Heather Sellers is the author of Field Notes from the Flood Zone, which was published by BOA Editions on April 26, 2022. Sprung from her daily observation journals, haunted by ghosts from the past, this collection is an elegy for the two great shaping forces in a life: heartbreaking family struggle and a collective lost treasure, our stunning, singular, desecrated Florida, and all its remnant beauty. Read on to learn more about Heather, her newest poetry collection, and her writing process!
Work by eye. Write by hand. Write every day. Read a lot.
Most poems take five – twelve rough drafts just to get to a working first version. Many don’t make it to this stage, the viable first draft. When I have first draft I can type up and print out, something that feels maybe alive, then the writing begins. There is not any stage I don’t find thoroughly enjoyable. As a person with face blindness, I have a high tolerance for frustration, being wrong, and total failure. I love the process.
What was your process for writing the collection? How was it different/similar to writing other collections?
In this age of digital micro-form (text, tweet, tldr), I find home in the long forms—book-length essays, multi-part biographies, and long poems and volumes of poetry that tell a complete story. I love poetry that is experienced in much the same way as a memoir or a novel. I write poems, almost always, in a sequence. I’m seeking to create via some kind of focused narrative inquiry—a cohesive body of work.
In my previous collection, The Boys I Borrow, I sought to tell the story of becoming a stepmother: trying and mostly failing (not completely!) to co-create an entire new planet: this little patched-together family.
When I moved back home to Florida in 2013, I wrestled with many layers of grief: a devastated, post-Edenic landscape, the loss of both my parents, my brother’s death, and the excruciating end of a marriage. The ghosts of an extreme and difficult childhood, always alive here in this once astonishingly beautiful landscape, haunt each layer of grief. My most recent collection, The Present State of the Garden tells the story of finding, after all these losses, meaning and grace in the natural world, as broken as it is.
I keep a daily observation journal, noting the smallest things I can find each day—what I hear, what I see, what I do. (The exercise comes from Lynda Barry.) This new collection, Field Notes from the Flood Zone, springs from my observation journals. Using the meteorological year as my container, and the coastal town I live in as my subject, and the Florida I grew up in as backdrop, I assembled a genre-fluid sequence of prose poems, poems and micro-memoir. The book is a dispatch from the frontlines as I watch, day by day, the water rising.
How did you find the theme for this collection? Where did these poems come from? Do you have a favorite poem from the collection?
The theme found me— at my doorstep. I live near the coast in Florida and the effects of climate change and catastrophic weather events are part of daily life here. In this project, I’m interested in the contrast between our quotidian conversations that take place in driveways, swimming pools, parking lots, gas stations, and backyards, while remnants of the natural world ghost in the background, sometimes just barely visible along the edges of these spaces.
I don’t have a favorite poem in this collection. I see the work as one book-length story, one poem.
What does keeping "field notes" look like for you as a writer? (Instruments, writing locations)
I loved the idea of field notes even as a child—writing down what I observed, with no emotion or commentary-- and have continued the practice off and on throughout my life. I love artist’s notebooks, and visual journals, where you draw what you see as you write what you see. When we were in grad school, my dear friend Ann Turkle invited me into the world of the daybook, the visual journal, nature journals, and artists’ books, and she taught me many techniques.
I have hundreds of these notebooks in captivity, held in a storage facility in downtown St. Petersburg, stacks of tubs and boxes containing notebooks in every shape and size.
I find retrospective field notes—what exactly happened when you were a child, where you were, what you were wearing, who said what—thrilling to read. It’s a practice I assign to my students.
My notebook is with me in the kayak, in the woods, and in Publix. Wherever you are, there’s so much to observe and of course the more you look the more you see.
Some people use their phones for notes, very successfully, but for me the magic only feels convincing or interesting when it’s illuminated by pencil on paper.
How would you suggest other poets and writers who want to take "field notes" get started?
Of all writing practices, this one is the easiest to begin.
Simply make a list of everything you see right now from where you are seated. Nothing is too small to notice. Notice ten things.
Maybe throughout the day, write down what you hear. The practice is to be exact, to be too precise. It’s exercise for your writing brain and might be something you are already doing but you haven’t been aware. Daily observing practices keep you on speaking terms with parts of yourself you recruit in order to create. You don’t need to do anything with the observations. It’s a noticing practice, internal and external.
What is a prose poem? What drew you to prose poetry? Are there other forms you are drawn to?
I’m not sure what a prose poem is. I wonder if it’s useful to approach the conversation by considering it might be a term for style rather than a form.
Regardless, I’m less interested in genre as category and more interested in how forms and subject matter co-create each other.
In this project, I’m working with form as a physical object—line, paragraph, white space, and page. The 8 ½ x 11 page is a canvas, a shape to hold various patterns of sentences and paragraph structures. Working on this book, I looked at a lot of letters typed on A4 paper in typewriters. I’m interested in the paragraph as poem—a stand along thing-- and paragraph sequences, how in a letter or a journal or a diary each paragraph might stand on its own, relating to others in surprising ways. Often, unexpected news comes this way, amid regular news, just a couple of lines dropped in, like a message in a bottle.
What is the goal of your writing?
This is such a good question and I’m not sure how to answer it.
Not to have a goal?
I do hold as a writer a single-minded, heartfelt intention: to attempt to create meaningful experiences for my reader, to engage her with a part of herself or a part of life that has perhaps gone unnoticed in some small way.
There’s a quote—I forget who said it—along the lines of “paying attention is an experience of the highest order.” A writing practice offers a chance to be present to oneself and one’s fellow humans, and to be present to the world, and to sustain this attentiveness. I’m not sure there’s a “goal” per se, in the same way that love doesn’t have “a goal”. It’s a process of increasing awareness and presence and affection, and friendliness and kindness.
That’s what I’m most interested in—awareness as a discipline and a practice.
What do you hope readers will take away from these poems?
A more complex understanding of people who do not think in the same way they themselves think.
What are some sources for your inspiration?
Coastal neighborhoods, coastal towns. Suburban drainage and reservoirs and man-made islands (I live on one) and constructed waterways. Swamp, bayou, estuary. Woods, river, garden. Most especially, all the weird seams—those beautiful, complex spaces behind the strip malls, where the dumpsters sit on the edge of the forest, and under the power lines between dueling subdivisions, or alongside the highway, where an old dirt road named Lizard Road runs all the way from Eureka Springs out to nowhere.
Friendship. And human conversation: what people say to each other and to their children, strangers, and neighbors.
Questions written by Allyson Hoffman and Brian Lessing - our thanks!