Katie Vautour is a visual artist and writer published in a variety of literary journals, and though she dabbles in all genres (including fiction, non-fiction and playwriting), her main focus is poetry. An Unorthodox Guide to Wildlife is her debut collection and explores the spaces where humans and other animals meet. shalan joudry is a poet, performance artist and storyteller. Elapultiek is her first play and deals with complex themes of reconciliation, science and the natural environment. The two poets shared a conversation about their work:
shalan joudry: What an interesting idea for a series of poems about such a diversity of wildlife. Where did the concept come from; did you set out to create this as a collection? And how did you observe or learn about these animals?
Katie Vautour: Most of my poems’ starting points come from personal observation or experience. That can range from direct interaction with animals, whether in nature or zoos, as pets, or consideration of documentaries and books.
I’m a visual artist as well. My work is very intuitive, so I try not to think much about it while writing. Sometimes I’ll start writing from a brief stream-of-consciousness concept from an image or sketch or memory, or begin with a very rigid poetry form, depending on what I think the subject matter requires. This often changes during editing. Normally, after an initial draft, I wait a few days, at least, then go back and look over the piece.
It’s then I’ll often print out the text. That’s when I discover that, well, maybe this short story actually wants to be made into several poems, or maybe this elegy should be free verse instead.
So I’ll physically cut out words and sentences and begin to rearrange them on a separate page, until the visual placement appears to suit the subject matter and experience I wanted to capture. At least, as best I can.
That’s what I really love about poetry; I think it’s the most visual and visceral form of writing, in terms of text on the page. Looking back on it, I have no true agenda, other than to write what seemed right, ha.
How about you, shalan? Your inspiration was that you worked on Species at Risk, isn’t that right?
sj: Yes, I watched and counted Endangered Chimney Swifts over the course of four springs for Maritime Swiftwatch. I have also worked with various non-Mi’kmaw biologists and those experiences created a great inspiration for this work.
My years with other ecologists have provided the time for relationship building, to be able to move important conversations deeper and build more trust and understanding. I also wanted to tell this story focusing on a specific species at risk.
We have so many species losing habitat and struggling to survive in the changing landscapes and I wanted to talk about one as an example. The chimney swifts are really amazing to watch as they circle in the sky at dusk to descend together into their communal roost.
There’s a roost in an empty house in downtown Bear River, not far from my community, and I love to watch the swifts in the spring. You end up standing there on the sidewalk with other people in anticipation and then you end up chit chatting about life as you wait. One day I realized that was the backdrop to a story.
You wrote about the clash between animals and humans in your book, sometimes the specific hardships of certain animals. Did you feel that you were being a witness as a writer, or do you have a hope with these…?
KV: I didn’t necessarily set out to write a book primarily about animal and human relationships. I don’t have a particular agenda while writing or making art. I’ve simply always been curious about animals and the natural world, and how humans decide who, or when, or why, they think owns the natural and man-made world, or the creatures within it.
I think it raises some important, if tricky, questions, about the personification of creatures, and how people observe and come to understand (or not) nature and different species, including humans themselves.
Regarding specific poems, one was originally tilted “My Brother and the Hare,” but is now “Military Survival Training.” It does sound particularly specific, which is true, since my brother is in the military and was, in fact, given a pet hare to care for, then had to take it with him into the woods.
My brother wasn’t given any food. You can guess what happened to his poor pet rabbit after a few weeks. I was interested in working with very constricting forms at the time and it seemed the repetition within the sestina served the subject matter well.
shalan, in Elapultiek, Bill, a non-Mi’kmaw biologist, struggles with Nat, a Mi’kmaw character’s, way of doing things. Why do you think there is that resistance among scientists to believe in cultural practices?
sj: There can be quite a clash of worldviews between mainstream science and Mi’kmaw cultural practice; however, I found in real life that there is a growing awareness and openness to what we now call Two-eyed Seeing, thanks to Elders like Albert Marshall where we view the ecological project with both the mainstream science and the cultural eye, without one overpowering the other.
I do understand their hesitancy, though. We’re taught in university science programs about the importance of keeping objectivity. Cultural biases are supposed to remain outside the work.
However, many people realize that cultural bias is indeed within all that we do and how we see the world around us, how we interact and analyze information. Mi’kmaw methodology in ecology is very much about subjectivity and your personal relationship with the topic.
That’s a difficult difference to agree on when you’re sitting on a species recovery team. Although, we find ways to weave back and forth, allowing both the “objective measuring” to take its moment and then allow the subjective cultural practice to have a role as well. I tried to demonstrate that possibility and hope in this work.
Katie, you used spacing as a way to say more with the words, to invoke a different sensation, I believe. How did you decide when and where to move the words around the page?
KV: I think it’s because I’m a visual artist as well that my sense of words on the page are also my way of best representing the meaning.
For example, the poem about the giraffe was inspired (for lack of a better word) by watching a giraffe lean over a lake, in the awkward way that they do, trying to decide whether or not to take a drink. He was looking down like he was staring at his own reflection, the narcissist, so I stretched out the poem vertically down several pages, with a lot of white space, in an attempt to visually reconstruct that image and concept.
So I guess, often the subject dictates the form, and occasionally vice versa.
sj: I’m not a visual artist and so I find that fascinating. Many of my projects are based on words and I find the particular medium for each piece that wants to come into the world.
For example, I’m also a poet but this story of Bill and Nat needed to be a play. The theatre company Two Planks and a Passion called on me a couple years ago to ask me if I would consider writing a play and I was happy to tell them I already had an idea for a play.
It was perfect timing and a great experience. The printed version came about so that others—who weren’t able to watch the play performed—could read the story. I believe that art has a way of finding the right form to move our hearts and minds, often in ways that workshops and speeches can’t.