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Diane Ackerman
March 3, 1992  Afternoon seminar

Ackerman:…There is a tree right next to the window so the birds and squirrels, chipmunks and stuff sit on it. So there is a lot of drama going on.

Audience: You don’t eat many apples.

Ackerman:  I leave them for the deer. Raccoons get the grapes, the deer get the apples. The deer and I usual argue over the roses every year. I get more ingenious, they get more ingenious. There are about thirty rose bushes. I really love roses. As I said, there is a herd of deer, and they would come and beat them to the ground. And I am torn. They don’t seem to mind the thorns. They leave the thorns. I don’t know I’ve tried everything. I’ve tried planted lavender. I’ve tried putting out soap. I’ve tried naphtha. I’ve really tried everything that I possibly could except used Tampons, which was recommended to me. If you wanted roses that badly but what is the point of inviting people into your garden. (Laughter) I am told that works and I am told that hair works. But I don’t want to hang out at barber shops collecting hair. I feel like such a pervert. I haven’t done that either. But I have tried most things and one of the things that has been fun is that I did a book tour for, The Natural History of the Senses, and I went to some other countries and every place I went, I invited people to write in with their advice on how to keep the deer away from the roses. So from all over the world people are sending me recipes for special salsa’s that you put on the roses and just all kinds of stuff. I’m trying most of them.

You didn’t ask this but I think you are asking also, just in general, about writing habits and I find that I have to go to the, I still call it the typewriter but it isn’t, everyday. Even knowing that I’m not going to be able to necessarily do very much work some of these days. But if I don’t go every day then I won’t be available to on the days when something nice is going to happen. I usually go to the processor about nine in the morning, break for lunch, have lunch with a girlfriend at some place fun, go jogging, you know, really make time in the day to have one of those bubble baths that I was talking about, and then go back to work and continue working till five. So maybe I work six hours a day. Something like that. And I find that I have to keep a really tight routine. I am getting ready to start a new book, for instance, and I will obsessively tidy my study before; you are nodding knowingly. I don’t know what it is, maybe we really are nesting species. But everything seems so chaotic in my mind that I need my landscape to be simple at that point. I start obsessively doing that and sitting down having a formal board meeting with my psyche. Saying this is it, you’re starting a book now. And going there everyday. It seems very important to me to do that, to keep the rituals in the right way. So I bought things to work with on this trip but I probably won’t be able to work on them in a different environment.

Tom Smith: Diane, one of the things you bring off so well in most of the poetry and prose readings, whether you are writing about other planets or critters like bats and whales, or humming birds is that when you are talking about the natural world, you never, fall into what Ruskin calls “pathetic fallacy.” You never sentimentalize the face of nature. Now I am thinking how parallax that must have been when you are writing about, well penguins for example. Your poem, “Pen equals Penguin” and then that lovely finale to the essay on penguins in The Moon By Whale Light. You talk about penguins as the most anthropomorphic of all critters, of all animals. I want to know how you are able to do that. Especially when you have this wallow feeling about penguins.

Ackerman: You know it’s funny, first of all thank you. I hope I have managed not to over sentimentalize the animals. It always is very dangerous. One of the things that interest me the most is that I’m sure that when those animals are looking at us, they are not saying, “Look at those primates, and they have such monkey-like characteristics and stuff.” I don’t think they are doing that and yet we are so driven to find ourselves in all of these other creatures. That just makes the point very poignant when I think about that. It’s tough to do but I believe fundamentally, that you don’t have to believe that nature was fraught into being or here for the use of people or just in your reflection of us or any of those things to be miraculous. Or maybe that was just force-fed too much of the goody-two-shoes sort of nature writing when I was growing up. But I find nature spectacularly beautiful, for a great number of messages, importance, lessons and all of that stuff, without having to pretend that it’s something that it’s not. I like the world as it is. I don’t feel the need to think of Mars as a War god or Venus as a beautiful woman, unless we are actually talking about Aphrodite. But I find the planets fascinating as what they are. I was just in the Florida Scrub, for instance — this endangered habitat in the middle of Florida. Most of people would consider it kind of junk habitat. Really the word tells you, it’s called “Scrub.” And I was down there getting to know some insects and some scrub blue jays which are not like the bad tempered hooligan, crested blue-jays the ones we have here. The ones that are just yelling in the garden and the street corner hoods of some sort. These are really sweet blue-bird type blue jays. It was a region that some people, I think, would convert into something more romantic and they would have to dress it up in someway. But I don’t feel obliged to live in that kind of fantasy. I think that the real landscape is extraordinarily beautiful. Maybe this goes back to what we were talking about before. There is a drive to distance yourself from the world as it is. I suppose I feel that I want to pull myself closer and closer to the world. I think that’s probably the poet’s drive.

Tom Smith: Anymore questions at this time?

Audience: Yes, can you talk a little bit about Reverse Thunder?

Ackerman: Reverse Thunder, yes, this is a book I published with a very small press. It’s about the historical verse play, which is not something the world is waiting for.

