Illustration by Indi Maverick

Joy is the Justice We Give Ourselves: An Interview with J. Drew Lanham

Two poets discuss how to bridge the gap between angst and celebration

Drew Lanham and Nickole Brown are both poets, southerners, animal lovers, and seekers of wild beauty. Here, in celebration of Drew’s new collection Joy is the Justice We Give Ourselves, they exchange thoughts on navigating both grief and wild awe, the importance of sanctuary, and how to love what we risk losing. 


Nickole Brown: Hello, hello dear Drew! What a joy—and I do mean joy!—to spend time with your new book. I’m thrilled to see this second collection of poems by you. Mercy, yes. The title—Joy Is The Justice We Give Ourselves—takes its name from a poem that demonstrates your capacity to unflinchingly face social injustice while simultaneously affirming the beauty of this world, particularly the beauty borne of nature, even as it also suffers, especially now. This may be too much to ask, but how do you do it? You see, sometimes I’m made so weary by what humans do to one another and to our nonhuman kin that I find myself incapacitated, unable to make art, much less recognize and witness joy. And I don’t think I’m alone in this. So it seems essential to understand: How might you hold both angst and celebration at the same time? And when the tension of it all is too much, how do you recover and continue to push forward?

Drew Lanham: Hi Nickole. So very good to chat with you, even if it’s letter by letter! You asked me about the bittersweet duality of angst and celebration. I can tell you that the greatest tension exists between the two extremes. It’s a deep chasm full of the unknown and that’s where writing comes in to fill the space. In most of my writing, I go to the things I know best; myself and nature (especially birds). So, between what I might be feeling on a given day—from joy to painand what the birds are doing (or from an existential standpoint, how they’re surviving), I try to wander back and forth across that chasm to build a bridge between myself and wildness. That’s how I hold on to both. I really can’t dismiss one from the other. I’m terrible at compartmentalizing so everything is like watercolor with one thing bleeding into the next. As Frankie Beverly and Maze would say in one of my favorite songs “Joy and Pain”:

Over and over you can be sure

There will be sorrow but you will endure 

Where there’s a flower, there’s the sun and the rain

Oh, but it’s wonderful, they’re both one in the same.”

That’s my jam. That’s how I hold on to both. 

I push forward because there’s the hope of the next blossom, the next bird migrating in, the next sunrise or sunset. The waxing and waning moon that push and pull the tides. That’s how I go forward. 

Being wounded is no reason for giving up on love.

NB: I needed to hear that. But tell me more about that bridge and how to build it. . . . I mean, it’s early spring now—only mid-April—and yesterday, I looked down to see it hit ninety. Ninety degrees. On the fifteenth of April. The campus, no doubt, is a symphony of bird song. I enjoy it, but I’m also burdened with anxiety over a time when I might hear only the silence about which Rachel Carson warned. It helps to imagine you in the classroom, leading your ornithology students to (as I’ve heard you say), not just “love birds but be in love with them.” What might you pass on to your students—and to us—to give strength to love who we risk losing? 

JDL: Aldo Leopold talked about ecologists living in a world of wounds. If that’s true, and I don’t see how it can’t be with everything that’s happening around us, I think the writer’s job is one of not only pointing out the wound, but sometimes ripping the scab off. That sounds morbid I know, but sometimes the only way to heal is to clean the infection so that healthier scar tissue can grow. Sometimes in loss we have to endure through that deficit to find some gain. So as billions of birds have disappeared, it becomes ever more crucial that we pay attention to the one. As the common becomes rare and the rare becomes extinct, and we have to hold on to every last fragment of beauty we find. We have to search for it. Being wounded or at a deficit is no reason for giving up on love. That’s my message, be it love of someone, or something, we have to endure. Writing poetry is one way that we do that. It’s one way of debriding societal ills, personal loss, and ecological catastrophe. A single robin resting in a shaft of warm sunlight in my yard, is enough to keep me out of the ditch of despair and on to the next moment. That, to me, is enduring.

 

Bring home Joy is the Justice We Give Ourselves today. 

 

NB: You’re absolutely right, Drew. Thank you. So let me ask you about ways to endure. More than once, I’ve seen you Zoom in from the writing shed you call your “thicket,” a cozy space crammed with all manner of books and art and turtle shells and bones. As you call it, this “cramped claustrophobic interior” you created shows up more than once in these new poems both literally and metaphorically as a “den” that provides a safe space to hide and also as a “entropic tangle needed to inspire a fantasy ramble.” Could you talk about the importance of making space to write and think, to dream and be? 

JDL: I need spots where I can retreat to and be alone. Sometimes those spots are places out in nature, some secluded place where I can’t be reached. Out there I am surrounded by birds and trees, nothing I can own, only what I can feel a part of. Out there, I can peel off obligations and responsibilities that keep me from thinking and feeling freely. That opens up a very lush creative space. But then there are the dens, the interior spaces where I surround myself with the stuff I need and want most. I guess you could call them caches. These collections of books and bric-a-brac are the possessions I’ve deemed valuable enough keep close because they inspire me in some way. They are trinkets with stories. In wildness or in my various dens, I feel safe and secure because those spaces help me find head and heart space. 

