“The evidence of human activity can be abundant and diverse. It’s terrible and beautiful, but it’s all happening on this earth, suspended in the universe, which is a miracle on its own.”
Excellent Evidence of Human Activity (The Cupboard Pamphlet, 2019)
Your writing suggests several personal passions and areas of activism: the environment, living creatures, expressions of love. How do your convictions inform your writing? How much of your writing is motivated by a spirit of activism?
I wouldn’t say that my writing is motivated by activism, necessarily, but a lot of those feelings about the environment and animals stem from empathy! I’m an observant person, and I collect a lot of my griefs and concerns about the world, animals, my relationships as I observe them, and put those concerns into my writing. I do have a lot of worry about the environment and climate change, though, and much of what I write about in regards to those topics comes from the news and what is happening in the world right now. A lot of those current concerns are hard to care about without considering activism and politics and the way that powerful entities are treating our world.
I’m interested in your decision to omit conventional capitalization in some of the essays. Can you elaborate on this? And on why the essay “This Was Never About Pain” breaks this “un-capitalized” pattern?
I’m a poet first, and even though I write a lot of nonfiction and this book is mainly short essays, my poetic aesthetic never really leaves me. I choose not to capitalize words, other than proper nouns, as an aesthetic choice. I think lack of capitalization evokes a play with the formality of “the essay” and visually signals that these essays won’t be traditional or expected. However, in the longer essays, “This Was Never About Pain” and “Maybe We Will Lie About This,” my editors and I came to the consensus that opting for more traditional capitalization made more sense.
“This Was Never About Pain” braids biographical and autobiographical elements, analysis of a historical figure and self-reflection from you, the author. When intertwining your narrative with William Temple Hornaday’s, did you discover more about yourself? Additionally, when did you realize that the two narratives would fit together well?
I wrote this essay in a nonfiction workshop, and we were actually challenged to write about “the first time something happened to us,” “a historical figure” and “an animal” – I didn’t know how I would respond initially, but I did a lot of varied research stemming from my own interests and personal memories. I thought of the first time I was stung by a bee, a memory that feels very bright in my mind. I thought of this character, William Temple Hornaday, who I had researched for a different class, and I thought about buffalo. Initially, these three threads of the “braid” felt very separate, but upon researching more and more, they start to bleed together. That’s the beauty of research: how connections reveal themselves to you. I also think that researching people, like William Temple Hornaday, allows us to look more clearly at ourselves, our personalities, our idiosyncrasies. I am not very similar to Hornaday at all, though I did feel like learning about him made me look at myself in a new light.
Your collection explores extinction as a theme and a reality. You describe extinction as “another kind of pain” in the essay mentioned above. You suggest that extinction is about human selfishness, hence the very pointed title Excellent Evidence of Human Activity. Can you elaborate more on your desire to explore extinction? How do you think the theme reality fits into the wider canon of literature?
Extinction can mean so many things! The natural world carries extinction with it, almost constantly, but there are also small extinctions that happen in our daily lives, in contemporary, modern contexts. I wanted to explore how extinction can exist on multiple planes and take multiple meanings – the entirety of life on Earth could go extinct, or your love for a boy can go extinct, an animal, a bird, a family relationship; all of these things have their own life expectancies. Some live on, some end earlier, some die natural deaths, and some die because of selfishness. I wanted to illustrate the multitudinous ways that endings happen.
Extinction is sometimes about human selfishness (the buffalo, the bees), but extinction has also been happening for thousands if not millions of years, before humans walked this earth. It’s easy to blame humans for their silly human-ness, but I think it’s harder to realize that everything will die, and sometimes there’s nothing we can do about it.
The narrating voices of this collection are quite acrobatic, shifting and turning in surprising ways. Occasionally, the narrator refers to an elusive “you,” perhaps an ex-lover. Can you explain your creative process when writing about past love? What makes love integral to your book, which is about nature and the state of the environment?
I have loved places and landscapes and animals, but I also have loved people and men and family. I wanted to show how love can be varied and important in many forms. I wanted the “you” to be a bit ambiguous, because it’s hard to name who we love and why; it could be a person or animal or place, or even myself.
Toward the end of your book you write that “nail-biting is a form of self-cannibalism… I don’t feel like I’m eating myself, because that’s too strange to think about.” This suggests the destructive nature of humanity, which you examine throughout the book. While most of the other pieces are about humanity negatively impacting the environment and living creatures, this passage deals more with self-destruction. Why did you choose to write about both self-destruction and destruction of the world?
I think that this goes back to human selfishness—I wanted to show that, even with the world churning away and living and dying and being hurt, we still worry about ourselves and our own personal destruction. I wanted to show these large concerns about the world and the environment, but I also wanted to show some selfishness. Even while caring about the world around me, the animals, the environment, the national parks, the rivers, the canyons, I can’t help but worry about my love life, my family, my bad hangnails, my teeth. It’s hard to compartmentalize life, and so I tried to show that these concerns all bleed together.