I was reading Octavio Paz’s Anthology of Mexican Poetry, translated by Beckett — kind of interesting — and found these extraordinary poems by the 17th century Mexican metaphysical poet, natural scientist and nun, a really interesting woman, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz and she died very young. The church, I think, the euphemism was tested her faith. It was because of her love life and her turning the convent into a university for women and doing all sorts of things. I thought her life was so full of confrontation that it should be a play rather than something like a novel. Also, I thought she was an extraordinary woman who just had the really bad luck to be alive at a time when that was not acceptable. Her problems were contemporary problems and I hurt for her. It hurt me so much what she had to go through, that I thought it would be interesting to inhabit her voice and bring her to life, so I wrote this play. Why did I feel comfortable doing it? Because poets write dramatic monologue all the time and what is a play if not a series of dramatic monologues. Now, I know I have written what is probably a radio play because the people at the Rutgers’ theater department got together with me to see if it could be staged. They invited me to be in residence there for I think six months or so and work on it. I didn’t want to do that. But it’s a play to be read. One thing that is interesting is that at Old Dominion University’s Literary Festival this October it was going to be read publically by people from the theatre department. There is music that has been commissioned by Paul Goldstaub, a very lush classical composer that will be behind it or with it. I haven’t talked with him so I don’t know how it’s going to be. But that would be interesting for me because the music would emotionally fill in some of the breaks.

I have written a number of dramatic monologues and chose the person or the object as a mask. Whatever issues they were talking about were issues I wanted to talk about, but it was safer to pretend it was fiction and it was somebody else. So I was drawn to them for specific reasons. I was probably drawn to her because of her desire to live in the realms of art and the realms of science and the realms of passion and to try to deal with the world that was not necessarily open.

Octavio Paz has written a biography of Sor Juana and they are very often at universities are Sor Juanaists who specialize in her work. Very interesting woman.

Tom Smith: Ok we better end this now. I just want to remind people that Diane Ackerman’s reading will be at 8 o’clock over at the recital hall of Norman Garner’s Center and I hope to see you all there.

Diane Ackerman
The Book Show, with host Tom Smith, 1/23/1992

Smith: Welcome to The Book Show. I’m your host, Tom Smith of the New York State Writers Institute, which is located at the University at Albany and is part of the State University of New York system. My guest today is poet and nature writer Diane Ackerman. Diane Ackerman is the author of a number of luminous, highly acclaimed works of both poetry and prose. Her first book of poetry, The Planets: A Cosmic Pastoral, was published in 1976, followed by other collections, Wife of Light in 1978 and Lady Faustus in 1983. Among her memorable works of non-fiction are On Extended Wings, published in 1985, a memoir of her experiences in flying, and the utterly fascinating best-seller, A Natural History of the Senses, which came out in 1990. 1991 was a triumphant literary year for Diane Ackerman. Random House published Jaguar of Sweet Laughter: New and Selected Poems, and also her latest non-fiction book, The Moon by Whale Light and Other Adventures among Bats, Penguins, Crocodilians and Whales. Diane, welcome to The Book Show, and congratulations on your double publications this year.

Ackerman: Why, thank you, and it’s nice to be with you, Tom.

Smith: Diane, you write about your adventures, your experiences, your quests, really, both in verse and in prose, and you say your muse goes everywhere and is quite miscellaneous. But, which muse comes at what time? Do you have any special feeling about what will be the impulse for a narrative exposition or lyric expression, or does it just come and go? Sometimes it’s verse and sometimes it’s a long essay. . .

Ackerman: I once had three cats that got pregnant all at once, and they had their kittens all at once, and I was amazed to discover that they kept stealing each other’s kittens. They really didn’t know which was their own, and sometimes that happens with me, so there are places in The Natural History of the Senses that are actually unrequited poems, as I think of them. I couldn’t make them work out as poems, but they were relevant to what I was writing about, and I sent them out as prose poems.

Smith: I love that expression, “unrequited poems.” Does that mean, by implication, that the poetic impulse is the deepest and greatest and most profound one, and if it doesn’t make it as a poem, then you write it in prose, or does it work some other way?

Ackerman: I think the source is my creativity, really, in poetry. I love writing prose and sometimes, I’m told, it’s a little hard to tell whether my prose is actually prose, or poetry, or what. But I know that if I were not writing poetry regularly some key piece of whatever that creative furnace is would be missing.

Smith: Let me give you an example of what I was really asking, and there are many of them that go back and forth between your nature writing and your poetry. For example, there is a very poetic moment, I would call it, at the tag end of the latest book, The Moon by Whale Light – now this is the chapter on penguins entitled “White Lanterns.” This is the end of that chapter and the end of the book, and this time you’re on the island of South Georgia and you’re, as you say, “surrounded by penguin society, which began to close its ranks behind me. I thought of brown-white-left, the fluffy chick I helped to raise at Sea World in San Diego.” Then you go on to think about that particular penguin and the very last sentence of the book is this, and I quote, “Safe from hunger, leopard seal and skua, he was probably sitting like a pensioner on a park bench as he watched the silent pageant passing on the moving sidewalk beyond the glass, where ghostly humans floated in a darkness deep as the Antarctic night.” I mean, if that didn’t make it as poetry … (laughs). Now, I wonder along those lines, and then there’s your poem “King Penguins,” which is published in Jaguar of Sweet Laughter, your latest collection of poems. I wonder if you could read that for us.

