Erin Regan: Edgar Cardenas Interview: One Hundred Little Dramas

Edgar CardenasInterview Editor Erin Regan recently had the opportunity to interview Edgar Cardenas, a photographer and Ph.D. candidate in the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University who integrates art and science in his work. His photography, taken from a collection titled “One Hundred Little Dramas,” which explores his own backyard as a natural place, was published in the 12th issue of Superstition Review.

Erin Regan: On your website you included a statement about the project that’s peppered with quotes by Aldo Leopold. What has your relationship with Leopold’s work been like?

Edgar Cardenas: I grew up close to Madison, Wisconsin but I didn’t know who Leopold was until I started my Ph.D. in Sustainability. I started, like most do, with Sand County Almanac which struck home. I related to his musings of being out in the woods and close to farm life.

In Sand County Almanac, Leopold makes clear his intent to integrate aesthetics, ethics, and ecology; I had and continue to have similar sentiments regarding the integration of art and sustainability science. I think he was using the terminology of ecology but his interest was the overall health of the community, which included humans. Many would identify his sentiment with a “strong sustainability,” one focused on ecological integrity that places humans in the system, not above it.

This initial introduction to his work led me to read more of his essays and biographies as well. He was a pragmatist, his attempt to unite aesthetics, ethics, and ecology were based on an understanding that holism is the way forward. He pushed against the reductionist methods of understanding the world and realized they were insufficient for understanding, not only the ecological system but our place in that system. He also pushed against preservationist or conservationist ideologies, there was nature to be found just as easily in the city as there was in the wilderness, it was a matter of looking curiously at the world and understanding how things connected to each other.

His essays weren’t the impetus for beginning the backyard project but they definitely kept me company as the project unfolded. They became ways of understanding and exploring the backyard. I would, often times, say to myself, “If Leopold was in my backyard what would he say? What questions would he ask? What would excite him? What might confuse him?” Sometimes I would make changes to the backyard or begin to get a little controlling about how I wanted things. Playing out his presence in the space helped reset my intentions and I could go back to openly observing and discovering. This openness to discovery was critical because the backyard is a small space, I worked on it for 3+ years, so you have to find new ways to look at it continuously. Leopold was one of the influences in exploring and eventually framing what the edited work would look like.

ER: I love how your work reclaims backyards as wild spaces. Would you describe the process of discovering your own backyard as a wild place?

EC: As my artist statement mentions, my backyard was a very undesirable space. Growing up in the midwest and then moving to the northeast, I was unfamiliar with the desert’s ecological pulses. The backyard looked dead when I left for a 10-day project in the Czech Republic. It rained practically the entire time I was away, so I returned to a very different, and green, backyard. The realization that the desert was alive, just waiting for water, started me photographing. I wanted the starting point to also have an ecological connection.

I was also grappling with what sustainability meant at the time. We often think about sustainability in a large and abstracted human-environment interaction manner and in a simple, “we should recycle and compost” manner. I was interested in the inbetween space, what “personal sustainability” looked like and what it meant to be engaged in it, not just studying it; the backyard felt like a good start.

I was also interested in what someone with very little money could do; most of our current sustainability solutions seem to require significant capital investment. I collected wood that was thrown out to build my planter boxes. I also collected food waste from the School of Sustainability and sustainability students to keep my compost going. Tree services would drop off chipped wood in the frontyard and I would take it to the back one wheelbarrow at a time. I would dig up seedlings in the frontyard and replant them in the back. I collected seeds from several places for planting in the backyard as well. My intention was not to restore the backyard to some previous desert site but be ecologically minded in its design. Humans and animals engineer the environment regularly so I was aware that I wasn’t returning it to a former “wild space.” I was becoming mindful of how I would use the space. That meant compost for nutrient-cycling, planter boxes for food, as well as drought-tolerant trees and plants that provided food, shelter, and a habitat for the small critters that shared the space with us. I wanted to bring the biological diversity up to a maintainable level, which also meant being mindful of the water usage, and nutrients. By the end, I was supplementing the plants exclusively off the compost I was making.

That process really got the “discovering” going; I learned a great deal about my relationship to the space as I worked in it and changed it. The process really became a ritual of stepping out into the backyard with the camera and looking, exploring, and engaging. The most important realization, to me, was that personal experience connects you to the land. I was learning to see ecological principles at play, but I was also growing to care about the ecological health of the space, from the compost, to the insects, to the lizards, to the birds; they mattered to me.

