For poet Paisley Rekdal, her latest collection of writings is an intimate admission of a very human tendency.
When people look at animals, the poet said, they humanize them. And when people look at other humans — especially humans with whom they don’t easily relate — they dehumanize them. In some of our more shameful scenarios, we reduce other people to simple beasts.
“I think when you write about animals, you are in the danger of making them human. Especially animals that are domesticated,” said Rekdal, who is the University of North Texas Rilke Prize winner this year for her most recent book, Animal Eye.
“When people talk about animals that are domesticated, they are often in this weird space where they aren’t really animals and they aren’t really human. I understand that. I mean, I live with three dogs, and I’m the same way.”
Rekdal is the second winner of the $10,000 prize. Named for the great German poet, Rainier Maria Rilke, the award was established two years ago to recognize a book written by a mid-career poet and published in the preceding year that demonstrates exceptional artistry and vision.
Throughout the book of Rekdal’s poetry, which came out just last year on the University of Pittsburgh Press, there’s an unsettled and unsettling question about the complicated relationship between people and the beasts of the earth and air. Rekdal, a professor of English at the University of Utah, said that when she dug even deeper, she found that the beasts of burden we’ve tamed over centuries carry more than our packs and drag along more than our covered wagons.
“When people talk about animals, a lot of the time, they are talking about the worst part of themselves,” Rekdal said. “I’m fascinated by the problems of intimacy. And not just romantic intimacy, either. But when you think of how we relate to animals, it’s not all that different than how we relate to other people. You love animals, and you put all of these ideas about yourself and them onto them. Your relationships you have that same problem — you love people, but they are different than you.”
So we’re drawn to animals over and over again, Rekdal said, because they are avatars. They stand in for the self and for the people who are most important to you.
Rekdal puts herself smack dab in the middle of this conundrum throughout Animal Eye, but its a particular poem, “Easter in Lisbon,” that is probably the most revealing. Rekdal observes herself immediately after a sudden breakup with her traveling companion — a black man she was working on a project with in Dublin, and with whom she traveled — at a rundown zoo where a cage full of baby lemurs break out of their cage to lunge for an orange she’s drawn from her purse. The zoo becomes a metaphor for the things that hammered at the blooming attraction between her, a biracial young woman, and the black man who was a curiosity for the Africans in Lisbon who marveled at the “new milk” color of his skin next to the “blue-blackness” of their own. The zoo becomes a metaphor for the Rodney King beating and the riots that followed in Los Angeles. In Lisbon, the poem says, Rekdal and her companion had to face European newspapers that insisted that King’s beating rendered the United States the failed experiment of North America.
“Why would I put these stories together — all these baby monkeys rushing out at me with the Rodney King story raging in America?” Rekdal said. “Everyone kept saying ‘America is Ruined.’ Even if you don’t want to be racist and you know its wrong, there is something so deeply ingrained in the language that you find yourself dealing in this coded language. By writing about animals, we’re sometimes able to deal with things about ourselves that aren’t easy. Why do we cling to the animal world to describe ourselves?”
Animal Eye also touches on our collective habit of watching. In the poem “Voyeurs,” Rekdal paints a dire scene. A horse is being taken by trailer to a racetrack. A woman is inside the trailer, and is pinned under the horse after the animal falls.
“It’s a dark poem about needing to know the gory, gossipy details of this story,” she said. “The horse trips and falls on her, and if the horse moves, it can kill the girl. The poem refuses to give the reader any of the details the reader wants to know. There’s this craving to know what’s going to happen, and it’s as if we’re narratively punished for it.”
Rekdal said Americans and Europeans in particular grapple with a Christian view of the world — culturally, that is. The idea that there is a spirit world existing alongside the concrete world is part of the Western culture’s worldview. Humans are set apart from animals, and yet humans aren’t as in control of their fate as they think.
“That was one of the things I thought a lot about when I lived in Wyoming. That was the place where nature called pretty much all the shots,” she said. “They had this libertarian streak out in Laramie, where they didn’t plow the roads after it snowed. You were on your own. Your in this environment, and you sometimes can’t get a hold on it. That fallacy — if you get enough technology, if you get enough control, you won’t have to rely on anyone else — that goes away fast when you live in a place like Wyoming. When you live in the wild, you have this constant reminder that you are not alone.”
Professor Corey Marks and his colleague and poet Bruce Bond surveyed about 100 books submitted to this year’s Rilke Prize. Marks said he and Bond look through the poetry and decide which titles aren’t strong enough to be contenders for the prize. They then split the remaining sum of the books in half, he said, and read those titles before swapping them. From there, the two poets pick 10 books.
“We read those several times and have several discussions before we settle on our finalists. The prize-winner is picked from those last books,” Marks said.
Marks said they don’t make any requirements about form or subject when searching for the Rilke Prize winner.
“One of the things that marks contemporary poetry is that it’s so diverse,” Marks said. “There are so many poets doing so many things, in terms of form and in terms of subject. I think we really felt that full range of American poetry was very much represented in this group of books.”
Marks said Rekdal’s book — her fourth — was a remarkable collection.
“I think one of the things that struck me rather immediately is that I was in the hands of a poet who was rather mature, and fiercely intelligent,” he said. “There was also this sense of careful attention given to all the poems. They are full of thinking but they are also marked by a lyrical beauty, almost. And that really fits the bill of what we are looking for when we give this prize.”
Rekdal said she wasn’t expecting the award. The university press submitted it. Animal Eye has been widely praised, and was also nominated for the prestigious Kingsley and Kate Tufts Poetry Award, which comes with a $100,000 cash prize.
“I was totally out of the blue,” she said. “It was the best kind of surprise.”
The Rilke Prize, she said, will probably buy her a new roof.
“Not very romantic, I know,” she said.
David Holdeman, the chairman of the UNT English Department, which grants the Rilke Prize, said the award is good for the university and the department.
“We’ve got some faculty in our department who are doing exceptional work,” Holdeman said. “It was one thing for us to go out and hire B.H. Fairchild, a poet who is already well-known and who was already doing important writing, but it wouldn’t make sense for us to do that if we didn’t already have faculty members doing exceptional work.”
Holdeman pointed to Mark and Bond, both of whom have pricked up ears nationally and abroad for their writing, along with Miroslav Penkov and Ann McCutcheon, who are racking up accomplishments for fiction writing. Holdeman said the doctoral program in creative writing has attracted more graduate students to the university as well. Faculty members and strong doctoral students have even fluffed the somewhat “impractical” reputation that can keep undergraduate students from pursuing an English degree.
“Our numbers are growing,” Holdeman said. “A lot of students have told me that they don’t want to be tied to a degree that might be too limiting. We’re seeing a lot of students — business majors, psychology students, engineering students — who want to study with a poet like B.H. Fairchild, Bruce or Corey. That idea appeals to them. There is a lot of serious writing going on, and I think the skills that it takes for that serious writing are fostered between faculty, students and community.”
Rekdal said she’s not inclined to defend the existence or practicality of poetry.
“Honestly, I don’t really care,” she said. “I think poetry survives without a Bill Gates behind it. Poetry is just pleasure. It’s free, it’s there for the taking. I’m always kind of baffled by the way people think that poetry somehow needs a champion. People should appreciate poetry for what it is, and a lot of times, it’s just fun. It’s supposed to be an after-dinner mint, but it can be darker, meatier and harder to understand. Poetry can do all that, can be all that.”
UNT RILKE PRIZE READING
What: Poet Paisley Rekdal reads poetry from “Animal Eye” and a book of sonnets about Mae West.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Golden Eagle Suite, at the UNT Union.