“I must believe there is a place
in the American canon for nature writing.”
Interview by August Smith, WTP Feature Writer
Paul Corrigan is a poet and essayist who has published his work in numerous magazines and literary journals, including The Maine Times, Blueline, Poetry Northwest and Yankee. He has been a high school English teacher, an instructor in a Wilderness Therapy program for at-risk girls, and a ranger at Baxter State Park in Maine. His essay on a poetic apprenticeship with high school students was published in Voices from the Middle. Corrigan leads an active outdoor life hiking, canoeing, and cross-country skiing.
Smith: I’d like to start by asking about the therapeutic program you were involved in for three years, New Horizons for Young Women. Particularly, I’m interested in the overlapping relationships of therapy, nature, and writing. How do you see those three elements working together? What interesting things have you learned while working at their intersection?
Corrigan: I’ll talk first about therapy and nature, and then about how these two features of the wilderness program were enhanced by writing opportunities that the girls had during their six-to-eight week stays at New Horizons. First, some quick history: Our clients were struggling with depression, substance abuse, cutting and, not infrequently, oppositional defiance. A number of the girls were adopted and their struggles with their own identities, obviously a big theme for many teens, were further complicated by their attempts at a détente between the role their biological parents and their adoptive parents played in the formation of their identities. (The adoptive piece was a tough one and more than one girl struggled mightily and heroically with it.)
Any wilderness skills we as instructors could teach the girls—whether it be setting up camp at the end of the day, finding burnable firewood in wet weather, cooking on an open fire, canoeing a whitewater rapid, or pacing themselves with a full pack on a hike of the Appalachian Trail—empowered them and contributed to their self-esteem. (I remember one girl solo-carrying a canoe on her back on a portage around a rapid, not because she had to—girls and instructors were never required to perform unnecessary feats of strength!—but because she wanted to give it a try. She was really pumped when she succeeded!) There were also “wilderness consequences” where if a girl left her gear out in the rain when she crawled into her tent at night or if the team of girls weren’t able to organize their day to cover the necessary miles on the trail to get to the next lean-to shelter, they would have to sacrifice comfortable wilderness travel and make up the miles they didn’t cover the following day.
There were licensed therapists on staff, and they sat down weekly with instructors and discussed where each girl was in her program progress and what help she needed while she was out in the field for her to overcome some issue with which she was struggling. After a year or so as an instructor I began to see the connection between the outer terrain we had to cover during our excursions with the girls and the inner topography these girls had to navigate in their daily lives. It was always a challenge for the girls to see how the stuff we did in the woods could help them in their lives back home in their upscale neighborhoods. But after a while many of the girls had their “ah-ha” moments when they finally began to get the connection between surviving in the Maine woods and thriving back home. (Interestingly, a Naval special forces friend and writer when he read a piece I’d written about this process said that it corresponded with his experience in the military.)
As to the writing piece, I’ll offer some general comments and explore them in the question after this one: Girls were asked to journal daily, and since communication between their parents was through letters, they replied in writing to their parents’ “feedback letters,” which they received every two weeks. Also, I was frequently asked to try out a writing prompt with the girls.
Smith: How did you incorporate writing, and specifically poetry, into your therapeutic approach? Did it figure into the program, or was it your response to the things you learned in the program? What did that process look like?
Corrigan: Poetry writing, which came out of my background as a poet-in-the-schools, was something I brought to New Horizons in the form of writing prompts that the girls tackled while we were out in the wilderness. In the summer and fall it was done around the campfire in the evenings, and inside the big wood-heated canvas tent during the winter and early spring before the ice broke up. I had the blessing of the staff therapists and more than once the imagery coaxed from the girls’ poetry became a window into their inner lives and their turmoil. There were three girls one winter that were spinning their wheels with the program’s therapeutic component and our head therapist was grateful for the images that surfaced during one of these writing prompts. My only regret was that in the hurried pace of the program, we had little time to build a bridge between the two approaches. One image has stuck with me from one of the prompts of that winter: I wish I could recreate it in greater detail but in the piece the girl referred to a sharp-edged shard of glass that she brushed along her arm in a meditation on cutting—a sadly powerful image.
My response to what I had learned from working with the girls was a manuscript titled The Summer Grievances about my years at New Horizons. It is divided into five sections of five to six chapters each. Each section follows a girl and her peers as they journey through their stay in the program. The book has a seasonal format and talks about my successes and failures working alongside fellow instructors with these remarkably talented and troubled young women. This manuscript has been making the rounds and has had two interested agents during its development, but no bites yet. If any agents or editors are out there…
Smith: Your relationship to nature seems to be an important facet of your identity. Not only are you a registered Maine guide and athlete, but a lot of your poetry is loaded with nature imagery. The piece we published in The Woven Tale Press, “A Photograph of My Father After Fishing” for example, takes time to carefully fill in the surrounding natural landscape. Has this always been a subject of interest for you and your writing, or has it blossomed in your work over time?
Corrigan: Thank you for your recognition of that aspect of my work. It seems as though it has been there forever. Summers as a kid my family had a cabin on a remote Maine lake more than two miles from the nearest dirt road. My parents, my siblings, and I would shoulder our packs where the road ended and hike in and live at the lake while my father, a local optometrist, would go out to town daily to his practice. Over those summers, that cabin, which is still in the family, became a “soul resting place” for me. Today the loons, those water birds with their eerie cries, seem to lend their voices to the depth of memory and feeling I have for that place.
