TCR Talks with Ruth Nolan
BY: Nathania Seales Oh
In a time when the power of a woman’s voice rings louder and clearer than ever, Ruth Nolan is putting her money where her mouth is. From the beautiful ecopoetry in her latest project, Fire and Rain: Ecopoetry of California, where she acted as coeditor and contributor, to her deeply personal poetry collection Ruby Mountain, Nolan is, in a word, an activist. She is a profound advocate for the respect and conservation of the California desert, a landscape she has always called home. She speaks not only to its beauty but also to its transformative power. Nolan tells of our relationship, history, and encroachment upon lands where wildfires have burned for centuries. Yes, it’s true. Wildfires are not a new thing. Our living in the places where they unfold, is. She also reminds her readers, students, and fan base of the importance of speaking your truth. As we witness this watershed moment in time, The Coachella Review is honored to spend time in conversation with the passionate and incomparable Ruth Nolan.
THE COACHELLA REVIEW: Throughout your career you have taken on the role of poet, photographer, writer, editor, and professor. Do you compartmentalize these roles or do they complement one another? How so?
RUTH NOLAN: I don’t feel the need to compartmentalize these roles, because they exist and operate along a fluid continuum. The wellspring for this might very well be the desert itself—my principle inspiration and topic—in all its metaphoric, literal, and ever-shifting roles and influences on, and relationships with, its human counterparts.
TCR: There seems to be quite a bit of buzz around the term “ecopoetry” lately. It’s also in the title of your recently published anthology. What does the term mean to you? For those hearing it for the first time, what meaning do you hope it conveys?
RN: The term “ecopoetry” to me is an emblem of the close relationships evoked by poets as they interact with and attempt to interpret the environments around them, both natural and human-made. I think the term can be envisioned in many ways that symbolize culture and society itself, ranging from wishful thinking about nature as a source of purity to nature as a backdrop or resource to exploit or protect. The term “ecopoetry” embodies that human involvement and relationship, for better and/or worse, perhaps similarly to the trope of the “male gaze.” But in a broader and evolving sense, as seen in emerging anthologies such as Fire and Rain: Ecopoetry of California I’ve recently coedited (with Lucille Lang Day for Scarlet Tanager Books), the “ecopoetry gaze” itself is challenged in a meta-poetic way.
TCR: You recently conducted a workshop for the Palm Springs Writers Guild on “The Power of Place,” and it’s obvious that place plays an integral role in your writing. What’s your advice for writers just finding their voice, on ways to build a sense of place in their writing?
RN: For me, “place” is probably the most significant grounding principle and inspiration in all of my writing. Perhaps this stems from my growing up in a remote part of the Mojave Desert, where there was literally nothing to do except go out into the desert, where my imagination and stories began to take hold. In preparing for “The Power of Place” workshop you referenced, I turned to excerpts from some of the authors whose works most resonate [with] me: Joan Didion, for example, nailed “place” and all the human dramas influenced and shaped by these “places” like no other author. Her evocation of “place” in the setup for her chilling telling of the murder of a doctor by his wife in early 1960s Inland Empire is out of this world: haunted and spooky and foretelling AF. I would say to writers just finding their voice: what is your (or your characters’) “place”? What place(s) rivet and absorb YOU, as a writer? It doesn’t have to be where you live or grew up. But it does have to be a place, or series of places, that you keep going back to in your mind’s eye, no matter where you are. Dig in, and bring us there. Then, start your story. Bring in your characters. Give them vivid experiences and interactions with this place. You’ll find your story there. Or perhaps your story will find YOU, the writer, there. Your voice.
TCR: Have you ever been surprised by a source of inspiration? If so, what was it? Were you able to acknowledge it and tap into it right away or did you find yourself resisting?
RN: This is an interesting question and one not easy to answer. I think that I would probably say that a more accurate way of being “surprised” by a source of inspiration is that I have been “horrified” and “shocked” by my sources of inspiration. For example, my earliest inspirations, as a child, were the godawful, dangerous, isolated desert regions where I grew up. I’ll be the first to say that’s not exactly a normal thing, to feel like the open, rattlesnake-ridden desert is your best friend and primary source of feeling safe when you’re 10 years old. But there it is. Inspiration to me is to have a voice against a sense of being silenced and negated as a person, first by a silencing family and strict Catholic church regime, and then against the silence of the desert environment. Later, against the silencing impact of men, at work and in my personal life. And later yet, against the silencing effects of things like sexual assault, sexual harassment of all kinds of stripes and a violent partner. As we’ve moved as a society in the #MeToo era, thank God and however painfully, my sensibilities continue to extend to the sources of inspiration to write and work towards some type of healing—through establishing presence and personhood—in violence towards other women. Which continue to horror: the murder of one of my daughter’s high school friends, and later, chillingly, the murder of their mutual high school math teacher. Both done by intimate partners. In the desert close to where I live. My primary source of inspiration, the desert, is maddening and charming. The desert, a barren wasteland and wellspring of holy visions, a very god-source unto itself, surprises me, always, in its ability to torture and heal, to deny and sustain, to turn a blind eye to and also magically transform its human subjects.
