Jacqui Tackett interviews Dr. Donelle Dreese about her prolific and varied body of work. Tackett and Dreese discuss Dreese’s work in Ecocriticism, activism, mixing genres, writing techniques, and other courses Dreese teaches at NKU.
JT: You’ve done a lot of work and research on Environmental Literature and even published a book on Ecocriticism. Tell us about that and why you feel so passionate about it.
DD: I love literature that pulls the background into the foreground and holds a mirror up to show us the interdependent relationship we have with the beauty and intelligence of nature. When I was a young girl, the rural hillsides of Pennsylvania were my refuge and playgrounds, and those experiences laid the foundation for a life-long passion for the environment and how profoundly we are influenced by place. Environmental Literature is also an important part of my activist work. Our planet has been facing difficult challenges for quite some time. I’m glad that these issues are becoming more present in our national and international political dialogues, but there is a lot of work to do. We all can participate in creating a healthier planet and a more sustainable future. We have a responsibility to each other and to future generations to do so, and I have great admiration for talented writers who are showing us how important our home is and that we need to conserve and protect it.
JT: You’re also going to be teaching a course titled “Literature and the Environment” soon. Tell us about that.
DD: Literature and the Environment examines current and historical attitudes toward our environment through literature and examines its role as a form of spiritual expression and environmental activism. It also explores themes of survival and how communities are strengthened or dissolved by the shared experience of environmental crisis. The class focuses on literature that foregrounds wilderness areas, wastelands, farms, forests, urban spaces, the sea, mountains, small towns, reservations, borderlands, and other locations and landscapes that impact human consciousness. It’s important for me to mention that environmental justice themes are present in most of my classes, including Multicultural American Literature, Literature & Film, and American Women Poets. The relationships between race, class, gender, and the environment form the foundation for my pedagogical research. Women, people of color, and people who are poor often suffer disproportionately from environmental hazards, and there is a large body of literature that portrays these experiences.
JT: Looking over your list of publications, it ranges from poetry, fiction, articles on literature, environmental literature, and Ecocriticism. Since you have published in so many different genres and formats, what advice would you give to students juggling multiple genres as well?
DD: This is a great question. Initially, I think it is quite useful to experiment with different genres. Each genre has its own set of tools and conventions that are worth participating in and exploring for any writer, if for no other reason than to get a sense of one’s own voice and abilities. Ultimately though, it will depend on your goals. I love a challenge, so writing in different genres allows me to push my limits. But I don’t always feel as if the decision is mine. It is the idea and voice that chooses the genre. I follow the muse, if you will. Think also about how different genres can enhance and inform one another. Being a poet might help you write lyrical novels, or being a storyteller might help you write narrative poetry. Or, you might enjoy swimming the boundary waters between poetry and prose. Having considerable experience with critical research and analysis will help you polish your work and give you the investigative tools to write about any topic. On the down side, if you are trying to build an audience and a certain identity as a writer, it might be a good idea to stick to one genre. You may not be able to excel as much as you like in any one genre if you are switching among several.
JT: If you had to pick a favorite genre to write in, what would it be and why?
DD: It is too hard for me to choose. I love all forms of writing, but I have been focusing primarily on poetry and fiction in recent years. My novels usually start with an idea and a character longing to be heard. I enjoy the experience of embarking on a journey in a world where I have freedom to roam. For poetry, I love the immediacy of writing poems and playing with language. The world is radiating with meaning and presence and there are poems everywhere and in everything. My writing is almost always a careful braiding of artistry and activism. Everything I write is in some way a love letter to the world. And although I am not currently writing articles, the intellectual process of writing literary criticism is deeply imbedded in my creative work. I am passionate about research. I love gathering information, processing it, and deciding how I want to present it in a new way.
JT: What advice would you give to students who hope to get published?
DD: Read! Read all kinds of novels, poetry, nonfiction, and articles. Seek insightful feedback on your work. Revise carefully. Be patient–try not to send your work to publishers before it is ready. Put it away for a while. Let it simmer. Come back to it later with fresh eyes. Research publication venues. Follow submission guidelines. Don’t be discouraged by rejection–your happiness in life is not in the hands of an editor. Treasure your fellow writer friends who care about your art and your well-being. Be persistent. Try not to become too preoccupied with publishing. Go for long walks in the woods. Meditate. Learn a new skill that creates new connections in your brain. Enjoy your life. Be brave.