The Greening of Literature by Gretchen Primack

We are thrilled to present this talk by Gretchen Primack, given at the ASLE conference at the University of California, Davis, on June 28, 2019, as part of the session Writing WITH Animals, which focuses on literature’s responsibility to animals and the environment. Gretchen’s talk was so captivating, so inspiring, and so important we asked her for permission to share it, and she generously agreed. The two poems included in the talk are Gretchen’s own, from her collections Kind and Visiting Days.

The Greening of Literature

by Gretchen Primack

A novel that grapples with, say, climate change, I would imagine, would be a novel that grapples with the realities of animal agriculture. That’s because it’s one of the greatest contributors of greenhouse gases to global warming, accounting for more than the entire transportation sector worldwide.

Poetry that involves discussion of the world’s water, I have to think, would talk about animal agriculture, since animal farms pollute our waterways more than all other industrial sources combined, contributing to dead zones in coastal areas, degradation of coral reefs, and public health problems. The industry also uses a mind-boggling amount of water, tens of times more than plant agriculture.

If we’re writing about the health of our oceans, we have to note that fishing is causing what many marine ecologists say is the biggest threat to marine ecosystems. 

If we’re writing about land use, I’d imagine we couldn’t ignore the fact that almost half the land mass of the lower 48 is used for animal agriculture. Meanwhile, enormous swaths of the Amazon basin are bulldozed every day—a football field per minute— for farmed animals and their feed; this wreaks havoc on the atmosphere, and local ecosystems, and indigenous communities. 

If we’re going to write about responsibility and ethics vis-à-vis our relationship with other sentient beings on the planet, I think we have to consider that the overwhelming majority of fauna living in this country are animals we exploit for food, and that wild animals are killed and/or displaced so that we can use their forests and fields for animals and animal feed.

I could go on, but you get it—we’re talking about an industry with an overwhelming effect on our planet but which gets very little play in the creative arts. Since eco-literature has a mandate to look issues in the face, I see this as a real failure of the genre. And I have a few ideas about why that is. 

One is that food is simultaneously just about the most intimate thing in the world and the most political. I once read in the New York Times Book Review, “The meat problem is really one of politics and, above all, of identity.” That’s self-identity, plus family, culture, society. That combination leads to whiplash and overwhelm and confusion, and that can be hard to write through—though what a wonderful challenge. 

I’m sad to say that we also ignore these paramount issues because it’s simply in our interest to do so. Animals, of course, are conscious individuals. Our insistence that we’re the only species with consciousness, ironically, shows our limitations. The more studies that come out about animal cognition and behavior, the more we look unintelligent for assuming it couldn’t be so. It’s humbling. Anyway, if we are in the habit of eating bacon, we don’t want to acknowledge the sentience of pigs. Pigs are smarter than dogs and preschool humans, but if we see them as individuals who have relationships and value their own lives, we have to change—the way we eat, the way we think, the way we act, the way we write. And human beings—even ones who are very progressive on some issues—are a conservative species. We don’t want to change from what’s usual and comfortable for us. And if doing so puts us at odds in any way with other people in our families or communities, change is even harder. If I asked for a show of hands of people who wish the 2016 election had gone a different way, I’d see a forest. If I asked for a show of hands of people who don’t consume any animal products, I’d see fewer trees. It’s hard to stand out, especially from the very people we count on to stand with us. 

Be that as it may, to ignore the role animal agriculture plays in our eco-themed work, and to ignore the ethical demands of eco-literature with regard to animals, is to do so at our peril. This is a worthy subject for creative writing. This does belong in the literature. So I want to talk about some ways to approach it if you want to but aren’t sure how to start. 

I think point of view can be a very powerful tool here. And it can keep work from being overly didactic because of its focus on the individual. For instance, what if you wrote a second-person poem addressing an animal affecting the environment? How about a chicken? It’s unusual and even laughable to consider writing a poem about a chicken, yet if someone wrote about a hawk or hummingbird…what’s the difference, in any way that matters?

It could start as an observation from a number of perspectives—for instance, the look of a chicken—the way she moves her head, the way his feathers lie. Or it could start with research; what are the lives and deaths of chickens like? What do they do to our environment? 

What about chicken cognition. Scientific American reports that chickens possess communication skills on par with some primates, use sophisticated signals, can be deceptive and cunning, empathize, solve complex problems, and take prior knowledge into account. This is rich fodder for creative writing, and the tenets of eco-literature insist that we note it. 

Then there’s writing in the voice of an animal you may not have thought much about. This of course brings up anthropomorphizing. Well, what we do now is the opposite of anthropomorphizing. We ignore and/or belittle and/or negate if it suits our needs, and our planet is suffering for it.

