Getting Emotional in Animal Studies

This guest blog comes from Rebecca Jones, who will shortly begin the second year of her PhD in English at the University of Strathclyde. Her research uses feminist ecological, vegetarian, vegan and animal studies theory to analyse masculinity, species and the consumption of the animal in retellings of the classical Prometheus myth in literary fiction from the publication of Frankenstein in 1818 to the present day. You can connect with Rebecca on Twitter at @beckmjones, or via email, at rebecca.jones@strath.ac.uk.

I couldn’t really describe myself as a poet. I have actually tried my hand at poetry many times (usually accompanied by a hefty dose of trepidation), but when it comes down to it, prose is my comfort zone.

So, on the morning of 26th April 2019, heading out of the door to a poetry workshop for PGRs led by 2018 Ted Hughes Award nominated poet Susan Richardson, I wouldn’t say I was at my most confident.

The workshop, funded by SGSAH, kicked off the two-day April 2019 British Animal Studies Network (BASN) meeting, organised by Prof. Erica Fudge at my home institution, the University of Strathclyde. BASN meetings bring together researchers and practitioners from around the world to share and celebrate the work being done in animal studies across disciplines, and each meeting has its own thematic focus.

The theme this time? Emotion.

As a PhD student at a relatively early stage in my research, one of the many things I value about being a member of BASN is that it offers animal studies researchers like me an opportunity to explore unfamiliar thematic territory in a way that showcases the scale and cross-disciplinary nature of the work being done in our field. It gives me a chance to discover work I might not otherwise encounter.

Jones photo 1

Words the Turtle Taught Me and skindancing by Susan Richardson, illustrated by Pat Gregory

I was nervous about the workshop, but I wasn’t worried. Susan is a fantastic poet, performer and educator who nurtures the natural and animal in her own work (if you haven’t already, do check out her books Words the Turtle Taught Me and skindancing, both of which are full of luscious illustrations by artist Pat Gregory). She is also the poet-in-residence at BASN, so we’d met before, and I’d been lucky enough to be at her poetry workshop at the BASN meeting in April last year. On that occasion, Susan had urged us to think about animal language and ways of communicating, both verbal and non-verbal (and, in fact, to think a bit more about how we understand the ‘verbal’ more generally).

About three quarters of the way into that previous session, I’d somehow found myself doing an impression of my cat, Fliss, doing an impression of Kate Bush (it’s a long story!). That I didn’t leave the room that day feeling completely ridiculous is testament to the atmosphere of poetic, creative exploration and invention – and just the right amount of silliness – that Susan fosters in workshops.

Jones photo 2

Fliss. Available for weddings. Also does a pretty good Annie Lennox

No. I wasn’t worried. I was certainly going to try not to do an impression of my cat again, though.

When we arrived in the room, Susan told us that, in keeping with this BASN meeting’s theme of Emotion, we’d be thinking about emotional responses to experiences like loss, death and bereavement. As always at BASN, we weren’t going to be shying away from the weightier topics!

In my own PhD research, I analyse literary fiction since the publication of Frankenstein in 1818. I am tracing a trajectory of human masculinities during that time, investigating how their development has impacted (gendered) human relationships with non-human animals. My specific focus – the ‘thread’ running through my analysis – is how the classical Prometheus myth has been constructed, retold and adapted in order to present context and explanation for our gendered human relationships with animals. This research requires me to think quite a lot about the role of emotion in our relationships with, and consumption and commodification of, non-human others.

At the workshop, Susan read to us from work by a number of poets who have tapped into the emotional in subjects like nature and the animal, individual mortality and systematic destruction of species. We encountered poetry that tackled the massive, peculiarly abstract sense of extinction, then turned to poetry that dealt with minuscule detail – the sudden, violent death of specific animals.

We had time during the workshop to write creatively for ourselves, and then to share what we’d written. The sheer range of styles and perspectives that emerged from this relatively brief writing session was in itself proof that there is no one experience of the emotional, no one interpretation of a feeling, and always a whole spectrum of ways to understand any one theme.

I came out of the room energised and refreshed, ready to benefit fully from the two days that followed, which took in children’s animal fiction, ‘becoming’ with police dogs, Edwardian nature photography, emotions in the slaughterhouse and the Soviet Space Programme among other things!

For those of us not engaging directly with poetry in our academic research, it can still provide a much-needed new perspective, a way of experiencing the expression of the profoundly emotional that can be lacking at times when we are treading the waters of theory. It also reminds us that the academic and the theoretical are not, nor should they be, closed off from the practical, or the emotional – the things that are felt.

If your research involves poetry, of course you will love sessions like this one. But even if you’re a PGR who feels like poetry couldn’t be further removed from your own research topic or interests, I’d still urge you to go along to a workshop like this if you get the chance. It can provide new ways of sensing, of looking at your process and of interacting with your own work.

I still wouldn’t say I’m a poet. Prose is still my comfort zone. But for the good of our research projects and our own wellbeing, I think we can all benefit from allowing ourselves a different gaze now and then.

Oh, and the group was spared my crooning cat impression this time.

We are always seeking new guest bloggers! If you have an idea for a blog post or would like to informally discuss writing for the SGSAH blog please get in touch with Lizzie via email at egm9@st-andrews.ac.uk or connect with the blog on Twitter

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