Jenny George's poems The Traveling Line and Portrait of a Pig as a Bird appeared in the December issue of The Collagist. She lives and writes in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she helps run a foundation for social justice. Her poems have recently appeared in The Indiana Review and Painted Bride Quarterly. She has an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop.
1. Can you talk about the inspiration for "The Traveling Line" and “Portrait of a Pig as a Bird”? What was on your mind while you were writing these poems?
I have been thinking recently about animals, especially domesticated animals that are part of the industrial food system. I’m interested in the relationship between humans and the animals we tend, use and slaughter—looking at that relationship as a way of inquiring about notions of intimacy and violence.
2. In “The Traveling Line,” distinct, moving images are presented in short, descriptive lines, each line its own sentence. Obviously, the speaker is witnessing this, but does not insert himself/herself into the piece, as the focus remains on the pigs. This focus is complemented by the language use, like many of the lines starting with “The pigs,” or “They.” How did this powerful structure develop?
The form of this poem arose in the making of it. I hoped to enact a feeling of relentlessness and inevitability—feelings I associate with the physical process of animal slaughter—by working with the heavily end-stopped lines. This poem scared me as I wrote it.
I am also very interested in—and still uncertain about—issues of witness and culpability around the violence built into our daily lives. How are we implicated in the things we witness? What is it to see, to contend with, to take responsibility for? What kinds of violence do we take for granted? What are our capacities for intimacy and for harm? Wherever there is a tangle of witness and perpetration for me, I want to write a poem.
3. In “Portrait of a Pig as a Bird,” the style is more lyrical, driven by this metaphor of a pig as a bird. I love how every line, in some way, seems to add a brushstroke to this connection, without becoming overly repetitive or stale. The structure of this poem makes the ending really pop off the page, driving the speaker’s point home: “An enclosed pig gives us cagey looks./Something flightless is cramped in its heart.” What were you hoping to accomplish, layering the poem this way and ending on this image?
This poem compares two animals with very different associative qualities. Pigs are domesticated, heavy, canny; birds are wild and slight. Bringing these two images together is a way of asking about the interesting problem of animals in the industrial system. We design them, breed them, raise them—to some extent they are of us. But they are also unfathomable. By comparing one distinct kind of animal to another, I think we get a glimpse into the nature not just of “pig-ness” or “bird-ness,” but of some third thing, maybe “animal-ness,” that difficult-to-define border.
4. Your bio says that you help run a foundation for social justice in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Can you tell us more about that? How does this experience impact your writing?
Working in social justice philanthropy is remarkable. I am daily inspired by social change activists who are doing the kind of front-lines work I am too introverted to do! My foundation specifically supports the integration of social change work with contemplative practice; it’s based on the belief that to transform the world, we must transform ourselves. For me, poetry is also a practice that turns the gaze both inward and outward.
5. What other writing projects are you currently working on?
I am working on a collection of poems in the same vein as “The Traveling Line” and “Portrait of a Pig as a Bird,” poems concerned with animals, witness, violence and humanness.
6. What great books have you read recently? Are there any upcoming releases you're excited about?
I’ve just finished Intimacies, by Leo Bersani and Adam Phillips, a fascinating psychoanalytic reflection on the problems and possibilities of human intimacy. And I’m working my way through a translation of the Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer’s poems, which I love for their plainness.