Plein Air: Poetry in and about the natural world

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Susan Edwards Richmond has been an active advocate of plein air poetry for some time. When I asked her to talk with me about the movement, she suggested David Davis as another advocate. Susan answered my questions and David added comments in italics when he felt he had information and thoughts to contribute.

1. What is plein air poetry, and what are its roots?

Susan: En plein air is a French term, literally translated as “in the open air.” So simply put, plein air poetry is poetry written out of doors. The tradition of identifying artistic work as plein air began in the mid-nineteenth century with the Barbizon, Hudson River, and Impressionist Schools of painting. Although artists had often painted outside, during this period, painters became particularly interested in painting in natural light, and the invention of paints in tubes facilitated this practice.  

Plein air poetry is not, to my knowledge, nearly as established a movement, but instead has attracted individual practitioners and been the focus of diverse events across the country with increasing frequency in recent years. As I have defined plein air writing for myself and for events that I have hosted, the poem has to be initiated outside, in response to a particular object or location. So in this respect, for me, plein air poetry is also site specific, another way in which this school or style has followed a movement in art. By “my” rules, although a plein air poem must be started outside and on site, it can be finished anywhere and over any time frame.    

2. As a school of poetry, what does it offer the reader [and I would add “or listener”]?

Susan: It might make sense to first talk about what plein air poetry offers the writer, and then segue to audience. Like painters, some poets have always written their poems, or at least appear to have taken notes toward poems, out of doors. Think Walt Whitman, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Frost, even Emily Dickinson. Some of their images would not have been possible without close observation of nature. What I think distinguishes current interest in plein air writing is the urge to return to nature, close observation, accuracy, and a felt connection to the natural world after years of moving away from it toward abstraction and more cerebral narratives—to write what is in front of you, yes, but also to absorb and convey the entire experience—the rain, the wind, the sounds that intrude, to fill out the scene as though you are a set designer tasked with creating setting and perspective as well.

A side benefit to plein air writing is that “writer’s block” becomes impossible. There is always something in front of you to consider, and that close observation more often than not becomes a springboard to other ideas. I have had writer’s participating in plein air events tell me that the poems they wrote onsite during that period were the best, and, in some cases, the only work they had produced in months.

And finally I think many plein air writers are keenly interested in nature and the environment, and, by writing accurately and sensitively about landscape, animals, agriculture, and natural processes, are making an argument for their preservation. I myself am intensely interested in the poetry of place, and count as influences Gary Snyder, Seamus Heaney, and Mary Oliver. In my experience, writing about a place gives one a deeper understanding and appreciation of it, uncovering the many layers of history—both the natural and the human stories. To me, a plein air poem, as much as an entry in a scientific journal, is a piece of documentation—a different way to record human observation but equally valid. One of the things I strive for in my plein air writing is to allow others to experience places I love or am drawn to.  

What’s in it for the audience? First off is the corollary to my previous sentence—to receive as fully as possible the experience of a particular place. There are two ways to receive a plein air poem: one is reading it in the comfort of a living room or café; the other, is standing in front of the object or view being written of, with poem in hand, or, better yet, in the presence of the poet reading his/her own words. Regardless of method, a well-executed plein air poem allows the reader or listener to experience a place or something in nature, while following the trajectory of the poet’s thoughts, perhaps building a deeper connection to or reverence for a site. An audience present at a live plein air reading also has the opportunity to see how the poet translates object into metaphor, and to feel the multi-dimensionality of the creative effort.

Another pleasure of plein air poetry is the acknowledgement of change. Often a poem written in winter or spring is not presented until late summer or fall. Poet and audience both have the opportunity to muse on the transformations in an object or landscape, so that the layering of one time period over another becomes part of the experience of poem and site both. Flowers once in bloom now have produced fruit; ice on a stream has given way to a clear flow of water; new green leaves now burn fiery red. In other cases, the change may be more than seasonal—a tree has fallen, a rock ledge collapsed, or a house built in a once uninterrupted view. The poem becomes the record of what existed before, not just as photograph or description but as a felt human experience.  

