Interview with Wendy Burk on Tree Talks: Southern Arizona — December 5, 2016

Wendy Burk is the author of Tree Talks: Southern Arizona, from Delete Press, which was named to Entropy’s list of the best poetry books of 2016. She is also the translator of Tedi López Mills’s Against the Current, from Phoneme Media, and While Light Is Built, from Kore Press. Wendy is the recipient of a 2013 National Endowment for the Arts Translation Projects Fellowship and a 2015 Artist Research and Development Grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts. Wendy guest edits the Collaborative Curation series for Spiral Orb; watch for the next issue in the series in May 2017. 

Christopher Nelson: For those unfamiliar with Tree Talks, can you explain the project? 

Wendy Burk: The tree talks are interviews with trees growing in Southern Arizona, where I also live. Southern Arizona is varied and diverse, so I started by thinking about ecological communities here, like the Arizona Upland, Chihuahuan Desert scrub, ponderosa pine forest, and riparian communities. I researched tree species in the different communities, writing notes and questions in my spiral notebook. Then, I took my notebook and pencil into the field and interviewed eight individual trees. I asked my questions out loud and transcribed the motions I saw the tree make, the sound of the wind in its leaves, and the sounds and motions of other species, like birds and insects, as well as other presences, like cars and airplanes. So in one sense the tree talks appear on the page like visual representations of soundscapes, moving vertically through time and horizontally through space. In another sense they are like conversations at cross-purposes or maybe even interrogations, raising questions about the ethics and assumptions of questions themselves. 

Nelson: Does Tree Talks imply that there is a folly—or at least a limitation—to understanding the world in human terms?  

Burk: Yes… that human knowledge is conditioned by limitations and subjectivities. It’s not passive, bedrock, neutral. Why is it the center? What are humans unable to know? What do we think about the commonly held notion of knowledge as a tool, as a weapon? My intention is not to discount human knowledge, but rather to site it within a wider field of significance or awareness.

Nelson: In asking questions of a tree, you have (arguably) asked questions of something that can’t understand them—or perhaps a tree can understand them, but we can’t understand its answers. In any case, are these interviews an attempt to de-weaponize language? 

Burk: I’d say no, that I see them more as records of how communication fails, even when we would very much like it to succeed. This preposterousness of asking questions of the world, of each other… What makes an interview like the one we are having right now succeed is that there is mutual respect, mutual trust between you and me. Still, I feel it’s strange that there are certain interrogatory channels through which people are expected to express curiosity. Even the words “inquisitive” and “interrogatory” remind us of “inquisition” and “interrogation.” What about curiosity based on receiving rather than seeking? I am reminded of a good friend who tells me, “Learn to listen, listen to learn.” 

With that said, I’m a gentle-natured person, and if the questions posed in Tree Talks: Southern Arizona strike readers as gentle or disarmed in some way, I appreciate that interpretation.

Nelson: One of the delights of your book is that it defies categorization. It seems reductive to say that these are interviews merely, but to call them poems would raise some people's eyebrows. Did your intentions for the project necessitate thinking outside of the expected parameters of form? 

Burk: To me they are poetry. My first and most important poetry mentor is Olga Broumas, one of several college professors who were role models for me. Olga gives her students an inclusive understanding of poetry as a practice. In her creative writing workshops, Olga would ask the class to hold hands and do a collective vocal improvisation. We would be asked to go outside, find something on the ground, and include it in a poem. Or, we might be asked to read our poems out loud to the class backwards, starting with the last line and ending with the first. I accepted these practices as poetry and became comfortable with them. I like how you said that Tree Talks defies categorization—thank you. Maybe for some readers my book could contribute to an experience like the ones I had as a student in Olga’s classes. 

Nelson: You are an accomplished translator, yet you have said that these poems are transcriptions, not translations. Will you explain why that distinction is important?

Burk: I translate Spanish-language texts into English, and the more I translate, the more I wonder about the act of putting words into another person’s mouth. Again, I don’t discount the work; I just wonder about it as I do it. Without being a translation theorist, I believe that translation is a site of power and dominance, repression and resistance; and what isn’t? In the case of trees and other non-human beings, I could perceive the movements I see and the sounds I hear, and I could render these as transcriptions… even to go that far raised ethical questions for me. And I couldn’t go further. 

Nelson: What were some of the ethical question that were raised?  

Burk: What harm am I doing to the world by virtue of existing as I do? What harm am I doing to other people, and other beings, through the assumptions and biases that are carried in my speech and judgments? 

Joy Harjo’s “humans aren’t the only makers of poetry,” from A Map to the Next World, is influential to me. The first lines of the poem are, “The young banana tree is making poetry; I see how it translates the wind. The need to make songs is inherent in all life,” and the last line is, “We aren’t the only creatures, or the most likely to succeed.” As a non-Indigenous person living in the U.S., I can’t lay claim to the certainty with which Harjo invokes the poetry of trees; for me to do so would be immoral and deeply obnoxious. At the same time, I do feel the responsibility to try to improve myself, to not waste time replicating destructive patterns of anthropocentric, racist, sexist, transphobic, heterosexist, imperialist behavior and speech. 

