“Why a book of vegan poetry?” asks editor Emma Letessier in the introduction to Even In My Dreams: A Collection of Vegan Poems. As a poet herself, Letessier has found writing poetry to be cathartic; like many vegans who live with the daily awareness of the suffering that inspired them to choose this way of life, she writes that “poetry allows us to take emotions that are raw and painful and transform them into something beautiful, powerful.”
And the poems in this collection do just that. There are poems for every reader in this book, from the fun and the playful to the thought-provoking and heartbreaking. Many poems articulate the cruel processes of farming—babies taken from their mothers, animals caged and shorn—often asking readers to take the animals’ point of view. Other poems are conversations: animal to farmer, vegan to non-vegan, horse to rider.
Nicola McLean’s “Time,” calls out the hypocrisy of those who love animals continuing to eat them. In “Those Little Deaths,” Ashley Capps writes of toads, mosquitos, and spiders:
…I remember an enormous spider we smashed,
the difficult flag she’s put up
in our doorframe, the way she just hung in the middle
and breathed. …
While many of the poems may be distressing to read, there’s humor to be found as well, as in Dominic Berry’s limerick “A Vegan from Slough.” And there’s inspiration in poems that encourage activism and that celebrate the earth and animals, as in Kat von Cupcake’s “Goat Power”:
… I know I may look
like a delicate flower,
but do not underestimate
my immense caprine power.
In reading this collection, vegans will be reminded of why they live the way they live. Non-vegans, Letessier hopes, may capture a “glimpse of the world through our eyes, a chance to lift the veil, allow yourself to feel our compassion for the suffering of other sentient beings and understand the very tangible consequences of our everyday choices.” In other words, this book invites us to connect—not only with one another, but with the creatures with whom we share the planet.
Here are some of the books that were submitted to us over the past few months that are now available (or soon will be):
A Naturalist’s Guide to the Hidden World of Pacific Northwest Dunes
Author: George Poinar Jr.
Publisher: Oregon State University Press
Description: From Northern California to British Columbia, coastal dunes and beaches provide a unique habitat for plants, animals, and insects. With A Naturalist’s Guide to the Hidden World of Pacific Northwest Dunes, hikers and beach walkers on the Pacific Coast will discover a teeming metropolis of life in what may seem a barren landscape to the inattentive eye.
About Marine Mammals: A Guide for Children
Publisher: Peachtree Publishers
Description: Cathryn and John Sill provide a thoughtful first glimpse into the world of marine mammals in this latest installment of the acclaimed About… series.
An Ecology of Elsewhere
Author: Sandra Meek
Publisher: Persea Books
Description: Following her mother’s death, nearly twenty years after her time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Botswana, Sandra Meek, a writer of “dazzling, intimate poems” (Library Journal), began traveling frequently through southern Africa. During this same period, she and her sister traveled the American Southwest with their declining father, confronting and healing from a difficult family history before his death.
WILD ROOTS – Coming Alive in the French Amazon
Author: Donna Mulvenna
Description: Love, adventure, triumph and torment, this book will forever change how you see the natural world. What happens when you think you are joining your new boyfriend in France, but instead find yourself hacking through impenetrable jungle, being threatened by wild animals and canoeing along the anaconda infested rivers of the French
Author: Martin Rodoreda
Publisher: Odyssey Books
Description: Humans have finally laid waste to the environment. The once vibrant Earth is a desolate wasteland, and only the richest can live in comfort. When their meagre existence is threatened by the greedy and powerful mining dynasty, a band of renegades must fight for survival.
Cultivating Environmental Justice: A Literary History of U.S. Garden Writing
Author: Karen Fisk
Publisher UMass Press
Description: While Michael Pollan and others have popularized ideas about how growing one’s own food can help lead to environmental sustainability, environmental justice activists have pushed for more access to gardens and fresh food in impoverished communities. Now, Robert S. Emmett argues that mid-twentieth-century American garden writing included many ideas that became formative for these contemporary environmental writers and activists.
Author: L. G. Cullens
Description: An adventurous journey with contrasting cultures, natural world trials, physical and metaphysical experiences, and a roller-coaster of interactions, served up with a naturalistic style.
