a year of misreading the wildcats

A Conversation with Orchid Tierney

OS Collaborator Orchid Tierney talks about her new book, a year of misreading the wildcats, out now from The Operating System.

[Image: The cover of Orchid Tierney’s A Year of Misreading the Wildcats, out now from The Operating System. Image composed of a collage of polaroid photographs depicting tree branches, shorelines, monuments, buildings, and power plant cooling towers. Cover design by Elæ.]

Greetings! Thank you for talking to us about your process today! Can you introduce yourself, in a way that you would choose?

As a year of misreading the wildcats suggests, I am a petronaut, which is to say, I am implicated in the global obsession with petroleum supercultures. Which is to say further, I recognise that I am entangled in a system that privileges the migration and development of oil and oil-related products over human and nonhuman communities. Which is also to say that I see myself as monstrous (or monstrously human) in this system and curious about what alternative futurities are possible if we were to abandon our dependency on oil.

Why are you a poet/writer/artist?

I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I see poetry as a form of scholarship: it’s a mode of critical thinking, a vehicle for engaging with our world. For thinking. I am a poet in the same way an investigative journalist is an essayist. We have to say what is ugly. Or hurtful. Or lovely.

When did you decide you were a poet/writer/artist (and/or: do you feel comfortable calling yourself a poet/writer/artist, what other titles or affiliations do you prefer/feel are more accurate)?

Now I can’t answer this question to any degree because it supposes a kind of origin narrative. As far as I can remember, I have always been a writer, have always been writing. However I can respond to the second part of this question on titles, which I will expand below.

What’s a “poet” (or “writer” or “artist”) anyway? What do you see as your cultural and social role (in the literary / artistic / creative community and beyond)?

I see myself as a curator (of words, materials, ideas, relationships, and practices). And as a curator, my role is one of haphazard gleaning. Gleaning in this sense is subjective, useless, slow, and usually inefficient. It lacks craft and skill. While I use the terms ‘poet’ and ‘writer’ interchangeably to describe myself, I’m also not particularly attached to those labels. Or any label really. However, what I am attached to is thinking about writing as a form of labour, one that makes connections between ideas and things, experiences and communities, documents and ephemera. To invoke those connections in textual or photographic media is to apprehend our socio-cultural-ecological moment. I want snapshots in time. To try to make sense of things. To reach a partial understanding. Further, I hold that writing is a mode of community-making that may not change our personal or expanded environments but it can generate new ways of engaging with them.

Talk about the process or instinct to move these poems (or your work in general) as independent entities into a body of work. How and why did this happen? Have you had this intention for a while? What encouraged and/or confounded this (or a book, in general) coming together? Was it a struggle?

Writing is a struggle for me. I am not always articulate or concise. And it shows. Overall I think a year of misreading the wildcats is a rather incoherent and messy piece of writing. It doesn’t flow. It doesn’t have a sense of itself as a wanting entity. I really admire writers — such as Dan Taulapapa McMullin, Caroline Bergvall, or Tusiata Avia — who seem to write without hesitation, who produce collections that are cohesive and expansive. I wish I had their intelligence and skills. But I have also learned to embrace that hesitating, awkward, tumbling, fumbling, fuzzy side of myself. It’s okay that these poems don’t align thematically. It’s okay that they often speak over and against each other. I am more interested in their possibilities anyway. How they might participate in their own interpretative community. So to answer this question (in a roundabout way that is my feminist way), I played around with the arrangement of these poems. I orchestrated different photographs with different poems to see what would spark or what conversations I could curate. But by no means is this collection the final disarrangement. It’s merely one among many possibilities.

Did you envision this collection as a collection or understand your process as writing or making specifically around a theme while the poems themselves were being written / the work was being made? How or how not?

I definitely envisioned this collection as a collection of poetry, prose, and photography. I realise that the ‘poetry project’ is a much maligned genre but I think it adequately describes a year of misreading the wildcats. Personally, I greatly enjoy project-based writing. Having the frame of a project narrows my research scope and allows me to wield some control over the questions and themes that motivate the poems.

It’s worth mentioning that a year of misreading the wildcats was also written alongside my Ph.D. dissertation Materials Poetics: Landfills and Waste Management in Contemporary Literature and Media. In fact, I adapted the piece “spectacle island” from one of my dissertation chapters. So both projects certainly share similar research desires and pleasures.

What formal structures or other constrictive practices (if any) do you use in the creation of your work? Have certain teachers or instructive environments, or readings/writings/work of other creative people informed the way you work/write?

I am interested in archival approaches to poetry. Writerly models and works that I enjoy include: Jennifer Scappettone’s The Republic of Exit 43: Outtakes & Scores from an Archaeology and Pop-Up Opera of the Corporate Dump, Jena Osman’s Motion Studies, Allison Cobb’s Green-Wood, Caroline Bergvall’s Drift and Meddle English, and Charles Reznikoff ’s Testimony: The United States (1885–1915). Other poets too draw my attention toward different ecologies of thinking about our world: Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ Graphic Novella, Craig Santos Perez’s expansive unincorporated territory project, Ed Roberson’s City Ecologue, Lehua M. Taitano’s Inside Me An Island, Robert Sullivan’s Star Waka, and Kiri Piahana-Wong’s Night Swimming to name a few.

Speaking of monikers, what does your title represent? How was it generated? Talk about the way you titled the book, and how your process of naming (individual pieces, sections, etc) influences you and/or colors your work specifically.

The introductory poem explains the title and indeed the motivation behind the project. Briefly, in 2017 I noticed a piece of plastic wedged in the tree outside my apartment window. Initially, I wrote a poem to that piece of plastic in an attempt to understand its history and future and what it represented. The project bloomed into something else over the course of the year until the piece of plastic finally disappeared (probably down a stormwater drain). ‘Wildcat’ should gesture to the exploratory nature of this project, but readers can define this word however they want.

