Amatoritsero Ede: I was fortunate to hear you read from The Convict Lover at the Bancroft playhouse in 2005. Very moving story, and faction. I would like to take another detour to arrive at the literary. You are an avid gardener and write on the subject extensively. Is there a connection between literature and gardening for you; does one reflect the other in some way.
Merilyn Simonds: Yes, and it's not just me: Jamaica Kincaid, Germaine Greer, Vita Sackville-West, Elizabeth Smart, the Czech playwright Karel Capek, Colette, Thomas Hardy, Pliny. The list of gardening writers is as long as literature itself. Why gardening and not boxing? Or needlework? Or collecting ink bottles? It’s a matter, I think, of control. Wrangling plants or wrangling words: it’s all the same. What you’re really doing is playing god. You can tell yourself you’re trying to understand, to make sense of nature or human nature, but underneath it all lies the pressing need, the overwhelming desire to fashion a world. To create.
A.E.: In his celebrated poem, “To his Coy Mistress” – an ode and an appeal to a dithering lover – Andrew Marvel deploys the apt metaphor of a ‘vegetable’ to capture the rich and vast possibilities of love:
/ Love you ten years before the Flood;
/ And you should, if you please, refuse
/ Till the conversion of the Jews. /
My vegetable love should grow
/ Vaster than empires, and more slow.”
Is this not a case of life mimicking the gardening art; as that ‘vegetable’ metaphor suggest, isn’t there a life-affirming purpose to the garden?
M.S.: And death-affirming, don't you think? Especially at this November time of year? Yes, we will be born again and thrive, but we will also die. The horticultural certainty of that means that in the garden, one cannot avoid the shadows. In fact, one learns to delight in the shade.
A.E.: The whole idea of ‘growth’ is what the garden epitomizes. How would you say the earth, the plants, nourishes your literary art?
M.S.: Two quite opposite things happen to me in the garden. I stop thinking. There are weeds to pull, limbs to prune, bits to hack off and move, plants that would be more appropriate elsewhere. So much to do! And then, in the garden, doing all this, I start thinking. What makes this plant a weed? Why do I feel compelled to give this shrub this shape, why not give it some other, or let it be? How is it that this plant thrives in this particular place and no other? These ponderings follow me to my desk, where I weed out the infelicitous phrases, prune back my purple prose, cut out bits and move them elsewhere.
A.E.: And of course decline – as you discuss in your essay, “Life on the Edge”; does the death of a plant make you pensive, give you thoughts about life and its decline, ageing, regeneration and the need to capture or savour every beautiful moment generally –whether it be at the writing desk or in the garden?
M.S.: Only the beautiful moments? What about the desperate sad moments? The wild unruly moments? The truly rotten moments? If a garden teaches anything, it is that every moment contributes; we can’t get along without it all.
A.E.: You say in your essay which I refer to above that, unlike in the human organism, with certain plants it is the ‘heart’ that goes first before they die. Could you elaborate? What is this ‘heart’?
M.S.: With some plants, particularly spreading species like sedums, the energy goes to the fringe, which remains robust, while the centre flags. To resuscitate the plant, the gardener must cut out the heart, which is exhausted, and replant pieces from the edge, which have vibrant roots. Imagine planting a hand, or a toe, or an ear, and growing an excellent human being. It wouldn’t work so well. You see, we are not the model for all of nature. Though humans rather need their hearts, it is not always necessary or wise to preserve the heart of the matter. Think of art and philosophy: is it not most vibrant at the fringe?
A.E.: But is the death of man or plant, not itself the promise of life, of hope? Alexander Pope says in a different context: “Hope Springs eternal in the human breast.” I want to focus on the idea of ‘spring’, the season.
M.S.: Ah, spring! When the weeds grow faster than the plants, when the grasses are messing up the nice neat edges, when you worry that the bees will come too late or too soon, or there will be to little rain or too much, and in any case, you won’t ever catch up to all that eternal, overwhelming, promising growth. Spring is work, work, work. As is life, too, I suppose. Not so bad, in itself. But if Pope is looking for eternal hope, I would recommend a quick dig in the November garden, when the plants are frost-blackened, the leaves turned to slime, the stems clacking their death rattle. Turn up a forkful of soil and there you have it, hope on a tine: fat roots and bulbs already plump with spring, their points already sharpened to push up through the half-frozen March earth. Now that’s a promise.
A.E.: Does literature not contribute to that ‘human spring’ in its ability to record, preserve, document and celebrate, such that even when the writer passes on he or she is eternally present in the storehouse of their work – like Shakespeare?
M.S.: Perhaps it’s no accident that leaves are found both on plants and in books, too.
