Poetry News

Talking With Paisley Rekdal About Animal Eye and Natural Change

By Harriet Staff

At BOMBLOG! Levi Rubeck talks with poet Paisley Rekdal "about the role of the pastoral and her approach to humanity’s uglier facets [in] her book, Animal Eye." Rubeck studied with Rekdal at The University of Wyoming, where his "notions of tradition were challenged and [his] personal relationship with verse was reaffirmed." Here's an excerpt of their recent conversation:

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...

Read the full interview here.

Originally Published: August 30th, 2012