Joanna Lilley is an award-winning poet living in Whitehorse. Born in the UK, Joanna has always been drawn north, crossing the Arctic Circle twice, before settling in the Yukon. Her work has appeared in numerous literary journals, including The Malahat Review and Grain. Endlings is her third collection of poetry.
Of Endlings, David Suzuki says: “This book is a reminder of what we have lost within human memory.” In poems that are lyrical, exact, and deeply melancholic, Joanna Lilley demands audience for the final moments of animal extinction
Interviewed by Wendy Donawa
Wendy Donawa (WD): Joanna Lilley, I am delighted to have the opportunity to virtually chat with you. A few years after your 2006 move from the UK to the Yukon, you were recognized as a prolific Yukon writer, with poetry and fiction publications pouring forth almost annually: Was your choice of the Yukon accidental and fortuitous? Deliberate? Otherwise? Can you say something about your journey (literal or metaphorical), and how the North’s cultural and geographical settings have shaped your thinking and writing?
Joanna Lilley (JL): Firstly, I just want to say it’s so wonderful to be able to have this virtual conversation with you and to have the privilege of being part of the Victoria Festival of Authors for the very first time after years of admiring it from afar. It’s an enormous honour for me.
And now to answer your first question, my move to Yukon was a very deliberate decision. My husband and I emigrated from the UK in 2006 and chose to settle in Whitehorse. We both wanted to try living in the north and experience the winters in particular as we’re originally from southern England where the climate is so different. Fortunately we managed to find jobs within a few weeks of arriving in Whitehorse and so here we are still living here 14 years later and still loving the winters. I know that might sound rather strange to some people. But Yukon winters are gorgeous with all the sparkling snow and clear blue skies and the magic of cross country skiing through the forest.
Moving to Canada was an adventure for us both and has certainly helped me as a writer. I remember just before I left my job in Edinburgh an American colleague told me that emigrating would be wonderful for my writing. I knew she didn’t mean just in terms of subject matter. I didn’t really believe her as I’d struggled with my writing for such a long time and couldn’t see how moving to another country would make things any easier. But she was right. It helped to suddenly live in a country where I didn’t feel weighed down by the British class system and the sense of not having any right to be a writer. Perhaps the myth of the north being less constrained helped too. Also, Whitehorse might be a small town but it’s overflowing with artists of all kinds and there’s inspiration in that.
Nevertheless, even after I arrived it still took me a long time before I managed to get a book published. When I moved to Canada I was trying to write novels and had a very long history of rejections by publishers. My failure had become a millstone around my neck and it was getting harder and harder to find the joy in writing. I reached a point where I had to decide to stop trying to write a novel for a while – perhaps forever. That’s when I turned to writing poems instead. I’d only written a few up to then. Thankfully with that decision the joy of writing returned and eventually I was able to put enough poems together to be able to start sending off a manuscript. That was something I couldn’t even have imagined doing when I was still in Britain. And so, at last, when I was in my mid-forties the miracle of having a first book occurred. Then I suppose after decades of writing I had quite a backlog of material by them so amazingly I began to have other books published as well. I still can’t really believe I now have five books. And of course I have no idea if I’ll ever manage to get another book published.
(WD): Another kind of journey is suggested by the astonishing breadth, depth, and detail of research shown by your endnotes, sources and resources, and by your extensive travel and museum research. These in themselves provide a fascinating education to the reader. And you are also a Plain Language editor: you wear many hats! Can you describe something of your writing process, and how it moves from the information-gathering researcher/editor to the lyrical and visionary poet ultimately revealed?
(JL): The book you’re referring to, Endlings, is about extinct animals and out of all the books I’ve written or tried to write it’s been the most deliberate in terms of having to do quite a bit of research before I could even start writing, particularly as I’m in no way a scientist or a scholar. Usually my ideas emerge more circuitously and evolve through a process of actually writing and dipping in and out of research. But for Endlings I wasn’t able to focus solely on research before I started writing any poems. I’m not disciplined or linear enough. I think that approach also would have been overwhelming and perhaps even stultifying.
