[King]Solver to Our Problems  

by Kim Bartenfelder

Barbara Kingsolver/ Photo by David Wood

Barbara Kingsolver/ Photo by David Wood

Fifty years, before the advent of the twenty-four hour news cycle and social media, before we had anything remotely reminiscent of modern media, we had books. Literature was the most direct way to inform the public and draw attention to the environmental concerns of our time. But as modern media has continued to grow and morph into a behemoth of instant gratification, it’s really contemporary writers like Barbara Kingsolver, who have worked to shift the focus back to the details. 

Whether in-person or in her writing, Kingsolver uses her mastery of her own understanding of the world around her—specifically her home of Appalachia—to inform the public about what she sees as the pressing environmental concerns of our time. Kingsolver’s writing recalls one of the pivotal moments for the environment and literature: the publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” in 1962, which helped launch an environmental movement around pesticide use and allowed the public a deeper glimpse at the environmental stakes associated with the use of DDT, setting the tone for literature to function as an informed advocate for the public. 

Like Carson, Kingsolver’s admiration for the natural world is ever-present in her writing, from the imagery of Appalachia’s bountiful forests to the unforgiving mountainous terrain, to utilizing details about animal and plant diversity to create balance between poetic justice and scientific fact. 

Whether in-person or in her writing, Kingsolver uses her mastery of her own understanding of the world around her—specifically her home of Appalachia—to inform the public about what she sees as the pressing environmental concerns of our time. 

To do this, she draws inspiration from her predecessors, namely David Thoreau. “[His] gifts as a writer, [have] transcended his contributions to natural science. [He] dismissed the notion that poetry and science are incompatible, and captured for his readers the simple wonder we hastily leave behind in the age of reason,” she notes in her 1995 collection of short essays, “Hide Tide in Tucson” (HarperCollins, 1995). 

Kingsolver channels this same energy in her fiction, from her earlier works like “Prodigal Summer," released in 2000, to her more contemporary “Flight Behavior” (Harper, 2012).  To inspire readers who are passionate, who have a desire to become passionate, or are native to Appalachia, Kingsolver uses fictional stories to emphasize the true nature of how the environment functions in a world of human influence (and sometimes destruction).   

In her “Prodigal Summer,” a novel told in three short narratives, the focus is on the environment as a safe haven. In the first story, her character Deanna initially finds peace in the solitude nature of the forest, which enables her to conduct research for the government while allowing her to reflect. The three stories intertwine through their connection of the characters’ love for the environment and their love for others. And yet, despite nature’s natural comfort, its isolation also serves as a realistic fear for her characters. In the second story, the narrator Lusa struggles with her identity in the context of her new environment: “Now she felt like a frontier mail-order bride, hardly past her wedding and already wondering how she could have left her city and beloved career for the narrow place a rural county holds open for a farmer’s wife.”  

Kingsolver’s novel, “Flight Behavior,” examines a more critical side to the environment. After carrying on an affair with a younger man, the main character Dellarobia, wanders into a field behind her house and notices it is covered with monarch butterflies, too many to count. The culprit for this phenomenon is global warming and climate change, which has disrupted the monarch’s traditional migration patterns, leaving them in grave danger of dying off come winter in Appalachia — a stark, dually-faceted warning about the nature of human behavior. 

Rather, while lyric in its approach — and an absolute joy to read — Kingsolver’s writing is also a call to action.

But while Kingsolver often utilizes the power of fiction as a platform to call out the injustices humans have enacted on the planet, the consequences of the events in her books are hardly fictional. Rather, while lyric in its approach — and an absolute joy to read — Kingsolver’s writing is also a call to action. She has reinvigorated the function of literature in our modern context, pushing readers to look past their electronic screens and uncover the real news, the real talk, the real beauty, and the real power they have to change and control the human influences on the environment. In this way, she not only serves as the catalyst for environmental change in literature, but she is enlightening readers and future writers to continue to champion nature.  




Kim Bartenfelder is an undergraduate student at
George Mason University seeking a degree in English.
English spans more than written word but rather
generations, history, moral lessons, and two sense.
Kim's two sense is that all literature is good literature.
The ones that leave the biggest impression are the ones
that match your vibe. 

Poetic Narrative: A Conversation with Christina Olson

By Alexandria Petrassi

The sky outside my building in Chicago is slate-gray, heavy with a promise of snow, as I settle into a coffee shop booth for my phone interview with Christina Olson, author of the forthcoming book of poetry from Stillhouse Press, "Terminal Human Velocity." She is calling from Kentucky, where she teaches at the low residency MFA program at Murray State University. Of course, the weather is at least a little better there in January, but nonetheless our conversation starts with winter. I learn that winter is one of the many images threaded throughout her latest collection. “When I was writing the early poems, it was the coldest winter on record, so one of the things that happened after I moved to Georgia is that I started romanticizing winter,” she says. Despite our talk about winter and the miles between our phone lines, our conversation is warm and engaging; a welcome break to my Monday afternoon.

As we begin our introductions, it becomes apparent that Christina Olson has a different background than most poets. “This is a bit of an over-simplification, but I always introduce myself as a poet who comes from a family of engineers,” she tells me. She found poetry in college, though she originally intended to study Interpersonal Communication. “Surprisingly—even to myself—I’ve fallen into a pretty traditional academic path,” she says, “but there has been a couple little detours here and there.”