A.E.: Seamus Heaney’s 1990 New and Selected Poems (1966-1987) contains mostly pastoral poems about the rural life on a farm. One particularly comes to mind. It is titled “Digging”: “Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.” // “Under my window, a clean rasping sound / When the spade sinks into gravelly ground / My father, digging. I look down…” That is the poet-persona watching his father “digging.” I quote at some length because here is a son who is a writer and the father, a peasant; both at work in different ways. The writer is in the privacy of a writing studio, and takes a break to observe his father at work in the public space of a farmland, in nature. Does gardening provide for you that interaction and socialization with nature, which the alienation of the literary craft does not allow?
M.S.: Heaney, in that almost-palindrome “snug as a gun,” draws a distinction between the almost destructive force of writing and the clean rasping, the creative shaping of what his father is up to. For me, the interactions are oddly similar. I feel very at home in my imagined worlds; I mourn the end of my imaginary companions when a book is finished. It is as if the characters have moved away and neglected to leave a forwarding address. I enjoy a similar communion with my plants, welcoming them in the spring, feeling their loss at winter kill. Talking to plants, talking to figments of my imagination: is either the “real” world? One distinction worth making: at least in the garden I'm on my feet, and on my knees, digging real dirt and lifting real stones instead of the Sissyphian ones I roll around on my desk.
A.E.: Is gardening a form of break from the private ruminations and intensity of writing, such that one craft enriches the other or vice-versa?
M.S.: The body knows the difference, but the mind refuses distinction, runnel-ling on in the novel regardless of whether my fingers hold the pen or the spade, sometimes rearranging the plants – this is much more annoying! – when I am trying to figure out what a character might do next.
A.E.: Again, is it possible that gardening - cathartic as it might be - forms a continuum with writing, since both activities are, to degrees, conducted in quiet and relative isolation?
M.S.: Exactly. Though how quiet and isolated is it with all those people and plants chattering?
A.E.: The Poet persona in the above poem, obviously Heaney himself, says finally in that poem, “digging”: “Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests. /I will dig with it.” That final stanza is a definitive break from a family tradition of farming, with the younger generation moving into the private world of letters. In your own situation could one say that you ‘dig’ with the pen and with the spade alternately?
M.S.: I read the line differently: as the Poet admitting himself into the family tradition, albeit with a somewhat unlikely tool. We dig with whatever is at hand – sometimes just our hands. Even a sharp thought will do.
A.E.: Now, pardon me, but I feel I should ask this. Do you ever talk to your plants, and to what purpose? This might sound like a strange question, but please let me play the mystic and say that plants are living things too and do have their own languages.
M.S.: It’s Babel out there in the garden. Black spots on the leaves, runes on the stems: what are they saying? Get me out of this sun! I’m thirsty! Protect me from those damn thrips! Because they can’t move, plants have developed sophisticated means of making sure their needs are taken care of. I listen and learn. I don’t always do as I am told.
A.E.: There is a Nigerian writer, the poet, Niyi Osundare, who describes himself as “farmer-born; peasant bred.” His poetry is marked by the pastoral images similar in Seamus Heaney. Do you also have a family background of farming or of gardening? And does the pastoral as a trope seep into your creative as distinct from your botanical writings?
M.S.: I come from a small town in what is known as Alice Munro Country. Everyone had a garden, except my family. We ate of the bounty of others. But I had an aunt who, when she was old (about as old as I am now) hired me one summer to work in her garden. It was the summer I was thirteen, the summer the lord descended on me one Sunday, then promptly disappeared, the summer I discovered Thomas Hardy and Colette. I read and I sowed. I read and I reaped. I’m not sure how I understand pastoral as applied to myself. I suppose I am interested in the rural, as I am in interested in the Trumpeter Swan, and platform shoes, all of them quickly becoming extinct. But I have no desire to idealize, rather to see it clearly, to acknowledge its existence as it slips into history. My novel The Holding was the story of two gardeners living on the same piece of land, a hundred and thirty years apart, and in part, it was an exploration of how relationships between nature and human nature changed over that time. Is that pastoral? I suppose so.
A.E.: Finally, if we were to take the garden as metaphor, what flowers would you say describe your writing, genre by genre and why; for example The Convict lover would be a petunias or a perennial, or is it a fruit, a vegetable?
M.S.: The Convict Lover would be rosemary, for remembrance, or something humbler and more durable: a daisy growing out of a crack in a rock. The Lion in the Room Next Door would be blowsy, flagrant bougainvillea, tumbling over a riverbank, over a yellow-painted stucco wall. The Holding would be a thistle, a Scots thistle, standing tall in a field, glorious purple, not something to hold too close.
A.E.: Thank you very much for taking the time from your busy schedule.
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Green, ripe or shrunken
all on one branch. What is lowbush
law? A map, perhaps, that relates
past, present or future
with a kind of light
In the past month or so I have noted several references to Adichie’s ‘The Danger of a Single Story’. I have received e-mails from admirers of the Orange Prize for Women’s Writing winner Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie pointing me to a video of the Nigerian writer talking about her riveting ‘new’ idea.