C.J. Sage

Mar 27, 2011 No Comments by Sea Stories

K.R. Copeland Interviews California Poet/Animal Rights Supporter C.J. Sage

K.R.: Thanks for being with us, CJ.  We’ve got quite a bit of territory to cover, so, let’s get right to it.  How has being a native Californian influenced your written work?

C.J.: You bring up a good point. While I have not really thought of myself that way before—‘native Californian writer C. J. Sage’—it’s certainly true that caring about animals and nature is so much of who I am that it must be accurate. Yet I am also the only vegetarian in my native Californian family and the only animal rights advocate. How did that happen?—I’m not quite sure. It probably had something to do with TV documentaries and other programs I viewed as a child. One documentary that stayed with me was about the fishing industry and dolphins. Though I cannot recall the name of the program— and I have looked for it over the years—I still remember vividly the content and the live footage: scores of dolphins pulled up in and killed by nets, and beached by fishing boats’ endeavors, the fisherman walking among the dolphins, stomping on them with their feet and kicking them as the helpless dolphins screamed and bucked. (I’ve written and rewritten a poem about it over the years; I’m still not happy with it.) I’ve been called oversensitive, so maybe it’s simply that things like this laid a ground for (in) me.

K.R.: I guess I’m oversensitive as well, then. You mention television as an early inspirational/educational vector. Tell me, what role do you feel literature plays in raising animal rights awareness?

C.J.: There is a commonly held notion that poetry should not be political. Of course it often is political, but overtly so, it can inadvertently relegate itself to the margins by singing only to its choir. This is why I believe that a poem should first and foremost be beautiful; after that, brains, brawn, et cetera can be successfully interjected. In this way the message may subtly, even at a subconscious level, reach audiences who would otherwise be defensive to the topic and maybe never even read the piece. Horace says “delight and instruct”; Frost professes starting in delight and ending in wisdom. Many college textbooks outline that the functions of literature are to first entertain, then to inform, persuade, or express. Lit is different than reportage in that way; literature’s method of delivery must somehow entertain the reader whereas reportage must get to the facts. Thus it is conceivable that literature could even be more effective—for example, because of its subtly, an anti-trawling poem that is first and foremost art, witha subtle anti-trawling message, won’t necessarily be snubbed by people who are against the deepermessage, since one has to first read the entire piece before realizing the message. But a news article oreditorial piece with an obvious, direct anti-trawling message might just be crumpled up and tossed in the trash can. How’s that for a complex answer?

K.R.: Excellent answer, CJ! I concur with your assessment of the subtly of poetry. I’d much rather be clubbed with a feather than a hammer, any day of the week! And, speaking of effective literature, you’ve written numerous poems revolving around the natural world and the interconnections between species. What is the primary message you wish to convey to your readers?

C.J.: I think my message is that we, humans, are nothing more than one of the many animal species on the planet, not better than the other species. This is how I see my metaphor poems working on more than one level. Most of my poems about animals are also, at a deeper level, about the behavior of the human animal. It’s not too much different even though we like to intellectualize that it is. Furthermore, we are the most culpable animal. We cannot blame other species for, e.g., hunting in order to survive since that is their only option. We human animals do have other options yet often choose to ignore them. Since we can choose other options but do not, we are the big problem. If we are a ‘higher order’ animal, part of that higher order includes our responsibility to protect other animals, beyond our immediate family, rather than abuse or neglect them. The human animal is required by law to report, for example, child abuse whether that human animal is related to us or not; this is because we acknowledge that a child is helpless to protect itself. Why shouldn’t this requirement apply to abuse of ALL animals who cannot dial 911?  If we have the ability to use our critical thinking skills and tools to base our decisions and actions on logic and fairness to all sentient life rather than on greed or survival, there is no excuse for us not to do so.

K.R.: Absolutely! Your passion for our planet and particularly its inhabitants is apparent in your answers as well as your art. That said, what do you feel to be your most significant contribution (literary or otherwise) to conservation thus far?

C.J.: I wish I could say I’ve made significant contributions. But mine so far are insignificant when compared with the level of need. I’ve been a vegetarian since I was old enough to object to meat and refuse it. I’m an animal rights supporter, donating to groups like PETA when I am able. I am involved in racetrack dog rescue via adoption and ambassadorship. Mostly, though, I never pass up a chance to speak to those who otherwise would not have thought twice about their actions: I have asked co-workers whom I’ve seen wearing fur to reconsider; I tell anyone who will listen about the horrors of the aquarium trade and hobby; I’ll share videos of how sheep are tortured for our wool items; I like to point out to those good-hearted people who are against hunting that fishing is also hunting, and that a captive whale who kills a trainer is not the one at fault. These types of conversations are among the most important in my life—I accept making a few enemies along the way for an important cause. (I sound so preachy. See, this is how literature can be a better vehicle for the message, at least for someone like me who would not speak in a particularly inviting way otherwise.) Even the shells on my paintings I am careful about: My first shell paintings were created before I realized where the shells might be coming from, but now I will not buy them from anyone who takes them from the ocean. I only want those that are collected from the beach, not taken alive. It means fake starfish, but I’m okay with that, and I hope the buyers of my paintings feel the same way.

Rereading this to myself, I realize that I should do more.  My American Dream is to someday have as part of my home an animal sanctuary. But that alone is not enough as it only treats rather than prevents. One of my greatest hopes for all of us is that animal rights education becomes a required part of grade school and college curricula. I also hope to see more animal rights regulation across the board.

