A Conversation with Diane Ackerman

When the man behind the concierge desk calls out my name, I look up to see a phone receiver being waved in my direction.

“Kathleen, it’s Diane. I’ll be there, but I’m a little distance away. Could I trouble you to wait for another 10 minutes or so?”

The voice on the phone is louder and fuller than a whisper, but with the same throaty earnestness about it. It’s a voice that fits remarkably well with the type of poetry and prose Diane Ackerman writes: clear, confident, precise. Its tone is, at the same time, intimate and authoritative. Her S’s are sharp, her vowels deep, and the interrogative lift of “Could I trouble you” is poised so politely that I could forget the word “No.”

Of course I will wait. Fifteen minutes later, we meet in the lobby and she suggests that we talk in an empty lounge nearby.

Ackerman is dressed casually in matching turquoise pants and shirt, pink socks and white tennis shoes. She is on the small side; lean and shorter than average, but not short. She looks younger than her 46 years. As we settle ourselves, she discusses her work on the upcoming PBS series based on her best-selling book, “A Natural History of the Senses.” The series will consist of five parts, one for the physiological and cultural exploration of each sense. Ackerman has been involved in every step of the project, from fundraising to writing the treatment to narrating the script. This afternoon, she plans to fly to California and continue work on the series.

Almost as soon as the tape recorder is placed on the glass table between us, she picks it up and holds it like a microphone-“I’ll just keep this here for you, I think it’ll make your life a little easier,” she offers-and there it remains, below her moderately lined eyelids, below her wide, bright mouth.

We begin with a sort of verbal time line: starting with her childhood in Waukegan, Illinois, and Allentown, Pennsylvania, then on to her year at Boston University, in the late ’60s. She tells of her transfer to Pennsylvania State University where a computer error declared her major to be English and she accepted the mistake as fate. We move through the degrees from Cornell University; MFA, MA, PhD, rattled off as they were achieved, in rapid succession. From there, she taught at the University of Pittsburgh, Washington University, New York University, Cornell and Columbia.

When we arrive in the present, I ask if she hears much from her readers and she does, a great deal. Particularly in response to “A Natural History of the Senses” and “The Moon by Whale Light,” readers have written to share their experiences with the woman who seems so willing to give of her own.

Ackerman’s voice lifts a bit, as in a grateful flutter, when telling of one woman who wrote to say “that if I ever wondered whom I was writing my nature essays for, it was for her, and that she was in my pocket whenever I was traveling. I can’t tell you how much that thought touches me.”

Part of her gratitude may stem from the shame she felt about her writing as a young girl, when neither her creativity nor her expression of it were encouraged. In the introduction to “The Moon by Whale Light,” Ackerman recalls crossing rooms without touching the floor, by hopping from banister to doorknob (to see if it could be done). She worried neighbors by talking to herself, she was reprimanded for coloring trees that weren’t green, she proposed experiments to determine whether people could fly, she imagined that the dark fruits in a nearby plum orchard were really bats.

“I was ashamed because I had a secret world. Children are the biggest conformists: They don’t want to be different, they want to be like their chums.”

Her recourse was to continue writing on her own, somewhat secretly. It was not until she met her partner, novelist Paul West, that encouragement came. Ackerman studied English literature at Penn State under West who tutored her informally in prose writing for nearly 10 years.

When Ackerman began to publish her work in graduate school and get some response to it, she was stunned. “It was amazing to me that people would actually praise me for and enjoy what I was most ashamed of for so many years of my life. It made me part of a community spread out in time and in country: a community of writers, some of whom were dead-some of whom I felt closest to were dead.” Such feelings of kinship extended to John Donne, Colette, Lucretius, Boethius, Virginia Woolf, Rilke and Proust.

At this point, something jars me and I remind myself out loud that I should be taking notes. I have been so soothed by Ackerman’s voice, so caught up in the careful way she selects each word, that I need to remember to write things down. That her voluminous hair, as curly and long as it is black, is held back on both sides by gold barrettes. That her eyes are dark and the corners of her lips lift slightly, drawing her mouth toward a constant smile. That below her throat there is a butterfly pendant with green and blue wings, held by a thin, gold chain.