ER: Animals and insects are very much present but sometimes hidden in your photos, which seems to mirror our relationship with animals. What was it like searching for those creatures in your yard? Did invisible things become visible to you in the process?

EC: I think the natural assumption for most people is that not much is going on in the backyard. I was fascinated by the fact that the more time I spent in the space the more I saw; it wasn’t just things, it was processes as well. I knew when the house sparrows were mating and when to be looking out for fallen nestlings; we took several to a bird rescue. I knew where lizards were laying eggs in the yard and would be conscious to stay clear of the space so that I didn’t step on their eggs.

My “seeing” developed, I learned what to look for. Often times I was on my hands and knees looking or standing in my plants. I would go out at different times of day, so much happens just before the sun rises, so often times I would be outside waiting in the dark so as not to miss anything. To me the whole thing is resonant in the quote by Proust, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” I had to learn to see in new ways. That has transferred to how I see the desert when I go out too.

ER: In addition to being a photographer, you are earning your PhD in sustainability. Would you explain how these pursuits intersect in your life and work?

EC: I find that the separating of the arts and sciences has done both of them a disservice. They are both fantastic and divergent ways of knowing the world. When I began the program my intention was to find ways to unite the two. I wanted to bridge the knowledge that is acquired in the sciences with the humanistic interrogations the arts bring to the dilemmas sustainability discourse is engaged in. In many ways, I’m picking up Leopold’s challenge to integrate ecology, ethics, and aesthetics for a holism that is necessary in sustainability. That holism needs rigor though. Herbert Simon states, “If we are to learn our social science from novelists, then the novelists have to get it right. The scientific content must be valid.” We are now in a space where, not only does the science need to be valid, the art must be salient as well. I take both endeavours seriously. For me, art and science are a discourse; my scientific learning helps push my art forward, usually by introducing new questions that I have to grapple with. Then I will make art and that process helps me reflect on the scientific questions I’m asking and how I feel about those questions. I can’t see myself doing one without the other; it would stunt my intellectual growth and creativity.

ER: Since completing “One Hundred Little Dramas,” what does your personal brand of sustainability look like?

EC: It has further grounded me in some of the ideas I had regarding sustainability. I find ecological literacy to be a critical component of understanding how we are in the world. I often felt that I had to somehow prove that art belonged in sustainability discourse. I think I’m beyond having to prove it. Now I am working towards what to interrogate with this way of knowing; it’s so powerful and underutilized right now.  One of the big pushes for the project was exploring what an “ethic” looked like. This isn’t about judging people and classifying their actions as sustainable or unsustainable, but of understanding how an ethic develops. Leopold’s work resonates in a significant way for me. Through an ecological and aesthetic development of the backyard project I simultaneously began to understand how and why I cared about a space like the backyard. We go out to the wilderness to see nature and vistas, but the most intimate natural experience I found was the one in my backyard.

The most significant change however was understanding the importance of empathy. We speak a lot about human/environment interactions in sustainability but not about human/environment relationships. I think our relationship, how we care about the world is critical. I also feel we shy away from this idea because it sounds so unscientific and subjective; it’s hard to scale up empathy in a systematically controlled fashion. Nonetheless, if we are to be sustainable we actually have to care about a place. We need to have an intimate relationship with that place, get to know it like you would a friend. That means you can visit it regularly, see it change, know its hidden secrets. You can’t do this with vacation places but backyards are wonderful for this; you take care of them and they take care of you. There was a sense of loss when I moved. I think that’s a very powerful motivator for being more sustainable, having an emotional connection to a natural place.

Guest Post, Fred Leebron: Considering the Old and the New: Two Thoughts on Craft and Industry

Fred LeebronOn Craft: Escaping the Paradigm

Lately I’ve noticed in some of the work of colleagues and students and especially in my own work the tendency to stay within the safety of self-created paradigms.  By this, I mean that as individual narratives progress, writers who have had success with prior narratives often find themselves employing similar strategies to resolve the challenges and exploit the possibilities offered in their current work.

A writer who tends to ‘muscle up’ in an ending will repeat that tendency in his next ending, having experienced success with it.  Or, a writer who tends to “disappear” one of her characters in one novel will have another character vanish in another novel.  I’m always impressed by those writers who are capable of doing almost everything seemingly new from book to book, and yet that seems like an almost impossible task.

