“Inescapable and Unknowable”: On Animals and Poetry

Kate Sutherland’s first collection of poems, How to Draw a Rhinoceros (BookThug), has been shortlisted for a Creative Writing Book Award by the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment. Her work has appeared in a number of magazines and anthologies including Best Canadian Poetry 2016. She is host and producer of the podcast On the Line: Conversations About Poetry. She lives in Toronto, where she teaches at Osgoode Hall Law School.

Laura Clarke is the author of Decline of the Animal Kingdom (ECW, 2015), which was named one of the The National Post’s 99 Best Books of 2015 and Globe and Mail’s 100 Best Books 0f 2015. You can find her poetry, criticism and other writing in The National Post, Hazlitt, PRISM International, Riddle Fence, and Grain. She is the 2013 winner of the Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers from the Writers’ Trust of Canada and a 2018 writer-in-residence for the Al Purdy A-Frame Residency. She’s from Hamilton, Ontario and currently lives and writes in Toronto.

This conversation took place at Northern Belle in Toronto. It was transcribed and edited for clarity and flow.

Laura Clarke: Before we get deep, Kate, what is your favourite animal? For me, wolf and fox. Though the mule, who inhabits the key speaking role in my book, tugs maybe strongest of all at my soulstrings if we’re going to get anthropomorphic, which is most likely unavoidable in a discussion about animals. And what is your favourite animal-based YouTube video?

Kate Sutherland: I’ve been obsessed with manatees for a while, and keep returning to a mesmerizing video of hundreds of them huddled together for warmth in a Florida Wildlife Refuge. But, more recently, I’ve been seeking out sloths after seeing a fascinating documentary. I’m a throwback in my viewing habits, so it’s all about the wildlife documentaries on TVO and PBS. I’ll watch pretty much anything in that genre, but I think my favourite is Attenborough’s Natural Curiosities. If I hadn’t already been on the trail of Clara the rhinoceros when I watched the first episode, I might have ended up writing a book inspired by a nineteenth century giraffe named Zarafa instead.

LC: When you look at your book as a whole, it’s almost this legal defense of the rhinoceros, or at least a recording of facts and testimony and history in order to present a certain case of the rhino, or to dispute a certain presentation of it. I’m curious about how you see the worlds of poetry and law colliding and how the research works differently as a lawyer and writer, and how it all came together for this project.

KS: I didn’t think that’s what I was doing when I started it; I did that in an overt way in just one of the poems. But I do work on law and poetry now. There’s a whole field called law and literature that has a range of scholarship associated with it, and I’ve been writing about poems where the authors bring in in legal text, so I’ve been thinking of those two worlds together. But whenever anyone asked if I was doing that in my poems, I just said no. [laughs] I was surprised when people started saying they thought my legal background influenced the book. But even if it’s not set up explicitly, putting forward evidence and using the text in that way, I think you’re absolutely right. I’d like to do it more deliberately now that it’s been pointed out to me. I have always researched things that way. I just get interested in weird things and dig up everything I can.

LC: I do the same. But I’m not a lawyer, I’m just a weird person who does that.

KS: I’ve always written fiction, and the turn to poetry has been more recent … I didn’t realize that was a place where you could put that kind of energy. I had file boxes full of things that I thought maybe someday I’ll write a novel about that thing that I’ve researched and that’s why I spent all that time, but I’ve never wanted to write historical fiction. But that turns out to be a really interesting way to write poetry.

LC: Yeah sometimes when you become immersed in a subject, and accumulate a lot of research, poetry is the best form for it.

KS: A lot of times what fascinates isn’t just the information, it’s the language being used to describe it. I think both of us, when I look at our books side by side, the language around the natural history stuff, the taxidermy stuff, it’s the language itself that’s fascinating to work with.

LC: Clara, a famous touring rhino from the 18th century, is a prominent figure in How to Draw a Rhinoceros. Jumbo the elephant is even more famous than Clara: he’s the icon on Jumbo Video (RIP) and is used in other iconography. He’s an elephant celebrity. Then I think about the Tasmanian tiger, who died in the Hobart Zoo in 1933, totally unknown and unnamed.

Circa 1890: Jumbo, the famous elephant which belonged to US showman Phineas Taylor Barnum, at London Zoo in Regent's Park. (Photo by London Stereoscopic Company/Getty Images)

Circa 1890: Jumbo, the famous elephant which belonged to US showman Phineas Taylor Barnum, at London Zoo in Regent’s Park. (Photo by London Stereoscopic Company/Getty Images)

KS: They say it died of neglect and mistreatment.

