I reviewed Our Held Animal Breath by Kathryn Kirkpatrick back in June and found that the book stayed with me long afterward, forcing me to revisit some particularly resonant pieces, like “Millennium” and “At the Turkey Farm,” that question the loneliness we feel when what we should see and feel is that connection we have with the animals and world around us. There is so much to discuss in the collection, that it would make an interesting book club discussion. I was intrigued enough to pose my own questions to the poet, and today, I share with you her answers.
Please give Kathryn Kirkpatrick a warm welcome.
Our Held Animal Breath seems to refer to the connections between ourselves and the wider animal kingdom; what is your view of humanity’s place in the animal kingdom and nature?
I’ve always felt myself to be what would now be called bio-centric or eco-centric. That means our species doesn’t have any greater right to the planet than any other; we should be sharing it with all the other creatures. I can remember as a sophomore in college giving an impassioned report to my biology class on endangered species. That was back in the early 1970s when it was becoming widely known how human activities were depriving so many species of their habitats. As a poet, I am increasingly working to develop my already strong empathy for animals.
How hard is it to change perceptions about how humans should treat animals and the environment and how important is it that we do so, in your opinion?
I think it’s critical that we change because our anthropomorphic beliefs and behaviors have already created what Bill McKibben has called Eaarth; he’s changed the spelling of earth to denote the radical shifts that have already happened to our atmosphere and our oceans such that the severe effects of climate change are now here and coming. I find it heartbreaking that this wasn’t inevitable; the scientists have been warning us for decades.
But perhaps what the scientists missed was that at the root of this environmental crisis is the human assumption that nature is here exclusively for our use, and we can see this everywhere in the U.S., most especially in our attitudes toward and our treatment of animals. We value those animals who serve a function for us–as companions, as workers; we encroach on the habitats of wild animals; and, we warehouse animals for food in the most appalling conditions. But animals are subjects of their own lives, and if we believed that we would respect their habitats and see that ultimately treating the earth with respect and gratitude is good for both us and all the others.
Most people actually love animals, and it takes a lot of work by the dominant culture to get them to ignore the suffering of animals. So when I can evoke feelings in a poem for other creatures, I can remind readers of the empathy they have always had. That might be some small step toward changing behaviors.
Ecofeminist ideas seem to make their way into your poems as well, have you studied the philosophy and its principles or stumbled upon them?
I’ve had my thinking transformed by the great eco-feminist thinkers of the last decades—Carol Adams, Val Plumwood, Vandana Shiva, Karen Warren, Greta Gaard. They make the crucial connections between oppressions of women, other marginalized peoples, and nature. It’s the most compelling philosophy we’ve come up with as a species, and if I were to have one hope for the 21st century, it’s that we’d act on those insights.
As a poet, do you find it difficult to build readership in today’s Internet driven world or is it easier?
The Internet, assuming we can keep it free, is a wonderful tool, and I think it’s brought poetry to a great many more people than ever before. A poem in a good online magazine reaches far more people than it does in a print journal. That doesn’t mean I think we should get rid of print journals—there’s a place for all of it. The monolithic thinking that says we’re all digital is the same kind of thinking that has brought us monocultures in all their limiting forms—in our food, our languages, our mindsets.
Finally, what are some of your favorite poems/poets who you’d like to see gain a wider audience?
I’d include in any list of my favorite poets Adrienne Rich, Seamus Heaney, Eavan Boland, Denise Levertov, Sylvia Plath, Paula Meehan, Gary Snyder, William Butler Yeats, and Carolyn Kizer. I have written a number of essays in the last ten years on the work of the Dublin poet, Paula Meehan. There is no one working today that I know of whose craft and vision interest me more.
Thanks, Kathryn, for sharing your views on nature, poetry, and behavior with us today.