We are big fans of the wonderful author Gretchen Primack, whose books include the poetry collection Kind, as well as the nonfiction book The Lucky Ones, coauthored with Jenny Brown. Her new poetry collection, Visiting Days, is a beautiful, compassionate, and important new work that compels us all to take a closer look at the world we live in and how we treat our fellow humans and non-humans.
As the Michigan Daily‘s review of Visiting Days reads, Gretchen “is a linguistic magician, putting into words the speed with which a life can change drastically and permanently, how later that change will seem impossibly fast and also inevitable.” In this interview, Gretchen offers insights into Visiting Days and her work.
Q: The dedication of this book reads, For the caged. In what ways does this dedication reflect the themes in the book?
A: Power. Working in prison and simultaneously working to end other oppressions makes me intensely aware of skewed power structures and what they lead to: cages. I’m also thinking here about what a society must deny or ignore in order to accept cages. Do we really believe that everyone living in them—the humans, the animals—should be there? Need to be there? I’m thinking about that a lot in this book. Once you know individuals’ stories, you can’t possibly believe it’s right for all of them to languish in cages. Of course, that’s a deeply inconvenient truth….
Q: As you mention in the acknowledgments, the voices in this collection are imaginary — yet the poems tell very real stories. How did these imaginary voices come to you?
A: I’ve read tremendous amounts of fiction. That may be why it feels so comfortable to create distinct people (and other animals) from whole cloth. So even though poetry is my preferred writing genre, I love to create characters through persona poems. Whether it’s an imaginary friend, an elephant, or a woman visiting her beloved in prison, they feel like the individuals they are representing. It certainly helps that I have spent a lot of time listening to people who have lived in the world of this book. While the men are imaginary, some of what they experience comes from stories my friends have told me.
Q: During a time when those who write outside of their own experiences face complaints of “cultural appropriation,” did it feel especially risky to bring Visiting Days into the world? Does this in fact make your book especially relevant and important?
A: Very risky. Too many people have indeed appropriated when writing across difference. It is a risk that I feel artists must assume, but it’s also right that we be held accountable and think hard about it as we work. I think this kind of art can be done successfully, but that takes intense sensitivity, experience, respect, humility, research, critique, intention, and craft. I am willing to listen to anyone who feels I don’t engage enough with any and all of these. I showed poems to friends and colleagues who are currently and formerly incarcerated before anyone else, and had I not gotten their blessing, I would not have published. I’ve been heartened that so many incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, as well as their family members, have been enthusiastic about this book.
Q: You’ve been teaching incarcerated students for many years; when did this collection begin to come together, and how long did it take you to write it? What other research than your firsthand experience did you do?
A: For the first six years I worked in prison, people would ask me if I was writing about it. I wasn’t. It felt too close, and I wasn’t there for material. But then I took a break from the work, and I felt almost compelled to write about it. I missed working there and was in touch with many people who’d been released and become friends, and it was as if the issues and memories combined to make the words flow. I spend the next five years writing (on and off). Along with talking a lot with my incarcerated and formerly incarcerated friends, I read a lot of poetry and memoirs by people who had been incarcerated, and a few books by outsiders like me who had experience working in prisons and jails.
Q: Two poems in the book — “Knowledge (East Wing)” and “The Caged” — deal with non-human animals. How did each of these poems originate?
A: “Knowledge” was inspired by my friend Intelligent, who went vegan in prison as part of his renunciation of violence. I am vegan, too, and we bonded pretty quickly there. We continue to be in touch now that he is out and living in Atlanta, very much still a vegan activist. Knowledge, the fictional man speaking in Visiting Days, is not identical to Intel, of course; Intel can speak for himself. But Knowledge is an homage to him and to the idea of widening our circle of compassion.
As for “The Caged”: it’s unavoidable, as someone who has spent a lot of time in prisons and animal shelters and seen a lot of footage of “farm” animals, to make connections. Remember in Harold and Maude, when Maude sighs, “Oh, how the world so dearly loves a cage”? Here we are. There are those who might think it disparages humans to compare them to animals, but that presupposes that non-human animals are lesser than. Society tells us that, but I don’t agree, and neither do my poems.
You can also hear an interview with Gretchen and Intelligent Allah on the Our Hen House podcast.