LC: I’m wondering about the mythos that was cultivated around those animals versus other anonymous non-celebrity animals. Although there was an article just this week that put forth the claim that maybe the Tasmanian tiger isn’t extinct after all.

KS: I’ve been researching extinction and the science of de-extinction lately, so when I read that headline, I thought that was it, that they had cloned it or something, but no, people think they have seen it in northern Queensland, mainland Australia.

LC: That would be really fascinating, because the Tasmanian tiger is one of the emblems of extinction of the 20th century.

KS: Because it’s relatively recent memory.

LC: And it’s a large animal, and it was within captivity that the supposed last one died, with very little fanfare.

KS: Naming is interesting to me. I’m fascinated by the last-of-its-kind narratives, and so many of the lasts were in captivity, and they had names because they had that type of celebrity: Martha the passenger pigeon, Lonesome George the Galapagos Tortoise who I think is still alive but he’s the last one. [Editor’s note: read Laura’s poems about the last passenger pigeon here.]

LC: I mean he’s probably 500 years old.

Lonesome George, the last giant tortoise of his species, has died at about 100 years of age. (June, 2006) (RODRIGO BUENDIA / AFP)

Lonesome George, the last giant tortoise of his species, has died at about 100 years of age. (June, 2006) (RODRIGO BUENDIA / AFP)

KS: [Post-interview fact check: Alas, it turns out he died in 2012, aged about 102.] They live a really long time. As for why the Tasmanian tiger never got a name? I don’t know. But then I feel divided, because I kind of don’t like them being given names because it feels like anthropomorphism. All through the long Clara poem, I deliberately didn’t use her name. But when I talk about the book, I do refer to her as Clara, so I’m just sliding back and forth all the time.

LC: As we do.

John Berger (RIP) famously said animals are objects of our ever-extending knowledge. What we know is an index of our power, which must simultaneously be an index of what separates us from them. We learn more about animals every day from a scientific viewpoint. We use increasingly sophisticated technology to watch and learn from them in their habitat (versus the old school colonial method of snatching up beasts and plopping them into a zoo, circus, natural history exhibit, etc.), yet their interior lives remain supremely unknown to us. The market has never been more saturated with animals (literal products made from animals or consumer items shaped like or covered in images of various creatures), yet they have been steadily withdrawing from our everyday lives, both on an individual level and a counting-the-number-of-species-that-went-extinct-last year-level. Inescapable and unknowable at the same time. Flourishing as products of a capitalist economy while facing increased extinction, extirpation, and domestication as a last-ditch attempt at conservation. That kind of paradox is the perfect place for poetry to inhabit, right?

KS: It’s paradox upon paradox, all of them irresistible to explore. You’ve got me thinking about how some of the very forces behind the steady disappearance of animals from our lives can also push us into closer contact with them. Habitat loss is a major factor in the eventual extinction of many species but, in the meantime, habitat loss can bring animals into cities, or perhaps it would be more accurate to speak of cities intruding into animal territory. Humans and animals not used to occupying the same space can suddenly find themselves living in close quarters. Animal poems might forge a connection with a lost or distant species, or they could grapple with ongoing human-animal conflicts. Of course, in many poems animals serve primarily as metaphors. Is it the opposite of anthropomorphism to see the qualities of non-human animals in ourselves? And might that be a good thing (recognizing our common animal nature) or a bad thing (centring humans again)? I just googled and learned that there is an antonym for anthropomorphism: zoomorphism. What a glorious word!

LC: In these last Clara poems, you’re acknowledging yourself as complicit when you are anthropomorphizing her. You’re projecting your own fantasies on to her but completely aware of it. But it also grants her an interesting agency that she doesn’t otherwise have so she becomes subject rather than object for the first time in the book.

KS: I like how you think of that, because I was little bit puzzled and a little bit disappointed in myself when I got there. But part of the point of the book is about complicity.

LC: I really enjoyed the Elephant v. Rhinoceros long poem, in which you collage together a variety of historical fragments, most of which describe the two animals as violent enemies. It reminds me of when the media pits two powerful female celebrities against one another. All these texts throughout history try to pit the elephant and rhino against one another, even though there was never much evidence that they would be enemies, and it doesn’t make much sense that they would be. But the way that all these apparently historically accurate witnesses insist that they have some sort of blood feud, which is not something animals even have since it’s a human construct, was really fascinating to me.

KS: I kept noticing, as I was reading through the historical material, that theme repeating, but once I tried to collect it all together, the same language was also repeating, and that’s why I wrote it the way that I wrote it. I mean it’s partly what literary conventions were at the time: people just stole stuff from previous sources without acknowledgement all the time.