It seems to me it could be a pretty humbling, fascinating frontier to swing in the other direction. What about a poem or story in the voice of a pregnant pig, an animal who spends virtually her entire life in a gestation crate? Or how about the last words of a manta ray caught and then thrown back into the water, dead, as bycatch from the fishing industry?   

To put a human mind into a manta ray in a poem might make some uncomfortable. But what if we stopped worrying that we are deigning to give a species too much credit? What if we erred on the side of respecting another species too much? What would our literature look like…what would our environment look like?

Third person, with a gaze at an animal, is more common in animal writing, though we rarely use that gaze for farmed animals, and it’s certainly a sound tool. I want to illustrate that with a poem from a book of mine that’s all about the dynamic between our species and others; this poem is an example of an attempt to put some of the issues of eco-literature into a poem about a cow. Most of the poem deals with the ethics of ignoring, exploiting, and belittling other species; the global warming comes in at the end. 

Love This
                                                           If you permit
                                                           this evil, what is the good
                                                            of the good of your life?
                                                                        —Stanley Kunitz
The body floods with chemicals saying, Love this
and she does, and births it; it is a boy 
she begins to clean and nose, but he is dragged 
away by his back feet. She will never touch him 
again, though she hears him howl and calls back
for days. 
Her breast milk is banked for others. Her son 
is pulled away to lie in his box. 
He will be packed for slaughter. How ingenious 
we are! To make product from byproduct: 
make use of the child, 
kill and pack and truck him to plates. 
And when her gallons slow, we start over, 
and her body says, Love this! And she does, 
though in a moment she will never touch 
him again. His milk is not for him.
And when the milk slows too slow, 
she will join him on the line, pounds 
of ground. How we will dine! 
And talk of our glossy dogs! Her body 
will break up on our forks, as mothers 
beg us for the grain we stuffed her with, 
and children beg us for the water 
scouring her blood from the factory walls. 
And when her wastes and gases and panic
heat our air so hot our world stops
breathing—then will we stop? 
Then will we grow kind, 
let the air cool and mothers breathe? 

In the time I have left, I want to switch gears, but you’ll see soon to how it relates. When we talk about the choices we make as writers and as humans, it can be interesting to have those choices thrown into relief. 2.6 million Americans and countless others around the world don’t have the privilege of choice that we do because they are in prison. I’ve been teaching incarcerated men since 2006. People there have almost no control over their environment in any sense of that word. People on the outside may claim it’s “too hard” to be vegan or to find optimal circumstances for writing and sharing work on these themes, but let me tell you about an environment where it actually is near impossible to do those things: prison. We out here are so fortunate that we have choices, so I want to encourage us to understand and treasure that privilege and to use it.

I’ll finish with a persona poem—almost all of the poems in my new book are persona poems set in prison—in the voice of a man who has somehow managed to live his vegan values in a maximum-security facility. This man, like the other men in this book, is fictional. But he’s based on a friend of mine, a hero of mine, who became vegan in prison as part of his renunciation of violence; veganism was, for him, a logical and necessary step to that end. (He’s now out and it’s much easier to be vegan and an activist and writer.) Here’s the poem inspired by him, which I hope also exemplifies the idea of writing WITH animals. 

Knowledge (East Wing)
I honor life by not taking it anymore. Not a fish's life.
Not a calf's. No one's brother or child. 
I did violence. I put it between my teeth
and it formed my blood, and I took blood.
Now I eat what they ate in Eden before violence.
Now I ask forgiveness for the life I’ve taken
that wasn't mine to take — the man, and the calves 
and fishes, the chicks and their mothers. 
The cops laugh. Their work is domination.
They lord over, and some men on the block 
call themselves kings. But I am done with that
in every soul of me, every body.

Gretchen Primack is a poet and educator living in New York’s Hudson Valley. She has taught and/or administrated with prison education programs (mostly college) for ten years. She’s the author of three poetry collections, Visiting Days (Willow Books), Kind (Post Traumatic Press), and Doris’ Red Spaces (Mayapple Press), and a chapbook, The Slow Creaking of Planets (Finishing Line 2007). She co-wrote The Lucky Ones: My Passionate Fight for Farm Animals with Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary co-founder Jenny Brown (Penguin Avery 2012). Her poetry publication credits include The Paris Review, Prairie Schooner, Ploughshares, FIELD, Poet Lore, The Massachusetts Review, The Antioch Review, New Orleans Review, Rhino, Tampa Review, and many others, and her work has been chosen for several anthologies, including Best New Poets 2006. Her poem “You Are a Prince,” published in Ploughshares, was featured on Gretchen is a passionate advocate for the rights and welfare of non-human animals and lives with several of them, along with a beloved human named Gus.

Click here to purchase Kind at EcoLit Books!

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