What does this particular work represent to you as indicative of your method/creative practice? your history? your mission/intentions/hopes/plans?

a year of misreading the wildcats approaches the ‘document’ — in particular, the photographic object — as a useful and useless object of witnessing. The photograph is useful in the sense that it can record historical and contemporary ephemera or identify ongoing environmental change. The photograph is also useless in the sense that what is outside of the frame may be more relevant or contextual but the limits of the medium elide/evade/refuse the possibility of the Big Picture. A clear example of this refusal is the photograph of Philadelphia’s infamous concrete silo on Grays Ferry, which was demolished in early 2019. On the one hand, I love this image: the overgrowth underscores the kind of environmental reclamation that neglect can foster. Nature is relentless and loving. But what is missing from this picture is its context, a violent history of urban redevelopment that really soaks this area of Philadelphia. You see, opposite the silo is Pennovation Works, an incubator and office space, managed by the University of Pennsylvania. It’s not clear what will happen to the demolished lot now, but according the Philadelphia Business Journal, the University of Pennsylvania has a parcel under agreement at the site. We can anticipate that some form of renovation is therefore likely. Rents will increase. Property values will rise. Many residents will become displaced just as they have become displaced in the area around the University of Pennsylvania in West Philadelphia. We cannot talk about environmental justice without talking about economic injustice and class inequality. We cannot talk about urban redevelopment as if it were isolated from history. Yet the photograph cannot entangle these broader issues because it lacks the indexicality between representation and social injustice.

What does this book DO (as much as what it says or contains)?

I think this book wants to interrogate the long history of oil, climate change, and plastic although, along the way, my reading of contemporary Pacific poetry has introduced me to deeper connections between empire and island ecology. I’m still seeking a language to sufficiently address these issues of violence in a meaningful way that acknowledges my complicity as a settler and Pākehā (New Zealand European).

Overall, a year of misreading the wildcats is a wild misreading of the entanglements of climatic and ecological degradations. It is a failed endeavour to understand our climate emergency, to write about plastic pollution, to represent environmental disasters because the causes of — and solutions to — our current moment feel overwhelming and expansive. These disasters involve abstracts: corporations, ideologies, nation-states, systems, infrastructures. Literature and history. How do we represent climate change without falling into sentimentality or disgust? How do we reconcile the individual human impact on a microscopic scale with the environmental impact caused by white supremacy, hyperactive capitalism, and colonialism on the global stage? And is poetry really the best medium to ask those urgent questions?

What would be the best possible outcome for this book? What might it do in the world, and how will its presence as an object facilitate your creative role in your community and beyond? What are your hopes for this book, and for your practice?

This book is an ongoing project. I anticipate that I will channel my percolating ideas into a critical book project on island ecologies and Pacific literature. And that’s a project for the future.

Let’s talk a little bit about the role of poetics and creative community in social and political activism, so present in our daily lives as we face the often sobering, sometimes dangerous realities of the Capitalocene. How does your process, practice, or work otherwise interface with these conditions?

I have more or less answered this question already as my work — critical and creative — is deeply invested in thinking about the realities, languages, and representations of our current moment. I will add, however, that I question whether conventional or traditional aesthetics are adequate to confront environmental injustice. I want to be fluid and interdisciplinary in order to think about climate change and plastic pollution. I don’t want a sentimentality that mourns a world that has not yet passed. And I want a creative community that actively listens to people, who are writing and thinking about these issues because they’re witnessing them first hand.

I’d be curious to hear some of your thoughts on the challenges we face in speaking and publishing across lines of race, age, ability, class, privilege, social/cultural background, gender, sexuality (and other identifiers) within the community as well as creating and maintaining safe spaces, vs. the dangers of remaining and producing in isolated “silos” and/or disciplinary and/or institutional bounds?

This is a partial answer because the issues you imply in this question are complex and require a face-to-face conversation. But, in short, I believe that the challenges we face intersect with a cruelty so visceral in our society. And this cruelty is deeply invested in consolidating boundaries, exclusions, and narrow inclusions. To be intersectional, interdisciplinary, and migratory in our thinking, then, is something to desire. Interdisciplinarity and intersectionality is about critical empathy and kindness. It is about being receptive to new modes of engaging with the world. Fracturing borders. Critiquing without judgement. Active listening without interruption. And imagining accessible futurities for everyone and everything.

Is there anything else we should have asked, or that you want to share?

I think if anyone wants to communicate with me further about the ideas contained within this book, they are certainly welcome to message me via my website www.orchidtierney.com.

About the Author

[Image: Orchid Tierney]

Orchid Tierney is a poet and scholar from Aotearoa-New Zealand. She is the author of five chapbooks: Brachiation (GumTree Press, 2012), The World in Small Parts (Dancing Girl Press, 2012), Gallipoli Diaries (GaussPDF, 2017), blue doors (Belladonna* Press, 2018), and ocean plastic (BlazeVOX, 2019). In 2016, TrollThread published her full-length dictation of the Book of Margery Kempe, Earsay. She is an assistant professor of English at Kenyon College.

Author Photograph credit: José Alberto de Hoyos

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The Operating System & Liminal Lab

The Operating System is a peer-facilitated experiment in the redistribution of creative resources and possibility. We are committed to gathering resources for citizen action, to transparency, to a unique publishing model, and to continuous evolution. We are based in Brooklyn, NY.

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The Operating System & Liminal Lab

The Operating System is a peer-facilitated experiment in the redistribution of creative resources and possibility. We are committed to gathering resources for citizen action, to transparency, to a unique publishing model, and to continuous evolution. We are based in Brooklyn, NY.