In This Broken Unbroken Place: A Conversation with Tracy Zeman

Tracy Zeman’s first book, Empire, recently won the New Measure Poetry Prize from Free Verse Editions. Her poems have appeared in Beloit Poetry JournalChicago ReviewCincinnati Reviewtypo, and other journals, and her book reviews have been published in Kenyon Review and Colorado Review. She lives outside Detroit, Michigan, with her husband and daughter.


Lisa Higgs: You and I met in the adjunct office of the University of Illinois Springfield (UIS) about six months after we had both moved to the town because of jobs our husbands received there. Oddly enough, we also both left Springfield about 10 years later, within months of each other. During that time, I know you immersed yourself in the prairie ecology, both in your poetry and in your work at the Audubon Society. What about the prairie speaks to you as an artist and someone interested in the environment?

Tracy Zeman: It was the prairie that sparked my interest in the natural environment. I had lived in Illinois, the prairie state, almost my entire life, and until I visited UIS’s 10-acre restored prairie as part of the curriculum I was teaching, I had never seen that landscape. When I encountered it, I thought it was beautiful, the tall grasses and different wild flowers—a very different type of place than a forest or mountain range, which seem to be more typically thought of as wild places of natural beauty. Once I started reading about and visiting prairie relics (parcels that had never been plowed) and restorations, I was fascinated. It’s not just grass—a nothing place—it’s flowers, shrubs, lone trees, riparian edges, wetlands, seasonal pools, and home to many animals and insects. There is as much biomass above the ground as below, which is why grasslands can survive drought, fire, flood, and ice. They are an origin place too, where humans first came to be who we are now and where agriculture developed. And an origin place in the sense that the North American prairie’s history and destruction are one microcosm of our country’s larger troubled history. The language drew me in also—so many plant and animal names to use for poems, which is probably why association and catalogue are two of the main devices employed in the book. 

LH: Can you speak more about those devices, both within the scope of the book and within your own overall poetic sensibility?

TZ: For association, sometimes I let one thought or one fragment of language lead me to another related fragment or idea like in “Edge Effect,” “Each life conveys to some certain center” leads into the “cracked canoe” and then to the “voles tear[ing] up a field” and “lake torn from rock.” They all contain a center or crack or furrow and relate back to the idea of the “Edge Effect,” that an edge or crack can also be the center. My practice of notetaking and thematic-based writing, I think, leaves room for this associative kind of relationship-creation. The lines relate to one another as an ecosystem functions, with messy overlaps and relationships that are contingent upon other relationships. The catalogue functions as a type of place-record, of species both present and extinct, and works to show, I hope, the enormous number of species outside ourselves, of which we are largely unaware. Also, I always think of E.O. Wilson’s biophilia here, that humans evolved among other species, and as such, we have an innate desire to be among species other than just our own.  

LH: Relics play an important role, both in terms of theme and imagery, in Empire. Bones, grave markers, and burial artifacts make frequent appearances in your first collection. Likewise, your poems are populated with everyday items that earlier humans have left behind in the prairie—a waterjar, a decaying windmill, and barbed wire, among others. Also, Thomas Jefferson’s specimen collections, brought back east by western explorers. What drew you to use relics as a lens through which to view the largely disappeared prairie? 

TZ: Tallgrass prairie is a mostly disappeared ecosystem, and relics (cultural and natural) are what are left behind. They provide a way into the landscape and help uncover the histories of different peoples and species, all of which are related to the moment in time we are in now, in regards to declining biodiversity, habitat loss, environmental justice, and race, the larger colonial legacy. I was interested in figures like Darwin, Jefferson, Leopold, and others as I began to understand the evolution of how naturalists have viewed the natural world over time—that ecosystems are not static but dynamic—and that humans can and have, at this point, impacted all the natural systems on earth. Jefferson was a vast collector, as were many early naturalists, even when that collecting contributed to the extinction of a species. In “Star or Plow,” where I write about Jefferson’s collections, I list a number of extinct or expatriated species and juxtapose them and relics from indigenous peoples with the grids that were placed on western ecosystems from agriculture or infrastructure “geometry democracy steel steam / seed & theft.” I reference Jefferson’s “science of specimen & capture,” which inevitably brings to mind Jefferson’s ownership of slaves, and try to show that we are still locked in these same systems that impose artificial borders on species, ecosystems, and groups of people. 