The essay “Twenty-One Ways to Leave Your Lover” was a refreshing turn in the collection. Just when I thought I had figured out the narrator, the themes, and the motivation of the book, I felt thwarted by this essay. Additionally, this essay follows a very different structure. The numbered list was an enjoyable surprise. Do the impact of a bad lover and the environmental impact of humanity represent different “evidences of human activity”?
As I said in an earlier answer, I wanted to show how human activity happens on large and small scales. We destroy the earth in many ways, but we also sabotage relationships and have annoying experiences with lovers and kill house plants. This essay began as a list poem, but I pushed myself to consider it as an essay, as a small extinction in the narrative of this book. I also think that this essay is somewhat funny (I read it almost every time I read from this chapbook) and breaks up the darker themes of death and extinction.
How has your educational experience impacted your writing life? Has your exposure to higher education influenced the themes you explore in your work?
I think that my educational experience has mostly dictated when I write and how much I write because I’m often writing towards a deadline or a final project or a workshop due date. However, I think that my interests remain my own, and would still be my own outside of higher education. Perhaps I am more comfortable or prone to turning to the library or outside research because graduate school has encouraged me to do so; however graduate school or higher education definitely doesn’t mean I’m a better researcher or more qualified to research than anyone else.
If anything, being a student has always been there to nudge me forward when I needed a nudge or a reason to write. It took me a long time to be comfortable pursuing and beginning larger nonfiction writing projects on my own, without a class structure, but now I feel confident in saying that, if higher education fell away from my life, I would still be writing poetry and nonfiction voraciously, and even perhaps in a more raw and genuine way.
Writers often bring personal experiences to the writing desk. How have your experiences of gender, ethnicity, faith, or age impacted the voice or topics of your writing?
As a woman, I do feel like I am very in tune with the environment and the animal world. Men often want to control us all: the animals, the environment, the natural world, and the female body. This is something that has definitely made its way into my writing.
Self-reflection seems important in your book. When did you know that your own personal reflections needed to be put on paper? Is there value in revealing to an audience ways you have self-corrected or grown as an individual? Could you discuss, as a nonfiction writer, your commitment to a lifestyle of transparency?
I think, as a poet as well, that I can’t write without being personally invested in the writing. There is a lot of great writing right now about the natural world and the environment and climate change, but I wanted my commentary on these issues to be uniquely my own, and that required my reflections and my personal experiences to be a large part of my thoughts on the natural world. I also think that being genuine is important, especially while making an effort to be transparent. I never want to be a benevolent and faultless narrator; I make mistakes and am selfish and self-destructive, but I also care about animals and the natural world around me. I think that recognizing faults and personal growth goes hand in hand with discussing the natural world and the environment, especially since humans have long made mistakes with how they have treated the world.
“A Mischief of Rats” talks about how disgusting rats are and uses them to describe what humans are like. If I may, what inspired you to write this piece? Is this your perspective on what our species has become?
I mostly was inspired to write this piece by learning that a group of rats is called a “mischief.” It got me wondering—why? Rats are predictable, and driven by simple needs like hunger. However, humans are actually mischievous—they’re vindictive and manipulative and selfish. Who are we to say that rats are horrible creatures when we are just the same, or maybe even worse?
In “Keeping Plants Alive,” you write about your sister and your desire to take care of a flower. Are there connections between your sister and the flower?
I wrote this piece about my inability to keep house plants alive and my desire to keep my sister alive. My younger sister, an addict, has been close to dying many times, and I only want to keep her alive, but like the plants, it isn’t that simple. You can over-water them, fuss over their leaves and soil, and ultimately do more damage than good. This piece was a reflection on wanting to take care of a plant, or my sister, but needing to get a plant that is “hard to kill” because I’m too harsh with how I love things.
In “This is a Time Capsule,” you write about nature, beautiful animals, and some delicious food. I love the ending: “today, the world is suspended in orbit, grinning on an axis tilt, just far enough from the sun, like some kind of magic.” Could you discuss this a bit?
I wrote this piece thinking about how it is so easy to see the ugliness in the world, the death, the extinction, the pain, the disaster, but how important it is to see the good things as well: the apple tart, the family of panthers in Florida, the baby giraffe, the new species of dinosaur discovered. I placed this piece at the beginning of the chapbook to show how this evidence of human activity can be abundant and diverse. It’s terrible and beautiful, but it’s all happening on this earth, suspended in the universe, which is a miracle on its own.
Sara Ryan is the author of the chapbooks Never Leave the Foot of an Animal Unskinned (Porkbelly Press) and Excellent Evidence of Human Activity (The Cupboard Pamphlet). In 2018, she won Grist’s Pro Forma Contest and Cutbank’s Big Sky, Small Prose Contest. Her work has been published in or is forthcoming from Brevity, Kenyon Review, Pleiades, DIAGRAM, Thrush Poetry Journal, and others. She is currently pursuing her PhD at Texas Tech University.