By MacKenzie Brady
On Tuesday, March 9 and Wednesday, March 10, 2020–2021 Mary Wood Fellow Kathryn Nuernberger virtually visited Washington College for a reading and craft talk as part of the ongoing Writers as Editors Series.
The Mary Wood Fellowship, named after Mary Wood ’68, “is awarded in odd-numbered years to a female-identifying writer in poetry, fiction, or creative nonfiction who has published at least one book. The Fellowship allows us to pay homage to a fierce devotee to the articulated word in all its expressions, especially as Mary herself was a gifted and versatile writer of many formal impulses” the event program, sent out to attendees of the events, said.
Nuernberger was awarded the fellowship in 2020, but, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, had to have her visit rescheduled and reformatted to suit online needs.
Normally, the Mary Wood Fellow would be on campus for a few days, giving a reading, a craft talk, and meeting with small groups of students. However, because of COVID-19, these events were held on Zoom.
“I’m coming to you from the best Wi-Fi hotspot I could find in Cottonwood, Arizona, where I’m doing research on my next work in process, which is about mutualisms — symbiotic mutualisms,” Nuernberger said.
An essayist and poet, Nuernberger “writes about the history of science and ideas, renegade women, plant medicines, and witches,” according to her website.
“There are plenty of good poets, and plenty of good essayists, and plenty of people who do both, but very few people who are good at both. Kathryn Nuernberger is transcendently good at both,” Associate Director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House and Visiting Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing Roy Kesey said in his introduction at Nuernberger’s reading.
“She brings a poet’s sensibility in terms of language and symbol and diagonal logic to her nonfiction as well as her poetry, and an essayist’s rigor and research to her poetry as well as her nonfiction. She does so in regard to urgent issues in science, history, and intersectional feminism, in books and texts whose formal shapes are genuinely high concept and thus high-wire acts, and the results are astonishing,” Kesey said.
Nuernberger, who read her essays “Bloodroot” and “The Eye of the Hagstone” at Tuesday’s reading, considers herself a poet first, whose poems “get out of control, and that’s when an essay happens. So, a lot of times these things start in small snippets and they start accruing material.”
“What I like best about her work is the high-stakes simultaneity, by which I mean that there is never only one thing going on, and all of the things matter,” Kesey said.
Part of Nuernberger’s writing process is writing at least a page of a notebook every day, either jotting down her thoughts and musings, or documenting her latest research. When she finishes an entire notebook, she will read back through her notes and see if she said anything that “wasn’t trash.”
“Invariably, there is something there that I can work with. Interesting connections start to come through and days that I felt like I was just being whiny and complaining I’m like ‘No, I was being whiny and complaining in a way that pairs really nicely with the history of anemones and Greek mythology,’” Nuernberger said of her notebook usage.
Nuernberger said she writes about history for two reasons: one to understand how a moment happened and what makes terrible things thinkable and possible, and two because it is easier to imagine a better future when we have already seen that future — or aspects of it — happen.
“I’m really interested in looking at the past to see what makes things thinkable — both the terrible things and just how to teach ourselves to think of something better,” Nuernberger said.
At her craft talk, “Writing as Ritual Act,” Nuernberger focused on her writings about the secret history of the European witch trials that took place from the 13th through 18th centuries. Despite this focus on witches, much of the talk relied on the histories of plants and plant-based medicines, in addition to the Salem witch trials, her own personal life, police brutality, and other threads.
Senior Tamia Williams attended Nuernberger’s reading, craft talk, and had an individual workshop session with her.
“[Nuernberger’s] writing seemed to be deeply centered in both the environment and her connection with it and so from the pieces she was reading you could tell she did a substantial amount of research,” Williams said.
Williams, who enjoys the process of handwriting things, said it was comforting to hear that Nuernberger regularly wrote by hand in order to inspire herself.
The next event at the virtual Rose O’Neill Literary House will be a celebration of the publication of former Professor of English Dr. Richard Gillin’s new book “A Guide to Hiking the Liberal Arts: The Washington College Kiplin Hall Program” on Monday, March 29. To register for the event, visit the “Events” listing on Literary House’s page of the WC website.
Featured Photo caption: The Rose O’Neill Literary House welcomes 2020 Winner of the Mary Wood fellowship Kathryn Nuernberger. Photo by Sammy Jarrett.