I saw Ackerman for the first time at a reading she gave some months ago in Pittsburgh. Behind the lectern on a sparse stage, Ackerman read from her journal about her education, from a piece about the capabilities of poetry and from an excerpt of “The Moon by Whale Light” in which she recalls watching a mother whale with her baby, off the coast of Patagonia. Then, an excerpt from her latest book, “A Natural History of Love,” about the feelings people hold for their pets. She finished with a cluster of poems.

Her delivery remained distinct, deliberate and animated as she deftly moved between genres, the narrative blending with the lyrical and resulting in an evening that would please the fans of her poetry as much as those of her prose. During moments of dialogue, her eyebrows would lift when she smiled and the audience laughed on cue. Ackerman’s language, coupled with her voice and gestures, allowed her to create a distinct intimacy in a room filled with nearly 500 people.

After the reading, in response to a question from the eager audience, Ackerman shared the fantasy she has clung to since youth in which she alone would be a dozen or more people living different lives, all at one time. And while “Twilight of the Tenderfoot” afforded time on a New Mexican ranch, “On Extended Wings” showed the author as a pilot and “The Moon by Whale Light” took her into caves, swamps and icy waters, these experiences are separate and temporal. The impossibility that makes hers a fantasy is that the dozen lives feed back simultaneously into one sensibility-Ackerman wants to feel them all, at the same moment. She’d like to be a construction worker. She’d like the wealth of a lifetime on a ranch. The diverse and prolific body of her work suggests a woman intent on getting as close to such a sensory montage as she can.

Since her first book of poetry, “The Planets: A Cosmic Pastoral” was published in 1976, Ackerman’s readers have acquired a taste for her style and interests, through poems that consider planets, comets, rockets, and the map of constellations. Her second collection of poetry, “Wife of Light,” shows the writer’s “miscellaneous muse” by touching on such subjects as aliens, St. Augustine, George Sand and the Atlantic moonfish. Her first work of nonfiction, the western memoir, tracks her own initiation into cattle ranching and the cowboy lifestyle and was followed by a third volume of poetry, “Lady Faustus.” Following her second memoir, “On Extended Wings,” this time about flying, and a play, “Reverse Thunder,” came an expansive flurry of work. “A Natural History of the Senses,” “Jaguar of Sweet Laughter” and “The Moon by Whale Light” came on the heels of one another and were written in tandem, over a period of nearly four years.

If a poem, as Ackerman has said, “knows about illusion and magic, how to glorify what is not glorious, how to bankrupt what is,” her prose is equally cognizant. And so the prosody and imagery of Ackerman’s poetry seem to bleed into and feed from the immersion and precision of her nonfiction. The result is a hybrid of sorts that combines the sensual with the scientific, the lyrical with the cerebral, and finds that one informs the other.

The reviews are favorable, for the most part, to Ackerman’s “valuable” projects and to her diligence as a writer who “leaves no stone (or adjective) unturned in her search for material.” Her poetry has been praised for its rich imagery, exploratory nature, and its broad range in voice and mood-as has her prose for the author’s willingness to have “endured the various discomforts gamely, asked some good questions, hungered after improbable experiences on behalf of her readers and herself, and absorbed an incredible quantity of sensory detail.” Still, sometimes those compliments run in the same reviews that question her “structural finesse,” find her “not obtrusive,” and suggest that “A poet ought to be more careful.”

While Ackerman is encouraged that “99 percent of the reviews are very positive,” she tries not to pay attention to either of the extremes. “There are always a few reviewers with special biases, who are envious or competitive, or philosophically opposed to your book. And there are those who just don’t like you and review you, not your book.” Such responses are “nasty, but unavoidable” and Ackerman tries to move beyond the whole lot and return to her writing.

Ackerman’s work is the frequent subject of reviews. Her work, particularly her prose, is reviewed in a broad spectrum of publications, from the National Catholic Reporter to Vogue to New Statesmen & Society. If some charge that Ackerman may be “a bit too proprietary, too much of a hostess” who finds “too many things ravishing,” others assert that it is “a pleasure to journey in her company.” PBS seems to agree, as does People Weekly, which ran a three-page profile on the writer in 1991 subtitled, “Writer Diane Ackerman once groped a gator for art’s sake.” Above the article’s headline, there is a photo of Ackerman lying on her side, propped up on one elbow, with her spare hand stroking the neck of a penguin standing inches away.