Still, sometimes it’s worthwhile to set out for oneself what has been accomplished in a prior work, literally listing its elements and grinding them into one’s consciousness, before proceeding with the next work.  Point of view, setting, pivotal plot points, the treatment of time can all be boiled down to just a few words, and suddenly there on the page is your novel in a nutshell, and you can see exactly what it is the past work wasn’t doing that you might pursue in the next work.

Also, it can’t hurt to note featured characteristics of the protagonists and supporting cast.  Does every family have an abandoned father?  Is every family missing a sibling?  Is every son restless and unemployed?  Is the boss at work always kind and understanding?  Is there someone always ripping someone else off?  Is someone’s heart always getting broken?  Is the kitchen always the dominant room in the house?  Is it the mailman who always delivers the bad news, or email, or the phone line?

What I’m looking for in this kind of exercise is a way of challenging myself to try as much new technique and content as possible in the next work.

This isn’t to say that writers shouldn’t mine deeply what Richard Burgin terms their own “emotional real estate,” but that an awareness of all the strategies and characteristics being employed can be helpful in making the new work as fresh and surprising as possible, not only for the reader, but for the writer as well.  There is, for an obvious example, a lot of different technique and content accomplished from DUBLINERS through PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN to ULYSSES, even while we can clearly see some of the sameness involved.

A few months ago, I sat down with a list of all my stories and manuscripts and was able to capture pretty clearly all the work in close to two paradigms, with all the tried and true crutches that I had been leaning on.  Then I wrote the opposite of each of the elements, just to see what that would look like.  It was pretty invigorating to recognize that as a writer there were still a lot of techniques and types of content I haven’t even tried, here at the age of 52, having been taught in a hundred workshops and having led a few thousand more, with a handful of novels and a bucketful of stories published, and four times that dropped into trash cans and recycling bins over the past thirty-some years.

What we sometimes learn from studying and deconstructing the straitjacket of Freytag’s Triangle is that all the stories imaginable have already been written, but what we might learn from a cold-hearted study of our own work is that there is likely a lot we haven’t tried.

On Industry: Free Content—the other side of the coin

Recently a writer told me that the next new thing is free content.  Okay, maybe not so recently, but at least within the last year.  Free content is it, she said.  Everyone needs to blog and everyone needs to offer some good free writing in order to further their careers. And the argument was clear: eventually free content will get you paid.

I don’t believe in free content.  At all.  Although of course I am a reader of free content all the time, especially on news websites and facebook links and and (my hometown).  I love free content.  And it is despicable, too, when it is both delivered free and obtained from the writer for free.

Writers should be paid, like dentists should be paid and gardeners should be paid and cooks should be paid. While it’s certainly true that on some of these websites the writers are getting paid, increasingly literary writers are willing to donate their words in the hope that down the line eventually they’ll get paid.  It makes me nervous and it makes me sad.

We cling to the success stories of self-publication and gratis publication, in the hope that there will be a spread of success, but these realized dreams are the exception rather than the rule.  Yet as writers we are trained to write for a larger audience, because otherwise the writing is private and therefore not real, and this leads us again to the desire to share the work any way we can, and more often than not (considering that over one million people in the U.S. say they write), that sharing has been free of charge for the reader and free of income for the writer.

You might think that by arguing against free content, I am, as a new contributor to Superstition Review, biting the hand that feeds me.  But SR isn’t feeding me anything, and there’s a good argument that it is actually taking food from my mouth.  How did this happen?  I stumbled across the website a few months ago, thought it very spiffy and professional and compelling, and sent in a story, assuming (and we all know about assuming) that payment would be involved if the piece were taken.  But any moron who takes a closer look can see that that is not the case.  My error.

Every publishing endeavor and every educational endeavor I have designed (this includes MFA programs in Europe and Latin America and Charlotte, a summer program in Roanoke, a small press out of North Carolina, and a literary magazine very new to the world) will always pay writers something for almost everything they do, the exception being the reading and selection of work.  At Unboxed Books, none of us got paid, when we ran a contest for a 5000 prize in fiction, though the final judge got paid and of course the winner got 5000.  At Qu, the new literary magazine out of the MFA Program at Queens University of Charlotte, we pay for every accepted piece (all right, very modestly, but still we pay), while the readers don’t get paid at all.  Now I’m wondering if that is a double standard.  I guess not, because for graduate students and interns involved in reading and selecting work, the work experience constitutes a kind of payment.  In that sense, I can see now, it is not much different from publication without income.  And yet I do feel differently about the two.  I could probably make a lame and garbled argument about free work’s benefit being limited to the individual and free writing’s benefit being consumed by the masses, and I’m sure you could go ahead and skewer that.