LH: One of your stylistic techniques in many of the poems in Empire is to include direct quotes from various authors, followed by “she said” or “he said” as attribution. Uncoupling these quoted words from their source, and oftentimes burying them between lists of specific nature elements, made me begin to think about language as another relic of humanity. Can you talk a bit about why it was important to you to include so many outside voices in your poetry?

TZ: The poems are informed and influenced by the physical treks I take through places and the research and reading I engage in during the process of writing and thinking through the ideas in the poems. I’m drawn to work that incorporates a multiplicity of voices and textures, and so I’ve made that a part of my poetic practice. I think it helps in eliding time and place, and persons and species. I also think it’s jarring to constantly encounter quoted material, which can jolt the reader into awareness again. In “Solitary Branches & Small Leaves,” I write “pare down     mountain-mallow / stickseed     pondberry     ‘species / are unfixed’ he said     this greenwashing / one was rock-right.” Into a list of plants, I drop in text about evolution from Darwin in order to get at the idea that species are always changing, however slowly, but that process stops when the species cease to exist. And that the rapid destruction of natural systems has been “greenwashed” as progress, a term that intentionally refers to “whitewashing.” In that same way, I use borrowed text to explore other common notions like what different ways of living meant for different groups at different times in history, or the idea of “vanishing” or “disappeared” people, places, and species—“as if no hand behind the stilled word.” The “vanishing” was and is a result of direct action and often violence—it doesn’t just mysteriously “happen.”  I try to show that the lens of Western thought (and parallel action) has in many ways created our present problems regarding the environment and inequality.

LH: While we’re on the topic of style, I wonder if you could describe the process you follow for writing your poems, which are largely a collage of materials brought together in a conversation that is image-based more than narrative and that gives primacy to phrase and added space rather than complete sentence and end punctuation. This does not seem to be the sort of poem you sit down and draft in one morning’s reflection.

TZ: I read, hike, take notes, then construct some sort of frame to work within, which is usually developed in an initial draft. I find that I do need some type of structure or constraint; open-ended forms are too unwieldy for me, and I don’t know where to stop or what to cut. After I find the shape, I use my notes to piece something together that has a loose theme running throughout that becomes stronger and more apparent through revision. This method of drafting allows me to create sequences that are accumulative and based upon juxtapositions and paratactical relationships. It seems to be the way my mind works and why I love poetry—beautiful or intriguing bits of language and phrases that are interesting in themselves but build to mean more. Also, in revision, I go back and hone the images, working with sound, repetition, and associations to make sure they are working together. Taking Niedecker’s economy of language to heart, “I learned / to sit at desk / and condense // No layoff / from this / condensery,” I try to eliminate and pare down. I’ve tried to work within more traditional structures and have found that sentence-making doesn’t work for me and what I’m trying to express. The work’s resistance to it then makes the occasional glimmer of narrative or direct declaration stand out that much more. 

LH: In the second section of your poem, “Simulacra,” you write:

….      dead wood mistaken
for bone for wellworn for a culture that will
replace even its originator & the land
becomes common & again

A theme of human civilization overrunning nature at the same time nature is reclaiming artifacts of earlier humans repeats throughout Empire. What lessons have you drawn from your reading of environmental texts and texts on death and mourning that might inform action on pressing issues of climate change and the degradation of our natural places?

