Celebrating National Parks with Poetry: Meet Amy Beth & Derek Wright
By Annie Newcomer:
Amy Beth and Derek Wright created the website Parks & Points in 2016, the same year the National Park Service celebrated its centennial. Parks & Points hosts an annual creative nonfiction contest and a spring poetry series, publishing self-reflective writing that evokes the landscapes, histories, and cultural legacies found within National Park Service units and many other diverse public lands.
Amy Beth Wright is a journalist and essayist. She contributes to a variety of outlets focused on food, travel, and spirits and also teaches writing at Purchase College (SUNY Purchase). She completed her MFA in Writing at Sarah Lawrence College. She and Derek often collaborate on features about public lands and have together shared work in Fodors, American Wild, and StyleBlueprint. Visit amybethwrites.com to read more of her work. Derek Wright is a writer, designer, and photographer. With Amy Beth, he has written for a variety of publications including Fodors, American Wild, and Southwest: the Magazine. Derek originated Parks & Points as a way to celebrate national park sites and public lands. He also works as a theatrical lighting designer and teaches at New York University.
Meet Amy Beth & Derek Wright!
AN: Welcome to the Flapper Press Poetry Café, Amy Beth and Derek. I love that you have demonstrated how poetry creates connections between memory and our national parks experiences. On the back of your anthology book Wayfinding, Becky Lomax writes,
"When visiting national parks, we mostly rely on our visual senses to record the memory. But the poetry in Wayfinding touches other senses, wrapping the reader in bird chirps, campfire smells, and cool earthen textures. In doing so, the poems lure us into the interior journeys that shape our emotional connections to the parks."
This explanation is so poetic. While I know that you edit others' poems, reading this explanation caused me to wonder if you are each poets too? Can you share?
AB&D: We both love poetry, although we do not write poetry—it was one of the things we first shared when we began dating! We both write nonfiction, and together we wrote the essays in Wayfinding that delve into how ecosystems, landscapes, and topographies form and change and inspire meditation, self-reflection, and adventure. Because of our shared love of poetry, we recognized Parks & Points could become a venue that celebrated poetry and the work of many poets, and so we started the spring poetry series!
AN: I have followed your projects, with both your essay contests and poetry contests, and have been so impressed. Might you share with our readers how your passion for the national parks developed into these writing opportunities for the public?
AB&D: When we visit a national park or public land, we always feel that we want to share that joy and experience. We felt that others probably had the same reaction. When Parks & Points first began, we were interested in helping people visit and showing how accessible parks and domestic travel can be. Then we started thinking about the why and realized this was at the core of the original website project—that public lands and parks evoke something unique within each person while offering an implicit sense of connection to others. They are part of our collective experience while also offering profound personal memories and adventures. We decided to publish more nonfiction about parks and lands to recognize both how they affect us individually and why they are of such value to us as a collective. There is a lot of “travel guide” content (and we certainly write those pieces as well), but there’s a magical way of being transported to the parks by others framing their experiences in writing. And, we feel essays and poems are a form of travel, as reading and listening to the experiences of others can offer the same feeling of joy and awe as visiting! Our poetry series was an intuitive point of growth once we launched our essay contest.
AN: I am so curious to know how many national parks you have visited? And how do you prioritize which ones you will visit in person?
AB&D: Between the two of us, we’ve visited close to half of all the national parks! When planning our travel, we look for and prioritize parks that we haven’t visited yet, which keeps us moving around the country quite a bit. For Derek’s 40th birthday, we made it to many of the Alaskan parks, as he had the ambition to see all 50 states before he turned 40!
AN: Do you have any advice for our readers on how to create a "National Parks Bucket List" that families can use?
AB&D: It’s a lifetime journey to visit the parks. Many do so in short amounts of time, but there’s something different and quite special about taking your time. One suggestion is to try to visit as many parks in a particular region as you can while in the area. Many parks in the West and in Alaska are somewhat bunched together and can be done as a road trip.
It’s also helpful to expand the journey once you are in a particular region to other public lands like state parks, national forests, and so on—these also have similar topography and natural features as the national park in the area, and in some instances are less crowded as well. A good example of this is Dixie National Forest, just outside of Bryce Canyon National Park, and Pisgah National Forest outside Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
AN: Do you have a fun story you can share on an experience that you had at a national park?
Katmai National Park - Photo: Derek Wright/Parks & Points
AB&D: We didn’t expect to be able to use or training from “bear school” while we were at Katmai National Park. However, on our way back from Brooks Falls, we could hear some thunderous paw traffic on the trail behind us. One bear was pursuing another, and they were moving quickly! Derek immediately recalled the key points from our training almost verbatim (slowly move off the trail, talk to the bear, don’t run)—it is amazing how immediate it was and how much we’d taken in, just in case. We tucked into some trees along the walking trail while Derek had a chat with the bear, reassuring him in a loud voice that we saw him, and he should continue on his way. The bear seemed to slow his gait, pay attention to the noise, and become more guarded—it was amazing to be able to put what we learned into practice!
AN: Tell us about your book, Wayfinding, and why this is a good one to own and, of course, how you decided on a title for this collection of poems.
AB&D: The idea for Wayfinding came from years of publishing poems that we appreciate in our Parks & Points & Poetry series, which runs each April in honor of National Poetry Month. Both National Park Week and Earth Day are also in April, which is a great way to tie the poems to another celebration! Once we had published a significant body of work on our site and recognized that we would keep publishing this work, we wanted to explore sharing poems in a modality that allowed for more to be appreciated at once, with a deliberate and cohesive theme and focus and that allowed for some of our own reflective writing about parks and public lands.
The book is arranged like a journey on a trail, from forest, to mountains, to desert canyon. The reader joins us as we venture into each new landscape and emerges with a sense of wonder and amazement at the variety of different national parks and public lands. We feel it’s a book that celebrates a diversity of landscapes and histories as well as a vast range of poetic voices and styles. There is cohesion in the sense of movement and journey forward and the continuum of discoveries and ideas that accompany that!
Top: L to R—North Cascades National Park, Kenai Fjords National Park
Bottom: L to R—Zion National Park, White Sands National Park
All Photos: Derek Wright/Parks & Points
AN: Thank you for visiting with us today. Before we leave, I'd like to ask you to share 3 poems from your book, Wayfinding, for our Flapper Press audience.
Field Guide to Sycamore Island, Blawnox, PA
For Rick Duncan and Allegheny Land Trust
Morels break into damp spring light
past the three-trunked sycamore
on the channel-side where river traffic
flows, past the great blue heron nest
rising above the pebbled shore. Coal
barges tear silty loam and leave river
rocks for the Allegheny to hawk
and swallow, where turkey vultures sun
their wings like black crosses on electric
trees, where cedar waxwings trill
inside the Indian cigar tree. Scratched
spicebush potpourri. Orange
impatiens exploding. Do not live
like the wolf spiders in the storage silo
dining on tadpoles, never knowing
the dredge spoils that rise above the jet
skis and the fishing poles, never drinking
the sumac tea that boils into red paint or
holding the delta of green cottonwood
leaves that twist and conspire, never
rising with the ailanthus toward
the canopy sprouting neckbeards
about girdled cambium
as our island
itself down the river.
open my eyes and peel
grapevines off softwood.
I could break down
at any second.
I could smell acrid water
pouring from the discharge.
I could see
myself burning in the sky.
I could have been an eagle.
— Mike Good