Susan Richardson is a poet, performer, educator and editor, whose three poetry collections, Creatures of the Intertidal Zone, Where the Air is Rarefied and skindancing are all published by Cinnamon Press. In addition to her recent residency with the Marine Conservation Society, she is currently poet-in-residence with both the global animal welfare initiative, World Animal Day, and the British Animal Studies Network. Susan has performed at festivals throughout the UK, on BBC 2, Radio 4 and at Universities both nationally and internationally. She co-edits Zoomorphic, the digital literary magazine that publishes work in celebration and defence of wild animals. Her fourth poetry collection, Words the Turtle Taught Me, will be published in 2018.
In this Q&A, Susan shares the background to her work and two poems, including ‘De-extinct’, written for the 2017 World Animal Day.
Charter: Your poems are filled with feathered, furred nonhuman creatures – why do animals feature so prominently?
SR: The most obvious reason is that, from childhood onwards, both companion, and wild, animals have been a significant presence in my life. Living, as I now do, on the Pembrokeshire coast, I enjoy almost daily sightings of a whole network of wild animals, from Atlantic grey seals to kestrels, harbour porpoises and choughs. I also do weekly grey seal-watching and -monitoring at a local beach, and love following the annual rhythm of their lives from pupping to mating to moulting.
The other, more political, reason why animals feature prominently in my work is related to a creative decision I made almost ten years ago now. At the time, I was writing about a wide variety of different subjects, and teaching a broad mix of themed writing workshops and courses, but had been feeling increasingly perturbed by a range of animal welfare issues, as well as by such critical concerns as biodiversity loss and species-level extinction. I decided I could no longer justify producing and teaching writing that didn’t have an ecological/animal-centric impulse behind it – and since that moment, every aspect of my work has been swarming with animals!
Charter: Your latest collection, skindancing, is themed around human-animal metamorphosis – what research or experiences were behind the collection?
SR: In skindancing, my aim was to explore both our intimacy with, and alienation from, the wider animal world and our animal selves – the animal without and the animal within. My sources of inspiration included shapeshifting myths and fairytales from a number of different cultures, from Inuit to Celtic, Native American to Norse. The more research I did, the more it became evident that in our Western story tradition, there are few positive representations of human–animal shapeshifting: the process of transformation frequently comes about as a result of a curse or as a form of punishment. By contrast, in many non-Western stories, transformation into a nonhuman animal is something to be welcomed – it may be the means by which a character extricates herself from an unpleasant situation, for example. For me, this contrast came to symbolise the dysfunctional relationship with the animal world that exists in Western cultures, and a number of the poems in skindancing, including ‘The White Doe’, re-imagine classic shapeshifting tales, creating a version in which nonhuman animality is embraced.
Some of the skindancing poems were also inspired by my experience of, and training in, shamanic journeying – this has opened up new, intuitive routes into the poetry-writing process, in part through enabling me to meet, and develop relationships with, Power Animals.
The White Doe
As transformations go,
this has no more daunt than the suddening
of blood and breasts. It’s horizontal at its best –
belly hammocked between four legs
instead of back-trapped, compliant-wifing.
Though my hands have hooved,
they’re now attuned to fungus-rub and moss.
My teeth are flossed heatherly,
I splursh through burns
and I’ve learned to ask the sun to fondle-flank
after twenty-one dark-cursed years.
Birch bark tonguing me.
Crossbills beaking pine seeds tweakily from cones.
Ground-smelling rowan, berrily with otterness.
Ear-twitch to a cracklish sound –
worker ants nest-mounding.
All such a gorgeous –
not even the flies round my side-head eyes
can undeer me now.
At last I can be forgettish –
no more bracelets, grammar, manners,
standard lamps, strip lights.
No more room-fug of stew
and my stale mother’s breath.
No more lonelies and youfreaking.
No more curtains, shutters, blinds.
Instead, my hind-mind’s ferned
with ancient memories of wolf
and the urge to neverstill.
Though the man I was meant to wed
I will out-wood him.
For an unlife in the unlight
has taught me slinkness,
and how to happyeverafter
when I tellme tales.
Charter: You’re one of the editors of Zoomorphic magazine – what does Zoomorphic aim to achieve?
SR: With the launch of Zoomorphic almost three years ago, my fellow editor, James Roberts, and I hoped to create an online space for the publication of work in celebration and defence of wild animals by writers and artists from all around the world. We especially hoped to foreground poetry, fiction and essays that would refuse to follow the customary, anthropocentric route of writing about other species – with the human still playing a major role – and instead explore a more animal-centric approach.
We’re also aiming now to move beyond our schedule of regular online publication. We published our first print anthology at the end of 2016 – Driftfish, a marine species-themed anthology of poetry and prose – and we’ve also started to curate public events such as exhibitions, live performances, readings and writing workshops.
Charter: The Charter suggests that as a society we have become stranded beyond an ‘empathy gap’, alienated from animal points of view – can poetry help to bridge the gap?
SR: Yes, I believe so. Poetry’s a powerful tool because in addition to, or even often instead of, engaging the intellect, it aims to engage the heart. And once someone’s made an emotional connection with a particular issue, or a particular species, that connection’s likely to be strong and enduring.
Though it can be hard to sustain hope in these challenging times, I’m still convinced that one of the best ways of inspiring empathy with animals is by reconnecting our imaginations to them.
If we can inject an emptied egg
with DNA from a Pyrenean ibex
then embed it in a host domestic goat;
if we can tweak the genomes
of current cattle stocks
and strategically breed
till we’ve got an almost-aurochs;
if we can fashion fur and tusk
from mammoth cash;
fabricate great auks and engineer
sheer redemption –
we won’t need to untrawl,
for we can match
and mix, do
and un-die, get high
on tech, spawn sci-fact
from sci-fi, we can win
an extant grant
to forge pectoral fins like wings,
we can flatten its form,
pattern its back, gloss over
loss of habitat, install it
its first flawed ambush
of prey and say, ‘Yay!
we can resurrect an angel’.
Charter: What inspired your poem for this year’s World Animal Day?
SR: ‘De-extinct’ began as an exploration of whether bringing extinct creatures back from the dead might be a realistic strategy for stalling human-induced species loss, a subject on which I focused in my first World Animal Day poem in 2015. In my research into de-extinction, I came across some scientists expressing their support for proceeding with cutting-edge genetic engineering and other scientists and conservationists who are emphatically against doing so. I read accounts of attempts that have already been made to revive lost species including a Pyrenean ibex that survived for about seven minutes, having been born to a host Spanish goat before it succumbed to severe lung problems. Though I tried to approach de-extinction with an open mind, the more I read, the more disturbed I felt about the processes involved and the serious implications for animal welfare. Disturbed, too, by the fact that if we begin to believe that extinction’s not ‘forever’ and there’s always a chance that endangered species can be brought back at some later stage, we’ll surely be less bothered about trying to save them in the first place.
The possibility of cloning a shark, has not, as far as I can gather, been mooted yet, but if scientific hubris ever moves us in that direction, the creature who’s at the heart of ‘De-extinct’ – the broad-finned, flat-bodied angel shark – could be seen to be a prime candidate. It’s categorised as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Species and has already been declared locally extinct in the North Sea.
FIND OUT MORE:
Visit Susan’s website: www.susanrichardsonwriter.co.uk
Find out more about World Animal Day: www.worldanimalday.org.uk
Find out more about Zoomorphic: www.zoomorphic.net