Preparing the Whirlwind: An Interview with Rikki Ducornet

by Lawrence Lenhart 

Years ago, at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, I saw 1) a nine-foot long human colon, 2) the conjoined liver of Chang and Eng Bunker, and 3) a malignant tumor removed from Grover Cleveland’s hard palate. Weeks ago, at the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, I saw 4) an oil portrait gallery devoted to the Soviet space dogs, 5) an exhibit on decaying dice, and 6) a microminiature statue of Pope John Paul II carved from a human hair set within the eye of a needle. Days ago, in Rikki Ducornet’s THE DEEP ZOO: ESSAYS, I saw 7) a red fox carcass burning brightly with yellow bees, “tigering it,” 8) the Dalai Lama’s turds “kept in silver and worn as amulets,” and 9) a hundred fireflies pinned to a ballroom dress.

Like my favorite museums, THE DEEP ZOO is brimful with anomaly, informed by what Ducornet calls the “mysteries of matter.” The clauses revel in their obscurity, the sentences dazzle as “potencies… fall into sympathy with one another,” and the essays cohere with their matrices of association. Ducornet explores art, nature, and politics with even verve; as a poet and painter, each composition ascends to song and tempera, spontaneously synesthetic. The zookeeper herself called from her home in Port Townsend, Washington, to help me suss the sensorial world of THE DEEP ZOO. What follows is a portion of our conversation.


Brazos Bookstore: In the essay, “A Memoir in the Form of a Manifesto,” you recall a neighbor’s farm, how it “offered a sprawl of fantasy and a troublous delight.” He would candle eggs and show you two-headed chicks in jars, and it’s these obscurities and anomalies, you say, that trained you in a “new way of looking.” What was this neighborhood called and how did it predispose you to the kind of inquiry that you shoulder in the book?

Rikki Ducornet: Well, I grew up on the Bard College campus. When that experience happened, I was not on campus, but on the outskirts on a country road—it’s still there, I think—called Annandale Road. There was a chicken farm across the street—in view, unlike most chicken yards today. They would perch in trees, and when I walked across the street to pick up eggs, I would have this wonderful experience of scientific inquiry when the farmer revealed to me not just candled eggs, but his collection of anomalies in jars. I remembered being offered that way of seeing. It was like a key to a great mystery. I’m very indebted to him and very grateful. It did provide a kind of deep curiosity.

BB: At what point did that kind of seeing manifest as written word?

RD: I think the first time I really sat down consciously to write, I was about eight and it was this little book called OPEN DOOR. It was a little book that was devoted to my notion to what it was to live in the world. I also did a lot of writing about my collection of animals—from ivory elephants to large stuffed animals, a couple lions—and I wrote and illustrated newspapers for them. I had this realm in which I informed them of what was going on in their community.

BB: When reading your sentences, there is a kind of deep grammar at play. Each sentence has its own unique scaffolding, and it accumulates something akin to vertigo. I was very attuned to not just how the sentences could be read, but also how they must have been written. To what extent do you anticipate your reader, if at all?

RD: The process of writing, for me, is one in acute isolation. And what I mean by that is I’m not thinking about readers. I’m the first reader. I’m just very aware of that—that I’m writing a book I want to read, writing a sentence I want to read, and in some ways—this may be disappointing and sound really odd—it’s a deeply intuitive process and embodied somehow and has a lot to do with a kind of music. I cannot, as Angela Carter did, listen to music when I’m writing because the music is on the page and I trust that. I’m attempting to write a rigorous music so that it’s very clear and things are in their place. I want to find a way to get that complexity down with elegance and grace, but I don’t want to simplify the ideas to make it easier. I just want to clarify to make it hang together and clear, and I’m doing it initially for myself because I do think writing is a place to think. When it’s acquired a pristine quality on the page, when the meaning rings true, and the vehicle is elegant, I am satisfied. But I can’t even define that elegance. It’s so much to having an ear for it somehow.

BB: In the eponymous essay, you say that the “mysteries of matter” are the “potencies… that inform our imagining minds,” and that for Borges, the potencies take the form of the tiger. Writers seem to gravitate toward this genus, to relay write about it—Blake, Borges, Martel, and Cantwell, to name a few. What is it about an animal like the tiger that resonates with these writers? When a species becomes endangered, does that cultural transmission become imperiled as well?

RD: More and more, I do think that Jung was right on when he spoke of the collective unconscious. I think it is very clear that there are these powers that cross borders of time and space. The tiger is one of the most gorgeous creatures imaginable. People are still in some way affected by its power and beauty.

