Well Aware: The Diverse Disciplines of Daryl Farmer

(Featured image: Daryl Farmer, “Skagaströnd Sunset, Iceland”)

by Maureen Long

A teacher never knows what piece of advice will stick. When Daryl Farmer was a graduate student in psychology, he decided to take a poetry class.  “My psych professor told me to quit wasting my time on poetry,’ Farmer said. If it was reverse psychology it did work, as Farmer quit the psych program and went on to get a PhD in creative writing at the University of Nebraska in 2007.

After teaching stints in Georgia and Texas, in 2010 Farmer came to UAF where he has been a beloved creative writing professor in the English Department ever since. His kind, calm, quiet demeanor would have made him a great psychologist and one can hardly blame that psych professor. But readers and students are grateful that he chose to be an artist and teacher.

An aficionado of poetry, fiction, non-fiction, photography and music, and a passionate teacher and traveler–he and his wife have lived in 12 different states since they were married–Professor Farmer is a walking–sometimes bicycling–interdisciplinary program all by himself, an academic one-man-band. He cannot resist looking at life from every imaginable perspective, and this appetite for experience feeds his art, teaching and life.

For instance, most people would have been happily content, not to mention sore, to ride a bicycle 5,000 miles across the western U.S. as Farmer did in 1985 when he was twenty years old, thinking it the trip of a lifetime. Farmer, however, decided to do it twice, twenty years apart. These two bike trips were the subject for his first book, Bicycling Beyond the Divide: Two Journey into the West (2008).  

Image courtesy of Daryl Farmer

He admits that the first time he cycled across the west he had no concept of what he was getting into. “At twenty I don’t think I had any idea of what arduous was. You just get on your bicycle and go…. Then once you are out there you find out all you can do is keep pedaling.’ In a way that is also his theory of writing and his best advice to students; don’t stop and sooner or later you will get somewhere.  

That bike trip also inspired him to start keeping a brief daily journal so he could recall the basic details of the trip.  But the act of writing that daily journal was itself a life changing experience, as formative as the five thousand miles he put on the bike. Writing a daily journal was the start of a compulsive habit that he still continues, and the beginning, as he put it, of “what later became a writing career.’

Farmer believes that the retrospective act of writing is the process that enables an author to live life to the fullest extent, to feel and experience a myriad of details otherwise lost in the hurry of day-to-day existence. “To write of one’s journey is to live it twice,’ he wrote.  Like travelling itself, attentive writing is an “act of heightened awareness,’ otherwise inaccessible in the confusion of existence from moment to moment.

Farmer’s quest to encompass the wholeness of life through multiple avenues of artistic expression is particularly clear through his interests in music and photography, both radically different forms of awareness from writing. Music is a more recent interest, but he has long been a writer with a camera.

“Cloud Forest, Mindo, Ecuador”. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Here’s the thing about my abstract photos: they allow me to see the natural world in a whole new way. This photo, for example was taken in the cloud forest near Mindo, in Ecuador. On a cursory level, just walking through, the forest appears green. Green leaves, green ferns, green trees, green brush. Maybe black soil, blue sky, but primarily green. This photo, though, suggests otherwise. Had I not taken it, I would not have realized the colors I was missing. So sure, it’s about color and design, maybe even whimsy. But it’s also about awareness, of looking deeper, of re-awakening.

“Photography’s always been my connection to place, more so than writing. Writing is more a reflection later, but in the moment, in the place I always use photography as a way to connect with it. But it’s a little bit of a double edge sword because you can start becoming so focused on the image through your camera that you’re actually missing the world.’

Though he has long been an accomplished landscape photographer, his recent interest has been in abstract digital imagery, composing as he is shooting. In part this grew out of his 2017 artist residency in Skagaströnd, Iceland. Captivated by the country, Farmer has kept returning to Iceland since his first visit in 2013. “There’s something kind of ethereal about the whole place,’ he said. “I was trying to capture…a sense of that. I can do the traditional scenic photography, but I was just trying to do something a little different.’

“Across Húnaflói Bay, Iceland”. Photo courtesy of the artist.

“I just use slow shutter speed,’ he said. “I take the camera and I move it. I don’t think you could do this with film… .It’s about getting color and designs and lines.’ In true interdisciplinary fashion, this movement toward the abstract in photography has shaped his writing.

“It’s invited me to think more in terms of subtext I think, in my writing… about what’s between the lines.’ Farmer points to a recent prose poetry poem where the juxtaposed stanzas are related but are not an obviously linked narrative. “There’s this kind of mix of images that add up by the end of the piece, but maybe early on you don’t want the reader to think about them too much.’ He talks about aiming for mood or tonality in his writing that happens in his abstract photographs as well.

So what advice does Daryl Farmer give his students? He laughs, “I don’t think I’m very original in this. ‘Write every day.’’ And then he pauses. “I think that idea of awareness is invaluable to a writer.’ Each day Farmer makes sure to look up and pay attention to the sky. He records the moon in his journal, keeping track of the phases–“just as a means of constantly being aware.’

Check out more about Daryl Farmer here.

See more photographs from Farmer’s travels below.