In Putting on the Dog: The Animal Origins of What We Wear (Trinity Univ., Mar.), Kwasny explores the often-unacknowledged sources of clothing.
What made you decide to write this book?
We’re in a time where the rift between the nonhuman and human worlds is leading us to a devastation of species, of land, and of water, and so I have been interested for a long time in what can we learn from past and present about how to envision a more sustainable future. So when poet Barbara Ras, who was then director of Trinity University Press, had been reading my collection of essays and just wrote me out of the blue with the idea of writing a book on animals and the ways they have provided humans with clothing, it just seemed like a natural fit.
What was one of the most surprising things you learned while you were writing the book?
One of the things that surprised me is how many people are engaged with this. They were kind of invisible, but once I started talking to people, it turned out my neighbor used to raise sheep and spin her own wool and had bags of it in her basement, and I heard from my sister that her ex-husband used to earn extra money for them trapping mink in the woods in Indiana, or I’d meet somebody who had mulberry trees in their backyard from silkworms that were introduced hundreds of years ago. The evidence was all over, but I was blind to it like most of us are. In the book, I write about going to a slaughterhouse. I was so blithely driving down the road, steeling myself, thinking, “I can do this. I can watch a cow be killed and skinned.” And then I’m looking over at my bag sitting next to me on the passenger side—my leather bag. I’d never thought, “Oh, there’s my leather bag made of cows.” My friends, too—I’d mention writing about feathers and they’d go, “What do you mean, feathers? Like in hats?” while standing there with a down coat on. They would not make the connection.
You are primarily a poet. What was the main difference for you between writing poetry and writing nonfiction prose?
Writing poetry provided me with tools that I needed for this, like close observation, faith in my five senses, and attentiveness. But poetry speaks the language of the interior life—dreams, feelings, intuitions, memories. In this kind of nonfiction prose, I had to turn outward dramatically. I had to learn a whole new set of listening skills. And most introverts are really shy, afraid of talking to people, so I had to adjust to those things. I got better at it because the people were so fascinating and so generous. Mostly I had to just learn that being a good interviewer is actually listening better.