I’m pleased to introduce the new environmental literary journal The Hopper, along with a Q&A with the founders.
Tell us a bit about The Hopper and how it came to be.
Green Writers Press (our mother organization) produced one issue of a more casual and smaller distribution magazine called Greenzine last April 2015. When Sierra Dickey got involved with GWP as a poetry editor, the previous editors of Greenzine had since left the press. She was interested in the periodical process and decided to revive the publication and bring it up to a place where it could compete with other regional literary magazines.
What types of writing are you looking for?
We are interested in writing that examines the intersection of nature and culture, that explores human and more-than-human connections, and that articulates unique human experiences in nature. We are also interested in work that challenges environmental injustice and investigates the impacts of modernity. We publish poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, science narratives, ecocriticism, interviews, and book reviews, in addition to visual art.
We are currently running our first annual Hopper Prize for Young Poets poetry contest. The winning chapbook will receive $500 and publication. Please do learn more about it here.
Tell us a bit about your editors and backgrounds?
Dede Cummings is our publisher. At Middlebury, she studied poetry and was recently (30 years later) awarded a writer’s grant and a partial fellowship from the Vermont Studio Center. She is a book designer and letterpress aficionado and she loves designing the words of others.
Sierra Dickey is the founding editor who now oversees long term business development and organizes the Room for Craft interviews. An environmental humanities major at Whitman College, Sierra was sold on eco lit when she realized how crucial literature is to one’s understanding of the natural world.
Rose Alexandre-Leach works with our writers of prose and manages The Hopper’s website. She studied biology at Oberlin College and came to publishing by way of science education. She believes in the power of a good story.
Jenna Gersie is our grammar guru. She completed her master’s degree in environmental studies with a concentration in writing and communications at Green Mountain College. She works in environmental education and study abroad and is passionate about place-based literature and meanings of home.
Anna Mullen studied environmental literature at Middlebury College and the Bread Loaf Orion Environmental Writers’ Conference. She works in farm education and communications at Retreat Farm. Anna loves to read writing that reminds us that scientific soundings and artistic inquiries are not so different as we might believe.
We also have had great support from Green Writers Press editor John Tiholiz and interns Kaitlyn Plukas, Ron Anahaw, Emily Blohm, and Ferne Johansson, all students at Bennington College.
What writers inspire you?
We are all fans of classic “pioneering” nature essayists with our own contributing quirks. Jenna is a Hermann Hesse devotee, Sierra could read Mary McCarthy for weeks, Rose will read anything with a dragon on the cover, Anna loves reading about sea and space voyages, and Dede is a poetry hound—she loved it when her mentor, the Vermont poet Galway Kinnell, was asked if he was a “nature poet,” to which he replied, “What other kind of poet is there?”
What advice do you have for writers of environmental poetry and prose?
Please read widely (we’re all big proponents of opening up the nature writing canon) and eschew clichés. The weirder angle you have on an experience or a natural object, the better. Try to enter the mind of George Saunders’ and Annie Dillard’s hypothetical child. Pay attention to and discuss non-natural things to bring your real ideas about nature to light. Stop using the word nature.
With more than 12,000 writers at the conference, it was a crazy few days. Perhaps in part due to its Seattle location, a strong environmental theme ran throughout the conference, and I was pleased to see so many people at the “Greening of Literature” panel that I moderated with writers Ann Pancake, JoeAnn Hart, Mindy Mejia, and Gretchen Primack.
I only wish I could have recorded this session because each writer offered outstanding advice and inspiration for any writer pursuing eco-fiction or eco-poetry. I frantically took notes during the presentations. Below are a few nuggets that I was able to capture.
