Melissa Kwasny, who lives in the Elkhorn Mountains in the area of Jefferson City, is known for her poetry. She’s published six collections, most recently “Where Outside the Body is the Soul Today,” and has won awards. She’s written essays and edited anthologies, and produced her first book-length work of nonfiction, “Putting on the Dog: The Animal Origins of What We Wear.” She’ll be in Missoula for a reading that starts at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 17, at Shakespeare & Co. She answered questions from the Missoulian via email.
Much of clothing we buy these days in the United States is manufactured and might be synthetic fabric. When did you start asking yourself questions about the “animal origins” of clothing, and when did those questions grow into a book’s worth of material?
Throughout my career as a poet and essayist, I have been particularly interested in the ways humans forge relationships with the natural world and what, in turn, the natural world teaches us about being human. Five years ago, Barbara Ras, poet and former director of Trinity University Press, approached me with the idea of writing about animals and clothing after reading my book “Earth Recitals: Essays on Image and Vision.” I agreed before I had any idea of the scope! One could write a multi-volume encyclopedia on the subject! I suppose that is why people become writers: it leads us into previously unknown worlds.
The title certainly gets the readers’ attention. What was the origin of that phrase?
“Putting on the dog” is an American phrase popular a few generations back that means getting dressed up in one’s finest clothing to go out on the town. It’s similar to “putting on the Ritz.” It’s true that many people have never heard the idiom before, and so hopefully the subtitle does some work toward explaining the book’s topic. Some sources say its origins are in the 19th century when wealthy people would bring out their expensive lap dogs in public to show off.
It sounds like you traveled quite a bit to research the book. Where did you visit and how did you decide on those locations?
Because I wanted stories and direct observation to balance all the scholarly research I was doing, I decided to travel to one place for each of the materials— leather, wool, silk, feathers, pearls, fur — that would emblemize in some way the animal or clothing’s historic or cultural use. Japan comes naturally to mind, for example, when one thinks about silk. Denmark hosts the largest fur auction in the world. Some locations, such as the sustainable pearl farm in Guaymas, Mexico, were happy discoveries found in the course of following my interests, which in that case started with my reading of Steinbeck’s novel “The Pearl,” set on the Sea of Cortéz.
The average consumer in the U.S. is pretty far removed from any animals that are raised for their food or clothing. How do you address our relationship with animals in the book? Were there notable differences in the places you traveled?
Everyone would probably agree that our removal, whether physically, intellectually, or spiritually, from the sources of what we consume has led to the disastrous moment we find ourselves in, with species extinction, chemical poisoning of the land and water, as well as our food, and of course, global warming. Yet people have been caring and thinking about our relationship to other animals, to plants, to the earth, for a very long time. We have precedents that are different from the Western capitalist industrial model that says that profit is everything. I was interested in exploring those precedents, be it the concept of reciprocity central to the culture of the Yupiit I visited in southwestern Alaska or the care with which the women sericulturalists in pre-industrial Japan raised their silkworms. With each material comes multiple histories with very specific agricultural and hunting skill sets and ways of thinking about human-animal relations.
People try to be conscientious about clothing, but it can still be difficult to navigate: high-quality clothes might last longer and be better for the environment, but they are more expensive than affordable “fast fashion” that doesn’t last as long. Or fur might be considered verboten to some people, but others argue that it can be sustainably harvested and/or part of an indigenous tradition. Do you come across any debates or quandaries like these in the book?
These complex issues are at the heart of the book: stories about how the 1983 EU ban on seal skins destroyed the livelihood of many indigenous villages, how animal rights groups releasing mink from farms into the wild resulted in indiscriminate slaughter of nearby waterfowl, or the fact that synthetics are now one of the major sources of plastic pollution in the oceans. On the other hand, industrial processes, such as those in slaughterhouses and tanneries hurt the environment and the people who work in them. As in everything important, there are not easy answers. However, the more we inform ourselves, the better our response.
Did you have any beliefs or assumptions that were challenged in the course of writing the book?
Barry Lopez writes, “No culture has solved the dilemma each has faced in the growth of a conscious mind: how to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood … ” I came to the writing of the book thinking the issues would be pretty clear-cut, that, although I am not a farmer or hunter or trapper, I had enough information to make moral judgments. Leather and down were byproducts of the meat industry and so, unless one were vegan, one should be relieved to know that every part of the animal was being used. Trapping was horrific and a wild mink being caged was sinful, but no sheep are killed in the shearing, so wool is OK. The complexity of the issues, as well as of the processes, surprised me. What do we do with the fact that humans have been breeding animals for at least 10,000 years, that farmed mink could not live on its own even if released? If we don’t simply ignore the fact that everything we use has an impact on the lives of others, how do we consequently live our lives?
Did the research leave you with any suggestions for readers about changing their shopping habits?
Here in America, we waste. We waste food, clothing, resources. We do so because they are relatively cheap, often subsidized. In fact, I believe we are encouraged by industry to not think about where what we consume comes from. Yet if we believe in the Anthropocene as a new age where humans are determining the course of the health of the planet, we can also believe that we can be a force for good. One of the most effective ways to make an impact is in our role as consumers. Informing ourselves, buying wisely, and cherishing and caring for our clothing rather than disregarding and wasting it is a different paradigm.
How did it feel writing nonfiction versus poetry? (I ask because one poet, Chris Dombrowski, told me that it took some effort to lower the intensity level in his prose and to focus on storytelling.)
That’s a wonderful statement from Chris Dombrowski, a writer who is able to do both beautifully and seemingly effortlessly. For me, nonfiction is work, whereas poetry is a vocation. Writing poetry is solitary, whereas nonfiction requires that one seek out other people, many people, and learn to listen to them well. Both though demand an openness to the new and an attentiveness to the five senses.