Dr. Heidi Staples is a new faculty member in the Department of English, here at Alabama. A native Southerner, hailing from the Gulf Coastal Plain, Staples completed her MFA at Syracuse University and returned to the South for her PhD at the University of Georgia. She is the author of novel Guess Can Gallop and co-founded the Poets for Living Waters Foundation in response to the BP gulf oil spill. Staples’ work has appeared in Best American Poetry, Chicago Review, Denver Quarterly, Ecotone, Ploughshares, and Women’s Studies Quarterly. Staples took time to answer some questions regarding her time here at UA, her experiences in Europe, and several of her projects.
How has your education shaped your experience as a teacher and writer?
My formal education has taught me how much I don’t know—about writing, language, history, ecology, world(s)—and that awareness has taught me to maintain a learner’s position as long as possible. The learner’s position requires you to allow others to challenge and change your own perspective. It’s a bit like studying yoga and mastering the headstand—it can require years of systematic training, yet children do it for fun.
What does the English major mean to you and why should students continue to pursue it?
The English major offers students practical communication skills and the development of their creativity through a focus on design, story, meaning-making, and play. It’s fun. What’s more, the major gives students sustained engagement with independent human cultures—which exists ouside the confines of market forces. The English major immerses students in stories and songs that do more than distract or amuse. Literature and art help human beings share and be positively transformed by the psychological and emotional intensities of existence.
What motivated you to start Poets for Living Waters?
I grew up on the then-undeveloped coast of the Florida Panhandle, and it’s a project close to my heart. An international poetry response to the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, Poets for Living Waters includes hundreds of poems and statements of ecopoetics by writers including Franz Wright, Anne Waldman, Alicia Ostriker, and many others. Poet Muriel Rukesyer has famously described poetry as extending the historical record, which is what I imagine this project does. It helps transform the immense quantification of the BP oil disaster—numbers of gallons, numbers of lives lost, numbers of species impacted—into a more qualitative record. The poems reckon with the disaster’s impact on ineffable experiences, such as the possibility for joy or the rising tide of grief in the face of metastasizing ecocide. This foundation also provides a process for grieving, which I like to believe will help us move into a sense of collective possibility and responsibility for ethical change. I’ve presented on the work at several conferences, and Poets and Writers interviewed my co-editor Amy King and me about the project. Currently, we’re working on a new project, Big Energy Poets of the Anthropocene: When Ecopoets Think Climate Change.
What would you want alumni to know about the Department of English?
From what I have seen so far, this English department demonstrates the relevance of the humanities to the contemporary moment and is widely known for its related innovations. Professor Robin Behn’s Creative Writing Club, the graduate-student spin-off Writers in the Schools, the Writing in the Prisons program, Dr. Sharon O’Dair’s innovative weaving of time spent on Dauphin Island, eco-theory, and Shakespeare all come to mind in this regard. At our best, we are developing our own and our student’s creative and visionary capacities and so becoming ever more meaningful influences in the world. That all sounds a bit lofty. I also believe it’s real.
Are you currently working on any projects?
I recently received both CARSCA and RGC grants to work on a project titled “Emplaced and Multiple: the Mobile Bay Watershed excursions for new poetic works.” I’ll be visiting a variety of state parks and sites in Alabama, including the Bartram Canoe Trail in the Mobile-Tensaw area–also known as America’s Amazon. Alabama is a home to some of the greatest biodiversity in North America, and I’m so grateful to the university for giving me the opportunity to immerse myself in this adventure.