NB: I love that. And I can imagine a den as a place to hibernate. . . . And speaking of such, I’ve heard you say that you don’t just spend your waking hours dedicated to birds but your sleeping hours too, and these poems are rife with dreams. Could you talk about dreaming—and writing those dreams down—as a part of your creative practice?

JDL: I see dreaming as more of a constant stream of imagining consciousness, more than just the R.E.M. wild frontier we encounter. I am a daydreamer more than a night dreamer, I think. At least I remember more of what happens when my eyes are open than when they’re closed. The things I remember are typically words or lines. Maybe there’s a phrase that comes to mind. I can recall in half awakened states telling myself to remember certain things, but then of course, I can’t. It’s frustrating at times to not recall the richness of rapid eye movement moments, but then the day dreams that are filled with reality embellished by imagining is where much of my writing takes hold.

Awe is a kind of prayer. Joy is my praise.

NB: One of my favorite poems in the collection is “More Salt Marsh.” In winding, lyric lines, you write a self-portrait of sorts as a salt marsh, “more sulfur-scented soil sensual; more rut-musk stink than sweet. More buck deer on a rub line / no one else can see.” It’s a lush, deeply sensual read. In that same poem, you write that it “is foolish anyway / to choose awe over joy.” How would you define the difference between awe and joy?

JDL: Thanks for mentioning that poem, Nickole. It’s one of my favorites and comes from a very special edge-rich space where the dolphins come close by and I get to meter the days by sunrise, tide, and sunset. So, I think of awe as the gap—that deep wide and wonderful canyon—between knowing and wonder. That unknown—like what the dolphin sees or thinks of me as she passes by underwater, or what causes the first pelican in formation to drop back and the next to move forward to take the lead—we can’t possibly know what those beings are thinking or feeling beyond guesses. I am in awe of all that we don’t know. I take joy in celebrating that mystery, in being in some state of bliss for even just a moment in wondering what it must be like to feel morning sun on your dorsal fin or see that same sun rise before my human eyes can, as the pelican does. Awe is a kind of prayer. Joy is my praise. 

NB: In your delightful and wise “Ten Rules for Going Feral,” number eight on the list is: “Be willing to become deer or mouse or thrush or wasp or wildflower. Be fish. Be newt. Be belly low and see the undersides of mushrooms.” So tell me, friend, before you go: Who might you most want be today and why?

JDL: Oh, Nickole, first of all, thank you so much for your brilliant and loving questions. I adore you and your work and am happiest that we’ve had a chance to be in “conversation” like this. So, who would I be? I wish I could limit myself to one character, but I can’t. I see so much to admire and envy in so many nonhuman beings that I see myself sometimes as an amalgam of animals. It is literally a second to second thing, where some bird flies across my view or sings and then another beast of some kind, makes me take another look and make a wannabe wish. Just now, two summer tanagers buzzed by like meteors. I’d love to fly like that. An eastern wood peewee is singing and I can’t think of a more plaintively beautiful plea for identity. Simple but unmistakable- pee-a-weeeeee, seemed meeeee. It sounds like a declaration for being and any creature making that claim, bird, frog, coyote howling, is who and what I want to be.

 


 

Drew Lanham is the author of poetry collections Joy is the Justice We Give Ourselves and Sparrow Envy: Field Guide to Birds and Lesser Beasts, and of The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature. He has received a MacArthur “Genius” Grant as well as the Dan W. Lufkin Conservation Award (National Audubon Society), the Rosa Parks and Grace Lee Boggs Outstanding Service Award (North American Association for Environmental Education), and the E. O. Wilson Award for Outstanding Science in Biodiversity Conservation (Center for Biological Diversity). He served as the Poet Laureate of Edgefield, South Carolina in 2022. Drew is a bird watcher, poet, and Distinguished Professor of Wildlife Ecology and Master Teacher at Clemson University. He lives in Seneca, South Carolina.

Nickole Brown is the author of Sister, first published in 2007 with a new edition reissued in 2018, both of which feature cicadas on the cover. Her second book, Fanny Says (BOA Editions), won the Weatherford Award for Appalachian Poetry in 2015. Currently, she teaches every summer at the Sewanee School of Letters MFA program and lives in Asheville, North Carolina, where she volunteers at several different animal sanctuaries. Since 2016, she’s been writing about these animals. To Those Who Were Our First Gods, a chapbook of these first poems, won the 2018 Rattle Prize, and her essay in poems, The Donkey Elegies, was published in 2020 by Sibling Rivalry Press. She’s the president of the Hellbender Gathering of Poets, an annual environmental literary festival set to launch in Black Mountain, North Carolina, in October of 2025.