Ackerman: I would be delighted to. Let me just find it in my book here.

Smith: It’s on page 37.

Ackerman: I wrote a number of poems set in the Antarctic…

Smith: Also the “White Lanterns” series, right?

Ackerman: Yes, you’re quite right, so the group of poems and the chapter of prose do resonate with their titles and with their concerns. This is one of a few funny poems, I guess, in the series:

“King Penguins”

Carved gold in the middle of her cheeks,
her dishy commas shimmer in the sun
as she swaggers demurely, leading the boys on.
Throwing his head back, a male trumpets and raves,
and sounds like a harmonica or an oncoming train.
Her velvet commas are the hottest he’s seen in days,
and her apricot bill just takes his breath away.

So, despite the rapid skuas, and the first seals seething,
and the other avid suitors flapping and reeling,
he sidles up close and bump-herds her away
to the outskirts of the rookery for a little heavy breathing.

Her mother was right, of course:
  He’ll walk all over her.

But for the moment she is Cleopatra, Marilyn,
Mata Hari, all in one: dawn blooms at her throat
and the South Georgia seas, so fertile and rich,
all begin at her knees. He’s not worried
if she’s fit enough to raise a good brood
and outwit life’s harsher dramas.
He only knows she was meant for him.
  And she has a great pair of commas.

Smith: Thank you, that’ a lovely poem, and it’s also very witty. My guest is poet and nature writer, Diane Ackerman, author of Jaguar of Sweet Laughter, her latest collection of new and selected poems, and The Moon by Whale Light, a series of four essays on animals – bats, crocodiles, penguins, and whales – both of which were published this past year by Random House. Diane, why are penguins – you just read “King Penguins,” and I’m not only alluding to your poem but also something you say in that chapter in “White Lanterns” – why are penguins the most “anthropomorphic of animals?”

Ackerman: Well, they stand up and waddle around in a way that human two-year-olds tend to. They’re real toddlers. They look like they’re wearing little snowsuits or waiters’ uniforms, or nun outfits. But in any case, they’re dressed in ways that are familiar. They have no land predators, so they come right up to you, and they will play with your shoelaces, or snuggle up into your neck and really check you out and cuddle you. They have an overwhelming desire to touch and be touched, it technically is called thigmotaxis, but in practice it means that when they’re born they will scoot all around, however much they have to, until they find a parent they can press up snuggly against. And they will do that with a human also, if you happen to be raising a penguin in captivity. They just look like little humans, and I think if you were going to invent an animal that was just enough different from us that it was exotic, but enough like us that it seems poignant, you would have a penguin on your hands.

Smith: They don’t fear human beings. I think you say somewhere that when they’re on land—they don’t spend quite as much time on land as the average person thinks they do—but there are no land predators after them, so they come right up to people, is that right?

Ackerman: Yes. They do have predators. There is an eagle-like bird called the skua, which flies overhead and is menacing, and one tries not to choose sides when one is out in nature but it’s awfully hard not to be rooting for the baby penguins. And there are many seals and whales and things like that in the water, and they do stalk the penguins. So, penguins have predators, but not on the land.

Smith: They’re so adorable and also, they’re funny. Of course, I remember from childhood on, why they were always described as little guys in tuxedos, and the way they waddle around. So there’s something apparently both comic and endearing about them.

Ackerman: Animated laundry bags (laughs).

Smith: Animated laundry bags… (laughs)… that’s wonderful. And yet they come from what many people would think is a very forbidding part of the world. Tell us about the aesthetic experience of that Antarctic world, particularly Antarctica itself as a sensory phenomenon, which you have written about in that wonderful, fascinating book, History of the Senses. What’s the Antarctic aura like? You described it so wonderfully, both in prose and poetry, but do you want to talk about the aesthetic experience of being in the Antarctic?

Ackerman: It’s one of the most overwhelming places in the world, and it’s very worldly. There are very great herds of animals of the sort that you would only associate, perhaps, with Africa. They happen to be oceanic creatures and birds, but there are vast herds of them. On the other hand, it’s terribly otherworldly, like waking up in the middle of Mars or Neptune, some other planet. The quality of glare from the ocean is like a pure color. I’ve never seen it any other place, and there are many, many colors. One thinks of the Antarctic as being predominantly black and white, but it’s not so. The snow itself has an opalescent quality to it and changes color, depending on the sunlight, and the icebergs that float by are all different shades of pastels. It’s commonplace to see pink icebergs, mint color icebergs, blue icebergs. It just depends on how much oxygen has been trapped inside of the ice and how old the icebergs are.