JoeAnn Hart is the author of Float and Addled. She posted her AWP talk on her blog and I highly recommend reading it in full. Here are a few passages that stuck with me:
As John Clancy said, the difference between reality and fiction, is that fiction has to make sense. So when I started Float, I began reading about marine plastics, which turned out to be not just unsightly, immortal, and deadly to sea animals, but toxic to humans as well. As the writing continued, my interest in the health of the oceans expanded. I read about dead zones, overfishing, bottom-trawling, acidification, and the opportunistic appetite of the jellyfish. I learned a lot about the sea, but much of it was pretty dry. Pages and pages of one damn fact after another. No racy scenes, no humor. No plot, no narrative, no characters. No Pauline tied to the train tracks. It was informative, but not particularly engaging. Intellectually, I was concerned; emotionally, I was on the outside looking in. Cerebral writing has a cerebral effect. Academic papers and straight journalism cannot convey human suffering; they can only calculate or report it.
But most readers don’t want to hear about populations; they want a specific person. Not the planet, but a particular place in a moment of time.
As writers, our most sustainable energy source is creativity, and we should use it freely. Literature teaches us to notice, to care, and to create meaning.
Gretchen Primack is a poet and author of Kind and Doris’ Red Spaces. Gretchen made clear that any writer aiming to write about the environment cannot overlook the animal industries. The pollution generated by these industries far outweigh the impact of cars — so we would make a much greater impact if we all simply stopped eating animal products.
Gretchen read Love This from Kind. Many of Gretchen’s poems take the perspective of the animals — and this is not pleasant place to be. It’s horrifying to see the world through a dairy cow’s eyes, to see your offspring yanked away from you immediately after giving birth, over and over again.
When asked how she could stay upbeat while writing such challenging poetry, Gretchen said that the writing process actually helped her, as she felt engaged and able to make a difference. And I think this is a key takeaway for any writer tackling difficult issues. It’s easy to get depressed when you see and learn horrible things, but by remembering that you’re putting your talents to work to help make a bad situation less bad, you can at least know you’re making an impact.
Gretchen also talked about a word that I find is too frequently used to distance us from animals — anthropomorphism. She asks: What if we, what the planet, erred on the side of having too much compassion for animals? Would that be a bad thing? And how much better would this planet be if we did just that?
Ann told us about her extensive research, which included newspapers (there were no books out yet on this issue), interviews with residents of the regions, time spent living in the region, and research at the state archives. She then let all this information “compost” for a period of time before she began writing. I love her compost metaphor because it drives home how important research is but also how this information often doesn’t make it into the writing directly, if it all. That is, Ann was clear in emphasizing how she often had to leave out information she wanted to mention when she realized that it would have come across as didactic — something writers of eco-fiction must strive to avoid.
She also provided tips about how to get a message in more subtle ways, such as relying on a child narrator. But she emphasized that you must prioritize your art above politics. That is, the story and the characters are most important — that the message will emerge through them, and not vice versa.
Mindy Mejia is the author of The Dragon Keeper. Mindy said that she didn’t set out to write an environmental work initially. She was simply writing a love story — a story about a zoologist and her relationship with a Komodo dragon — and that everyone loves a good love story. I couldn’t agree more!
Mindy talked about how she spoke to a classroom of students about her book and how they responded to fiction vs. nonfiction. What was interesting was how they had trusted her to get the science right — and this is a key lesson to any writer: The reader is placing faith in you, the writer, to not only tell a great story but to get the science right.
A bright future for eco-fiction and eco-poetry
I didn’t expect to leave Seattle feeling more energized than when I arrived, but that’s exactly how I felt — because I realized there are so many writers out there who are passionate about eco-literature. Based on the conversations, the readings, the number of people who dropped by our booth, I am optimistic about the future.
PS: I have to mention a nearby restaurant that I frequented while we were in Seattle: Veggie Grill. This place is all vegan, and I challenge any omnivore to eat here and not come away impressed. It’s one of many plant-based restaurants that prove that adopting a vegan diet is not about deprivation but about delicious, sustainable, environmentally friendly food.
You could read Melville’s Moby Dick. You could travel the world. You could read about the plight of immigrants and refugees in The New York Times and discuss them over dinner. You could visit the border. You could ship out on a whaler or ship out with Greenpeace. You could give birth, remain childless or try intro-fertilization.
Or, you could read Ellen Welcker’s The Botanical Garden. (Astrophil Press2010). The poem makes a great thematic companion to any of the above activities.
