Poet, artist explore birds

Anita Skeen reads a poem aloud while Laura Delind passes the accompanying print to the audience at their East Lansing reception. Photo: Becky McKendry.By Becky McKendry
Great Lakes Echo

What started as a note on a friend’s windshield evolved into “The Unauthorized Audubon,” a whimsical poetry and art book that offers a peek into a world of quirky imaginary birds.

The book is the brainchild of poet Anita Skeen and printmaking artist Laura Delind, longtime friends and Michigan State University faculty members. After Delind, who is retired, left a print on Skeen’s windshield one day, the two found themselves creating “The Unauthorized Audubon.”

Great Lakes Echo spoke with Skeen and Delind at a recent book reading and reception at East Lansing’s LookOut! Gallery to discuss the relationship between nature, art and imagination.

GLE: One of the things mentioned in the preface of the book is how it stands in contrast, of sorts, to Rachel Carson’s work. (Carson wrote Silent Spring.) What’s the relationship between Carson’s approach of facing damage we’ve done, and the idea of solely appreciating the beauty of the environment, which is what your work is about?

Delind: There are a couple things. I think Rachel Carson was a great appreciator of nature. That’s why she did what she did – she was devastated by the consequences of pesticides and what it was doing to the natural world. She called up everyone’s attention.

Now what I do, in my prints, is that I play. But I’m also inspired in the variety of nature — the color, the shapes. In creating these birds, I don’t think I could come up with an image that wasn’t topped by something that exists in nature.

Skeen:  Some literary critics and other poets have said that by nature, all poetry is elegiac because it’s often touching on grief and loss. For a lot of us, poetry can be a place to preserve something before it’s gone. In that way, my sense about the natural world is to write about it as fast and as furiously as I can before it’s gone.

I grew up in southern West Virginia near Charleston, where there’s been a huge chemical spill into the Elk River. That’s about two miles from my home. It’s another environmental disaster, it’s another example of corporate greed and government inattention. And what am I going to do about things like that? The only thing I knew to do is write a poem about it, and I wrote the poem “In the Chemical Valley.” And I think that can affect change in others, through storytelling.

Photo: MSU Press.

How do you think consuming poetry or art can spark environmental awareness in other people?

 Skeen: In some ways, reading a poem or looking at a piece of art takes you places. My hope is that maybe when someone reads my poem about the Elk River, they are taken to their home, maybe on the Susquehanna or the Columbia… and they’ll think: What if this was happening to my home? What if this was happening to a landscape I loved? We don’t respond to lectures or intellectual rants, we respond to emotion and sensory detail. And that spurs us to action, when the things we love are in danger.

Delind: And I think art has this fabulous ability to engage people and require that they respond in some honest way. It causes them to look at what is being presented and make questions. We need to slow people down and have them interact with things as they do with art, in a way that requires them to be thoughtful.
There’s a lot of personification in these birds you’ve imagined — one of them you even compare to Marlon Brando — do you think that to connect with nature, people need to, or they tend to, personify animals to a degree?

Skeen: Not necessarily personify them, but I think they need to have empathy with animals and the fact that these creatures have their own worlds, lifespans and sensibilities. Too often, we expect animals to be too much like us, and then they disappoint us, or we don’t think they’re at all like us and we shoot them.

We don’t think about them in their own worlds, and how our world can adjust to theirs without completely wiping it out. It doesn’t have to be “either or.” And I would like people to rethink birds when they read this book, to see birds with dimensionality.

Delind: There are many things we can learn from different life forms and parts of our environment. We tend to think of ourselves as superior and so mentally aware, and we’re not. There’s so much that we don’t see, either because we can’t or we won’t.

The book can be purchased here. Delind and Skeen are currently working on their second project together, an art/poetry calendar.

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