Monday, November 26, 2018

Q & A with Amy Hale Auker, Author of Ordinary Skin: Essays from Willow Springs

By C.M. Mayo

This year, with some exceptions, the post for the fourth Monday of the month is dedicated to a Q & A with a fellow writer.  This is the last Q & A for 2018; look for the series to resume on the fourth Monday in January 2019. 

Amy Hale Auker
I had the pleasure of meeting Amy Hale Auker and of hearing her read from her work back in 2016 at the Women Writing the West conference in Santa Fe. She's the author of several works of poetry, fiction and essay, including Rightful Place, the 2012 WILLA winner for creative nonfiction and Foreword Reviews Book of the Year for essays. Her latest collection, Ordinary Skin: Essays from Willow Springs, is a treat for anyone who relishes fine creative nonfiction-- and it's a vivid and moving look at a life lived close to the land, on a working ranch in Arizona.


As those of you who follow my blog well know, my work to date has focused on Mexico, but for a while now I've been at work on a book about Far West Texas, and this had led me to read widely and closely about the West. It has a grand if sometimes underappreciated literary tradition, so if you're not familiar with it, take special note of Amy Hale Auker, and of her reading recommendations here. You will be richly rewarded.

From the catalog copy for Ordinary Skin:

Touching on faith and body image and belonging, these essays explore our role in deciding what is favorable or unfavorable, as well as where we someday want to dwell, and who came before us. In that touching, they feel their way with observations about current affairs, drought, mystery, and the hard decisions that face us all as we continue to move toward more questions with fewer answers. This exploration is informed and softened by hummingbirds, Gila monsters, bats, foxes, bears, wildflowers, and hidden seep springs where life goes on whether we are there to see it or not. It is about work in a wild and wilderness environment. In the end, even as life changes drastically around us, we are better off for knowing that the ugly mud bug turns into a jewel-toned dragonfly.

Visit Amy Hale Auker's website 

by Amy Hale Auker
Texas Tech University Press, 2018
Seminary Coop
C.M. MAYO: How might you describe the ideal reader for the essays in Ordinary Skin?

AMY HALE AUKER: Ordinary Skin is a book for anyone who loves language and story and first person narrative, who craves an intimate look at the natural world and the land, who recognizes the value of hard work and sweat with a pause, or many pauses, for falling in love with life, over and over again. While I think that women will find the deeper messages of the instinctual feminine, it is also a refresher course for men on why they love our Mother Earth.

C.M. MAYO: If a reader were to read only one essay in your collection, which would you recommend and why?

AMY HALE AUKER:"Using Tools Backward." That essay reflects our sense of place and those who came before, paving the way, and who we are as we stand in these places.

C. M. MAYO: You have been a longtime participant in cowboy poetry festivals, including the Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Alpine, Texas. My impression is that while cowboy poetry, fiction and song are beloved to many in the western US and Canada and elesewhere, they are also considered exotic, and alas, something to even disdain, by many in the literary communities in urban areas of the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. Your writing seems to me to fall squarely in both camps-- cowboy and what I would call (for lack of a better term) literary. Can you offer your thoughts about this? And perhaps comment on what people who read literary prose but who are unfamiliar with cowboy poetry (and cowboy culture generally) might look for and reconsider?

AMY HALE  AUKER: I have to admit to having run with this question directly to my editor and dear friend, Andy Wilkinson, who is often a clearer thinker and better communicator about labels and definitions than I am. I tend to simply write what I write and bang my head against category later. Wilkinson responded to my query in this way:

"The only way out is to question ... artificial categorization. Stevens didn’t write 'insurance executive' poetry, Williams didn’t write 'pediatrics' poetry, Frost didn’t write 'farmer' poetry, etc. Poets write poetry, and though their poems may be about a kind of life, the poets are neither the subjects nor the classifications."

I agree with Editor Dearest, but would also add that it is not my job to ask any reader to look more closely at any culture. It is my responsibility to simply do my job and step back (my clumsy paraphrase of Lao Tzu). This question looks too closely, in my opinion, at genre, marries me, as a writer/poet, too closely to a day job, a skill set, a means to earn a paycheck. Of course, my work in the natural world, with animals, growing food, informs my writing, my creative process, as did Frost's... as does Wendell Berry's. And yes, there are stereotypes out there, always, surrounding any profession or region that has been grossly, and often erroneously, romanticized to the point of becoming myth rather than reality. But an astute reader and listener will be quick to see where the stereotype breaks down and were reality shines through.

I would like to add that the elitist view of literature and life is what furthers the divide in this nation. That the only writing worthy of consideration can't come from the pen of someone who grows food, who works as a peasant, who has shit on their boots, who works with their hands. This us vs them view of art, literature, and philosophy is dangerous and furthers our separateness.

C.M. MAYO: Speaking of shit, my own favorite writer on that topic is Gene Logsdon, who called himself "The Contrary Farmer," and who wrote a book I highly recommend-- it's informative, beautifully written, and hilarious-- with the title, Holy Shit.

