Animal poetry is political, says Mikael Vogel. In his poetry collection “Dodos On The Run” he questions man’s responsibility for the mass extinction of animals in plain words.The poet and author Mikael Vogel has published a collection of poems, an “anti-bestiary”, as he calls it. In it, he collects animal species that have disappeared, often and especially thanks to humanity’s actions. This isn’t his first work on conservation. Vogel has already written a volume on industrial livestock farming. We asked him about the political significance of his work and about how much of an impact poetry can have in terms of environmental protection and conservation.
Global Ideas: Mr. Vogel, I assume that you would need a certain initial motivation to approach the subject of species extinction poetically. What was yours?
I found the topic of extinct animals via paleontology, essentially the treasure chest of past and lost life. After all, that’s what our planet is as well – aside from the abundance of animals and species that we know.
It started with many really bizarre animal species. And I knew immediately that this was like a photo negative of what we know as biodiversity. This is a great concept for a book and then I saw the role that man plays very clearly as the central theme. Since man has started to spread out on the planet there have been extinctions time and time again. And naturally that also quickly brings you to habitats, habitat destruction, agriculture and how that is all connected.
Paleontology isn’t necessarily something that everyone is passionate about. Were you already interested in that subject before?
No, I wasn’t. I stumbled into that via an accidental book find in a flea market and then it fell into place. Then I had the idea, I’m going to create an “anti-bestiary”, a bestiary of those that have disappeared. That’s when I started to collect material in a targeted way.
So you went out and sifted through libraries?
I started buying books immediately. I brought the library home, so to speak. I needed to do that, to buy every book, because later, I scribble them full of notes, add my own register, headwords, that I follow up on later, even years later. And that’s how this spread further and further.
What criteria did you use to find the animals? Were they particularly unusual, big, small, colorful species?
There was a kind of general aura but yes, some were in fact big, spectacular animals but also small ones – insects, butterflies. New doors opened time and time again. I also took great care to create diversity in the book, to have fish in there as well, for example. Also animals that many people initially don’t like, spiders, for example. When many people have aversions, then that sparks something, simply by virtue of a spider being the protagonist of a poem.
The book has a recurring structure. There are chapters and so-called time capsules. What is the reason for this structure?
The time capsules are dispersed across the book like a kind of grey thread, which is in fact printed white on grey. They deal with the evolution of mankind from the very earliest beginnings to key moments in history and all the way to the end. They give an outlook on the future. They are sort of a counterpoint to all the animal stories and also address man’s rise to power, which is behind all these stories of particular animals. Because there are only very few cases where the extinction stories were accidental. They were more likely tied to bounties, to targeted extermination, to declared enmity, competition for food and dominance over landscapes.
When we go through the book, where do we start? What chapters are there?
The book begins with historic stories of extermination. Then come the explorers. Many animal species were found and often quickly exterminated in conjunction with seafaring, with the search for new continents. But in the end, there is also a chapter that largely deals with animal species that are threatened with extinction. That relates to a kind of grey area between life and death, in other words, animal species that exist in such small populations that they are already genetically doomed to go extinct.
In practice, it is difficult to draw the line between the topics of ‘extinct animals’ and ‘animals threatened with extinction.’ Let’s take the northern white rhino: There are two of them left, the last male died recently and was no longer potent anyway. That rhino species exists but in a way, it already no longer exists. That may sound morbid but it is important in order to raise awareness for the issue. A few success stories, a few rediscoveries, that’s not enough.
How do you define the book yourself? Is it a volume of poems? A book of stories? A history book? Maybe even a textbook?
I think it will be interesting to see, how the readers will define it. I already noticed recently myself, that the book represents a great many things. It is a time capsule in and of itself because I went through great pains to keep the figures in the book up to date. At the same time, this book is a reflection of the status quo that was current in the spring of 2018 when it was published. At a later point in time, the tally between extinct and threatened species in the book will look different.
There isthe Vaquita, for example, which are projected to go extinct, as brutal as that is, in 2018. The most current figure out there estimates that there are 30 individuals left and that doesn’t even take losses due to hunting in the wild and bycatch from fishing for other species into account. In 20 years, the book will be a contemporary historical document, whether I like it or not.