At the crossroads of Welcker’s poem, fetuses, whales, refugees, immigrants, and aliens intersect. The poem travels by invoking the names of exotic locales around the world — countries of islands and enclaves — and explores rites of birthing, passage, and injustice.
Why read poetry? Non-fiction typically fulfills our dogged pursuit of knowledge. These days, we want fast facts, conclusions. We want to be told. We want to be smarter.
But The Botanical Garden grows facts. Did you know? “The heart of a whale may weigh 1,500 pounds.” You can learn a lot about whales, refugees, detainees immigrants and aliens here. You can learn the definition of an asylum seeker and the differences between a refugee and an undocumented immigrant. You can hear what’s polluting the ocean: plastic nurdles and chemical weapons dumps.
However, in The Botanical Garden facts run wild but are not abandoned. They are interspersed with fictions, “A subtropical whale; the color of papaya.” Words are transposed to give facts new meaning, “while migrating the refugee surfaces.” Rather than expounding or straining to provide an objective report, the author goes exploring and the reader, setting sail within words, must also enter a mode of exploration.
In The Botanical Garden, you will encounter new ideas and unfamiliar arrangements that challenge preconceived notions. The contextualization of words, the unexpected nearness for example of “echolocation” and “ultrasound,” floats the reader into new territory. Listen: “The cries of whales sound eerily like the cries of displaced peoples.”
You will begin thinking about the problems of polluted oceans, drought, and displaced peoples, while a few seeded facts blossom into Welcker’s ponderables:
The heart of an immigrant may weigh as much as a nation-state.
Counting is a system that does not involve seeing.
Truth is a manipulation of language. Sometimes. Not always. Don’t be sorry.
How we move away from drought and how we move toward it.
With globalization, the distance between people has cinched. The world’s problems are not problems of one place. Our borders are shifting and ill-defined. Countries struggle to maintain them. We can leap from location to location. There’s magic in this movement. Welcker’s poem captures this experience and recreates it. The world — the work reminds us — is a complex, multi-faceted place.
The author describes how the work came about:
The Botanical Garden is essentially one long poem that travels through—and names—every country in the world. (And as I knew would happen, it is already out of date, thanks to the 2011 addition of the country of South Sudan). I was living first in Reno and then on Vashon Island, outside of Seattle, while I wrote this poem. I was thinking about these human-imposed state and nation lines, and how futile they are in the face of ecological concerns. Climate change has amped up natural disasters both in size and frequency, nuclear crises like Fukushima, oil wars, and habitat depletion are scratches in the surface. But the ocean – no one even pretends to lay claim, or responsibility, rather – to the ocean. It is truly a no-man’s land when it comes to protection and rehabilitation. So these were the kinds of thoughts I was exploring while writing my narrator through these countries, encountering walls, borders, and boundaries of all sorts, some solid, some invisible, and as she navigates them, finding her own physical and psychological borders shifting and mutating as well.
There are many worthy ways to read The Botanical Garden. You can read it line by line in order or at random. You can flip through it reading page by page in lapping, little waves or you can read it full on, in order, all at once entering the tides and watching them crescendo. The poem is like an ocean in this sense.
Welcker uses the poet’s bag of tricks: tantalizing metaphors, restless ambiguity, repetition, rhyme, alliteration, assonance, and general keenness for sound. She co-opts bureaucratic jargon, “Oceans are largely considered a waste management option.” to rebirth it in a new world. Sentences are repeated and strategically placed. The poet’s words plash together.
Surprising for a work that channels whales and oceans and transports the reader to big thoughts and far away places the actual book, The Botanical Garden, is a small square, the width of a hand. It contains two poems: the title work and “a map, my loves, I am drawing it by heart.” By contrast, the second poem with similar themes — love without boundaries — comes in a more familiar aural rush.
The Botanical Garden received the 2009 Astrophil Press Poetry Prize, recognizing innovative new voices in American poetry. It reminds us to dive into the teeming ocean of poetry, as well, when we seek to grow.
What to read next? Plume (2012) by Kathleen Flenniken, was inspired by reports of environmental contamination at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Richland, Washington, and is the 2013 Washington State Book Award Winner for Poetry.