So what’s your take? How important is payment for your writing, compared to the publication credit?  Can I go tell my boss in Charlotte that instead of increasing payment to Qu contributors what we really want to do is eliminate it entirely?  Or should we reconsider the nonpayment of contest and slush pile readers and rehash the now old argument about the ethics of unpaid internships?  Would you rather see our scant funds devoted to enhanced website design or the small honoraria we pay for accepted work?  All things being equal, is it more important to you to have your work appear somewhere aesthetically pleasing or somewhere that pays you?

Or, as my father once asked me in a surprisingly meaningful ‘career’ quiz: which do you value the most?  Money, Power, or Achievement?

Choose one.

And, yeah, I wrote this piece for free.


Marylee MacDonald, Guest Post: Tweaking Setting to Heighten Tension

Marylee MacDonaldSetting is not like the backdrop in a play, hanging inertly behind the actors. In fiction, setting creates tension and tension is what keeps readers turning the page. There are three kinds of setting we ought to be thinking about as we write. One is private space, the second is workspace, and the third is public space.

Private space is our home, car, or hotel room. By describing a private setting in detail, writers allow readers to infer a great deal about the world the character has constructed for him or herself. None of us would live in a home where we can’t relax. At home, we’re seeking a haven. In my story “Oregano,” Janice Dawkins comes in at the end of a long day to find a cluttered service porch. The mess enrages her, but she stuffs it down. The mess in the character’s private space sets up the story’s conflict, as it does in Laura M. Flynn’s Swallow the Ocean: A Memoir (Counterpoint Press). Here, the narrator describes her childhood apartment.

The mess that had been steadily overtaking every surface in the apartment since my father left stretched before us in all directions. Mail had accumulated near the front door, first on the shelves of the console table, but now it extended in unstable piles along the wall halfway to the living room, which was in turn a confusion of color and texture. Layers of clothing, papers, and toys blanketed the floor. Books pulled off the shelves but not put back circled the bookshelves. Records—some exposed, some in their white slips, some still in the album covers—fanned out in a widening arc at the foot of the stereo. Near the couches, fat metal knitting needles, holding twenty or so uneven lines of scarf, were jammed into balls of yarn—projects my older sister Sara and I had abandoned.

By simply looking at the objects the narrator holds up for our inspection, readers can infer that something is amiss. We don’t know quite what, but the description of this disorderly private space makes us yearn to know more. The disorder puts pressure on the characters. The plot hinges on “fixing” the setting so that the character can comfortably live in it. Or not. The other possibility is that the disorder is so great that the character can never live there and has to leave. In some stories, disorder in the protagonist’s private space sets the plot in motion.

Let’s look now at workspace. If the home is the foreground of our setting, then the office is the middle distance. In stories with office settings, such as Daniel Orozco’s “Orientation” (Orientation and Other Stories; Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), it’s the impersonality of the environment that injects tension.

Those are the offices and these are the cubicles. That’s my cubicle there, and this is your cubicle. This is your phone. Never answer your phone. Let the Voicemail System answer it.

A dead voice simply shows us the objects in the setting and leaves it to the reader to infer what kind of workplace this is going to be. I felt trapped. That’s great for tension.

No setting should be feelings-neutral, nor should it be exactly what we’d expect. If the setting for a story is the suburbs, invest those suburbs with feeling just as Josh Mohr does in Fight Song (Softskull Press).

Way out in a puzzling universe known as the suburbs, Bob Coffen rides his bike to work. He pedals and pants and perspires past all the strip malls, ripe with knockoff shoe stores, chain restaurants, emporiums stuffed with the latest gadgets, and watering holes deep enough that the locals can drown their sorrows in booze. Each plaza also contains at least one church, temple, or synagogue— a different way altogether to drown one’s sorrows.

The setting—suburbia–puts pressure on Bob Coffen, and that’s before we know anything about his conflicts with other characters or with himself.

What about public spaces, especially those that aren’t as familiar as the neighborhood mall? Put a character in a slum, and the reader’s danger-antennas shoot up. By describing the particulars, as Aleksandar Hemon does in Love and Obstacles (Penguin Group), the slum becomes as vivid and frightening to the reader as it is to the protagonist.