Global Ideas reports on these same topics. We reported on the Saiga antelopes, we visited the orangutans in the rainforest several times and accompanied the animals there – in one of five essays at the end of the book, you describe the five mass extinction events that earth has already lived through and that we are currently in the midst of a sixth one…
… which is the first such event caused by mankind. So it’s an event of this kind caused by an animal species on this planet. That’s new.
So let’s talk about man. How can we make mankind aware of the significance of its role?
We sit here in cultivated, thickly-forested central Europe where everything looks like it’s okay. You don’t necessarily get the impression that any tree has ever fallen over, let alone was cut down. That’s deceptive. We have to realize that. During my research, I kept coming across frightening statistics. Indonesia still has three percent of its original forest cover. That’s just one example. And we’re the cause of that. That’s our furniture, those are our wooden spoons, those are our markets, that exploit resources there. Palm oil that ends up in our chocolate is a very important issue as well. And man should stop pillaging nature immediately.
But I get the sense that there is a kind of movement in that direction among people already, isn’t there?
We do experience that there is a certain amount of power starting to build on our side. For example, the power of the vegetarians and vegans. The fact that suddenly there are food products available that aren’t animal-based.
At the end of the book you also write that animal poetry is political. So, in the end, does your book even have political power?
I am convinced that animal poetry, if its focus is really on the animal, is inevitably political. Because in this globalized world, man has already marginalized animals so much, it has put them in such a head lock. Environmental pollution all the way to the farthest corners of the earth, global warming all the way to the seemingly most remote refuges. The finely tuned language of poetry needs to be voiced not just about animals but on behalf of them. I see the political power of poetry, potentially, in the precision of its language, which is vital for a truly productive discussion, I think. Especially in the German-speaking realm people still write far too casually and flippantly about the problems of the animal world.
I also wondered how you might want people to read your book. I jumped back and forth and didn’t read it chronologically.
That’s legitimate, that’s completely open. I think that a well-conceived poetry collection works when you jump back and forth as well as when you read it analytically but also when you read straight through it because, ideally, you can hardly pace yourself because you’re eager with anticipation. That’s up to everyone individually. But I think that is particularly true of the poetry part. I also have to say that I intentionally didn’t over-intellectualize the text and focus on the aesthetics of the writing because it’s about animals. That was important to me. I try to bring the individuality, the personality of the animals, their way of living, their habitats back to life. I didn’t want to paint over that with a human aesthetic or a poetic me.
In the book, many poems are accompanied by very beautiful, lively illustrations. How did that happen? Did you select them and who is the artist?
I was very torn about that for a long time. All in all, I worked on the collection for six years and initially I couldn’t imagine having it illustrated because contemporary illustrators often have a cynical take on animals or anthropomorphize them. And then my girlfriend came across the work of Brian R. Williams, who had drawn a series of eight extinct birds with the wonderful idea of dressing these extinct birds in fashion from the year when they became extinct. And that is an incredibly good trick to tie animals to human society, something that usually isn’t possible. During our work we realized more and more that we were two real nerds who had found each other and who had very similar ideas.
“Dodos On The Run” was published by Verlagshaus Berlin
Interview: Klaus Esterluß
Voice, never held back
Babbler with orange-yellow head
Forehead red as if used for ramming strawberries
From the neck down, luminous green cascades…
The only parakeet of the North American east coast
In the depths of winter, at home in snow storms. Was toxic: cats
Died on eating it. Fought like a pest by plantation owners
Because it ate their seeds, plucked fruit, they used its devotion
For carnage, shot them squawking to their deaths and the others who’d flown by before them
Serially until the whole flock was wiped out.
The forests along the rivers with their old, hollow trees pulled out from
Beneath their toe phalanges
Its feathers, its stuffed body
Coveted as women’s hat pomp. Unpopular pet
Bit furniture, screeched unbearably, repeatedly ducked in water
In efforts to tame, remained wild regardless, refused to learn the human tongue
Was left-footed. The last Carolina parakeet called Incas
Died on 21 February 1918 in Cincinnati Zoo
In the same cage
Where four years earlier, Martha the last passenger pigeon