Anna Lena Phillips Bell, editor of Ecotone and author of the poetry collection Ornament, recently spoke to us about the significance of place in creative work, especially those places under threat of environmental degradation. We asked Bell about her poems “Sheen” and “Against Stoicism” from the Fall 2019 issue, about poems as “notes to self,” and about how her work as an editor responds to our debt and responsibility to place.
SR: In your first book, Ornament, many of your poems are closely intertwined with a sense of place. As the editor of Ecotone, a magazine that explores the many facets of place, what draws you most to the potential of place? How do places live in your own poetry?
Bell: When we say a poem aloud, we recreate it with our bodies; it becomes part of us. And our bodies are sustained, both physically and otherwise, by living systems and landscapes. That many of those living systems are under deep threat—from climate crisis, development, overuse and underappreciation—makes it all the more important to let place into creative work, to acknowledge both a source and a debt.
A lot of the poems in Ornament try to give thanks to the place that raised me, by showing a little of what it can feel like to be in the woods there. You cannot beat the smell of the air in spring in the piedmont. It’s ambrosia, an embrace, a planty everything. It taught me a lot of what I know about poems.
On becoming editor of Ecotone some years back, I created a new department for the magazine, Poem in a Landscape. I wanted to give writers the chance to focus on the ecological and cultural places a beloved poem evokes, as well as on their own experiences of reading the poem in place. Responses from our contributors—Anna Maria Hong, Kamilah Aisha Moon, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, and Lesley Wheeler among them—have each surprised and delighted me in their thinking through landscapes and people’s effects on them.
One of the things that excites me most in my work on the magazine is making more room for work that considers place in relation to race, class, gender, sexuality, and other aspects of who we are, and for work from writers historically underrepresented in this part of the literary world. It should be obvious by now, but nobody has a corner on writing from or about place.
SR: Your poem “Sheen” occurs in multiple places: a Dillard’s, a high school dance. In both, the speaker finds herself unsuited to the setting: “pretending I was this / had a limit, and I’d reached it.” The glitzy ideal the speaker has of herself is unsustainable. In what ways can place reveal a person to themselves?
Bell: Oh, senior prom: source of misery but also poems! I grew up running around in the woods—in a space where gender was, if not irrelevant, less a thing I had to define myself by. That felt infinitely more right than the almost brutally public spaces of my high-school years—hallways, dressing rooms, the bedazzled gym. At least some things about the world have changed for the better since I was eighteen and trying real hard to look both like myself and like the limited versions of girl that were available to me.
SR: In “Against Stoicism,” there’s a refusal to make location concrete. How is this absence of setting liberating for the poem? For you as a poet?
Bell: In this poem, the location is the itch, I think—is pain, which can tend to eclipse where we are and who we’re around, by funneling all our attention to its place in our bodies or in psychic space. I hope the squeak implies a larger place than that, and company in inhabiting it—a listening ear and willing help.
A lot of my poems act as notes to self: I’m trying to send a message to my daily self from the part of me that knows better or more. Those ones are less about place and more in place: I ask myself to carry the note around, and hope it will be useful wherever I’m headed.