Friday, June 8, 2012

The Banner-Like Breadth of Her Wing: An Interview with P&PC Hero Angela Sorby

Why more people don't flock to the work of Marquette University English professor Angela Sorby is a mystery to P&PC. With her eagle eye for the telling detail—it's rumored she can spot a metrical variation at a hundred yards—and the grace of a sandhill (or Hart) crane, she's been charming our magic casements with more than plaintive anthems since the 2005 publication of Schoolroom Poets: Childhood and the Place of American Poetry, 1865-1917. If you don't remember her 2010 explication of Herman Munster's civil-rights-era beatnik performance, make sure to set your spotting scope on it along with her two books of poems (Bird Skin Coat and Distance Learning) and the forthcoming anthology of nineteenth-century American children's poetry, Over the River and Through the Woods, that she has co-edited.

Sorby's essay "The Poetics of Bird Defense in America, 1860-1918" is also one of eight essays featured in Poetry after Cultural Studies. Migrating back and forth between the bird-related poetry of turn-of-the-century children's magazines, field guides, schoolrooms, and state Bird Day publications, "The Poetics of Bird Defense" reveals how popular poetry shaped the emerging environmental movement in the United States by combining the scientific observation and study (or close reading) of nature with the emotional and moral imagination more frequently associated with poetry.

We recently got a chance to chatter with Angela about that essay, the connections between birding and poetry, rogue taxidermists, and what she's been up to since writing "The Poetics of Bird Defense." Here, in a special bonus feature supplement to Poetry after Cultural Studies, is what she had to say.

P&PC: How did you first, uh, alight on the connection between birds and poetry?

Sorby: When I was doing research for a talk on "Animal Poems and Children's Rights in America," I kept sighting birds, especially in later nineteenth-century texts. Midcentury sentimental children's poets embraced pets and farm animals like Mary's Lamb, but later poets, inspired by the Nature-Study (and Child-Study) movements, were suddenly wild about birds. I think as society urbanized, birds emerged as a visible remnant of the natural world, especially as some species became threatened. For instance, Martha, the last passenger pigeon (pictured here), died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.

P&PC: Hmm. You write that "birds and birdsong are like poetry" and that some people felt like "poets were uniquely qualified to speak for (and advocate for) birds." Martha died in 1914. Poetry magazine was started in 1912, and "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" was first published in 1917. Connection?

Sorby: Absolutely. There is a circular three-way occult connection between Martha, Harriet Monroe [pictured above], and the eye of the blackbird.

P&PC: Your essay ends in 1918, the year that the Migratory Bird Treaty Act was passed and World War I ended. If this essay had a sequel, where would it go?

Sorby: I'm curious about Victorian birds, so if the essay had a sequel it would probably migrate across the Atlantic. The British imperial imagination is rife with peacock feathers and dead dodos, and certainly the Brits were, and are, avid bird-watchers.

P&PC: What's your favorite poem from the bird defense movement?

Sorby: Here's one from Over the River and Through the Woods [see below for more on this anthology] that I quite like, "The Great Blue Heron," by Celia Thaxter, though don't ask me why she spells "boulder" with a "w."

The Great Blue Heron

The Great Blue Heron stood all alone
     By the edge of the solemn sea,
On a broken bowlder of gray trap-stone;
     He was lost in a reverie.

And when I climbed over the low rough wall
     At the top of the sloping beach,
To gather the drift-wood great and small
      Left scattered to dry and to bleach,

I saw, as if carved from the broken block
     On which he was standing, the bird,
Like a part of the bowlder of blue-gray rock;
     For never a feather he stirred.

I paused to watch him. Below my breath,
     “O beautiful creature!" I cried,
"Do you know you are standing here close to your death,
     By the brink of the quiet tide?

"You can not have heard of the being called Man—
     The lord of creation is he;
And he slays earth's creatures wherever he can,
     In the air or the land or the sea.