Spinelli and Natalie picked me up at the crack of dawn; the light was still diffused by the residues of the humid night. We drove toward the slums, against the crowd marching in antlike columns: men in torn shorts and shreds for shirts; women wrapped in cloth, carrying baskets on their heads, swollen-bellied children trotting by their sides; emaciated, long-tongued dogs following them at a hopeful distance. I had never seen anything so unreal in my life. We turned onto a dirt road, which turned into a car-wide path of mounds and gullies. The Land Rover stirred up a galaxy of dust, even when moving at a low speed. Shacks misassembled from rusty tin and cardboard were lined up above a ditch, just about to tumble in. I understood what Conrad meant by inhabited devastation. A woman with a child tied to her back dipped clothes into tea-colored water and slapped the wet tangle with a tennis racket.

I desperately wanted the Land Rover to turn around. I just knew something bad was about to happen.

At its core, every story needs something to happen. The setting itself can be part of a story’s dynamic change. Here is what Annie Proulx has to say about settings that are in flux (The Missouri Review, Issue 22.2, Spring, 1999).

I long ago fell into the habit of seeing the world in terms of shifting circumstances overlaid upon natural surroundings… The characters in my novels pick their way through the chaos of change.

Think about “Brokeback Mountain:” traditional cowboy heroes fall in love, thus violating old taboos. In San Francisco the story of two male lovers would not have the same power, but a rural setting heightens the tension because we know these guys are going to have to sneak around. The more powerful their attraction, the more they find themselves in conflict with the environment.

Setting cannot be incidental. By taking the trouble to place the story in a particular setting, an author can set the mood of the story and lay the groundwork for the actors to play their parts. To raise tension even more, place the actors on a moving stage and watch them scramble.

Superstition Review Launches Issue 12 on December 6, 2013

s[r] Issue 12 Launch Party

Superstition Review will launch their 12th issue on Friday, December 6, 2013. Since its founding in 2008 by Patricia Murphy, ASU’s online literary magazine has made it their goal to publish engaging and innovative works of fiction, nonfiction, interviews, poetry, and art. They have published over 550  established and emerging authors from all over the world and are thrilled to announce the expansion of their family of contributors with their upcoming issue.

All staff members, contributors, members of the literary community, and friends and family are welcome to join S[R] in the celebration of the issue’s launch at Mesa Arts Center on December 6 from 6-8PM. Light appetizers will be provided by Pomegranate Café, a local vegan and vegetarian restaurant owned by Superstition Review’s Issue 1 Poetry Editor, Cassie Tolman. Guests will have free access to the museum where contributor, Tom Eckert’s and Arizona artist, Linda Ingraham’s artwork is displayed in “From Lemons to Lingerie: The Still Life Redefined,” an exhibit titled after the artists’  ability to “redefine the typical still-life with their unusual medium choices and surrealist subject matter.”  S[R]’s Founding Editor, Student Editor-in-Chief, and Section Editors will speak of the work that went into producing the issue, and discuss their favorite pieces of art, fiction, interviews, nonfiction, and poetry featured in issue 12. Tom Eckert will speak about  his artwork, and contributor, Josh Rathkamp will read his poetry.

Elizabeth S. Hansen, an SR Intern, made a trailer to advertise the issue. You can view it here:

The poet reading in the trailer is Mia Sara, (Ferris Beuller’s girlfriend from the movie Ferris Beuller’s Day Off). The vocalist singing in the trailer is Sydni Budelier, our Student Editor-in Chief. A  full program is as follows:

6:00-7:00  Snacks, Tour Exhibitions


7:00-7:05  Trish Introduces Issue 12
7:05-7:10  Sydni Discusses Issue 12
7:15-7:25  Ruth Faber from AZ Free Arts
7:25-7:35  Sculptor Tom Eckert
7:35-7:40  Josh Rathkamp Reads her work
7:40-7:55  Section Editors Discuss Work

Art, Meredith: on Lucas Foglia’s photography
Art, Alyssa: on Nicole Hill
Fiction,  Hannah: on Svetlana Lavochkina’s “Two  Prodigal Molecules of the Gulf Stream”
Interviews,  Monica on Margot Livesey Interviews, Erin: on William Kittredge
Nonfiction, James: on Nathaniel Millard’s “Arse  Poetica: Vecinos (Neighbors)”
Nonfiction, Julie: on Meg Thompson Poetry, Abner: on Aidan Rooney’s “Pairings”

7:55-8:00  Closing Comments