So I can sit under a tree, ask questions, feel peaceful, listen to the wind, make transcriptions—but I also have to ask how this practice impinges on Indigenous practices of connection to land, and borders on the ways in which Indigenous knowledge is violently appropriated by White dominant culture, historically and currently. And this is just one example of relationship that Tree Talks brings up. It makes me glad that it is all about relationship. Perhaps from Tree Talks I have learned something about relationship that I can apply to my daily life. 

Nelson: In July you gave an evocative talk at the University of Arizona Poetry Center. You alluded to Arizona’s racist bill (SB 1070) that mandates, among other things, that law enforcers check people’s immigration status. Would you explain the correlation between that cultural reality and your project?  

Burk: SB 1070 was signed into law in Arizona in April 2010, about five months after I began work on the tree talks. As you mentioned, among other things, it mandates that law enforcement officers must make a reasonable attempt to determine a person’s immigration status, during a lawful stop or arrest, if there is a reasonable suspicion that the person is in the country illegally. Because of this, many people have referred to SB 1070 as the “show me your papers” law. To me it was shocking. It was the strictest law of its kind in the United States at the time it was passed, and a number of lawsuits challenging the law were ongoing during the years I worked on the tree talks. And so, knowledge of SB 1070 haunted the project, as I feel it haunted daily life in the borderlands. I’m curious if you read any traces of that haunting in the tree talks? 

Nelson: The tone of your questions or requests in Tree Talks contrasts the tone of such a law; for example, when you say, “Tell me about your experience …,” implicit is the inherent validity and importance of another being’s existence. I feel a through-line of compassion in these conversations; you ask, “What would make this a better place for you?,” and you thank the blue palo verde for its shade. But I do sense that the conversations were had in a cultural context that has foregrounded certain fears and suspicions: You ask the one-seed juniper, “Do borders have a meaning for you?” Thinking symbolically about SB 1070 and the several copycat bills that have followed, I can read much into your questions for the ponderosa pine: “What is it like to be in a fire? What is it like to withstand a fire?” These are questions that I hope become less not more relevant in 21st-century United States. Fear always has us imagine more flames.  

Burk: I appreciate your reminding me of the gentleness of some of the questions. What I find myself remembering after the fact is how intrusive they seemed to be. You’re pointing out that asking questions can be a way of showing respect. One of the questions I asked the Goodding willow in Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve is, “You are known as a tree of refuge. What do you shelter?” That question also feels related to SB 1070, because of the idea of sanctuary, and it could also be read as a gentle question, in some ways. Very large fires are one of the consequences of climate change in the Western U.S., so in a literal sense, questions about fire are likely to remain relevant. I like your use of fire as an analog of fear, though—because fear is ineffable, yet is able to spread widely and overpower...? Fire can regenerate landscapes. I don’t think fear can regenerate anything. But there is a value in standing up to fear, and humans can do this in an active sense. 

Nelson: One of my favorite stories from childhood is Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax, in which the title character says repeatedly, in a time of capitalist greed and environmental catastrophe, “I speak for the trees.” I appreciate your work, Wendy, as an acknowledgment of the vital importance of the flora and, more broadly, as a critique of human self-importance. Regarding our having ushered in the Anthropocene—and the ominous implications of that fact—of what are you optimistic, and where do you direct your hopes?  

Burk: Every morning feels like a new opportunity to be optimistic. It just seems to be related to the experience of waking up and living another day. Maybe Tucson's weather plays a role in that experience for me. When I wake up, the sun is usually shining, and if it’s not, the overcast sky is calm and different and beautiful. I’m also not attracted by apocalyptic thinking. Let’s keep at it. We don’t have to bow down to hatred and willful ignorance. 

Nelson: I’m fascinated by your typographical innovations in these interviews. You’ve used various font sizes, symbols, special characters, punctuation, and (sometimes) words to convey the aural reality at the time of the conversations. Will you tell us about those challenges and decisions?  

Burk: Using my notebook to transcribe the tree talks helped a lot. I tried to note things down quickly, as I heard or saw them. In many ways the pages of the notebook look like gestural drawings, although I did use conventional marks like commas and exclamation points. As I did more tree talks, I tried to learn from and reuse the marks that I used in previous transcriptions. Transferring the tree talks to a computer was tedious. On the other hand, I didn’t have to revise! 

The words that sometimes appear in the tree talks are words I overheard from people nearby who were engaged in conversations or using their cell phones. They are usually fragments because I didn’t overhear everything. That gives you an idea of how much I missed in other parts of the transcriptions. The aural and visual field was very broad, and I perceived a lot more than I could write down in my notebook. 

Nelson: During these interviews, was there a tree that you felt a particular affinity for?  

Burk: Well, some of the trees are ones that I see every day, or every week. The ficus tree lives in my house, the blue palo verde is outside of my workplace, and the eucalyptus is in a city park that I walk to from my house. And all of the eight trees are ones that I can visit regularly; the most distant, the one-seed juniper, is 150 miles from my home in Tucson. I find myself thinking about the trees in the way that I think about people I haven’t seen for a while. I wonder how they are faring and what I’ll find the next time I visit them. 

A friend of mine told me that after reading Tree Talks, she found herself listening more to the sounds of trees on her daily walks. I was moved and gratified by her response. For myself, when I go for walks and hikes now, I find myself more likely to reach up and touch a branch, needles, or leaves as I am walking by. Gently! No tugging.