Stacey Balkun: It was such a joy to hear you read your poems at Glitterary, the queer literary festival that took place in Oxford, MS in April, 2021. The imagery in your work is so vividly beautiful and rich with meaning. Can you talk a little bit about how your poem “Ode to the Half-Male, Half-Female Cardinal” (published online at Grist) came into being?
Amie Whittemore: Thanks so much, Stacey! I’m glad you enjoyed the Glitterary panel. As for how “Ode to the Half-Male, Half-Female Cardinal” came into being, I have to admit it was inspired by a National Geographic article making the rounds on Facebook a few years ago. I found myself enchanted and inspired by this cardinal. One, it’s beautiful. Two, while biological sex and gender identity are not the same, they have a complicated relationship with each other and I feel like this cardinal encapsulated that complexity. One of the specious arguments used against LGBT+ people is that they are not “natural,” which is a loaded term to begin with; but what instances like this and other moments of “queer nature” (for instance, lesbian albatrosses or the complicated family structures of other bird species, such as crows, that defy heternormative-human conventions) demonstrate is that being a live is, for all creatures, a capacious and creative activity. There is no one way to be a human or a bird or anything else.
SB: I love how you phrase this: “There is no one way to be a human or a bird or anything else.” This seems to question the supposedly rigid binaries attributed to gender and our environment. Investigating these binaries is at the heart of queer ecology, isn’t it?
AW: I feel like I answered some of this question above. However, I have found Nicole Seymour’s work on this subject useful in framing what queer ecopoetics can do. Here’s a quote from her book, Strange Natures: “with a queer ecological perspective attuned to social justice, we can learn to care about the future of the planet in a way that is perhaps more radical than any we have seen previously: acting in the interests of nameless, faceless individuals to which one has no biological, familial, or economic ties whatsoever. This kind of action operates without any reward, without any guarantee of success, and without any proof that potential future inhabitants of the planet might be similar to the individual acting in the present--in terms of social identity, morality, or even species, if doomsday predictions are to be believed. It is invested in the ends (the survival of the non-human alongside the human) but emphasizes the means (caring for the non-human alongside the human).”
What I love about this definition of a “queer ecological perspective” is how it emphasizes caring for others--humans and non-humans alike--without regard for one’s own reproductive interests. Caring for life because you’re alive, basically. And, to me, queer ecopoetics is a way to explore this empathic terrain: how do we “queer” empathy, so to speak, by investigating our own anthropocentric behaviors (in writing and life) as well as finding ways to center nonhuman experience in our work, without colonizing it? Not easy, certainly! But I think the challenge is part of the thrill of such poetics.
What do YOU think “queer” is in relation to ecopoetics? I’d love to hear your thoughts!
SB: Yes--I adore Nicole Seymour’s work! In relation to ecopoetics, I think of queerness as form: how do we work around expectation? How to use the page and the techniques at hand to create meaning, to collapse the binary? It’s not a disruption, but it is an acceptance, an opening. It seems like this conversation will always come back to the idea of “nature” and “natural”: Who gets to claim natural? What exactly is “unnatural” and why is that word wielded as a weapon? Your poems find such beauty in what’s different, in disproving that “queer” is somehow ugly or unwanted.
AW: Thank you for saying that! As a queer person/writer who has not always foregrounded that identity, I really appreciate hearing that you see my work as “disproving that ‘queer’ is somehow ugly or unwanted.’” That means a lot.
I think the natural/unnatural binary is a deeply problematic one, as is any of the various binaries we use to divide human activity from nonhuman activity (i.e. a “manmade landscape” versus a “natural one,” or any discussion that centers economic “growth” without discussing environmental impact). These divides create an erroneous sense that there are two worlds: the “human” world and the “nonhuman” world. They divorce people from the consequences of their actions--their consumerism and their complicity with systems of social and environmental injustice. They also create rifts in our psyches: our well-being is threatened by our inability to see ourselves as interwoven into the fabric of this earth (as practitioners of ecopsychology would be first to note).
SB: I’m with you here: the divide is erroneous and even dangerous. This concept of ecopsychology is new to me! It’s so interesting, and I definitely notice that I’ve turned to poets who have immersed themselves in nature, going back to some of American poetry’s earliest roots. Do you think we can read Emily Dickinson as a queer ecopoet? I see so much of her work reflected in your poems “Flirtation Meditation” (Pittsburgh Poetry Journal) and “Hunger Meditation” (Grist). I wonder what your relationship is to her work.
AW: I think we can definitely read Dickinson as a queer ecopoet! I feel like it is hard to be an American writer without being influenced by Dickinson. And, because my first engagement with her was in high school--my favorite English teacher tasked us with writing emulations of a selection of poets of our choosing and I definitely chose Dickinson among my inspirations--I feel like it is difficult to clearly or precisely trace her influence since it was so embedded in my first experiences of poetry.
That said, I find her work riveting and her loyalty to her vision, to her craft, admirable. I find it incredibly hard to not see my work in comparison with other contemporary writers, to not feel a pressure to share work on social media. Her dedication to the work of poems without concern for audience or influence is, though I am certain much romanticized and thus mischaracterized, nonetheless remarkable.
Please feel free to share your thoughts on how you see Dickinson as a queer ecopoet (since I obviously did not address that part of the question very deeply).
SB: I just think Dickinson’s nature poetry is so erotic. I’m thinking of “Come slowly--Eden!” which feels so queer in its description of a flower’s “lips.” It’s restorative, it brings the human and nonhuman together, and it’s unapologetic in its innuendo. I’m currently reading Tamiko Beyer and Amber Flora Thomas, both poets I’d categorize as working with queer ecology. What other poets do you see doing work in the vein of queer ecopoetics? What poems would you point us toward, and where can we find your newest work?
AW: I really enjoy Matty Layne Glasgow’s work--I saw him read at the Portland AWP and enjoyed his poems immensely. I adore Natalie Diaz and her most recent collection, Postcolonial Love Poem examines the ways queerness, ecology, and racial/ethnic/gender identity intersect and overlap in remarkable, tender ways. I also love the work of my copanelists on the Queer Nature panel: both Julia Koets and Nickole Brown are doing remarkable work exploring queer ecology.
SB: Amie, thank you for your thoughts and for leaving us with this fantastic list of poets! Natalie Diaz and Nickole Brown are two of my favorites. We can’t wait to dive into your new poems--thank you for sharing these links!
Stacey Balkun is the author of Eppur Si Muove, Jackalope-Girl Learns to Speak & Lost City Museum. Winner of the 2017 Women's National Book Association Poetry Prize, her work has appeared in Best New Poets, Crab Orchard Review, The Rumpus, and other anthologies & journals. Chapbook Series Editor for Sundress Publications, Stacey holds an MFA from Fresno State and teaches poetry online at The Poetry Barn & The Loft. Find her online at http://www.staceybalkun.com/