David: For the reader, also, knowing how a work of art was produced can be a significant part of the experience.  We view two apparently identical paintings in quite different ways if we know that one was painted by Vermeer and the other is a near-perfect reproduction done by a modern art forger.  Similarly, I believe that a reader who knows a poem was produced on-site experiences the poem in a different way than reading a poem that was created after the experiential fact.

3. How did you become involved in plein air writing?

Susan: I have always been interested in writing about nature, but until I started focusing on place in my recent chapbooks, most of my imagery was “recollected in tranquility” rather than recorded on site. Years before I had heard the term “plein air poetry,” I started exploring Purgatory Chasm for my chapbook of that name, and several birdwatching sites, including Plum Island National Wildlife Refuge, notebook in hand, for the chapbook that eventually became Birding in Winter. I started jotting down notes in the field, sometimes sitting for an hour or more at a time in a single location, absorbing with all of my senses. In both cases, I was also reading up on the human and natural history of those places, so my direct observations were bolstered by research, and the poems grew out of that imaginative mix. In 2007, when I was asked to be Poet-in-Residence at the Fruitlands Museum in Harvard, that blending of direct observation with history became the focus on my writing there. Five years later, working with then Education Director Maggie Green, my first explicitly plein air project was born. Because Fruitlands had started inviting artists to create site-specific sculpture on the museum grounds, we thought, “why not poetry”? For our first event, we sent out a “Call for Poets” to visit Fruitlands and write site-specific poems outdoors. In a juried blind selection process, we chose poems from eight poets for a reading and publication of a chapbook Lines in Landscape: Plein Air Poetry at Fruitlands, still available at the museum today.   

David: As Susan notes, there doesn't tend to be a general awareness of the plein air genre.  I began in Colorado in the late 1960s on a backpacking trip in which I was moved, one night, to light a candle and make a poem of the thoughts I was having as I listened to owls nearby and saw the clear stars in the thin, high-elevation air.  I've returned to that way of making poems again and again, and only in the last five or six years have come to realize that many poets like to work in the same way.  And that way has a name!

4. What activities are each of you involved in that promote plein air writing and reading?

Following the Fruitlands reading in 2012, I became hooked on this new (to me) way of organizing writing/reading events and creating poetry community. Collaborating with my friend Linda Hoffman, sculptor and owner of Old Frog Pond Farm & Studio, also in Harvard, we launched our first Plein Air Poetry Walk in 2013.  Linda was already doing an annual site-specific sculpture walk on the property, so having a poetry walk seemed like a natural extension. That first year, I invited the plein air poets from the Fruitlands event, and opened the invitations to other interested people associated with the farm. Twelve poets eagerly accepted the invitation and came to the farm to write. On the September afternoon of our first poetry walk, poets and an audience of 20 to 30 people walked the fields, orchard, gardens, and woodlands reading and listening to poems created at specific locations. It was magical! Lynn Horsky, one of the poets, designed and produced a chapbook, An Extravagant Canopy, of the poems created that season and read on that day.

We held our third annual Plein Air Poetry Walk at the farm this past September 13, with support from the Acton-Boxborough, Groton, and Harvard Cultural Councils, and are already planning for next year. A year ago spring, I also organized a plein air poetry event at the Jackson Homestead in Newton, in conjunction with a site-specific sculpture installation produced by Susan Israel as part of her Energy Necklace project. Recently, I have been invited by fellow plein air enthusiast David Davis to share my plein air poetry and projects at Mass Audubon’s Joppa Flats Nature Center in Newburyport, where, as Poet-in-Residence, David organizes a reading series. And on September 19, poets Polly Brown and Cheryl Perrault, who have participated in other plein air events with me, will launch their own at the Hopkinton Center Trail.   

David:  I organize the poetry events at the Joppa Flats Massachusetts Audubon Society center, and many of them center on plein air poetry.  And I am fortunate enough to be a part of many of Susan's plein air events!