Smith: So it’s more of an iridescent experience than simply like the old black and white films, which would be appropriate for the Antarctic. But your description is that that is not true at all.

Ackerman: No. In fact, the air is so pure that one tends not to get sick, which is good, but also things seem much closer. There’s no interference. Everything is super clear.

Smith: Well, in addition to the fantastic spatial experience that one has, you talk about a whole different experience of time. You write, “In many ways the Antarctic is a world of suspended animation, suspended between outer space and the fertile continents, suspended in time without a local civilization to make history. Civilization has been brought to it, it never sustained any of its own.” That must be both eerie and thrilling.

Ackerman: It’s wonderful – not just in the Antarctic but in other places – to be so far away from civilization that the only news you have is the news of nature. There is something so liberating about that, being freed from all, from some perspectives trivial, and from others world-shaking, confusion of politics and society and family life, and to be free of all expectations of yourself.

Smith: I want to pursue that whole different sense of proportion and perspective you get from being really surrounded, totally, by nature, and that’s what gives you the news. I want to ask you a couple other things about the Antarctic experience. The origin of the white lantern metaphor, which you use both as a title for that series of poems on the Antarctic and also for the title for that chapter in The Moon by Whale Light. That came first from an Apollo astronaut as he was reporting what the earth looked like, with the white lantern down there at the Antarctic, is that right?

Ackerman: That’s right. He looked down, and he said that there was a white lantern shining at the bottom of the world. And actually, what he was seeing was the snow of the Antarctic. I thought it was so beautiful, the illusion in the just unspeakable blackness of space of the shining lantern that someone was visibly carrying through the night.

Smith: That’s very funny, because I think most of us, especially up here in the north temperate zone, tend to think, when we think of “down there,” down there is a world of, well, white cold. But also dark, and the idea of that perspective, that it’s a lantern leading you back to earth is quite poetic – especially for an astronaut.

Ackerman: The white lantern image also reminds us that the Antarctic contains 68 percent of the fresh drinking water on earth and there may come a time when we may need it. In fact, we almost certainly will. So, it is one of the last frontiers that human beings have not spoiled in some way. It really is pristine, and it’s thrilling to go to an environment that is a real frontier. I don’t know what is to come of the Antarctic. Greenpeace and some other organizations are really hoping that it will become a world park, and that in itself is intriguing. That we are at such a place in our history that we can begin to talk as a planet, not as one nation or another nation, about what parts of nature we should put aside as sacred and necessary and just declare it off-limits to any commercial appeal. That in itself is a landmark.

Smith: Yes, really, that’s a very ecological point about our future. Another experience that was very dramatic in The Moon by Whale Light also is part of that world: you swam with whales in Patagonia, which is the very southern part of Argentina, South America. Are the famous “songs of the whales” a declaration of life? You also mentioned that in the water dance of alligators in Florida, which seem to be an expression of “I exist, this is what I am, and this is where I am, this is who I am.” Is that part of the sense you get from the song of the whales?

Ackerman: It’s part of the sense I get from all over nature. We do the same thing. This time next year the telescopes looking for extraterrestrial life will be turned on, and all over the world there will be a great ceremony that’s taking place. And they’re all searching for the same thing, that voice that says, “This is what I am, this is where I am,” and so on. But we see this among frogs on summer nights and human beings and every species, just declaring the spectacular and unexpected fact that it is alive. Very true with birds and whales and alligators and everything else. Now, having said that, it’s a little hard to know exactly what the songs of the humpback whales are being used for. They’re being made by the males, so that leads one to think that they’re a form of display or have something to do with courtship, something to do with territory. Maybe the whales are singing the best song they know how and the females are choosing them according to the beauty of their songs. We don’t know.

Smith: So it may be a mating call or it may simply be an expression of existence, like you find all over nature. How about the human impulse for linguistic expression? Does that come from the same, let’s call it “sacred,” fount? Do you want to talk about the origin and meaning of your title Jaguar of Sweet Laughter, which I believe refers to a Mayan creation myth? How does that myth in some way connect with that universal “I exist” that we were talking about?

Ackerman: The jaguar of sweet laughter, in this ancient myth, is one of the first creatures that came forth on the planet recognizably human. And the reason that it was human was that it spoke. Lots of animals communicate in different ways. We don’t know that other animals have the kind of complex grammar and nuance that we have, but whale songs and dolphin exchanges are probably our best competitors in this. Curious thing about the whale songs is that they change. Each individual whale improvises, makes the song a little bit his own, but then the songs evolve and change. We don’t know what they’re saying, the very long songs, but we do know that they use rhyme for their long songs.

Smith: That’s fascinating, absolutely fascinating. Now, whales and dolphins have large and, we presume, very complicated brains, I mean, maybe as complicated as ours. So there’s [a possibility] whatever language they use has the same kind of complex nuances that we think ours does.

