Quatrain Questions DOUBLE FEATURE with Dennis Cooley

Dennis Cooley on his two newest poetry collections, The Bestiary and cold-press moon.

9780888016690 1000pxPart 1: The Bestiary

1. In what ways does this collection borrow from the traditions of medieval bestiaries? Where does it deviate from the form, and to what end?

I love the notion of strange, fantastic creatures, and I am taken with charming information in some kind of catalogue, rich with illustrations. I also had in mind kids' alphabet books when I was doing the bestiary, their fondness for animals. So, why not a compendium of animals that I had seen a bit of? My creatures—domestic animals and neighbourhood animals mainly—are not so large nor so fearsome, nor so far-away as those in the medieval world, nor are they so chimerical, but they are (most of time) treated whimsically and fondly. The artists and compilers of the medieval bestiaries loved their creatures too, I think, and though they could be fearsome, they were invariably fascinating. The sheer gap in medieval times between an actual acquaintance with wildly distant creatures, and modern awareness of animal life across the earth, creates for us an innocence in reading the early fables. I've tried to keep a little of that too. Mostly I was after a sense of fellow-creatureliness, our continuities with life.

The medieval books turn us loose in fantasies of other creatures. But they also, often, endowed with human qualities, as are the pieces in my bestiary. The treatment risks sentimentality, I suppose, and suspicions that the natural world is being disrespected, though I wanted to speak to a sense of fellow-creatureliness.

2. Elsewhere you have noted your personal fascination with crows, and many can be found within the pages of The Bestiary. What is it about these feathered creatures that captures your interest so strongly?

It's hard not to be taken by them. They are near, they are conspicuous, they are everywhere. There is no avoiding them. I love their immense presence—all that energy and all that noise. Spunky birds. They are enormously intelligent too. A person's got to be enthralled to see that they lead strong social lives, that they learn quickly and connivingly, that they talk complexly among themselves, that they endlessly adapt and thrive under tough conditions, and that they love to play, can skillfully imitate human speech. That they strut and shine in their glossy feathers. I am convinced I can talk to them. I don't like their encroachment on other birds, but there's no denying their force.

3. Why you think stories of animals, from classic fables and bestiaries to modern-day television and cinema, have continued to be used as a vehicle over the centuries to help us examine aspects of the human experience?

Some might suppose, reading the bestiary, and knowing something of my own biography, that my book owes its impulse to my younger days in a rural world. It undoubtedly does, but your question points to larger and possibly more enduring explanations. Why the fascination in so many sites? It must have something to do with our felt sense of consonance with rest of life.

4. Where do you see The Bestiary fitting in with current discussions of the environmental crisis?

For hundreds of thousands of years the human species has lived close to other creatures. The relationship was fraught with danger from the start, but we surely would have felt the proximities in kinship and similitude, too. What could a curious species do if not wonder? It's hard to believe, however inviting or threatening the environment might have felt, that the human species deeply understood and respected the lives around them. The felt inklings of resemblances and shared lives probably have never left us, though they have been damagingly weakened. The recent acceleration of urbanization and industrialisation may have accelerated some longing for lost continuities. In a gathering concern for ecology, we might want to honour the rest of creation, and in recent studies we are recovering a larger appreciation for the miraculous shapes life has assumed—the regard and empathy that brings a wild primate to play with and shelter a small mammal, say. Farmers, pet owners, birders, hunters, not to mention naturalists, have always known these relationships.

9780888016737 1000pxPart 2: cold-press moon 

1. Do you have a favourite fairy tale?            

Rumpelstiltskin, I think. I like the mix of riddle, mystery, and vulnerability, the woman saving herself every day and every night jeopardized anew. But the weaving of flax into gold, night after night, filament after filament, the gossamer of gold—that always struck me as unbelievably magical.

2. What do you think it is about fairy tales that captures the attentions and affections of children and makes them “stick” as archetypes within our social and cultural consciousness?

There have been lots of attempts to explain the fascination. It's almost a fixation. I remember reading to our then youngest daughter one day when, having heard one of the tales a few times, she strongly interjected when I thought I would jigger it a bit. No, she said, no that's not what happens. That surprised me because I thought kids would love riffing off words, but she wanted (and, I learned, almost all kids have wanted) a faithful iteration. So why the pleasure and why the need? Psychoanalysts are intrigued and offer theories of threat contained in reassuring endings. Though, god knows, many of the stories are filled with horrific events and even uncomforting narratives, there has got to be some anxiety that is lessened within heavy repetitions, formulaic sayings, types characters, all brought to a predictable narrative resolution. A pleasurable frisson in a threat soon to be resolved? We recycle the known figures and the familiar stories—we know where this is going—that wrap up in a quick, neat way, almost ritually. Is there pleasure and reassurance in that, a permission to imagine wondrous and scary stuff when you know a release soon awaits you?

3. Where do you see your treatment of classic fairy tales in cold-press moon fitting in with the current discussions about gender?

Quite a lot. I was very conscious of gender as I was writing and it's foregrounded it almost all of the pieces. The patriarchy figures menacingly, even brutally, and the female figures generally bear the consequences. But I am not satisfied in telling only that story. Some of the women bully and inflict pain too. One is a certifiable misanthrope. I've also developed some of the male figures as vulnerable, compassionate, or anguished in roles they see as forced upon them.

4. How do you think fairy tales can be used as an effective tool going forward into our planet’s uncertain future?

I find it hard to say. That's a good question, but it's hard to name the effects. Obviously I have had a few things in mind in writing the book, but who knows what happens for the reader? The lack of an answer may always beset us when we ask about the value of literature. It might set off insights and sympathies, and I suppose it often does, but I can't think of anything I could confidently say about the efficacy of these tales. I hope they are amusing, moving, provoking. If fairy tales are going to be a part of a redefined world they need to reinvent themselves, as they have in so many contemporary books. Do you know David Arnason's marvellous rewritings?