When Stephanie Pippin began volunteering at a local bird sanctuary, she harbored grand ambitions of communing with the majestic avians at the top of the food chain. Instead her introduction to bird care and rehab consisted of cleaning up feces and and gutting animals.
"There were many, many birds there — hawks, owls, falcons, vultures, eagles," the soft-spoken and emphatically modest Nashville native says. "They eat meat. They use a lot of rats. And rabbit. In the winter sometimes we would have deer. And yes, I've gutted all those animals. And I'm a vegetarian, too, so it's extra-special. We'd use knives and hatchets. You gotta cut the head off the deer!"
It's a strange experience, notes Pippin, to spend quality time with a captive bird of prey. "You never know them," she explains. "They're not like our dogs. You have to love them in a way that is respecting of their talons. I developed some pretty strange relationships with ravens. I was unusually close to them. They could be really affectionate or they could just be horrible. They live up to their mythology, I think.
"I had this idea going into it that it would be really great if I could become experienced with the bad-ass birds, like the eagles and falcons," she goes on. "It ended up that I was best at working with corvids — I became the raven and crow person."
Similarly, Pippin did not initially see herself as a poet. "I just had it in my head that if I'm Southern, I should write fiction. There aren't a tremendous number of female Southern poets. So, disastrously, I wrote fiction. For nearly five years."
After receiving rejections from numerous graduate writing programs in fiction, Pippin changed course and discovered she was a poetry person.
Her love of nature, however, has remained a constant.
"I'm from Tennessee, which is just beautiful. I went to college in Bowling Green, which is built right above the Mammoth Cave system. That landscape is beautiful but really unsettling. I've never lived anywhere quite like it. And that's still a huge part of my mental space when I write."
As are birds of prey, which factor heavily into her forthcoming debut collection, winner of the 2012 Iowa Poetry Prize. Messenger, scheduled for publication this fall, is a taut, mournful and often macabre work of pristinely succinct poems that seek out messages and messengers in the natural world.
Pippin and her husband, Andy Gallagher, live in Clifton Heights with Frieda (a Shetland sheepdog) and Gryphon, an African Grey parrot. They moved to St. Louis in 1999, not knowing exactly what they hoped to pursue. Pippin took an office job at Washington University's law school; Andy taught English at Webster Groves High School. (He now teaches in the St. Louis Public Schools' Clyde C. Miller Academy on the city's near north side.) It wasn't until two years later that she decided to apply to writing programs, first in fiction, then in poetry. Wash. U. accepted her into the graduate poetry program in 2002. (Andy was admitted in poetry the following year.)
Upon earning her master's, Pippin won the program's coveted third-year writing-in-residence fellowship. She has continued teaching at Wash. U. as a lecturer ever since. One course she offers, "Writing the Natural World," attracts science and English majors alike: The reading list ranges from Charles Darwin to Gerard Manley Hopkins, the assigned writing topics from black holes to bacterial infections. The semester concludes with a screening of Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man.
This is the lesson
of grief, to listen to the chorus
at the water's edge, to read
the black weight of abandoned nests back
into the portents of spring.
— from "The Messenger"
"These quiet poems stunned me," Jane Mead, who judged year's Iowa Poetry Prize competition, comments via e-mail. "Direct and vivid, they delve deeply into the complex relationships between the natural, human and spiritual worlds. Well beyond valuing 'nature,' the speaker here is defined by her identification with nature, with all its sticky blood on the grass and all its stink and glare. In moments when this identification is both complete and impossible."
The tradition of pastoral poetry is closely tied to that of the elegy, and not coincidentally, Messenger is shot through with loss and losses, which Pippin declines to specify. "You have pain, and you're going to write the pain out of you," she says. "The reality is that you have pain, and you try to put it in places around you, and then you can't, so you write about the process. The world is bigger than your pain.
"When something overwhelms me that is a physical fact — like a death or illness or some kind of loss — the natural grounds me back into that world. In some ways Messenger is trying to make connections that are impossible for human beings to make. That desire to not be human any more — that desire to be out of the human experience. To be something other entirely."
Mary Jo Bang, one of Pippin's instructors in Wash. U.'s graduate workshop, says of her student's work, "Stephanie's poems have a winning degree of mystery about them, and yet they are never riddling or uncertain. All of the speakers in her poems have a clear-eyed sense of wonder about the world — an astonishment that is twinned with the knowledge that the world can never be completely fathomed."
Not unlike the Southern tradition, you don't find many women poets who inhabit the realm of nature.
"How easy is it, when you're a woman writing a poem, to confuse your body with the body of an animal — that's part of my inheritance," Pippin muses. "And then realizing the failure of that: the idea that we [women] are nature, that we are not acting on it, we are it."
Clear-eyed though it may be, Messenger was by no means a swift or effortless enterprise. It was preceded by a manuscript that circulated for seven years before Pippin abandoned it. Messenger's journey was shorter, but not by much: It took four years to find a publisher.
Asked to assess his wife's collection, Andy Gallagher demurs — save to say that he relentlessly admonished Pippin to continue sending out the manuscript. "For that," Gallagher says, "you can pin a medal on me."
Responds Pippin: "I'm the kind of person who needs to be picked up a lot and dusted off and then sent back onto the softball field. There are people who are good at separating the publishing part from the writing-and-being part, and I think you have to do that to survive it. But I hope that most of us can't, because then I'm not alone. It's very hard to keep trying, and keep trying. But the thing you don't see is that the manuscript gets better — your writing gets better."
Theirs is the mind
I've tried to fall through, their alien
strangeness. Only here
in the grass is my real
self — mammal-solid, her wide
eyes cooling in her head.
And the body
that says I will never
— from "January"
"I'm just trying over and over to find a place to put that — that idea of finding something in nature," says Pippin. "You fail again and again, and you realize you're just a creature among creatures."
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