Perhaps it’s the range and scope of Ackerman’s subjects that inspire so many venues. Perhaps it is Ackerman herself, who maintains a strong presence in her work. In “A Natural History of the Senses,” she offers many of her own habits, preferences and perceptions to anchor the abstract and scientific overview. Discussing the symbolism of hair, Ackerman includes the story of teasing her hair in the ’50s, to which her father commented, “‘Teased? You’ve driven it insane.'” Explaining the pharmacology of chocolate, the writer confesses to her own urge to fly to a Parisian restaurant where the cocoa has a chocolate bar melted in each cup. Speaking of how hard it is to describe a smell, Ackerman takes her own stab at it, offering that violets smell something like burnt sugar cubes dipped in lemon.

The reader learns that Ackerman begins most days by picking a bouquet from her garden; that when she visited Istanbul, the mosques seemed to carve up the sky; and, among other things, what it felt like when her legs were waxed. In “Twilight of the Tenderfoot,” the reader meets Ackerman on the front cover, sitting on a horse, in a yellow shirt, jeans, purple chaps and a cowboy hat crowning her long mane of hair. She holds the reins firmly in her hands. She is distinctively within her work-as a journalist, poet, sensory cartographer. Her vantage point is the filter through which the reader sees. As one reviewer wrote, Ackerman harbors “a willingness to use herself as a medium.”

Because Ackerman weaves so much of her daily life into her studies of the sensory and natural worlds, I wonder whether she is always thinking like a writer, if the process of mining from personal experience and memory for her art ever slows or stops.

“I don’t ever worry about ‘thinking like a writer,'” she answers quickly. “If you were to ask me do I think like a poet, then the answer is yes.

“What I mean is that even though I write an enormous amount of prose, much more prose than I do poetry, the source of my creativity is in poetry. I think that when you read the prose of Rilke, you can tell that a poet wrote it. And probably when you read my prose, you can tell that a poet wrote it because my concerns are a poet’s concerns. Even though there are a lot of wonderful novelists concerned with the human condition, that’s something that has seduced poets, especially.

“When I write prose, I don’t fret about the prose rhythm of the whole chapter. I don’t think in large structures like that, although I know fiction writers who do. I understand the general architecture of the book-I outline the book so I do know what I’m going to be writing. But, I write it tiny piece by tiny piece and worry about how each word will fit. I think that my structures are smaller.”

“Do you see things that poetry can let you do that prose can’t, or vice versa?” I ask, “or are the two so closely connected for you that . . .”

“Actually, I’m going to back up a second to the last question,” she tells me with a laugh. I laugh, too, though feeling a bit sheepish for having interrupted. I tell myself to pay closer attention to her pace, to the deep breaths she takes that signal more explanation to come.

After fully explaining that she has a poet’s attitude when writing, as well as “a naturalist’s affectionate curiosity,” she moves us forward by rephrasing my question when she is ready for it.

“Okay, so now the next question: Are there things that can be done in prose writing that can’t be done in poetry?” she asks herself. “Well, in some cases,” Ackerman begins, “I don’t have to choose.

“The senses book includes a lot of embedded poems. For one reason or another, they didn’t work for me as poems, but I realized that they were extremely relevant to what I was writing about in prose and I just set them out as prose and extrapolated a little bit and worked with them, finessed them. I did the same thing in “The Moon by Whale Light.” So, the edge of poetry, the perimeter of poetry and prose is blurred in my mind.

“And there are different kinds of prose that I write for different circumstances,” she continues. “These days, few glossy magazines print poetry or even poetic prose. So, when I am commissioned to write a magazine essay, I know what is required of me. I also don’t want to betray myself as a literary writer, so I try to work out a balance-something that will fulfill me creatively and also satisfy the restrictions of whatever magazine I’m working for.”

The first rule Ackerman uses to resolve that criterion is to accept only commissions that overlap with the particular book she is working on. The second is to remind herself that however her essays appear in a magazine, she can do what she wants with them when they appear in a book. That [final] version, she hopes, will endure.

