This small south Arkansas city was once one of the top oil producers in the nation.
Mark Spitzer is a novelist, essayist, poet, translator, sportsman, conservationist, self-proclaimed alligator gar nut and the record-holder for largest yellow bullhead catfish caught in the state of Nebraska. Originally from Minnesota, Spitzer found his way to Conway after stints in France and the Rocky Mountains. He favors the type of wrap-around sunglasses that fishermen wear, the ones with names like Hazard and Drift. You may have seen him driving around Arkansas this spring with a giant metal gar strapped to the top of his vehicle, his way of promoting "Return of the Gar," a collection of folklore, history, personal reflections and ecological meditations he published in March. He is the editor-in-chief of the literary journal Toad Suck Review, the author of more than 20 books, and teaches writing at the University of Central Arkansas. His new book, "Garapaima: A Monster Fish Novel," is available now from Moon Willow Press. We spoke recently about environmental degradation, storytelling traditions in Arkansas, catching the big one, and the monsters that lurk within us all.
You traveled a good bit before settling in Arkansas. Is the alligator gar what kept you here?
I wouldn't say that gar did, but they definitely add to the allure and mystique of this place. I'm really happy to be in a place where there are alligator gar. In fact, the largest population in the state is right here on the Arkansas River between Toad Suck and Conway. That's definitely an added incentive to being here in Central Arkansas.
What do you think of the attitude toward conservation here?
At a state level, and even at a federal level, there's a really effective awareness. The fisheries here are being monitored and studied. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission does a lot of research in the field, does a lot of really good stuff for fish. Even the Natural Heritage Commission works with Game and Fish, and there's really good coordination between Game and Fish and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and UCA biologists who study fish, and biologists at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. Even with hellbender salamanders, which I'm also studying, there's a lot of consciousness and a lot of work being done on preservation and conservation.
The people, the citizens, are not quite as conscious, I think. People like their wilderness. They like to scream through it on four-wheelers and ATVs, and cruise around on the lakes at high speeds. And there's a lot of littering that goes on in this state, a lot of taking the resources for granted at a citizen level, unfortunately. But I think a new consciousness is coming around. It's happening in a lot of places.
In "Season of the Gar," you write that the problem isn't so much a lack of information, but a long-standing tradition of taking advantage of the world.
Well, that attitude is changing now. I was at a boat launch yesterday, and there's a big sign that's gone up telling people how to differentiate between the gar species, and asking that people — when they catch an alligator gar — report information on it to Game and Fish. These signs are going up all over the state right now. The laws have changed in the last five years. There are new limits. There's a new license that you have to have. It has taken a while for some of these things to catch on. But mostly I think it's all these cable shows ... .
Like [Animal Planet's] "River Monsters"?
Exactly. Jeremy Wade put the alligator gar on trial in the episode that I was on, and ultimately declared the fish not guilty of "crimes against humanity." Millions of people have seen this, and millions of people are getting the message that these fish were not as worthless and evil and disgusting as they've been depicted to be. The [newer] media is definitely the messenger these days. People aren't so much into reading articles and books anymore, as they are watching TV shows and videos on YouTube, and these are having their effect.
You are also editor-in-chief of the Toad Suck Review.
Yes. We publish one section called "The Eco-Edge." We publish fiction, nonfiction, poetry, essays or anything that we find engaging that has to do with natural sciences or conservation or the natural world. Nationally, [ecological writing] is really hot and trendy right now. It's probably the fastest growing niche in American letters at the moment. Because the environment is going down, there's a big demand to try to solve the problems that come with that. There's a big paranoia, a big fear, a big interest in it. Environmental subjects are being increasingly taught at universities. Publishers are publishing more and more "green literature." In Arkansas, here at UCA, we are teaching more environmental stuff in the writing program. I teach a class called "Ecopoetics" every two years. It's basically a class where students read essays about the environment and then respond in poetry.
Your new book, "Garapaima: A Monster Fish Novel," takes the reader to Nicaragua and Mexico and Canada. Are you deliberately branching out geographically?
Well, I'm going more places in search of fish for my nonfiction fish books. And I'm moving away from gar, I guess. I'm working on monster fish these days. I went to Spain this summer after wels catfish, which are these giant fish that can get over 10 feet long. I caught a couple of those, a couple 6-footers. It's one of the greatest feelings in the world to haul up a monster like that. I'm getting a little more international in my scope now. I'm traveling in search of "foreign" monsters.
How are attitudes different in those places?
I'd say, in third world countries like Nicaragua, conservation efforts don't even really matter. I mean, what I found is that peasants are forced into fishing, and they keep everything they catch. They keep fish that aren't even old enough to breed because they have to feed their families. And they sell these fish at the markets. We have the luxury in the U.S. of actually having very healthy fisheries, compared to the Third World. But even more so, states and governments monitor the health of our natural resources to try to do things to keep them balanced. Those departments don't exist in some of the poorer countries. I think the attitude is more of desperation.
What effects can a work of fiction have that a work of nonfiction can't?
Well, nonfiction has a lot more credibility. People look at it as if it's written in stone, and people say, "Oh, this is the way it is. This is the truth." Fiction, of course, is a lot more subjective. It reaches a different audience. It is appealing to those who are looking for messages of the imagination. So it indirectly affects the natural resources. One example is Edward Abbey's "The Monkey Wrench Gang." That's a fictional story about people who ran around trying to protect their area, basically practicing guerilla warfare. And although it wasn't true, it sent a message and it set an example. Institutions were born from this. A whole new environmental movement was born from this. Movements were born out of those movements. All that came from basically a second-rate novel.
Right. Tim O'Brien: "That's what fiction is for. It's for getting at the truth when the truth isn't sufficient for the truth. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth."
In fact, those stories might even be more powerful. It's a vehicle. Whether you're writing fiction or nonfiction or poetry, if the language is engaging, it's going to hold people. If it isn't, people are going to look for something else.
Ultimately, there's the message that fiction carries, in one form or another, about how you need to take care of your place [in the world] and you need to protect things, and to look ahead. Those are the basic messages I put into my fiction. But with the creative nonfiction the messages can get more direct and more specific.
I loved "Crypto-Arkansas." How did that book come about?
When I first moved here, I found the oral tradition — the stories about legendary monsters and folklore and history — to be just so colorful and out of the ordinary, compared to other places in the country. After a while, I had to start investigating some of these stories, like the Heber Springs Water Panther and the Terrible Green Gowrow. I'm really intrigued by these stories.
How do your stories fit into that tradition?
I'm preparing a talk about that right now that I'm going to give in a couple of weeks at a college in New York. I've always been fascinated by the idea of monsters and creatures, and these phenomena that we create as scapegoats. Pretty much everything I write has some sort of a monster in it. It's something that I'm pretty obsessed by. I think I'm more interested in the psychology of why we create monsters. We create these things to explain what we can't explain. That's why we originally created monsters. If you can't explain something, blame it on a monster. Then these stories go from one person to another and the monsters change. And then there's the misunderstood monster. Sometimes they even become good and help people out. I just think that monsters have a lot to say about us. One question that monsters beg is, "Who are the real monsters?" You look at what's really monstrous in the world and it all sort of leads us back to ourselves.
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