Guest Post, Cynthia Hogue: On Ways of Bearing Witness to Animals in Poetry

On Ways of Bearing Witness to Animals in Poetry: The Examples of Gary Snyder and Emily Dickinson

a discursive poem-blog

bee on flower

 

Gary Snyder writes of how artists can “join in the defense of the planet and wild nature.

They can ‘bear witness’ because they have been given, as in fairy tales, two ‘magic gifts’:

 

One is ‘The mirror of truth.’ . . . The second is a ‘heart of compassion’ [that] extends to all

creatures and to the earth itself. . . .  Anciently this was a shamanistic role where the [shaman]

 

became one with a creature. Today, such a role is played by the writer[.] This could be called

‘speaking on behalf of nature’ in the ancient way” (Writers and the War against Nature, 63).

 

Is it the ancient way to call the animal a creature? Is “speaking on behalf of” to “speak for”?

Watching a bee struggle for purchase between “Firmament above” and “Firmament below”

 

by landing on a clover “plank,” Dickinson refrains from putting words in the bee’s mouth.

The plank is “Responsible to nought” and when the “Billows of Circumference” sweep away

 

the bee, the “Bumble Bee was not -” The speaker’s claims to know the bee, hence her careful

tracking of his fate, are belied by the limits of her powers of perception: she can see

 

but not hear him. She does not “bear witness” by speaking on behalf of or for the bee. She

dwells on the surface, reporting the bee’s perceivable movements. An empiricist in method,

 

the speaker adopts a phenomenological diction, and the poem tracks the human watching the

insect trying to find a place to weather the universe, the “Circumference,” which sweeps him

 

at last on his way. She thinks about what she knows she has seen, but not what it means to the

bee. “Freight of Wind” is one vowel tone away from “Fright,” but the latter word’s laden

 

with a human’s reaction to a strong wind. “Freight” is merely material, the wind’s weight.

The event is “harrowing,” but to whom? Nothing is wrung from the bee, no sound not least

 

“A wandering ‘Alas’ –“ The knowledge that the speaker claims, “a Bee I personally knew,”

is ambiguous. How does she “personally” know the bee? Because she watched him

 

“sinking in the sky”? What kind of knowledge is that? The speaker cannot access the bee’s

interiority but only her own. She neither projects her feelings onto the bee nor personifies him.

 

Dickinson feels along the surface of her encounter with the bee. She does not cross physical

paths with him. She doesn’t save and cannot quote him. She does not put a human face on him

 

(although she gives him a gendered pronoun). She supplies the occasion for an imaginative

“Alas” but she acknowledges the word’s status: She’s close enough to hear that she can’t hear.

 

The bee is “not”: not her, not a fellow, not a figure for the writer, not like a human. Not cute.

We do not “personally” know this bee by the poem’s end. That is what she bears witness to.

 

 

This poem-blog was inspired by the study Surface Encounters: Thinking with Animals and Art, by Professor Ron Broglio in the Department of English at ASU, and the author thanks him as a pioneer in the field of literary animal studies. The Dickinson poem quoted is Fr1297.

Photo credit: Sylvain Gallais

#AWP14 Recap

#AWP14

Representing Superstition Review: Trish Murphy, Beth Sheets, Erin Regan, Sydni Budelier, (not pictured: Mark Haunschild and Elizabeth Hansen)

I’ve been back in Arizona for a solid 24 hours and have had time to defrost and debrief on my time at the 2014 AWP Conference in Seattle. I have been reflecting on my experiences as an AWP novice and wanted to share my thoughts. Plus, spending three days with poets and writers really makes you want to scribble something down.

 When I boarded the flight to Seattle last week, I was a bag of nerves. Why was I so unprepared? How was I going to speak coherently to the brilliant minds I was about to meet? What’s my name again? I settled in my seat, repeating “Erin Regan – I’m just an undergraduate” in my head, when I realized that I was sitting next to Benjamin Saenz, an author whose work I was introduced to last year in a Chicano literature class. I knew I would regret it if I didn’t say anything, so I introduced myself and complimented his work. We ended up chatting for the rest of the flight – him sharing stories about selling his mother’s homemade burritos for cigarettes as a child and offering me advice for the conference/life, me laughing and nodding and trying to take everything in. By the time he was suggesting I nurse my cold with a cocktail of bourbon and honey and texting Sherman Alexie, my nerves were abandoned.

Since that flight, I had the opportunity to be in the same room as some of my other favorite writers, people I’ve been reading for years like Sherman Alexie, Chuck Palahnuik, Ursula Le Guin, and Gary Snyder. Yes, some of those rooms were pretty big, but that’s okay. It was magical to hear them read from their work and speak about their experiences, but even more inspiring was being in the company of thousands of writers practicing their craft with such love.