I selected the species I wanted to write poems about in a few different ways, such as of course looking up information about extinction online, as well as reading the more accessible books on the topics including Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert and Bringing Back the Dodo by Wayne Grady, ‘meeting’ fossils in natural history museums, imagining species who had existed in landscapes I was familiar with and viewing the work of visual artists also exploring the extinction theme.
For every species, I had to find the poem, not just regurgitate facts and figures. It’s a bit like when you’re writing fiction and you have to make sure your research isn’t showing and you don’t fall victim to the ‘infodump’ when you get so excited about everything you’ve found out that you just have to share it with the reader. Finding the emotional, spiritual, ethical or narrative connection with every creature was the part I loved most. That’s where the poem itself lay and usually it just floated along the water towards me or sometimes clutched me emotionally, like when, embarrassingly, I cried in the middle of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington the moment I recognized the skeleton of a Steller’s sea cow, those gentle giants we killed off in the eighteenth century within thirty years of Europeans ‘discovering’ them.
(WD): Giving animals voices can be anthropomorphic and fraught with sentimentality but you have sensitively avoided those pitfalls. In the poems of the first section, ‘Speaking for themselves”, voices of extinct species ring with ironies that expose our own sins of omission and commission, of ignorance and obtuseness, of greed and need. The confident voice of the carrier pigeon, one among millions who darkened the skies, “organized like bees,/ unhiveable” seems invincible: “We are as perpetual as sun” (p. 7). Yet upon their species’ extinction, “Martha”, the last carrier pigeon, shipped to the Smithsonian and taxidermied, ‘has flown more times that me [the narrator]”, and after the last museum loan, “They say she flew first class both times” (p. 132). What kinds of considerations did you give to creating a distinctive voice for each of the speaking animals?
(JL): Thank you for this lovely question. I had this whimsical, impossible ambition when I was writing the poems that I would hear the voices of all the extinct creatures through the decades, centuries and millennia and somehow transcribe them onto the page.
I didn’t really make a conscious decision about how I’d represent each species or even which animals I’d write about in the first person in what I imagined to be their own voice. It was more that as I learnt about each of them I would start to feel or see the story of the poem and sense how best to tell it. It just seemed natural and obvious, for example, to write from the point of view of the Desmostylus hesperus, a hippopotamus-like creature who lived in the Pacific ring of fire up until about seven million years ago. They spent most of their time in the water which I feel is my natural element too so I had a lovely time trying to tune into their consciousness. We don’t know much about them so I began to sense them as still existing in spirit today and watching us trying to find out about them. I think that’s how the anachronisms in that poem emerged, such as describing their fossilized spine as being like wooden cotton reels.
This is a tangent but I should perhaps mention that I try to refer to animals as ‘they’ rather than ‘it’, unless we know their gender of course. I feel this might help us see them more as individuals in their own right and help us make space for the animals still living on this planet we all share.
Another example of how I found the story of a poem was coming across a scratchy black and white video of the very last heath hen and imagining being the human being holding the camera or putting a copper band on his right leg.
It was my incredible editor Alice Major who helped me hear all the different sorts of voices I’d written the poems in and catalogue them into some sort of order. The sections in the book therefore range from poems written directly in animals’ point of view to a more documentary or narrative approach.
(WD): Your catalogue of extinct species is rendered in heartbreaking specificity, reminding us that we are only one of many species, “witnesses of the polar opening/in half a lifetime” (p. 120); of the polar bear “our canary down the mine” (p 90); of the shot-for-dinner “Last Labrador duck” (p. 24); of the bowhead whale (p. 32) and the Speckled Cormorant, “Penguin of the North….diving deep in cold, slow/circumpolar water, where/the globe spins quickest” (p. 36). All these a matter of recent historical record, and a result of our own historical complicity, and that of our institutions: zoos, museums, science research itself. To what extent do you feel the historical complicity of institutions and disciplines (zoos, museums, paleontology, aims of scientific research) has been a factor? And to what extent have the historically recent wide-spread efforts of these cultural institutions to make amends (i.e. breeding programs in zoos, wide accessibility of museum collections, efforts to re-introduce extinct strains “we’ll de-extinct the mammoths too” p. 64) reversed that damage?
