Allison Hutchcraft’s poems have appeared in American Letters & Commentary, Barrow Street, the Beloit Poetry Journal, Crazyhorse, Cincinnati Review, and elsewhere. She teaches creative writing at the University of North Carolina–Charlotte. Her poem “Oh Dodo, You Can’t,” can be found here. Two more poems, “Dodo, Duodo, Sluggard” and “You, Again,” appear in the Summer 2014 issue of The Kenyon Review.
Is there a story behind your KR poems “Oh Dodo. You can’t,” “Dodo, duodo, sluggard,” and “You, again”? What was the hardest part about writing them?
Of these three, I wrote “Oh, Dodo. You can’t” first, and, as many poems seem to do, it came without warning. At the time, I had been living in a small, upstairs apartment in a carriage house that leaned heavily into Indiana soil. I was a student, just finishing the second year of my MFA and heading towards the stretch of summer before my final year. The trees outside were leafing, the birds doing what they do best in the sudden onset of Midwestern spring: crowding the air with song. Yet I was in a writing slump. Ideas stalled on the page, lines caught in my mouth and fell silent there. I remember wandering the apartment, looking for something to catch, and opening an oversized copy of The American Heritage Dictionary, inherited from the giveaway bin. It was the kind I remembered thumbing through as a child, with blue tabs marking off letters in pairs: AB, CD, and so on in gold, a dictionary with an encyclopedic flair, diagrams and photographs in the margins. I flipped the huge book open, landing in the “D” section, and there in the right-hand corner of the page was a drawing of the dodo: large-bodied, with those infamous wings, and feathers covering its strange head like a close-fitting cap. Then the definition, tucked into dense text:
dodo 1. A large, clumsy, flightless bird (Raphus cucullatus), formerly of the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, that has been extinct since the late 17th century. 2. Informal. One whose dress, lifestyle, and ideas are hopelessly passé. 3. Informal. A stupid person; an idiot.
Four years later, I’m still struck by that detail: it was the drawing and the words that captured my attention. The drawing was so clearly informed by a human eye; the dodo on the page was despondent, dour, nearly mourning. The accompanying definition reinforced that perspective: this bird was clumsy, its name meant idiot. Seeing those two modes of representation—one visual, one linguistic, but each determined in its own way to cast the bird into a human light—made me want to respond, to open up another kind of space. Were there other ways to think or write about—even write to—the dodo?
Over the next years, I worked on-and-off on these poems, which grew into the series So Legged and Footed. I read everything I could on the dodo, from Errol Fuller’s Extinct Birds to a facsimile of Thomas Herbert’s travelogue dating from 1626, which contains a description of the bird and its island, Mauritius. It felt like a slow wave of reading, imagining, dreaming, and then, once an idea began to take form, setting down to write. Perhaps what I struggled with most is also what fueled me creatively: from the beginning, I felt immediately and irrationally close to this bird, with a profound sense of—what?—not pity, which is of the wrong mind, and not sympathy either, but perhaps (can I say) a certain recognition. In the descriptions and images attached to the dodo, I recognized something of the perils of representation, of claiming ownership over another thing, of projecting onto nature what we may not admit of ourselves. Of course, my poems, also made of language and sharing in its histories, are forms of representation, too. In this is both possibility and risk.
Your poems in KR speak directly to the dodo, a bird famously extinct. How does writing a poem that addresses a nonexistent “you” differ from writing a poem that addresses an extant “you”?
There is something about addressing a “you,” whether that you is specific and personal to me or one imagined, that feels incredibly generative. The poem acts as a kind of leaning-in, a charged moment that seems all the more heightened because the recipient—the “you”—also strangely, impossibly, can never speak back. Even at a whisper, the poem quite boldly asserts: this is for you, to you; listen. The poet invents the whole means and tenor of speech, and yet, despite this fabrication, I am often struck by the intimacy and vulnerability of poems that address a “you.” In my work, I try to create that close lean towards intimacy, the sense of a private sphere made public on the page, which any reader may enter or hover alongside.
In writing these poems, I found the direct address to be stranger, more complicated. The dodo—an animal extinct for hundreds of years and from an island I have never visited—is unknowable to me. The intimacy of address is imagined. What’s more, the dodo, even more so than a human or extant “you,” can never respond. In this way, the silence that the dodo has been rendered to (by extinction, by representations, by competing histories) is embodied in the poems themselves. How much am I also part of that silencing? How might I try, through language, to at least complicate this problem, to expose where the edges fray? Somehow, the intimate—even domestic—address of “you” makes me feel more complicit, more deeply aware of the distance between me and this bird, a space that will not close.
What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
That writing is elusive and will not be taken for granted. To me, the process is so strange and changeable; when I think I’ve learned something, it shifts, turns about, takes on another quality of light. To write requires great patience and openness. I aspire to learn both.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
Being outdoors—whether it is in a neighborhood park or somewhere much farther afield—feels akin to the thrill and heightened attention of reading and writing. I grew up in the foothills of California and lived in western Oregon, then the flatlands of Indiana, and now in North Carolina’s heavy greenery. Perhaps these landscapes distilled in me a desire to be out in some great expanse. In any case, when I am in a forest or desert, mountain or shore, that is when I feel most like I am doing the work of writing (without ever lifting a pen).
Of all the things you could be doing, why do you write?
Writing quiets my mind. It holds me to an attention from which the spinning thoughts of the everyday begin to fall away. Writing is a way for me to think and feel with more precision. It opens up space. In writing, I hope to move further towards empathy, and greater imagination.
In the 1950′s, John Crowe Ransom invited a coterie of critics (William Empson, Northrop Frye, etc.) to write a “credo” for The Kenyon Review. The results became an essay series by ten leading critics on their core beliefs regarding literature and the critical practice, entitled “My Credo.” What would you include in your own credo? What core beliefs do you have about literature and books?
This is an important and difficult question, and one I will be making and re-making an answer to for years. It seems to me that one aim in literature is to find those places where what we assumed to be solid and sound takes on other, more intricate forms. This is difficult work, and it has no single guide. As a reader, I feel the immense generosity of such work, which I believe can engender empathy in our lives. In these ways, I seek literature that questions, that unearths and lays bare complication, that leads me, in whatever small way, outside of myself.
Could you tell us a little about one of your current or upcoming writing projects?
I am currently working on a book-length manuscript, which includes these poems on the dodo. Throughout the collection, there are animals, especially those of the field: horses, lambs, foxes, and dogs. These in particular seem tied to human experience and part of what John Berger in his wonderful essay “Why Look at Animals?” describes as our complicated, if not manic, relationship with animals: “They were subjected and worshipped, bred and sacrificed.” I am fascinated by Berger’s notion that the closeness between human and animal may be “the proximity from which metaphor itself arose.”
Ultimately, the collection is as interested in the human, in the domestic sphere, and the private worlds of memory and imagination. To the silence of those spaces, to the distance between animal and human, between “I” and “you,” I try, through poems, to respond.