TCR: Fire and its effect on nature is obviously a subject close to your heart. You talk about this topic in Fire on the Mojave: Stories from the Deserts and Mountains of Southern California. You touch on not only how fire shapes the landscape of your homeland, but our history with fire. When we look back on this time, this year in particular, with the largest wildfire known to the state of California, what do you believe the impact and legacy will be?
RN: Wildfires in California are obviously a hot topic and one of our state’s most dramatic and enduring story-tropes. Luckily for me, I have experience working as a wildland firefighter throughout California and the topic figures closely in a lot of my writing.
Our history with wildfire in California, in the past 125 or so years, has been really skewered, which in one part has led to these mega-fire events we’ve been experiencing. The fragile and complex relationships between humans and fires/fire ecology of our natural world that we live within here in the Golden State has been impacted by huge surges in population in areas where wildfires have traditionally burned for centuries, with fire-adapted regimes of the natural ecologies. We have f***ed with that in major ways in these last 125 years, and we’re seeing the effects of that. I dig more into specifics in my ongoing “Fire on the Mojave” project, which keeps blowing up in scope and content as there have been SO many bigger and more dramatic wildfires since I began the project in 2015.
I’m hoping that my fire-related writing will contribute meaningful insights and education on the presence of wildfire in California. I hope that the topic of wildfire will make my writing burn and mesmerize.
TCR: Your writing can be described as beautifully raw and honest and your love for the desert and nature are wonderfully evident. You have been called an environmental advocate and conservationist. Do you consider your writing to be a form of activism?
RN: The more I write, the more I do feel that a lot of my writing is a form of activism. For reasons already addressed in my answers to one of the previous questions, and also because my love for the desert forces me to write and act on its behalf when it can’t speak for itself. My sense of activism in my writing about the desert is also a form of sharing my own connections with the beauty and transformative powers of the desert with others. It’s as if I can’t contain all of this within myself and am urged to share it, which is a great feeling—something that also transpires in my lecturing and teaching work. And that is something that I hope all of my writing does—functions as a source of activism against ugliness and injustice and silencing AND a source of inspiration and transformation.
TCR: In the past you’ve talked a bit about how the experience of single parenting influenced your writing. Can you tell us more about that? Has that influence shifted now that your daughter has children of her own? How so?
RN: Being a single parent, with a dangerous ex lingering in the background, virtually from my daughter’s birth absolutely has influenced my writing. For one, finding myself in a difficult situation in my mid-twenties as a welfare mother struggling to enter the professional workplace while also being a single mom instantly made my urgency to write all the more important—I realized that many odds had been stacked against me. My situation, and ensuing struggles over the years, absolutely made me stronger and more resolved to write, and also helped shape my awareness and compassion for others struggling with various forms of silencing and injustice. Being a parent, and now a grandparent, has made me a person who must dig deeper, continue to grow, continue to develop understanding of others, and try to learn to write from a compassionate place. In fact, some of the very heavy subject matter I am now wrestling with in my writing directly relates to my role as a longtime single parent and, more recently, a single grandparent. Topics such as being a survivor of domestic violence directed at my daughter and [me]; topics such as coming to terms with my daughter’s father’s longtime incarceration, a matter I’d thought was neatly tucked away forever but that is now bubbling back to the surface as she has started her own family: who is my father? His shadow impact and presence in our lives runs much deeper than I had imagined.
TCR: In our current cultural and political climate, women seem to be finding their voice. How has that influenced your writing? Has it?
RN: YES! I’ve already addressed this in my previous answers, but I’m slowly thawing out to the idea that maybe people aren’t going to put me down or think less of me for writing about some of my own traumatic experiences as a survivor of sexual assault and workplace sexual harassment. My voice has always been there, so to speak, but I had been too afraid of being stigmatized to really put my writing out there. Even recently, I have had the strong sense that some of my own writing has just made some people cringe. Understandably. It makes me cringe, too. I remember showing one of my early chapbooks, filled with simple but blunt poems that shared some of these horrors, naively [to] a famed publisher, who returned the book a while later and joked, “How is your sex life these days?”
