscent of Ted Kerasote's Merle's Door: Lessons from a Freethinking Dog than John Grogan's Marley & Me ." Can you tell us how you came to write a "canine memoir"? What kind of challenges did you face while writing the book? For example, the enormous success of Marley & Me: Did it ever make you want to just stop writing?

I’ve been interested in citizen science and what some people call “backyard naturalism” for quite a while now, and I think these initiatives do a lot to get people outside and involved with their landscapes. As a writer and a teacher, I’m particularly interested in those experiences that evoke what Rachel Carson so aptly called ‘a sense of wonder.’ A lot of people (myself included) talk about that sense of wonder as what we might call a childlike way of knowing—a relationship with the natural world based on unbridled curiosity and joy. There’s a lot to be gained from that way of being. But it’s still a very human way of approaching the world. After I adopted my dog, Ari, it occurred to me that it might be an illuminating exercise to expand that experience beyond our own species—to consider the world from an entirely different perspective. In setting out to write the book, that was my aim. Some of the biggest challenges came in trying to live that different perspective, and then in trying to find ways to depict that perspective in a way that would resonate with a general audience.

The success of books like Marley and Me did loom large in my consciousness, and I admit that—especially early on in the writing process—I found myself trying to triangulate off of those works as I sought to distinguish the book I wanted to write from what was already out there. I’m fortunate to have an agent and editor who both have keen eyes, and they helped to shape the book in some significant ways. My early manuscript draft was much heavier on science writing and natural history, but they both urged me to consider more personal narrative, particularly those narratives about family and other relationships. I resisted that at first, but they held firm. And I’m glad they did: when I hear from readers or meet people at signings, it’s the depiction of interpersonal relationships in the book that seem to resonate the most for them. Readers’ responses—and their own stories--have taught me a lot about how we can foster a healthier relationship with our planet.

Learn more about
Adventures with Ari (and see a spot with Kathryn on Maine Public Television) here at her Web site.

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