Plein Air Poetry Q&A
By Ashley Bennett
What is “Plein Air Poetry”?
Jeanette Clough: The term comes from the practice of artists painting outdoors rather than from studio models, famous paintings or memory. The same principle can be applied to writing. Poets generally work indoors, and going to a visually strong location such as Joshua Tree can open another set of eyes and generate a fresh approach to one’s craft.
What makes Joshua Tree National Park (JTNP) special to you?
Jim Natal: I have traveled all over the West and Southwest and I think Joshua Tree is one of the magic places in the country. It has totally distinctive scenery and an ambiance all its own. The look and feel of the place inspire[s] wonderful poetry. Once immersed in the area, our workshop participants seem to slip into “poetry mode” very easily.
Who chose JTNP as the setting for Plein Air Poetry?
Clough: Joshua Tree wasn’t chosen as much as given. In 1999, Tim Terrell of Park Stewardship for the Arts arranged “Poetry in the Park” to be taught by a small group from L.A. known as the Hyperpoets, which included Jim and myself. Jim’s sister, Judy, a former Artist in Residence, was a direct conduit for learning about the park’s programming in the arts.
What inspired you to set up an all day, immersive class such as this?
Natal: Working out in nature provides the same experience for writers as it does for visual artists. What you’re writing about is right there in front of you, making description—as well as poetic images, leaps and links—more immediate. Good poetry is very sensory and there’s no better way to involve all your senses than to be using them at the same time you’re writing.
What do you hope that students will gain by exposing poets to the desert?
Clough: The park is exceptionally beautiful and inspiring, sometimes in unusual and unexpected ways. I hope the students will understand that place, any place, can be a vehicle to jump from their own thoughts and experiences into another realm and then splice it all together into an enriched poetic statement.
What led you to become award winning poets and furthermore, towards becoming instructors for this particular event?
Natal: Since I was in high school, poetry is the way I express myself and carry on my “dialogue” with the world. Specific to the Plein Air Poetry Workshop, my sister, Judy, is a photographer and she twice was an Artist-in-Residence in the Park. It was she who introduced me to the Park’s ongoing programs and support of the arts. I hiked in Joshua Tree regularly, so getting me to come out and teach poetry in this environment didn’t take much persuasion.
Clough: I’d write poems on scratch paper when I was 8, and then throw them away when the pad got too full. One day my mother was emptying the wastebaskets and rescued a batch. That’s when I realized writing poetry might be a good thing to do. I first visited Joshua Tree when I was 14, shortly after we moved from New Jersey to Southern California.When I learned about the park’s support of the arts, offering a writing workshop seemed natural.
Is there anything else you would like to tell us?
Natal: Over the 13 years we’ve been leading this workshop, Jeanette and I are surprised at how many people from Los Angeles have never been to Joshua Tree. Often, our workshop is their incentive to come and we’re thrilled to introduce them to the landscape and share the plein air writing experience with them here. One other note: Caryn Davidson, an Educational Park Ranger and the liaison for the Artist-in-Residence program, has been involved with the workshop for many years. Not only is she an exceptional ambassador for the Park, she’s a fine poet herself.
Clough: Every year I am amazed how the park becomes a medium for the release of incredible creative energy from the participants. I also cannot say enough about Caryn Davidson, a wonderful Ranger and poet who has led the workshop’s nature walk for many years.
Plein Air Poetry instruction meeting at the Joshua Tree Visitor Center, 6554 Park Blvd., Joshua Tree, (760) 366-1855; www.desertinstitute.homestead.com/classes/art/poetry.html. Sat, May 5. 8:30AM-4PM. $50 for JTNPA/PINE members. $60 for non-members.