LC: “Officials Said,” a poem that knits together fragmentary descriptions of a rhino poaching, illustrates that same repetition of language from multiple sources, but in a modern context.

KS: In a journalistic context, bylines are often attached, yet it’s still the same phrases again and again. For centuries the same phrases were being used to describe elephant-rhinoceros contact, and the only evidence that they had were the staged fights, which actually never turned out the way they wanted them to. There were a couple of fights staged by monarchs. The animals would just look at each other bored, or one would run away, but there would be no actual fight.

LC: I was thinking about zoomorphism, as opposed to anthropomorphism, in literature and poetry specifically as a kind of site of power that can be used either by people from a marginalized perspective or by people with existing power to reinforce the status quo. I think particularly the Hemingway section in your poem “The Fun of Hunting Them,” which borrows fragments from Green Hills of Africa, reminded me of this, because he uses the language of zoomorphism to naturalize violence. There’s this idea that violence and conquest is natural because it exists in the wild. Him dominating an animal and by extension all this other related stuff, like male violence and colonialism, also has some justification because animals kill each other in the wild all the time. Hemingway was famously into bullfighting, as much as he was into trophy hunting.

KS: That was in the Hemingway and in lots of the other hunting accounts, that naturalizing of human violence–but it was also often presented as if the animal was asking for it, that kind of narrative of two animals facing off against one another, and the hunter has to go after the animal because the animal came after him, even though usually they didn’t.

I was trying to think of other examples of zoomorphism in poetry: when is it just metaphor and when is it actually assigning the animal qualities to the human? Then I was trying to think of some of the animal poems that are maybe like that, and the one that I was thinking of was Delmore Schwartz’s “The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me.” His body is the bear, right, but all of his animal instincts are now presented as bad things, so he’s carrying this animal around with him and it’s all negative. So it’s not the Hemingway kind of thing of self-aggrandizing by assigning those noble animal qualities–

LC: To Hemingway, he is an animal. A big strapping male animal facing off against another animal–

KS: Whereas when Delmore Schwartz is describing himself as a bear, he’s describing himself in a negative way, all the ways he’s not in control of himself and his appetites. I don’t know about using it in a way that can be empowering.

LC: I read a couple memoirs written by women dealing with trauma recently, Carmen Aguire’s Mexican Hooker #1 and Melissa Febos’s Abandon Me. I noticed them characterizing themselves as animals, not often as a specific animal, but using language that described feeling like an animal or a beast. It seemed like there was some link between processing trauma and inhabiting or using language to understand yourself as an animal, connecting to instinct and connecting to the body. There was something transformative or positive there.

KS: There’s an amazing series of poems about pigs in Kim Hyesoon’s Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream: “I’m OK. I’m Pig.”

LC: How do you think she figures into that equation?

KS: Well it starts with actual pigs, because it’s inspired by the sight of millions of pigs being buried alive during an outbreak of foot and mouth disease. There’s a way in which pigs and women kind of blend and it’s not empowering but rather acknowledging the ways in which both are mistreated so it’s almost like making alliances across species to fight the oppressor.

LC: Do you think it falls into zoomorphism or anthropomorphism or some entirely different strange creature?

KS: It feels like something else entirely, but there’s a strong surrealist strain in Hyesoon’s work, so it may be that it’s always morphing back and forth. I’m never entirely sure if the pigs are pigs or people, or whether it matters. But it’s very powerful.

LC: I was going to ask about animal poems you were drawn to lately, are there any others?

KS: The title sequence from Jennifer LoveGrove’s new book, Beautiful Children with Pet Foxes.

LC: People keep telling me it’s great!

KS: A lot of the focus is on the children, but I’ve been thinking a lot about the role that the foxes play in it, what they symbolize in all kinds of complicated ways. And there are two great books from last year, both called bestiaries–Bestiary by Donika Kelly and A Bestiary by Lily Hoang. There is another that I thought you might be interested in because you said you like wolves [produces Wolf Centos by Simone Muench].

LC: Bestiaries have their own language and logic, and what’s fascinating about them is that, given the time period, fantasy and fact often did co-exist. Literature and science and religion were so closely linked, and people inhabited a worldview that was completely different from ours. Open a bestiary and it may say totally normal things about a duck or a wolf and then it suddenly says something like and then the beaver rips off his balls and throws them at the hunter or the unicorn does this. Fantasy beasts coexist with real ones, real animals are doing totally bizarre mythological things that often have some moral idea at the core. Were you reading bestiaries when you were writing your book? Because it also purposefully combines so much fact and fantasy.

