Mary Akers: I loved your poem To His Wife in our July “Endangered” issue. I had the pleasure of hearing you read it–and a few other poems–then I also found Chameleon online. These are really fascinating subjects for poems. Are they part of a series? Or are you simply drawn to writing about animals?
Mark McKain: I am drawn to writing about animals, plants, rocks and places. This has led to writing a series on endangered species: endangered humans (friends, relatives, indigenous groups) as well as nonhumans whose existence is in question. My rule is that I have to have encountered these endangered species by being in their physical presence, usually in places I have lived. For example, I went to high school in West Texas and the horned lizard (horny toad) was very common in our backyard. One day my youngest sister borrowed a white sweater from my older sister then went outside and picked up one of those lizards. Little did she know that they can actually squirt toxic blood out of ducts beneath their eyes. She got blood all over the white sweater. I was very surprised to learn those lizards are now threatened, and I wanted to write about that. I wanted to write about it so that it included my own teenage experience of this animal and of my family situated in the semi-desert of West Texas. And I then wanted to write about endangered animals in Kentucky, Puerto Rico, Louisiana, Texas, California and Florida—all places where I have lived.
MA: Do you consider yourself an environmental writer? I’m asking because I think of myself as one, but I’m not sure there’s a clear definition of what an ”environmental writer” is. Do you have a definition you’d care to share?
MM: I do consider myself an environmental writer, but I try to resist definitions. I have been reading a lot about this very question: what does and does not make good environmental writing. One author that has really nailed some the problems of environmental writing for me is Lawrence Buell. In Writing for an Endangered World, he makes the point that environmental writing becomes distorted when animals are Disneyfied or portrayed in anthropomorphic terms. This is a type of Romantic personification. Animals and plants have worth in themselves and are not just foils or reflections of our own emotions and values. So good environmental writing keeps other species strange and other, different than humans, valuable as a living being. I do want to show animals as valuable in and of themselves, but I also want to show humans (usually my family) as part of the environment, and that the environment has an impact on us, especially, for me in the places where I have lived. Sandhill cranes flying over the busy I-4 corridor remind me of a close friend who as died and who I want to say something to as the sun comes up. A lizard flashing it red throat scared me when I was kid and now seeing this reminds me of the strange tropical world I entered upon moving to Puerto Rico when I was seven. I think about the near extinct Puerto Rican parrot which I never saw, the (near) extinct Carib peoples—did I actually see a few survivors with my father on weekend trips into the rain-forested mountains? My father, who just recently died, was so important to introducing me to these experiences, so I can’t and don’t want to separate my experiences from animals and the environment.
MA: Who do you read for inspiration?
MM: I am drawn to poetry in translation as well as science and natural history: Karen Solie’s Pigeon, Raul Zurita’s Song for His Disappeared Love, Alfonso D’Aquino’s fungus skull eye wing, Kim Hyesoon’s All the Garbage of the World Unite, Lorine Niedecker’s Lake Superior, Ida Stewart’s Gloss, Alfred Russel Wallace’s Footsteps in the Forest, Forest Gander and John Kinsella’s Redstart, Matthew Calarco’s Zoographies.
MA: You traveled to Antarctica and that trip inspired “To His Wife” among other poems. Do you often travel for inspiration? What is it about travel that makes you want to write?
MM: I try to travel at least once a year. Last year to England as I followed up on my Antarctica/South American expedition, visiting the Polar Museum in Cambridge, which has great exhibits on the English Antarctic explorers Scott and Shackleton, and also to the Sedgwick Museum, where Darwin got interested in geology and fossils. London is so rich culturally and there something about being in a strange and wonderful place that opens my eyes, slows me down and lets me see things in a fresh manner. I scribble while eating lunch in the crypt beneath St. Martins. More sentences waiting for the waterbus to take me to the Tate. The notebook comes out at the café at Foyles bookshop, thinking about my visit to the Physic Garden. My rule is to just take notes of my observations and see what comes of them later.
MA: Where would you like to visit that you haven’t yet? Do you have a bucket list for poetry inspiration?
MM: Since I’ve been to Tierra del Fuego and through the Beagle Channel, I’m thinking of continuing to follow Darwin’s journey to the Galapagos. But this may be vanity. I would like to go to Alaska and to see a volcano in Iceland. I need to go back to Puerto Rico, but may go birding in Cuba instead. I’m going to the Grand Canyon after Christmas. My father died in June and now I am going to West Virginia where his ashes will be interred. I want to celebrate him and remember all that he gave me, including the desire to travel and learn about the environment and cultural history.
MA: And finally, because we are a themed journal, what does “recovery” mean to you?
MM: I do believe in healing and the power of writing to help us heal. Life, the earth, the body renews itself continually. The environment will not be what it once was—but it will heal. Nothing will be what it once was. I do think we can come to terms with our own powers, and we must treat animals, plants, things, and each other with dignity, respect and equality. The earth isn’t ours to exploit. It is a place for all living things to flourish. If we can recover the rights of all living things to exist, all peoples to exist, then we may be on the path to healing.