When you pick up California Book Club host John Freeman’s gentle, wise poetry collection Wind, Trees, you’ll see that it unfurls its imagery as part of its structure. The first half is bound by the common element wind; the second, by what the wind animates: trees. I read Wind, Trees as a collection that looks at what brings groups to life, a spirit that you can feel whether gazing up in a reverie from the center of a stand of trees or communing with other people.
Wind, Trees is out on October 25 from Copper Canyon Press and is available for preorder. The following interview with Freeman was conducted by email and has been lightly edited.
How did you come to this feeling, this sense of collective spirit, which gathers the poems and also feels, perhaps, like what the collection is about?
I feel that sense of collectiveness in most places. Whether it’s in line at a deli, say, waiting for a sandwich and people wind up doing that thing where they trade tips on which are the good ones. I often feel it, too, if I’m in the woods. I sometimes hear this deep plural sound, a sound that travels beneath all of the other sounds a wooded area makes. Wind blowing the tops of trees so they clack; birds in the branches shifting to maintain their balance; animals on the forest floor below, moving into brush as they feel more in sight of predators; the many tiny sounds groundwater makes. It’s only our capital systems that want us to believe we are single operators. In most other capacities, we often turn toward one another, and I wondered what would happen if that action was seen in the context of ecologies we often call “nature.”
In the poem “Show,” we’re left with a potent simile: “When the singing stops and the birds still, the trees move gently in the wet air like applause.” Can you talk a little bit about how you arrived at that image?
I often feel engaged by the world, acted upon. It can be something small, like the way my eyes relax if I step into shadow, or it might be a large force, like a lightning storm I found myself caught in not long ago where I was convinced, All right, this is it. I am going to be electrocuted from the face of this earth! That perpetual porousness or vulnerability is undercut by the fact that everywhere I go, especially outside the built environment, I am the one doing the affecting—I am the presence that makes the birds go quiet. I wanted to write about that duality, that sense of two-way-ness.
The collection observes trees from many different angles and at many different stages of becoming, existence, and absence. Tell us a little bit about how you grew this collection and your process as a poet.
This might sound a little silly, but like a lot of people during the past few years, I had a satori moment with trees. It happened among the great old oaks in Wimbledon Common, where I spent a lot of time with loved ones and with a dog I loved very much. I went there alone, too. I can pinpoint this revelation to the day. It was a winter afternoon, the light was falling, and I looked up and realized, quite stupidly, that everything around me was alive. That this huge group of trees—entangled, gigantic, moving in the wind—they were a living presence. And within their vast presence were forms of action and communication, of care, of something like memory, a sense of deep time that was so complex and beautiful that to say, well, trees aren’t conscious; they cannot speak—to say this spoke not of their lack of capacity but of our own impoverishment in how to regard them. It was almost as if a switch had been clicked on.
Everywhere I went over the next few months I saw trees. Bending over roadways. Trees leaning toward each other. Trees transformed into benches, into tables, into paper, and into musical instruments—some of which we push wind through to make our songs. It occurred to me that perhaps we’d been worshiping the wrong gods. Maybe all along, right here among us, was this seemingly endless, tangible, comfort-giving, and powerful consort of exquisite gods. They were everywhere, while we—in our short lives, by comparison—blew through, fast as wind.
Lines in your poems are porous; lines that might have been distinct with a different poet fall right into one another. To your mind, to what extent does language delineate the borders between things, versus specifically opening them up?
I knew from the beginning that if I were to write into that feeling I described above, if I were going to try to also write myself to the margin of the frame a little, I would have to change the way I wrote. The lines would have to do something different to feel free as wind and as unpredictable, so I took out all of the punctuation. The poems’ syntax would have to do all the joinery work, and in order to keep a sense of speed or movement, the lines would also have to jump across stanzas, to avoid that sense you can get in some stanzaic forms of temporary arrival.
At some point, I discovered that all these craft decisions were akin to unlearning certain boundaries—of aversion to risk, of our hierarchy as a species—that we don’t have as children. Icarus was still a boy when we made his wings, after all. I can recall back to the weightless feeling of being a boy or a teenager, when the boundary between me and air felt so paper-thin. I don’t necessarily mean my physical size and shape, but my conceptual boundaries I held in my mind between me and the world. Anyway, I thought that if I could somehow remember my way into that sensation again, I might be able to write around the idea of trees and stark, stolid objects, of ourselves as the center, of wind as a force we can know.
How does writing poetry affect or inform your other work in the literary world—as an editor, a critic, and an essayist?
I think writing poems has made me love and respect the endlessness of what is being written all the more. At this point, I am beginning to feel as though I have a style, I have things I’m curious about, but that’s the end of me. What lies beyond that is—to me—even more fascinating. There’s so much variety in the work being published today, so many different sounds; if what I described above seems a bit esoteric, don’t worry. There’s a poet out there for you! I love this multitudinousness. It seems to me the greatest strength of a literary world, if it can move away from the idea of exceptionalism or the lone cone of genius; if our literary cultures can curate the ability to accept the plentitudes of what actually exists, they can, collectively, relax into their beauties and be a forum of celebration and joy.•
Join us on Zoom on October 20 at 5 p.m. Pacific time, when Natalia Molina will join Freeman and special guest Alex Espinoza to discuss A Place at the Nayarit. Please stop by the Alta Clubhouse to let us and your fellow book club members know your thoughts about the book. Register here for the event.
ECHO PARK OVER THE YEARS
Los Angeles writer and artist Lisa Teasley (Glow in the Dark) writes about race, wealthification, and A Place at the Nayarit. —Alta
BOOK OF JOURNEYS
Alta Journal contributor and CBC selection panel member Lynell George reviews Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm, observing that in the novel, “the pull, pulse, and potency of jazz is so self-evident that it becomes a character of its own.” —Alta
This month, we’re looking forward to 15 new books by authors on the West, including Which Side Are You On, Dinosaurs, The Consequences, and The Passenger. —Alta
Elisabeth Egan writes about Javier Zamora’s experience of recording the audiobook Solito, a vulnerable memoir. —New York Times
MULTIFACETED TRIBUTE TO WORDS
Jane Ganahl and Jack Boulware, the founders of San Francisco’s Litquake, seek to take the longstanding book event to another level this year. Among several exciting events is the one for Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s On the Rooftop, at which jazz singer Kim Nalley will provide accompaniment. —San Francisco Chronicle
Andrew Sean Greer (Less Is Lost) reveals his favorite novel that nobody else has heard of, the novel he detests, writers he’d invite to a literary dinner party, and more in a By the Book interview. —New York Times
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