No one wants to be marginalized or outcast from their chosen groups and societies. It’s always risky to put it out there. The danger is palpable and coming from both men and women. But now, at least there is hope, a few rays of sunshine filtering through and now, with the #WhyIDidntReport movement shored up by some of our kick-ass senators, especially Feinstein and Harris, I am just so much more encouraged and [am] seeing other women writer-friends also being encouraged. Yes!
TCR: Who or what are your greatest influences? Any your fanbase would find surprising?
RN: I don’t know what my fanbase (?) would find surprising, but of course the mojave desert is a big influence, for better or worse. Many of the wild characters, real-life people I’ve known in said desert, have also influenced me and have been or will be writ large in my ongoing work. My daughter Tarah is a major influence to this day and we remain the closest of friends. Thankfully, she knows just how to put me in check. Writers: Joan Didion, Jack London, Edgar Allen Poe, Robert Frost, Sylvia Plath, Martin Luther King, Jr., to name a very few. The beauty-side of the Catholic religion and its austere, incense-tinged rituals and forever-votive candles flickering on dark altars, when I push past the sickness weighing in on all perimeters. The many sacred places I’ve lived [in] and loved and dreamed—hot springs, high peaks, whitewater rapids—across the desert west.
TCR: What impact do you hope and believe your writing has made thus far? What impact do you hope to make going forward?
RN: I don’t know what impact my writing has had, except that I’ve had the joy and privilege of having some feedback over the years from readers who have told me their writing expressed how they were feeling, or perhaps transported them into a realm of beauty and renewal in ways that I had hoped to evoke through my writing. I know that some of my more activist writing has been used in some of the political struggles to implement desert protective measures, which I’m proud of and happy about. My impacts that I hope to have as I move forward as a writer are to write the kind of stories that a reader doesn’t want to put down, stories that push through all the bullshit of life and take them somewhere else: perhaps to a sweet field of wildflowers at [the] desert’s edge, where both beauty and a touch of danger await them.
Originally from the Cayman Islands, Nathania Seales Oh is an entertainment industry veteran with more than 22 years of production experience that started with hosting a music video show (remember those?). She went on to earn her animation stripes working on the groundbreaking series The Ren & Stimpy Show and has worked with such media giants as Sony Pictures Entertainment, HBO, and Cartoon Network. Now she lives in Irvine and is pursuing her MFA in nonfiction from UC Riverside’s low-residency program. Nathania believes humor and authenticity are the key to great storytelling, which she brings to her poetry, screenwriting, and creative nonfiction, where her true passion lies. Nathania’s personal essay, “Orange is the No Black,” recently ran in the September issue of Coast Magazine and can be found on the OC Register site. In between working on her memoir and volunteering with the Newport/Mesa ProLiteracy program (where she was recently tapped to serve as vice president of the advisory board), she explores the world through food and travel with her husband and 7-year-old daughter by her side. If she’s not grilling up a batch of her famous jerk chicken, Nathania is feeding her newfound obsession with hot power yoga.
Ruth Nolan is a professor of English and creative writing at College of the Desert. She’s also a former wildland firefighter for the US Forest Service and BLM California Desert District. She is the author of Ruby Mountain; editor of No Place for a Puritan: The Literature of California’s Deserts; and coeditor of Fire and Rain: Ecopoetry of California. Ruth’s book-length poetry collection Badwater placed as a finalist in the 2018 Hilary Gravendyk poetry book contest. Ruth is also the winner of the 2018 Los Angeles Women’s Month Poetry Society Award and the recipient of a 2018 Love of Learning Award from the Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society for her forthcoming book Fire on the Mojave: Stories from the Deserts and Mountains of Inland Southern California, for which she also won a 2017 California Writers Residency Award. Her short story, “Palimpsest,” published in LA Fiction: Southland Writing by Southland Writers, was nominated for a 2016 PEN Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers and received an Honorable Mention Award in Sequestrum magazine’s 2016 Editor’s Reprint contest. Ruth’s poetry and essays have been published in Women’s Studies Quarterly; Rattling Wall; The Cost of Paper; Angels Flight LA/Literary West; KCET Los Angeles; Desert Oracle; Sierra Club Desert Report; The Desert Sun/USA Today and many others. Ruth serves on the advisory board for Poets & Writers West, leads community-inclusive writing workshops throughout inland Southern California, and holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California, Riverside. She’s the mother of a young adult daughter and grandmother of three small children ranging from ages 1-5. She may be reached at email@example.com.