It would be nice if I was able to say what exactly it is that we are doing at these workshops … They are now taking place on a monthly basis, bringing together eight authors from different creative writing traditions, with various backgrounds, and locked down or at home in different locations. We are all interested in other animals in one way or another, which is, I suppose, why we write poems about or with them. Is this just another form of nature writing? Or is there anything more or new to be learned from writing with the various species borders – but also encounters of different species – in mind?
Arguably, some philosophers, and Mary Midgley is to be counted among them, have had high hopes for literature in general and poetry in particular. Midgley famously claimed that good philosophers actually need to combine the qualities of both lawyers and poets. Richard Rorty even considered doing away with most of philosophy and leaving especially the business of moral education to literature. And despite all legitimate worries about self-selection biases and the limited ways in which readers generalise from one story (think Black Beauty) to the moral universe (think animal suffering as such), every now and then, someone yet again articulates the hope that “little verses […] show, one might say, what the language of moral theories unsuccessfully endeavour to state” (David Cooper, “Animals, Attitudes and Moral Theories”, 2016, 28-29).
But how do we, as poets, respond to such hopes? Do we actually think these are hopes, maybe expressing beliefs that we ourselves wish to be true? Or do we find them ever so slightly overbearing, taking the play with language too seriously and maybe the fun out of it? Why should now poets, of all precarious people, be willing to assume the role of “unacknowledged legislators” in a world that has been so badly messed up by people who most likely rarely ever pick up a book?
Lest we get stuck in poetical-political meta-stuff, in our workshop meetings, we decided to focus on points of convergence: on ideas and philosophical puzzles that pop up here, in creative writing, and there, in philosophy. We started out by reading excerpts from Midgley whose work has – in virtue of the many metaphors, wit, emotional depth, and rhetoric giftedness it displays – poetic qualities itself. More specifically, we sort of “tested” her ideas about anthropomorphism, wildness, language and communication. These ideas resonate with people who encounter precisely such questions or problems whenever they want to write about animals. While Midgley did not produce anything like normative advice on creative writing, we used her thinking to come up with writing prompts, involving species who are well known from philosophical discussions: bats, lions, and wolves. That, inevitably, produced more questions – and super interesting and inspiring poems!
At a theoretical level, though, we touched upon various topics:
- In the context of using the first person singular and building relations through that, we were wondering whether that might be precisely poetry’s prerogative. As poets, we have the freedom and can have the fortitude to make new connections between all sorts of things, beings, and ideas. That doesn’t have to be justified as poetry’s “potential”, nor does it have to be a normative programme – can, of course, does not imply ought.
- In the context of language and vocabularies standardly used for other animals, which can often be abstract and generic, if not toxic and abusive, we were discussing various strategies of breaking such linguistic habits. While avoiding or exposing common places (“the wild animal”), unspecific terms (“a bird”) or abusive concepts are obvious choices, poetic techniques of generalising, abstracting, and omitting struck us as potentially tricky.
- Can the creative use of language possibly salvage some of the epistemic advantages of natural languages that have been banned from technical languages? And which are these advantages exactly?
- What might poetic languages look, be, sound, and feel like that really (?) allow to transcend species borders?
- What about the risks of “using” poetry to foster whatever one considers being “the best” for human-animal-relations?
- How can one make productive use of one’s human cultural habits without remaining caught up in them?
- What about the potentially darker themes of projection, stereotypes (e.g. animals as noble savages), regressions, and distrust in human-animal-relations and writing?
- What roles do one’s desires or maybe even levels of oxytocin play in all of this?
- Do animals communicate with us or not? Do they even bother? Should they?
- Is poetry confined to poems?
… the list goes on … and is likely to grow. I don’t know where this is going to go.
Maybe, then, it is rather nice that I am not able to say what exactly it is that we are doing at these workshops because we are in the process of so much: forging new relations, opening new perspectives, defining new interests along the way and, of course, writing. We write and we write, and yet again: write – about, sometimes with, sometimes for, but at any rate as animals. And, being only human, we are of course delighted should anyone want to learn more about our work – or get in touch. Just drop us a line (or a poem, for that matter).