5. What are some of the poets and books of poetry that you consider exemplars of plein air writing?

Susan: In answer to previous questions, I have shared some of my influences in thinking about this type of poetry. But it is difficult without extensive research to know how these poets created their poems, and whether the poems would fit my definition of a poem created in the “plein air” style. I must admit, I have not done that research. The best I can do is suggest collections that emphasize the felt experience of nature and landscape: almost all of Gary Snyder’s work, Mary Oliver’s American Primitive, Kenneth Rexroth, Maxine Kumin. I also have the privilege of working with many fine poets in our annual plein air poetry events, interestingly enough, some of whom, in their other work, generally do not write out of doors. Pick up any of our chapbooks to see what they have accomplished in this genre.  

My favorite plein air poet is Mary Oliver.  She walks and writes frequently.  In an interview she once said that a really successful walk is one in which she slows and stops and doesn't get much walking done.  She has writing implements and paper cached in the woods near her house so that she'll always be able to write on a walk, even if she forgets to take her notebook with her.

6. Why do you believe this style of writing is important in our current society?

Susan: I could write a lot here, but am running out of time!  I think much of what I’d like to say is an extension of my answer for Question 2. It is important for scientists and historians to document and record our landscapes, plants and animals, and natural processes such as weather and geology—and I would include processes that involve humans such as agriculture and recreation. But I believe it is equally important for artists to document and record those very things, both for our society’s collective memory and for individual aesthetics and pleasure. If you cannot visit a place, plein air poetry gives you a chance to know it as a felt human experience. And if something disappears from our world, plein air poetry offers a lasting impression. My hope, however, is that plein air poetry, like other movements revolving around the natural environment and sustainability, will gain momentum and more supporters, so that the places that are so precious to us will not disappear. More people will experience them and have access to them, and more people will love them and value them and work for their preservation.

Lastly, plein air poetry, like any place-based activity, is about community. I have found that readings draw not only people who are interested in poetry, but also those who are interested in the place and the environment. Readings at Joppa Flats draw people who care about birds and about the North Shore region. The reading at the Jackson Homestead drew people who were interested in its history as a stop on the Underground Railroad and about their town. Readings at the farm draw people interested in sustainable agriculture and biodiversity.

Addendum: Plein air writing can certainly refer to cityscapes and other developed landscapes as well—as I have included farms in my discussion. My own passion is for the natural environment, and I would emphasize that even in urban areas there are animals and plants and natural spaces, no matter how small, for which we can argue for preservation. But I can also imagine others making a case for the importance of plein air writing in human habitations and situations where the natural element we most need to preserve is ourselves and our own wild natures.

David: Another benefit to society lies in the reader's understanding of the process through which plein air poems are written.  Plein air poems open up the possibility to the reader of leaving the building and writing poems in a new way.  And that's an exciting possibility.  Cezanne once said of impressionist painter Claude Monet that he was "only an eye--yet what an eye!"  Plein air poetry helps us appreciate those among us who view the world in a new way while immersed in it.  And that's a wonderful benefit.

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Susan Edwards Richmond is the author of four poetry collections, Increase (FootHills Publishing), Birding in Winter (Finishing Line Press), and Purgatory Chasm and Boto (both by Adastra Press). Her poems have appeared in the journals Green Mountains Review, The Iowa Review, Perihelion, and Poetry East, among others, and been included in several anthologies. Susan has served as poet-in-residence at the Fruitlands Museum in Harvard, and taught creative writing at the Shirley Medium Correctional Facility and at Clark University. She is currently poet-in-residence at Old Frog Pond  Farm & Studio in Harvard, MA, where she organizes an annual plein air poetry event and posts a Poem of the Month on the farm's website.  She also serves as President of the Robert Creeley Foundation and as a poetry editor for the Massachusetts Audubon Society. Susan lives with her husband and two daughters in Acton.   

David Davis has been a member of the Powow River Poets in Newburyport since 2006.  He is co-organizer of the twenty-year-old Powow reading series.  He is the current Poet In Residence at Massachusetts Audubon Society's Joppa Flats center.  His first book of poems was Crossing Streams On Rocks.  He is working on a second entitled Joppa Flats.  Davis is also a high-tech entrepreneur with four books and more than forty papers published in his area of specialization.  His high-tech work has been featured in Newsweek and National Geographic, and he has been interviewed on the BBC World Service.