Ackerman: Hard to know what they’re using those big brains for. Maybe they’re using them just for navigation, because they do navigate all over the world, and there is fascinating geography to the ocean floor. Just like the geography we find in the Himalayas, let’s say, and they need to be able to navigate their way around. But lots of other animals navigate quite well and they don’t need big brains. It’s a real curiosity. The whales seem to have something like a floating culture, a floating civilization.

Smith: Within themselves as well as in reference to each other?

Ackerman: Uh-huh… well, we don’t know. It would be as difficult for us to understand, just as it would be difficult for them to understand what our lives are like. When I was in Patagonia studying right whales – they’re called right whales because they were the “right whales” to kill, unfortunately – I saw a lot of mother and baby whales come into a bay on the way to the Antarctic. The mothers nurse the babies and raise them and play with them, and I went out one day and got in the water and swam up to a mother and baby and spent quite a lot of time with her just swimming around the bay. She let me get very, very close to her, and went to enormous pains not to injure me, and I think I detected in her eye, which I looked into, the kind of rampant curiosity that we feel about other life forms. But I have no idea what she was feeling, or what she was thinking, or if indeed she had things that we would designate thinking or feeling. It’s very tough to tell.

Smith: Your comments evoke that sense of wonder and mystery and respect that Melville certainly had in the cytological chapters of Moby Dick

Ackerman: Some of my favorites! (laughs)

Smith: Well, your concept of whales as a kind of floating culture is very much described, worldwide, in those chapters. That’s fascinating. I also want to talk more about one of my favorite animals, not as endearing to most people as penguins or whales or dolphins, perhaps – and that’s bats. But first I want to ask you something about this whole sensory experience that you developed so well in your books. In your book, A Natural History of the Senses, you refer to Helen Keller in the hearing chapter as one of the greatest “sensuists” – as opposed to “sensualist” – of all time. Diane, are we sensory deprived, or sensory anesthetized too much? In civilization, have we developed such an alien perception from culture that we really don’t feel enough, or see enough, or hear enough?

Ackerman: I think that we live in a very puritanical world these days and we are trying to work as efficiently as possible, and achieve our goals as efficiently as possible and not stray from the direct line any more than we have to. Also, there is some strange, almost erotic sense we have that if someone is enjoying life too much that it’s kind of dirty or naughty, which is a shame. It has crept into our literature that if somebody has too much panache and style they remind of us of those sweaty South Americans or whatever it is. You’re supposed to write prose that can take a hard punch in the stomach. I think it’s a shame. I think it’s a shame that we are trying to cut off from ourselves a lot of the beauty and wit and richness of experience.

Smith: Well, certainly we get that back in your books. I mean, your senses are amplified in both the poetry and the prose, and it does the same for the reader. Diane, we’ve run out of time. I want you to come back and we’ll talk about poetry and bats and other things later, but in the meantime keep exploring and reporting to us from the far meridians of experience. I’ve enjoyed it, and we’ll talk more in the future.

Ackerman: Thank you so much. I’ve enjoyed it too.

© Produced by Northeast Public Radio/WAMC and the New York State Writers Institute

Diane Ackerman
The Book Show, with host Tom Smith 4/9/1992

Smith: Welcome to The Book Show. I’m your host Tom Smith of the New York State Writers Institute, which is located at the University at Albany and is part of the State University of New York system. Today I am continuing a conversation I began several months ago with poet and nature writer Diane Ackerman. Diane Ackerman is the author of a number of exhilarating, much-acclaimed works of both poetry and prose. Her first book of poetry, The Planets: A Cosmic Pastoral, was published in 1976, followed by The Wife of Light in 1978 and Lady Faustus in 1983. Among her memorable works of non-fiction are On Extended Wings, published in 1985, a memoir about flying, and the remarkable best seller, A History of the Senses, which came out in 1990. 1991 was a triumphant year for Diane Ackerman. Random House published her latest non-fiction book, The Moon by Whale Light and Other Adventures Among Bats, Penguins, Crocodilians and Whales, and also Jaguar of Sweet Laughter: New and Selected Poems, which was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Diane, welcome once again to The Book Show.

Ackerman: Thank you, it’s a pleasure to be here.

Smith: It’s been an absolute delight to have you at the Writers Institute, reading your work, reading your poetry, and then discussing your life and your adventures with all the animals in Antarctica. It’s been wonderful.

Ackerman: It’s been fun for me, too. As you know, writers spend most of their lives in small rooms with blank sheets of paper. It’s nice to get out and actually talk to people (laughs).

Smith: Diane, I used the term “nature writer.” Does that term “nature writer” sit well with you? I mean, “writer” certainly is appropriate, but “nature”… is that expression fraught with contradiction in some way?

Ackerman: Well, it suggests that it would be possible to live outside of nature or that nature didn’t in some way enter into absolutely everything that we do, or that we ourselves are not part of nature. So, in that sense, it’s kind of strange. I don’t see how anyone can be anything other than a nature writer. It’s just that, for me, nature includes amino acids and the stuff that we normally associate with science.