KS: I think that was one of the reasons I was so fascinated by Clara, because I was thinking about that moment in time, what people were expecting to see. She was being toured around, so people would see a poster that said “you can see a rhinoceros.” A lot of the language–this is the behemoth of the bible–what were they expecting to see? It was a moment in time when people weren’t sure if it was real or not. They had heard of it, it was in antiquity. Pliny talked about it, there’s Durer’s rhinoceros, this kind of fantastical representation of it, but they’re not really sure whether it’s real or not. It might be one of the things that’s going to be bumped out of the science books, you know? Because it sounds pretty implausible. Clara’s the naturalistic version of the rhinoceros–everyone has Durer’s vision in their head, which is a kind of bestiary version, with the extra horn and the armour–but then suddenly here’s this placid creature. I was thinking about the moment in time when we shift away from the fantasy and move from that to a scientific construction. But as you say, the science books of that time are still threaded through with fantasy.

Albrecht Dürer's 1515 woodcut of a rhinoceros.

Albrecht Dürer’s 1515 woodcut of a rhinoceros.

LC: It’s an interesting turning point in a society that starts to see itself as scientific and rational but is still operating on so much fantasy. It’s a potent and dangerous combination in Western society at the time, operating under the guise of scientific research when half of it is fantasy or very far removed from firsthand account or observation.

KS: And what do they think is a credible source? They had far too much reverence for antiquity so if Pliny said it, they thought it was true. I remember before I was reading about rhinoceroses I was reading Pliny on elephants and there’s a place where he talks about how they kneel down and pray, they’re very religious animals. I was reading Aristotle’s History of Animals as well and there’s one throwaway line, I forget who the person is, but Aristotle writes, “so-and-so is mistaken when he says that goats breathe through their ears.” I wanted to use that line in something, but I never managed to figure out where. It’s the march of science.

LC: It’s also pretending something isn’t religious or moral with this new scientific language, but it still is: they’re still calling it a behemoth, they’re still attributing these biblical and moral qualities to it, and still really thinking of it in those terms, while also presenting it as the new scientific rational viewpoint.

KS: Yes and it ties into the Hemingway-esque thing you were talking about before, where one can justify killing these animals if they’re presented as these fierce dangerous creatures.

LC: I was deep into the bestiaries as well for my book. I love how the convergence of mythic accounts and scientific accounts are often the same thing, ironically.

KS: And I love the variety of the bestiary but I also like to be able to get very deep into one animal, tease out all the details. I’m going to try not to do that again.

LC: You’re going to do a different animal next time?

KS: The project I’m working on right now started with Steller’s sea cow, and then I thought “okay, I’m not writing a whole book about manatees!” So I moved from Steller’s sea cow to Steller himself and now I’m more in the world of the scientist. Steller’s sea cow was also known as the Great Northern Manatee–it was huge, like two or three times the size of the manatees we know now. He described it in 1741 and it was extinct by 1768. I started noticing how many different animals were named after Steller, so I started digging into him and into the Russian naval officers who were on the ship with him.

Extinct monsters. London :Chapman & Hall,1896. http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/51560

Extinct monsters. London :Chapman & Hall,1896.

LC: Did you read the article about rituals and ceremonies for extinct animals in the Guardian? It’s about a group of people trying to create funerals for extinct animals at different sites around the world. Writing a book about endangered or extinct animals is another way of creating memorials for extinct animals. Or animals that might be extinct very soon.

KS: That makes me think back to what you were saying about animal celebrities and which ones have names and so on, and how much of what’s going extinct is completely ignored because it’s not a large charismatic animal–the frogs, the insects. Some way to actually mark the real depths of what’s going on seems like an important thing to do. I’m actually trying to do, related to this new project, a whole timeline of extinct animals, just a massive list of all these species, and it’s pretty overwhelming.

LC: Do you think the role of animals in poetry is changing? You don’t see the romantic view of animals that you used to, or even the kind of nature poetry you saw 40, 50 years ago–much of our poetry about animals is about extinction, colonialism, loss. It seems like animal poetry is a poetry of loss, of protest, of recording what is lost so we have a memory of it. There’s still an element of connecting to nature, but I feel like it’s more of a testament to what we are losing all the time.

KS: Elegy.

LC: Exactly.

KS: That’s what I’m reading too but I wonder if there’s other stuff out there that I’m not reading. Well, that was one the things that I was saying earlier: that there’s a sense that we’re losing contact but there’s also a sense that animals are up really close. There’s some of that kind of writing too. People are becoming quite intimate with animals one might not expect in an urban environment. People are writing about foxes and raccoons in a way that they wouldn’t have done before.