One such detour? After graduating with her MFA from Minnesota State, she found herself working in healthcare marketing. It’s here that the earliest poems from Olson's collection and some of the mindset behind "Terminal Human Velocity" took root. “Two things happened in that job: even though I enjoyed the problem-solving aspect of the work, I realized I had to do something more creative. And my head was filling with this random flotsam about death and disease and things that will kill you,” she remembers. “It got me thinking...how do we reconcile the big fallible machine that is the human body? And then how do we make sense of it? What can we learn about what it means to be human when we look at science and the natural world?” These questions manifest themselves throughout her latest book, though she didn’t set out to write a collection on the topic. She says her approach was more: “How do I feel about my life? Complicated! Let’s write a poem. Do you want to write it about you? No! Let’s write about Ernest Shackleton.”

"Terminal Human Velocity: the book for the person in your life who doesn’t know they like poetry,” she jokes. “And who also maybe wanted to know something about horseshoe crabs." - Christina Olson

So figures from history, both large (like Ernest Shackleton, an eighteenth century Antarctic explorer) and small (Elvita Adams, who jumped from the Empire State Building only to be blown back inside after falling one floor in 1979) grace the pages of her collection, along with what Olson calls “last love” poems (poems written to dead people) and poems that recognize the beauty in the scientific. “Fact is not inherently interesting; stories are,” Olson says. “Even when I think I’m not telling a story, I realize it is a story.” Her skill with narrative in poetry is showcased in "Terminal Human Velocity," which looks at both macro and micro narratives, working to tell the story of everything in between. These poems are interested in what it means to be human, and approaches their questions through narratives of other people discovering the grand scale of our world. It’s a collection where the mind is firmly grounded in the body; it’s equal parts wonder and fear of what it finds.

As we move on from "Terminal Human Velocity," I ask Olson about the best writing advice she has for other writers. Her best advice is to remember patience: “You need to practice craft, but you also have to respect the amount of time that process takes. I don’t think a writer should be project driven, I think they should be process driven. Process takes time. Craft takes time.”

Before we wrap up our conversation, I ask her if there’s anything else she wants readers to know. We spend a minute talking about the at-times seemingly elusive accessibility of poetry for some readers, and how she hopes the narrative in her poems offer an access point. “'Terminal Human Velocity': the book for the person in your life who doesn’t know they like poetry,” she jokes. “And who also maybe wanted to know something about horseshoe crabs.”

Alexandria Petrassi is Stillhouse Press's Moonshine Murmurs Blog Editor and a first year MFA student at George Mason University.  She's also the founder of Floodmark, a poetry blog that focuses on prompts, craft features, and interviews. 

Revise and Conquer: Advice From Our Authors

Revision can be one of the most difficult parts of writing.  Creating a story, essay, or poem has its own challenges, but revision requires patience, persistence, and flexibility. Whether you're revising your NaNoWriMo project or gearing up for the spring submission season, we're here to help!  We asked our authors to give us their best in revision advice.  Don't forget to share yours in the comments! 

“A story should be exciting to read. It should pull us in and not let go. It shouldn't meander unless meandering is its thing. It shouldn't bore unless boring is its thing. And if boring is its thing, it should bore with intensity. What I mean is that stories should be bright and fresh. They should be something we've never read before and that we're compelled to read now. They should make us lean in, lean closer. They should make us want to explore. In revision, this often means cleaning. Wipe away needless words, sentences, images. Knock the dust off old phrases. Heighten contrasts between characters, between images, between emotions. Make the world of the story more vivid and interesting. Make a story that's never been read before and that must be read now.” 

 Matthew Fogarty, Maybe Mermaids & Robots are Lonely (Sept. 2016)

“I was recently discussing revision with my husband, Seth, and he said that the act of revision is the act of removing oneself from the poem, which is absolutely true. Early drafts are so often so close to the poet, too close, which is why we often love those early drafts to the point of craft being obscured. Revision is the act of standing outside oneself to make the best choices for the work.”

Bryan BorlandDIG (Sept. 2016)



“I’ve (perhaps sadly) come to see writing from the publisher’s POV. I think so many people keep their writing too close to them. They fear revision, they struggle with criticism, they’re exhausted by the process, they lack the patience to refine and hone their voices. To commit something that comes from such a secret, private place to the editor’s pen can be horrifying, yes, but necessary. My advice has always been to let go. Most instructors will tell you that 'writing is revision.' It’s also a business.”

Andrew Gifford, We All Scream (Forthcoming May 2017)


“I tell students to open their journals and start salvaging. Pick over the writing, find the bits worth saving. Don’t think of them as poems, not as even drafts. But as piles of scrap, something to sift through. Scrap it for parts, I tell them. Salvage the images and the metaphors.  I use the language of labor because it is labor. Their journals are workshops, places to tinker. Take the line worth saving, plug it into some other failing poem. Pump the pedal a few times, try the engine. Every once in a while, something will suddenly roar to life.”

Christina Olson, Terminal Human Velocity (Forthcoming Jan. 2017)

Now that you've read our advice, we want to hear yours!  What's the best revision advice you ever received?  Tell us in the comments below or Tweet at us using the hashtag #RevisionAdvice.