Maleea Acker is a poet and environmental journalist based in Saanich, BC.
Her debut collection, The Reflecting Pool, was published by Pedlar Press in 2009. In poems that are canny mash-ups of
city/travel/nature poetry (my favourite!), Acker touches down in urban Mexico,
semi-urban Spain and rural Saskatchewan.
Her latest book is Gardens Aflame (New Star Books, 2012), an investigation of the Garry oak meadows on Vancouver Island. It is an exploration of a particular and preferred environment. It is a meditation on the garden, on cultivation versus conservation, on one's home place.
Next up for Acker is another poetry collection, Air-Proof Green, due out in fall 2013.
* * *
What do you want people to know about Gardens Aflame?
The book is the first, that I know of, that's taking a lot of the research of local scientists about Garry oak meadows (an ecosystem that only appears, in Canada, on the southern tip of Vancouver Island) and presenting it to a lay audience, albeit a very knowledgable lay audience. I tried to make it into a balanced combination of aesthetics, philosophy and science, going into the historical use of the meadows, the reasons they're important and some of the conservation and restoration work being done around the region.
Really, I just want people to read it and understand their key role in protecting the remaining tracts of the ecosystem. I've seen this island change so much since my childhood; so much of the wild land is now gone. We're going to have to alter our way of thinking and our expectations and our focus in order to protect and steward what's left. In that way, I think it is a book relevant to an audience outside of BC – the ideas contained within could just as easily apply to short grass and tall grass prairie ecosystems, to the Boreal forest or to coastal Douglas-fir forests.
Have you ever been to Winnipeg? What have you heard? (Winnipeggers know all about Vancouver Island. Our rich people wind up there and send chirpy emails about their tulips. In February.)
It's funny you ask. One half of my family goes back three generations in Winnipeg. My mother was born and raised on Oxford Street, in River Heights; my great grandparents lost all their money in the crash and had to sell their home on Wellington Crescent. Before my grandmother and uncle died, I used to spend time there almost every year, when we'd visit them on Oxford (my uncle had schizophrenia and lived with his mother his whole life) or up on Lake Winnipeg, just outside of Gimli, where they had a small cottage. I love it there. I was amazed at the winter cold, yes, but also the warm nights in summer; the giant elms, the way women carry their party shoes and put them on at the door of someone's house, the arts scene, and the history, in particular, of the north end, since the other side of my family are eastern European jews (who settled in the US). The only novel I've ever tried to write takes place partly in Winnipeg.
As a writer (i.e. someone whose artistic practice is predicated on time spent alone) how do you approach performance? What do you get out of it?
I actually enjoy performance of my work, though my nerves sometimes make the hour before highly entertaining, let's say. I find that for poetry, it's a good way to see which poems grab people and which don't. Some are made for the page, for individual reading; some translate far more readily to orality. I also like the community that forms during a reading, and the unlikeliness of people still attending a reading in our age of technological and social distractions. If I wasn't an introvert and so shy as a child, I might have ended up trying to work in performance – music, theatre, who knows...
Tell me about the differences between writing ecopoetry and writing environmental journalism (or environmental creative non-fiction)...
All three strike me as quite different in the manner in which they approach their subject. That is, though you can have an emotional or philosophical stance or belief in poetry, it's a very delicate matter to negotiate. Poetry and its subjects need a sidelong glance. Unless one is a terribly skilled writer (like Jack Gilbert, for instance), it's difficult not to wither your subject if you approach in direct light. In the journalism I've been writing, I have to be careful to maintain neutrality, but I can approach a subject head on. Craft in terms of sentence structure and so on is important; the techniques of poetry (music, tone, etc) aren't really appropriate for a pure journalism piece. Creative non-fiction may be a kind of sweet spot. I can use some of the techniques of poetry (image, metaphor, attention to the particular) but have more space in which to develop a story. The journalist truth still has to be told, but I can include my own views, my stance on a subject.
There are a pile of female BC poets who've worked on Alberta firetowers - the list also includes Anna Swanson, Bren Simmers, and Emelia Neilsen. How did spending summers in a remote firetower affect you?
It taught me how to see, how to listen, how to be alone. Those years are a wellspring I think I'll continue to benefit from for the rest of my life.
What are you reading right now? What are you writing right now?
I'm reading Lynn Coady's The Antagonist, which says something about how good her book is, as I am no longer a big novel reader. I'm also reading a lot about, (to borrow or steal Tim Lilburn's idea), how to live in the world as if it were home. Essays on ecology by Stan Rowe; new ideas on environmental philosophy by Timothy Morton; The Ecology of Eden by Evan Eisenberg. Some of this is for a new book I'm beginning research on about invasive species across the country. And then the usual assortment of poetry and poetics – Dean Young and Matthew Zapruder are high on my list right now, and Zagajewski's essays in Another Beauty; Hass' new essays. I'm trying to walk alongside poetry, and write when it's around, but mostly, I've been in editing mode for my second book of poems, due out in August with Pedlar Press (Toronto).