LC: You do see the idea of colliding with the wild in the urban more and more. And it is very exciting and thrilling and there is some sense of natural connection, but it’s also a bit threaded with loss because we shouldn’t really be encountering a coyote in our backyard. Yet it’s also this amazing testament to wild resilience, these various animals that have adapted really well to being in the city–coyotes, coy wolves, pigeons–and we do have all these unique ways to brush up against them. It’s tragic and funny at the same time.

KS: I was in a poetry workshop a few years ago where there was a discussion of the way we tend to default to nature even in an urban setting and how that can be a problem because it’s not really honest. Yes, we can encounter the natural world in the urban setting but it’s odd to privilege it in poems if it’s not a dominant thing.

LC: Berger talks about how the rise of mass produced images of animals does coincide with the decline of animals in our everyday lives. Even during the agricultural period, there were a lot of animals in everyday life because they were work animals and that’s where the idea of pets originates from. With the rise of cities and industrialization and retreating into private family spheres, that’s when you start to see the rise of all these consumer items printed with animals, the rise of stuffed animals, children’s toys and children’s books being aggressively animal-focused. Apparently the first stuffed animals were made out of actual animals, out of hide of calves from slaughterhouses. And it’s interesting that there used to a more direct link, that stuffed animals were made out of real animals, or a lot of toys might have animal parts or horse hair, but as it becomes more mass produced it becomes more removed from the real animal.

KS: And children might be kind of horrified now if you connected their toys to the real animal.

LC: I don’t think anyone wants their stuffed sloth animal made out of a dead calf.

KS: There’s a scene in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods. It’s so detailed about the butchering of an animal, and then the children play with the pig’s bladder. They blow it up and it’s a balloon. It seems more ethical to me because it’s a using every part of the animal sort of thing but, you know, imagining kids today batting around a pig’s bladder …

LC: That reminds me of Liz Howard’s poem “Boreal Swing” from Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent, where she describes using a moose carcass as a swing, and there’s nothing exploitative of the animal in that image. It’s this amazing image of childhood joy and being connected to nature.

I’m interested in circling back to the idea of contemporary animal poetry acting as a catalogue of loss and extinction, versus animals acting as symbols of personal freedom, exploring personal relationships with yourself or the world, or in promotion of nationhood and colonialism.

KS: It would be interesting to link that tendency back to the Romantics because we often speak dismissively of them, but they were having a similar struggle. They were writing all of that stuff to counter industrialization, so it was a different stage in the process of destroying the world than where we’re at.

LC: I was thinking about the Romantics and part of it is that we look at their conception of nature as too romantic, too colonial, too disconnected politically. But they were often writing against industrialization, and there was a sense of loss. It’s not like it was straight ahead revelling in the beauty of nature.

KS: They did think they were going to lose it and they were trying to preserve it in the very way that we’re saying. In the same way that we say if we take kids to zoos, then they’ll like the animals and care about the animals, and will be more environmentally conscious. Maybe they were thinking that about their audiences too. I just started reading a book, The Animal Claim by Tobias Menely, that talks about the creaturely voice and it argues that poetry in 18th century Britain up through Wordsworth was stronger advocacy for animal rights than a lot of what came after.

LC: In that it privileges animal interiority or because it was more political in terms of habitat protection, or some combination of both?

KS: I think the claim is about representing animal voices, interiority. We’re so hesitant to do that now because we keep being told anthropomorphism is a bad thing.

LC: And fair enough, the more we learn about how different the minds of animals are, but equally complex for the most part, the harder it seems to attempt to inhabit that voice.

KS: It’s very presumptuous to assume that you can, but it’s that double-edged sword we were talking about before, it also seems presumptuous to assume that there’s no kinship there.

LC: I think one of the things your book deals with really well is the tensions between, and the way we try to perform, conservation and education. The intention is often mixed up with exploitative acts or destruction that we didn’t recognize as such at the time, but deemed as educational.

KS: All of those scientist-collectors. Teddy Roosevelt, he was a conservationist, he was behind the institution of national parks in the US, and yet he killed so many animals in the name of preserving them.

LC: And national parks have a colonial past, so that connects as well. That’s also the central tension with zoos, there is a conservation aspect but also an exploitation aspect. This seems like a huge thematic concern of yours in the book, along with colonial violence and Western scientific arrogance.

KS: Thinking of rhinos who are from Asia and Africa, one can see that whole history between Britain and Europe and Asia and Africa through the rhino as a particular example. But then you mention national parks, and white settlers in North America tend to think of colonialism happening over there, but of course colonialism is happening here too. I guess that’s part of the point. If people start to see it in one context, maybe they’ll see it in another context closer to home, particularly the complicity aspect.