As a literature and journalism major, and an undergraduate no less, I felt a bit on the outside this weekend. I’m a stranger to the workshop process and I’m not sure where/when/if I’m getting my MFA. When people asked me what I write, I had a hard time giving them a straight answer, stumbling over my words until landing on “I try to write fiction.” On Saturday, the final day of the conference, I offered this answer to a man behind his table at the book fair. He gave me a look and asked what that meant. Flustered and inarticulate as I was at this point (come on, it was the third day of this), I shrugged. He asked me if I liked to write, and when I said yes, he said, “I dub you a fiction writer.” I will continue to write and will begin to submit my work to literary journals, but regardless of whether or I get published, this weekend has made me a much more devoted reader and supporter of the literary community. This weekend, I realized that I am a writer among writers, a member of a community that is thriving.

On Friday, I was able to witness just how strong and spirited that community is during what is becoming an infamous moment in AWP history. Past Student Editor-in-Chief Sydni Budelier and I were sitting in the aisle of a packed room for a panel titled “Magic and the Intellect.” Lucy Corin was reading an excerpt from her novel-in-progress The Swank Hotel. The piece was rich with dark and disturbing images, a stream of dead baby jokes that showed us something powerful about the nature of humanity and pain. You can read a thoughtful summary of the panel by Naomi Williams here. In the middle of Corin’s reading, a voice from the back of the room, obviously offended, interrupted her and began a rant that accused Corin of “traumatizing” her audience. While the outburst was shocking, the support for Corin in response was truly stunning. People urged her to finish the excerpt, take her time, and someone even shouted “start over!” I, and many others, had tears in our eyes as a quaking-voiced Corin finished her reading to fierce applause.

This, I believe, is what we were celebrating at the AWP Conference: the communality of writers supporting other writers, creators praising and inspiring other creators. I’m thrilled to have been able to meet so many of our own brilliant contributors at the book fair as well – thank you to everyone who stopped by our table to say hello. I’m honored to share a community with all of you.

Meet the Interns: Emily Beckley

Poetry Editor Emily Beckley is entering her senior year here at Arizona State pursuing a bachelor’s degree in English Literature. Upon graduating in December, she plans to utilize her degree to get herself into graduate school to study publishing. Originally from Chicago, Emily hopes to move to the northwest after graduation to follow her dream of working in the editing/publishing field and also hopes to one day publish her own poetry for the masses. This is Emily’s premier semester at Superstition Review.

1.   What is your position with Superstition Review and what are your responsibilities?

I am a poetry editor for Superstition Review. I handle poetry submissions along with my fellow poetry editor, April Stolarz. This process involves reading submissions and giving my personal feedback in terms of quality and vision as it pertains to the finished product of the upcoming issue of Superstition Review. Outside of content editing, I participate in spreading the word about Superstition Review and increasing awareness for future writers who wish to submit.

2.   Why did you decide to get involved with Superstition Review?

I am graduating in December, and I am really trying to get myself some real world experience in the field in which I intend to seek employment. I want to work in the publishing industry; this internship will definitely give me the advantage when seeking a job. Also, I will be applying for graduate school and any internship will set me apart from other applicants.

3.   How do you like to spend your free time?

I like to spend my free time reading and writing poetry. Being a literature major, I tend to always be reading something that is assigned to me. So, I cherish the times I have to read works of my own choosing. I also love seeing shows around the valley with friends or taking day trips around the state on the weekend. I am also a thrift shopping addict, yikes!

4.   What other position(s) for Superstition Review would you like to try out?

If I were to have another position, I think being an art editor would be really exciting. I don’t have any experience with art, other than my own personal interests. But, handling submissions of people’s artwork would be really exciting and interesting.

5.   Describe one of your favorite literary works.

My favorite poet of all time would have to be Gary Snyder. All of his work speaks to me on a very personal level; the calm that ensues from reading his poetry lifts my mood instantly! “Rip Rap” is by far my favorite poem of his. I think I have learned a lot from his writing, and have carried a bit of Snyder into my own style.

6.   What are you currently reading?

Currently, I am reading Shopgirl by Steve Martin and Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë.

7.   Creatively, what are you currently working on?

I try to fit in as much time as I can every week to allow myself to write freely. I love writing poetry; it’s a very cathartic experience for me. I keep a portfolio of my work and try to update it every month with some solid pieces that I think will be worth someone’s time in the future when I explore writing as a career.

8.   What inspires you?

I feel that every day holds moments of beauty and poetry. I challenge myself to notice these moments and treasure them. Often, I write lyric poems praising small and seemingly insignificant occurrences or objects, even images and realizations that I think will bring a smile to my face one day going back and reading my own work. I also tend to write a lot of confessional style poetry. It can feel very cleansing when experiencing struggles in life.

9.   What are you most proud of?

I am proud of my positive attitude and appreciation for life. Not everyone can say that they are truly happy, and I take pride in knowing that I have taken the right steps to be just where I want and need to be in life.

10.   Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

In 10 years I hope to be working in the publishing industry and have published some of my own poetry. I would love it if I had the opportunity to share my work with the public and make a career out of something I am so passionate about.