"He's not a true friend of your race! If he sees
     Some beautiful wonderful thing
That runs in the woodland, or floats in the breeze
     On the banner-like breadth of its wing,

"Straight he goes for his gun, its sweet life to destroy,
     For mere pleasure of killing alone.
He will ruin its beauty and quench all its joy,
     Though 't is useless to him as a stone."

Then I cried aloud: "Fly! before over the sand
     This lord of creation arrives
With his powder and shot, and his gun in his hand
     For the spoiling of innocent lives!"

Oh, stately and graceful and slender and tall,
     The Heron stood silent and still,
As if careless of warning and deaf to my call,
     Unconscious of danger or ill.

"Fly! fly to some lonelier place, and fly fast!
     To the very north pole! Anywhere!"
Then he rose and soared high and swept eastward at last,
     Trailing long legs and wings in the air.

"Now perhaps you may live and be happy," I said;
     "Fly, Heron, as fast as you can!
Put the width of the earth and the breadth of the sea
     Betwixt you and the being called Man!"

P&PC: Forgive me for not remembering all of the details from 2011's The Big Year, but how is poetry part of the birding world today?

Sorby: Today's birders still adore poetry. They're especially taken with Emily Dickinson, whose poems are quoted in everything from John O'Neill's Great Texas Birds to Kenn Kaufman's City Birding. This makes sense because bird watching is non-narrative and fragmentary, and so birding is more like reading poetry than like following a prose narrative. You have to notice (and enjoy) patterns and details. Also, as you tramp through the woods in search of a Thick-Billed Vireo, you have to be willing to pause, change directions, or double back as needed—again, like a poetry-reader. However, contemporary birders seem to have conservative tastes; they haven't ventured far into twenty-first century poetry, unless you count Mary Oliver.

P&PC: Counting Mary Oliver? Only on this year's Christmas Bard Count. You're a birder, too, right? (My parents are, as well—that's them pictured here!) When and how did that start?

Sorby: Sadly wrong. I have bird-watched once, in coastal Washington State, with two ex-Deadheads-turned-biologists. I was shocked at the sheer variety of seagulls, since I'd always assumed that all seagulls were alike, i.e. plain white. But I am too constitutionally disoriented to bird watch on my own.

P&PC: Not even a bird feeder in the yard?

Sorby: We do have a bird bath that attracts mosquitoes. In the Midwest they almost qualify as birds by virtue of their enormity.

P&PC: Your 2009 book of poems is titled Bird Skin Coat. Coincidence?

Sorby: I have long been fascinated by rogue taxidermists. I spent a lot of time finding a cover image for my book, finally tracking down the work of a very publicity-shy artist (I won't mention her name) who stuffs and dresses San Francisco pigeons in elegant gowns. So my title was inspired by one of her pieces: a white bird in mourning garb.

P&PC: Both Schoolroom Poets and "The Poetics of Bird Defense" have as a central focus the intersection of poetry and childhood. Where to next?

Sorby: Karen Kilcup and I just finished a huge doorstop anthology of nineteenth-century American children's poetry, Over the River and Through the Woods, which will come out from Johns Hopkins University Press. Beyond that, I remain interested in how poetry circulates socially, precisely because it circulates so awkwardly. So my next critical book, Amateur Hour, is about the poetics of embarrassment, though it's still a work in progress. I also continue to write and publish colloquial poems in the spirit, if not the style, of the American popular poets—only without the part of "popular" that involves being widely read, well-known, or profitable.

P&PC: I'm almost too ashamed to ask, but "poetics of embarrassment"?

Sorby: I've been tracking the use of poetry in TV and film contexts, and have observed that it is primarily used to embarrass either the poet or the audience. Why is poetry so discomfiting? In 1974 Christopher Ricks wrote a smart little book called Keats and Embarrassment, but I think our collective sense of poetry as an inappropriate medium has only grown since the romantic era. When a poet begins to read or recite, no one knows what to do or where to look. To introduce a poem into an otherwise ordinary social context is the literary equivalent of stripping naked.

P&PC: That gives new meaning to "exposing" people to poetry, doesn't it?

Sorby: "Hankering, gross, mystical, nude"—what's not to like?