This interview of Priscilla Long was requested by poet Jim Bertolino and poet and artist Anita Boyle of Egress Studio in preparation for Priscilla’s talk relating to the Vanishing Ice Exhibit presented at the Whatcom Museum in Bellingham. In January 2014, Priscilla answered Anita and Jim’s questions in writing.
1. You were born in Buck’s County, Pennsylvania and grew up on a dairy farm—how has that rural background influenced your thinking and writing?
Farming is a lot like writing, or so it seems to me. My father worked as dairyman on a 350-acre farm with 100 cows, 60 milking. We children did a lot of farm work and were paid a quarter an hour by my father’s boss. This was on the Eastern Shore of Maryland where my parents moved from a farm in Pennsylvania.
On a farm you get up every day and take care of the animals. You don’t miss a day. Good training for a writer.
You live close to animals, meaning you have something besides yourself to worry about and care for; we had dogs, cats, geese, the cows, sheep. I was required every morning to feed the pig. (I sometimes feel a piece I am working on, a poem or some such, is an animal that must be fed.)
On the farm there was deep quietness, a lot of it. There were birds everywhere—great blue herons, swans, cardinals, kingfishers, Canada geese, grouse. On summer nights the fireflies came out. The stars were intense and brilliant; there was zero light pollution.
Also, our house was full of books. Our parents read to us every day. At first it was the Bible. They didn’t know to water it down with a children’s version and even though I’m not religious now I will never regret having the King James Version spoken into my ear every night before bed. We had no money to speak of but many old books. I read every one.
My father, Winslow Long, who died this year at the age of 91, knew animals and he knew plants. (He also loved math, which I don’t!) He committed poems to memory. He worked hard his whole life. Even though he didn’t write except for maintaining an extensive correspondence, he was a great father for a writer to have.
2. You have ancestors who were well-known journalists. Have you ever considered a career in journalism?
My father’s father, Walter Long, was a reporter for the Philadelphia Bulletin. Walter Long spent all the decades of his life as a writer, but late in life, developed dementia—I knew him only as a senile old man. He didn’t even know me. All his work, including a novel he’d typed out, was lost. I don’t know why (possibly there were family resentments?), but I do not remember my grandfather’s accomplishments as a writer being admired as I was growing up. So it was only many years later, with my fate as a writer already sealed, that I realized, wait a minute! My grandfather was a writer! And his grandfather was the “grand old man of journalism in Philadelphia! Wow!” This may have been when I was already in my 40s.
But the fact is I love literature. I love poetry. I love novels and creative nonfictions and essays. Even though you find some beautiful and occasionally great writing in newspapers, and even though some of our great writers began in journalism, let’s face it, most newspaper writing is pretty pedestrian. So no, I never aspired to journalism. Beginning in my late twenties and continuing until I was 40 years old I worked in the printing trade, operating a printing press. I would get up at 4 or 5 in the morning and write until 7 before I went to work. I was writing, but in secret.
3. You’ve had 90 or more columns titled Science Frictions published in The American Scholar online. Did you study science as an undergraduate at Antioch College in Ohio?
At Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, I majored in history. I was not a brilliant scholar, being otherwise busy. After graduating, I worked with children, as a cleaning lady, as an artist model, as a clerk at a record company, and as a kitchen worker. I also worked in a publishing company for a time, and edited a book titled The New Left: A Collection of Essays. After these rather short-lived careers, I became a printer. Still, I was writing all this while.
Anyone can happily delve into science, which is the exploration of the way our world works all around us every day, the way our bodies work, including our brains, the way glaciers and rivers and continents work, the way the universe works, and where it and we came from. Curiosity and excitement about science belong to all of us, not just to scientists.
I think what gave me the confidence to jump into science with both feet was my comfortable relationship with technology. I grew up with the technology of dairy farming (and saw that technology evolve), I worked in the technology of the printing trade (and saw that technology go obsolete), and I became familiar with the technology of coal mining as I researched it over the years for my book on the history of coal mining (Where the Sun Never Shines: A History of America’s Bloody Coal Industry).
Even though technology is different from science, science can get a bit technical (although there are many resources that explain things in plain English), and I did not feel intimidated about jumping in. Maybe it’s just that I didn’t know what I was getting in to!
I’m an identical twin, one of nature’s clones, so it did not strike me as odd to start writing a piece called “Genome Tome,” about the Human Genome Project, inspired by an exhibition at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle. This was my first science piece and it included memoir, a poem, neuroscience, and story. (The piece was awarded a National Magazine Award, of which I am very proud.)
But I want to emphasize that anyone of any age or walk of life can begin learning about science and getting excited about it, whether astronomy or ecology or biology or physics. Science is not a fixed body of proved information. It’s an exploration of our home, the universe, what it is, where it came from, where we came from.
My second science piece was “My Brain on My Mind” and I wrote it to honor my grandfather Walter Long. It was an abecedarian (a form that goes from A to Z) and included neuroscience, memoir, and a lot of poetics.
The column came later, as a result of these and other pieces, and it was a great honor, a great challenge, and great fun. My effort was to mix poetry with science, to include personal story, to include reflections both personal and philosophical, along with a core of science.
The columns (along with some other science-oriented pieces) will eventually be gathered into a book.