Smith: Yes, “nature writer” usually involves describing beaver dams while on a camping trip or something like that. But the idea of taking all nature, including the human animal, for your province is really something that’s not implied in the term. And it’s really interesting because you really have a special stance, a special posture with nature in both your poetry and prose, whether you’re regarding the solar system or you’re encountering our fellow creatures here on earth – you are personal, but you are never sentimental or cutesy-pie with nature. When you’re making metaphors you never anthropomorphize the face of nature – that’s very tricky. That’s very hard to do, especially when you’re writing about things as adorable as penguins. But my question is, it sort of presupposes a certain vision you have of yourself, language, and the world around you. Do you want to talk about that a little bit?

Ackerman: The only time it really becomes a problem is in terms of beauty. Yes, I try not to anthropomorphize… it’s very hard to say the word! (laughs)

Smith: Sentimentalize (laughs).

Ackerman: Sentimentalize, thank you. I try not to sentimentalize animals because, in principle, I find the universe extraordinary as it is. I don’t need to dress it up and pretend it’s something other than what it is, or fantasize about it. I find the real world so fascinating, so beautiful, so infatuating, that if anything I would like people to see it in even more detail. But when I say beauty sometimes get in the way, I’ll be out on expeditions with scientists and I might note that an animal, say a monkey that I’m looking at, is cute. How can a baby monkey, a baby, let’s say golden lion tamaran that has a face like a troll doll, not be cute? In a circumstance like that, scientists sometimes reprimand me: “Cute is a term we don’t use,” he might say. “We don’t want to attach anything subjective to our work.” And then usually I will argue that in the scientific evolutionary scheme of things, I am a female primate who has evolved to respond to the young of other species – particularly other primate species – as cute (laughs). That’s really the only time when that seems to come in.

Smith: Well, sometimes there’s a kind of visceral awesomeness when you encounter nature. I mean, you have it, in both your poetry and prose, but I was recalling about ten years ago when I was going on a boat from Greece to Turkey over the Aegean, and two dolphins raced with the boat and put on a great show of leaping and crossing over and under the boat, and everybody went “Ahh… ohhhh,” in a spontaneous way. It’s hard not to feel that way, but you never identify with the animals or try to transform them into your own inner life. And I think you have a certain kind of respect for their separateness and integrity, which I find very winning.

Ackerman: Thank you. I also want to know what they can teach us about being human. What our relationship with them can teach us. There are lots of lessons, insights that we can gather, and you’re right, it doesn’t require dressing mice up as people and stuff like that (laughs).

Smith: I know. I love bears – one of my nicknames is the Bear – and for listeners who have never seen me, there you know what I look like now: a polar bear because I’m gray. But anyway, when I go someplace where they dress bears up in the shows… it’s one thing seeing them in a cage or, better yet, up in the Adirondacks where I come across them, but I hate to see that cutesy, sentimental use of animals.

Ackerman: I do, too, because essentially it’s disrespectful. It’s saying that they are not suitably worthy of your esteem for what they are, only if we can convert them to something else. But then again, I also don’t like seeing children dressed up as adults either.

Smith: Well, it’s all kind of very egocentric and chauvinistic. Unless a creature, human or otherwise, is just like we are, it can’t be taken seriously, they can’t be observed for their intricacy.

Ackerman: And we are not part of nature.

Smith: And we are not part of nature, then. Incidentally, my guest today is poet and nature writer Diane Ackerman, author of Jaguar of Sweet Laughter: New and Selected Poems and The Moon by Whale Light and Other Adventures Among Bats, Penguins, Crocodilians and Whales, both of which were just published last year by Random House. Now, Diane, you have many poems which I like, and one of them is “Lady Faustus.” Sometimes it seemed to me that you have a Faustian lust for experience. I know you made a comment, I think it’s in The Moon by Whale Light, that quote, “Like love, travel makes you innocent again.” Do you want to talk about that, and also maybe your Faustian lust for experience, where that comes from?

Ackerman: Well, I did say that it was travel that makes one innocent again, but I think what I really meant was something wider. Anything that can break you out of your ordinary habit of living will make you innocent again, and it becomes a kind of romance. So, yes, falling in love, or just stopping to become thoroughly obsessed with the furry comb inside of an iris’ throat, or most anything can do that. The trick is to stop taking things for granted, and then all of a sudden your senses are up and saluting and the world becomes new, as it was when you were little. It restores you to that innocence, and there’s nothing as thrilling.

Smith: Your work, it seems to me, is always inveighing against… actually, I want to put it in a positive way: calling attention to the fact that we must not, in any way, anesthetize out sense, either separately or all together. The final paragraph in your book, A Natural History of the Senses – this is the last paragraph in the postscript – is gorgeous and eloquent, and I was wondering if you could just read it for us, and then maybe we could talk about some of its implications, too.