For someone who appreciates good writing but is unfamiliar with writing about rural life / farming / ranching, apart from your works, what might be a few reading suggestions?

AMY HALE AUKER: I just added Logsdon to my list of things to read! Thank you.

Seminary Coop
I hope you will consider all of Wendell Berry's work... poetry, prose, essay.... all of it. I highly recommend The Unsettling of Americaessays surrounding the "green revolution" and the industrialization of agriculture.

Some other authors include James Galvin (Fencing the Sky), Verlyn Klinkenborg (The Rural Life), and Merrill Gilfillan (Magpie Rising).

McMurtry addresses this question you and I are tossing around in his excellent foreword to Still Wild: Short Fiction of the American West.

Teresa Jordan wrote a gorgeous memoir, "Ride the White Horse Home."

These are just a few, but if you really want to the peak of the pile, read The Unsettling of America. Berry is brilliant. 

C.M. MAYO: Can you talk about which writers have been the most important influences for your writing-- and which ones you are reading now?

AMY HALE AUKER: My influences are eclectic and many... but I tribute the poetry and songwriting of Andy Wilkinson as an influence to write any and everything that burns brightly in me. I tribute Merrill Gilfillan, Jeanette Winterson, E. B. White, Verylyn Klinkenborg, Barbara Kingsolver, and Edward Abbey with influencing my first person narrative. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Natalie Goldbberg, Ann Lamott, and Julia Cameron are on my "forever shelf." Recently I started reading Pema Chodron. I read a lot of fiction when I am writing nonfiction. So, right now I am reading novels. By my elbow is News of the World by Paulette Jiles. I love how she writes literary fiction in a western setting, breaking out of genre.

C.M. MAYO: You have been a consistently productive writer for many years. How has the digital revolution affected your writing? Specifically, has it become more challenging to stay focused with the siren calls of email, texting, blogs, online newspapers and magazines, social media, and such? If so, do you have some tips and tricks you might be able to share?

AMY HALE AUKER:  I view my time as a pie chart. It is important to give of my creative energy consciously. However, my journey has also led me to consider all of the roles in my life as part of who I am as a creative being... author, cowboy, grandmother, gardner, cook, poet, performer, speaker. So, it has been fun to see how very creative I can be on my social media platforms, in particular Instagram. People point their cameras at things they love, so it is a glimpse at their hearts. That said, the most important thing I can do is to go to cow camp where I am unplugged and write in longhand on the unlined page. Or put a 38 pound pack on my back and walk off in the wilderness, solo except for the dog. And I do. When I am home, it takes discipline to turn it all off. But that is what we all should do, for more of the day rather than less.

C.M. MAYO: Another question apropos of the digital revolution. At what point, if any, were you working on paper? Was working on paper necessary for you, or problematic? 

AMY HALE AUKER:  I write three pages of longhand every single morning a la Julia Cameron. It is my discipline and my practice and it serves me well. Even if I don't get to write the rest of the day, I know I showed up at the page Even if it reads like a "to do" list, I know I was present to my creative fire. I wrote most of "The Story Is the Thing" in longhand on yellow legal pad because a character in the book wrote in the same manner. What startled me was the dramatic and interesting process of transfering my handwriting to the screen. There was a magic there that I have not forgotten and crave to duplicate. So I am grateful that there are so many tools available to us... from uniball pens on blank journal pages to speaking into our phones while we drive to Schrivener (which baffles me) to Word where I can hurry up and get it all down. There is a freedom in having multiple ways to approach art in any medium.

Women Writing the West

C. M. MAYO: Can you talk about how and why you joined Women Writing the West?

AMY HALE AUKER: I joined Women Writing the West because my publisher, Texas Tech University Press, told me to. It has been an honor to be part of that group of highly talented people.

[C.M.M. post-interview note: Women Writing the West is open to writers (both women and men) living in and/or writing about the West, in any genre. I've been a member for several years now, and highly recommend it.]

C. M. MAYO: What's next for you as a writer? 

AMY HALE AUKER: So many things.... I am working on both a very weird collection of short short pieces that are a mixed bag of fiction and nonfiction and meditations as well as what may very well end up being a new collection of essays. However, I don't believe artists should discuss what they are working on at the time in much detail. It is too easy to talk about our process rather than dig deep and stay in it.... all the way to completion... if there is such a thing.

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> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

Ms. Mayo: Fascinating interview with Amy Hale Auker. I have two of her essay collections: Ordinary Skin and Rightful Place. Her word choices are poetic; her thoughts on ranch life are inspiring. Thank you for asking inciteful questions—they are challenging but she is up to the task. Judith Grout

Thanks for your interview of Amy Hale Auker. I have read both her essays and her fiction and admire both, and heard her poetry at one of the WWW conferences (perhaps Tucson?). Your questions and her answers were thoughtful and interesting. I appreciated your delving into her thought processes and comments on poetry and essays. I loved both of your recommendations for books! 
Julie Weston