Orchid Tierney is an Aotearoa-New Zealand poet and scholar, currently living in Gambier, Ohio, where she teaches at Kenyon College. She is the author of a year of misreading the wildcats (Operating System, 2019) and Earsay (TrollThread 2016), and chapbooks my beatrice (above/ground press, 2020), ocean plastic (BlazeVOX 2019), blue doors (Belladonna* Press, 2018), Gallipoli Diaries (GaussPDF 2017), the world in small parts (Dancing Girl Press, 2012), and Brachiaction (Gumtree, 2012). Other poems, reviews, and scholarship have appeared in Jacket2, Journal of Modern Literature, and Western Humanities Review, among others. She is a consulting editor for the Kenyon Review.
Her work-in-progress from “blue doors” appear in the twenty-sixth issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about “blue doors.”
A: Blue Doors is a working title for a long prose poem-in-progress that unpacks the sentimental novel, the cattle industry, and food colonization. My research into the historical meatpacking industry and its contemporary manifestations works in tandem with the ideology of the sentimental genre and the use of prosopopoeia to speak for animal life. (In other words, I’m interested in what ethics are invoked when one speaks for those without human-animal forms of language, among many other concerns.) This poet’s novel focuses on three main characters: Limpet and Rabbit (who love-love, hate-hate, and love-hate each other), and Cow who is, well, a cow. Their respective narratives aren’t linear, and the novel occasionally breaks down with my frustrated interruptions because prosopopoeia is, in my opinion, a failed literary device.
Blue Doors was initially conceived during my Masters of Creative Writing stint at the University of Auckland, where I worked on a cyberpunk novel, but I was ultimately unsatisfied with the final draft I turned in. Over the past few years, a number of poets, who have produced poet’s novels, have inspired me to pick up this project again: Amy Catanzano, Alice Notley, and Bhani Kapil for example.
Q: How do these poems relate to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?
A: These poems demonstrate a slightly different focus from my previous environmental work. As the title implies, I attended to ocean plastic in Ocean Plastic (BlazeVOX 2019). In my collection, a year of misreading the wildcats (The Operating System, 2019), I again focused on plastic pollution alongside climate change and fossil fuels. But stylistically, there are a lot of similarities between my various projects. While not representative in these particular poems, blue doors is a research-driven, archival based project. I’m especially interested in how rhetoric and metaphor migrate across media and through time. Other poems from this work, including my chapbook blue doors (Belladonna* Press, 2018) reflect my love of digging through old records and finding pollination in other poets’ works. Additionally much like the chapbook blue doors and a year of misreading the wildcats, photography—photographs of cows and historical slaughterhouses— will be an important accompaniment to this new project. The pandemic, unfortunately, has meant that I had to forgo out-of-town sightseeing for the time being.
Q: Given so much of your work focuses on environmental concerns, how is it that poetry emerged as your primary form for working through this kind of material? What do you feel that poetry, over fiction, visual art or even non-fiction, allow that might not be possible otherwise?
A: This is a tough question because I don’t think I work exclusively in poetry (and poetry is a spongey form anyway). A year of misreading the wildcats, for example, is a mix of poetry, photography, and prose. It’s probably more correct to say that poetic elements bind the collection together, but it does mean that the work is hard to sell under the poetry umbrella. To answer your question, however, I’d have to point to the underlying energy of my work: the document and archive as manfestations of pedagogical and artistic practice. By the document and archive I mean: poetry allows us to read the past and present and to interpret (and curate) historical and contemporary conversations in order to speculate future conditions of empathy. In other words, poetry for me isn’t only a mode of scholarship but a space for collective wilds: imagining kindness and possibility despite the terror of the past. Celina Su’s Notes on Inquiry and Care comes to mind too, where she proposes that “documentation and poetics as feminist practices urge us to listen, to recognize each other, but also to listen to the silences, bear in mind those who aren’t with us…” (emphasis in original). This quote is a lovely summation that underscores how poetry enacts a space for listening in a way that fiction and nonfiction perhaps do not.
Q: I like that very much. What models (beyond Su, obviously) have you had for this kind of work? How did you get to this point?
A: Great question! ELÆ [Lynne DeSilva-Johnson] has been wildly inspirational to me as a cultural scholar and educator in addition to being a creator. They have a ton of free downloadable resources for organisations and teachers on the Operating Systems webpage: http://www.theoperatingsystem.org/open-resource-library/, and I find myself perusing their materials frequently for ideas and inspiration to incorporate into my own practice and classroom.
As for other writers, Jennifer Scappettone and Divya Victor illustrate how art, poetry, and scholarship can be pulpy and elastic, and their…blobby approaches have reshaped my sense of being a body in the classroom. Speaking of blobs are you familiar with Laura Hyunjhee Kim’s Entering the Blobosphere: A Musing on Blobs (The Accomplices, 2019)? I can’t stop thinking about this text and its oozy possibilities for reframing our imaginations toward scholarship and practice!
Q: I don’t know that book. What is it about Kim’s work that specifically re-works your thinking in terms of writing practice?
A: I don’t know whether it reworks my thinking about writing practice per se, but it certainly makes me think about how we frame our perceptions of the world in the context of straight lines and hard matter. My own reading of the blobosphere has pushed me to reengage my scholarship and poetry through a different lens. As a point of reference, my scholarship to date has focused on landfills and waste management in contemporary poetry, but I find myself increasingly interested in the liquid and gaseous manifestations of waste both in poetry and in the environment. Laura Hyunjhee Kim’s Entering the Blobosphere has given me a glimpse into how an alternative vocabulary can describe and name what cannot be physically grasped.
Q: With a handful of books and chapbooks produced over the past near-decade, how do you feel your work has progressed? Where do you see your work headed?
A: I don’t think I have a progress narrative in my practice as implies an artistic determinism when I’m pulled into and against various trajectories for better or for worse. I’ve done different things because a moment of difficult uncertainty called for it. And the future is full of these moments (again for better or for worse).
Q: You might have answered an element of this already, but who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
A: My answer is in danger of being never-ending, so I’ll touch on a few. My go-to book is Jennifer Scappettone’s The Republic of Exit 43. I also love reading Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Alison Cobb, Craig Santos Perez, Kathy Jetn̄il-Kijiner, Trisha Low, Don Mee Choi, Bernadette Mayer, Caroline Bergvall, Mark Nowak, David Eggleton, Robert Glück, Julia Bloch, Rachel Zolf, ELÆ [Lynne DeSilva-Johnson] and Divya Victor (whom I’ve already mentioned). But I’m always open to new suggestions, and folx should feel free to email me their recommendations!