For “The Moon by Whale Light,” a book of four essays originally published in The New Yorker, Ackerman sailed around Antarctica to study penguins, sat on top of an alligator and swam within arm’s length of a whale. When these chapters first appeared in the magazine, “it made sense in that context to write them in the first person present,” she explains, “so that the reader was with me in the field and didn’t know what was going to happen around the next paragraph, or indeed, even if the writer would live or die. That’s the advantage of writing in the first person present. But, when it came to putting pieces together in a book, well these were all things that had happened to me. They needed a certain kind of distancing; it made sense for many reasons to put them into the past tense.”

While we’re on the subject of narrative choices, I ask Ackerman how she decides to let herself enter a scene or share a memory.

“Readers tell me that my books are very intimate and that they feel they know me from reading my books. I love hearing that. I want to have a personal connection with them, but I also know that it’s a controlled intimacy,” she laughs. “I only put in what I want to risk putting in. All writers reveal and conceal a lot of themselves in their books. Very often, I meet writers whose work I admire and discover that they are only too human. In some cases, tragically malicious and awkward people. They’re just normal people. The writing, the art, was the best that they could rise to in very privileged moments. I’m sure that’s true for me also.”

She stops talking and it’s hard to tell if she’s waiting for a question or pacing her own answer. “Hmm, what did you ask me?” She laughs and without skipping a beat, prompts herself, “Oh, yes, how do I decide when to include myself? I don’t really have a simple answer for that. The general and the particular fascinate me and I suppose I try to vary the pressure between them when I’m writing. So, probably, when I’m talking in some abstract way for a while and seem not at all to be involved, I like to change pace a little bit by including something very personal that seems to exemplify what I’m talking about.”

It is in those personal moments of her work that a feeling of familiarity evolves and Diane Ackerman’s fans feel that they know her. The impressions and detailed memories the author drops along her journey through the senses, for example, are perhaps more consequential in their abundance than in their intimacy.

Along with her pursuit of “improbable experiences” and unusual travels, her prose magnifies so much of life’s domestic sensibility that sooner or later there comes a connection between what one en-counters privately and what Ackerman poeticizes publicly. If you’ve ever taken a scented bath, smelled smoke, or heard Muzak, her prose profits from your experience. Yes, a reader might think, that very thing has happened to me, but I never knew it told such a rich story.

“Actually, I never think of an audience when I’m writing. I just try to write about what fascinates me and to contemplate what disturbs me or provokes me in some way, or amazes me. I suppose if I have a philosophy on this it’s that if you set out to nourish your own curiosity and your own intellectual yearnings and use yourself as an object of investigation, then, without meaning to, you will probably be touching the lives of a lot of people.”

For Ackerman, the writing process begins in her study-a lavender room complete with jungle-printed curtains framing the room’s view of her back yard and woods. “What I usually do is walk down the hall, open the door to my study, invent my confidence, close the door and work from about 9 to 12 in the morning.” After a few errands or a long lunch with friends, she returns to her study for another two or three hours in the afternoon. More important than what she does at her desk seems to be the habitual act of sitting there. “I’ve found that if I don’t do that, on the three or four days of the week when I’m actually inspired, I won’t be in the right routine for it.”

Although she travels a lot and spends a few days each month in New York City, she finds the rhythm of more metropolitan areas “jarring.” At her home, she can resume her welcome habits as a naturalist. Ackerman enjoys living in a place where she knows almost everyone by name or face. A place where a herd of deer and a family of raccoons come into her back yard, along with a clan of squirrels, whom she knows one by one. A place where the constellations are in the sky, as she puts it, rather than on the ground.

“I really want both worlds,” she admits. “I want the world of humans and the world of nature. Although, actually, I shouldn’t have said it like that. I want the world of humans and the world of other animals, because I consider metropolises nature, too.”

After traveling, she returns home and begins the large task of narrowing her wide experiential lens into language. Her topics-the animal world, the sensory world and her most recent topic, love-are virtually inexhaustible. I ask her how she begins to gather the broad array of experience and research into the writing of one cohesive book.

Each book begins with Ackerman becoming “willingly obsessed” with her subject. If, for example, she writes about a rare bird, she would need a lot of time to spend reading, looking at photographs, listening to recordings in a bio-acoustics lab. “I try to learn everything that can be learned, which takes a long time, but then I don’t have to waste time with simple questions in the field. I can ask more subtle ones.”