TZ: One thing I’ve learned is that the layers of the planet’s longer natural history and remainders of the shorter human history of Earth are embedded in the landscape. Those layers can be read to learn about the distant and recent past and used to imagine the near and distant future—Anthropocene “golden spikes” of isotopes from nuclear detonations or plastic in the strata after we’re gone. I’ve also learned, as I said previously, that humanity’s thinking about nature has changed over time: “in fifty years world went / from orderly & new to ‘incomprehensively / old’ & in endless flux.” And that our understanding needs to continue shifting. This seems to be accelerating a bit right now, actually, with the protests about systemic racism in the summer of 2020, the understanding that many of our current crises are intertwined: race, class, poverty, environmental degradation, the emphasis by some on “growth” and “profit” above all else. I’m interested in those entanglements and interconnections and think that by understanding how we’ve gotten to this moment, we can get closer to making the swerves in perception necessary for action. I hope. Of course, at times I wonder if we’ll have the will and consensus to do anything much at all. 

LH: Another element of style that interested me in your poetry was the centrality of the natural world over humanity, seen starkly in the utter lack of personal pronouns in certain poems, and in the frequent use of the collective “we” and “us” in others. Perhaps my own selection of contemporary poetry is too narrow, but I cannot think of another recent book of poems I’ve read that eschews first and second person so frequently. Was this a conscious decision to once again exemplify the conflict between nature and humanity?

TZ: I am not interested in writing about myself in a direct way and purposefully try to distance my poems from the personal—the use of “us” and “we” does that and can be alternately inclusive or implicating. I also use “us” and “we” to make me and whomever I’m out walking with a single unit—for Empire it was often my husband, Matt, or an imagined walk with my brother—since many of the poems deal with my/our grief over the sudden death of our father. I’ve always liked reading poetry where the speaker is masked or hidden or distant—Susan Howe, Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore—where you learn about the narrator/speaker through glimpses and clues or maybe not at all. The experiences in the poems are mine though, my walks and observations, my research, and, consequently, they reflect my feelings and thoughts, and in that sense are deeply personal. I wanted the reader to be saturated in the landscape and species of a specific place, where image is supreme and the human is one element among many. 

LH: Of course, the lack of “I” and “you” in Empire only calls greater attention to these points of view when they do occur in your poems. I remember you telling me once that the boy who moves in and out of several of your poems was a tie to your father, to whom you dedicated the book and who passed away in an accident when you were in your twenties. Until the end of your collection, the use of “I” and “you” most often seems tied to expressions of love and loss. What role does grief play in Empire—personally and in your reflections on humanity’s negative impact on our planet? 

TZ: I read many books on eschatology before and during the writing of Empire. Something that stuck with me, throughout the writing of these poems and the ones I’m writing now, are the concepts of liminality and impermanence—that when someone dies, for a short period of time, they still feel close. The door to the living world is still open. The same is true of other transitional states—birth, puberty, marriage—and this idea of permeable boundaries, of being one thing before and another thing after, which can also be applied to the natural world. How ecosystems and species have evolved over deep-time; how our understanding of nature has evolved; how our current actions speed up the rate of change in dangerous ways. All that is tied to my ideas about grief. That a person we loved or a place we knew was real, and still is, even if they or it is now gone, and how do we find ways to live within that constant liminality and impermanence.

LH: In your final poem, “Empire of Grass,” there does seem to be a slight shift away from grief and looking back into the past. Although the poem remains focused on image, the poem has hints of a narrative where two people are camped in the midst of so much nature:

Compass-plant marks the edge
of us &      “granary    smokehouse    root
cellar”     this propensity for limitlessness
within limits       hundreds of great plains toads
hibernating in loose soil until the rain

In some respects, I sense a voice coming out of hibernation in this poem, and the first line of the last section of the poem, “You reach the graveyard before me,” carries the weight of a parent who has been lost to the grave alongside a present-day narrative of a partner very literally hiking into a graveyard before the poet-persona. How might you describe the end journey of Empire?

