gretchen primack
by Ali Berman
Categories: Animals, Causes, Print
Tags: .
Photo: Deborah Degraffenried

A few years ago poet and activist Gretchen Primack merged her two passions when she decided to write a book of poetry dedicated to exploring animal issues. Now, years later, her book Kind is available now, and it’s one you certainly won’t want to miss.

Whether it was in The Paris Review, Ploughshares or with Jenny Brown in The Lucky Ones, it’s likely you’ve read Gretchen’s work before. In Kind, you’ll follow her as she looks with an unflinching eye at the ways in which humans interact with animals. From dairy cows and factory farmed pigs to wildlife, Primack will inspire others to look deeper into our species and its complicated and often grotesque relationship with all others.

While the book investigates cruelty and its accepted place in society, I like to also think of it in terms of its title. Kind. What does it mean to be kind? Who are we choosing to be kind to? What does it say about us when so much of our day-to-day life revolves around the suffering of others? Gretchen takes this word and pushes the truths of our cruelty up against it. Most of that cruelty is second hand, inflicted by someone else and enjoyed by the rest. But all the same, decidedly unkind. Gretchen has joined the ranks of many great poets before her, taking a social justice issue and using poetry to tackle it from all sides.

Before we get to the interview, take a peek at one of the poems from the book, and head over to Gretchen’s website for an even bigger preview. Also, if you’re in the NYC area, come hear her read from Kind at the Jivamukti Studio on April 28th. I know I’ll be there.

Love This

If you permit
this evil, what is the good
of the good of your life?
—Stanley Kunitz

The body floods with chemicals saying, Love this,
and she does, and births it; it is a boy
she begins to clean and nose, but he is dragged
away by his back feet. She will never touch him
again, though she hears him howl and calls back
for days.

Her breast milk is banked for others. Her son
is pulled away to lie in his box.
He will be packed for slaughter. How ingenious
we are! To make product from byproduct.
To make use of the child,
kill and pack and truck him to plates.

And when the gallons slow, we start over,
and her body says, Love this! And she does,
though in a moment she will never touch
him again. His milk is not for him.

And when the milk slows too slow,
she will join him on the line, pounds
of ground. And how we will dine!
And talk of our glossy dogs! And her body
will break up on our forks, as mothers
beg us for the grain we stuffed her with,
and children beg us for the water
scouring her blood from the factory walls.

And when her wastes and gases and panic
heat our air so hot our world stops
breathing-then will we stop? Then
will we grow kind, let the air cool
and mothers breathe?

AB: Before Kind you worked with Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary co-founder Jenny Brown on The Lucky Ones. Did that project inspire Kind? Or had you always wanted to merge your poetry and love for animals into one collection? 

GP: I actually started Kind a few years before Jenny approached me about working on The Lucky Ones. Before these poems, my activist life and my poems hardly dovetailed at all. But in 2008, I went to a writer’s residency in Vermont. There I was surrounded by people whom should have felt like my literary family but whom instead made me feel quite lonely; none of them had any consciousness about animal issues. That loneliness, I think, is what led me to write my feelings on the subject into poems.

AB: In “Big Pig”, you not only find compassion for the animal who will “not see a sun”, but also for the person who works at the factory farm. Can you talk a bit about that choice and, as an animal rights advocate, finding that compassion?

GP: I see human rights and animal rights as entirely related: I’m against the powerful lording over the powerless; I’m against unnecessary cruelty and exploitation of perfectly worthy sentient beings. I spent several years as a union organizer and another several working as an educator in maximum-security men’s prison, and these issues are core in those settings, too. “The Workers,” another poem in Kind, discusses the kind of people who end up working in factory farms, and a lot of them are people with almost no power–the undocumented, the underage, the illiterate. Many are in these jobs because they don’t see an alternative. They recognize the horror of the job and it makes their lives horrible to be part of that system. It’s easy for me to find compassion for such people. There are also those who are glad to be in a setting where they can exercise power–perhaps the only power they have in their lives–over sentient beings, and they do so with even more cruelty than what’s inherent to the job; I don’t have compassion for them.

AB: The relationship between activism and writing can be a complicated one and a delicate balancing act. Was that something you struggled with at all for this book?

GP: Yes! I spent many years studying and writing poetry before I melded activism and writing. A lot of political poetry isn’t successful. But I wanted to challenge myself to try because everyone hears messages a different way; for one person, a video might open their eyes; for another, a leaflet; for another, a poem. When I showed “Love This,” a poem about a dairy cow, to my friend Jay, he responded, “Well, I don’t think I can eat dairy anymore.” Even if he were the only one, it would have been worth it to put that poem into the world.

AB: There are many heartbreaking moments in these poems. Was it difficult to handle spending days upon days with these subjects?

GP: It’s funny: in a way, spending days with these subjects was easier than just having the information rolling around in my head. We animal activists are always aware of what goes on in the name of habit, selfishness, ignorance, taste buds–we can’t turn on the TV or walk down the street without having that horror in our faces. In the moments I was working on Kind or The Lucky Ones, I think I felt in a way I was wresting some control of the issue instead of being controlled by it.

AB: Poets have always incorporated social justice issues into their work. But, despite animals being regular characters in poems, animal issues aren’t often explored the same way as human rights issues. Are you hoping to change that with Kind?

GP: So true–there’s plenty of, say, anti-war poetry, feminist poetry–I feel strongly about these issues, too, but they are represented in the literary world. There’s very little about social justice for animals. Since poets and other artists are often people who think deeply and critically about the world and human beings’ choices, I find this sad. If Kind helps readers and also other artists to think about these issues–if it helps to fill that void and inspire others to do so, too–I’ll be happy!

About Ali Berman

Ali Berman is the author of Choosing a Good Life: Lessons from People Who Have Found Their Place in the World (Hazelden) and Misdirected (Seven Stories Press). She works as a humane educator for HEART teaching kids about issues affecting people, animals and the environment. Her published work can be found on her website at aliberman.com. In early 2012 Ali co-founded flipmeover, a production company with the mission to use media to raise awareness of social issues.

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