Ackerman has found the experts she has worked with inviting and eager to share their passion and knowledge. “I choose people who are going to be that way, not adversarial people. I have much contact with them by phone and letter before I go. I try to find a staff of people who are committed to learning more.”

When working in the field, she writes down sensations that allow her to recreate a particular experience when she comes home. The narrative, she feels, can come later. The dialogue can be done through interviews. But the expression of an alligator, the color and light of an iceberg, the resonance of a singular sound-these are the details Ackerman records in small, yellow spiral-bound notebooks. From these, she can review her surroundings in the Amazon, the Antarctic, or on a remote Japanese island as though her time there was preserved on film, stopped and replayed at will.

“And I’ve been doing it long enough that I know now how many of those little notebooks have to be filled to produce however many pages of prose.” Still, the contents of one notebook have a habit of spilling into another.

“I once had three cats that all got pregnant at the same time and they all gave birth at the same time, within a day of each other,” she says, seemingly out of nowhere. “And I thought it was very funny that they kept stealing each other’s kittens. They would get confused about whose kitten was whose. My prose projects and my poetry projects steal each other’s kittens all the time.”

As glimpses of the private Ackerman are carefully revealed through the public narrator, so is the poet through her prose and one form becomes affected by the priorities of the other. During her reading a few months ago, she mused about the similarities between the genres that keep her working in both.

“A poem is so small a canvas on which to work, so compressed a form, that you’re somehow reduced to taking contingency samples. You have to somehow capture the gesture or mood and that puts an enormous amount of pressure on every word, every space, every half-rhyme that you use. I love that. I would much rather do that than anything else in my life. Then, all of a sudden, I’ll wake up one morning and I’ll realize that there’s something that I need to do that requires more elbow room and suddenly, I find myself working in prose. I don’t think the goals are any different, and very often, the language isn’t any different.”

Although Ackerman doesn’t get much of a chance to do what she calls “sport reading,” there is a lot of reading to do before the writing begins.

“I always choose to write books that thrill me, about subjects that captivate me so deliciously, that the background reading I’m going to do is wonderful. It’s fun, it’s never a chore. So when you ask me-What do I read?-well, I have 10 or 12 books going at the same time. Bookmarks are an important part of my life.”

Before that last word has fully departed from her throat, the first side of the tape runs out and the recorder clicks off. She hands it back to me, and checks the time.

“I’ve got to go,” she prompts kindly, yet clearly. “So, if you have one last question . . .”

I ask her about the novelist Paul West, who has been upstairs in the hotel while we’ve been talking. I wonder how living with another writer affects her own writing.

“Our engagement with the world is different. But he certainly taught me an enormous amount about prose. There’s no doubt about that. Is it easy to live with a writer?” she asks. “No, it’s difficult. It’s difficult for any two people who are in the same field, regardless of what it is, because there are times in the life of one writer when things are going rough and they’re going great for the other person, and vice versa. We have different editors, we have different agents, and we are working in different genres. That,” she says, “helps a lot.”

She asks me how my own work has been going and I see kindness in this gesture-now that we’re done with the formality of an interview, she invites me into a brief conversation between writers.

And I answer, glad for the chance to tell her that I, too, went to Penn State and headed for an MFA program in poetry straight from college. And like her, I used to consider prose “an unknown and frightening terrain.” When I come to this last point in common, she asks me to turn the tape recorder back on.

Ackerman’s ease with the artifice of an interview, with the broad questions hoping for definitive answers, convinces me. She has unfolded elaborate explanations at her own unhurried pace; explicated those that seemed, by her own standards, unclear, and concluded others when they met her needs. She is constantly and completely conscious of what she is doing. So, when she asks for the tape recorder, replaces it even closer to her mouth and begins talking about how hard it is for poets to live on poetry alone, I can feel her gently directing the ending of the interview. As an experienced writer and subject should, she knows that what will follow may be important for me.

About the Author

Kathleen Veslany

Kathleen Veslany’s work has appeared in Sycamore Review and you are here, among other journals. In 1999 she won second prize in the Annie Dillard Essay Awards. She currently lives in Tucson with her husband, David, and works at the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy as an editor.

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