TZ: Yes, I think the final poem is softer than some of the others. For me, writing the book involved so much learning about what state things in the natural world are really in and how we got here. We feel that we can live with no limits, but it’s not true or not without consequence. “Redolent co-minglers     began with / landtheft tinderbox plowshare.” It’s interesting because the poems I’m writing now have that knowledge as a grounding instead of a process of discovery, and the feel is different because of it. I think the final few stanzas mark a sort of leaving behind, where having traveled this journey, the process of discovery has come to an end. I think the final poem tries to come to terms with the grief throughout the book, too.


LH: We need to talk about your attentiveness to sound and the language in this collection. It is hard to select just one example, so I’ll just pick from the second section of your opening poem, “Grass for Bone”:

Red crowned field sparrow
trills in minor-key in minor places
cut forests now shrubland of
fences & abandoned pastures
sieve of redbud leaves sewn together

I imagine that the order of your lists of natural elements are often drafted and revised aurally? If yes, what sound qualities are you trying to achieve in your poems, and to what effect?

TZ: Yes, I read drafts aloud repeatedly when revising, and I also generate lists in my notebook when reading or just sitting at my desk. I’ll fill columns with words that I think of associatively. When I draft a poem, I like to play with line, sound, connections, and repetition, which I think make the poems both sonically and formally dense and adds to the possibilities of interpretation. The field sparrow has become more of a marginalized species, preferring old fields, and it has a sweet soft little whistle. Its presence or lack thereof can tell you about the habitat that is there or is missing. I think of the poems as enacting or performing ecosystems, mimicking their overlaps, edges, intricacies, textures, and layers, and trying to exemplify what Evelyn Reilly claims, that eco-poetics “attempts to trace kinetics of whole systems, and to enact connections rather than to mark distinctions.”

LH: I’m also interested in your technique of juxtaposing words in a number of your poems. For instance, in section six of “Grass for Bone” you write, “did I say counterfeit or crabapple     coneflower or copy.” Section eight includes “feasting & footbridge” and section 11 includes “Summit or sun” and several lines later “sunset & sea.” You use this technique frequently in Empire. What purpose do these pairings have to the meaning of the poems they are included in, and to the overall meaning of the collection itself?

TZ: I’m creating dichotomies and relationships, setting up some dynamic or interplay. For example, “counterfeit or crabapple     coneflower or copy,” what’s real and what’s not or what will substitute for the real when it’s no longer here. It makes me think of a line from Brian Teare’s recent book, Doomstead Days, “how the real absorbs fact.” Extinction is a bit of an obsession of mine, the idea of something being completely gone and never again. “Taxonomic” in the book’s final section explores those issues. Will we settle for a fake? A copy? How do the symbols we’ve based our frameworks on function when those symbols no longer exist in an alive, physical way? The other examples you mentioned function in different ways. “Summit or sun” have similarities—they are at the top, a source of worship or completion or awe. “Grass for Bone” is largely about death and its rituals, about permanence and impermanence, forming and becoming unformed, which that juxtaposition/pairing technique investigates.

LH: With the pandemic showing us the many weaknesses of human civilization as well as some of the benefits of decreasing carbon emissions and slowing down human encroachment on wild territories, how do you feel about chances that the world will finally start to take stronger action on climate change and on restoring natural areas lost to agriculture and development?

TZ: I don’t know. I think stories about wild animals in urban places and about how quickly nature can encroach on empty spaces are fascinating. There doesn’t seem to be much political will in the world to tackle climate, but I think the BLM protests are a powerful demonstration of what individuals can collectively do. I think the conversations about systemic problems are helpful, because, as I said earlier, many of the issues are intertwined: social justice and inequality with environmental degradation, or declining worker/union protections with industrial deregulation. It’s a frightening time in many ways. I do still enjoy going out to hike or walk or bird watch. Having the bodily knowledge of the physical world can be grounding while trying to learn about and understand the realities of things as they are. Or as my friend and mentor, Susan Tichy, has said, the physical knowledge of natural spaces can be its own form of resistance. 

