Poet Spotlight: Sara Ryan on taxidermy and beauty in the uncanny

Sara Ryan poet

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). She was the winner of the 2018 Grist Pro Forma Contest, and her work has been published in or is forthcoming from Pleiades, DIAGRAM, Booth, Prairie Schooner, Hunger Mountain and others. She is currently pursuing her PhD at Texas Tech University.

never leave the foot of an animal unskinned-sara ryanI loved reading your new chapbook Never Leave the Foot of an Animal Unskinned. Can you tell us a bit about this collection and how it came into being?

This collection manifested in a material culture theory class during my MFA. In this class, we contemplated objects in literature and how those objects were handled in these literary worlds. We were challenged to choose our own objects and engage with them critically and creatively, and after a lot of research into my various interests, I found an old book in our library that lead me on a strange journey into the world of taxidermy. This book, Taxidermy and Zoological Collecting: A Complete Handbook for the Amateur Taxidermist, Collector, Osteologist, Museum-Builder, Sportsman, and Traveller by William Temple Hornaday (published in 1891) became the nexus of this collection.

Taxidermy is a fascinating subject. There’s an uncanny aspect, the way the animals are posed and presented as if they are alive, and yet there’s a beauty in the artistry of the preservation. What draws you to taxidermy as a subject? Have you done any taxidermy yourself?

I have never done any taxidermy myself, though I really want to someday! I follow a lot of female taxidermists on social media (many of whom I came across in my research) and I love the strangeness of their profession. I think that the uncanny idea of taking something dead and making it look alive again is one of the main things that draws me to the craft.

One of my favorite parts of this chapbook is the way footnotes are implemented within the poetry, leading the reader into additional philosophical discussions of taxidermy as a craft. How did the use of footnotes come about?

The endnotes came about because, while I was taken with the language surrounding taxidermy (the tools, the practices, the methods), I found it difficult to engage with the theoretical texts I was reading in the relatively small container of a poem without infringing on the beauty of the animal body and the language surrounding its preservation. My professor suggested footnotes as a way to engage my reader without distracting them from the creative work, and those footnotes became endnotes as the chapbook was laid out.

Tell us a bit about your process as a writer. Do you have any rituals for writing? Any particular materials you prefer to use (paper and pen, computer, notecards, etc.)?

I don’t have any rituals per-se, but I try to be very relaxed in regards to my creative output. I do not write every day and I don’t force myself to write if I feel like I have nothing to write about. This way, I enjoy myself every time I sit down to write, and that’s refreshing. I take a lot of notes in my phone and in various notebooks, but do most of my writing on a computer in many different coffee shops around West Texas.

How did you get started as a poet? Why do you personally write poetry?

I started writing poetry very early but started seriously writing in the genre when I was a high schooler. I took a couple of terrific high school creative writing workshops and they, along with neighborhood teen writing programs, truly changed my life. I started, as many young poets do, in the world of slam poetry, and that enthusiastic and vibrant community thrust me, full force, into the poetry world. I kept writing because I kept reading; I loved the poetry that I was seeing in the world and really wanted to be a part of that. Ten years later, pursuing my PhD in poetry, I still do.

What are you currently reading?

I am pursuing my PhD, so I am reading a lot for school, but outside of that, I am reading a lot of flash nonfiction and poetry. I’ve most recently read I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men & what I Had on : a Narrative by Khadijah Queen, The Carrying by Ada Límon, Oceanic by Aimee Nezukumatathil, and Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs by Beth Ann Fennelly. I’m currently digging into Magical Negro by Morgan Parker and A Cruelty Special to Our Species by Emily Jungmin Yoon. I’m also rereading Bluets by Maggie Nelson.

Name a poet you would like more readers know about.

There are so many poets whose work I have recently loved, who I think should be read more. I don’t think I could pick one, so I would say poets Jess Smith, Jasmine An, Carlina Duan, and Sarah Bates deserve to be known and read.

Do you feel community is important as a writer? How do you stay connected?

Community is so important! I’m thankful to have cultivated a rich and supportive community during my time as a writer. I keep in touch with writers I knew in high school who are still writing poems and publishing, writers who I grew immensely with in college, and writers from my various cohorts in graduate school. Outside of the community I have fostered in educational settings, I have found some great communities on Twitter, in social media circles (submission groups etc.) and at conferences like AWP and &Now. I’m a relatively introverted person, but meeting people from all walks of life through writing has been a treasure.

What can the world expect from you in the future?

I have been sending out my full-length poetry manuscript to various contests, and while I’ve gotten some finalist and semi-finalist nods, I am still in the throes of revising and polishing and sending and hoping. Until the manuscript finds a home, you can read some new work in my forthcoming chapbook, Excellent Evidence of Human Activity, out from The Cupboard Pamphlet in April. I also have recently been published by DIAGRAM, Pleiades, Booth, South Dakota Review and Grist. I’m currently working towards my PhD candidacy at Texas Tech, so that is painstakingly in the works as well. You can find me @SaraReneeRyan and sararryan.com!

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