Levi Rubeck speaks with poet Paisley Rekdal about the role of the pastoral and her approach to humanity’s uglier facets her book, Animal Eye.
While reading Paisley Rekdal’s Animal Eye, I was forced to wrestle with my own skewed notions of sentimentality. My personal distaste for warm fuzzies emerged as I began to admire poetry in high school. I wanted to separate verse from the sugar-sticky coating that all of my peers focused on, whether through love or liberal daydreaming of a more elegant world. To me, poetry was dirt under the fingernails, irreverent and befuddling hooliganism. As I’ve grown and written, I’ve been drawn to write about subjects easily drawn into the orbit of sentimentality, reflecting on traditional family relationships, but searching for non-traditional expressions and explorations of those often baffling and primordial interactions.
This book steps up to sentiment, but it’s hard to make a Kodak moment out of peeling back animal flesh, the embalmed father, trepanning, taxidermy, and other forms of physical and emotional violence. The tension that emerges from the familiar, but still queasy, juxtaposition between these types of emotions fuels Rekdal’s poetry. It’s easy to lose the leash on such subjects, but Animal Eye is taut, surprising, and frank, all without overdosing on the cynical or saccharine.
I had the pleasure of studying poetry under Paisley as an undergrad at the University of Wyoming, where my notions of tradition were challenged and my personal relationship with verse was reaffirmed. After reading Animal Eye I was excited for the chance to touch base with her again after quite a few years. After reading her travel blog Anapessimistic and some of her other poetry and non-fiction, I emailed Paisley with a few questions that she was gracious to answer.
Levi Rubeck The headline of the press release for Animal Eye proclaims that you have turned to pastoral themes. Were you specifically avoiding these themes before? What drew you to them for this particular work?
Paisley Rekdal I think I was avoiding these themes before because while I was in grad school, it felt like all the books being published were filled with a kind of middle-class pastoral life that I couldn’t identify with. I was born and raised in a city, and lived in places like Dublin and Toronto and Atlanta, so I had little exposure to anything outside of urban life. Then I moved to Wyoming and, more recently, Utah, and everything changed. Here, an urban life is very deeply connected to the wilderness, as it is not unusual to find coyotes and mule deer and even occasionally moose in your neighborhood. I remember one of my colleagues in Wyoming even had a mountain lion camp out on her roof, and I’ve certainly seen evidence of them (recent kills and tracks, for example) in some of the canyons here where I hike.
LR For such a pastoral book there is a lot of violence, bodily damage, and familial chaos. How difficult do you find it to step away from the strange and the grimey?
PR I think the reason there’s so much violence and chaos in this book is because that is, in part, my experience of the pastoral. For me, the pastoral isn’t simply Arcadian, though it’s good to remember the famous Poussin paintings with “Et in Arcadia Ego” scrolled inside as a warning: even in Arcadia, there is death. When you walk past a deer carcass eviscerated by coyotes or left there by hunters too lazy to clean up after their kill, it’s hard to look at the canyons around you as untouched reserves of natural beauty. But this may be, as you point out, part of my psychology: I’m as attracted to the discomfiting as I am to the beautiful, which is part of our experience of the sublime anyway, isn’t it?
LR In the poems of Animal Eye there is a real balance, and tension, developed in the juxtaposition of the violent, natural world, and the innate human desire to cultivate relationships. Did you feel a desire to maintain that balance throughout your writing process or is it the more natural result of your younger poetic interests and this pastoral direction?
PR I have no idea. I think that what has always interested me is the balance we’re all engaged in when we create, and enter into, any intimate relationship with another, whether that person is a family member or a lover or a friend, or even a physical environment. I think we have the desire to connect with other people and places, but all the reasons (and socially mediated impulses, now) in the world not to. So I think that I wanted to reflect that ambivalence or “balancing act” in the structure of my book. How do we connect to a person or place when there is so much potential in ourselves and in other people for emotional or physical harm?
