This interview by H.L. Hix continues a series that began as multi-question interviews but now has taken the form of one-question “mini interviews.” To ask a series of questions about a book is to keep returning to the book and thus to emphasize its opacity, to regard it as one would regard, say, a painting. To ask a single question, Hix tells himself, is to emphasize the book’s transparency, to regard it as one would a window, as what offers a vista, what frames for us a world. The subject of this interview is Paisley Redkal’s Animal Eye (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012).
H. L. Hix: Two things I notice about these poems seem related to one another. One is that they make important distinctions such as respecting a thing for itself and respecting it for our imagination of it (3) and the head versus the heart (17). Another is that betweenness seems regularly present (again, just a couple of examples out of several: between the real and the imagined , and “the brief air between us” ). Are such contrasts and “betweennesses” important to the poems, and are they related to one another?
Paisley Rekdal: If I had to point to one theme that I think I return to, in one form or another, it’s our understanding of what comprises intimacy, whether it’s between people or between people and the natural world. I think our general imagination of intimacy is fairly limited: we tend to think of it as meaning the sexual or emotional connection between people in a defined relationship. The result of this is that we also tend to think of our attempts to become intimate with others in limited, physical ways, rather than in harder to define ways, such as artistic, philosophical or even legal representation. I think the particular problems of representation—of the self, of the “other”—really haunt most of my recent work. In particular, I’m interested in how the ways in which we get represented in the world often become the basis for how others around us become familiar or intimate with us. There’s always a gap between what we appear to be and what we are, a gap that—as a biracial woman—I think has been literalized for me in my life due to my shape-shifting appearance. Depending on who sees me, for instance, I am either Asian or white, something instantly “nameable” (thus made familiar) or further and further exoticized. I don’t think this is only or even primarily about race, however, but about the ways in which all humans have to choose to represent their identities and their ideas, in art and in language. This, to me, is the essential “betweenness” in which we all live: between a “real” self and a socially imagined self. This is why issues of art and artistic production are everywhere in the book. Also, obviously, images of animals, because I think that the ways in which we imagine and respond to animals really get at the heart of our problems of representation. I have three dogs, and I’m constantly amazed by how they have been bred to essentially fit into our human world, often with “human-like” attributes without ever being human. Reading the work of philosophers like Peter Singer, I’m struck again and again by how difficult it is for us to imagine how we might treat animals in a moral or “humane” way without having to make them human. Essentially, are we willing to give rights to creatures not based on our successful anthropomorphizing of them but based on the fact that they are their own beings? And how do we make that kind of argument without, at some level, anthropomorphizing them, making them more and more like us in our imagery? But if we see ourselves in animals (or try to see ourselves in animals), we also see animals in ourselves, which often gives rise to some of our worst and most racist language and imagery, something else I explore in one of the poems in this collection. But the “betweenness” we experience living and caring for animals is, I think, an intensely captured microcosm of the “betweenness” we experience living with each other, and I think it was one of the only analogies I could use to help me begin to explore the costs and consequences of our representations of ourselves.
Paisley Rekdal is the author of a book of essays, The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee, a hybrid-genre photo-text memoir that combines poetry, fiction, nonfiction and photography entitled Intimate and four books of poetry: A Crash of Rhinos, Six Girls Without Pants, The Invention of the Kaleidoscope and Animal Eye. Her work has received the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Fellowship, a Village Voice Writers on the Verge Award, an NEA Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize, the University of Georgia Press’ Contemporary Poetry Series Award, a Fulbright Fellowship, inclusion in the Best American Poetry series and various state arts council awards. Her poems and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming from The New York Times Magazine, American Poetry Review, The Kenyon Review, Poetry, The New Republic, Virginia Quarterly Review, Tin House and on National Public Radio among others.