5. You earned your MFA degree at the University of Washington—was your thesis poetry, fiction or non-fiction?
My thesis was in fiction, but I was able to take two workshops in poetry, one with Colleen McElroy and one with Heather McHugh. My two literature classes were in Yeats and in Shelley. My history of coal mining (Where the Sun Never Shines) was published while I was in the MFA program. Creative nonfiction was not offered in that program at that time. I served as a teaching assistant (we each taught a section of freshman composition) and it was here that I began teaching writing, which I have been doing ever since.
6. Your essays, short stories and poems have been published in highly respected journals. Which type of writing has brought you the most enjoyment?
I enjoy the challenges and pleasures of every type of writing I try, especially as I near completion of a piece and see that it has a chance of being artistically realized. In the middle, at the midpoint, in the pit, it all feels pretty hopeless, no matter the form. Creative work is like that. But I’m used to the pit, I know it’s a stage, I push on through. Poetry is my first form and it informs all the others.
7. Having been chosen as a Jack Straw writer, and having received awards from Seattle’s Richard Hugo House, the Seattle Arts Commission, and the Los Angeles Arts Commission—as well as a National Magazine Award for Feature writing—which type of writing would you say has brought you the most success?
Creative nonfiction has brought the most visibility to my work so far, but I have many poems and short stories in print as well. I see each piece, no matter the genre, as part of a body of work. To me, part of keeping the faith (to the muses, if you will) is to keep working in all my genres, not just the most popular.
8. How did you come to write The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life? And what about Where the Sun Never Shines: A History of America’s Bloody Coal Industry?
The Writer’s Portable Mentor: For the past 20 years (since I got the MFA) I’ve taught creative writing to developing professional writers, both within writer’s conferences and educational programs and privately. The Writer’s Portable Mentor came out of years and years of teaching and of working on my own craft as a writer. When I teach, I do all the assignments myself, and hand them to the class as the writers in the class hand their assignments to me. This has kept me challenged and awake and productive as a writer, even with a heavy teaching and editing load. Pretty much everything I know about the art and craft of writing and the writing life may be found in that book.
Where the Sun Never Shines: Coal mining was an obsession that ran for 20 years. If you want to write a history book, it helps to be obsessed! Also I love libraries. Give me a library and I feel at home. Most of the time when I was researching and writing that history book I was working as a printer.
9. You also serve as an editor for HistoryLink.org, the free online encyclopedia of Washington State History. Given the numerous creative and academic fields you appear to have mastered, wouldn’t it be appropriate to describe you as a “Renaissance Woman?”
I think those Renaissance creators had patrons? (Smile.)
I’ve always worked in more than one genre. (As for working as an editor, believe me, the technical skill of editing does not hurt a writer.) The price one pays for the strategy of working in multiple genres is that one’s “brilliant career” gets off to a rather slow start, in terms of the visibility of the work. It takes longer to become visible within any one genre. But as one continues to write and as the body of work continues to grow and to appear more and more in public, the disadvantage becomes an advantage. The forms inform and enrich one another in a pretty amazing way. There’s history in many of my poems, story in my nonfiction, poetry in sentences I write about science. In any case, for me it was never a choice, since I felt compelled to write whatever I was writing.
10. How long have you lived in the Pacific Northwest, and have you found this a particularly stimulating environment?
In the Pacific Northwest I have found my true home. I love the gray skies, the bridges and maritime effects, the ferries, the growing concern for the environment, the crows, the steller’s jays, the bushtits and golden-capped kinglets, the tall western red cedars and western hemlocks. I love the many readers in our region, the incredible tradition of art and poetry and music. I love the wheat fields of the Palouse, the high mountains of the Cascades, the strong tribal presence. I love wild salmon. I have lived here for 25 years and I have also edited 6,000 essays about Washington state history (for HistoryLink.org), which has helped me to set down deep roots. My work strongly engages with our region. A recent piece, soon to appear in Smithsonian magazine, is on the Skagit River.
11. Given how important the environment is to all of us, and to the animals, do you have any observations to make about the Vanishing Ice exhibit at the Whatcom Museum?
What we are facing today in terms of both climate change and species extinction (with dozens of species going extinct every day) is a growing emergency for our own kind. And the science makes it crystal clear that it is our use of fossil fuels that is causing the global warming part of the emergency. (Habitat degradation and invasive species are the other pieces.) The more one educates oneself about the whole situation, the more one sees that this will wreak major havoc on our world, that some tipping points have already been reached, that some damage is no longer reversible, and that there’s a lot more bad news to come.
So, what can we do and is there any hope?
There is hope because what each one of us does can make a difference. Yes, the corporations and the government must act too, but each one of us can make a difference both in our personal lifestyles and in raising our voices to apply political pressure. The Vanishing Ice exhibit is part of the reason for hope: It has helped educate a large number of people as to what is going on and what it means. It has helped to educate me. It also tells us that, yes, we must each act, we must each reduce our carbon footprint a bit each year, but that there is also always a place for creativity, for art.
We have caused the problem; we can solve it. I believe that something else besides climate change and species extinction is near a tipping point: our public consciousness of what is happening to our home, the earth, and our will to change. The Vanishing Ice exhibit with its gorgeous visual presentation and meticulous explanations is part of the solution. It’s part of the reason there is hope. I thank the Whatcom Museum for it.