Ackerman: “It began a mystery, and it will end a mystery. However many of life’s large, captivating principles and small, captivating details we may explore, unpuzzle and learn by heart, there will still be vast, unknown realms to lure us. If uncertainty is the essence of romance, there will always be enough uncertainty to make life sizzle and renew our sense of wonder. It bothers some people that, no matter how passionately they may delve, the universe remains inscrutable. ‘For my part,’ Robert Lewis Stevenson once wrote, ‘I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.’ The great affair, the love affair with life, is to live as variously as possible, to groom one’s curiosity like a high-spirited thoroughbred. Climb aboard and gallop over the thick, sunstruck hills every day – where there is no risk, the emotional terrain is flat and unyielding and, despite all its dimensions, valleys, pinnacles, and detours, life would seem to have none of its magnificent geography, only a length. It began in mystery and it will end in mystery, but what a savage and beautiful country lies in between.

Smith: Thank you. That could be not only a coda – I mean, it’s the conclusion of A Natural History of the Senses – but that could be a coda for all your work, and indeed, I think, for your personality. How about the background of the writing of A Natural History of the Senses. How did that book develop? I heard you say that you started research when you were born (laughs). But when did you… I mean, it’s a very unusual and unique book, how did you put it together?

Ackerman: You know, it’s interesting, a number of the questions you’ve been asking me really pivot around the same issue. I’ve always had a Faustian need to understand who we are, what the world is like, how we perceive the world the way we do, how our molecules were forged in some early chaos of the sun and suddenly here we are with suspenders and eyeglasses and jealousy and rage. I find that mystery so extraordinary that it would take me from birth to death to even begin to answer it. But it can only be answered from understanding how we sense the world, because anything outside of our senses is lost to us. So that is something that has fascinated me for a very long time, and I just never settled down to write it until I found that I couldn’t resist it any longer. It was like a very wonderful flu, and I’ve noticed that books hit me like that – I come down with them.

Smith: When the matter is ready, the form will come – Aristotle’s great principle, and actually this crystallized just at the right, the appropriate moment. Let me ask you something about the organization of A Natural History of the Senses, I mean, that’s the structure of it. Is that – and I’m talking about how the book is organized into chapters, the senses: smell, touch, taste, hearing, and vision – is that a hierarchy, a chronology of the senses? Why did you put them in that order?

Ackerman: I think I did smell first because it is the most emotional of our senses. All of our other senses have miscellaneous roots that they follow before they begin to register in the brain. But smell happens in a very primitive area of the brain where all of your emotions are seated. So we smell something and we don’t even have time to think about it, and we are transported across time and space to maybe our childhood, maybe our grandmother’s house, a lost love, something just rampantly emotional. So I wanted to start with smell. I don’t think I would want to be without any of my senses – I think if anything I’d like a hundred more senses – but I like vision a lot. We all do. That’s why so many of our words are visual words, even if they refer to the other senses. Not to mention the causal things, the currencies we give each other, like, “I see where you’re coming from.” Vision is urgently important to us, you can tell just by looking in the mirror that it is. When you do, you see eyes looking back at you that are the eyes of a predator. The predator had the eyes right in the center of the face so that it can spot prey, and the prey animals had the eyes around the side of the head – like a giraffe or a cow – so that it could tell when somebody was sneaking up on it, like us, for instance. Our eyes have always been urgently important. But originally I wrote this book as five very long essays, and now, as you know, it has about a hundred mini-chapters in it (laughs). Because I decided that it was not as one long gush that we understand vision, or that we understand smell. It is in these eye gulps, smell gulps that we do.

Smith: One of the things that made it so wonderful to read were those small chapters, so you could go back to the end of the chapter and read, you know…

Ackerman: Just about kissing (laughs).

Smith: Yeah, kissing. Actually, you know, it’s one of those books I’ve gone back to time and time again as an encyclopedia or a source book and then simply just a wonderful narrative. Now, in A Natural History of the Senses, you explore the senses in terms of their concrete physical functions and also for their metaphoric meanings. For example, taste – “She had wonderful taste” – and “That touched me so much,” and vision, and the whole notion of vision. I remember a lecture some years ago, must have been 35 or 40 years ago, by a very eloquent blind man, on literature, vision and blindness, and he said that sexuality and seeing literature are very much involved. He said that blindness is, in some way, always kind of the rejection of sexuality, the punishment of Oedipus and all that. And I thought of all those things again when I was reading your book, and I must say, the taste chapter I loved, especially the food and sex, because I just recently saw the movie of Tom Jones and that remarkable eating scene. But one of my favorite passages, I just have to call attention to this, is “The Psychopharmacology of Chocolate,” where you say, “Today chocolate zombies haunt the streets of every city, dreaming all day of that small plunge of chocolate waiting for them on their way home from work.” I must confess to being one of those chocolate zombies.

Ackerman: Hence the padded walls in here (laughs).

Smith: A Natural History of the Senses, is it not going to be a television series on TBS, with you as a principle narrator?

Ackerman: Yes, as presenter. We’re turning it into a five-hour television series, one hour for each of the senses, and I will be the host, I will be the guide.

Smith: That’ll be fun.

Ackerman: It will be fun for me. I’ll get to learn a lot that has come to be known since the book has come out.