LH: Is that partly the role of eco-poetics, do you think? Both extending knowledge of the natural world and creating a method of resistance to the extinctions we are visiting upon ourselves and the entire world?

TZ: I think so, yes. But I also think poets engage in eco-poetics because they are trying to grapple with difficult issues, or as Timothy Morton calls them “hyperobjects”: “entities of such vast temporal and spatial dimensions that they defeat traditional ideas about what a thing is in the first place.” Like climate change or micro-plastic pollution. Eco-poetics attempts to think through or illustrate these complex problems—something poetry is well positioned to do with its myriad of formal options and devices. I think eco-poetry often contains some amount of elegy, too, for the world as it was, is, or could be if we could get a handle on any of the current crises—while also attempting to be a part of and an observer of the non-human world. That observing and being a part of is a type of resistance and also a way of creating a record.

LH: I would be remiss to not ask how you and your family have been doing during the upheaval of the pandemic, particularly given how deeply Michigan was impacted initially. Has the pandemic shaped how you write and what you write about in any way? 

TZ: We are fortunate to have steady work. It’s been stressful and scary and a change in how we live. I did not work on creative work at all during the first few months, but had some review deadlines I needed to meet. It was hard to concentrate on that work. I birded one strip of woods near my house multiple times a week for about a month during spring migration, something I don’t usually do. Usually I go out for a few long days. It was a bright spot to see the migrants come through. I’ve recently started writing again, and these strange circumstances are in the back of my mind while I work and are shaping the work slightly. I’m not sure how yet. 

LH: I remember that you and I had some interesting discussions when we first met about whether or not to move beyond our M.F.A. degrees into a Ph.D. program. We both came down on the side of writing more poetry than writing more scholarly work. What, if any, benefits do you see for a poet opting not to follow an academic path? 

TZ: I’ve had a lot of interesting jobs over the years. It’s harder to keep up with new books and scholarship outside the university, so I’ve had to work at that. It’s been important to maintain relationships with writer friends and seek out new connections. Keeping my writing life separate from my work life can be helpful for having the energy and desire to write when I have time. I’ve worked primarily in the nonprofit sector in the arts, youth services, and land protection, and have really enjoyed those jobs and the people I worked with. I’m interested in continuing to find ways to pair teaching with outdoor experiences or incorporate teaching or workshops into the work I’ve done with land trusts. The main advantage to not being in academia is that there are more jobs. For the last two years, I’ve been writing book reviews and essays about poetry, and it feels good and challenging to exercise that part of my brain even though I don’t do that work in an academic context.

LH: Finally, I know that Empire had a long route to publication, having been named finalist in multiple contests over the course of several years before finally winning the New Measure Poetry Prize. How did you manage the expectation and rejection? Did you revise the manuscript over the years or stick with your initial work? Do you have any words of advice or encouragement for poets working on manuscripts right now?

TZ: Yes, I sent it out for about seven years. It was a finalist a couple of times a year, which kept me motivated to keep sending it out, even if it was hard to get close so many times and not quite make it. A couple of times over those years, I asked someone new to read it and give me their opinion on whether it needed to be rethought or reordered, and no one ever recommended that I make big changes. Eco-poetry really grew during the time I was sending it out, so that when my book was finally in print, there were more books out there that had similar concerns. In those years, too, I had my daughter, and we moved, and I worked on other things. It was hard for me to start a new project without finding a home for Empire first. I finally began working on my new project, about the Great Lakes region, about eight months before the book was accepted.


Lisa Higgs

Lisa Higgs’ third chapbook, Earthen Bound, was published by Red Bird Chapbooks in 2019. Her poetry has been published widely, and her poem “Wild Honey Has the Scent of Freedom” was awarded 2nd Prize in the 2017 Basil Bunting International Poetry Prize. Her reviews and interviews can be found at the Poetry Foundation, Kenyon Review Online, and the Adroit Journal.

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