(JL): Oh, this is a big question and so bound up in colonialism and class and power. The colonising nations travelled, as we know ,throughout the world finding species that were new to them, killing them and bringing them back to be housed in collections and studied there rather than studied alive in their natural habitats. One such very influential collector who demonstrates the complexity of the history of our relationship with nonhuman animals is Walter Rothschild who’s a peripheral figure in a couple of the poems in my book. Apparently throughout his lifetime he employed 400 collectors who gathered specimens from 48 different countries. Yet he created a public museum for his specimens in Tring in England and ultimately bequeathed his collection to the British Museum. He also built a library for all the books he’d gathered to support his natural history research that then became a wonderful resource for researchers and comprised the most comprehensive ornithological library in the world.
Of course that idea we have as humans that we can take whatever we want is the prime factor in why we’ve inadvertently caused the sixth mass extinction event that we’re living through now. It would be wonderful if instead of putting animals in zoos and preserves we could give them back their habitats. The rewilding movement is an inspiring example of that. In the meantime, though, we seem to need zoos and although I know they’re controversial they’re doing a tremendous amount towards conservation. They’re a halfway house, perhaps, for the species we’ve damaged while we get ourselves organised and recreate a world that has space for other creatures again.
De-extinction is terribly exciting but it’s not a reversal of time. It’s not undoing the loss but rather creating new approximations, if it works, of the creatures we killed off that may then serve as a reminder of how much damage we’re capable of doing. In Britt Wray’s book Rise of the Necrofauna she interviews the philosopher Thomas van Dooren who speaks of his interest in ‘the capacity for mourning to change the world’. Wray also writes about how researchers involved in de-extinction ‘swear by its ability to restore people’s sense of hope for life on this planet in times of environmental decay’. Perhaps that’s where the concept of de-extinction is most valuable, as a galvanizer for conservation and a changing of ways.
(WD): Despite the narrator’s bleak sense of inadequacy “I’ve always had the knack of alibi/…nowhere near/the moral centre” (p. 129), the poems end with a cautious note of hope: “Perhaps/we can delay our inevitable extinction/by persuading our DNA into a kinder/transmutation.” (p, 134). These poems were written before the current pandemic, which, for many may have eclipsed the urgency of environmental concerns. Covid-19’s upheavals, however (like a kind of moral paleontology), have excavated and exposed the savagery that both supports and obscures a systemic racism and oppression which itself can be seen as a spiritual pandemic. What are your thoughts on the impact of the pandemic on scholarly and creative thought, and on the efforts made towards “persuading our DNA into a kinder transmutation?”
(JL): The pandemic has inched its way into everything we do and that of course includes scholarly and creative thought. It’s inspiring to see the creativity that the pandemic has become a crucible for, from baking bread to whole new unintended books such as Robert Alan Jamieson’s poetry collection Plague Clothes written while he was recovering from COVID-19 symptoms.
We already know everything the pandemic is teaching us; there just haven’t been enough of us paying attention. The pandemic is showing us that we can after all change our behaviour to protect each other. I’m hopeful that the major shift in all our worlds will help us see that we’re capable of eradicating racism and dealing with other major imbalances such as our behaviour towards the environment. We do need to get on with it though. We need to realize we’re as much part of the evolution process as any other species and shift our evolution in the right direction.
In terms of creativity, I’m hoping that we’re recovering from the initial feeling for many of us when the pandemic was declared that what we’re working on is no longer important or even relevant. The novel I’ve been trying to write for quite a while has nothing to do with the pandemic and feels like part of the story of before rather than the story of now. Yet we have to remember that the before is how we got to now. It’s like reading pre-war or pre-industrial revolution literature. Whatever we write is part of the overall human story. And I don’t think that all people will want to read about is the pandemic in the months and years to come. Whatever anyone’s writing about right now, we’re going need it all.