Smith: Maybe this has to do with my own personal aesthetics, but “nature writing” and “nature poetry” often seem like they’re relegated to certain bygone forms and ideas; poets and editors might overlook their importance. Are they important, and if so, how come?
Corrigan: Considering the natural world is a wellspring for my work, I must believe there is a place in the American canon for nature writing. I wrote a poem called “The Bear as Monk” years ago which tried to strike a balance between the monastic Catholicism on my mother’s side of the family (her two brothers and a nephew were Benedictines), and the natural world that I know from growing up in northern Maine. Very simply, the poem compared a bear backing into its hibernation hole under the roots of an overturned spruce tree with a monk retreating into his cloister cell for prayer and meditation. I was pleased with the way the poem turned out, and the play that it received told me that the ideas I was exploring in the piece interested a number of readers, including the poet Maxine Kumin, who awarded a prize to the poem. So I think it has to do with the strategies we employ to give our work relevance these days when we write about the natural world.
Smith: How do you keep these traditions alive? How do you keep them interesting and/or make them your own?
Corrigan: The theme that interests me the most these days is that of my family’s connection to the Maine woods and the cabin on the lake. We were a tumultuous crew and, like so many American families, conflict has dogged us and pushed us apart. And those summers at the lake, as profound and moving as they were perhaps for all of us, could not prevent the rifts from occurring. And yet I’ve seen the wonderful things taking a group of at-risk girls into the woods and pitting them against the elements can do for their broken spirits.
Smith: What I love about “A Photograph of My Father After Fishing” is that while it’s technically an ekphrastic poem, it moves quickly away from the art object itself to dwell on memory and meta-commentary on the craft of writing. Eventually, the piece becomes more about your father and his relationship to his cousin Tommy, and the differences between them, and how fishing and nature existed as a connecting point between them. What was the writing process for this piece? Did it start with the picture, the scene, or the desire to write about your father and his cousin?
Corrigan: I took a writing class with the writer and memoirist Dewitt Henry, and his suggestion that the class write a response to a picture was the start of the piece. The photograph of my dad sitting with his back against a tree and squeezing out his socks after fishing was a family favorite, and there had always been the rumor that Dad’s cousin Tommy had staged the shot to make it look candid and natural. Quite honestly, I did not have the picture with me, though I remembered it well enough, and perhaps that freed my memory to wander away from the picture and explore the friendship between Dad and Tommy through their love of fly fishing. I was also interested in Tommy’s life as an outdoor writer and the hard work that went into the development of his own style, a style that conformed to the dictates of popular outdoor writing, yet possessed a certain intangible something that marked his writing as his own. Also, along the way, friends suggested that I expand the work and thus “the commentary on the craft of writing” got into the piece. So I would say that it expanded naturally outward to encompass all the things that it now contains.
Smith: Is this approach typical for you? What does the writing process usually entail for you?
Corrigan: The kinship you mentioned that the piece has with ekphrastic poetry sums up my approach. I remember writing it and allowing the sound of the words of the story I wanted to tell to guide me. It was as if on some level I was writing a poem. There was no structural analysis except what friends in a writing workshop I go to provided me with, which was to expand the piece, telling more about the relationship between Dad and Tommy. I took their suggestions to heart, yet tried to be careful not to burden down the narrative with too many additional things.
Smith: Your serialized and in-progress book, The Summer Grievances, is directly inspired by your experiences with the above-mentioned program, which signals your move from poetry to prose. How have you found this transition? Difficult, natural, eye-opening?
Corrigan: Certainly difficult and eye opening! My workshop mates have commented that there are elements of apprenticeship in The Summer Grievances. During the time I’ve worked on the girls’ book, I’ve been learning about story arc and saving the poetry for special moments that will enhance the story. “Kill your darlings” they say. I’m slowly getting the message.
Also, my impression from studying the markets and receiving advice from friends and from a few agents and editors who have had a look at the manuscript, is that there are readers out there who want to know about girls in wilderness therapy. And so I try to imagine the story that needs to be told about these girls and how to make it plain to the reader.
Smith: Writing nonfiction, or any fiction based on actual events, can be rife with complications. What pitfalls and potential vulnerabilities have you run into in this process, and how have you circumvented them?
Corrigan: This may not be addressing the question as it needs to be addressed, but I’ve found the use of dialogue to depict what was said so many years ago to be problematic at times. And yet I love using it because it brings me as close as I can get to the people I’m writing about. I just finished a story about an encounter with my grandfather when I was eleven or twelve. My grandfather loved politics and was a bona fide socialist elected to the Maine State Senate from a mostly Republican district, back in the ’30s. In the story I wrote my grandfather is telling me about being a young man and attending an International Workers of the World convention on the West Coast and meeting founding member of the IWW Big Bill Haywood on the observation car of the train on the way out to the convention. When my grandfather told me this story years ago, I was vaguely aware that he was imparting something important about life and politics from a bygone era. The only way I could write the story and get back there to that time and place, was to put the words in my grandfather’s mouth so that he could tell the story. And it drew me very close to this man with the booming factory voice whom I loved and feared a little. That journey into the past made me very happy.
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