LR When you started this book, were you focused on addressing subjects, themes, and language you may not have been drawn to as a younger poet? Or was this the natural evolution in your growth as a writer?
PR This is a good question. I think evolving as an artist is partly natural change and partly self-imposed challenge. There are times I try and push myself to explore subjects that scare me a little, or write in forms I’ve never tackled. I want to be ambitious in my work, but ambitious in a way that isn’t just flashy, which means that when I find myself thinking about writing about a project because it “sounds like a project,” I get nervous. I don’t want my poems to be all head, about how smart I can sound. I want them to push me—and hopefully a reader—towards an emotional revelation I might not have been able to achieve otherwise.
LR This book reminds me of the way Werner Herzog talks about nature, which is to say, dismissing the way many writers and creative folks tend to romanticize the natural world. As your travel blog indicates, you certainly appreciate what the world at large has to offer, but do you feel these bounties are tempered at all by a more pragmatic view of the natural world?
PR I think they have to be. I think it’s part of our romanticism about nature that make us, at times, bad advocates for it. I didn’t write this in my blog, but I felt a lot of guilt waxing poetic about all these beautiful and pristine places that I got to go to, thanks to the incredibly generous endowment of the Amy Lowell trust, while knowing that I was also in part responsible for burning the fossil fuels and contributing to the dodgy tourist economy that was helping to destroy it. I think this is the balance we all live with now, and we have to remember what’s at stake. Maybe this is the effect of living in Utah, where there are so many people who love and use the outdoors and who then turn around and argue to drill it up for oil. There was a wonderful piece in the New York Times recently about the BLM in Utah, and the fact that the community of Vernal wanted to rake in all this oil money from drilling but, to their great surprise, realized that they now had the second worst air quality in the U.S. from its effects on the ozone. It’s not enough to see the natural world as simply beautiful, or simply damaged, or simply an economic opportunity. The sad thing is, the natural world is all these things to us now, and advocating for it means we have to discuss—and see—the uglier “meanings” it has for us.
LR Do you have any initial reflections on your Total Vicarious Living Experiment, now that it is coming/has come to a close?
PR Well, I feel bad that I haven’t finished the project yet. I let the project lapse before I left Vietnam, and I still have two more trips in that blog left to talk about: Singapore and Australia. One thing that surprised me about the blog: I promised I would be honest about my experiences, but I found that there was a lot I really couldn’t talk about in that kind of forum, since what was so hard about the trip—missing my husband and leaving him at home—would be boring for other people to read, and likewise going on about how fabulous the whole experience was would (naturally) upset my husband. So I think I lost some enthusiasm for writing it all as I went along because I felt I had to curtail myself constantly.
LR You taught my first university-level intro to poetry class at the University of Wyoming, and I will always remember the first day when you told us that for the next class everyone was required to bring in a poem they loved, and that “Tom Waits and Bob Dylan lyrics don’t count.” As a professor, is it important for you to draw the distinction between poetry and other creative endeavors that may be described as “poetic?”
PR Oh, dear. What a moron I was! In my defense, not only do I love both Dylan and Waits, but I do see many of their lyrics as poems, or at least as close to poems as song lyrics can ever get. I wanted the students to get out of their comfort zones a little; I was afraid if I let those two go, then everyone would be bringing in song lyrics and suddenly we’d be having long discussions about Nas and Eminem. Now that my students listen almost exclusively to Katy Perry, I long for discussions about Nas or Eminem. But to answer your question: nowadays, no. I’d prefer to have us see the connections between creative endeavors to keep opening up the possibilities of what poetry can be. But this is a hard discussion to have without first having an understanding of what first constitutes our ideas about poetry. I also think it’s something I feel now as a teacher who is still in the process of changing. And can I say again how happy I am to see that one of my students is still making poetry, in any and all its forms, a big part of his life!
Levi Rubeck is a poet from Wyoming working in the Journals division of MIT Press. You can find him online at dangerhazzard.com.