KR: Required curricula and stringent regulations would be great. Thanks for bringing up your environmentally friendly paintings, too (which I love) and for allowing us to include them with the interview. And, now, would you care to share some sample poems with us?

CJ: It would be my pleasure.

Landscapes with Elephant
Seals and Umbrellas

In the water solitary creatures,
the elephant seals gather close on land
to mate and molt. They slough their skin,

then off they go again into the sea
alone. Upon the sand one wonders
why they huddle together so.

In the city I once saw a herd
of quick umbrellas open all at once—
all the owners purposely not touching—

and scuttle down the street en masse,
the black nylon and the taupe nylon
and all the rest bumped and bounced

off each other in the rain, like the rain
bounding off umbrellas, like molecules.
Like molecules every contact was followed,

as every contact must be, by estrangement.
There was once a man and woman
whose ribs collided—

neither one was ever seen again.
When the seals accidentally touch they bellow
and fuss, they throw their heads to the sky,

they wave and writhe and moan
the other away until again each feels
itself owner of the shoreline.

To either side of the rows they make
lined up along each other there is a mile
of empty beach. Only a child makes use of it.

What kind of creature dares to stretch itself,
naked and warm-skinned, where no one else
has been? Only a child. Only a brilliant child.

A man I met, he was on the bus and humming
to himself, turned to me and said You look familiar.
Between his ribs and arm, a closed umbrella

licked his clothes with rain. He moved
a little closer to make a place for another.
I tell you, the ride was short!

There is a family entering the beach,
verily against the rules. There is a ranger,
she is kind, who moves to shoo them off.

Down the road there is a dune where scores
of nudes may paint themselves with sun.
Rarely, one of them brushes another.

Originally published  in The San Simeon Zebras (Salmon Poetry, 2010)

Landscape with Beach and Dead Buck

It must have rolled there,
down the drowned hill behind the rowedup
beachfront houses.

What aim something had had!—
for it to squeeze between the tightknit
lots and then

through a narrow fence-break
to the flooded sand.
There are these stranger things.

Lines of ducklings cross a 6 lane speedway.
A bath of seals basks amidst the wine-drunk
Sunday walkers and their dogs.

Aligned just so across the storm-soaked plane:
the buck’s thick rack of antlers
with the wrack of washed up palm bark.

It was a stunning volta, a tour
of second homes become a morbid wake.
Volt of corpus mortuus, it went quickly,

the encounter of it. Tens and tens
more bids have passed since then,
buyer’s market turning like the undertowing sea.

Lookers marked it a sort of driftwood:
the overwrought surf having brought it in
and, as naturally drift would,

taken it out again.

Original publication for Sea Stories (Vernal, 2011)

Sea Canaries

The small white whales in packs of pods
keep their pacts with us, the fated beasts.
They wail their songs and the water wavers,
and we who signed them waive our rights
to have them. Here is where they belong,
all right, and here is where I leave them:
their pale, bountiful bodies to the sea.
I see a pail of fish and I would rather
feed on palm wood than palm one up
to shed it to those seabirds. To bate the brink
of bygone beauty, I bring no bait. A thatch shed
on the shore would keep me closer. O idol
of the gulls and wingèd seagirls and idle guitar
players, paddle deep and far off from my kind
who peddle our wares like love-me-kindly petals.

Originally published  in The San Simeon Zebras (Salmon Poetry, 2010)

The Dark Pelican

Her nest is crude (though on the shore it rests,
it rests on stone). Her nest: a twiggy hole, the crib
from which she watches water as it crests

the seawall. Between hard and arching ribs
of rock around her home she spans her wings—
on a foggy screen of saltspray how they scribble!

Her neck a spliny thread stretched and swinging,
back she throws her head to throat the little fish
she’d kept in close, the fish she’d saved for evening.

O just a swish of bony flesh against the falling dish
of sunset, she has found her food the hard way;
she has cast herself head-first into her wishes

while in their circles, lighter sisters sway
and wait together—they watch and drive the catch,
they snatch it up in turns; like rose-tint dawn their days

are easy. The one who works alone must patch
together what she can. For friends there is no match.

Originally published  in The San Simeon Zebras (Salmon Poetry, 2010)

KR: Lovely work, CJ. Thank you so much for being with us today.

CJ: You’re welcome, and thank you for all you do.

~~~~~~~~

C. J. Sage edits The National Poetry Review and press.  Her poems have appeared and are forthcoming in American Poetry Journal, Antioch Review, Barn Owl Review, Barrow Street, Bateau, Black Warrior Review,  Boston Review, Cave Wall, Copper Nickel, Folio, The Journal, New Orleans Review, North American Review, Orion, Ploughshares, POOL, Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, Southeast Review, The Threepenny Review, and many others.   Her latest book is The San Simeon Zebras (Salmon Poetry, 2010).  CJ resides in the Monterey Bay area of California.  For information on her paintings, contact her at [email protected] or visit her gallery at http://yessy.com/seascapearts.

Hinterland, Vernal 2011

About the Editors

Casey R. Skinner grew up along the Kuskokwim River in a rural Athabascan village in Alaska fishing for king salmon and mushing her sled dog team. She now resides on the shores of Resurrection Bay in Seward, Alaska. Casey's a poet, a naturalist, a dog-lover, has two birds, and a stubborn bulldog named Gus.
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