Smith: I’m just trying to picture, visualize here how it will be adapted and transformed as, well, as a visual experience, all of it.

Ackerman: Ingeniously (laughs). But of course we won’t need to do an hour on synesthesia – because by its nature it will all be synesthesia.

Smith: Well, I was going to say that the last part of A Natural History of the Senses is the one on synesthesia. Is that not the imaginative transformation of all experience, like art, where all the senses dance together in some kind of conceptual way?

Ackerman: Seemingly unrelated things yoked, by violence, together. But it’s also the realm of infants’ and newborns’ life focus all the time.

Smith: I was thinking when you were talking about smell, what we were saying about smell could apply to taste. I think of that famous passage in Proust, Remembrance of Things Past, when he dips the lemon cake in the tea, the petit madelein into the lemon tea, and then has this shock of recognition of his childhood, simply by the taste.

Ackerman: I’ve done that! I remember there were times when I would use a lipstick – there was a certain kind of tangerine lipstick, the smell of which reminded me of summer camp and a crush I had on a certain boy. Or when I would smell eucalyptus it reminded me of the time I spent tagging butterflies in a eucalyptus grove and that reminded me of the Vicks’ Vapor Rub that my mother would put on my chest when I had a cold when I was little. I think we’ve all lived through that.

Smith: Well, that’s what makes the book so evocative and at the same time fun, because this absolute riot, this melange of sensations, and you’ve found the right way to organize them. Now, another one of your works, your dramatic poem Reverse Thunder, is also heading for theatrical performance. Do you want to talk about how you came to write about a 17th-century nun in Mexico?

Ackerman: Yes, (laughs) not the first thing that would spring to mind.

Smith: Is it one of your personae, your Faustian persona?

Ackerman: I was reading Octavio Paz’s Anthology of Mexican Poetry, which by the way was translated by Beckett, and all the translations sound a little Beckettian, which is kind of interesting. But when I came to the poems of Juana Inez de la Cruz, I was captivated by them. I went to a one-page biography in the back of the book and it was so suggestive that I began learning about her life and discovered that she had a life of enormous controversy. She was an extraordinary woman with the bad luck to be alive at a time that required women to be ordinary, and that she was a natural scientist, a composer, and poet. She started a university for women. Essentially, in the convent she had lovers, and because of these things, I don’t know which was worse, she was, well, perhaps too strong to, say, [be] put to death by the church. The phrase they used was that they “tested her faith.” Whatever it was, she dies very quickly thereafter. And her life was just so full of drama that it might be nice to do it as a play so that I could have her speak; I could speak through her.

Smith: Well, she was clearly, as Yeats would say, a woman out of her time.

Ackerman: A woman out of her time, just so.

Smith: So you put her in another time, in the eternity of literature, of poetry. That’s going to be performed next year or…

Ackerman: This year, October, I believe, at Old Dominion University.

Smith: October 1992 at Old Dominion University. Oh, well that’s a big event. That’s Reverse Thunder, just to get that right. Incidentally, I’m talking with Diane Ackerman about her work in both poetry and prose and her latest book of poetry is Jaguar of Sweet Laughter, and her latest book of nature writing is The Moon by Whale Light, both published by Random House. Now, Diane, we only have about a minute and a half. Is there a short poem you could read?

Ackerman: Sure, I’d be delighted. Let me see if I can find a short one, unless you have a favorite.

Smith: Well, I was thinking of one of the poems in Tales from a Sonnetorium, because they’re short and I like them.

Ackerman: Tales from a Sonnetarium – right, okay. How about a love poem from there?

Smith: Yeah, that’s fine.

Ackerman: This I called “Oasis,” and actually it’s a double sonnet:
A kiss goodbye, I close the door, and hear
your footsteps down the hall, then fall to bed,
the galaxies in my veins still waltzing,
my skin made flawless by your perfect touch.
A moth turns its small wings at the window.
The full city moon, so buxom and bright,
astonishes the glass: somnambulisms of light
float like angels through the musky room,
across the brass bed and the pink roses,
where you felt my heart grow wild as tinder,
and set small, sweet land mines in my hips.
Your face flashed semaphores of light.
In the darkness, I read your lips with my lips.
And a sherbet moon melted on the night.

Long before we were comrades-in-arms,
we fought our wars, though we were light infantry
caught in ambushes of rage, hand to hand
combat, wounds that age infants over night,
but rarely heal. Then you went off to Vietnam,
and I to a seething, campus twilight.
Suppose that I had fought, like you, felt steel
blow fire through my flesh, and life’s red lava
pouring out? Killed. Learned what terrors
I controlled, saw skies rain fire on patrol,
set loose the rats that nibble at the soul?
What different roads have led us here. Yet, sprung
from those battlefields we both remember,
we lay down our arms in love. Never surrender.

Smith: Thank you. Diane Ackerman, Lady Faustus. Diane, continue your quest in both nature writing and poetry and report back to us. This is Tom Smith saying so long until next time, on The Book Show.