I think we’re already suffering an acute distress because of these losses. There’s a great difference between being touched by the beauty of something one sees in a photograph, but there’s nothing like the living thing. I think what I’m feeling acutely is the burden of these losses. We share a genetic history with all the other creatures on the planet. We were sparked at the same moment from the beginning and have gone through this long, complex, and fascinating process of evolution. There are conversations that are now silenced, and this goes for the plant world as well. There is a species loneliness that has already reached us and we’re in mourning. I think our species is in mourning.

BB: I want to talk about the political resonances in THE DEEP ZOO as well. For instance, you write about the Chilean coup d'état (on 9/11/73) in a way that anticipates the September 11 attacks. Abu Ghraib is evoked when you have tea with the French wife of an American consul in Algeria, and you learn that she had a maid tortured at a nearby prison. You immediately leave her company, you say, and I wonder what it was that you were leaving behind—discomfort, complicity?

RD: Well, I certainly felt that I would, in some way, have been complicit if I remained in the room. I didn’t leave the room because I felt uncomfortable. I felt angry and I wanted her to know that I didn’t want to be anywhere near her, that her company had become odious because of what she’d done. It really mattered to me. It was no small thing. I actually learned later the maid who had been tortured had been beaten to a pulp and crippled for life. It’s not the only time I’ve actually left a room.

BB: You populate THE DEEP ZOO with many well-known and enigmatic artists—Aloys Zötl, Gaston Bachelard, Jorge Luis Borges, William H. Gass, Werner Herzog, David Lynch, Marquis de Sade, etc.—and a few lesser-known ones. Can you talk about the essays that address the works of Margie McDonald, Linda Okazaki, and Anne Hirondelle?

RD: The three artists—those three small essays with the illustrations—are actually artists in Port Townsend and I decided at some point that I was going to publish some little book on local artists who seemed important to me as a way of giving back to the community that I love by responding to the work of people I’m very fond of. When I realized that I was putting a book of essays together, it made sense that I bring those essays into the book and I realized that the book is also a wonderful place for local artists to just simply be artists, to take into account their work and not just because they’re local or women.

BB: Are there any artists of that same ilk who were left out from these essays for one reason or another? 

RD: THE DEEP ZOO does resonate and reverberate endlessly. Things keep sticking to it. There are so many things I didn’t explore. For example, Murasaki Shikibu who wrote THE TALE OF GENJI. That is certainly one of the works that had an enormous impact on me. I could have spoken about a French cartoonist named [Roland] Topor who had a big impact on my humor in my early short stories. There’s something about Topor’s energy that entered into those very dark, small stories. His brand of satire. Elsewhere, I’ve written about Swift. Also, painting has had a big impact on my imagination, and I’ve never really sat down to write about Hieronymous Bosch. Bosch certainly, as has [Francisco] Goya, influenced the way I see when I’m writing. Particularly when I’m writing about violence, there’s this Bosch-y noise and coloration to the work, I think. I often have Bosch in mind when I’m writing about difficult things.

BB: One of the imperatives of THE DEEP ZOO is that writers should “move from the street—the place of received ideas—into the forest—the place of the unknown,” that this latter space is where deep inquiry takes place. What does it mean to have depth perception as an artist? Is there some kind of sensor that detects exactly when you’ve bypassed surface-level inquiry?

RD: I think, in fact, much of it has to do with some kind of intuition that one can go deeper. There are experiences that are very profound and we know that because we resonate in a deep way—not just in our minds, but in our bodies. As a writer, inevitably, one is going to want to return to those places, and I noticed when I became a writer, unexpectedly, that the initial impulse sometimes could be powerful and interesting, but that it really needs to be reconsidered. Every time I would return to a text and pull it through again, I would go deeper. There are exceptions of course, but I found that in order for the writing to really go to a place that’s really interesting and informing and engaging, I would have to pull it through again. In other words, I couldn’t be satisfied with the initial impulse. It’s just a way in.

LAWRENCE LENHART holds an MFA from the University of Arizona. His work appears or is forthcoming in Prairie SchoonerGulf CoastAlaska Quarterly ReviewGuernicaWag’s Revue, and elsewhere. Currently living in Sacramento, he is reviews editor and assistant fiction editor of DIAGRAM.

The Deep Zoo By Rikki Ducornet Cover Image
ISBN: 9781566893763
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Published: Coffee House Press - January 6th, 2015

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